The PCR 2021 full route had a huge amount of elevation at 27,507m over 1995km derived mainly from rather short sharp 12-20%+ type gradients rather than long steady alpine style gradients. Certainly not the type of terrain that plays to my physical strengths.
In my earlier post Operation Mont Ventoux I recounted my ride of the classic Bedouin route up Mont Ventoux in April 2018. I got the job done but all didn’t unfold quite as I might have wished. I knew then that I would be returning at some point.
There are 3 road routes to choose from with the most famous being the ascent from Bedouin that I’d ridden in 2018 but one of the more extreme challenges on offer is to ride all 3 routes up in a single day. People who complete this get to call themselves “Les Cingles de Mont Ventoux” or roughly “Crazies of Mont Ventoux’.
You can join the club before the ride and buy a €20 card to confirm completion if you want. A browse of the club listings shows that many in their 70’s and 80’s have completed this challenge. The eldest being an inspiring 86 years of age. That’s really quite impressive and encouraging! I’m 60 now so it’s nice to consider that I’ve got so many more crazy years left.
To be the full double crazy, you can ride all 3 routes twice within 24hrs and become a “Bicingles”. (The eldest listed club graduate being 67…ummm 😉 )
Why though? Why put yourself through any of this?
It’s a question I often ask myself. Why is the idea of an ultra difficult or long ride feel more inspiring to me than something far more relaxed and casual? Do I actually enjoy suffering?
Well what is suffering? Enduring mental or physical pain and discomfort is a loose dictionary definition but this can extend to feeling wretched, racked or desperate. Ultra cycling has yet to give me feelings of wretchedness or despair.
Certainly I’ve experienced or suffered plenty of physical pain and discomfort on long rides but mentally and emotionally I’ve felt more charged and alive than during many far “easier” times.
There’s a popular saying “Nothing worth doing was ever easy” I think this can be misinterpreted.
Examples are offered of successful entrepreneurs working endless long hours or famous musicians or athletes practicing for 10,000+ hours. My point is that these people were inspired to spend these endless hours mastering their skill and attaining their goals; it wasn’t suffering or hard for them even though it may have exacted a toll on them and their families.
The drive necessary for their endeavours came naturally to them and they naturally refused to give up or stop; nobody forced them.
To me, suffering is being forced to do something against my will or better judgment.
Choosing to undertake a challenge, no matter how difficult, is a very different thing. It may require a lot of training and “work” but the essential thing is that you or I chose to and were inspired to do it.
As soon as you fully commit to a new challenge, however large or small, you can feel a shift, a change within. Nothing is ever quite the same again, life moves within you, focus and drive become enhanced.
Doing the easy, familiar or comfortable never summons life through you in quite the same way.
The only suffering I feel is from the mental anguish of second guessing myself about any of the above!
It was early June 2019 and I was deep in training and preparation for the Transcontinental Race No7 in late July, quite unaware that I wasn’t actually going to end up racing it.
This June weekend also jmarked the start of the Transatlantic Way ride in Ireland. An event I’ve ridden twice and ideally would have been riding again if time had permitted. Perfect excuse for my own solo companion adventure challenge then. Fine weather and light winds were forecasted for Ventoux so all was well for the weekend.
The challenge was this:
Ride from La Ciotat to near Ventoux on Friday night. Bivi somewhere, and then ride all 3 Ventoux road routes on my loaded bike before riding back to La Ciotat on Sunday.
There’s something special about setting off into the evening on a new adventure; riding into the night and the unknown. I feel a mix of anticipation with a hint of trepidation, the excitement of the new and the fear of the unknown. Start time was 19:25.
Knowing the stresses lying ahead for me I rode this approach very steadily, making a particular point of not burning my energy reserves by charging up any of the many hills or by riding too fast.
The night was warm with temps between 15 -22c and an average of 18c. Still 2 x 900ml bottles was water weren’t going to see me through the ride and keep fully hydrated. Thankfully I was able to re-stock at a Pizza van with a cold Coke and a free water top up. No pizza was required as I’d had a big feed before I set off.
The night wore on with the traffic steadily diminishing; all was peaceful and well.
I knew my approximate destination for the night, 127km in and shortly before a bakery at Pernes les Fontaines that opens bright an early for breakfast.
I rolled into a field a little way down a turning off the main road shortly after 02:00. After a quick wet wipe wash and snack I settled down in my bivi under the stars for a few hours kip. Perfect.
This was training not racing so no need for any serious lack of sleep, that would not help. Around 5 hours later I was awake and enjoying the morning view across the poly tunnels.
More feelings of trepidation. Am I really going to do this? Ah you mad, Chris? Yes, and quite possibly. I had no real doubt however.
Still the important matter of sustenance needed to be attended to before the physical stuff got serious.
I suspect that France may have more bakeries per capita then any other country. There are so many and most serve as an excellent stop for the travelling cyclist with easy access and the ability to keep a close eye on your trusty steed while you re-supply.
I’m particularly fond of the energy rich and protein packed quiches. On this occasion I had a pizza style baguette and a quiche. No concerns about race weight this weekend!
After my leisurely start and breakfast it was close to 09:00 as I rode the final approach to Bedouin. An increasing number of cyclist rode past or were seen to be preparing by their cars and vans. This was it…
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I’d made the previous year and end up overheating so I duly removed leg and arm warmers and I should have removed my base layer as well but at this point it was still quite cool.
I knew what was ahead and what sort of power I was likely to be able to manage all day, basically around 200w, however, the Bedouin route has some steeper sections that make keeping my output this low impossible. I needed 250w+ to keep moving on some sections. Still, the ride up went far better than on my previous attempt even with temps in the high 20’s.
This main route is quite a circus with an endless stream on cyclists, runners, motor cyclists and cars of all shapes and sizes. I saw one guy on an old rusty and truly antique single speed bike making very respectable progress. Then there were the large men on e-mountain bikes riding triumphantly past me. No matter, I wasn’t racing and was on a very different agenda. It’s a relentless climb with no flat recovery stretches and then, once the end comes into sight, it is still actually far further away than it looks. Hence it’s fame and allure.
The heat was now getting quite intense for me with sweat pouring off and my water supplies running low but all was ok, it was just a tough climb and I duly made the summit at 12:50. Well past midday, one climb completed, non stop, but slowly at about 2hr 45min, a far cry from Chris Froome’s 55mins!
My slow start was going to make for a long afternoon and evening but it was a wonderful day with a great atmosphere so no rush.
Now to top up with seriously overpriced Coke and water before heading down to Malaucene for lunch before climb number 2.
This was a joyous descent and soon I was in town grabbing some supermarket convenience food. I was seriously hungry and a little chilled from the descent in spite of the high temps.
Sandwiches, protein rich salad and fresh berries. Convenience fuel with a hint of healthiness.
The climb from Malaucene was my favourite, its still tough but prettier and much quieter than the famed Bedouin route. By now however the sun was high with temps well into the 30c’s. Roasting.
I couldn’t comprehend some of the riders passing me with just a single water bottle. How acclimatised must they be?
I remember one guy passing me less than half way up, in a heavy sweat, and with his single bottle only half full. I passed him later as he sheltered from the sun under a tree. I never saw him again.
Some riders paused to chat to me and looked suitably quizzical when I explained what I was up to. Cingle…
My second climb was completed at about 17:30 and with the summit now much cooler and quieter. Just in time to purchase more overpriced Coke fuel from the little shop on top before it closed.
One more to go then. I was a bit tired for sure but not suffering in any way. My power meter suggested that my pacing strategy was working well and had me steadily outputting around 200w on the climbs. All was fine and much to my relief temps were dropping.
Down to Sault then for more food and the final, easiest climb. This last climb felt quite fast though it still took around 2hr 20min. My power data shows that I managed a normalised power of 203w and an average heart rate of 127bpm which was greatly helped by the lower temps averaging at 17c as opposed to the 29c average of the previous climb with a 130bpm average heart rate and lower 196w normalised power.
