It feels really good to be able to write that down and finally feel a sense of achievement after what has been a bit of a difficult year for me on the bike.
2017 was always going to be a tough year to follow and somewhere along the way this year I lost my mojo. After Normandicat back in May, despite riding a strong 600 in the same month, I felt disappointed and without another big event to work towards, started to lose my focus. I’ve suffered a few minor bouts of illness, put on a bit of weight and struggled through most of my training sessions, watching my FTP steadily decline and my power-to-weight ratio plummet over the summer.
In turn, that’s all had a negative effect on how I feel when I’m on the bike. Still, it would be unfair to say that I haven’t had some great adventures on my bike this year. I’ve worked as a cycle tour guide in Scotland, ridden in the Alps and had a really`background and now that it’s complete, I’m so glad that I stuck with it.
Randonnée Round the Year (RRtY) is an Audax UK award that requires you to ride at least a 200km audax event in every month of the year for 12 successive months. The events can be organised audaxes, perms (a set route that you can ride any time of the year) or DIYs (routes that you create yourself). You can start RRtY in any month you choose but if you miss a month you have to start all over again.
I started my first RRtY in September 2015. That year had been all about Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) and focusing on getting the qualifying rides done, so once PBP was over I felt like I needed something to fill the void and give me something new to focus on. It requires a level of commitment to keep riding all year round and I find it a good way to keep motivated to ride during the winter months when it’s all too easy to find an excuse to hide indoors.
Starting out in September means that I get all of those ‘tough’ winter ones, where I always end up finishing in the dark, out of the way early, leaving me with (hopefully) progressively better weather and lighter evenings ahead. Surprisingly, I find that the summer ones are harder to accomplish, usually because there’s so much more going on. Holidays, social life, weekend work and other cycling events all conspire to fill my weekends and often leave me with very little time to fit a 200km audax in from May to August.
I ended up missing out on last Year’s RRtY because I didn’t log a ride during August, even though I rode over 200km a day on plenty of days during the Transcontinental Race. I just forgot to register one of those days as a DIY 200 before I set off, so none of them counted towards it. I won’t make that mistake again.
My RRtYs are usually a mixture of organised events and DIYs, although I do prefer to take part in an organised event if I can. Being able to ride a given route with others, in a part of the UK that I don’t know very well, is one of the main things that appeals to me about audaxing and what keeps it interesting.
DIYs are my back-up when I can’t manage to fit an organised event in. It is possible to ride the same route more than once in the same 12-month block so I have a little collection of DIY routes plotted that start and finish in Sheffield if there’s nothing on the Audax calendar that works for me.
I still submit all of my DIY rides the old-fashioned way with a pre-validated route and receipt-based controls, because I don’t trust the reliability of my GPS devices enough to complete a DIY by GPS. I’ve had a few epic device fails on organised audaxes over the years and had to resort to using the route sheet and a couple of pages pulled out of a road atlas to get me round. Don’t get me wrong, when they work, GPS devices are fantastic and have really opened up the world of audaxing to a new generation of riders but I’m not prepared to take the risk of just recording the ride on my GPS unit on a DIY when I really need to prove that I’ve done it.
If you’re looking for a long-term challenge, a way to keep riding through the winter months, or just a way keep up motivation levels, Randonnée Round the Year might be worth considering. It’s given me a long-term goal to work towards and a reason to keep getting back on the bike in what would otherwise have been a disappointing year. It’s also turned out to be quite a social affair I’ve managed to encourage a few of my riding buddies to have a go at it too.
2019 is PBP year so that will keep me well and truly focused from next January. But for now, to keep ticking over, I’ve decided to do it all over again. Last weekend I embarked on what will hopefully be my third successful attempt at Randonnée Round the Year with ‘Dave’s Dales Tour Plus’, probably one the prettiest 200km audaxes around the Yorkshire Dales.
There’s no denying that the weather so far this year has been a bit cruel to us cyclists. I can count the good weather weekends we’ve had so far since January on one hand. So it was with some trepidation that Julie and I pedalled off from Sheffield train station early on Good Friday to get three days of riding in over the Easter weekend.
The plan was to get a few days back-to-back riding in our legs in preparation for the Normandicat race we’ve entered as a pair in May. Despite my training indoors all though the winter at Skyhook and Julie’s month of rebuilding her strength in Spain, the combination of lousy weather and Julie’s broken arm taking much longer to heal than expected means that we are both a long way from where we’d like to be training-wise.
When we originally signed up for Normandicat last November, neither of us thought that we might be pushing it a bit by entering a race in early May. I think that last year’s incredibly mild winter, where we trained outdoors, riding long miles all through the early months of the year, lulled us into a false sense of security.
Although my indoor training sessions have been a huge help in keeping my base fitness maintained over the winter, it simply cannot replicate what your body goes through sat in the saddle for 200 km when it’s three degrees and you’re pushing on into a headwind. I’ve also put few kilos on in weight, which makes absolutely no difference to my power output when I’m sat on a bike indoors, but it sure makes a difference back out on those hills. In short, I’ve gone a bit soft.
To make life a bit easier for ourselves over the weekend we decided to stay in youth hostels rather than camp or bivvy, and had booked up a couple of beds in advance at Arnside and Helmsley. This meant we could carry less stuff on our bikes to reduce the weight a bit. Our three routes were plotted in advance, quite a lot of it on roads that we’d both cycled on previously. As we were both out of practice with sitting in the saddle on consecutive days, we decided to get the biggest day out of the way first and decrease the daily distance over the following two days.
Day One – Sheffield to Arnside: 186 km
So much for packing light! The weather forecast for the Easter weekend was looking pretty changeable, with a bit of everything thrown in, including snow on high ground. This meant that we both had quite a bit of kit with us as we didn’t want to chance getting caught in the middle of the Dales without enough stuff to keep us warm. I like to spread the weight all over the bike so I’d opted for my small seatpost pack and waterproof handlebar pack, with most of my clothing – including four pairs of gloves – on the front and spares, tools and food on the back. Julie just had the one large seatpost pack with everything stuffed in.
We were off just after 7.30am, the first part of the route taking us out of Sheffield via Penistone Road and up over Grenoside to Wortley. The roads were pretty busy considering it was early on a bank holiday morning and we were glad to get off the main roads and start climbing. Getting out of Sheffield in any direction is always a bit of a slog as there’s no escaping those hills but we had all day to cover 180km. No pressure, as long as we made it to Arnside before the pub stopped serving food we’d be just fine.
It’s been a while since either of us have pedalled with a loaded-up bike but we pretty soon settled into a steady, comfortable rhythm – no point in pushing too hard as we had a
long way to go. Our route kept us on mainly quiet roads over to Emley Moor for a quick cafe stop at The Tasting Rooms, then across the hills above Huddersfield before descending into Dewsbury to pick up the Spen Valley Greenway – eight miles of traffic-free tranquility that transports you all the way to Bradford through one of West Yorkshire’s most congested urban corridors. It’s a route I know very well as it’s the one I take to visit my dad who lives in Denholme, which just happens to be around halfway on our route to Arnside, and a good excuse to call in for a cuppa enroute.
We arrived at Dad’s, on schedule, at 12.30, popped the kettle on and a pan soup on the hob. Work commitments and snowy weekends meant I’d not seen my dad since Christmas so it was lovely to catch up with him if only for a flying visit. My dad was a big cyclist when he was younger and still is, but to a much lesser degree, so inevitably our conversation turned to the route we’d be taking over the Dales and which hills we’d be climbing. 45 minutes later we were out of the door, with a huge bar of chocolate each – flat-pack Easter eggs – flying down the hill into Keighley.
Despite the cloudy grey skies that had been with us all day, we’d managed to avoid getting wet and the further west we travelled the more the weather improved. As we pedalled along the Aire valley the day was really brightening up and we had an easterly wind gently pushing us along. North of Gargrave the route started to get a little lumpy again as we headed into the Yorkshire Dales National Park and picked up the Way of the Roses route from Airton to Settle. Travelling east to west it’s a long steady ascent up the back of High Hill Lane, far gentler than the 16% average that rises up out of Settle in the opposite direction.
Neither of us are a fan of steep descents so we both took it fairly easy down the hill into Settle, making the most of the stunning view that had now opened up ahead of us. We passed a couple of cyclists travelling in the opposite direction who had already resorted to pushing up that killer gradient.
A reviving afternoon cuppa and bun at the Old Man Cafe set us up for the last leg of our journey to Arnside. There were no more big hills to worry about but lots of little energy-sapping ups and downs, which never feel easy on tired legs, but the sun was shining and with a tailwind to help us along we made good time.
We left the Way of the Roses route north of Gressingham and pedalled the final 20km to Arnside. The little town is built into the side of a hill on the south bank of the River Kent where it flows out into Morecambe Bay. Our destination for the night, Arnside youth hostel, is situated near the top of the hill so we finished off our first day with one final climb to finish us off. We rolled in a little after 7pm, too late to grab a meal at the hostel but in just time to watch the sunset rather spectacularly over the bay.
