So after 9 months of training and waiting, more training and more waiting the day finally arrived over 200 of us set of from Manchester Velodrome with 220 miles ahead of us and a weather forecast that was the worst it could possibly be – Changeable.
In the week prior to the ride we had been buoyed by good luck messages from the likes of Ritchie Porte, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome, but Rapha CEO Simon Mottram had saved the biggest and best surprise until last. Sir Bradley Wiggins, Olympian, hour record holder and first British winner of the Tour de France would be completing the ride with us. It was a huge fillip and great motivation to know that he would be facing the same challenge (although probably suffering considerably less) and I’ll admit I was a little star struck when I saw him on the morning of the ride.
The previous evening we had all gathered at the Rapha Clubhouse in Manchester where we were able to have something to eat and a beer (I only had one bottle this time as I had learnt my lesson following my ‘6 pinter’ the night before the Tour of Cambridgeshire), listen to a number of amazing speeches from people connected with Rapha and Ambitious about Autism as well as try and form some riding ‘alliances’. Knowing that I was a solo rider I wanted to chat to a few people so that I could try and find some people to ride with. Although I was fully prepared to ride the 220 miles solo I really didn’t want to and so I chatted to a few people to gauge whether or not I could tag onto a group. Aaron and Nick from Brighton were riding together and I also got to chat with a group from near Milton Keynes who seemed to be aiming for a similar pace. ‘Alliances’ forged Sarah and I headed to Pizza Express to ‘carb load’ (basically I just stuffed my face)
We got back to the hotel and I prepped the bike, checking, double checking and triple checking everything to make sure everything was ready. We then turned in and slept in what was the worst bed we’ve ever experienced (not the best preparation I’m sure you’ll agree, however the experience was slightly offset by the fact that the Holiday Inn duty manage knocked £45 of our stay!)
I woke the next morning at 4:30am (the alarm sounded like an air attack warning going off) and tried to force some food down my neck, however a combination of nerves and being awake at such an ungodly hour made every mouthful feel like I was eating cardboard. With that we grabbed a coffee and headed to the Velodrome.
So this was it. After doing over 3,500 training miles commuting to and from work in all weathers and giving up most weekends to head out into the Yorkshire Dales this was the moment of truth.
I caught up with Aaron and Nick, but they weren’t going to set off straight away and so I made the decision to join the start line and hopefully get myself into a decent group. I looked up to see Sir Bradley about 3 rows in front of me and I suddenly panicked! If I went with that start group the chances were it would turn into a smash fest trying to stay on Wiggos wheel or a competition as people attempted to keep the pace stupidly high in an attempt to say ‘I dropped Sir Brad’. Knowing that I might end up doing long stretches of the ride on my own and that I would need to pace myself I looked back to see if there was anybody behind me that I recognised. Thankfully there were the lads from Milton Keynes. I dropped back and thankfully they were more than happy to let me ride with them.
A few quick instructions later and we were waved off. Pretty much straight away our group splintered, but I stayed with my group and resisted the temptation to bridge across to a faster group that had formed expending valuable energy. It soon became clear that the lads I was riding with had decided to take things easy and as I had set myself a finishing time between 9pm and 10pm I made the decision to find another group.
Thankfully I came across a group of friends from Derby who were keeping a steady pace up as we rolled towards the Peak District and through chatting I discovered they were aiming for a similar time to myself – Perfect. They allowed me to join them and as one of their group appeared to be super strong and willing to stick his nose into the ever increasing head wind I thought this would be a perfect group to get me to London. One of the group Mark, had let me know that they wouldn’t be hanging around at the food stops in order to keep the legs moving and keep the overall time as low as possible.
We all knew that the first 52 miles through the Peak District to the first food station were going to be tough, but I reasoned that having done my training in Yorkshire I should be pretty well prepared. Also there was no pressure, I didn’t need to start flying up the climbs as this was the dictionary definition of a marathon not a race. Sticking it in first gear and spinning to the crest of every climb was the order of the day and I wasn’t about to start deviating from the plan I had been turning over in my head for the last 9 months.