I barely saw anyone riding up here.
I reached the summit at 21:45 and with no option for more Coke fuel and rapidly dropping temps it was time to skedaddle back to Bedouin sharpish and find some nosh.
It was 7c now and breezy, I was rapidly getting chilled. Leg warmers, arm warmers, quilted gilet, wind jacket, gloves on. Descend
Another exciting descent in the rapidly darkening but moonlit night. I just had to pause to take the photo above.
The descent wasn’t drama free. First I got hit by a bat squarely in the head, which made me jump but caused no other damage. Shortly after several deer ran across the road and scared the bejesus out of me and I them. I rode on very cautiously, relying heavily on my brakes!
Finally, back in Bedouin, I found a closing Pizza restaurant that kindly made me 2 pizzas. One probably would’ve been enough but I still devoured all but a couple of slices of the two. My mistake, however, was in ordering one with pepperoni. This stayed with me through the night and again the next day as I ate the remaining slices for first breakfast.
I was feeling good and a tad triumphant about the completion of my mission. I, briefly, seriously considered continuing back to La Ciotat though the night but I was cold and with the next 30 or so km predominantly down hill warming up again seemed far too much like hard work. No need for heroics anyway.
I rode out of town and found another field for the night.
Dawn announced it’s presence with some loud, unexpected rain drops and moody clouds.
It was a fine relaxed ride home though, not withstanding a few rain showers. A pleasant average temp of 27c meant made for few issues with getting wet and I was back by the beach in La Ciotat at 15:23 ready for a shower, more food and a well earned drink or two in town later.
Yes, it would have been far easier not to have ridden this but riding it wasn’t suffering by any stretch and I’m surely richer for the experience.
Surprisingly, in the days that followed I felt physically better than ever. A grumbling ITB issue vanished, my often aching neck felt way better. It seemed I’d had some kind of physical purge.
I felt happier and more contented as well. Perhaps the saying should be
“Why settle for easy when you could thrive on difficult?”
Welcome to the second and final chapter recounting my 2018 TAWR journey.
In part 1 I covered my exhilarating dash to make the Kilrush ferry on day four, the Sunday evening. Arriving there in a credible 9th position.
If everything had carried on to plan then I only had a little over 2 days to go. Everything did not carry on to plan.
There was something special about that ferry ride for me. When you enter one of these events you become part of a tribe, a unique band of brothers and sisters, with an unspoken kind of camaraderie. There were just four of us who had made that 19:00 ferry. These were my comrades. Pawel Pulawski, grinning, but suffering with saddle sores. Matt Ryan, looking far to fresh but also dealing with a grumbling achilles. David Tomlinson, looking absolutely shattered, and myself, suffering with saddle sores and looking rather old I imagine.
We spent the short crossing huddled in a sheltered rest area comparing tales, struggles and plans. Pawel and Matt were going to ride on at the other side, David and I were heading straight to whatever B&B’s we could find. Then that was it, a brief spell of companionship ended and we went our merry ways.
I found a very closed looking B&B just minutes away from the ferry and checked in. The helpful landlady directed me to a secure place for my bike and I duly unloaded and went to the Spar next door to re-stock on fuel. I think I also found a chippy but I don’t recall clearly.
In TAW 2017 I had suffered with minor saddle sores, no great drama. I’d say about equal to how my backside was on the end of day 3 of this TAW18. In 2017 my shorts were getting a lot of rain rinsing and also had a thinner chamois pad. This year I’d invested in a high end set of bibs with a thick “endurance” pad. 2018 had, so far, been relentlessly hot and sweaty with no rain rinsing and I’d relied almost solely on wet wipes and chamois cream for cleanliness. Poor plan!
On reflection I think the thicker pad just makes for more movement or rub against the skin and holds moisture. I’ve heard others say a thick pad and/or more cushioned saddle causes more problems and this certainly reflects my experience. I’ll keep experimenting but I think two pairs of shorts, regular rinsing and a thinner or even no pad could be the way forward.
03:18 and I push start on my Wahoo Elemnt….. OUUUCH! Oh how my bum hurts, I can barely cope with any saddle pressure. Time to get macho! If I can just stay fully planted in the saddle then I know the pain will ease or I shall become accustomed to it at least. Easier said than done.
This was such a struggle and it seemed I was constantly stopping to apply cream. “Ummm, this is becoming a real issue…” After repeated wet wipe and cream sessions I finally had the bright idea of placing wet wipes in my shorts! It was as if I’d found the holy grail! Pain drastically reduced, I could ride in the saddle. Still uncomfortably, but I could do it. Eureka!
The tracker reveals that I rode past the sleeping forms of Matt and David just before they got underway. Off to Dingle we shall go!
Again my memory is vague and I recall little other than a painful backside and increasingly numb, tingly, fingers. It must have been early to mid afternoon when I first noticed my neck feeling weak.
Oh no! This was at more or less the exact same point that it had given out last year. I knew the symptoms, could read the warnings and see into the future…ease the strain on your neck or it’ll be a repeat of last year and ride over.
T bars were duly banned and I rode as sit up and beg as I could manage. This just put more pressure on my sore backside! Doh²!
David Tomlinson reeled me in at the Gap Of Dunloe. He looked in far better shape than he had at the ferry and after riding together awhile he finally took off into the distance. Leaving me tootling along in my neck easing position.
Not long after Matt arrived and abused me for setting away too early after the ferry. 🤣 Matt and I had some laughs on this ride. He’s a very good natured chap really.
We made it to Sneem moments before the general stores closed.
Matt duly charmed the ladies therein to make us instant coffees as the regular coffee machine was switched off. He later went on to tell me off for not saying please over something… it was quite comical, the banter we had going.
Sadly though, I knew my race with Matt was done along with any chance of a top ten placing. I simply had to make a long stop to rest my neck or face a repeat of 2017 and be forced to scratch from the race. I wished him well and away he rode to finish his adventure.
Resting was an easy decision as I feel strongly about staying safe and responsible on these events, on public roads. In 2017 I’d ridden quite some distance with the back of my helmet cable tied to my jacket as a way of stopping my head falling forward. Don’t do things like this people; no contraptions, no neck braces. If you cannot hold your head up and look readily in all directions then you’ve no business riding a bike on a public road.
It was near 22:00 when I knocked on the door of a nearby B&B. The landlady eventually answered in her nightgown and looking confused, grudgingly, showed me to a room.
“Did I want breakfast?” Maybe (I hoped to sleep long past breakfast)
“How long did I want to stay?” Not sure
She frowned; clearly not used to such vague, indecisive, guests.
Needless to say I didn’t manage to sleep past breakfast. Yes I was tired but I was also in the middle of a race and feeling a little hyper and raring to go. My idea was for a 24 hour stop with lots of good food, yoga and rest. Still, it was a struggle to stay put.
I saw the very helpful village pharmacist and got some antibiotic, steroidal, cream for my saddle sores and some more wet wipes. I re-charged my power bank and devices, hung my washed clothes out to dry and tried to get more sleep. I exchanged a couple of messages with an unlucky Karen Tostee who was stranded a little way up the road waiting for a mechanic to sort out her jammed, broken gear cable.
I then had another go at sleep. Fail
I pressed start on my Wahoo at 13:17 meaning that I’d had about 16 hours rest. It was time to complete the Ring Of Kerry, one of the very finest parts of the route, achingly beautiful and great riding.
Things were feeling really tough now, my sores were sore, my hands were numb and though my neck was holding steady I felt as if I was riding with the brakes on. I missed the fresh form I’d had earlier in the race.
Molls Gap arrived and I enlisted the support of a animal spirit guide! The late collie dog, Molly, that had been the very best of companions to a good friend of mine. Molly would have totally owned Molls Gap, she wasn’t one for sharing with other dogs!