We walked into town for a huge plate of fish and chips at the Albion pub but we were both struggling to stay awake and were back at the hostel for 9.30pm. Although we were tired, we were both pretty pleased with how the day had panned out. We’d been lucky with the weather and the tailwind and both of us accepted that Saturday’s ride across the Dales to Helmsley would probably be a different story.
Day Two – Arnside to Helmsley: 160 km
We woke at 6.30am to drizzle and grey skies and polished off a pretty meagre breakfast of packet porridge and day-old bagels that we’d carried with us from home the day before. After a quick photo stop down at the bay we were back on the road for 7.45am, this time pedalling into a headwind – setting the theme for the rest of the day.
We knew that Saturday would be the toughest of our three days as we had a few big climbs across the Dales and would be pushing on into the wind without much of a respite. It was also considerably colder and we were both wearing more layers than the day before. We’d had a conversation earlier in the hostel about whether we’d really need all the spare gear we’d brought with us, but a couple of hours in to the day’s ride we already knew we’d made the right decision.
Descending into Dentdale.
Nothing better than a real fire on a cold day.
The morning passed relatively swiftly as we wound our way north east on undulating minor roads, under the M6, and back into the Yorkshire Dales national park. By the time we arrived in Dent at 11am we were both ready for a second breakfast and were pretty thrilled to discover that the cafe we’d chosen, Stone Close, had a lovely log fire on the go to greet us as we walked in. After polishing off two cappucinos and a plate of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs I was as ready as I was ever going to be to tackle the climb up Newby Head Gate.
Even in bad weather the road through Dentdale is very beautiful and the scenery helped to take our minds off the ever-increasing headwind as we made our way up the valley to start the climb at Cowgill. This route is the easiest climb out of Dentdale but becomes more exposed the higher it gets and by the time we reached the junction at Newby Head it was blowing a proper gale.
Once at the top we had a seven mile descent but thanks to the wind we never had the chance to freewheel and had to pedal downhill all the way into Hawes. The rain had set in properly now and low cloud covered the tops of the moors. The plan was to push on through to Leyburn on the eastern edge of the Dales where we’d stop for a late lunch.
We arrived in Leyburn just after 2pm and, cold and wet, dived into the first cafe we saw. Julie was so cold that her hands wouldn’t stop shaking and she had to hug the teapot to steady her hands before attempting to eat the soup and chips we’d ordered. It was really hard work mustering up the enthusiasm to get back out there but we still had 60km to go to Helmsley and needed to get on with it.
Pedalling downhill to Hawes.
Thawing out in Leyburn.
After Leyburn we left the Dales and the roads smoothed out across the Vale of York. We were both now riding on roads that we knew well and although the landscape flattened out we didn’t have much shelter from the elements so even on the flat it was still quite tough. At least in the Dales we had the scenery to look at but the vale of York can be a pretty featureless affair when the sun’s not shining so we had very little to take our minds off the wind and rain.
The minor roads were also pretty churned up with mud and potholes so by the time we rolled into Thirsk at 5.30pm we were mud-splattered and feeling pretty sorry for ourselves. Every time we ride through Thirsk we always seem to find ourselves in Tesco and today was no exception. The security guard took pity on us and let us stand under the heaters by the doors to thaw out a bit. Julie was shaking again and put on every item of clothing on that she’d brought with her while I swapped my very soggy gloves for two pairs of dry ones.
There’s a sting in the tale when you approach Helmsley from the east as you have no choice but to climb up to get there. There are two choices, Sutton Bank or Wass Bank, both a grind, especially at the end of a long journey, but Wass Bank is the easier and quieter of the two traffic-wise. I’m really not sure how we both made it up there without pushing to be honest, especially at the top where it steepens to 16% – it’s safe to say that neither of us will be posting any QOMs from today’s ride.
The long, straight descent into Helmsley was a welcome relief to us both despite us both having to pedal downhill for the second time today, this time with added sleet. We arrived at the Hostel soggy, muddy and cold to the core. After dumping most of our kit in the drying room we had to hide under the duvets in our dorm for a good 15 minutes to try to thaw out before even attempting to think about food.
Neither of us fancied the idea of leaving the hostel in search of dinner but after a fruitless search for a local takeaway with a delivery service (all collection only – I’m sure there’s a business opportunity to be had there), we had to reluctantly venture back outside. Neither of us fancied the pub so we and headed over to the local Italian, only to find that the restaurant was fully booked for the rest of the night so we ended up with our takeaway after all.
Day Three – Helmsley to Sheffield: 165 km
Our ride home should’ve been a fairly straightforward ride of around 140km. As it was a bank holiday Sunday we’d decided to avoid going through York, which is the most direct route, and instead planned to stay east through Pocklington and down to Howden before crossing the River Ouse at Boothferry Bridge. However, thanks to a Garmin failure and my lousy memory, things didn’t turn out quite according to plan.
With less kilometres to cover, we decided to have a later start and order a cooked breakfast at the hostel. The forecast looked like more of what we’d experienced on Saturday but with a strong north-easterly wind we were looking forward to having a tailwind all the way home.
We dodged showers throughout the morning as our route took us through the lumpy landscape of the Howardian Hills and the walled grounds of Castle Howard. The Stray, the impressively arrow-straight road that runs through the estate, provided us with a few decent photo opportunites as well as a couple of run-ins with drivers who just couldn’t resist the temptation to put their foot down on the long, straight drag. The lumps flattened out as we approached Pocklington, our first coffee stop of the day, and thanks to the tailwind we were making great progress.
We’ve both ridden the rest of the route via Howden to Sheffield plenty of times as we often use it on DIY audax routes so when the second half of the route wouldn’t load on to my Garmin we weren’t too worried. However, we should’ve been a little less complacent because on the way out of Howden we missed the left turn to the Boothferry Bridge and continued straight on to Barmby-on-the-Marsh, following the NCN65 cycle route signs.
At Barmby village the road stopped but the cycle route carried on over the barrage bridge where it morphed into a muddy single-track across a field. Just one more reason why NCN cycle routes are never to be trusted! By this point we were already 8km down the road from our missed turn and decided to carry on along the track rather than double-back to Howden.
By the time we’d reached the village of Cliffe I realised that we were heading north up to Selby and in completely the wrong direction. We were trapped on the north side of the Ouse without a bridge to cross but seeing as we’d come this far off-route it seemed pointless to turn around so we decided to carry on up to Selby where we could cross the river, get some lunch and then pick up the road to Snaith, more-or-less back on to our original route. By the time we’d arrive in Snaith we’d added and extra 25km to the day’s distance.
At Snaith there are two options to cross over the M62, both lead to the village of Sykehouse but one route stays on the road while the other slightly shorter route takes in an unpaved stretch of the Trans-Pennine Trail for a couple of kilometres. Now you’d think that we’d have learned our lesson taking shortcuts for the day but this is one that we use a lot in the summer so we were fairly confident that it would be a safe bet – how wrong were we? Thanks to the heavy rainfall the route was very waterlogged and muddy and we kept having to weave around huge puddles. Our slick road tyres had little traction in the mud and it was such hard-going that we decided get off and push for most of it, all the while laughing at our daft decision, unaware of the final surprise waiting for us at the end of the trail.
Towards the end of the route a little humpback bridge flows over the River Went. As soon as we crossed the bridge the trail completely disappeared and we were surrounded by water. The little river had burst it’s banks and the last section of the trail was completely submerged. We couldn’t risk riding through it as we didn’t want to fall off and get completely soaked but neither of us wanted to double-back and retrace our route either as the trail rejoined the road, and dry land, just 50 tantalising metres ahead.
Time for a paddle.
As much as I didn’t really fancy the idea of riding the final 40km home with wet feet, they were already a bit damp from riding in the showers all day, so continuing with our ‘let’s just keep going’ theme of the day, we just got stuck in and waded through it carrying our bikes in one hand and holding on to the bushes with the other – thankfully it was only shin-deep with no surprise ‘Dr.Foster’ moments!
Wet feet aside, we managed the final 40km back to Sheffield without further incident, making it back into town by 7pm, two hours later than planned, a bit tired and very mucky, but both really pleased that we’d got some long-overdue back-to-back days in our legs and another little adventure to remember.
Our rides very rarely go completely to plan but that’s just part of the ‘fun’. I’m glad that we are able to just take it all in our stride and adapt to the situations we find ourselves in. We always have a laugh – and occasionally a little cry – but we always have a story to tell at the end of day. After all, it’s just a bike ride.
On a whim, on a cold January evening, I decided to enter the Dirty Reiver – a 200km ‘gravel’ ride through Kielder Forest that takes place in April – just to have a go at riding something different this year. Then I figured that I probably didn’t have a suitable bike to ride it on. So, in my quest to find said bike I managed to get the opportunity to borrow a Kinesis Tripster AT for a few days last week. The Tripster AT is marketed as an adventure bike, ‘a bike capable of almost all terrains and adventures’. It’s a more affordable, alloy-framed stablemate to Kinesis’ highly successful Titanium-framed Tripster ATR.
