So it is over.
I became somewhat lightheaded en route to my sock in Glasgow, last seen on day 6/7, and can no longer remember waking, packing, breakfast, or any of the stuff I usually write about. Of the ride:
The first third was quite good. I had left very late, such that I was right at the back for quite a while. It even seemed like I might not pass anyone ever. I was slightly nervous. But after twenty minutes or so I started to see other riders on the road. We rode though a village at some point and a small group overtook me on the flat. I rode by them on a very slight hill, then they overtook me on the flat again. We jostled for a while, and eventually their leader invited me to join their group. I said, ‘that’s okay,’ and then I finally left them behind when we turned into the wilderness, the hills, and the wind.
I started riding with a young guy who was keeping a good pace. This was the best part of the day as I had a fast wheel to draft half the time, and the views were pretty good. It was up and down and alacritous, and I was imaging myself finished by 2PM and home by 7, and then getting in about a day and a half of heavy-duty relaxation before going back to work on Tuesday.
The first pit-stop was ghastly. It seemed that all of the stalls were made of midges, all of the food was also midges, and as we ate the midges, midges also ate us. I wolfed down some salt and vinegar midges, then bounced back onto my bike, now riding solo.
Soon after, I encountered the winds. We had been relatively lucky with the wind so far, and I suppose we were overdue some punishment. So here it was. A constant twenty miles per hour head-wind for sixty-five miles. Furthermore, there were many hills adjoining the settlements that dapple the north eastern corner of Old Blighty.
At some point I encountered a similarly paced rider, and we did the swap-the-lead thing for a while, as we rode by crofts and smallholdings on a sheep-strewn track. As we jostled, all I thought of was micturition. There was less seclusion than you would imagine in the Scottish tundra, due to a lack of trees and an abundance of cyclists (for one day only, I suppose), so when I was eventually relieved it was in a tcheuchter garden and it was violently emitted.
We soon reached the northern coast, and conditions became depressing. I no longer cared about reaching John O’Groats. I regretted ever buying a bike. On each hill I was in my lowest gear, gasping, and I cycled for the rest of my miserable life. Eventually I reached the second pit-stop, and on demounting my bike it blew away into the ocean and I jumped into the air for joy.
But then, after I rehydrated myself with an, unfortunately, non-alcoholic beverage, I realized my bike was still there after all, and there was still thirty five miles to go. 935 down, thirty five to go. I mewled.
See: when you cycle you want to spin and roll. You want a constant, fast cadence, and you don’t want to feel like you’re straining. When you hit a hill, or a headwind, you either slow right down, or you burn a match. Slowing right down is depressing. Burning a match is costly.
Burning a match is when you put that extra effort in, normally just a brusque burst, until you can spin and roll again. You don’t always need to burn a match—sometimes, say, on a big hill, you’ve got the adrenalin of competition to drive you on—but sometimes there’s nothing to drive you except the thought of the end, and you know that the end will come sooner if you burn another match.
Thing is: there is a limit to how many you can burn, and if you burn one and see no benefit, you become despondent.
And in a sixty-five mile head-wind, burning a match does nothing. It blows out before it’s born. Sure, you can get out the saddle and mash the pedals and fill your thighs with lactic acid and empty your lungs. But it doesn’t do anything. You haven’t got over the hill, or round the corner out of the wind, or nearer anything. You’re still fucked.
In fact, nothing works. The caffeine pills don’t help, the painkillers don’t work, The icing of deep heat you’ve coated yourself with doesn’t feel like anything, the glucose gel taste horrible and don’t lead to any performance enhancement. You can’t even think of other things. There is only one thing.
I let up on the pedals—a man has been slowly catching up with me for about twenty minutes now. I resolve to let him pass. Being caught is almost as bad as the wind. But he doesn’t want to pass me: he wants a chat.
Dear reader, I knew nothing, nothing at all, about cycling a headwind. It isn’t more muscles, nor more drugs, nor a more aerodynamic steed, that you need. You need a pal. We chatted for an hour and more, about sports science, about our local hills, about climbing styles, about cadence. It was all bike chat. I’m not sure we even swapped names. But it got me through.
I felt a bit guilty when John O’Groats came into sight and I sped away, desperate for the line, for the end, for my retirement from athleticism. As it turned out, what I saw was not John O’Groats, but some other two-bit hick village on the edge of nowhere. That was a match burned needlessly. But I powered on, and soon enough I was there.
