In 2012, my brother John sadly took his own life. In 2013, to mark the year anniversary, I rode from Cornwall, one of his favourite places, to Walsall over two days, raising money for The Campaign Against Living Miserably, who aim to raise awareness of male suicide and support those in need. To mark the occasion in 2014, I decided to do the same route but in a single ride, again raising money for CALM.
I always worry about the bike on trains – perhaps more so than on an airplane. The bike racks in the First Great Western trains seem quite bike-unfriendly. They’re mainly a channel for the front wheel, coupled with a slot for the tyre and a piece of material to hold it in. The guide, though, pinched the spokes on my front wheel, which made me a little nervous.
I’d booked a table at a nice pub just outside Truro, and managed to sit on their terrace overlooking the valley which was nice and relaxing ahead of the ride. Unfortunately, cycling shoes on their polished wooden floor had me on my arse more than once – fortunately no damage done to either myself or the floor.
I’d planned to split the ride into three legs, each around 100 miles. Each leg would end somewhere I knew I could have a rest and get some food – the first at a 24 hour Tesco and the second at a friend’s house. It would also help me mentally chunk the ride – three 100 mile rides seems oddly easier than one 300 mile ride.
First leg: Truro to Barnstaple. 99 miles, 7,235ft of climbing
The start of the ride was straight into a headwind as I headed north towards St Agnes. At this time I was also getting used to the new Garmin 810, and having not used it before I found myself making a few wrong turns.
Not long into the ride I reached the first important mile stone, arriving at Wheal Coates, where my brother’s ashes are scattered. The sun was just starting to set and it was great to spend a few moments there remembering and reflecting on what I was about to undertake in his memory.
From there the ride started proper and I hit the back roads before joining the A39 at St Coulomb Major. I’d forgotten how incredibly undulating these roads are – the early slopes offered some of the steepest ramps of the whole ride, which quickly put my pacing to the test. Knowing I had a long ride ahead of me I was happy to average around 15mph and to keep my heart rate under control.
Soon the sunlight faded to the point that I needed lights, and it was at this point that things got really tough. I had two front lights with me: a Hope Vision 1 on the handlebars and a Lezyne Power Drive XL mounted on my helmet. Between them I had a good amount of light, but it only stretched so far. I soon realised that the next 9 hours would be spent seeing no further than 25-50ft ahead, making climbs difficult to pace and descents difficult to attack.
I also realised this: cycling alone at night is incredibly lonely. Like, soul destroyingly lonely. A couple of hours in, Ally called and we had a chat, which lifted my spirits. I then found out that my brother was working nights, and so was able to call him which helped as well. But it’s not an experience I’m keen to repeat – the mental challenge of pushing on into the blackness was horrid.
The first leg was relatively uneventful aside from that, 30 minutes or so of un-forcasted heavy rain and a few odd route choices around Bideford. I arrived in Barnstaple at the far end of my schedule almost bang on 2am and gave myself an hour’s rest. I think I didn’t fuel the first 100 very well, as I found it tough to eat and could only manage a ham sandwich. I was however able to change out of my wet socks and dry my shoes a little which helped, plus the security guard at telco was kind enough to fetch me a coffee from their staff area.
Strangely, I didn’t feel like I needed to sleep. In fact, it wouldn’t be untitled the third leg that I began to feel any signs of sleepiness, and that would only be the odd yawn. I’d expected it to be mo of an issue, so was pleased when it didn’t affect me.
Leg 2: Barnstaple to Bristol. 109 miles, 8,032ft of climbing
I knew the first 50 miles of this leg were going to be the toughest. From Barnstaple through to the end of Exmoor National Park contained most of the climbing for this leg, and the road immediately out of Barnstaple set the tone. A good 3 miles at 5% with ramps over 12%, it took me some 20 minutes to crest. Alex Dowsett holds the current KoM at 11 minutes. Admittedly, my stomach was unhappy with me at this point, since I’d necked about 200ml of energy drink, a Coke, a coffee, then half a litre of water immediately before setting off.
The top of the climb marked the entrance to Exmoor National Park, which I remembered from last year as being incredibly grim. Last year the weather was awful, and I was hoping for a more pleasant experience this time around, but I know it would be tough with the constant gradient changes. I also knew from last year that there would be no chances for pitstops – there is only one cafe and a small shop on the route and both would be well past closing time when I went past. I hoped that I had enough drink and gels to get through and pushed on. Fortunately, most of the park passed relatively quickly, but the darkness and the occasional angry-sounding animal made it nervous progress and slow progress.
As I left the park the sun was rising, and I know at this point I was way behind schedule. I had hoped to be in Bridgwater for sunrise, which would have gotten me to Bristol for around 9-10. In the end, I reached the top of Cheddar Gorge around 9:30, having stopped briefly at both Bridgwater and the foot of the climb for an emergency Coke. From there it was a 2-hour undulating blast back into Bristol and the second planned stop.
Gordon, being a talented cyclist and all-round top bloke, plus his lovely girlfriend Karen, sorted me out at their house – Gordon taking the bike to give it a once over and lube it, and Karen fixing me a coffee and a sandwich. I had a lovely sit down, followed by a change of bib shorts which helped freshen everything up and get me ready for the final 100 mile blast.
Leg 3: Bristol to Walsall. 104 miles, 4,841ft of climbing
Once I’d crossed Cheddar Gorge I knew the climbing was all but done for the day and these final 100 miles would be gently undulating at best as I went along the A38 through Gloucester and Worcester. As it was I enjoyed a tail wind for the majority of the ride into Worcester and maintained a decent average speed, bar a 5 mile patch where the wind turned and it rained.
In Worcester I was joined by my brother Gary and sister Hannah, who were hoping to follow me for the rest of the ride in the car. I offloaded all the superfluous baggage from my bike to lighten the load, had another Coke and set off for the final 50 miles.
I thought at this point that I’d be running over the 24 hour mark, but was keen to push and see how close I could get. Again, I enjoyed a tail wind for a lot of the run in, which coupled with the quiet and gently undulating country lanes made for a relatively easy 30 miles or so before the cut in to Walsall. Unfortunately during this time Gary and I got separated, and I wouldn’t see them again until we hit Walsall.
I was counting down the miles whilst trying not to focus too much on them – they always count down much more slowly than you expect. As I hit Wolverhampton and I saw signs for Walsall with milages in the single figures I knew I was getting close and started to push a bit harder as I ran on adrenaline. As I passed the curry houses and the fast food chains in Wednesdbury my stomach stated complaining about its lack of food and I could feel a final-miles-bonk coming on, so took on a handful of sport beans (cheers Gordon) in the hope they’d see me through.
Walsall arrived quicker than I’d expected, and before I knew it I was counting off familiar landmarks; Morrisons, the golf club, the broadway hotel. My heart sank a little as I remembered the Sutton Road and Melish Road were slightly uphill, but I knew they were just the final two miles or so.
It was such a relief to finish, for everyone involved. It transpires that my mum had been up all night worrying and my brother had gotten incredibly stressed when he lost me in the car, so we were all pleased to see me getting off the bike for the final time. We sat down, and I found it very difficult to stand again. I ate, but had no feedback from my stomach. After a beer I headed to bed and almost immediately went to sleep.
Day three saw my legs back to full use and the rest of my body (in particular my shoulders) just about recovered. I was still recovering lost calories, and the memories of the pain both physical and mental are still raw. For now, other endurance cycling events hold no interest for me, but I know that in a few months I’ll be planning my next one. Perhaps Lands End to John O’Groats as a warm up to the Transcontinental Race. We’ll see…