The test bike was built up with Upgrade Bikes’ Rival 1 Tripster AT build kit which includes: SRAM Rival 1 x 11 groupset with 40-tooth chainring and 11-36 cassette
TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes with 160mm rotors Kinesis Crosslight CX Disc wheels with 12mm thru-axle hubs 40c Vee tyres
The main reason for wanting to try out the Tripster AT was to see how it felt off-road on loose surfaces and how well I, personally, could handle the bike in those conditions. Anyone who’s been on a mountain bike ride with me will tell you that I am a proper wuss off-road. I think too much like a roadie who rides everywhere on 23c tyres (Yes! Really! I’m still riding on 23s) and struggle to relax enough to enjoy the experience.
I’m up for a bit of mild off-road now and again though and have ‘accidentally’ done quite a lot of gravel riding over the past couple of years; during a tour of South East Sweden, which is full of great gravel roads, and also while riding the TCR last year (ok, I put 25s on for that). We spent a lot of time on rough roads and gravel but felt quite limited on a road bike with skinny tyres and I wished then that I’d ditched my mudguards and gone for a wider tyre.
The ‘AT’ in Tripster AT stands for All Terrain so, although my main aim was to test the off-road, I wanted to try this bike out on as many different road surfaces as possible to see if it stood up to the claim. After all, we know there’s really no such thing as the one bike that does everything, right?
I liked the way the Tripster AT felt from the very first ride, which was nothing special, just my ride home from work. Although most of Sheffield’s roads have been resurfaced there are still a few notable exceptions that haven’t, including Brown Street through the city centre, which I have to endure twice daily on my commute. Much to the relief of my forearms, the Tripster’s 40c tyres soaked up the lumps and bumps and smoothed out my ride no end.
My Brown Street experience inspired me to take a minor detour on the way home. If the Tripster felt good over Sheffield’s potholes how good would it feel on the cobbles? Outside Park Hill flats there are a couple of short cobbled climbs so I put in a couple of circuits and it didn’t disappoint. Both up and downhill I felt in control and comfortable as the bike rolled over the cobbles with relative ease.
Over the weekend I led a ride for the Sheffield CTC group and took the Tripster along to see how it would feel on a longer road ride compared to my usual winter ride, a Kinesis Racelight TK3. The stack height of the Tripster is higher than my Racelight so I was a little more upright than my usual road riding position but it’s slacker angles make for a comfortable, relaxed position which is great for long days in the saddle. With a full water bottle and my saddle pack fitted it weighed in at just under 11kg, so about a kilo heavier than my usual set-up. I felt some drag when climbing up a couple of the steeper hills and I did get overtaken by a couple of riders who wouldn’t usually take me on a climb but I wasn’t sure whether that was the bike or just me being tired from a fast 60 miler I’d ridden the day before. With a skinnier, slicker tyre fitted I have no doubt that I would’ve climbed as efficiently as I usually do on my Racelight.
I finally got my opportunity to try out the Tripster away from the tarmac on a midweek ride with a couple of friends from work who ride off-road much more often than me. They had a 40-mile circuit figured out around the Peak District with a variety of surfaces taking in Houndkirk Road and the bridleway across Burbage plus some gravel roads and a few farm tracks.
As we rode on to Houndkirk I was pretty nervous and therefore tense, which is not a good state to ride a bike. If you’re not familiar with Houndkirk Road, it’s a rough, wide, byway around three miles long with a few rocky sections. It’s very tame by MTB standards but enough of a challenge for me, especially on a bike with drop bars that felt like a road bike. It took me a while to relax but I soon discovered that this bike, with those lovely, wide 40c tyres, easily rolled over all of the rocks, big and small, and kept me upright. The more the bike rolled, the more relaxed I became. I felt very stable and by the time I’d reached the end of the road I realised that I’d not put my foot down once and I had a huge grin on my face.
The rest of the ride carried on in this fashion as the more I trusted the bike, the more I grew in confidence and I found myself staying on the bike over much tricker terrain than I’d have attempted previously on my Racelight. I have to admit that there were a few steeper off-road downhill sections where I bottled it but that had nothing to do with the bike and everything to do with my own limitations.
This Tripster came with a 1 x 11 Sram Rival drivetrain with a 40 tooth chainring and an 11-36 cassette. I have to say I was a little bit skeptical on how I’d fair with this set-up but the ‘double-tap’ shifting was really easy to get to grips with and on-road the 40 x 36 coped admirably with Sheffield’s hills. Off-road was harder work and I felt like I could’ve done with an extra couple of teeth on the back over anything with a loose surface on gradients over 10% – I did have to get off and push uphill just the once. However, with a long-cage rear mech fitted you’d have the option to fit a 10-42 cassette to get over this problem.
The Tripster’s Crosslight wheelset has 12mm thru-axle hubs and is tubeless-ready but I rode it tubed so I was a little nervous about running low pressures off-road. Unfortunately I suffered two rear-wheel punctures on my two long rides (I was just unlucky – one on-road from a metal shard and one off-road from a thorn) but thanks to the awesome ‘cage lock’ feature on the SRAM rear mech – a magic little button which holds the mech cage in position and creates loads of slack in the chain – getting the rear wheel in and out was super-easy.
Rear wheel was easy to remove and replace.
The rear mech’s Cage Lock is a great feature.
One of the real joys of that 1 x 11 set-up revealed itself once I got home from our off-road ride and started cleaning the bike. No front mech to worry about and just a single chainring to get the mud off made the job a whole lot easier and quicker.
If you’re you’re still reading this far, by now you’ll be getting the impression that I have nothing negative to say about the Tripster AT, and I really don’t. Yes, I would’ve like the opportunity to run it tubeless just to see how it felt at lower pressures (and maybe I wouldn’t have had my two punctures) but other than that I loved riding it both on and off-road. I had so much fun that didn’t want to give it back and could easily find a place for this in the stable when finances allow.
There are some great finishing touches to the Tripster that make it stand out from other comparably priced ‘adventure’ bikes on the market. It’s drilled to take full mudguards and rack and there’s an extra set of mounts on the underside of the downtube to fit a third bottle cage. The stylish frame detailing is thanks to the late Mike Hall who worked with Kinesis’ designer to produce bike that looks great either with or without bikepacking bags. You can find out more about Mike’s contribution on the ‘additional info’ tag on the Kinesis’ Tripster AT webpage.
The Tripster AT is a ‘ride everywhere’ bike. If you can only afford to buy one good bike and want to have a go at doing it all then this is the bike for you. It really is a true all-rounder and could finally end the search for that elusive ‘one bike that does everything’. To maximise it’s versatility you could run this bike with two wheelsets in order to cover the majority of your riding from fast commuter or winter road biking to full-on, wide-tyred bikepacking adventures off the beaten track. And it would definitely be my bike of choice if I race the TCR again.
You don’t have to take my word for it – Kinesis have a full range of demo bikes for you to try out through your local dealer. If you’re Sheffield-based, local Kinesis Dealer Tony Butterworth Cycles can arrange for you to have your very own Tripster test ride. Give them a ring on 0114 234 3218 or visit their Facebook page for more information.
Price: Frame and Forkset only: £700 Full bike fitted with Sram Rival 1 build kit: £1700
Registration for TCR No.6 opened a week last Friday. As this year’s applicants register to race, now’s the time to make the decision on whether to ride solo or ride as a pair.
I hope that we see a few more all-female pairs in the line-up this year. Julie and I were the second all-female pair to enter the TCR and, currently, the only to finish together. At just under 20 days, we finished out of time to get an official pairs placing so it would be great to see an all-female pair making it to the finish together in time for the finisher’s party this year.
I’m surprised that there aren’t more all-female pairs entrants but I wonder if the very nature of the event means that only very single-minded, independent women would even consider it and, therefore, would prefer to compete as a solo rider.
We both get asked a lot about our decision to race as a pair and whether either of us would do it solo next time around. Prior to taking part, my answer would’ve been an emphatic ‘yes’, but after now experiencing the race as a pair and understanding all that it involves, my answer to that question is a more cautious ‘I think so’.
After competing as a pair with Julie, to be honest, I can’t imagine not competing with her. It would feel very strange to go back out there and do it all again without the other half of my pair.
We were lucky that pairing up worked for us. Only 11 of the 29 pairs who started TCR No.5 made it to the finish line together so I’m sure that if you asked that same question to many pairs entrants who finished without the other half of their pair, or didn’t finish at all, they would most likely state that next time they’re definitely going to race solo. A few riders have already documented their experience as a pair on social media, like Alex Bystrov, who honestly and openly discusses his experience on the TCR Facebook group and his plan to apply as a solo rider this time around.
