If the north-west coastline of Scotland could be guaranteed good weather we’d have probably ruined the place by building holiday homes and condos galore but, thanks to those fierce prevailing weather fronts that come straight in off the Atlantic, coupled with the annual midge invasion, its golden beaches remain wild and beautiful and often deserted.
But if you’re lucky enough to be up there before the midge season starts and when the sun is shining – and it is always more luck than planning – the Scottish Highlands and Islands surely have to be one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world.
Last week I worked as a tour guide for Pedal Nation Cycling Holidays on one of their North Coast 500 trips. We were incredibly fortunate to have a rare easterly wind all week, keeping the rain away and the sun shining for the majority of the holiday.
The holiday ran for nine days with seven days of cycling. I accompanied the riders on three of those days and drove the support vehicle for the rest. The group got on well together, were great company and helped to make my job an easy one.
This gave me the opportunity to take lots of photographs of the landscape looking its best so, rather than writing a day-to-day account of our week, I’m going to let the photographs tell the story…
Day One – Inverness to Lochcarron: 103 km
Day Two – Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach Na Ba: 127 km
When I enter a long-distance audax or cycling event, although I believe that I am completely capable of making it to the finish, I’m still aware that there are many things that can happen along the way that could prevent me from finishing.
In my preparation I try to mitigate the risk as much as possible. I make sure that my route is nailed down, kit is well-tested, bike is prepped and, if possible, I try to come up with a few ‘plan-B’ scenarios in advance, just in case, as I know mistakes are more likely to occur when I’m tired. I also have a stubborn streak that will often keep me pushing on through to find a way through situations when others may choose to call it a day, but sometimes things just don’t go according to plan and despite all the preparation, those plan B’s just don’t quite cut it. A few simple mistakes can soon stack up and cost you your ride.
This was the situation that Julie and I found ourselves in earlier this month when we took part in the Normandicat as a pair – A 900(ish) km ‘free-route’ cycling event that circumnavigates the region of Normandy in France. Riders plot their own route, which must take in nine checkpoints that are situated throughout the region. The event starts in Saint Vigor le Grand, just outside Bayeux, at 10 pm on a Wednesday evening. From there riders may travel in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, taking in all of the checkpoints, to arrive back at the start by Saturday at 8pm – a 70-hour time limit.
We’d plotted a route just over 900km and planned to travel in a clockwise direction. Usually during this type of event we would have chosen to bivy, but as it was still early May and considering the lousy track weather we’d had with the weather so far this year, we decided to sleep indoors in 24-hour access motels. The limited locations of this type of hotel along our chosen route dictated what our daily distances would be.
Travelling clockwise also involved catching an early-morning ferry across the Seine to reach our first chosen control at Jumieges Abbey. As the ferry didn’t run during the night we’d planned to cycle 73 km into the first night and have a few hours sleep at Deauville, arriving at the ferry early Saturday morning. This broke down the remainder of our journey into 350 km on the Thursday, 300 km on the Friday and 188km on the final day.
We’d planned to have around three hours sleep per night and if we stuck to our usual 20 kmph average we’d make it back for the finisher’s meal with a couple of hours to spare.
All went well on our first night. We had a tailwind and made really good progress, arriving in Deauville an hour ahead of hour schedule at 1am. We decided that we’d make the most of the hour gained by having an extra 30 minutes sleep and set off 30 minutes earlier than planned on Thursday morning.
Waking up to light rain on Saturday morning made us feel justified in our decision to stay in hotels rather than bivy. First priority of the day was breakfast. Julie had planned out a list of potential food stops along our route in advance, however when we were
making our plans we hadn’t realised that the Thursday was bank holiday in France. Thankfully, the boulangerie that we had listed 30 km into the ride opened at 7 am, as planned, and we arrived shortly after. The baker and his assistant certainly didn’t seem to be too happy about being open so early on a bank holiday and netted us with grumpy faces. The supermarkets on our list, however, were all closed until after lunch so we had to take it easy with the remainder of our ride snacks until we could find one that was open.