I pictured Molly trotting along with me, shedded a tear or two but drew on her indomitable spirit to inspire and balance my spirits. Thanks Molly.
Awhile later a congenial Alex Hill turned up and we rode much of the rest of Molls Gap chatting together.
I settled in for another night shift and rode on through until 05:00 and a little past Cluin Allihies. Strangely I just don’t recall my bivi spot, the tracker simply shows me in a field.
Away again a little after 07:00 and off to Lambs Head where I met up with Paul Alderson, fellow competitor from 2017 who was using this TAWR as training for his Transcontinental Race campaign in July and not pressing on too hard.
Selfie time. Ragged but happy.
This was to become storm Hector day with some proper Wild Atlantic Way weather. I didn’t mind as it only seemed proper. I felt the rest of the riders had had it too easy with all this sunshine. Truly, they were missing out on the full TAWR experience.
Further silliness. At some point along the N71 I developed a very painful muscle in my right thigh that made pedalling with that leg really difficult. I just could not find any stretch that would get into it. In desperation I called my wife, who’s something of a yoga expert.
So ensued a really comical time with me rolling about on the road side trying different stretches and giggling manically. At one point a lady pulled over to check I was ok and timed it just as I was chanting “I’m such a manly man!” 🤣 Sadly though, stretching wasn’t helping.
I stopped at a supermarket cafe somewhere near Doonemark to rest and take stock on my situation. A hot meal was very welcome after the wet ride I’d been having. Jeremy Koijmans also arrived and I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t enjoying the wet weather anywhere near as much as me! He suggested I elevate my leg as that may help ease the pain off.
I worked out that I’d been riding in a way that had me almost back pedalling in an attempt to reduce the pressure on my sores and these particular muscles weren’t trained for that. Boo!
I’d taken Ibuprofen for the sores pain a day or two back but didn’t want to be filling myself with painkillers for days on end. I’m certain it’s not good for you. So, ignore pain, soldier on, painkiller free.
The weather got properly wild for the rest of the day with driving rain and howling winds. Yes! Proper Atlantic weather, call me mad but I love it. I met Jeremy again and he certainly wasn’t feeling as inspired by the weather and rode off grumbling. No matter.
Some slow wet kilometres further and I made it to the top of the ascent on the Sheep’s Head peninsular. The point at which I’d abandoned the race the year previously. It was an emotional moment that reinforced my determination to finish. It was just me and the route now, no racing, just keep making progress, hold it together till the end.
I made it to the tiny village of Kilcrohane at about 19:00 and in atrocious weather but noted some good bivi spots near the pub. Ok, out to the headland and back before a pub dinner and sheltered bivi, I might even have a Guinness! I had it all planned.
The ride out along the headland was brutal with driving rain and headwinds and of course not aided by my many pains. It was worth it at the end though as the wind whistling round the buildings was insane. I leant my back into it and held 18kg of loaded bike in front of me and it blew out in front like a flag. I couldn’t work out how to take a selfie of that.
The ride back to Kilcrohane was swift with the strong tailwind. To the pub! Pah! No food served, “…you have to go to the B&B, that’s the only place offering food.” Oh well if I must; it felt like a bit of a cheat though.
Still I did really need some recovery time to aid my failing, ageing, body. A hearty meal, sleep and leisurely full Irish breakfast had me set for the final push to the Kinsale finish.
The storm had past and it was a beautiful sunny day but I was in a lot of pain. Just 206km to go but I ended up averaging a lowly 16.6kph and it took me 12.5 moving hours in 17 elapsed.
I could barely ride with my one functioning leg and as the day past the same muscle in the other leg began to lock up as well. I became steadily slower and was forced to walk on many hills as I simply couldn’t pedal with any strength.
I was still moving however and all I could do was keep re-framing the situation according to my changing circumstances. I plodded along pushing my bike as the sun set. Strangely, I had a tremendous sense of well being in spite of my difficulties.
Here I was strolling freely on a beautiful summer’s evening in southwestern Ireland. Many people travel from all over the world to enjoy similar. My issues were self inflicted, there was nothing to feel hard done by about.
Still, I cannot say I enjoyed watching the steady stream of riders passing me by.
As the night wore on I was fully ready for it all to end. The kilometres ticked by ever slower and there seemed to be a relentless succession of hills that often had to be walked. Earlier, I’d passed people relaxing on pub terraces having dinner and thought how lovely that would be.
Stupidly, I’d disabled the “climbing” page on my Wahoo some months previously. This screen provides an elevation profile of your route so that you can see what lays ahead and how far up a climb you are (I’d figured that not knowing was er..”character building”). I think I’d built enough character by now. Just keep moving Chris!
Around 03:00 on Friday 15th June I literally limped into Kinsale, totally spent. I laughed at the sight of the final short and very steep climb to the finish at the holiday village. Race director Adrian must have been delighted when he saw that. There was no way I could ride up there no matter how much I wanted to. As it was I had to pause half way whilst walking!
I’d made it though, I had made it, and I suppose a mid 40’s placing isn’t too shabby for an old bloke anyway.
Still, I have unfinished business with this ride. One day I’ll have a solid clear run at it with no neck troubles. Not 2019 though, I have other ideas for that.
Trackleaders gives race statisics:
Moving time: 5:04:03
Stopped time: 2:12:54
Average daily distance: 292.1km
Moving average: 18.2kph
reflections, what did I learn?
- Any physical issue you have has a knock on effect to other areas of your body as you compensate for it. Particularly saddle discomfort as it tends to make you place more weight on your hands, arms and legs, leading to nerve damage, numb fingers and in my case also trashed legs.
- Self care and recovery are critical. Stay on top of your aches and pains, a ten or twenty minute stop to adjust bike fit, stretch, ease tyre pressures or rinse your shorts could save your race.
- I’m 59 not 29 and I need to make better allowance for that but without giving into age as being an excuse. How do I really need to pace myself for this or say a two week event? Would longer rest stops ease my problem neck for instance? I’ve much to learn.
- Yes, I still love these rides/races.
Some months have passed now since I completed TAWR 2018. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the event and what I’ve learned. The time is right to share my perspective.
This is written in two parts as I approached and experienced the race/ride as two distinct phases.
- Phase 1 make it to the ferry by Sunday night, day 4.
- Phase 2 make it to the finish as quickly as possible.
TAW 2017 was my first ever ultra endurance cycle event and I ended up retiring or “scratching” from the race just 300km from the finish and in an astounding, to me, 6th place. This was due to what’s known as Shermer’s neck whereby your neck muscles become so fatigued that they can no longer adequately support your head whilst cycling.
This condition is very dangerous when descending hills in particular as it becomes impossible to see where you’re going. You’re a serious danger to yourself and other road users. (Another rider in this years TAW and suffering from this ended up cartwheeling off the road into a field. He was very lucky to escape serious injury)
TAW 2018 presented a different set of challenges because race director Adrian O’Sullivan had altered the course to include a ferry trip across the Shannon. I saw this as having the effect of making it two races in one. Those who made it to the ferry before the last ferry on the Sunday (Day 4) night would have about a 10 hour advantage over those behind that missed the last ferry. Race two was within the group that made that Sunday ferry.
The challenge of reaching this ferry really piqued my imagination and inspired me. I knew it was a hard task and looking at my progress in TAW 2017 revealed that I made it to near the ferry terminal on the Monday (Day 5) at around 18:00. Basically I needed to shave about 24 hours off my 2017 time to cover a similar distance. Eeek!
I knew from my 2017 race that I could certainly ride more efficiently and I was also wiser about re-supply options and many other aspects of making progress. So, there it was, my challenge, make the last ferry on Sunday and then secondly make it to the finish.
My technique is to split the GPS route into ambitious but theoretically achievable day length targets. I use RideWithGPS for planning this as it offers me estimated times based on the terrain and my ride history.