The boys from Derby had ridden the first section of the route twice before, however there had been a late course change and I began to get worried when they commented that the roads we were now riding were far tougher than the previous route. I just kept telling myself to stay positive and don’t blow up, just keep turning the pedals (a mantra I would be screaming at myself later on in the day)
We reached the Monsal Trail in good spirits and after a quick break entered the 6 mile section that would eventually lead us to Bakewell. Although the trail was pretty much flat/downhill the surface left a little to be desired. Compact, yes to point, but there were sections where you weren’t quite sure your tires would bite should you need to quickly change direction. I’d had to keep 23s on the Cannondale as anything bigger simply wouldn’t have the clearance and so I was nervous that things might get a little sketchy if the pace increased.
This reality was made all too apparent when we passed a group at the side of the trail. One rider flat out (with a broken pelvis I would later find out) and two nursing road rash and ripped kit. I was suddenly very aware that I had to give this section my complete concentration as one bad decision could lead to 9 months of training going out of the window.
Once out of Bakewell there were a couple of stinging climbs, but once they were out of the way we knew that very soon we would arrive at the first feed station.
Up to this point everything seemed golden. I was on the road, the climbs weren’t killing my legs, I was in a group that were working well together – What could possibly go wrong?
Well quite a bit actually.
We arrived at the first feed station and something just didn’t feel right – Looking back I know exactly what it was, but at the time I couldn’t put my finger on it. Our average speed was sat at 13.4mph. Well down on the 15mph I had been aiming for, but I put this down to the additional climbing and the relentless headwind. I told myself that it would be okay and that we’d be able to make that up on the next flatter section with the group I was with working together.
The lads from Derby were met by their wives and girlfriends and so I left them to chat whilst I grabbed a coffee, some sausage rolls, a can of coke and rearranged my own gels and food. Suddenly I noticed that the large number of people at the food station had gone, no hanging around, just grabbed food, stocked up and hit the road again. There was hardly anybody left. I started to get the feeling that perhaps the slow average speed had now put us in a bit of a fix and that other people has realised this and cracked on. The group I was with were still with their friends and family, but I was starting to get a bit nervous. I had planned a 15 minute stop, but we were now approaching 45 minutes! Any one who knows me knows I like to plan and any deviation from that worries me and I start to get a bit edgy. Looking at my phone it suddenly dawned on me.
The cut off time at the next feed station was 1:45pm and was some 47 miles away. It was now 10:45 – 3 hours to cover 45 miles into a headwind. It was going to be tight. I had to make a decision. Could I manage that solo and risk burning a shit load of matches in an attempt to make the cut off, or do I hang around and wait for my group and hope we can use each other to keep the pace high and get their together.
This is not what I had planned and I was completely out of my comfort zone.
I decided on the latter and eventually we all set off together, but I was fuming. Not at the lads in the group, but at my own dithering. I should have stuck to my plan. If I had the chances are I could have jumped on another group or had enough time in reserve to ride to the next food stop solo without expending too much energy.
I was now behind the eight ball. We left the food station and I went onto the front of the group. I was determined to set a quicker pace and we had a decent group to try and keep things together. However, about 10 miles in the lads from Derby stopped. I later found out that one of them had been suffering and finding it tough going and so they had decided to drop their pace. Suddenly I was on my own with 35 miles in front of me and just over 2 hours to get to Bosworth Hall. Previously I had been averaging just over 14mph so I knew it was going to be a bit tight.
It was make or break.
For the next 35 miles I ground it out constantly doing the mental arithmetic of speed and hours. Would I make it in time? The last thing I wanted to do was get thrown off the ride and so I gritted my teeth and ploughed on. Thankfully this section of the ride was a fair bit flatter, but I was still angry at myself for letting myself get into this position. I didn’t want to be riding solo and I certainly didn’t want to be up against the clock.
I arrived at Bosworth Hall at 1:20pm. I’d made it, but I didn’t have time to rest or recharge the batteries. After a comfort break I gabbed a bit of food and threw what I could into my pockets and top tube bag. What was also very apparent was that it was dead. There was hardly any other riders there as they had already been and gone. This did nothing to allay my fears that I was somewhere at the back of the ride. To make matters worse it had started hammering it down with rain
I knew I hadn’t refuelled properly, but right now I didn’t really have any choice – I had to make the best of a bad situation. I’d have to eat what I had on the road and just hope that I could get through to 107 miles where Sarah and our friends Tilly and Chris would be in Gilmorton to cheer me on.
