Bristol, March 9
I am horribly nervous about riding Wells, Mells and Broader because I don’t know anybody, although I am staying with a friend who is womanning the first checkpoint. This will be my first 200k, officially the furthest I will ever have ridden on a bike in one sitting, and it’s windy and drizzly and I have a cough and a cold and I bottled a 200 a few weeks ago because my GPS wasn’t working and don’t make me, Mum, I don’t wanna.
As soon as we all set off I settle in for a good hard worry. I’m in a small, fairly slow group and I want to pass everybody but I’m anxious about going too fast and blowing up late and being that idiot who shot past everybody at the start. It’s raining a bit harder now and the wind is sort of sideways. My bike is a bit on the lame side, I took it to Duncan at my LBS yesterday and he tutted and sighed and said it ‘might’ get me round and did a few tweaks but there’s lots of metallic grinding and crunching and I only have about three silent gears. There’s snot everywhere. Is it finished yet? Christ almighty where did that hill come from? You’re not in Surrey now, petal.
El is waiting at checkpoint one, smiley and lovely, and I have a cup of tea and hook up with Neil, the granite-like stalwart of the Bristol long-distance scene and his young padawan Mark. Mark and I are silly and youthful and leave Neil to head off together, and then I lose him up a hideous hill, then at the bottom I pick up another Mark who comments on the tailwind making the ride much easier from this direction. I wondered why it felt like I was riding into treacle a few miles back. Mark gets a puncture and I stop and wait with him and we’re soon joined by Other Mark and Mike, who comes bearing ginger cake, and all of a sudden we are a group and everything is quite pleasant, really, other than the bastard wind. Also remembering everybody’s name is super easy. If in doubt, Mark.
Riding in a group is good because you get to chat lots, and it’s fun and everybody helps each other, even with Mark’s second puncture about half a mile down the road. Also ginger cake. As the miles fly by we lose Mark who rather wisely decides to follow Neil’s steady but relentless wheel instead, and after lunch Mike, who is training for the Transcontinental and clearly much faster, zooms off and it’s just me and Mark for a long sloggy sort of section that involves a hill so brutal I have to get off and push at the very end. THE SHAME. Mark kindly blames my inadequate Eastway and talks about something called 28t. I’m already mentally chastising Duncan and demanding he solve this dilemma for me. We’re getting tired, and the checkpoint is 25km away, then we ride 25km and it’s an info stop and the checkpoint is STILL 25km away and now I’m not so sure group riding is a great idea, because Mark seems to know when the hills are coming up and how hilly they’ll be, and frankly I’d rather not know. But I’m glad of his company.
At the next stop we reunite with Mike and eat lots and there’s talk of more hills and I really wish I could just plug my ears, but instead I ride in dread, lifted only by my companions and their patience, as they’re clearly all in far better shape than me. Halfway up Mount Everest at 190km I have to stop and eat the entire contents of my Carradice. I think I might die, I certainly can’t get up the rest of that hill without a LOT of Hotel Chocolat, and by now it’s dark and Mark and Mike and whoever else was with us went on ahead, but because he is sweet, Mike comes back for me, and because he is also sweet Mark is waiting for us in an audax hotel (bus shelter) about a mile down the road, and there’s another hill and another walk of shame and then we all finish together and I am absolutely thrilled with myself and I have no idea how I’m going to ride 400km in two months time.
Petworth, March 31
I am so up for this. My legs are actually twitching, that’s how much I want to ride this distance today. The route is split into five sections, the longest of which is only 35 miles, and we are basically riding two big loops around Petworth and I know most of the roads and will never be more than 30 miles from my parents’ house where I’m staying, so it all feels completely manageable. It’s bright and clear.
I don’t know anybody and I don’t care and I set off and everything is lovely and I ride past the house I am currently in the process of buying and my heart feels like it might burst. The first checkpoint is the boot of a car and the second is a service station. I could use a bacon roll, but all that’s on offer is pasties. ‘I’m not pasty-ready yet,’ says a nice chap next to me. I’m not either but I need to eat so a 10am pasty it is, and we have a bit of craic before it starts to get a bit cold and drizzly and off I go again.
