It was back in October 2013 when I quickly grabbed a place on the Coast to Coast in a Day along with some of my local friends. Since then each one of us has clocked up thousands of miles in training, getting cold, wet, feeling miserable at times, getting punctured tyres and, if like me, wondered whether we were doing the right thing. Last Saturday it all came together and we did the ride along with over 700 other cyclists.
At times it seemed a ridiculous thing to do – cycling 150 miles from Seascale to Whitby. As if that wasn’t bad enough, make it a hilly route with 4,500 metres of climbing and it becomes truly mind boggling to do it in a day. Even worse is to go via Hardknott and Wrynose Passes and then just as you think the worst is behind you there is a 1:3 hill just 10 miles from the finish. That was cruel, including that last hill although it certainly makes it all the more memorable. You might think it was complete madness, good intentions gone too far and grown men should have a bit more common sense.
It was actually a group of us who did this, our Christian faith being the common thread. A couple of my friends dropped out for perfectly reasonable reasons and Andrew was able to joint us. “Us” being Jeremy, Josh, Robin and myself; so then joined by Andrew who was very welcome. Josh being the youngest is also the lightest and able to accelerate very quickly. Jeremy is extremely well trained and it shows. Robin is an excellent all-rounder in terms of fitness and (we think) the oldest in the group. Andrew has been a real star in clocking up an impressive number of miles this year and in a very disciplined way. In fact I remember saying that it is hard finding the time to train; Andrew replies by pointing out he would often cycle for two hours and go home for breakfast, then go to work. That’s cool. It is also an example of a disciplined life which should be admired. He’s also steadily built up the miles and had clocked up a 170+ mile ride as his longest ride, albeit flatter than the Cost to Coast. Myself, well into my 50s and I’m feeling my age. I simply don’t have the flat-out speed of the others and to be honest I think my training has been a bit more ad-hoc rather than following a systematic plan.
Training and preparation for myself involved thinking of increasingly longer rides, regularly dropping stinky Lycra clothes into the washing basket and regular discussions at the dining room table on all kinds of cycle-related topics. On this point I must say how terrific my family has been in supporting me with this (more about that later).
Starting on the big day
On Friday 27th we drove up to stay at Barrow in Furness, which is about an hour’s drive from Seascale (funnily enough all the local B&B’s seemed to be fully booked up….?). This meant we could get to the start and be ready to ride at around 5.30am. My bike was in bits in the boot of the car and putting it together was fairly easy and everything seemed to work alright. Registering was easy, group photos taken, family hugs done and we were off! I do admit to being slightly apprehensive – this would be my longest ride to date and the climbing was a bit of an unknown quantity as we don’t have many mountainous passes in the Herts, Beds, Bucks area.
Although we had agreed to cycle the event at our own pace (i.e. please don’t wait for me) we did start off together for the first few miles. After 4 miles we were in a kind of peleton with other cyclists and I saw in the corner of my eye someone running into difficulty and it turned out to be Robin running over a rock and getting a puncture. It was Andrew who reacted to instantly help, as a natural Good Samaritan. Should say, it wasn’t long before they were both pedalling again. I checked with Robin later as I had two spare tubes but he was okay and still had a spare.
Talking of punctures, Andrew disappeared for a few minutes while we were stuffing ourselves at the Kendal feeding station. I gathered later on he also had hit something and damaged a tyre. Although still rideable it was fragile and he took the opportunity to have a new tyre fitted at Evans, in Kendal.
This is the climb which everyone seems to be in awe of, even colleagues and friends who are motorists talk about the difficulty in driving up and over the Pass, let alone cycling! Thankfully we were all fresh and in a position to give it our best and this is just as well; there’s no mistaking this is a challenging climb. It’s mostly a single track road which snakes its way up, frequently at 1:4 or even 1:3 in places, including those hairpin corners.
The difficulty I had was shared with other cyclists: the front wheel feels “light” on those steep climbs owing to naturally shifting one’s body weight back a little. This combined with the gradient itself and pulling on the handlebars meant the front wheel lost contact with the road quite a few times and staying in control of the bike adds to the challenge. Although it wouldn’t have been difficult to lose balance, I just about carried on okay, but only just. There were at least two other cyclists who did lose balance and come off and this was probably not helped by the universal use of clipless pedals.
Getting to the top was a wonderful feeling and I couldn’t resist stopping for a few minutes to take a couple of photographs, including a selfie. Then Jeremy appeared, not too far behind. The trouble with stopping where I did, I think meant I was short of the Strava segment finish, so my time appeared even slower (not that I am at all competitive, only against myself!).
At the top were some Event Marshals and, I think, a medic. They warned everyone about the decent which is just as well as it took me by surprise. There was no way any of us could just let go of the brakes and freewheel down as it was simply too steep and the frequent bends were too tight. I can’t remember whether it was Hardknott or Wrynose but one descent was really bumpy which added to the difficulty. With both passes I needed to keep one or both brakes on all the way down, only releasing both for an occasional sped increase. I’m not sure this was necessary but I did keep alternating between front and rear brakes to help keep the rims cool: the last thing I wanted was an over heated tyre blowing off the rim. Later we heard there had been a crash involving a cyclist and the air ambulance being scrambled (we hear the casualty is fine now).
