Festive Wrap Cycling Challenge
It helps when you enjoy something.
Since I started doing longer rides, about 4 years ago, I have completed the Rapha Festive 500 challenge each year. It is a really simple concept which is to cycle 500 km outside between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. This means 8 days. Rides must be recorded on a gps device and uploaded to Strava, the web-based platform, and made visible for everyone to see.
There are different strategies for completing the challenge, such as doing a few longer rides here and there, squeezing in rides between family and work commitments and adapting to the weather, which in the northern hemisphere, can be quite an important factor. The most important thing though is just to get out and ride.
For the past couple of years, I have thought about trying to do more than the 500 km minimum, but somehow have never quite got around to it. I remember one year was icy so I missed a few days. One of my rules is not to ride in ice (for obvious reasons) or fog as other road users cannot see you clearly.
This year, I had hardly touched the bike for a few months since completing the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonée in August. I’m not sure why I wasn’t riding, but I just didn’t feel like it. Certainly, the weather wasn’t helping. In the UK, this period has been characterized by almost continual rain and damp conditions which does not make riding much fun. Maybe the break was more for my mind than body.
Chatting with the barista at my local cycling café (Camber CC) I reflected over my dis-inclination to ride but I tempered this with the fact that I was looking forward to the Festive 500, due to start in a few days. I think this was one of the reasons the challenge was started 10 years ago by Graeme Raeburn. It is to re-ignite people’s motivation to ride over the winter break and kick start fitness goals into the new year with a positive spirit. Although I love cycling and never usually have a problem with getting out of the front door, these past few months have certainly been a challenge.
The day before the start, I did a little research and plotted a 250km route around the Somerset Levels, trying to avoid any major (or minor) hills, because these would tax my legs unduly. In addition, I wanted to bypass major urban areas which would also slow my progress. I looked for a balance of interesting roads where I could cycle at a fair pace but not so busy that it would feel like I was on a major A road.
In the event, the route was quite good with one or two exceptions. I did not completely review my route choices so I found myself around Bridgewater bumping along a canal path for around 10 km worrying about my plummeting average speed and the fact that the wet mud would play havoc with my gears, chain and skinny tyres.
I need not have worried as later on, I came across flooded roads where I needed to keep pedalling through deep water up to my hubs or risk falling over sideways. There were compensations though. The golden light of evening against dark, threatening skies gave some truly beautiful views. I also saw huge flocks of starlings, shape-shifting as one through the sky as I witnessed one of the natural wonders of the world: the Murmuration.
That evening, after hosing my bike down and oiling everything necessary, I plotted some routes that would keep me closer to home in case of technical difficulties. Hence I chose to ride north from Bristol and use the small area of land bordered by the Severn Estuary to the west, Gloucester to the north and the A38 to the East. This way I could make use of the Services at Hardwicke, and the 24 hour toilets in Berkley. I could also visit a favourite café in Slimbridge if necessary.
Through helping at 24 hour and multiday running races, I know the importance of having facilities close by, and the simple fact that time spent off the track means your mileage total will be stagnant. Hence the importance of facilities on my route. Part of me was also keen to use a circuit as a mental test. Earlier in the year, I took part in the Transatlantic Way cycle event which was a 2,500 km ride mostly down the west coast of Ireland. This year there was a shorter route option which I ended up taking after about half distance when I could not face any more repeated circuits of hilly headlands which I had traversed before. Did I have a problem with laps?
The next day I would find out as I set out early and tried out my new loop to the north. Being Christmas morning, I was anxious to see what services would be available. I knew from past years that there would be a garage open on the A38 near Almondsbury to buy snacks, but I wanted to see if there was better choice somewhere else and so I followed my 75km circuit to Hardwicke. Here I found a small supermarket with a café inside and an excellent toilet. Such simple and basic requirements, but it was my best Christmas present! They had a hot food counter where I found savoury pastries, toasted sandwiches and hot drinks all at reasonable prices. I was so happy as this was the most perfect refuge. Thankfully there were no seats or else I might have struggled to leave.
As I was about to leave that Christmas morning, I thought I should check their opening hours. Would they be open on my next lap? Should I buy some bars or nuts to take with me?
I asked the lad behind the counter :
“Excuse me mate, what time do you close today?”
Without hardly even looking up, he rather glumly replied:
“We never close”
I was almost ecstatic and excited at the prospect of uninterrupted riding.