The roads were very quiet with it being a bank holiday and again we arrived at the ferry ahead of our predicted schedule. Upon arrival we bumped into another pair of riders
from Belgium. They’d bivied in the woods close to the river but hadn’t slept very well due to the cold and damp conditions throughout night. We boarded the ferry together and chatted about out prospective routes and plans. They were planning on visiting the checkpoints in the same order as us so we expected to be seeing more of each other throughout the rest of the day.
The Abbey at Jumièges was our first checkpoint. As we weren’t wearing trackers, we validated our arrival by taking a photo and posting it on social media with the hashtag #normandicat and our pairs race number ’26’. This was a nice way of doing it as enabled us to follow the whereabouts and progress of all of the riders from our phones really easily.
Using the phone for social media uses up the power more quickly but I have an Igaro D1 USB charger attached to my Dynamo so I can charge up my phone during the day as I’m riding along. In order to keep the wires connected to the dynamo my quick release skewer needs to be done up super-tight and unfortunately it hadn’t been done up quite tight enough and the wires had been put under strain. I thought I’d noticed it just in time as my light cable wires were still connected but when I started to charge my phone nothing happened and I realised that the charger cable wires had snapped free from the connector block. I had a back-up charger with me and, as the light was still working (more important than the phone), I didn’t really want to have a go at fixing it until I could be certain that could do it somewhere where I could see what I was doing properly.
We weren’t the only ones having power problems. Our friend V, who was taking part as a solo rider, had also posted upon social media that her dynamo had also failed leaving her with no lights, so she’d had to stop riding as soon as it was dark on the first night and bivy until it was light enough to ride, although she’d had very little actual sleep, so she was behind her schedule and in need of a bike shop.
Julie and I had a second breakfast in a creperie near the Abbey and the discussed the consequences of my knackered charging lead. When we are bivying Julie usually brings along a big power bank that we can use alongside my Igaro to charge our Garmins and other devices for a few days at a time away from a plug-in power source. However seeing as we weren’t bivying and this event was only 70 hours in duration we’d decided not to bring it this time. Now that my dynamo charger had failed, we weren’t sure how long my small back-up charger would last so we decided to just go down to using one Garmin between us instead of one each as we usually do, in order to save its power for later as we expected to be riding for around 20 hours on the first full day.
Undeterred and with a plan we headed off to our second control 66km to the north of our current location, near Neufchatel. The sun was shining now and the day was shaping up to be a hot one. We were keeping our eyes peeled for an open supermarket along the route and were due to pass through a village with a few shops around 30 km away. I’d been struggling to get all of my gears for most of the morning and wondered if I’d somehow managed to give my rear mech a bit of a knock getting it in and out of the hotel earlier – bikes and hotel room doors are never a good combination. Thankfully there were only a few short hills on an otherwise flattish route so I wasn’t really having to change gear that much and decided I’d just wait until we stopped for food and take a look then.
The village of Quincampoix came good on the supermarket front so we decided to have an early lunch and stock-up on ride snacks here for the rest of the day just in case we weren’t so lucky later on. Julie went into the supermarket while I stayed outside to take a look at my gears. The mech looked pretty straight so I figured that the problem lay somewhere with the cable. I pulled on it, immediately felt it go slack in my hand and realised that the cable had snapped. The cable end was stuck in the shifter and I couldn’t get it out, so even though I had a spare cable with me, I couldn’t fit the new one without first removing the end of the old one.
I was pretty annoyed as this was the second time that this had happened to me in the space of a year and this was a new shifter, but I was also annoyed with myself because I’d not bothered to fit new cables before the event. They were last changed back in January and, as I’d not ridden as much as usual this year due to the lousy weather, I’d assumed they’d be ok.
I was concentrating so much on my own situation that I didn’t notice Julie dropping further and further behind. Julie had slowed down as she’d been feeling pretty sick since we’d stopped for lunch. My speed was very erratic as I was making the most of the flat sections then slowing down every time I had to grind up a hill, so I wasn’t the greatest riding partner, yo-yoing along the road as I sped up and slowed down.
We arrived at checkpoint two, took our photo and tried giving the bike shop a call to let them know we were coming. No answer. That meant that they were probably shut – it was a bank holiday after all. I still felt pretty strong at this stage and was beginning to wonder if it would be possible for me to complete the event with just my two gears. Other people complete these events on single-speeds so why couldn’t I have a go? Normandy isn’t that hilly and we were still making good time at this point. I was feeling positive.