While I was hauling myself up Hardknott, huffing and puffing away, I was in quite a good rhythm for most of it and I could tell my breathing was getting deeper and deeper as I climbed higher – for most there was no way I could hold much of a conversation but it felt good. No idea what my heart rate was, perhaps I didn’t ought to know but it was certainly a good workout in its own right. Somehow all the running I have done, including running up and down hills, might be paying off with a reasonable cardiovascular capacity.
Despite the front wheel lightness, the bike performed well albeit heavier than average. The gearing was spot-on and having a triple chainset taking the drive down to a 1:1 ratio was perfect for me. I had figured beforehand I was probably going to be the only one with a triple but this proved to be wrong. Those who were making it up Hardknott comfortably were either using triples, or, like Jeremy and Robin, who had fitted 32t cassettes and these worked well with the 34t chainring.
One of the unexpected highlights was taking the ferry across Lake Windermere. It was an opportunity to stop, take a breather and simply enjoy the scenery while we crossed the lake. The organisers had thoughtfully stopped the chip timers for this. We didn’t need to wait for long but Robin arrived just after our ferry had left so he had to wait the longest.
Fuel, fatigue and coping with ‘the wall’
There were a few times during the 150 miles when I felt as if all of my energy was being sapped away, especially when I found myself cycling on my own. To be honest, although those were probably the hardest parts, I enjoyed being on my own for a little bit and away from the 700 other cyclists for a few short periods. Sometimes I knew I was struggling more than I should and other cyclists would then over take me. The other thing was to remind myself that I often used to hit a “wall” when I used to run and it lasts for up to five minutes, before a further burst of energy kicks in. This is where getting my nutrition and fluid intake right has helped.
Helpfully the event organisers had included five feeding stations and I think these were pretty good. They seemed to be at the right intervals (for me 2+ hours apart) and had a good selection of food to eat. There’s nothing I’d do differently with these apart from having a few more toilets available. They even included Jelly Babies!
Another thing to bear in mind is that many cyclists go slower when they’re on their own and this certainly applies to me. I remember sometimes when I had been overtaken was to chase after those faster cyclists, especially if they were in a tight group. The purpose was to tuck myself in behind for a few miles and the increased speed seemed easier than plodding on on my own. Sometimes if I found myself behind one or two other cyclists, I’d move up to share the “load” of being in front for a little. This slip streaming is also known as draughting and is a touchy subject with some. Some are happy to allow another cyclist who is struggling to draught, others are stricter about this tyre sucking business and aren’t happy unless it’s taken in turns. Whichever way you are on this, there’s no doubt it can be helpful for the struggling cyclist as I think it adds 3 – 5mph depending on the conditions.
Yikes – CRAMP YET AGAIN!
You might remember I have blogged about getting cramp and how it has pretty much been resolved. Not so now. At the 80 mile point I had cramp in both feet, on and off for a few miles and then it gradually eased on its own. Then it was the turn of one of my quad muscles in my right leg to be affected. This hurt so much more and cycling seemed to make it worse, particularly when I was at the top of the pedalling stroke and so I stopped a couple of times to stretch my leg and massage the muscle until it eventually eased. Although that seemed to work, I was suffering from muscle soreness for 2 or 3 days afterwards. Should mention I had two water bottles and both contained a couple of High 5 dissolvable tablets. I think they must have been helping but clearly not enough and this is the only part of my nutrition and fluid intake which remains a tricky issue simply because it doesn’t relate to feeling thirsty or hungry.
Everyone was pretty friendly with some nice banter thrown in. I recall being followed by a couple of slip-streaming cyclists when I heard “look, a Brooks saddle!”
I knew they were talking about me, so I turned and said “oh so you recognise them?” and the reply from the other was “recognise them? Of course he does, he invented them!”. I laughed and together we almost fell off.
Also I remember cycling along with some others who were perhaps, shall we say, all in the same age group. I remember cycling alongside Dave for several miles as we approached one of the feeding stations. What struck me was that he was in such good shape and motoring along at a good steady pace. He said he was 64 and was riding a 2014 Giant, carbon fibre, equipped with Ultegra and looked a lovely bike for £1500. Dave was also a triathlete and he was seriously impressive in terms of his achievements but also in his down-to-earth modesty. If I’m that fit at his age I’ll be really pleased. Dave, thanks, I enjoyed your company. I slip streamed another couple when I was feeling at my lowest and at times we were able to ride along side each other as I wanted to check out that they were okay with this (if the woman was not actually with the man, it wouldn’t have seemed right on my part). Sorry I didn’t catch their names but I remember they were from Bournemouth and provided me with the pace I needed and some conversation to take the low point away. I was grateful for that.
So how was my bike?