Things go downhill. I am suddenly cold and lonely, and my head is full of the dark thoughts, the sadnesses, the losses, the humiliations, that have encompassed the past eight months and a fair few prior to that too. I have a good old cry, miles fly by and tears pour and the bike keeps rolling. It at least feels amazing, I took it to Duncan after the Bristol audax and Made Demands and I now have a new-to-me Liv saddle, a shorter stem and an extra spinning gear (32t if you’re interested) and there are less crunching grinding noises as he re-riveted my slippy mech. There’s still a bit of noise though. This bike has always had slippy gears, I think it’s just part of its DNA. I’m still crying and my legs keep going and I suddenly notice i am swooping down the most gorgeous road, next to a stream running through a wood with a carpet of emerging bluebells, and the surface is smooth and there are gentle ups and downs and rounds and abouts, and I’ve completely forgotten what I was blubbing about because this is just joyous. I must remember where this road is. I’ve got no idea where it is, maybe I dreamed it.
I catch up with pasty chap, whose name I don’t get but we’ll go for Peter because he looks like a Peter, and he’s good company. He’s an ex-cop, retired, has ridden LEJOG every year since he was 18 - he’s now 57 so that’s a lot of LEJOGing. We pace together for a good long while but I am faster than him up hills and I think I’m fitter than him, so after a while he says to leave him behind and I pick up a new companion. Gerry (or Jerry, we didn’t discuss spelling) is also good company and is at the same stage of divorce as I am - we exchange a decree nisi high five and a great deal of deep and meaningful reflections on life, the universe and everything.
Other riders drop in and out, one tells me he thinks I’m strong, he’s wearing fancy sunglasses and some kind of racing kit and I am flattered. I start to notice that a few men overtake me, then I pick them back off at the next hill, then they overtake me again, then I pick them off on a hill again, and after a while they drop back. Are they trying to race me, or is this just the flow? Am I just a bit fitter? My legs feel like they could go on forever.
There’s a bit of a climb at about 170k up Farthing Down - it’s really quite a climb, if I’m honest, but after this it’s just Chichester and then back home on the A283 and I have ridden that road soooo many times. I decide I will time-trial it (I’ve done ONE time trial practice, reader, but get me with the strategies) as it’s undulating but fast and I still feel like I’ve got lots in the tank. I had reckoned without a headwind that reduces my ‘speed’ to about 7mph. It’s a slog and I see G/Jerry, who had eventually pulled away, up ahead of me. I catch up with him. He’s tired and happy to see me and we roll back together grumbling good-naturedly about the sloggy windy bit.
We are home way before sundown. That was - god, that was easy, if I’m honest. I ride home slowly, but by the time I turn into my parents’ road I have already started to pick up speed again. My legs have lots left in them, this is good, this is promising.
London, April 7
The Shark is billed as ‘hilly’ and I’m not sure I’m up for it. I’m even less up for it when I get to the start at Cutty Sark and am confronted by reams of Rapha and Castelli. Where, please, are all the old men on steel-framed tourers? Where are the scratchy pre-merino wool jerseys and faded bibs? Where are the Carradices? Where are my people?
I don’t know anybody and I’m anxious and miserable about it because everybody looks pro af. I’m blinded by all the bling. I am not in Rapha or Castelli, I am in black leggings with glow-in-the-dark love hearts on them and a black jacket from five years ago and my shit helmet because I left my pro one on the train a while back and I look like a chubby Hell’s Angel. We start and it’s one big group and I hate it. I don’t know where to be, I’m not sure how fast to go, everybody is talking loudly and laughing and going what feels exceptionally fast to me and getting too close and they all know each other and seem supremely relaxed and confident and nobody else looks like a chubby Hell’s Angel. Riding out of South London is horrible, and I seem to be trapped between two couples on speed dates. I can’t cope with 200k of this.