I crossed the finish line, and was baffled by the announcer saying my name and by the organizer shaking my hand and medalling me. I barely noticed it happening, although pictures prove it did, as I was busy scanning the crowd for my brother, who, absurdly, had agreed to pick me up and drive me home.
I went and collected my things and surveyed the shower queue. There was one. I wet wiped myself in the porta-loo and put on a tracksuit. We drove home. My brother had never seen Glen Coe, so I insisted we take a detour, not realizing this would add over an hour on to what turned out to be a six hour drive.
The A9 from John O’Groats to Inverness was quite spectacular. The sun was effulgent and the ocean was glistening . We ate doughnuts from the massive Tesco that you can find on the very limit of the landmass (long beyond civilization). We stopped at a petrol station in some outpost of idiocy so I could buy beer and effuse. By the time I reached my home, long after dark, I was wobbly with drink and dehydration. I had pizza with my girlfriend and went to bed.
It was over.
At the time of writing, it is 30 December 2014. What does Ride Across Britain mean to me now?
The day after I finished the ride, I weighed and measured myself, and discovered that I weighed 137 lbs, had a 27 inch waist and a 33 inch chest. My BMI was 20.2 and I had a body fat percentage of about 7%.
I wish I could have carried that fitness through the rest of the year, but I had exams to sit and busy times in work, and I couldn’t cycle as much as I would have liked. And it has slid a lot. I’ve gained at least six pounds and an inch on the waist. But I have managed to cycle almost every weekend, and have put in almost 300km in the last week (my best winter total ever by far) so I’m still fit. I can’t see myself ever getting as fit as I was for RAB again. The calorie counting and protein quaffing was too tedious, and weirdly addictive. I cycled a total of 8,500 km in the year of 2014. Lots of thinking time.
I hope you found the diary funny, though actually by and large it wasn’t a funny experience. I have now re-read all of the entries, and I am very pleased with it as a description of the experience. It was hard work, and there were points were I felt like I was losing it, and many moments when I wished I could just stop. Sleeping in a tent is not that fun, and keeping a 15,000 word journal takes up a huge amount of your spare time.
Reading through, I can’t help but notice the amount of time I spent being nasty about other people. I have tried not to make the victims of such vituperative descriptions easily identifiable, and I sincerely hope they never discover their abuse. I actually toned it down a tad. In my defence, in Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22, he notes that someone he respected once remarked that when one puts another down it speaks more of the abuser than of the abused. He was moulded by this advice in that he resolved to try to cease making fun of others. I think this is folly: I imagine Hitchens still had these cruel thoughts, and I take it that in taking the advice he simply sought to disguise his character. I say to you: judge me as one who judges absent-others harshly. It says more of my own vanity that of any supposed faults in anyone else.
What I learned on my holiday
- My legs are stronger and more resilient than I expected
- The human capacity for suffering and for bullshit is incredible
- For someone as driven and motivated as I am, I am astonishingly negative
- I’m a bit of a loner—I liked riding with lots of people as it made me feel safe riding the length of Britain, but usually I would rather write my journal or read me book than engage in small talk, and I’d rather take longer to cycle alone than join a group
On Sally Preece
I have since found out that the woman who died was Sally Preece, a mother, who was riding to raise money for Alzheimers. I have thought often about her. I can’t convey anything meaningful to those who knew her, but I am sad that this happened. On the other hand, I think it’s worth noting that cycling isn’t a particularly dangerous pastime, and I hope that nobody reading this has been discouraged from taking up cycling due to the risks.
People have asked me if I felt like I hadn’t completed the Land’s End to John O’Groats, due to the police truncation on the day Sally died. I do not feel like this, and I doubt I will ever go back and re-do Day 7, despite living very near to the start line.
I did all I could. To anyone who feels the need to go back and re-do that day, I wonder: why? I can only imagine this urge comes from the same root as that that makes men desire to collect stamps, or buy children’s toys that will never be unwrapped. It is an irrational urge for completeness. It evidences motivations and goals that are incongruous with reward. It is wholly self-centred, and hence utterly pointless.
You, dear reader, may feel that this blog satisfies all the above criticisms. I couldn’t refute that.
If you enjoyed this series, please donate to Sally Preece’s chosen cause at: https://www.justgiving.com/Sally-Preece-RAB