You might remember in previous blog posts I questioned whether I had the right bike for this event. I concluded I probably didn’t but it was good enough and I liked the idea of adding some memories to this particular bike. I didn’t see anything else like mine at all. The nearest was an Enigma which I think are mostly titanium. Everything else seemed aluminium or carbon fibre, mostly “road” sportive-friendly bikes with the occasional time trial bike thrown in. Some of the sportives had triple chain sets and naturally these were better on the hills for all but the strongest of cyclists.
Although my Thorn Audax seemed heavy and a bit of a notch-potch, it did really well. It had the right range of gears and I can tell you I used the entire range! The Shimano STI levers are brilliant to use, so much better than those old bar-end shifters, plus the STI shifters are so comfortable and ergonomic to hold and use.
The brakes were, well, adequate. It’s just as well I up-graded to Ultegra brake pads recently (review to follow) otherwise I would have been seriously tested on some of the steep descents.
The main thing about the bike was the comfort and this is the advantage of a steel frame. You see it has a little flex and “give” which takes away some of the road vibration which can be tiring. The handling is safe and predictable but not as exciting as some of the lighter, shorter and stiffer frames.
Therefore it might be rather heavy, old fashioned and quirky looking but I like it and it did me proud.
Stunning. Stunning throughout. Stunning through the changing landscape of the rugged Cumbrian mountains, the North Yorkshire Moors and the gentle farm land just after the half way point. Stunning.
The final leg
Although we (my friends and I) had loosely cycled at about the same pace and bumped into each other at the feeding stations, we weren’t really together. Or at least I was always behind them once we’d got past Kendal. Robin had zoomed ahead but there was Andrew, Josh, Jeremy and myself all at the last feeding station together. We decided to finish together and somehow I found myself setting off first having said something about the others catching me up. They did. Not only did they catch me up but they overtook me! I can tell you I was needing to work hard to keep up!
About 10 miles from Whitby we came across a really steep hill.
“Is this the one you warned us about Andrew?” I asked.
“Yes, indeed it is”
It was a short-sharp climb which we discovered was 30% once we’d got to the top.
“Wow that’s 1:3” said Jeremy.
I was thinking it was good I didn’t realise that at the bottom or else I might have quit cycling and simply pushed it up. Instead I remember getting into my lowest gear 26t x 26t at an early opportunity and grinding my way up, sometimes standing on the pedals and sometimes being right at the limit. I was on the edge of screaming, crying, passing out and yelling as I hauled my way to the top. After 140 miles, that was hard going but I was determined I was NOT going to give in and push. I had made it that far and I wasn’t going to give in at all.
A little further on we were on minor roads, newly re-dressed with chippings over soft tar and this is horrible to cycle on. We took care, all of us, as the chances of coming off were much higher and I knew I was getting tired and less likely to react or evaluate things quickly enough.
We got a glimpse of the sea, the pace quickened. Jeremy was in front, followed by Josh, Andrew and myself. Jeremy was powering forward, head down and riding with real purpose. Corners and roundabouts were taken quickly, all of us leaning over in turn. The edge of Whitby came and the pace became faster as we were dropping in height all the time. Through the streets following those yellow arrows and out onto the sea front and waved into the finishing funnel to cheers and waves. We arrived together – thank God – truly thank God for such a wonderful ride.
I saw my family, we were beaming at each other and I could hear nothing other than “well done Daddy”. Getting my finishers medal, handing back the timing chip and anything else all seemed to happen on its own as I was in a daze – I’d completed my longest ride of 150 miles and felt on top of the world!
I cannot thank my family enough here – Rachel, Becky and Hannah. All those times when I’d disappear for bike rides on Sunday afternoons and other times too. Those smelly tops, shorts etc that seemed to be everywhere and smell everywhere. Those monotonous conversations about cycling, cycling. cycling cycling, running and more cycling. And simply for your love and support, knowing that I simply need to do these things as a release valve from a stressful job.
Also to Sarah and Libby who came along to support us too and the surprise appearance of Andrew’s in-laws who came to cheer us along with their smiles and waves.
Please look out for some refections from our friend Sarah (Jeremy’s wife) which I’ll publish in a day or so. Also a follow-on post about some statistics including a breakdown of my own time (13 hours 13 minutes).
Coast to Coast in a Day website – click here – if you fancy having a go at this fantastic event on 27th June 2015 you need to move fast. Entries open on 7th July 2014 and if last year is anything to go by, all the places will be sold out in a few days. I would highly recommend this event to anyone who is able to cover the distance and climbing. It could be argued as an iconic ride. Perhaps one of the attractive things is that it suits busy people who cannot simply say “I fancy doing LEJOG / JOGLE over X days”.
Would I do this event again?
I’ll let you know. If not that doesn’t mean I regret this in anyway; far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed the build-up (albeit nervously). I have said before I don’t want to have too many regrets when I’m a 100 year old man in a nursing home wishing I had done certain things when I was younger. I know I will have regrets, of course I will but I can at least do a few things about that now.