Last week, Dom Irvine took on the slightly unnerving challenge of riding the 1400km from London to Edinburgh and back on a single speed bike. Here’s how he got on.
I sat staring into the bowl of fruit salad, each piece of fruit taking an age to eat, and every two or three pieces needing to stop for a few minutes to allow waves of nausea to pass. I knew this was my moment of truth. I was dangerously close to chucking in the towel, and I hadn’t even made it as far as Yorkshire.
I was about 330km into the 1440km London – Edinburgh – London Audax. Held once every four years and limited to a 1000 riders, the route starts just North of London travelling up the east side of the country before crossing over to the West at Brampton and following a loop via Moffat, Edinburgh, Eskdalemuir and back to Brampton before following pretty much the outbound route south. In following the route you could be forgiven for thinking the UK is made up of only tiny lanes, pretty villages and delightful small towns. It was a clever route. Easily the most stunning part for me were the Northern sections, from Moffat over the hills to Edinburgh and from Edinburgh over the hills via North Niddleton, Innerleithen and Langholm and back over the border riding through Teesdale. Riders have up to 116 hours to complete the trip.
But back to my fruit salad. I knew exactly what I had done wrong, I knew it when I was doing it, but somehow the exhilaration of flying along in a group eating up the miles in the warm sunshine was a drug too addictive for me to say no. And so I found myself a few hours later paying the price. Experience has taught me that if I push too hard for too long, eventually I can’t keep food down, and once that happens, it’s a steady decline to a very low and dark place, from which it can take hours to recover. Things then got worse; half an hour later I crashed. Descending a steep hill with an even steeper climb the other side, I planned to make the most of the descent to give myself a chance on my single speed bike to get up the other side. I didn’t however see the slight mud covered gravel strewn bend in the dip. I hit the corner at about 40mph, held the line as long as I could before my wheel slid out from under me and I knew it was going to hurt. It did. Time to take stock. I sat on the side of the road on my own in the darkening gloom and trying to decide – Do I carry on, or do I give up.
Give it time
As in all long distance activities, things get better – if you allow them to. I slowed down, cut myself some slack, stopped at the control in Thirsk and was very kindly patched up. I drank some tea, ate some food and set off into the night. This time with the radio on, just cruising away. I was on my own and would be for the next 550 miles. A brief stop for shower, change of kit and a 40 minute catnap in Barnard Castle saw me settled into the long distance groove I knew so well. Heart rate around 95-105, the right clothes, good music, and a few choice snacks to keep the spirits high. A phone call with my wife every few hours to catch up, feel the love and share the moment always, always helps me feel sorted.
One crisis is never enough
One crisis is never enough on a long ride. My second came at Edinburgh. The ride was starting to go well, but as I climbed up the last hill to the control my right knee started to feel really sore. As the climbs came thick and fast after the control the pain grew and grew. If you’re riding a geared bike, you can spin along and take it easy again, but my decision to ride a single speed and the hills out of Edinburgh and into North Yorkshire did not permit such luxury. As the pain got worse I had to modify my cycling style, avoiding pushing at all costs on my sore leg and punishing my other leg with immense efforts to get up the steeper hills. I zig-zagged my way up climbs grimacing with pain, wondering how long I could keep going. Lance Armstrong is quoted as saying ‘pain is temporary, quitting’s forever’. That always kept me going when I believed him to be an awesome athlete. Somehow now we know he’s a cheat it didn’t have quite the same motivational effect. My knee pain continued all the way south to the Fens, where at least it was flat and the pain lessened. I was all set to limp my way in when somewhat amazingly, it started to fade and for the last 80 or so miles I was able to really crank up the effort and start to make up for lost time.
It’s no joke
And then of course there’s the weather. With temperatures in the preceding weeks in the very high twenties and even low thirties, I was hoping for a sunny adventure in the countryside. And for the most part it was like this. I had bought a Paramo jacket. These are heavy, a bit shapeless and don’t feel in the slightest bit waterproof. They are, in the true sense of the word – awesome. Cloud burst after cloud burst left many riders cold and shivering as they battled on into the torrential rain. I on the other hand remained completely dry within the jacket – no sweatiness, no dampness, just dry. I have had many jackets over the years but never have I experienced such comfort. Of course it meant I looked like a tourist with this slightly baggy coat and I required a larger than desirable bag in which to transport it when it was dry, but I will never be intimidated by heavy rain again. The difference being warm and dry in heavy rain makes to your morale is just incredible. This was the first time it got a proper shakedown although I had suspected the jacket was this good after testing it on a few previous rides.
It’s about preparation
Just as the coat got tested in advance, so did all the kit. I also use a coach to help me devise a proper training schedule. In my case it’s Ian Mayhew of Gearsandtears.com. I’m always amazed how many people don’t bother getting some expert input. How many top athletes in sport still have a coach even though the athlete is world class? Answer – almost all of them. It’s even more critical for us lesser time, famished mortals, who squeeze in training around full time jobs, to get some advice. Making every session count to deliver your sporting goals is just as important for the enthusiastic amateur as it is for the elite athlete. As always, whilst I hated some of the lonely overnight, on my own long distance rides, I really did appreciate the benefit during the ride. It’s as much about training the mind as training the body.