The ambitious results look like so:
- Dublin to Buncrana – 363km
- Buncrana to Ballina – 428km
- Ballina to Costelloe – 428km
- Costelloe to Tralee – 294km
- Tralee to Kenmare – 367km
- Kenmare to Kinsale – 390km
I work best with high targets that I may fail to make rather than with sensible targets that I hope to surpass or absolutely have to make. You’ll notice that day 4 is shorter and you should note that Tralee is some 85km further on than the Kilrush ferry; this is the “cushion” in my planning. In hindsight I really think I should have planned more achievable days rather than trying to truly outdo myself!
The end result to the ferry was:
- Dublin to Buncrana – 363km, 15hr 28min moving time, 17hr 30min elapsed.
- Bunncrana to Skreen – 372km, 17hr 25min moving time, 19hr 44min elapsed.
- Skreen to Check Point 2 – 357km, 15hr 50min moving time, 18hr elapsed.
- CP 2 to Kilrush ferry – 315km, 13hr 26min moving time, 15hr 13min elapsed.
- Total duration from race start to ferry including sleep: 3 days 8 hours 30min
- Total moving time: 2d 14hr 9min
- Total elapsed time: 2d 22hr 27min
- Total fully stopped / sleep time: 10hrs 3min
I am pretty proud of this achievement I have to say.
No wonder I looked and felt knackered.
(I also felt extremely content!)
How those 4 days unfolded and my later refections
Coach Martin Burrows had done an excellent job in periodising my training up to the event. I was raring to go with all indications suggesting that I was about 10% stronger than the year previous. It was to be a staggered start organised alphabetically by first name, which meant I was in the first group away, accompanied by race favourites Bernd Paul and Bjorn Lenhard and so it was that I set off directly behind those two and 4th place finisher Aidan Allcock.
I could maintain their pace but I knew that I could not maintain it for more than a few hours so I eased back and let them ride off. It wasn’t long before I was riding alone, then surprisingly Bjorn rode past me, seems I had a better route! Then it was Karen Tostee who whizzed by with a smile. Awhile later she went by again, “I want your route” she said!
I knew that the only way I was going to make my target was to ride the 230km to Derry as close to non-stop as possible. I had 3 x 950ml of water and juice mix plus 2 Cokes and I think a Lucozade, as well as various snack bars. It was hot for Ireland though with temps in the high 20’s. This meant I didn’t have enough fluids for me to do this distance in these conditions but I didn’t want to stop either. As luck would have it I rode past a chap hosing his front garden who kindly let me top up my bottles with barely a pause. Result!
Karen rode past again! She’d stopped to refuel, that lady is quick and if it hadn’t been for some mechanical and other problems she’d have been a serious contender for a win I think.
I made it to Derry as 11th to CP1, I was pretty happy with that. I rode on a bit and stopped at a Spar to refuel and provision for the night ahead. So far so good. It was refreshing to be into the cool of the evening but I was well aware that I still had about 130km to ride to make my days target.
All was going well and I’d already ridden well past my previous year’s bivi stop in daylight when I hit a pothole and my tracker bounced out of its cradle into the long grassy roadside verge. Doh! I spent what felt like a very long hour trudging up and down with my torch until I finally located it. Other riders either flew past or paused to check I was ok. Some helped me look though they probably shouldn’t have according to self-supported rules but either way I did find it myself by treading on it! I stubbornly pressed on to Buncrana and made it at about 04:00 as the sky was brightening and with the challenging climb of the Mamore Gap completed in darkness.
It was my worst ever bivi spot choice though, a midge infested field! My bag has a fly mesh but that doesn’t stop all the sods that join you inside. Never you mind the unpleasantness of the wet wipe ablutions before you get in. The midges were intense on many occasions during TAW 2018 whereas in 2017 I didn’t meet a single one.
First night’s rest was not so brilliant but still I was on the road again at 07:28 with another long day ahead of me. Happy enough though and awake without an alarm,
I remember surprising little of day 2 beyond it being hot. My Wahoo recorded a high of 32c. What I do remember however is the infamous gravel section of the route at the Glenveagh National Park. This was a delight because as I reached the lower sections there were lots of teenage school kids ambling along oblivious to my speeding approach. I’d recently invested in a proper old style brrrriiinng brrrrring type bike bell because these don’t seem to annoy anybody and frankly it just gives me a smile.
So to alert the either chatting or phone distracted youths I took to ringing my bell cheerfully and high five-ing them as I rode past. It must have been a funny sight and I delighted in the connection, an old git celebrates the day with the young! It raised my spirits and hopefully theirs.
This was also the day of a very hot Glengesh Pass ascent.
A lot of riders had passed me in the night but gratifyingly I was slowly moving back up through the field and was back to 12th by late afternoon, though there was a huge and intimidating number of riders very close behind. Again I rode past my previous year’s bivi stop many hours earlier, in bright daylight. I pressed on until about 03:00 which moved me back upto 6th just behind Karen. (I only know this now from re-playing the tracker) That night I bivi’d in the shelter of a timber mill loading bay, midge free.
On the road again 07:25, alarm set but again not needed. Operation get to CP2.
At this point in the race I’m physically fine apart from increasingly painful saddle sores but all good elsewhere. Equipment wise my Igaro usb charger wasn’t working but I had a powerful power bank as backup that might well see me through to the finish anyway. So no real problems, though I could feel the fatigue and my slowing pace but that was only to be expected.
It was about now that I began to meet familiar faces passing me on the road. Firstly Gavin Dempster, young, fast and friendly. We’d chat briefly and compare notes. He was riding fast and recovering longer I was riding slow and sleeping/stopping less as I just don’t have riding that fast in my bag of tricks.
Then, come Achill Island, I met up with Matt Ryan and we fooled about to and fro right till the ferry. Achill was very different to how it was in 2017 and rather boring by comparison. In 2017 it was a gale of wind, rain, sea foam blown from hundreds of feet below and kamikaze sheep leaping into my path. This year it was a slog more than an adventure!
On exiting the isle I stopped at a little grocers to feed and stock up for the night, Matt also paused briefly but then rode on ahead. This was a long night section to make it to CP2. Fortunately I love the peace of night riding and find that time just blurs into a continuum but as the hours passed I was seriously ready to rest and desperately trying to calculate the distance to the ferry and how far I had to get before I could back off a little.
Foolishly I hadn’t worked out how far the ferry was from CP2 and in my head I had it at around 250km, a relatively easy day’s ride. It turns out that it’s actually 315km.
Eventually I made it to CP2 at around 01:30 to the unlikely sight of Chris Herbet smoking a cigarette as he and I think David Thomlinson prepared to depart. Adrian O told me that if I carry on now I’ll be in 5th. That wasn’t an option!
I’d planned on another 3hr sleep but I discovered that it was 315km to the ferry rather than my hopeful 250km-ish. Holy cripes! I had it in mind that the last ferry was at 20:00 but I wanted to target the 19:00 one so as to give me some contingency time. All I had to do now was stop an excited Adrian form talking so much and get some sleep. A mere 90 mins lying on a bunk fully clothed and virtually unwashed. This time my alarm dragged me slowly, wearily, to reluctant consciousness and so began my time trial to the ferry. 03:50 am Sunday.
This was certainly the hardest riding and most exciting ride of the race for me. I felt fully on the mission, go, go, go! Whilst I wasn’t riding as physically powerfully as day 1 I was giving it my all rather than keeping a bit in the bin. It’s very exciting to fully give something your absolute all.
This is a flatter section on the route in general but it is also plagued with some horrendous, cracked, corrugated, saddle sore jarring road surfaces but I ignored it all and basically trashed my neck and hands by spending too long on the TT bars and by taking the weight off my oh so sore backside with my arms and hands.
09:00 had me at Costelloe for my first full Irish breakfast of the trip. The cafe manager smiled and said “you in the race as well? The others left not long ago”, “Indeed I am! Full Irish please and two black coffees” Off I went to freshen up in bathroom. Upon my return a large rotund chap was sat eating a full Irish…my full Irish!!