Given that nobody had picked up the phone at the bike shop we decided not to take a detour there and just head straight over to checkpoint three at Lyons La Foret, 60 km to the south. In the afternoon heat we were getting low on water and all of the shops and restaurants were closed in the villages we were riding through. We were just about giving up hope of finding any water when we rode past a football pitch with a little clubhouse. We sneaked through the clubhouse gate hoping that we’d find an outside tap and we were in luck!
With our hydration issues solved we pressed on to checkpoint three. As we got closer to our destination the road started getting a little more undulating and I was beginning to find it hard work as my legs were starting to tire from pushing bigger gear. Julie was still suffering and kept dropping back so we were both releived to arrive in the pretty little village of Lyons La Foret around 4pm and find everything open. The main square was full of people and most of the shops and cafes were busy. There was even a bike hire shop but unfortunately the guy working there didn’t have any tools and couldn’t really help me.
We bumped into a few other competitors including the pair of Belgian riders we’d met earlier that morning. As we chatted about my gearing situation and possible makeshift solutions, we noticed that my rear mech’s barrel adjuster was missing. In my haste to remove the old cable and housing I’d forgotten to screw my barrel adjuster in tightly and it must’ve jiggled out as I’d been riding along – I felt like a right idiot for forgetting to check such a fundamental thing. I can put it down to tiredness and frustration but I still should have taken more care.
We had a longer than planed stop in Lyons-La-foret as the cafe owner offered to let us plug in our devices to charge them up for a while. I was beginning to doubt whether my legs had the ability to pedal a further 160 km to our booked accommodation in Alencon with my limited gear options as my knees were starting to feel a little sore. But after a rest, a sandwich and two coffees I felt ok to get back on the bike, physically at least, if not mentally.
Once those feelings of doubt started to creep in, it was the beginning of the end and I couldn’t talk myself back into a positive frame of mind. Two hours later, after struggling up a hill on quite a busy main road around 30km south of Rouen, we pulled into a petrol station forecourt to have a breather and I told Julie that I didn’t think I could continue.
Knowing when to make that very difficult call to scratch during an event – and being happy with your decision to do so – is a very personal experience. Except that when you’re competing as pair you’re not just making that decision for yourself – you also have your race partner to consider.
Julie didn’t put up much of a fight. She was still feeling sick despite our long rest at Lyons-La-Foret and as we’d only been using one Garmin on my bike for most of the day, without a route to follow she was also feeling pretty demotivated. She’d been keeping quiet about how she’d been feeling because of my determination to keep going, and because she knew the feeling would probably pass, but now that she didn’t have to keep going I think she was happy that I’d made the decision for both of us.
So at around 7pm, only 21 hours after setting off and with around a quarter of the distance covered, we officially scratched from the race. We cycled back toward the outskirts of Rouen to find a hotel, take stock of the days events and think about what we should do for the remainder of our trip now that we were no longer racing.
That night in the hotel was difficult for me. As I played the day’s events over and over in my mind I was annoyed at myself for not replacing the cables before the race and for not winding my barrel adjuster in enough once the cable had snapped. I was also angry at myself for giving in and not pushing on further, for doubting my own ability to continue. Other people ride events like this on single-speed bikes, why couldn’t I? But the decision had been made and it was pointless beating myself up over it. The most important thing was that we were both safe and well.
As Julie and I talked it through I think we both realised that that the biggest mistake we’d made was underestimating the race itself. We’d both made the assumption that a three-day race would somehow be easier than a longer event but in many respects a shorter race is tougher as there’s much less wiggle room if something goes wrong and less of a chance to make up the lost time.
I have to believe that I made the right decision to scratch. We went on to get my bike fixed the next day at a brilliant bike shop in Rouen. I guess if we’d have continued trying to race we wouldn’t have visited that great little shop and I could’ve spent the remainder of our trip riding around with two gears and sore legs. Instead we made our way back to Bayeaux at a much more leisurely pace with a full complement of gears and much happier knees.