There’s often speculation about how fast the ultimate pair could potentially ride due to the hypothetical advantages of working together as a team and drafting one another but the results, so far, speak for themselves. Racing in a pair has as many pros as cons to consider:
Companionship and support
Someone who totally gets what you’re going through because they’re going through it too
Someone to moderate your mood and crazy thoughts of despair (yes, you will definitely have these)
Someone to draft when you’re absolutely knackered
Potential to share planning, equipment and skill sets
Twice as much could potentially go wrong
Everything takes twice as long to do
You can waste time being distracted by one another unless you’re really focused
You can only go as fast as your slowest rider
Synchronisation of sleep and eating patterns (or lack of it)
You might end up hating the sight of one another and ruin your friendship
So, as some of last year’s pairs choose to go it solo this time around and many more prospective pairs are weighing up the odds, I thought I share my thoughts on how Julie and I planned as a pair, how it worked for us and some things to consider if you’re thinking of pairing up.
Make sure you are both very clear about your goals – you need to want the same outcome
You have to be really honest about this. If you really fancy yourself as a contender then ride solo because you’ll have a higher chance of getting to the finish line if you only have yourself to worry about.
Julie and I were fairly realistic and knew from our experience of riding other long distance events that, on a fully-loaded bike, riding solo, we’d still only be good for riding up to 300km days consecutively and would both need to have some rest every night. To be up there with a chance of making it to the finisher’s party we’d need to be covering this distance every day for 14 days.
Allowing for mistakes and unforeseen circumstances, we planned to start off with a couple of 300km days with the option to drop down to 250km days for the rest of the event. This would hopefully bring us home some time around the 16-day mark – after the finisher’s party but before the official close of events. We took advice from two-time TCR finisher Jayne Wadsworth and decided to aim for time in the saddle every day (based around aiming to get 6 hours sleep a night) rather than distance covered but it still helps you to know how much ground you think you’d expect to cover in the time.
So, with that in mind, we had many discussions about how much we would be prepared to stretch that goal of 16 days if it all started to go wrong. Where would we draw the line? Do we decide to scratch if we realise that we are way off-target or do we continue to the bitter end no matter what? After all, some riders have taken over 30 days to complete the event in the past.
Our parameters were set by my annual leave allowance at work. I get 28 days and seven of those were already accounted for so our overall time limit, including getting to the event and home again, was 21 days plus the two weekends in between. That gave us around 22 days to play with. At the time when we were making those plans, 22 days seemed like a lot more time than we actually needed so it didn’t worry us unduly. Most importantly, we were both in favour of keeping going to the end, even if we knew we’d be out of time for an official place, but while we were training I don’t think either of us expected to be in that position. We really believed we could do it in 16 days.
However, as our finish time highlights, we overran our target by almost four days, and believe me, when you see those days slipping away from you while you’re out on the road without a hope of clawing much time back, you have to keep reevaluating the whole point of what you’re doing. Neither of us are quitters and at 48 and 52 we are pretty self-aware, but the TCR has the potential to test that self-awareness to the max. You’ll feel like a failure and once those feelings of self-doubt start to penetrate your brain it’s harder to fight them when your rational thinking and decision making is suffering at the hands of tiredness.
Quite a few solo riders scratch when they realise that they’re not going to finish in their goal time and lose the motivation to continue. I think that being in a pair prevented this from happening for us.
Knowing that Julie wanted to keep going to the finish, no matter what, helped me deal with some very dark moods and lack of motivation as I saw that 16-day finish plan slowly slip away from us over the course of the first week. I wasn’t just doing this for myself, I was doing it for my partner too and Julie was still determined to get to the finish line so I had to stop feeling demotivated, give myself a talking to and get on with it. We both felt like this a number of times at different points in the ride but thankfully not at the same time (except for our ‘dog day’ in Romania). Being jointly responsible for someone else’s success or failure was definitely a motivating factor for me rather than a burden.
Prior to racing, we also had to have a frank discussion about what would happen if one of us couldn’t complete due to either a mechanical or physical issue, whether one of us would continue solo if that situation arose and if we were both ok about that.
In terms of mechanical issues, as a bike mechanic, aside from a major frame or wheel failure, I’m confident that I could tackle most repairs, at least well enough to get us to a bike shop. If the the bike was repairable then a day out to get it fixed would be something that we were both prepared to do together.
Sickness that involved just resting for a day, or taking it easy, was also something that we were prepared to ride out together, however if we suffered an injury that prevented one of us from continuing, even after rest, then providing that the injured party was safe and able to travel home alone, we agreed that we would be happy for the other to continue as a solo rider. Realistically though, neither of us could categorically say how we would feel about that until put in that position.
Thankfully, we were never put in that position. Although my heatstroke was pretty intense on a couple of occasions, after an earlier-than-planned finish on a couple of days, with a few hours rest I was always good to ride again the following morning. We just adjusted our schedule in order to do more riding before dawn.
Make sure you’re evenly matched physically and mentally and learn about how each of you behaves both on and off the bike.
You can only really do this by putting in the hours training together in the months running up to the event. Julie and I ride together at home a lot and we’d been away on holiday together so we knew that we could stand to be in each other’s company for longer than a day or two but we still didn’t know how each other would behave when pushed to our limits of tiredness and stress.
We have both been in the company of cyclists who have a total behaviour meltdown when they reach their limits and it’s not nice to be around. We really wanted to make sure that wasn’t going to happen to us so we practised with audaxes and long, multi-day rides together – 400’s in the pouring rain, 600’s, back to back 300’s with nights in the bivvy. We learned how each other functioned in times of tiredness, cold and hunger. The TCR will provide you both with enough of it’s own surprises so you don’t need to give each other any further surprises along the way.
On average we are pretty evenly matched on the bike. I would say generally that Julie is a bit faster than me on the flat and I’m a bit faster than her on the climbs, but there were times when I’d be off the front on a flat section and others where she’d be at a summit waiting for me. We also both peak at different times – I’m strong early on, then have a dip after lunch and get stronger again in the early evening. In comparison Julie starts off steady and builds so that she is probably at her strongest mid-afternoon when I’m ready for an afternoon nap! That’s just how it is, but knowing this about your partner – and accepting it long before you’re both stood in a square in Belgium waiting for the off – will save you a lot of unnecessary frustration when, at times, you’re wondering why your partner is pedalling off into the distance while you can barely turn your cranks.
You will have days when one of you feels utterly rubbish and one of you feels strong, but if you’re evenly matched, then most likely, at some point before you arrive at the finish, those roles will be reversed and you’ll be the one bringing up the rear instead. When you’re a team, you’re only as strong as your slower half and you need to be accepting of this fact. You don’t have to cycle together all of the time but hopefully by the time you’ve finished doing training rides together you’ll understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses enough to know when one of you is having a bad spell.
Also think about the weight of your kit and bikes. It doesn’t matter how evenly matched you are if one of you is riding a bike that weighs 15kg and the other is riding with 25kgs. That extra 10kg is going to slow you down, especially when you get to a climb. Our loaded bikes had a difference of just 500g. We also had the same gear ratios so were as evenly matched as possible.
Plan the route together and check it together
Trust me, even if one of you is naturally a better route planner, sit down together and make joint decisions about the route – all of it. That way, when it all goes tits-up and the road you chose months earlier from the comfort of your living room disappears and you end up walking and pushing your bike for 16 kilometres, you are BOTH responsible. We had a lot of conversations that started with “Bloody hell, how on earth did we manage to pick such a crap road?!” Now imagine if only one of you was responsible for picking that crap road? Resentment can build pretty quickly when you add in a bit of heat stroke and sleep deprivation and agreeing on your route together will prevent this from happening.
Learn to think like a unit, not an individual
You both need to think for the both of you – all the decisions you make along the way must be made with two of you in mind so it’s vital that you keep communicating throughout. The whole race is one huge problem-solving exercise and you need to find those solutions together. We became pretty good at this and by the second week we were literally thinking each other’s thoughts and finishing each other’s sentences. We joked about it at the time but it only stands to reason that when you’re both focused on the same goal, doing the same activity, then you’re probably going to be thinking the same limited range of thoughts.
If you’re in a relationship make sure your significant other is completely on-board if they’re not your race partner
Of course this applies to solo racers as well as pairs but when you’re in a pair you’re about to spend a whole lot of time with another person who isn’t your other half. For a fixed time period your race partner is about to become the most important person in your life and this can sometimes be a bit of a challenge for the other most important person in your life.
Not only are you never around because you’re out doing bonkers, long training rides every weekend, but you’re also spending a lot of your non-riding spare time planning and organising with your race partner too. When you’re not with them, you’re probably talking about them. This race has the potential to take over your life and the lives of those close to you in the run-up to the main event. Irrational feelings of jealousy and neglect can creep into the most solid of relationships if you don’t attend to it and this is even harder to manage if your significant other isn’t 100% behind both you and your pair.