Don’t they know I have a ferry to catch! The waiter, whom I think hadn’t seen me, just brought it out and gave it to the only customer in the room. Oh well, another was duly ordered and I set about my coffee and catching up with the race on my phone.
One event that I haven’t mentioned was that I’d accidently left my down jacket hanging on a garage toilet door, though I could not say exactly where without lots of battery and time hungry tracker reviewing. My wife had sent messages to race HQ and the media cars were on the lookout which was nice though I knew that even if they found it that they could not return it to me before race finish. Happily, the weather was warm and it was less than essential, even if it did also serve duty as my sleeping bag. I had a few other layers and could keep warm in mid teen night temps.
Breakfast done it was time to crack on! At this point I was once again ahead of Karen, Gavin and Matt and our pack was building a steadily increasing gap ahead to the main bunch behind us. Bjorn and Bernd were in a race of their own well out ahead.
Matt reeled me in at around 15:00 near Doolin and chided me for not stopping long enough at CP2 🤣. Once more he rode off into the distance and I carried on my steady plod. A fatigued while later I stopped for supplies and decided to double check the ferry times. “Ummm last ferry is 21:00 not 20:00, oh fine I’ve got plenty of time then.” I relaxed and bought another coffee.
Then the thought, “Ummm so how far is it yet? Oh, so I could still just make the 19:00 ferry. Better go for that then”
Now began the really exciting bit with long flat fast sections where I though “Yes! I’ll make it easily if it doesn’t get too hilly” only to then be confronted with a hill. At this point I was on an emotional roller coaster, from crying for no reason other than the emotional release, to laughing, shouting and cheering for the shear foolish thrill of it all, relishing the singular purpose of catching that darn ferry. I even accidentally climbed a very steep hill in my 34×28 gear rather than the 34×36 grandad gear that I usually resort to!
Matt caught up again, he’d had a stop as well, and I kept him in my sights ahead as we completed the final dash. Made it with just minutes to spare! A grinning Pawel Pulawski and an incredibly tired looking David Tomlinson were there as well; having just missed the 18:00 ferry. Photographer Richard Marshall captured some images.
It was gratifying to see how totalled these young chaps looked.
I did it, I bloody did it!
I was going to celebrate with a shower and a B&B on the other side!
Reflections, what I might do differently
- Go easier on day 1 in particular. Spread my effort so less recovery is required.
- Plan my days more accurately and efficiently.
- Relax my bike fit.
Not much else, pace, recovery and comfort are everything as I see it. I made the ferry but to have achieved a better final position I’d have had to pace slower and miss the Sunday ferry. I don’t regret this though. These intense 4 days will stay with me forever,
In part two I’ll cover my steady decline from 9th place to 43rd, a different kind of ride/walk.
Ever since I arrived here in southern France I’ve had the nearby and iconic Mont Ventoux in my sights as a ride challenge. Winter mountain weather has made this pretty much impossible up until last week (April 16th) when the weather changed completely. Rather than sub zero temperatures and gales Ventoux was now apparently set for 10c+, light winds and sunshine.
For the past several weeks I’ve been heading out on overnight adventures each weekend as part of my preparation for the 2018 Transatlantic Way Race. The physical and mental training benefits of long, solo, multi day rides are many, whilst getting ever more familiar with my gear and provisioning on route is also very helpful. An overnighter to Ventoux just had to happen.
My plan for this Ventoux trip was to ride about 125km on Friday night and camp out. This will then leave me a 25km warm up ride in the morning before riding the classic ascent from Bedoin; breakfast at the summit, descend to Malaucene and ride back to La Ciotat, just like that..
Friday had been a busy day already as I’d driven from Viareggio, Italy, back to La Ciotat, France and moved into new accommodation but though tired I was feeling pretty keen to get out on the open road again and for the first time in many months not be faced with icy temperatures. As a result of the many doings of this day I didn’t manage to get away until 20:40 but this did make for quieter roads.
You see very few other cyclists when you cycle at night, yet it really is a fantastic time to ride. The roads are quieter and the approach of traffic from behind or ahead comes with a reassuring early warning glow from headlights and added to that it’s generally a less windy time of day. Certainly, there may be an increased sense of exposure and vulnerability as you pass by closed shops, through sleeping towns and hear the eery sounds of waking forests but all of this is part of the adventure, the taking of the road less travelled, even if only because of the time of day.
Still it’s a strange business I’ve gotten myself into, this setting off into the night to ride hundreds of kilometres. I immediately begin counting off the distance on my bike computer until I can stop, as if I’m wishing the time away.
There is a fair amount of effort involved in all this cycling so looking forward to the next rest point is an understandable part of this clock watching but I think another aspect is about simply maintaining a sense of place or position along a route. My tiny computer screen just shows an direction arrow along a road and some other ride data. Place names come and go but in unfamiliar places my memory is unable to place them on a route as the ride progresses so it becomes; 20km done, about 5 hours to go at this rate then, 45km, 4 hours maybe,…etc. Then finally I arrive, or get to rest, and it all starts over again.
Once an adventure is finished then almost immediately the planning for the next begins. One day, when I’ve tired of endurance races, I may just get out and start riding and see where I end up… I’m not ready for that yet though.
Wise people will tell you that a happy life is all about enjoying the journey and not the destination. I agree, though defined destinations can add clarity to a journey.
As the night progressed I faced my usual challenge of finding somewhere to refill my water bottles. In the UK virtually every petrol station has an outside tap or water point. This seems to be a rare occurrence in France and after many failed searches of garage forecourts I happened upon La Cave a Francois in Mallemort at around 1:00 am.
A group of people were sat outside next to a tap..aha! However, I was helpfully directed away from the tap and inside to the rather loud bar which I then discovered was largely full of young women in pretty flouncy dresses…staring at me! I suddenly felt very exposed in my lycra…
My water bottles were kindly refilled and with a smile I headed away for the final hour or so of this night’s ride. It was calm and around 10c which felt comfortably warm compared to some of my previous weeks adventures. No need for any additional shelter tonight. At around 02:00am and with 125km ridden I pulled off down a side road and found myself a nice grassy field to bivi down in.
With no requirement for full race type sleep deprivation I set an alarm for 07:15 and suppered on chicken slices and a cereal bar before getting my head down.
My bivi is an Outdoor Research Aurora and I’d recommend it to anyone. I selected it as being the lightest, fully breathable, bivi with a built in bug net. At 600gm it’s not as light as some but as this is my primary sleeping arrangement rather than an, in case of, kind of shelter I’m happy to lug it about. I’ve slept in here soaking wet and woken up nearly dry.
The only indication left from my presence that night was a flat spot in the grass. Treading lightly; I like that.
I was on the road again by 08:00 and riding towards the beckoning peak but with little real realisation of what really lay ahead.
It was about 9c and I was wearing a merino base layer along with a warm short sleeved spring/autumn jersey plus leg and arm warmers. I duly arrived in Bedouin nicely warmed up and decided to remove the arm warmers but nothing else as experience has shown that it it tends to get a lot cooler as you get higher.
I munched a couple of Snickers bars, had a good drink and set off confidently for the summit. I soon passed a couple of people on mountain bikes and a woman on inline skates but I think from that point on it was everybody else passing me.
I’ve ridden some long climbs already this year but nothing like this and it turned out that I’d made a grave error of judgement regarding my clothing. I just kept getting hotter and hotter… the sweat was pouring off me. I fully unzipped my jersey and pulled my leg warmers down around my ankles but that didn’t help much. My ride data shows that rather than the temperature decreasing or even holding steady it actually rose to 27c!
I stubbornly refused to stop to remove layers. My first Ventoux ascent had to be a non stop event… The road got busier and busier as time passed with people panting past me with a “bonjour”or flying down on the descent.