The next food stop was at Castle Ashby which was at 143 miles into the ride with a cut off time of 5:45pm. It was now nearly 2pm and so I had 3 hours 45 minutes to get there. Doing the math in my head I felt better about this section, however I hadn’t factored in the weather and so it became another hard slog, not helped by the fact that I missed the first route marker due to shoving food down my neck! Thankfully I’d spotted some riders in Rapha kit to my right, realised my mistake and doubled back. It was at this point that I met up with Andrew Craddock from Los Angeles who had travelled over with 5 other L.A. Rapha Chapter members to complete the ride. It was 3 of his friends that I’d previously seen at the side of the Monsall Trail having crashed on the uneven surface.
We decided to ride together, taking it in turns on the front to provide the other with a bit of rest from the multidirectional headwind (it didn’t seem to matter which direction we were heading in we seemed to be in a block headwind) We pressed on and all I could think about was getting to halfway and seeing Sarah. It was great motivation as I ticked the miles off and waited to see signs for Gilmorton.
We arrived to see Sarah and our friends Tilly and Chris outside the Crown Inn. Unfortunately my rear light had run out of charge and as they would be doing a light check at Castle Ashby Sarah and I arranged to meet there to pick up a second light and more food. So after a brief chat and some words of encouragement Andrew and I were on our way. It surprised me how much seeing Sarah, Tilly and Chris raised my spirits and made me feel better about the fact that we were only half way through the ride. Our next stop was the ‘splash and dash’ at 130 miles where we stopped briefly to refill water bottles and before we knew it we were on our way again ticking off the miles and trying to conserve energy.
We arrived at the third stop, Castle Ashby, at about 5:30pm fifteen minutes before the cut off. Sarah was there with more food and my spare light so Andrew and I grabbed some snacks and started sorting out our bikes and bags. As we stood there I was happy to see the Derby lads pull into the food station. I was glad to see they were all together and still on the road. What happened next I wasn’t too happy about. Dead on 5:45 a marshal announced that the broom wagon was minutes away and that if anybody was still at the food stop and had not had their lights checked they were off the ride. I felt the colour drain from my face. Not again. I thought I’d actually made up time and here I was still on the time limit. Shit! Right, here we go again. I dashed to get my lights checked, a quick goodbye to Sarah and as quick as a flash Andrew and I were on our way again.
Thankfully there was no cut off at the next food station at 192 miles so the ‘Sword of Damocles’ was finally removed from above our heads, but I was really beginning to feel the miles in my legs and actually started to doubt I’d make it to the end. I could also sense that Andrew was understandably starting to suffer as well as chat was down to a minimum and I was spending longer on the front with my nose in the wind. I knew this might happen, but due to my tiredness and lack of food I started to feel angry about it. I knew it was totally irrational, but my mood was getting darker and darker by the minute. It wasn’t helped by the fact that a third rider had joined us unannounced and didn’t come through to take a turn which very quickly boiled my piss. Between 150 miles and 160 I was in a pretty dark place getting more and more tired and more and more angry at having to expend so much energy on the front.
At about 160 miles I was ready to ‘pop’ and launch my bike into the nearest field when suddenly a rider swept past and pulled in front of me. Finally I was out of the wind. I looked back and our numbers had swelled to about 10 riders. All absolute legends. I have no idea how long they had been there or whether they’d seen me flogging myself to death on the front and decided to step in before I exploded in a mass of swearing and bike hurling. I was so happy in be in second wheel and just focused on the rear wheel of the ride in front as I ate as much food as I had available. Being behind this absolute legend gave me a second wind and my mental state improved with every pedal stroke. With 50+ miles to go I now believed I could get to the finish if I could stay in this group. Another rider came through and suddenly I was sat in 3rd wheel flying through the English countryside our speed as a group increasing as these 2 very strong riders dragged us towards London.
For the next 30 miles they pulled the group along and I was able to get a break from the headwind which was still buffeting us at every opportunity. The day was now starting to draw in and so it was time to get our lights on and head down so pretty sketchy back roads. It was pretty hairy sitting on the wheel of somebody you don’t know as a cyclist smashing our way down dark country lanes with no street lights and no idea where you’re going. Oh and to make matters even more edgy it was now raining! We were trying to get an idea of where we were on the road and it was comical that nobody in the group had any idea where the next food station was or how many miles away it was. You could just hear the question up and down the line as we hurtled through the darkness!