No race is worth the price of a friendship
My other half, Ken, told me a couple of times during the run-up to the race that he thought racing as a pair was a bad idea and was worried it would ruin mine and Julie’s friendship because we both have such strong characters, but I think that we both understood the potential for that to happen and took steps to prevent it.
In truth, Julie and I barely had a cross word for 20 days, actually 25 days if you count the time spent together getting to the race and home again. That’s not to say that we didn’t annoy each other a bit at times, of course we did, but we didn’t dwell on it and it’s very important not to. Spending 25 days together, every single minute of the day, without a break could test even the strongest of marriages, never mind a friendship.
We became good at recognising the trigger points. We realised fairly early on that we started to get tetchy with one another when cycling late into the night. That was also the time that we made most of our mistakes so we just decided to stop pedalling once it started to get dark and find a place to get our heads down, opting for pre-dawn starts rather than long, dark nights. The extra miles gained by cycling at night wasn’t worth the risk to the bond that we’d formed.
Remember, try to keep it all in perspective. No matter how much you get wrapped up in it all – and you will – it is just a bike race at the end of the day.
As personal achievement goals go, 2017 is going to be a pretty tough year to beat. This time last year Julie and I had just found out that we’d been successful in securing a place in the Transcontinental Race and were both surprised and slightly in shock. If I’m honest, that state of mind stayed with both of us right up until the moment we were lining up to climb the Muur on the evening of July 28.
As much as we’d both love to have another crack at the TCR (as we are both convinced we could do it faster now that we know what we’re dealing with), this year it’s just not going to be possible for us, mainly because of constraints in time and money.
I work for a cycling social enterprise based in Sheffield. Summer is our busiest time at work and I can’t justify taking off another month in July / August. There are only 12 of us in the team, and they’re all keen cyclists too, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to leave them to pick up my slack two summers in a row. I also spent a big chunk of my savings on the TCR last year, not just on the race itself but on new equipment, a new groupset for Teacake, jabs, insurance and preparation, it all adds up.
That said, I’m still planning to have plenty of adventures on the bike in 2018, they’ll just be a bit shorter and a bit cheaper but hopefully just as exciting and challenging.
As ongoing goals go, I still have to complete my current attempt at Randonneur Round the Year – an audax challenge to complete a 200km audax every month for 12 consecutive months. I initially started 2017’s attempt in February but I forgot to validate a leg of the TCR during August so I had to start all over again in September and therefore have another eight to go. RRtY is a great way to stay motivated to keep riding throughout the winter months, although I’ve not planned when I’m riding January’s yet so I need to pull my finger out really.
I also missed out on my Super Randonneur in 2017 – another audax challenge where you complete a 200, 300, 400 and 600 km event in the same year – because my right-hand gear shifter packed in 400 km into my 600 and I didn’t have enough time in the year to fit another one in, so I’ll be having another crack at that this year. I’m still working my way through the audax calendar to decide which events I’m going to do.
Goal two: Gravel
Another goal for 2018 is to have a go at mastering the gravel. I spend pretty much all of my cycling time firmly rooted to the tarmac and, as my work colleagues will tell you, I am not much of a mountain biker. I lack the nerve and the skills – I can barely get myself across Houndkirk in one piece.
I’m hoping that the gravel will be somewhere in between the two extremes – just far enough out of my comfort zone to make it an interesting learning curve but not so far out of my reach that I end up throwing the towel in. Those of you that followed us on social media while riding the TCR will know that we encountered quite a lot of the stuff on our journey and although I was pretty rubbish on it, once I’d got the hang of it I did start to enjoy it, but there’s definitely room for improvement. I like having a go at new stuff and if there isn’t any difficulty involved then it wouldn’t be a challenge, right?
Goal three: More mini-adventures
So, aside from my audax goals, rather than one big, long adventure, I’ve got a few mini ones planned instead.
Normandicat is a four-day race that circumnavigates the region of Normandy, France and Julie and I are competing as a pair again.
I really enjoyed the free-route aspect of the TCR, even though we made loads of mistakes, as it feels much more like your own adventure when you get to decide your own route so I spent quite a long time looking for something similar on a smaller scale that wasn’t taking place mid-summer.
The Normandicat fulfils most of that criteria – it’s an unsupported, free-route race of around 900km with nine control points. It starts in Bayeaux (of tapestry fame) at 10pm on Wednesday, 9th May and finishes on Saturday, 12th at 7pm. You can also choose to complete sections of the route off-road if you want to and I’m thinking that we should get some wider tyres on our road bikes and hit the unsurfaced roads.
I’m looking forward to riding in a pair with Julie again as we work well together as a team. We’ve not ridden together since Julie broke her arm at the end of September and she’s still not back on the bike yet. But she has been keeping her fitness up on the Wattbike and we still have a few months to get some big miles in so I’m not panicking yet.
I do like to throw myself in at the deep end and what better way to commit to mastering the gravel than to a enter a 200km event that’s full of the stuff in just four months time? It could, of course, be the daftest idea I’ve ever had. There’s a time cut-off point at 10 hours for the 130km mark so my aim is to just try to make the cut-off. There’s also 3500m of climbing and while I’m not so bad at going uphill, I am pretty ropy at going downhill, so I need to get practising …I think I’m going to need another bike!
Everyone I know who’s ridden the Etape has loved it and as it starts in Annecy this year – one of my favourite places in France – I decided to enter. I’m not massively into huge sportives but I do fancy the opportunity to ride a couple of classic French climbs on traffic-free roads. I’ll be going with my friend Andy and this trip is much more of a holiday rather than a challenge, although the event itself will be tough day.
I’m sure that most people taking part will be doing it on super-light carbon road bikes but jumping on a plane with my best bike in a box just to ride the route and then flying back home again doesn’t really appeal to me. Instead I’m planning on getting a bit of touring done too so I’m hoping to take a fully-loaded Teacake to somewhere in France on the train and then riding over to Annecy. Ideally, if I had loads of time we would ride there and back but I have less than two weeks and Andy’s idea of a long day in the saddle isn’t quite the same as mine any more.
As I don’t want to be away from work too much during the summer months, Torino-Nice in September fits in well with my plans for 2018. This will be the third year that the rally has taken place. It’s a mixed-terrain 700km route that takes in some high cols in Italy and France, including the Col d’Izoard and the unsurfaced Colle Finestre – but by September I’m bound to be a gravel expert, right? It’s not a race and you can take your time if you want to – there’s no official finish cut-off time. I’ll be hoping to do it in around a week, but don’t hold me to that.
Goal four: More camping and bivvying
I also want to get some mini-bikepacking / bivvying weekends in around the UK this year. Last year really rekindled my love of sleeping outdoors. I love the simplicity of getting everything you need on the bike, not worrying too much about accommodation and just riding until you feel like it’s time to stop. During the Summer months there’s something magical about getting up as the sun is rising and hitting the roads and trails while everyone else is still sleeping – for a brief moment it feels like the world is all yours.
Goal five: Ride 15,000km minimum
The last goal I’ve been wrestling with is my annual distance target. I managed to pedal over 18,000km in 2017 but 4000 of those were in the 20 days during the TCR so I’m not sure that I’ll be up for reaching those dizzy heights again this year. As a starting point I’ve pledged to ride 15,000km with 10000km.cc – I’ll aim for that and anything over and above is a bonus.
So that’s the plan so far, and it’s also probably most of my annual leave accounted for too. None of my goals are ridiculously unachievable (well, we’ll see how the gravel one pans out) so let’s see how I get on. Progress reports will be posted up as and when…
I’ve been shying away from updating the blog for a while. Mainly because I’m feeling a bit guilty about not getting the rest of my Transcontinental experience down on paper yet. Riding it was hard enough but writing about riding it is proving to be even harder. So, I’m going to procrastinate a little longer and write about my new Fizik Luna saddle instead.
Lots of people have been asking me how I’ve been getting on with it and I can honestly say that I flippin’ love it.
I didn’t realise just how much I loved it until I got in the shower last Saturday night and now I feel the need to tell everyone how fantastic it is. So what happened in the shower on Saturday night that made me fall completely in love with my Luna? Well, nothing happened and that’s the point.
Let me put this into context. Last Saturday I rode a 200km audax and when I’ve had a long day on the bike, even if I’ve had a reasonably comfortable ride, it’s often when I jump the shower afterwards and the hot water hits that I notice if things are little sensitive in the saddle area. On this occasion though, nothing – no stinging, no redness, no chafing. In fact, my bum didn’t really feel like it had been sat on a bike at all, never mind for 10 hours.
And it dawned on me that since I started riding with the Luna just over a month ago, I’ve already ridden almost 1000km on it and I’ve hardly had cause to notice it, which is exactly how a good saddle ought to feel.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that last May I started riding with the Luna’s sportier companion, the Fizik Luce, on my Kinesis – the bike that I would be riding the TCR on. The Luce and I had a few teething troubles and it took me a long time to get comfortable with it on longer-distance rides. However, I kept persevering with it and rode the TCR on it without too much trouble. I did have some soreness, especially on my pressure points, but I kind of expected that I would’ve had that with any saddle after riding 220km a day for 20 consecutive days. So, overall I was pretty happy with the way that the Luce performed.