I rode steadily until 2pm before returning home for a lovely Christmas lunch with my family. After I had cleaned my bike, and thrown dirty kit into the washing machine I had a dilemma. Should I head straight back out of the door? In hindsight, the answer was of course yes. However, I had just done 400km in two days after 3 months of almost nothing and so I felt a little tired and justified to myself the need for an afternoon nap.
Waking at 7pm, my nap felt more like a full-scale hibernation. My dilemma continued, do I head off into the dark or get an early night? Surely I could squeeze in a cheeky 2-3 hours? In the end, I procrastinated over a cup of tea and decided to eat more food, and go back to bed. Tomorrow was due to be a big day and so I had better be ready.
The following morning, as I turned on my gps devices to head out of the door, I noticed one was quite flat. I thought I had charged both my devices overnight, but obviously I had only one ready. I wondered how long it might take to charge the other, but as I was standing in my kit ready to leave, I decided that now was not the time to wait. I put my gps down next to the crib scene in our hallway. It looked rather out of place.
Another early start this Boxing Day meant that distances were being ticked off quite nicely. The rest yesterday meant I was feeling good, even though I was moving quite slowly. Normally 100km would take around 4 hours, but today it was taking 5. In these situations it is easy to become despondent and ask yourself why are you so slow? But thankfully today my mind was behaving itself and only giving me encouraging information. As long as you are moving forward, you are making progress, and that is good. You might be having a break to buy food or use the toilet, that is also good. You are out riding, that is good. Basically, it’s all good.
After not heading out again last night, I also made a note to myself to be a bit stronger mentally. It seems going home at half time increased my temptation to stay home (obviously) and so I should stay out as long as I planned in one go. After all, I had 24 hour food and toilets, so there was no excuse.
I remember this day was a little tough due to the weather. I checked the forecast and saw that the likelihood of rain was 6%. I thought this was excellent but still wore my heavy waterproof jacket over my softshell. It was so cold that I wasn’t sweating much and did not feel dehydrated. The cold did mean that I kept having to stop for nature breaks though which slightly broke my riding rhythm.
I saw threatening clouds filling the sky and turned to face them,
“Oi!” I shouted at them,
“6% remember! 6%”
I laughed at the absurdity of arguing with mother nature, and I wondered what she thought of the BBC weather app. Nevertheless, before long, the prevailing dampness all around me was joined by fresh stuff from above. I had more imaginary conversations with the people upstairs…
“Hey! What’s going on? 6% remember! 6%...”
“When did I say 6%?”
“Ok, I know you didn’t say it, but the BBC did, and they’re practically God”
“Ha ha, I didn’t know that, I’ll have to tell the old fella”
Returning home that day I had a shock when my 300km ride would not upload to Strava. I tried to be detached and not worry about it. I thought back over the day and regretting not having a back up device. One of my reasons for splitting rides would be to mitigate against this kind of thing. Thankfully after a quick prayer, checking the Wifi settings, turning both gps and phone off and on, my account was updated with the new ride information.
Maybe this day I hadn’t eaten enough because the following morning I was absolutely creeping. Although I started early, progress was very slow. The temperature hovered around zero or one degree centigrade and I couldn’t get warm. The air was damp, the countryside saturated and I felt like all the warmth in my body was being sucked out by a Harry Potter-style death eater.
I made a small detour in Slimbridge to a favourite café, the Black Shed. As I peered through the door, trying to see if they were open, a kindly lady opened up and explained that I would have to wait 15 minutes for service but that I could wait inside if I liked. I accepted her offer, and the delay happily. I hadn’t had a stop this long so far on the ride, but felt it was necessary to try and warm up and keep things together. I had by now seen that I was doing very well on the worldwide leaderboard and so felt the importance of keeping myself healthy for the whole week. In that regard, a ¾ hour ‘delay’ spent getting hot food would be time well spent.
I rode through into the evening as late as I dared, knowing that the following day I had to work and cycling time would be severely restricted.
On Saturday 28th, I was required to start work as a caretaker at 7am, work a few hours, go home and return to work later for a few hours, closing up at 7pm. Initially, I was due to be off this weekend, and I had pencilled in a 500 km Audax ride in the company of others. As my shifts were changed, I was slightly upset that I could not do it so I was forced to change my plans over the festive 500 period and do shorter rides but with a greater frequency. In hindsight, this was probably a more effective strategy.