We reached the final food stop and as we dumped our bikes in search of food the group made the decision to ride to the finish together which was music to my ears. To ride the last section into London with other people meant that my fear of riding solo into the capital was taken away and that was a massive weight off my mind. We stepped inside and I saw Aaron sat on the floor and he looked looked exactly how I felt – absolutely spent. He was still in good spirits, but he looked totally drained. I think that was probably something I hadn’t fully appreciated when signing up for the ride – How utterly drained I would be mentally as well as physically after 200+ miles. You are constantly concentrating and hyper aware of what is going on around you as you try and control yourself, your bike and know what everybody around you is doing as you are riding.
After a bit of refuelling we set off again with the final 22 miles in front of us. The joy at knowing that we only had 22 miles to go, about an hour and a half in the saddle, was quickly punctured (no pun intended) when a marshal let us know that there were some pretty spiky climbs which would sting the legs as we entered north London.
Yeah, thanks for that mate!
We set off and after about 5 miles my front light failed completely……..No battery power and no spare battery packs to breath some life into it. I was still in second wheel and shouted down the line that my light had gone and that I’d need some help from those behind to help me get through the dark country lanes. So until we hit suburbia and some lit roads I was having to use the rider in front of me to track lines on descents and the lights of the other riders to avoid pot holes and gravel. Not a great situation to be in, but there was no point squawking about it as I had to get to the finish.
I’d had read numerous blogs by people who had previously completed the M2L and they had all mentioned how the last section is an absolute killer. They weren’t wrong! At every turn you would hear the familiar sound of gears being grabbed as another climb temporarily halted our progress. The good thing was that we were all so tired at this time that everybody skipped into 1st gear and span their gear to the top. The worst thing though was that you couldn’t see the top of the climb to pace yourself. You had no idea how much effort you could put in at the base of the climb and so every ascent became a crawl.
Finally things started to flatten out and the roads we were riding were now lit by welcome street lights.
TWANG – As soon as I heard it I knew exactly what had happened and a big neon sign in my head flashed ‘BOLLOCKS’ in massive capital letters. It had happened earlier this year and my heart sank as I knew one of the spokes on my rear wheel had broken. The wheel instantly started rubbing against my rear brakes and I ground to a halt at the side of the road. Thankfully the group stopped with me as I span the rear wheel to see if I could get away with riding the bike to the finish. No chance. There was no way I was going to stop now and wait for the broom wagon to pick me up after all of the training I’d done, the kind donations from friends, family and work colleagues and riding for over 200 miles on the day. I reached down and removed both brake blocks which got rid of most of the rubbing, but now fully freed up, the rear was rubbing against the chainstay of the frame. I had a decision to make, ride to the finish damaging the bike frame in the process or quit…………
All ends up it was a very easy decision to make. Fuck it, I’m riding it in!
Thankfully the group had stayed with me as I made my bike ‘modifications’ and were amazing keeping the pace steady as we headed towards East Finchley. With the rain coming down steadily and as I only had one brake I sat out the back of the group making sure I gave them plenty of space and room. Every crease and bump in the road filled me with dread that another spoke would go or the wheel would disintegrate completely. Those final 10 miles were the longest 10 miles of my life on a bike as I nursed myself and my bike home to the finish at the TreeHouse School.
When we made the final left turn I could actually afford myself a smile as I knew I’d finally made it crossing the line after 17 hours 12 minutes total time (15 hours 7 minutes in the saddle)
As soon as I crossed the line I felt a mixture of emotions – Elation at finishing such an epic ride, relief that the hours of training had been enough, satisfaction that I’d raised an amazing amount of money for a fantastic charity and joy at seeing Sarah stood there in the rain cheering me over the line.
So there we are, the 2017 Rapha Manchester to London Challenge in aid of Ambitious about Autism is done. I’d just like to say a massive thanks to the following people. Sarah for putting up with the endless hours of training, the early starts and late returns when commuting as well as the numerous weekends lost to miles out on the road.
My family, friends and work colleagues for their continual support and generous donations and finally all the other participants on the M2L ride who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know of the last few months and who I met during the ride. There were some absolutely ‘cracking humans’ out there that day who dragged people to the finish line and asked for nothing in return. Kudos to you all!
Now the big question is, do I do it all again in 2018?!?!