One guy flew past me on the way down and then flew back past me on the way up again. I saw some highly muscled legs that morning!
I was very slow compared to other riders but I comforted my bruised ego with the thoughts that the others probably hadn’t ridden 125km the night before and slept in a field for 5 hours. They most certainly were not riding on around 18kg of loaded bike and they were generally a lot younger!
Once you get out of the Ventoux forest section and above the tree line the road taunts you with glimpses of the big tower on the summit which seems much closer than it is. By now my body was screaming at me to stop and walk, the sweat was burning in my eyes and I just wanted it all to end. The soles of my feet were also burning from the relentless pedal pressure.
Still it also felt good to be riding a classic cycling climb and to see the writing left on the road from the last Tour De France here in 2016. I could almost feel the excitement and picture the crowds cheering. The idea that Chris Froome and others have ridden up here in under and hour was just mind boggling. My Strava segment shows a woeful 2hrs 32min. I’ll have to return fresh and unladen!
I particularly remember the final few hundred meters when the end was just so close but yet I was also so very, very close to giving up. That’s a memory I shall be calling on for encouragement during challenging times in the future. “Stick at it Chris…it’s not as bad as Ventoux”…
The more usual celebration going on around me was to hoist your bike aloft. I wasn’t going to risk that with my fully loaded bike.
Time to find more drink and and eat something. I loaded up on Coke and water and foolishly bought a bottle of Powerade….uurgh that was so hideously chemically tasting even compared to the Coke! Still it had much needed fluid and calories.
I found shelter from the wind and sat in my black Gore jacket in the sun in order to stay warm. I tend to chill rapidly after a ride so know I have to wrap up even if I feel hot initially.
My planned route down was via Malaucene but it turned out that this was closed due to snow. Ho hum, back the way I came then.
Now I had a new problem. I hadn’t managed to stay warm enough and was shivering. As I began the descent I kept getting this wheel wobbling sensation. I stopped and checked everything and then just concluded it was because I was being too cautious and braking too much… ummmm
I rode a bit quicker, relaxed my grip and gained confidence. Awhile later a group of guys passed me and I thought “…mmm I could use them a pacers” so I tagged along behind and it felt like we were really flying. Ride data shows a fast, for me, 69kph.
Then it all got terrifying, I developed a severe front wheel wobble and was seriously thinking that I might have to bail into a bush or something. I’ve heard of this happening but never experienced it before myself. My Genesis Datum has only inspired more and more confidence descending the longer I’ve ridden it.
I had to think quick…”front wheel wobble, relax grip, ease off on the front brake use the back brake a little more relax, relax, relax..” it worked and I wound steadily to a halt. Pah…what a morning! Frankly I just wanted to go home and cry!
Adrenalin and endorphins did their job though and I was soon back on the descent and concentrating on not shivering or white knuckle gripping the handlebars.
Back in Bedouin it was a hot 33c and I spotted a couple of guys resting their legs in the town fountain. Oh I had to have some of that! I could have just stopped there, had a nice lunch, maybe even booked a B&B and simply ridden back to La Ciotat the next day.
Nope this was a training ride, not a tour. I still had 150km to go and another 1000m of climbing to be done.
Fortunately the next couple of hours were on pretty flat roads so I just treated it as a steady recovery ride and kept eating snickers bars, drinking my Coke and water mix and munching chicken slices. Temperatures were in the low to mid 30’s and I was still a bit over dressed in just my spring/autumn jersey but the airflow helped keep me from overheating too much.
As I made it back to the hills the temp fell to the mid 20’s and then into the teens and by then my body had regrouped enough for me to make quite decent progress again.
I was home in time to have a shower and pop out for a well earned Negroni cocktail and a bite to eat with the satisfying sense of a day very well lived!
I haven’t ridden an overnighter since August 2017. It’s now February 2018 and my life circumstances have shifted so that I’m mostly based and training in the south of France rather than my home in Cornwall England.
There’s certainly worse places to be! The cycling here, near Toulon, is excellent so long as you like hills, mountains and wild landscapes. Luckily I do and I figure that riding in such arduous terrain can only benefit my training for this years TAWR.
Riding off into the night and camping wild in just a bivouac bag is hardly common, comfortable behaviour for most of us but my intention is to become increasingly comfortable doing just that. I have a no B&B policy for the race itself because I desire and enjoy the adventure of that level of self-support.
Finally, as we’re heading into the later half of February, the inland overnight temperatures here are not regularly well below zero and the nights very long. You can camp out in such conditions of course but it necessitates carrying more gear and I can’t say that it inspires me very much.
Day 1 – Saturday night
As it turned out this trip still had temperatures down to -3c and the cold was quite an issue for me. In the Relive video below you can see that the end of this night ride was basically one long freezing descent. I should have put another layer on but as I was pretty warm from the previous climb and could not really recall the topography of my route and how long the descent would last, I didn’t bother. Big mistake!
I must say I had a feeling of trepidation before I set off on this one. It was further out of my comfort zone than usual. Riding into the unknown, in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language and with no close contacts nearby.
I have a Spot tracker and my wife had a copy of my route so she could check on me remotely from the UK but in the event of an emergency it will be just me and my mobile phone. I wrote out an “In Case of Emergency Card” and put it in my top bar pack. That was a sobering experience…
This night ride had me questioning my motives when I was on busier and less enjoyable roads. “What am I doing this for?” “Am I mad?” “Why bother?” “You could just turn around” I don’t have a clear answer for any of this. I know it’s a form of escape from the mundanity and compromises of daily life and I know I feel, in some way, more alive when I do these trips. Other than that the simple answer is I truly enjoy it, even including the moments when “I’m not enjoying it”, if that makes any sense.
Within 2 or 3 hours such thoughts had passed and I was into that calm night riding zone when the roads become almost empty and there’s more or less only the sound of the wind in your ears, your breathing and the purr of the bike’s drivetrain for company. I find it almost meditative.
Due to the high wind chill factor winter riding is typically an experience of too hot on the climbs too cold on the descents, and I’d had plenty of this in the 5 hours or so before I finally arrived in a chilly state at my target of the Elan 24/24 service station at Salles Sur Verdon I’d hoped to at least to find a vending machine here but I had no such luck.
The night was cold, clear, calm and starlit. Beautiful – time to find a bivi spot.
I always seek covered shelter when using my bivi bag as being exposed to any wind makes it very noisy inside and any rain is also noisy and then adds a lot of unnecessary water weight and general unpleasantness when packing away in the morning.
Shivering, I pedalled around the area looking for somewhere vaguely appropriate to camp. The best I could find was a covered patio area in front of a closed campsite. The cold tile floor was less than ideal for warmth but it did make for easy, clean, setting up and packing away. By this point my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t unclip my bags or helmet..doh!
I finally managed using my teeth. Next, roll out bivi, inflate Thermarest mat, off with shoes, on with merino buff and into the bag goes I. Supper time… 2 cooked chicken breast fillets and a cereal bar. (I find protein before sleep helps with my recovery)
I’d not found anywhere to buy more food or drink on this ride either so my rations were low. Due to the cold I hadn’t needed to drink that much and a service station tap had at least allowed me to top up the juice mix in my bottles ready for the morning. Running low on fluids is to be avoided at all costs.
I had stupidly gambled on being warm enough on my toasty warm Thermarest mat, with just my cycling clothes and a down jacket to double as a sleeping bag. This has been fine before at +3 or 4c but with me being very cold already and with the freezing conditions it wasn’t so good at all and I literally shivered the night away, waking frequently and miserably, dreaming of being warmed by the first shafts of dawn sunshine.
No chance! The sun was way over on the other side of the mountains but still it was a warming thought and every little helps. On the next trip my down quilt is coming with me regardless of the added weight and packing squeeze!
