So... yesterday was the annual British Heart Foundation London to Brighton bike ride. I took part in the event four years ago. That was the first time I'd taken on any kind of distance. I loved it. When someone asked me to join their team of cyclists in the event this year I thought I really ought to do it again... with my tour looming I didn't really have any excuse not to and I figured it would be a good training ride.
At the time I hadn't done any serious training rides and wasn't used to cycling out of London on the open roads. I know a lot of people think that cycling in London is scary but personally I feel pretty safe in that environment. So long a syou look ahead and assume people are going to open their car doors in front of you and so on it can work to your advantage. The average car is travelling at less than 10mph and while they might not like the fact that cyclists are there, there are so many of us out on two wheels that drivers are kind of expecting your presence. It's out of town that scares me more. It's in country lanes that boy racers take bends at 50mph and with no expectation that there might be someone on two wheels ahead of them.
So while I knew that London to Brighton would be a good work out I was also aware that it would be a slightly artificial situation because there are marshalls all along the route and plenty of sections where the roads are closed or the regular traffic is at least separated. So I decided that I would cycle home too. I figured I had to get used to going from town to town without the assistance of several hundred volunteers in high-vis jackets. (Incidentally: I don't think the people who marshall the route get enough of a thankyou from the cyclists. It's a huge event that the BHF organise incredibly well and the volunteers who line the route are amazingly good humoured and supportive. Thanks.)
By the time the ride came round I'd already done a few town-to-town, city-to-city rides and got used to it but training's training and I knew another one couldn't hurt. Or rather it could. But in a helpful way.
My plan was very much to play it by ear. If I felt tired after the ride I'd stay in Brighton and then tackle the return journey the next day. If I felt up for it I'd do it all in one day or, and this seemed to me to be the most likely, I'd do 30 miles of the return journey on the day and then complete the trip on the Monday. As it was I ended up doing it all in one day... I was bushed by the end of it. But pretty damn pleased with the achievement too.
I'm also really pleased with my new Boardman bike. I've changed the saddle and the pedals and got some excellent luggage from Carradice and I reckon the way it was configured yesterday was pretty close to the way it will be on tour. It felt very right. I loved it.
I plugged some of the toys in as well. I set the new bike-cam running as I left Clapham. I know that by the time I had got to Brighton it had stopped recording. Whether it had run out of juice or memory or both I don't know. It doesn't have a preview screen so until I upload stuff I won't know how long it lasted. It' a shame not have caught the whole ride but at the same time, I need things to work in a way that means I can just hit a button and forget about them. If I start obsessing with how-to-record-the-journey or stopping every hour to change a memory card it will change the actual first-person-experience of the journey into something else. Something worse to do... but nicer for other people to look at. Which isn't what it's about, really.
I also had my Garmin Edge 705 on the bike, timing myself and recording the route - and for the return journey, choosing the route. Thanks to the magic of MapMyRide.com, I can show you where I went... here's the London to Brighton ride:
... and here's the journey back:
You can open them full screen and zoom in to see the minute detail of where I went if you like. (I turned it off before I got to my front door - I'm not mad.)
The first third of the ride to Brighton is always very congested. There are loads of bottlenecks in small lanes where you're forced to stand and wait a while or walk but slowly as the ride goes on it thins out a bit and you can get into it properly. Ditchling Beacon is the stiffest test... a steep and long, long hill about 6 miles from the end. The good thing about it is that when you get to the top you've pretty much finished the ride. It's all pretty easy after that.
Four years ago Ditchling Beacon was a pretty disorganised mess. Loads of people end up walking up the hill and they can block the path of those who are still cycling. My main memory is of the really hardcore cyclists screaming at people to walk on the left. I don't think I would have been able to pedal all the way up Ditchling Beacon last time but I didn't get the chance to find out as I ended up losing momentum behind a group of four walkers who covered the whole width of the road. Once off the bike there was no choice but to walk myself.
This time round it seemed far more organised. I don't know if it was just because I'd started earlier or if people have spread the word but the walkers all cleared out of the way and left a channel to the right for the cyclists. I cycled all the way up.
I've always been quietly dismissive of those people who claim to have an exercise-high... but yesterday as I topped the beacon and continued into Brighton I felt properly euphoric. I must have been because on the flat section across the top of Ditchling I got up to 31mph. On the flat I can normally get a little over 20mph if I make an effort... so it must have been down to some kind of adrenaline rush. Better still, on the long descent, even with my fingers stabbing at the brakes I got up over 42mph. I spoke to several people afterwards who'd got over 50mph. It's an exciting part of the ride.
As I came down the hill I looked at the clock and realised it was possible to get in to the finishing line in under 4hrs. I got snarled up with traffic lights coming in to the city centre and then with a large group of riders on the home straight but I made it. Just. 3 hours, 59 minutes and 50 seconds.
I made a bit of a cock up then. I should have gone to have something to eat but instead I hung around waiting for my team to arrive. I knew they were going to be doing the ride at a more leisurely pace and would be stopping en route for refreshments but I stupidly didn't realise that this was my best chance to eat and recuperate. When they did turn up - every one of them equally delighted to have cycled up Ditchling - they then went off for a celebration drink which I didn't do because booze seemed like a bad idea before taking on another long ride. So not only did I start my return journey quite late in the day, I knew I'd be stopping on the ride to get some food that I could have dealt with while I was waiting.
It was hard. Much harder than the ride to Brighton and that's not just because of tiredness. The sat-nav seemed to take me on an odd and circuitous route and there were more uphill sections. Nothing as steep as Ditchling but a damn site more of them. I was getting frustrated with the road surfaces too. A bad road slows you down so much and it left me unsure as to whether it was down to the conditions or me. But then about 40 miles in I suddenly hit a nice new road and found I still had plenty of juice in me and got up over 25mph with ease. Which is kind of when I decided to complete the job and get all the way home.
I took two refreshment breaks on the way back - totalling an hour - and all in the return journey took five and a half hours. Even if I just take into account the actual cycling time it's half an hour slower and that's without having any of the bottlenecks that plagued the first part of the outward journey so it was definitely harder going.
But I did it. And I'm thrilled. Taking into account the journey from mine to Clapham for the start of the official ride I totalled just over 120 miles of riding yesterday. The longest I've done in a day before being 90ish miles.
When I did my three day training ride a wee while back I was aware that I started out being very bad at making myself take on enough fluid. I lost a stone in the first two days as an unhealthy result. I bought a Camelbak backpack to help me to drink more and it was great. I must have got through 5 or 6 litres of water, possibly more... and the result was that I lost only 2 or 3 lbs in the day. Much better.
I don't think there's been any time in my life before this when I could have done these rides in one day. Without wanting to come off all mid-life crisis about it, it's pretty damned satisfying to be fitter at 38 than I was at 34. Or 24 for that matter. How odd. And lovely. And by criminy do I feel it in my knees today.