Eventually the groups string out, and then the first hill is upon us. It doesn’t feel like much to me, then I round a corner and it’s mayhem. The hill suddenly sharply increases in gradient (I find out later it’s 25%) and all across the road people are weaving around on bikes, grinding to a halt, and getting off and pushing. I settle down as I pass two of the speed-daters who dropped me earlier. Perhaps this will be OK after all.
As we head out into Kent I pace with a guy with a Carradice (MY PEOPLE! MY PEOPLE!) who I christen ‘Audax guy’. He climbs like I do, he’s fairly steady and consistent, not one of those ‘go flat out on the flat then stall halfway up a gentle slope’ riders. There’s also another chap on a steel-framed tourer who is super efficient up hills and sits quite upright. He’s one of mine for sure. And finally an older guy behind me whose neon yellow MTB jersey keeps catching my eye round corners. We don’t talk, but we all ride together and take it in turns to lead and it’s nicely companionable. We all roll into the first checkpoint together, and I sit with the older chap whose name I don’t get but I suppose Mark will do, and he says he’s with some friends who have already dropped him. I say it’s a bit rolling, as all we’ve done is climb and descend. He looks a bit shellshocked. ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ he confesses. ‘My mates just asked if I fancied a ride to the coast.’
Audax guy heads off earlier than I do, but as I set out from the checkpoint despite all the hills so far, and knowing there’s lots to come, I feel pretty strong and I catch him quickly. He seems happy enough to ride together but we don’t really talk which is if I’m honest, perfect. i don’t feel chatty, I don’t have small talk, I just want to keep going. We do chat ahead of the South Downs, because we’ve got a bit of a climb and I’ll probably get up it faster than him but he’ll catch me on the descent, and we make this known to one another with few words and up High and Over we go. Somebody is on all fours at the top. Audax guy catches up and introduces himself as Steven and we go and look at the sea.
Steven and I ride most of the way back together, Mark is with us for a bit then drops away. The route is largely the same, lots of climbing. I love it. I love the steady inclines, the sitting down and getting stuck in, the slog to the top, the relief when it’s over. I love how my natural fear of descending gets smaller as I get more tired and can’t be bothered to hang on the brakes or worry too much because I need the break before the next climb. Steven is easy company, we chat a bit, he’s doing LondonWalesLondon too so we talk about that, and about our bikes, and just general stuff that I can’t really remember now but I know it was pleasant. At the last checkpoint it’s drizzling so we hit up an audax hotel with cheese twists and cake, and take it in turns to take photos of our bikes.
There’s two serious hills before the end, in quite quick succession, and I can tell Steven is getting tired. He says he’s going to stop before the final climbs for a minute or two, and I say I’ll keep going because I don’t like stopping if I can help it and I REALLY don’t like getting going again. He says he’ll try and catch me. The last two climbs are monsters. Halfway up Toys Hill I pass a girl who has stopped to smash a gel. ‘It just keeps going,’ she says in horror. It does keep going, but so do I. Long, long descent. I know there is one more big climb but I don’t know where, but all of a sudden there’s a sheer wall of concrete upon me and I don’t know what’s going on. I have to stop halfway up or I’ll die. It’s horrendous. I might do the walk of shame. Shit, there are riders behind me, I can’t do the walk of shame. I get back on my bike and heave up to the top.
Steven catches me not long afterwards, and so does gel girl, and a couple of guys who have been in the general vicinity for a while, and we roll back into London together. Gel girl has a broken elbow. RESPECT. I do not have a broken anything, and I don’t feel broken either, but that was tough. Steven is happy and so am I so we lead the group home together, I feel like a bit of a rock star, especially as I changed my soaked jersey and jacket halfway round so I don’t look like a chubby Hell’s Angel. I do look like a chubby pac-a-mac model but there is a LOT of Rapha behind me.
600k in a month is done, and now we up the distance. Some people do 600k in a one-er. I wonder if one day I’ll be one of them.