After my morning shift, I went shopping for bandages. By now my backside was getting really sore from riding and I could tell the skin was starting to become abraded. The roads I had chosen were quite bumpy and now I was starting to feel every irregularity in the surface below me. I bought a selection of different types and resigned myself to the painful process of application and removal that would follow.
To ride or not to ride.
It is a very simple decision and the choice should nearly always be to ride, especially in a week like this, where I was planning on riding as much as possible. With only a few hours between bandage shopping and being back at work, I decided to return home, eat as much as possible and check my bike and kit were ready for the next ride. The other thing I wanted to do was sleep, I had a couple of hours and that would help. No sooner had I lay down in bed than I realized that I was burning up, my body felt like it was on fire. Could it be burning aspiration or something else? I stripped off and was glad of having nothing touching my skin. Apart from the discomfort to my undercarriage, my face had been blasted by the cold and rain until it was quite tender despite buffs and wraps. My hands too were now pummeled and numb from the road vibrations. I should have fitted tri bars I told myself, to ease the pressure on my hands and backside, but I was using battery lights that took up all the space on my handlebars where the tri bars would normally be attached. I wondered if using tri bars would be against the spirit of the event, that it was certainly not a race, but still, it was a situation where they would be very useful. Ah well, maybe next time.
That evening, returning from work, I briefly called round to a friends house who was celebrating their birthday. I stopped briefly for soup and a chat and we spoke of course, about my ride. An obvious question was how far I intended to ride. The honest answer was that I did not know. Initially, I had thought that 1000km would be a nice target. In the next instance, however, I told myself that it was a very arbitrary choice. Why 1000? It’s just a nice round number. I could choose a number that had more significance and make it a personal statement, such as a birth year or an anniversary. I wondered about 1220 to celebrate 12 years and two months since my spiritual master passed away. In a neat display of symmetry, I had been accepted as a disciple 12 years and 2 months prior to his passing. I wondered if I could really ride that much? I did not know. In the end, I decided not to concentrate on numbers but just to ride, to do my maximum and see where it took me.
That evening, post soup, I headed out again, around 9 pm for my ride of the day. I was not sure how long I would be out for but I wanted to add some distance to my total. It was tempting not to ride and go to bed, telling myself I would be fresher for tomorrow, but I still carried the slightly unpleasant feeling of not going out twice on Christmas day. The feeling that I could have, possibly done more. I also secretly knew that now I was getting tired and building up a bank of deeper fatigue that would not be helped much by skipping a day. I knew my legs would be sore tomorrow anyway, and so to remain in a good position, I needed to ride again. Indeed, every day.
It was sometime in the small hours when I got in, 150 km later, knowing I would have to do it all again tomorrow. Everyone was in bed and the house was quiet. My eyes by now were completely bloodshot, two sunken scarlet pools staring back at me in the mirror, ringed by white discharge from both corners. I promised myself I would look into getting contact lenses and protective eye wear in the new year as the cold weather was whipping round my spectacles and battering my eyes. After a short sleep, the blood and discharge would have gone, but the puffy bags around half-closed eyes would remain until the end.
Sunday came and went. Time became a blur. My sister collected my niece from the train station and I missed her. She was older, in her 20’s now and I hoped she would understand my absence. It was the only family engagement I sacrificed over the period, and I agonized over it. I saw her the next morning at breakfast and we had a nice chat. We had mutually promised to spend some time at a café together and treat ourselves and now I was going back on my word. She said it was ok and I should go and ride but I felt terrible.
With a heavy heart I got ready to ride but realized that my eyes were closing, so having got changed, I went to lie down for 30 minutes. In the meantime, someone else drove my niece to the train station.
The next two days required me to be in work and my plan was to take these two days as one unit and ride as much as possible. So after very little sleep, I woke at 4.50 on Monday to open up my workplace. I knew I could not control what other riders did, but as long as I did my best, I would be happy. By now the end was in sight, which was fortunate because I was starting to struggle. Not so much physically because my legs were ok, and my backside had now gone comfortably numb. It was rather the cumulative effect on my morale of being out in the cold, dark and wet for such long periods.
There were highlights though. Riding around Slimbridge which is a sanctuary for birds and wildlife, I had the companionship of low flying swans, birds of prey, bats and field mice. On my return visits to Hardwicke services, the friendly lady who served me on Christmas day made it a point of breaking off what she was doing to ask me how I was getting on. After being alone for so long, this small human interaction was almost enough to start me crying.