Fast Forward to this October, when I saw the new Luna previewed on the Extra stand at the Cycle Show. The Luna X5 has been designed primarily for off-road use but I could see straight away that this new design offered a different solution to the issues that I’d personally had with the Luce on rides of over 200km.
The narrow nose and front cutaway that I loved so much on the Luce are also present on the Luna but the angles on the wingtips are not as pronounced and the area under the sit bones offers more padding, so perfect for very long days (and nights).
Just like the Luce, the Luna comes in two different widths (I’m riding the regular) and comes in carbon and alloy versions. The alloy version weighs in at 255g, a mere 25g heavier than the Luce and well worth it for the extra comfort that I’ve experienced.
Although the Luna has been designed with female mountain bikers in mind, I think that ultra-endurance riders, who are often in the saddle for 12+ hours a day – whether on or off road – will definitely welcome the flexibility, support and extra comfort that this saddle provides.
I know that other people’s saddle recommendations should often be taken with a pinch of salt, as we’re all different shapes and sizes, but I really do love this saddle and for my requirements it’s spot-on. I’ve moved the Luce over to my summer road bike, which is where it is best suited and I’ll be riding on the Luna on all my long-distance adventures next year.
Now I’m looking forward to my long days in saddle even more than usual. I might even spend a bit more time on some of that gravel that I’ve developed such a liking for and I’m sure the Luna will be up for it too.
For most of my cycling life I’ve ridden a bloke’s bike with a bloke’s saddle but that changed back in 2014 when I tried out a Fizik Arione Donna saddle. All of the previous women’s-specific saddles I’d tried were either too wide at the nose and too padded at the rear for my liking but the Arione Donna was based on Fizik’s men’s race saddle, the Arione. It was stiff rather than spongy but it flexed instead, it wasn’t too wide and it had a channel down the centre to relieve soft tissue pressure. For the following three and a half years my Arione Donna and I did a lot of miles together – over 22,000 in fact – and we’d been fairly happy together.
However, in an ideal world, saddles need replacing every couple of years and I decided that before the TCR I should invest in a new one and get it worn in in good time. So imagine my dismay when I learned that Fizik had discontinued the Arione Donna and replaced it with their new women’s specific Luce.
Fizik’s UK distributor, Extra, very kindly gave me a Luce (pronounced Loochay – Italian for ‘light’) to try out. Fizik have spent a lot of time developing and testing the Luce, consulting women riders of all types throughout the process and it is aimed at a much wider ‘all-round’ audience compared to the Arione Donna which was primarily aimed at the racing market.
When the Luce arrived my initial thoughts were a little sceptical as the shape is quite a radical departure from the Arione Donna. The Luce comes in two different widths and I’d been sent a regular but it is still wider than the Arione Donna and has much more pronounced, angular ‘wing flexors’. It also has a narrow nose and a thin central cutaway area. However, I was pleased to see that the overall stiffness of the Luce is very much the same as the Arione and it is also very light, weighing in at 230g for the alloy version.
I fitted it to the bike and tried it out on indoor sessions for the first two weeks in order to make sure it was set up correctly before venturing out on a longer outdoor ride. Despite my reservations about the different shape my first impressions on a 100km ride were very positive. I was especially happy with the narrow nose and cutaway and I found that I didn’t need to keep repositioning myself very much at all to relieve soft tissue pressure toward the end of the ride.
After a few more successful shorter distance rides it was time to up the mileage. I had 300km and 200km back-to-back audaxes so this would give me the opportunity to try out the Luce on two consecutive long days in the saddle. As expected the first 100km were very comfortable, in fact the first 160km were, but beyond this distance I started to encounter a bit of soreness just under my bum cheeks where the very angular wing tips kept digging in. This slowly built up from a mild annoyance around 200km to full-on chafing at 300km and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the wing tips seemed to line up perfectly with where the pad was stitched into my bib shorts causing the stitching to rub against my skin.
The last 50km of the ride was a very wriggly affair as I squirmed around trying to prevent the tips from digging in and doing any further damage. Needless to say I was pretty disappointed to discover that the saddle that had been pretty much perfect for 160km was no longer fine at 300km, especially considering most of the riding I currently do is over 200km a day. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to getting back on it to ride another 200km in the morning.
The next day, a long shower, a liberal application of Doublebase cream and some fresh bib shorts made all the difference and getting back on board was nowhere near as bad I as I was expecting it to be. In fact I began to wonder if I’d imagined some of the pain as everything was feeling pretty comfortable in the rear end department. Again, all was good for around the first 160km and then the discomfort started to set in as those wingtips started to dig in. Thankfully, the ride was hillier than the previous day and that enabled me to spend a bit more time in and out of the saddle so things didn’t get quite as uncomfortable.
Since my long audax weekend I’ve spent a bit of time readjusting the saddle position slightly – I’ve moved it back on the rails by around 3mm and lowered it by 2mm – and have since been out on a few other 200km-plus rides but the pattern keeps repeating itself and I never manage to get much further than 160km before those angular wing tips get me squirming around to find a comfortable spot.
For me personally this really is a saddle of two halves. The nose and cutaway area is amazingly comfortable – much more comfortable than the Arione Donna was in this area – but the Luce’s wide, angular wing tips at the rear are perhaps a little too wide for my sit bones. Although I’ve got fairly chunky thighs, my hips are on the narrower side compared with other women and I think that a narrower saddle, or at least one that sits within the confines of the pad on my bibshorts, would suit me better. I’ve tried numerous pairs of shorts with it and the edge of the pad always seems to line up with the edge of the wing tips. Unfortunately the Luce only comes in two fittings – regular and wide.
Maybe I’m expecting too much to find a saddle that is both light and comfortable over very long distances. A saddle that’s comfortable for 100 miles isn’t necessarily comfortable at 200 miles and because the majority of us don’t ride 200 miles in one sitting it’s probably not something that a saddle manufacturer takes into consideration too much – women’s saddles (and probably quite a few men’s) just aren’t designed to be ridden ultra-endurance distances. I guess if I’d never have ridden on the Luce for more than 160 kms in one go then I too would still think that it’s a great ride.
In short, if you regularly ride distances less than 160km and / or you have wide sit bones then the Luce will probably be an excellent choice for you.
As for me and the TCR, it’s now less than a month away so I’m going to stick with the Luce and grin and bear it. I don’t have the time to try out another saddle at this late stage and the Luce’s front end is still so much more comfortable than my Arione so I’m not inclined to put my old saddle back on either – I’ll let you know how I get on.
If you’ve been keeping up with previous adventures you’ll know that Peter, Julie and I successfully made it to Teddington earlier this month on our DIY 300km ‘Sheffield to London’ Audax. After a short but restorative night’s rest at Peter’s sister’s house we were up early again the following day, back on the bikes and on our way over Richmond Park to Wimbledon Common and the 8am start of the Ditchling Devil 200km audax.
The 205km audax route takes riders through South London and over the North and South Downs the outskirts of Brighton, taking in Ditchling Beacon along the way. From Brighton the route climbs back up over the South Down to Devil’s Dyke before descending into West Sussex and Surrey before climbing over the Surrey Hills and following the Thames into Richmond.
With a £15 entry fee the Ditchling Devil is a little more expensive to enter than your usual audax, which is usually around six to eight quid, but for the additional entry fee the organisers provide food, with the help of local community groups, at three village control stops along the route.
Crossing the Thames at Teddington
Getting over to the start of the audax was enough of a challenge in itself as rather than pedal all the way around the Common we decided to try and take an off-road ‘short-cut’. When I lived in London I used to run with Belgrave Harriers and their club house is based in Wimbledon. Every Saturday morning my club mates and I would run across the common and over to Richmond Park for training, so I knew which direction we needed to head in, but let’s just say that it’s much easier to get up to the windmill in a pair of trainers than it is on 23mm tyres.
After our wibbly-wobbly detour through the woods, we finally emerged at the top of the Common and into the Windmill cark park to be greeted by literally hundreds of cyclists. The three of us were a bit taken aback by the sight of so many riders at the start of an audax as we are accustomed to seeing around 50 or so riders at the starts of most of the events we take part in. There had to be well over 300 cyclists milling about, eating donuts and waiting for the 8am off. We started to get the feeling that the Ditchling Devil 200 might not be quite like your usual run-of-the-mill audax events.
We parked our bikes and took our place in the line to sign on while each stuffing down a donut. We were a little disappointed not to have coffee at the start but I guess providing coffee for this many riders at an outdoor sign-on would’ve been pretty hard work logistically. After picking up my brevet card I took my place in the queue for the ladies toilets. Yes, that’s right, a queue, for the ladies. All female audax cyclists will know that we never have to queue for the ladies toilets, there just aren’t enough of us usually taking part – in fact we usually have to kick the blokes out of our toilets at most events. However, the Ditchling Devil had a lot of women entrants, which of course is great to see, except that they all seemed to be in ahead of me in the toilet queue.