The following day we rode out to what would have been our final control at St. Vaast and had lunch at the seaside before heading back to attend the finisher’s dinner despite not ‘finishing’. That turned out to be a great morale-boosting decision for us both as we discovered that we were’t the only competitors to have scratched and it was reassuring to chat with other riders who were experiencing the same emotions that we were feeling.
Despite not finishing the Normandicat I still really enjoyed the part of the race that we managed to complete. The event organiser, Xavier, and his army of volunteers who made sure we were all looked after and well fed, should be proud of what they have created. The event took us through some of the loveliest parts of Normandy and the checkpoints that Xavier has chosen are quirky and interesting. It’s just a shame that we only got the chance to visit half of them.
I hope to be back again next year to see the other half and finish what we started – complete with new cables. That’s one mistake I won’t make again in a hurry.
Sometimes the best way to learn a new skill is to just throw yourself in at the deep end and figure it out along the way and that’s exactly what I did last Saturday at the Dirty Reiver.
At the start of the year I compiled my list of goals for the year ahead, one of which was getting to grips with gravel. In order to help me achieve my goals I like a challenge to work towards so, way back in January, entering the Reiver seemed like just the ticket.
If you’re wondering what I’m on about, The Dirty Reiver is a 200km gravel ride that takes place in and around Kielder Forest, Northumberland. The route traverses a mixture of surfaces, including a little bit of tarmac and hard-packed trail, but it’s mainly comprised of the gravel tracks and fire access roads that criss-cross the huge forested area that spans the English and Scottish border. There’s also a shorter event, The Dirty 130, but I don’t generally do things by halves – if I can ride 130km of the stuff then I can ride 200 – so I got myself entered for the big one. With four whole months to train for it what could possibly go wrong?
I figured I’d need a bit of moral support for this one as I knew I’d probably be a bit out of my depth skills-wise. And anyway, these kinds of challenges are always much more fun when shared so I convinced a few of my workmates, who are all way more accomplished at riding off-road than me, to enter it too. Teamwork can be a great motivator and I’d be able to share my endurance knowledge with them while they helped my out with my technique.
So the four-month plan was to get myself sorted with a gravel bike and for ‘Team ReCycle’ to get out into the Peak together for plenty of pre-event practise but thanks to the great British weather things didn’t quite turn out the way I’d hoped. Despite having a lovely new Kinesis Tripster AT to play out on, courtesy of the lads at Tony Butterworth’s Cycles, I didn’t get out for any of those team practice rides we’d planned and by the end of March I was feeling thoroughly undertrained and underskilled. I knew that my road endurance training would see me through the distance without any problem even though riding 200km on-road is certainly way easier than the same distance off.
I finally managed to fit in my one and only off-road practise ride during the first week in April at Cannock Chase in a bid to shake down the bike set-up, but it was a wet and muddy day and l lost a bit of confidence on the downhill sections. Instead of letting the bike do the work for me and rolling over the loose ground I kept putting my foot down and, on a few occasions, had to get off altogether and push. It knew it was all in my head and that I needed to force myself to be a bit braver, go a little faster and trust the bike more but it was easier said than done.
Fast forward to Saturday morning – over 600 riders massed at the start line for a 7.30am kick-off. To say I was nervous would be a huge understatement, I was flipping terrified of being completely rubbish, holding the lads up and having to push my bike all the way around the course. My three teammates, Ed, Dave and Sam, just couldn’t get their heads around my anxiety. To them I’m accomplished endurance rider who pedals 1000’s of kilometres a year. They were all worried about completing the 200 km distance but that was the least of my worries – just staying upright was my main goal of the day.
We’d decided that we were going to ride as a team and try not to take it too seriously. The name of the game was to get around together and have fun. Although we’d all planned to ride the full distance, if we didn’t meet the 130km cut-off we weren’t going to beat ourselves up about it too much. We were pretty much the last to leave the start line – we were even given a two-minute warning to get going – but we were soon catching up with riders on the first climb. I was trying to hold back because I knew that they’d all come flying past me again on the way back down.
I found those first couple of rocky descents to be the most technically challenging of the whole ride. I had to put my foot down once or twice but I made sure that I kept over to the left so that the faster riders had plenty of room to come through. Thankfully I wasn’t the only dodgy descender, someone behind me got off and pushed and seeing that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t so out of my depth after all.
