I’ve just completed this cycling challenge, September 2019. Ride Across Britain took me well out of my comfort zone and is a genuine challenge requiring many months of training. Before entering, I’d cycled over 100 miles in one day just once. This challenge is 109 mile/day every day for 9 days to go from Land’s End to John o’Groats, and 52,885 feet of ascent. That’s like 9 back to back hilly marathons. 7000 miles of training later, I set off for Land’s End to join up with 1000 others and head north. The photos give a flavour of what it’s about and like.
So how did it go? The photos tell one part of the story. Firstly, I completed the 980 miles in 9 days, raising £3700+ en-route: thanks all! Thoroughly enjoyed most of it, endured some. A wonderful experience that’s also kind of difficult to ‘share’ unless you were in the same bubble. It is, as the organiser’s plan, true “there is more in you”. It was great to see Barbara at John o’Groats.
My preparation and strategy worked, in the main. The former was about building miles and changing habits: constant snacking and drinking to keep glycogen levels topped up, and not stopping for long at refuel points. The latter was to get out early each day to get back with some time to recover. To treat each day of 3 or four legs as separate rides – so it wasn’t 980 miles, rather twenty nine 34-mile rides. And to focus last thing each night on what I was doing and in what order when getting up at 4/4:30 the next morning so I could start on automatic pilot. Small things like knowing the head-torch was always in a Croc so could be found. Minimise faff time. Work out where the nearest toilet (or hedge) is before you need it.
What I hadn’t expected, after nearly 7000 miles training, was a sore knee and saddle sores from day 1. “Not fair”! Both may have been down to some earlier decisions, or not. E.g I concentrated in the last two months on cycling time and ignored gym work. That may have meant quads weren’t A1, leading to a tight IT band, to knee pain. I also had a bike fit about a month before which moved some things, like the saddle position. Who knows, probably multiple causes. There were physios to help with the knee and medics for the saddle sores (who recognised patients by backsides vs faces). Ibuprofen helped both ailments.
Weather and hygiene can make or break this activity. The latter is very important with 1000 people living in close proximity – any virus will spread quickly (see later). Things like hand washing were rightly strictly enforced. The weather provided highs and lows. Cheddar Gorge and other bumpy parts of the Mendips and a just stunning Glen Shee were enjoyed in bright sunshine. A day later and Somerset was awash. Rain in the Welsh Borders and then entering Scotland on the Beattock Summit had me grumbling going uphill, in both cases shaking that off with a grin not too long later. Smiling makes the world seem so much better. The wind in the North of Scotland was a real challenge – gusty side winds of up to 40 mph took concentration. When it became a headwind it took head down effort – when a tail wind: wheeeeeee….. The wind after the Lecht climb was the greatest factor in almost 150 people taking a tough decision to do the final leg of that day on the bus. Never crossed my mind, I realised afterwards.
The logistics were awesome: 900 tents each night, apart from the one in Bath Univ Halls. 1000 people being fed and watered really well. A drying tent, a 10-minute sports massage every two nights, plus physios for the non-routine as well as medics. These were a mix of GPs, paramedics and even an anaesthetist on a break. One of the GPs is now on the TDA Bamboo Road as a medic and rider. Small world. And the mechanics for routine and running repairs. You are expected to fix your own punctures, they’d help with the rest. We were advised to take spare spokes. It’s amazing how people react – on the Facebook pages afterwards there was a grumble about not needing them. A quiet reply from a mechanic simply saying they’d sold 50 wheels they didn’t need to if the people had spokes with them cut the legs from that angle. I just needed new brake pads and the chain tensioned (it’s an internal hub with an eccentric tensioner).
The bikes – and riders- varied. Even a Brompton. From low to very high price (£8.5k when I asked). Experienced racers to relatively new cyclists. One told me he’d entered and then bought his first bike: he didn’t have expectations of going fast. My bike is (as one person described it), something that chews long distance reliably. So steel, and a bit heavy. Accelerates like a steam engine, gets up all the hills without standing, but takes effort. I tended to cycle on average 11-12 mph moving and 10 mph including breaks. So about 2/3 into the pack. My speed downhill depended on nerves – going down the Lecht my rational side kicked in about 35-40 mph as it was windy so I braked. One guy passed me later with a huge grin – he’d beaten his record and got to 54 mph.
Accidents = well with a 1000 cyclists doing 110 miles a day, statistically they were bound to happen. The first was after 20 miles on day 1 resulting in a broken hip. Others fell off, picked themselves up and went on. I had an adrenaline rush when hit a hole (thought it was a puddle) and front wheel wobbled badly – caught it though. Some accidents it was implied were avoidable – we were warned to take care 24.7 miles into a day as there was a railway line at an angle and it was wet. So perhaps no surprise to see a cyclist down who had gone too fast (broken femur). Ditto a spot on a steep descent on a bend which they marked in advance “caution”. Rider down and air ambulance called – again broken femur. Others gave up because of knees, wasn’t for them, backs etc.
All in all, the support was excellent. You don’t really need the GPS routes – signed before, at and after all junctions. 25 “chaperone” riders to keep the speed merchants in check, to bunch into groups the middle riders and to encourage the back markers. I never really got into a group – though overlapped and chatted with many: refer ability to accelerate plus every time I thought “hey they are going at my speed”, I needed a pee. Didn’t mind any of that – the changing landscapes and riders to say hello to, plus singing all kept me chugging along.
Photographs – I took a conscious decision NOT to take a camera as I’d end up stopping too much. I was really pleased when they offered a new package for professionals to take them – both of the riders and the general scenery. The ones here are mainly theirs plus a few from my phone. I thought they did a really good job. Some of them were from a reverse facing pillion passenger on a motorbike. Quite a strange sight.
The scenery was always good – Britain has such a diverse landscape in a relatively short distance. Even the rain added something – apart from wet slippy roads. The road surfaces also varied and made a tremendous difference to progress.
Will I do this again? Yes, in several ways. Firstly, Barbara and I have done it at touring speeds (that’s a more civilised 50-60 miles/day and B&B) as well as the other diagonal – Dungeness to Durness. We’re planning a Bettyhill to Brighton route down the middle to the mainland for next year/year after. The RAB 9-day challenge – yes in 3-4 years (when I’m 65) though probably on a lighter bike – get back earlier to relax / recover a little more each day. Doable at that age – of course! We were introduced to one of the chaperones – it was his 10th time doing it and he’d just turned 70. Keep those wheels turning!!
Thanks for showing interest and (if you did) sponsoring me. Any questions, just drop me a line or ask.
PS. I mentioned hygiene earlier? When I completed it, we had to queue for the photograph and I immediately complained to Barbara about being shivering cold. I thought it was just because it was cold and windy. We got to our room – very nearby accommodation – just in time for me to be violently sick (conveniently getting rid of all the crap I’d eaten and drunk in the name of topping up glycogen). I was worried it might be due to Ibuprofen as I’d accidentally double-dosed that morning. A quick Facebook group look showed others reporting the same – apparently something had started going around 2 days before and some people had struggled with it whilst cycling. Good timing for me I thought. The final piece was going to the toilet that night: the sound of my head hitting the floor after fainting woke Barbara up. Typical – I’d taken the cycling helmet off before going to bed. No lasting damage – to furnishings nor me. Just a lesson that it had taken a lot out of me and some recovery time was due.
PPS. A nice symmetry. I met a rider in Penzance – from Norwich – the day before we set off. Apart from the first evening meal, I never saw him again. Until the day after we finished and we went into the local John o’Groats cafe. There he was. I like that!