There and Back Again
Or Bristol-Glasgow-Bristol May – June 2017
I’d had it in mind to ride up the west coast of the UK to Glasgow and back ever since I was unable to gain a place in the London-Edinburgh-London this year. So when I saw this route proposed by a local rider, I fairly jumped at it.
I was excited and a little nervous at the same time. To prepare, I had done some long rides earlier in the year, but nothing close to this. In the week before the ride, I rested as much as possible, ate plenty and slept lots. I knew that there would probably never be an ideal time to embark on such an adventure in terms of fitness and preparation, so I decided to just go anyway.
I had 136 hours and 15 minutes to complete the ride of 1635km which worked out at just under six days. My plan was to do around 300km a day so that I had a safety buffer to finish within the time limit. After the first day however, I realized that I was slightly out of touch with reality when it came to covering that distance with so many hills.
It seems that the organizer likes hills. I mean, really likes hills. For the first 1000+ km there were hardly any flat bits. The road was either going up or down constantly. It felt like I was on a roller coaster bobbing and weaving my way up the country. The novelty of climbing through high and bleak desolate moorlands soon wore off. My guess is that it took about half a day.
My first day took me through Wales which usually means two things: hills and rain. I certainly had many hills to climb, but the rain was only light.
I had a few sketchy moments. The first two involved me going down steep hills too quickly and skidding around wet corners. If I’m honest the third ‘moment’ was much the same but rather more dramatic. A sweeping left hand bend saw me scrub off a little speed but in hindsight, not enough. As the road was wet and liberally sprinkled with gravel, I was reluctant to lean into the corner as much as I should have.
The final straw came as I continued round the bend to find a rather large sheep standing in the road, just where I was hoping to point my bike.
Before I knew it, I was no longer following a graceful line around a smooth bend in the road. I was leaving the asphalt and taking a perfectly straight line across the heathland, tussock grass and a soft mossy carpet filled with bumps and holes big enough to swallow feet and front wheels.
It was indeed quite a ride, and I can only compare it to a kind of fair ground bucking bronco as I felt sure that at any second I would be pitched forward over the handlebars of my skinny carbon fibre road bike.
Somehow though, I remained upright and still clipped in to the pedals until I came to a graceful stop some distance from the road. I think the word is miraculous. Shaken slightly and disbelieving that I had got away with it, I walked back to the road and gingerly clipped back into my pedals and continued on my way. I think somewhere a sheep bleated with respect. After this, I took the descents a bit more carefully.
My plan was to ride the length of the Wales and stop for the night before pressing on (following the route on my gps was a requirement of my ride, I was not allowed any short cuts!).
By the time dusk descended on that first night, I found I hadn’t gone quite as far as I needed to, and so after raiding a small store for food, continued onwards until around 10 pm.
I across a small, deserted church around this time and tried to get some sleep. In my quest for a light weight set up, I had brought a bivvy bag and sleeping mat only, thinking that would be enough to keep me warm. After a couple of hours tossing and turning and generally not sleeping at all, I realised my set up was woefully inadequate and so decided the only thing to do was to ride through the night to warm up.
By riding at night, I was able to get through some built up areas that were wonderfully quiet and so I could breeze through without hardly stopping. There is always a pay off however to riding at night, and around 6am I was feeling very tired, wet and my stomach was starting to shut down.
I knew from previous rides that if I stopped to rest things would sort themselves out, and so I booked a hotel room for a short sleep. Luckily there was a restaurant attached and so I ate as much as (in)humanly possible before continuing a 4 hours later.
After my first fairly disastrous attempt at Bivvying, I decided not to sleep outdoors again and so used hotels and guest houses in places where I had nothing arranged.
One night in Scotland however, I came across a Visitors Centre located in the middle of a forest park. I had planned to be at this place in the day time and visit their café, but at this point I was well behind schedule, and it was late, dark and very, very closed.
Something prompted me to try the handle of their toilets and to my amazement, I found it to be unlocked. As it was clean, spacious and warmer than being outdoors, I locked myself inside and unpacked my sleeping gear. After tossing and turning for a few hours, I convinced myself I was fully rested and continued north to Glasgow.
In hindsight, I was grateful for the break as the next section was quite long and over desolate roads that I did not fancy riding in the dead of night in my tired state.
In Glasgow I had arranged to stay with a friend. All the way there I had tried to tell him when I would be arriving, but I had to keep putting the time back further and further as I was quite down on my daily distance. By the time I finally arrived (9am), he had gone to work but kindly left the keys out.
I managed a couple of hours sleep on an air mattress, and after a shower and food, I set off to negotiate the city and finally head southwards.