We decided to hang back at the start to avoid the crowds as we sped away from the common down Wimbledon hill and started our journey through the suburbs of south-west London. This audax definitely had the feel of a sportive to it and despite trying to hold back the three of us inevitably got sucked into a few of the big groups of riders on the road as small groups jockeyed for position, getting bunched up at red lights then trying to out-sprint one another on the green signal.
The sheer number of riders led to a few uncomfortable moments at junctions, especially when a lot of cars and buses were also queuing to get through, but as we left the suburbs behind and headed to the hills of the North Downs the bottlenecks soon settled down as the stronger riders pushed on up the first couple of hills and riders started to spread out along the route. The first big pull came at Chipstead and despite riding on tired legs from our 300 the day before, the three of us were climbing pretty well and did our own fair share of overtaking other riders on the hills.
Once we were beyond Reigate the hills settled out into a more gently undulating landscape as we headed toward the first control and feed stop. The control appeared out of nowhere as we were guided into a field at the crest of a country lane where a couple of people with lists of rider numbers applied stickers to rider’s brevet cards. We were advised that the first food stop was a couple of kilometres away in the village of Highbrook and with the promise of egg and bacon sandwiches ahead we were off down the road.
It was pretty easy to spot the food stop as there were so many riders spilling out of the farm garden and into the lane. We had a little chat with the farmer who told us that the whole village come together every year to help feed and water hungry riders who are in search of breakfast. After our egg and bacon roll and a cuppa we thanked him for his hospitality and were back on our way pedalling through the Sussex lanes toward the South Downs which sat on the horizon like a big green wall – a wall we needed to climb up and over before our descent into Brighton.
Ditchling Beacon, the famous climb over the Downs that features in the London to Brighton bike ride is not to be underestimated. At 1.5 km long it might not be in quite the same league as a few of the tougher climbs we have up here in the north but it’s still a formidable 16% at its steepest gradient and averages 9% overall, so on a hot day it’ll certainly make you sweat a bit and get out of breath.
Today our ascent was further complicated by a steady stream of Sunday drivers all out for a day in the sunshine. The climb’s not quite wide enough for two-way traffic and bikes and some drivers were taking quite a few risks overtaking cyclists without giving them much room. Around half way up the traffic ground to a halt in both directions as a bloke on a bike had to pull up suddenly due to severe cramp. A concerned driver in a Range Rover parked up and jumped out to check that he was ok, which was very good of her, but her vehicle was blocking the road in both directions, causing trouble for drivers and cyclists alike.
After a few starts and stops – never a good thing on a 10% gradient – we managed to weave around the static traffic and make it to the top where we took in the fantastic 360 degree view across the Downs to the Sussex coastline and sea beyond. From here the road descended into the busy outskirts of Brighton before climbing back up a few sharp little climbs, one at least 20%, to the top of the ridge and on to Devil’s Dyke where we were rewarded with another fantastic view and an info control.
After a quick breather and photo stop we were soon descending back down into the lanes of the Weald. Drivers taking part in the London to Brighton Classic Car Run were passing us going the other way and we got to see fine examples of classic vintage motors as we pedalled our way west for a much-needed lunch stop at Upper Beeding. Every now and again mini pelotons of club cyclists would speed past us and it was hard to resist the temptation to speed up and jump on the back but with 300km in our legs from the previous day I don’t think we’d have held on for long.
Lunch was being provided for us in the event organiser’s home. The whole house and garden had been turned into a giant feed station with lots of volunteers preparing and serving industrial-sized quantities of pasta, chilli, bread and rice pudding and riders were scattered everywhere inside and outside the house. The afternoon heat had picked up considerably and I sheltered in the lounge to get out of the sun after lunch while Peter and Julie stayed in the garden. We hung around a little longer than we ought – Peter even thought he might’ve nodded off for a while!
Much of the next section of the ride was on fast main roads and we had a few scary encounters with close passing traffic. These encounters seemed to increase once we crossed over into Surrey, with much swearing and hand gestures – mainly from me! Riding through Surrey was a real trip down memory lane for me as I lived in the village of Alfold for a while when I first started working in London in the 1990’s and once I’d moved into the the city I’d often return to this part of the world for training rides. The villages haven’t changed much but the drivers have definitely got more impatient.
Our final food stop was in the village of Chiddingfold at the cricket club. Once again we were supported by a host of volunteers handing out cups of tea and coffee and a fantastic selection of homemade cakes and biscuits – just what we needed to get us through the last 40 km over the Surrey hills as the three of had started to flag a bit by now. Many of the other groups of riders were also taking their time at this food stop, maybe in anticipation of the few remaining hills ahead.
Julie and I had been keeping a sharp eye on Peter for most of the ride as he can be prone to missing turns and pedalling off in the wrong direction. He’s also managed to cultivate faffing into an art form, leaving gloves and water bottles in his wake at controls. This feed stop was no exception as we handed his gloves to him again. We were starting to wonder how he would manage without us when he rides LEL this summer!
I knew that even though we only had 40 km left to ride we still had the last of the big climbs ahead – Combe Lane at Shere. It starts off relatively tame but banks up to 18% by the swtichback at the top and on our tired legs it was really tough going to drag ourselves over the summit. After Combe Lane it was all plain sailing back over the M3 and M25 into the outskirts of London and we managed to cover the flatter terrain pretty quickly by working together taking turns on the front. I managed to get all the way to Kingston before blowing up after a fairly long stint on the front and had to limp home on the back being pulled along by Julie and Peter along the Thames to Richmond and the finish at the Rose of York pub.
We clocked in at the pub just a little after 7 pm, pleased with our efforts considering that we’d now clocked up over 500 kms of riding in two days. We all agreed that it wasn’t really like any audax we’d done before but we’d really enjoyed it. The organisers really do deserve a big ‘thank you’ for the amount of organisation that went in to providing food and assistance for the huge number of riders taking part – an absolute bargain for the 15 quid entry fee. Cafe stops on audaxes can often result in quite an expensive day out but I’d only spent 75 pence all day!
If you live in the south and haven’t moved up to a longer distance audax yet then this 200 would be a great one to start with. It’s a long way to come for an audax if you live in the north but it’s definitely one to make an effort for, experience some of the best bits of the North and South Downs and make a weekend of it… just make sure you’re prepared for that toilet queue, ladies.
Over the weekend Julie and I decided to give our Transcontinental bike and kit set-up a decent trial run on the Hot Trod 400km Audax which starts north west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and heads out west into the Scottish Borders and over to Lockerbie, before heading north east to Moffat and along the Tweed valley to Peebles. Finally heading back into England via Cornhill-on-Tweed and down to Morpeth.
It was Julie’s first 400km audax and, understandably, she was a bit apprehensive. 400s are never easy, even after you’ve got a few under your belt and you know what’s coming. A 300 can be completed in a (long) day, even if it’s a tough one and you’re a slow rider but with a 400 the time allowance is 27 hours, so unless you’re a super-speedy rider, you’re almost certainly going to be riding into the dark and possibly all the way through to the following dawn.
The Hot Trod starts at Kirkley Cycles, a farm that also happens to be a great little bike workshop and cafe around 10 miles north-west of Newcastle. It’s a 400 with a few differences and it bills itself as a great ‘first time’ 400 event.
First up, it starts at a very civilized 9.30am which, on the surface, sounds great but starting late start also means finishing late. The 27-hour time limit equates to a cut-off time of 12.30pm the following day. As it usually takes me around 23 to 24 hours to finish a 400, that meant a finish time of around 9.30am the following morning, riding all through the night, and with heavy kit on the bikes it could be even longer. However, the second difference is that the Hot Trod provides a rest stop with an option to sleep at the 314km mark in Cornhill-on-Tweed Village Hall. Most 400s don’t provide a sleep option because they start at 6am and riders are expected to push on through to finish in the early hours of the next day.
The route is very straightforward to follow as it sticks to major roads for much of the time. This could be a problem in many parts of the UK but up in the Borders there aren’t really that many roads to choose from and most of them are pretty quiet. The route has also been very well thought out so that the A-roads that are likely to carry more traffic are tackled early in the morning or late at night for the majority of riders.
We travelled up to Newcastle by train on the Friday afternoon and rode the 15km to our overnight bunkhouse accommodation at Houghton North Farm in the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall. After a quick wander around the village to find the eponymous ‘wall’ we retired to The Swan for a bit of carb-loading with a giant sized portion of fish and chips plus pudding.
After a very early night we were up early to pedal the 10 miles up to Kirkley. We’d arrived with a good 45 minutes to spare and the cafe was open early so, after signing in, a couple of strong cappuccinos were ordered to help us start the ride with a bit of a caffeine kick.