I did not see a single cyclist on the road that night, I wonder why…
Day 2 – Sunday
I had a long warming climb to look forward to this Sunday morning and was expecting to soon be shedding layers but it was not to be. I was wearing, bib shorts, a short sleeve merino base layer, thermal leg warmers with merino knee warmers on top, a winter jersey, 2 pairs of socks, a TAW gilet, a Gore shake dry jacket , a primaloft quilted gilet and a full Rab down jacket over that plus a merino buff and cap. This entire lot stayed on for several hours without me overheating, hill climbs and all. I must have been properly chilled through from my cold night.
Still, this was a fabulous ride apart from the early cold and hunger due to the lack of open food shops on a Sunday in rural France.
The first col, Source de Vaumale of this ride is probably the longest climb I’ve ever ridden. At 12km and with an average gradient of 5.9% and a maximum of 9% it’s hardly Irish or Cornwall style steep by any stretch but still the added distance helps make up for that. The views are glorious the whole way.
Having completed the climb it was time to ride on and find a sunny spot for my well earned breakfast of another couple of chicken breasts and cereal bars. The ride data for the previous night ride suggests that I’d burnt around 4000kcal, add on the energy burnt trying to stay warm over night plus the climb just completed and it is clear I was very well into an energy deficit even after breakfast. Good training!
I certainly felt short on power but not like I’d “bonked” or hit any kind of a fatigue wall. I just felt generally depleted but I was in good spirits nonetheless. It was a glorious day in the mountains with barely a soul on the roads, life was good.
I eventually arrived at a village with a very small open Tabac bar but with no food or snacks in sight I ordered 2 Cokes and a coffee. The Cokes that arrived were sugar free..! Part way through the first Coke I spotted some full sugar Orangina and swapped out one of the cokes. I had three cereal bars left so ate another of those and pressed on.
Maybe an hour later I arrived at another tiny bar full of French gents enjoying small lunchtime drinks. Full power Coke this time and another cereal bar. It helped.
Finally at just after 2pm and nearly seven hours into my ride I found an artisan bakery open in Draguignan and had a truly, truly, wonderful tuna and egg salad baguette accompanied by a large slice of pizza whilst sat in the now warm sunshine. Oh my this made a difference and it wasn’t too long before I felt my energy levels increase. Bouyed but my increased energy I considered trying to make it back to my start within 24hrs but concluded that enough was enough and I didn’t need any more self induced challenges.
An open Spar shop just 30km or so from my finish lured me in for a final junk food top up before the last hill climb. A large Coke and entire pack of fig rolls later and that was me sorted for the final push; the darkness and cold was closing in again.
All in all a great adventure and good mental and physical training. I learnt a lot about what not to do and burnt off some unneeded weight, at least half a kilo.
Total duration: 1 day 1 hour and 21 minutes –
Active duration: 15 hours and 49 minutes
Total distance : 312.5km – 194mi
Total ascent: 4353m – 14,281ft
Gear changes : 2076 – 1972 rear – 104 front
There’s a seemingly inexhaustible supply of aspirational features in the media telling of remote adventures into the wilderness or continent crossing epics, of living life beyond the confines of an average adult’s lifestyle.
Whilst it might seem wonderful to indulge in a similar adventure for ourselves practically speaking this is going to be a very big ask for most working adults and, in reality, something only a very few are fully committed to do.
These stories may seem to imply that only such wild, grand adventures are of any importance or benefit. This maybe true if you’re wanting to sell articles, magazines or gain sponsorship but if you simply wish to enhance your life then nothing could be further from the truth.
The Oxford Dictionary defines adventure as:
- “An unusual and exciting or daring experience.”
That’s a broad definition but note the key ingredients are simply “unusual”, “exciting” or “daring” and its not hard to find those ingredients.
Balancing the typical adult demands of work and family can make disappearing off for weeks or days on end unacceptably or irresponsibly unusual.
There is no reason to feel too saddened or trapped by any of that as you can still derive great benefit from remarkably fine adventures very close to home, wherever that maybe.
Short bike packing trips can be the perfect mini adventure. Set off alone on a Friday night and ride into the darkness for as many hours as you wish and then camp out before riding home again taking as long as you wish. Riding well into the night is pretty unusual for most cyclists and just sleeping in a bivi or makeshift shelter, is pretty darn unusual for most people period. Riding any distance alone isn’t very common either.
Things happen when you do something like this. Being alone on a bike forces you to confront yourself and listen to your anxieties or inane mind chatter. That can be uncomfortable because you may discover you’re probably a little more neurotic than you ever wanted to believe! The “stuff” that you may normally, subconsciously, avoid facing by immersing yourself in a hectic life with endless distractions can now make it’s presence felt.
No matter, you now get to enjoy all the benefits of adventure therapy out alone on your bike. Riding a bike demands you focus your mind on the road, traffic, navigation, and staying safe but at the same time there is also a sense of space for you to think clearly. I feel it focuses me in two directions.
As the hours pass you can find clarity about other challenges in your life and learn to quiet the nonsensical ramblings of the mind. You feel more exposed riding alone at night but you also feel an increased sense of freedom. You experience a heightened sense of your vulnerability but your also get a greater sense of your strength. Sleeping in a bivi bag can feel claustrophobic or safe and snug. Every experience can feel good or bad, being alone on the road heightens your every sense of this, and continually challenges your resolve to choose to make the best of everything.
Or maybe not, you may hate it and swear never again but either way you’ll be far wiser and than if you’d never left…
Here is my ride report from this epic event.
Distance 338.9mi moving time 27:35:16 climbing 29373.36 ft – Total duration 55:01:37 stopped time 27:26:21
So what is Trans Kernow? Well the organisers, Rockets & Rascals Plymouth, describe it as follows:
“It may take one day, it may take three days. We don’t know what route you’re going to take, all we do know is you have got to get to a few definite places, you’ve got to do it without any outside help and you’ve got to do it with a smile on your face. There’s no number board, there’s no prize for winning, there’s loads of feed stations (they’re called cafes, shops or even fancy restaurants) but they’re not always open, there’s no accommodation provided and we don’t even give you a map. The joy of Trans Kernow is its simplicity. It’s one great big adventure, or more specifically it’s many adventures taking place at once, all in Cornwall. The window of Trans Kernow is from 21:00 on Friday 28th April until 15:00 on Sunday 30th April…”
I signed up as it seemed like a perfect excuse for some extra training miles, and also because I thought it would be fun to be a little more sociable on some rides for a change.
I decided to increase the distance for myself by adding in riding from Falmouth to Plymouth for the start on the Friday and back home again on the Sunday because, after all, I am training for the TAWR which will be a lot tougher. The Trans Kernow was never billed as a race and I did not approach it as such; rather, my plan was to ride a segment and allow myself plenty of recovery time before riding to the next, with the idea being that I’d be putting in a lot of training miles but without over-taxing my system unnecessarily. It also seemed more fun to arrive at the checkpoints around about when they opened and compare tales with other riders.
With my trusty Genesis Datum cleaned, oiled and loaded, I set off for Plymouth at around midday feeling fresh and motivated. The weather was kind with gentle winds and plenty of sunshine; but as ever with Cornwall there was no shortage of hills to be climbed. I made it to Plymouth in a respectable 5 and a half hours door to door. One thing that troubled me in anticipation of the night ride to St Ives due later was that my route included riding back up over some of the very steep hills I’d just come down on the way across. This is a regular feature with Cornwall, A and B roads are hilly with occasional steep sections but minor roads are frequently very steep and also twisty making for slow hard climbs and slow descents. Great for training, less great for making decent progress. The saw tooth elevation graph below the map above gives a good indication of just how bumpy a ride is in these parts.
This was my first visit to Rockets And Rascals and what a great place it is; a proper bike shop and cafe serving mighty fine coffee. I arrived to find Simon Paice (Who’s also signed up for TAWR) sat drinking coffee and joined him to discuss the weekend ahead and our hopes and fears for the TAWR. It was great to finally meet a fellow competitor.