Monday was, therefore, a late start riding after coming home from an early shift work. Things worked out well though, and after a huge breakfast, I rode until about 2 am Tuesday morning before coming home and uploading my ride. By now I was no longer cleaning my bike in the evenings. I was too tired, and as long as the gears and brakes worked, it would have to do. I had already replaced both brake blocks despite the flat nature of my routes due to the mud and grit on the roads. Now I just needed to oil the chain occasionally to keep it moving round, on January 1st the chain would be heading straight for the bin.
My next work requirement was a midday-2pm shift December 31st to close the facility early for New Year’s Eve. In planning my rides, I was a little annoyed that this shift would mess up my day and rob me of precious daylight riding time. As I couldn’t change this external factor, I decided to change my attitude and use it as a waypoint on the ride. I would cycle through Monday night, until Tuesday midday work. Then I would eat, shower and change before going out to finish on Tuesday night, December 31st.
This is pretty much exactly what happened. I rode Monday through to Tuesday around 2am, had some food and set out again. The only thing to add is that by now I was extremely tired, moving slowly and had to contend with freezing fog on that last morning. Although the roads are generally quiet in the small hours, one of my circuits made use of a B road that is shared with lorries servicing the many depots and warehouses in Avonmouth. Even though there is a segregated cycle lane for some of its length, there are exposed sections and so I decided to completely avoid this stretch when visibility was poor. To this end, I rode up and down, back and forth deserted lanes in the fog to get my totals for that morning.
Work was quiet that last day and I can’t pretend that I was very efficient. I took a huge amount of food to take with me and finished off a family-sized trifle quite easily. My colleagues took one look at me and assumed I had been partying hard over the festive period. I tried to explain, but I’m not sure they were convinced.
After a quick change, I was back out Tuesday afternoon with the happy thought that I would not be doing this tomorrow. Even though January 1st is a great time to symbolically start as you mean to go on, my new year’s day would be spent sleeping, visiting the bathroom and raiding the fridge.
In contrast to Tuesday morning, my final session that day went well. I managed to get half way around my 75km loop before the sunset, and I visited my favourite services for the last time. I passed isolated houses in the countryside, some lit up like the gaudiest circuses with their Christmas lights, all for the last time. I thought of family and how my mum would love to see these displays, I must drive her out here I thought, and then I wondered if I really would.
I no longer raged against the clouds and rain because the weather had lifted slightly and the threat of rain receded. The cold was drier now, and the wind a little more noticeable. As the time moved closer to midnight, I headed towards home and onto one of my smaller circuits. There was no need for any more food stops now. I had a bag of salted cashews and a fruit bar. I still had two bidons of water, although one had a small can of red bull diluted into the water.
Although the challenge finished at midnight, I did not know how things might be calculated if a ride went over into the next day. I did not want to take any chances by finishing at 00.01. Yet I knew that I could cover more distance on my faster, bigger circuit. By now I was flying along with a preposterous freshness in the closing stages of an 8 day challenge. Desperate to squeeze out the last few km’s, desperate to finish the circuit in time, desperate to get back home, desperate not to get overtaken on the leaderboard, desperate not to run over time. You might say I was desperate, but there was an exhilaration that ran through me that far outweighed any negativity that desperation implies. I knew I had done my best and had far exceeded what I thought I was capable of. I knew I was unlikely to top the leaderboard, and yet I could still be knocked down a few places if others were riding more strongly than me. I thought about the others in my position, in other parts of the world and I saluted them. If they did more than me, I was fine with that as I had done my maximum.
As I was riding well, I got home a little before I planned to, maybe 10 minutes or so and so I did loops around my house, small circuits of a couple of blocks. I could sense people in their homes getting ready to come out and fill the streets with shouts of Happy New Year. There was a rising tension in the air and I felt as though I was riding on a wave of that energy.
How late could I dare to ride until? What if the ride did not upload first time? I wanted to have the ride signed off before midnight but I also wondered how I would feel if I lost a place by one kilometre through lack of trying. In the event, I stopped at 11.50, giving myself ten minutes to upload the ride and all went well. I would not have advanced a place this night by one kilometre and I had not lost any places either.
Unless riders in other time zones uploaded rides to take me down a few places, it looked like I now had a good position. Whatever happened, I was very happy with my ride and surrendered to the outcome. All I had to do now was offer my gratitude for a great ride, wish my family and friends a Happy New Year and fall into bed.