Around 50 riders had signed up for the event and we bumped into lots of friendly faces. John Rowe and his mate from Stocksbridge CC were riding as well as John, Ian and Gordon who I met when we all rode the PBP with back in 2015. Audax, especially the longer distance events, is quite a small world really so you’ll often end up bumping to the same bunch of people throughout the year.
At 9.30 we were set off by the race organiser and the 50 or so riders were soon dispersed along the B-road that led us over to the A696, so Julie and I were pretty much riding alone from the off. After around 20km we were caught up by a group of riders from the VC167 club including my mate Gordon so we had a bit of a chat with them (mainly about our new Rapha bib-shorts and comparisons with Asos!).
Julie and I had a bit of a game plan as our bikes were fully-loaded with our TCR kit and were very heavy, so we wanted to pace ourselves at a steady 20km an hour, limiting our stops to 30 minutes, and ride alone rather than get caught up in a group and ride at someone else’s pace, so when the group stopped to put on rain jackets we carried on down the road although they soon caught us up and passed us on the steady climb up Carter Bar and the Scottish border.
It had been drizzling slightly all the way through Kielder up to the border, where we stopped to take the obligatory stop of the bikes by the border stone, but as soon as we crossed into Scotland and turned on to the A6088 to Hawick it was like someone had turned the hose on and the rain came down hard, stinging our eyes and causing us to be more cautious on the descents. Thankfully my old and slightly worse-for-wear Endura waterproof did what it does best and kept my core dry but hands and feet were not so lucky. I’ve really put that poor waterproof through it’s paces over the past three years but it’s never let me down.
Eventually the rain eased off but not before we were completely soaked. By the time we arrived in Hawick, the second control and first major stop at 89km we’d more or less dried out except for our very wet and cold hands and feet. I’d decided not to bother with bringing any overshoes as it was just more weight to pack but I was starting to regret that decision.
Morrison’s supermarket cafe had been suggested by the race organiser and as we pedaled into the car park and saw all the bikes leaned up against the shop window it looked like everyone had followed his advice. We arrived at 1.30pm – the height of lunchtime for hungry Saturday shoppers – so the queue was long and service was pretty slow-going but we managed to get fed and out within 45 minutes.
After Hawick the route took a turn on to the scenic and deserted B711 and despite the overcast skies and on-and-off showers the landscape was beautiful. Eventually we turned south on to the B709 and climbed steadily, following the the course of the river Ettrick Water upstream to the village of Ettrick. As we started to descend into Eskdalemuir I noticed lots of brightly coloured flags fluttering in the distance by the roadside. As we got closer we were greeted by the very surreal sight of a golden buddha sat in the middle of a pond. We learned that was the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. This was the first Buddhist monastery to be set up in the West and it’s pretty easy to see why they chose this beautiful, quiet valley to host their retreat.
At Eskdalemuir we turned onto the B723 which was to take us into Lockerbie and the next control stop. We got caught in yet another rain shower on the way down and by time we arrived in the town it was 6pm and we were wet, cold and hungry. We stopped at a cashpoint to get a control receipt and Julie’s hands were so cold that she couldn’t manipulate her fingers to use the machine. The recommended food stop, Lockerbie Truck Stop, was still another 7km up the road.
We piled into the warm and welcoming truck stop cafe and ordered two massive portions of food and steaming mugs of strong tea. A lot of the other riders were in there so we all had a good old moan about the weather and lined our gloves, socks and buffs across the radiators. The lorry drivers didn’t really bat an eyelid but I bet they all thought we were completely bonkers.
We left around 7.15pm and headed up the road to Moffat which wasn’t an official control but was our last chance to stock up on nibbles before the climb up and over the Devil’s Beef Tub, or to use it’s far duller name, the A701, to the next control at Peebles. The sun was starting to set as we reached the top of the climb and started the long descent along the Tweed Valley and the sunset through the stormy rain clouds reflected up from the puddles making the roads glow with pink light.
By the time we reached the valley bottom it was starting to get dark. I often find the time between dusk and proper nightfall the hardest time to ride through. It’s not completely dark but not light enough to really make anything out. My eyes don’t seems to adjust very well and it’s harder to see the road surface ahead even with good bike lights. My pace always slows down at this point and this night was no exception. Peebles never seemed to get any closer and we finally arrived in the town at a few minutes to 11pm.
We found a group of riders huddled outside a McColls which was planning on closing at 11pm. We quickly leaned the bikes against the shop window and rushed in but once in there we were both so tired and disoriented that we didn’t really know what to buy. It didn’t matter really, I just needed some sugar and a receipt so I bought a packet of Jelly Babies and a large bottle of Coke. Outside I realised that Julie had decided to leave without buying anything and by then they wouldn’t let her back in to get a receipt, so while I fumbled with my supplies and downed half the Coke, Julie went in search of a cashpoint.
Peebles and the 18 miles to Galashiels was probably the low point of the ride for me. I had a real dip in energy, Julie was riding a good 200m ahead and I just couldn’t muster the energy to try to to catch her up. I rode with a friendly Welsh guy for a while and he spurred me on to Galashiels where we found an all-night garage with a toilet and a Costa coffee machine – heaven! It’s amazing just how much a warm building with a toilet and rubbish coffee can perk you up at 1 in the morning.
Now it was proper dark and we had around 30km to go to the rest stop at Cornhill. The route out of town was well-lit on a main road with street lights almost all the way to Kelso which made the going a bit easier. The coffee had perked us both up and we were doing alright. After Kelso the roads were unlit again but by now in the total darkness my eyes had adjusted to it and I’d settled into a good rhythm. We were joined for a while again by the VC167 group and we hung on the back for as long as we could before their red tailights disappeared into the distance.
At the village of Cornhill it took us ages to find the control as the village hall was tucked away on a side street and we were getting a bit flustered in our tired state and kept missing the turn. The sky was just starting to get light again when we eventually arrived at 3.15am. Once inside, we had our cards validated and were offered a macaronie pie and baked beans. We sat down at the long table with a big group of riders, most of them from VC167. We were all in good spirits considering we’d all been awake for a very long time and were kept entertained by Gordon and his banter. Wet socks, shoes and gloves were removed and piled up on the radiators to dry.
The Cornhill control was at 314km so Julie and I figured that we could get our heads down for an hour and wait for a bit more daylight before heading off on the last 90kms which we’d reckoned on covering in around five hours. And, seeing as we’d carried our sleeping bags and bivvys all the way around the route it was time that we put them to good use! Even though we were indoors I couldn’t be bothered to pull the sleeping bag out of the bivvy and just crawled inside the lot, which meant I’d totally overheated in the next five minutes and had to start wriggling around like a demented caterpillar removing bits of clothing while inside.
I’m not sure that I slept really but Julie was convinced she’d heard me snoring, anyway just being horizontal for an hour was a welcome rest. We were up again at 5am and after a bit of breakfast we thanked the lovely support crew for their help and were out of the door by 5.30am to be greeted by a beautiful, sunny morning.
The route back south was very straightforward, along the rolling A697 which skirts the edge of Northumberland National Park, through Wooler and on to Morpeth. However, to make up the distance there was a final info control at Ulgham which meant that we turned off the A-road at Longframlington and back on to the B-roads. these proved to have a sting in the tail with a couple of short 10% hills on poor road surfaces – not exactly pleasant on tired legs and one hour’s sleep. Along the route we caught up with a father and son pair. The little lad was only 13 – what an amazing achievement to ride 400km through the night at that age and what a great bonding experience to have with your dad.
By the time we hit Morpeth around 9.30am we were very glad to be on the home stretch. Up to this point the roads had been very quiet but there was a bit of traffic in the town centre and a couple of pretty impatient drivers in 4x4s made our lives a bit difficult on the climb back out of the town. The final stretch of road back to Kirkley was into a slight headwind and it felt really tough. I have to say that the Brevet shorts that we’d been given by Rapha had held up really well but no shorts are ever going to feel pleasant after you’ve had them on for 24 hours and 395km so we were getting up out of the saddle quite a bit at this point to ease the pressure points. After a quick glance at our watches we realised that we could just about get in before 10am if we picked up the pace for the last couple of kms, so we managed to find a bit of extra from somewhere and made it back to the farm gate by 9.57am, 24 and a half hours after we’d started.
We were warmly welcomed back by the VC167 crew and cafe staff, very tired but very happy with our time and satisfied that the kit we’d carried with us had done the trick. After a good hours rest with big mugs of tea and bacon (me) and fish finger (Julie) sandwiches we were back on the bikes to Newcastle and on the train to Sheffield.
We’d both had our low points on the ride, sometimes at the same time but not always. We’d battled the lousy Scottish weather and got horribly soaked but we’d cycled through some stunning scenery on deserted roads that were still beautiful despite the cloudy, heavy skies. We ate our own body weight in junk food and shared the road with friendly, supportive riders – and that’s what audaxes are all about.
I enjoyed it so much, I’m already thinking about going back to do it next year.