The next few hours were very chilled as I relaxed to the great live music of Jacob Riddall and met some of the other riders. I attempted a nap in an armchair in preparation for the long sleep deprived night to come but the excess of fine coffee actually made it more of a 40min restless day dream; I’m sure it helped a little though. Shortly before 21:00 we were ready for the off and gathered for a farewell photo.
It seemed the vast majority of riders had chosen to take a route using the Torpoint ferry and so not very long after the start I was once again off alone into the darkness heading towards the first tough climbs of the night on my route taking me between Trenaton and Liskeard on the same back roads I had ridden down earlier. Next time I really think I opt for some easier, faster roads!
Somewhere close to Victoria I began to meet a few of the people who’d taken taken a ferry route and finally ended up riding with Tom Probert the rest of the way to St Ives. Tom gave me a real schooling in how light strong riders can fly up hills.
Tom is around 62kg and I’m around 81kg; on gentle inclines I could keep up with him but needed 220w or so to do so. On steeper inclines I needed to be in the high 300’s or more to stay in touch and I can’t keep that up for long at all, especially in the early hours of the morning after a long days riding. I had to content myself with watching him spinning steadily away up the hill whilst I ground steadily along at my 250w-ish hill speed.
I find a power meter really useful for pacing hills, as without one it is very easy to start too hard and burn out mid-way up. The first minute or so may feel easy but in reality I can easily be pushing over 400w without really knowing it until the leg burn hits. That’s not a good endurance approach; far better to be steady all the way.
Tom says he loses this power to weight advantage on the flats and descents soon enough, but the experience did have me wondering about how I’m going to get along as a heavier rider amongst those competing in the hilly TAWR; time will tell. I can probably shed a combined 2kg or so from myself and my winter bike packing kit by then which will only help.
The weather was extremely kind to us Trans Kernow riders on this first night with zero wind, clear skies and cool rather than cold temperatures. The only improvement would have been a blazing full moon…
It so happens that Tom has entered this years Transcontinental Race so we easily passed the time discussing endurance race equipment, training, tactics and, sadly, the tragic passing of Mike Hall, the event’s organiser, during the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race.
We made it into St Ives at 03:45. Tom was riding directly onto Falmouth whereas I was ready for bed after nearly 150 miles of riding. We said our goodbyes I quickly found myself a sheltered bivi spot next to a boat on the harbour arm and was soon asleep.
At around 07:30 I awoke to a glorious sunny day feeling remarkably refreshed after so little sleep. Chris King had arrived at around 05:00 and was on hand to stamp brevet cards and guard bikes while myself and some of the other riders, who’d arrived during my sleep, went in search of morning coffee.
I was keen to get across to Falmouth and relax for a couple of hours lunch and soon headed off up the hill out of St Ives with a couple of the other riders, where it appeared that, on this occasion, I was the stronger climber. As I was here for training more than socialising I left them to it and carried on over to Falmouth solo. Solo that is until I was on the outskirts of town when one Johnny Van Hol caught up with me. As a Falmouth local I was able to guide him directly to The Hand checkpoint where he duly rode off again rapidly. It turns out that he managed a blistering ride time of 13hrs or so averaging around 16mph for the whole TK route which he rode in under 24hrs start to finish, so kudos to him!
Relaxing in the courtyard outside The Hand was a delight with the warm spring sunshine soothing my tired body and mind. Meanwhile the cafe across the way was doing a brisk trade with hungry cyclists and I have to say the poached eggs with wild mushrooms and veggies were truly excellent, though not quite substantial enough to compensate the amount of calories I was burning this weekend. My wife was going to drop by around 12:30 for a coffee and to see me off on the Widemouth/Bude leg of the adventure. Now, what I should have done until then was to grab a nap but instead I’d drunk too many cups of excellent coffee from the cafe and was a bit too caffeinated to rest. Oh well…at least I could treat myself to a good sleep tonight in Widemouth.
That afternoons ride across to the north coast was pretty wild and windy but as it was mostly a tail wind things weren’t too bad, and with views like the above to delight in all was well with the world, apart from some heart stopping cross wind moments when passing gateways in the hedgerows. You know, the ones where you feel like you’ve suddenly been blown half way across the road into the path of traffic… I’m not keen on that!
The final leg of this ride became a challenge as my route took me to Boscastle and back out on the coast road and included some tough climbs. Once again I cursed myself for not seeking out a flatter route. Finally I arrived at Millook Hill complete with a 30% warning sign, eek! This hill seemed to go on and on and in my weary state I finally got off and walked but as I pushed round a bend there was Trans Kernow organiser, Steve Toze, also walking. We laughed and rode down into Widemouth together where we met another couple of weary travellers about to head to their AirBnB rest stop for the night. It was well past 18:00 now and I was ravenous so I left Steve to manage the event and went in search of food.
The Bay View Inn was my first port of call and I settled in for a couple of hours feeding, quaffing ginger beer and spending too much money. The surf was pumping in the bay that day and it was great to sit and watch the surfers as the sun went down. I surf but was way too tired to feel in anyway like I wanted to be out there as well, which made things extra relaxing.
Rain was forecast and I was a little worried about it coming in overnight so I had a word with the landlord about finding a sheltered bivi spot and whilst he wouldn’t let me use his covered terrace he did say I could set myself up in the lee of the ice cream hut. This turned out fine with soft sand and perfect shelter from the cold wind. It was a bit of a dance avoiding getting any sand in my bivi but I was soon tucked in and getting lulled to sleep by the sound of the nearby surf.
I awoke bright and early, just as the first few spots of rain began, and was packed and heading for Plymouth just before 06:00. This really did turn into a very, very wet ride but at least with it being early on a Sunday morning the roads were quiet. I breakfasted at the first open corner store I came to, munching on scotch eggs and a fresh cooked sausage roll washed down by very bad coffee. Roll on the Rockets & Rascals cafe! Strangely, I quite enjoy cycling in the rain and made it to Plymouth soon enough at around 10:30. I rolled in to find the place was full of soaking wet, shivering cyclists… not the main Trans Kernow bunch but rather another Sunday ride group.
I found myself a quiet table and ordered coffee followed by a bacon sandwich and smoked salmon & scrambled eggs all accompanied by huge slabs of tasty artisan bread. This was probably more bread than I normally eat in a month but it went down very well. (..see nutrition)
So that was my official Trans Kernow ride completed; I was just left with the small matter of cycling back to Falmouth. Ummm, well I’d already decided that my slow hilly route used on the way to Plymouth was not to be ridden again today. It was close to midday now with other Trans Kernow riders arriving drenched, tired, but happy. We exchanged a few tales but much as I’d have liked to hang around and drink more coffee the road home beckoned.
I decided to take the Torpoint ferry and high tail it back home down busier roads. Foolishly, I included a stretch of the A38 in this, but never again; being overtaken by vehicles traveling at 70+mph is exhausting and, in my opinion, just isn’t worth the risk.
My ride time for this final stretch was only 4:30 but with many food and coffee stops it actually took me 6:15. Another eye opener for what is ahead in Ireland come June…I’m going to have to ride far longer and stop far less frequently.
A high moving percentage will be the only way I can achieve a respectable finishing time. I’m hoping race mode will draw out new levels of endurance from me, but really I have no idea and nothing to compare it to… Exciting/scary!
Thanks to Steve Toze and the Rocket & Rascals team for hosting this event. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Trans Devon!
Distance 160.1 Mi, Moving Time 15:03:55, Climbing 8,061 ft, Ave Temp 6c 43F
Day 2 dawned and I awoke happily warm and, remarkably, somewhat drier than when I’d wriggled into my little bivi cocoon 5 hours or so earlier.
My weather check the day before had suggested that sunshine and unfavourable northeasterly winds were to be the order of the day. Right now though it was bitterly cold and anything but sunny.