Making the turn, like in an old fashioned time trial, I now encountered the wind in my face and tried not to think about the possibility of a 3 day headwind but to only deal with the moment in hand.
The subsequent day was very tough, as the headwind continued, the rain persisted and the very bumpy roads meant that my garmin gps device kept turning off. By now I realised that it wasn't recording my ride. This was worrying as I feared my effort might be called into question and would not be validated. Would the whole ride count for nothing? I decided to continue anyway and told myself that even if no one else believed I had done the ride, my body, heart and soul would certainly know.
After letting the organiser know of my predicament, I decided to keep taking more photos on the way to prove my passage as well as keeping hold of shop receipts.
On this day of doom, I needed a few ‘cry breaks’ en route.
(crying is optional, but an all-consuming tiredness and hopelessness compels you to stop for a moment, if nothing else to satisfy the mind and indulge the body).
I remember at one point crawling off the bike and lying down at the roadside between some small bushes where I could get out of the wind for a moment. I checked my bags for food and my phone for messages. I found both, and so got back on and continued riding.
I had planned to get to Gretna Green (just before the border between Scotland and England) that day but I was so wet and shattered by the time I reached Annan that I decided to look for a room there.
I got a pizza at 'Marios' which was lovely, and as I was explaining my situation to the girl at the counter, she seemed to take pity on me and left the pizzeria to try various pubs/hotels in the town to see if any had a room for the night. Such kindness was really touching and I am so grateful for such experiences.
To my huge relief, she found me a room just across the street for £42 and I checked in dripping wet, with half a pizza in my hand. Again I asked about an early check out (2am) as I realised I now had just 2 full days to do the 600km home. I felt this was achievable, but there would be no time for more setbacks or for falling behind schedule.
My brother was staying in Derbyshire 330km away, and so I planned to sleep there before completing the final 270km to Bristol on the final day. If I thought that the ride into Annan was hard, the next day nearly broke me.
My lasting memory of this day is of climbing a 5km hill at around 12.45 am and seeing car headlights ahead, high up in the night time blackness and tiny as dots moving in and out of view as they rounded the bends. It dawned on me, slowly, that there was only one road, and I would have to follow it and go where the dots were, way up high, and a long way away if I was to reach my bed that night.
All I could think about was sleep. The longer I rode, the later it got and the less sleep I would have that night. Three or more times, I stopped mid-climb at the side of the road, unclipped my feet from the pedals and just stood astride my bike, too tired to get off and too numb to go forwards. I remember resting my head on my handlebars as I was bent double, and with my eyes closed drifting into some kind of sleep-daze. The feeling was so overwhelming, of being so tired and wanting it all to end.
Somehow, after pulling out of this sleep-embrace you realise you are still on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere. It is dark, and you still have a long way to go. It is not a happy place, but crying (again) won’t make it better. You need to clip in to your pedals and continue.
Around 1.30am I finally reached my bed for that night, peeled off my wet layers and slipped into bed. It took me longer than it should to get ready for bed in my tired state. Maybe it was an hour but I no longer cared. At any rate I needed to be awake and of the door within 3 hours if I was to have any chance of finishing the ride within the time limit.
The previous night I had fantasized about sleeping in, and how I would feel if I overslept on the last day. In the event however, I managed to rouse myself after 2 hours sleep and was out the door in good time.
Setting off for the last day, something was different, I felt great and could not account for it. Progress was fantastic to start with, I had a tailwind and flat roads meant I was flying along at high speed and was very confident of an early finish. However things changed later in the day when I ran out of flat roads and reached hills to the north of Bristol. I felt as if I was in the middle of a maze. No sooner would I crest one hill than I would look around to see myself surrounded on all sides by more and with no prospect of an easy escape.
Although the scenery was beautiful and the weather benign, I also realised that the wind had turned against me and I was no longer sure of finishing in time. Only as I approached the final 50 km with time in hand could I relax a little and anticipate my arrival at the organiser’s house.
At the finish, I arrived with just a little time in hand. My ‘prize’ was a glass of special whiskey that came from Scotland, but as I don’t drink, I settled for a cup of tea. After a pleasant chat and exchanging tales of my adventure with the organiser (the first and currently only other person to complete the route), I gingerly set off for the short ride back to my house, nursing everything that was sore (left achilles, both knees, raw rear end, swollen hands with inflamed nerves and a neck that could no longer support my head). My thoughts turned to gratitude for being able to complete the ride at all and then I looked forward to a good lie down, shower and food, in what ever order these things should present themselves, as I was past caring.