Despite being a chilly morning first-thing – our tents had ice on them when we woke up – after a couple of climbs we were all overheating and had to stop and peel a few layers off. The forecast had predicted a warm, sunny day so it was hard to dress appropriately and we’d all packed way too many clothes into our frame bags, alongside tubes of suncream. We were prepared for all eventualities!
After those first rocky descents the terrain became much more gravelly and easier for me to negotiate. The lads were all much faster at descending and I was worried about being left behind so I couldn’t stop to think about it too much. I just had to trust the bike and, sure enough, as I picked up speed my big tyres rolled over all the lumps and bumps. I started to realise that speed is my friend and let the bike go a bit more.
During the first 50km we were faffing about a bit, not really concentrating on the route much, soaking up the forest views while chatting away. So it wasn’t too surprising that we managed to get ourselves completely off-route for a kilometre or so. A marshal’s pick-up truck passed us travelling in the opposite direction and the driver asked us if we were happy with the way we were going. I replied with a cheery “yes, thanks!” and we carried on pedalling but a further 200 metres or so down the road I turned to Sam and said, “hang on a minute, that was a weird question to ask us if we’re going the right way. Do you think we might’ve gone wrong?”
My Garmin said that we were ‘off-course’ but we were still following the breadcrumb trail on the screen so I assumed it was just doing one of those temperamental things that Garmins do. I thought I’d better check again so I quickly u-turned, pedalled back to the pick-up and asked the marshal whether he’d asked us that because he thought we might be going the wrong way.
“Yes,” he replied, “There’s a loop on this part of the course and you’ve missed the turning!”.
I’m not sure why he didn’t just tell us we’d gone the wrong way in the first place, but we now had a bit of catching up to do in order to get back on the course, passing all the riders that we’d already passed at least once that morning.
Around 30 km I bumped into TCR buddy of mine, V, along the route. It was lovely to see her and we had a bit of a catch-up while pedalling along, both having a moan about how undertrained we were feeling. We were riding on wide, rolling fire roads and there weren’t many other riders around us so we could ride together side by side for while but the lads were already leaving me behind again so I had to press on. I was playing catch-up again, riding a little bit faster and growing ever more confident as I thought less about what I was doing in an effort to keep up and get back on their wheels.
It took us four hours to ride the first 50 km to the first feed station and I think we were all a bit surprised how long it had taken us, even with our little detour. We’d all pretty much decided that we were going to try to make the 130km cut-off in time to complete the full 200 which meant that we had to start pedalling a bit quicker so after a few snacks, a good old cup of tea and a refill of water bottles we were on our way again. The day was really hotting up so all the clothes were coming off and the suncream was going on. Out poor little frame bags were full to bursting.
Along the next section of the route we had to cross a ford. Dave rode through it first but fell off just before he got across to the other side. Sam and Ed didn’t really fare much better so I ended up bottling it completely and just paddling my way through. I figured it would be better to just have two wet feet rather than a whole wet body!
There were quite a few tarmacked sections during the next 50 km as the route left the forest and headed out over moorland bridleways and country lanes so we made really good time, arriving at the second feed station by 1.30pm. At this pace we knew we’d easily make it to the 130km marker before the cut-off time of 5.30pm so we could afford to spend a little more time here. I hung out in the shade inside the Alpkit teepee wringing out my soggy socks while stuffing my face with sandwiches and little pots of chilli and rice.
The section between between feed stops two and three took us back into the forest and was actually part of NCN Route 10, the Reivers Cycle Route. If I’d accidentally stumbled across this route on my road bike I certainly wouldn’t have thanked the NCN route planners much as it was really rough gravel and quite hard-going even with 40c tyres. We criss-crossed over the border into Scotland and back a couple of times and the tall trees provided us with a bit of much-needed shade from the hot afternoon sun.
My Fizik Luna X5 saddle is actually an MTB saddle and it really came into its own on this section of the course. I could feel it flexing underneath me as I bounced around on the uneven surface. I’m so used to grinding out long hours in the saddle on the road that I’d not really thought through how much more dynamic the upper body is when riding on rough surfaces. My whole body was feeling much more fatigued than it would usually feel at this distance.
By now the temperature had risen over 20 degrees and the heat was taking its toll on me. I was struggling a bit and could feel a headache coming on, a tell-tale sign of dehydration. It was a shortsighted move on my part to only bring one water bottle on the ride but usually at this time of year I’d be just fine on a long ride with one bottle with the chance to refill it every 50km. By 120km I had almost drunk the contents of my bottle and still had another 30 km to the final feed station. Thankfully Dave had some spare water that he shared with me to keep me going.
Our hot, bouncy, water-rationed afternoon was given a much-needed morale booster courtesy of the awesome Bananaman. His cheering, cowbell-ringing, high-fiving, all-round encouragement really lifted our spirits and pushed us on to feed stop number three and my favourite of the day. Alongside the usual crisps, sweets and flapjacks, Pannier.cc were providing cheesy potatoes and freshly aeropressed coffee. I wanted to stay there forever and helped myself to two rounds of potatoes and three cups of strong coffee.
By the time we were back on the trail we were all sufficiently wired on coffee to push on for the final 55km. Mentally, I found the 20kms after the final feed station the hardest of the whole ride. This section was really undulating with climbs that just kept on coming. We were right in the heart of the dense forest so there was nothing to look at but gravel and tall conifers as we climbed and descended to find more yet gravel and more trees around every bend.
In hindsight I think I had way too much air in my tyres but I was too worried about puncturing to stop and deflate them a little. The gravelly surface had become quite corrugated in places and my forearms were throbbing as I tried to pull on the brakes while descending, so just stopped braking, which actually made everything feel better. By 150km I was descending much faster and feeling much more confident. Most of the descents on the fire roads had wide, long run-outs so I had enough time to slow down before making a turn and It felt like I was finally getting to grips with this gravel stuff.
Just as I was reaching maximum gravel / conifer saturation point, the view opened up and Kielder Water appeared in front of us. The sun was starting to go down and the light over the reservoir was just breathtaking. It was all that we needed to give us that lift in spirits for final push to the finish. There were so many beautiful photo opportunities as we wound our way around the water’s edge but I had to resist the urge to keep stopping.
We descended onto the waterside trail which was full of ups and downs, twists and turns, that kept us on our toes and our speed in check. We’d keep seeing the odd tyre tracks skidding out into the trees on the bends where riders before us had been travelling too fast and lost it. We emerged from the trees and crossed the dam wall, pausing for a moment to capture the evening light across the water before heading back into the trees again and around the other side of the reservoir.
A few kilometres from the finish we found ourselves back on that stretch of road that we’d already ridden once, so much earlier in the day, before the marshall had turned us around. A little stretch of tarmac was a welcome relief to my poor, throbbing forearms but before long we were back on the gravel again, this time heading in the right direction, and back into the forest for the final time.
We emerged from the trees, rounded a bend and suddenly realised we were pedalling back up the short climb to Kielder castle, trying hard to sprint up on heavy, tired legs but not really succeeding as there was nothing left in them. We were greeted by cheers, cowbells and a very welcome bottle of beer, crossing the line just after 8.30pm with an official time of 12 hours and 52 minutes. I was just glad we’d make it back before dark!
I was super-happy with myself for keeping up with the lads, overcoming my fear of descending, staying upright for 200km and actually riding all of the course rather than pushing my bike around it as I initially feared I might have to.
Would I have done anything differently? Well, yes – I should’ve taken two water bottles as you can’t just nip to a shop to fill one up when you’re in the middle of a forest. I should’ve run my tyres at lower pressures to save my throbbing arms and I shouldn’t have taken the distance for granted because 200 km on gravel takes its toll on your whole body way more than the same distance on tarmac.
Having three teammates to keep up with and chase after really gave me a focus and prevented me from over-thinking the descents. I just had to trust in my bike and let it roll – just letting it go made all the difference and my confidence grew with every kilometre. I couldn’t have asked for a better day, a better bike or better company. It is such a well-organised and friendly event and worth every penny of the entry fee.
So If you’re thinking of having a go at a gravel event, or something similar that’s out of your comfort zone, then entering a crazy, long event is certainly one way to do it. You might not have a clue what you’re doing at the start but after 200km, if you’re still standing at the end, then you’ve probably nailed it.
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…