When you are riding on your own, you have no sense of where you are in the field. Invariably, you think you are the back marker and must be last. As each control point came and went the volunteers with increasingly frequency made a comment or two about ‘you faster riders’. I thought they were just being polite. Many controls were like the Marie Celeste, just me and 20 or so volunteers, racks and racks empty of bikes, mounds of food uneaten. “You’re the 35th person we’ve seen today, became the “20th” became the “15th” and finally at the finish became the “11th” after just under 77.5 hours. It seems that whilst many riders were far superior and faster, the tortoise really is faster than the hare. Whilst they slept and recovered, I slipped by in the night stopping only three times to sleep for less than an hour throughout the 3 and a bit days I was riding. It seems my appetite for sleep deprivation was greater than most.
Sleep deprivation is a funny thing. I know when I’ve overcooked it. It starts with the eyes starting to shut. Easily resolved by some loud singing. Then the hallucinations start. When it first happened, they freaked me out. I was riding back from Paris and it was about 3am, and the chevrons in the middle of the road that direct traffic ‘to get the hell back on your side of the road’ became white foxes that suddenly got up and ran across the road. I was worried about my sanity. But as it has re-occurred I’ve become more comfortable with the experience and actually quite enjoy it. The dancing pigs on this ride were a real treat that disappointingly turned out to be large plants moving in the breeze. On one side of the road was this amazing mechanical toy with cogs and gears all whirring away that seemed to stretch for miles, again, just hedges and plants. The next stage of sleep deprivation is more worrying, falling asleep whilst riding. It’s amazing how you stay balanced whilst the bike rolls along. However, as the verge side flowers stuck between my spokes testify, it is possible to ride completely off the road and onto the verge – at which point you suddenly wake up and frantically control the bike back onto the tarmac, rather bizarrely worrying about whether you might rip your coat if you crash! At this stage I’ve generally got the message that a sleep is in order. The recipe is simple: flat surface, dry, just out of sight of the road. Lie down for 10 minutes – sleep. Get up and go again. 10 minutes seems to be all that is needed. But on this ride I hung out for a stop at one of the control – a mattress and tea and toast.
Olaf the German, Yves the Frenchman
Another solution to sleep deprivation is to find someone to ride with. After my final sleep at Kirton, I was bored with the flatness of the Fens. Behind me I could see the light of another rider. I hoped to jump on his wheel and drift for a few miles but Olaf the German was having none of this. Instead we rode side by side and enjoyed a good long chat as we drifted along, picking up another cyclist, Yves the Frenchman. Both Olaf and Yves have a racing pedigree and they were fast! Olaf eventually opened up the taps and disappeared into the morning light at a speed I would be proud to achieve on a 25 mile time trial. Yves and I carried on working together. Yves is French, but speaks a little English and I am English and speak a little French – but we both speak pure bike. Yves carried me for quite a few miles as I sat on his coat tails sheltering from the tedious head wind. Slowly the tables turned and Yves began to suffer. This might seem like bad news for me but in fact it turned out to be saving grace. Taking my turn on the front to pay back my dues gave me something to focus on. I had someone to look after, I had a purpose. Earlier, Yves had generously suggested we rode the whole of the final 60 miles together – who was I to argue? So when he began to struggle and told me to push on and leave him, it was my turn to step up to the mark and do the decent thing. And so I did, after every climb I waited and led Yves in. This was purely selfish on my part as I was riding harder than I ever would have had I been on my own – so whilst Yves, damp eyed and grateful for what I had done, the debt was much deeper the other way. Somehow it epitomised for me what true cycling camaraderie is all about.
It’s not the ride but the people
London – Edinburgh – London is an amazing ride – not because of the duration, it took me a little under 77.5 hours, nor because of the route – parts of which are truly delightful, what makes it special are the volunteers. I’ve done lots of races with volunteers and they are great people. They hand you what you want, take stuff, give you stuff and so on. But in London – Edinburgh – London they take it to a whole new level. Many of them are very experienced cyclists in their own right. They know the pain, they understand what’s needed. There is none of the naive ‘nearly there’ when there is still 100 miles to go. I would love to take representatives from so many companies to a late night control point and let them watch as weary cyclists arrive and mugs of tea are pushed into their hands, or pasta or toast served to them at 5am – each to their own. I had a craving for beans on toast at one point. No sooner than I asked whether there was ‘any chance of……’ than I was sat down and a freshly made plate of beans and toast placed in front of me as they took my water bottle to refill. Then there was the doctor who cleaned up my arm from the crash. She knew and I knew that the sensible choice was a trip to A&E to get all the deeply embedded gravel removed. She knew and I knew that I was not going to do this but instead I was going to carry on cycling. She patched me up, we both agreed she had advised me to do the right thing, we both agreed I had declined and I rode off into the night. We both understood the passion of long distance endurance events.
More than a stop gap
London – Edinburgh – London was always going to be a training ride for me – a stop gap between my failed attempt on the Tandem Lands End to John O’Groats record, and next years second attempt. My coach agreed the training aims of the ride, but I was never really looking forward to the event because, well, quite frankly, it didn’t seem to have the appeal of an iconic ride like LEJOG or a trip in the Alps. I was wrong, it was a fabulous event. The route made the most of the eastern side of the UK and took in some stunning roads in the north. The spectacular control stations with amazing food, beds, showers, mechanical support, friendship were beyond belief. But the biggest surprise was the culture of an Audax event. This was my first and I had anticipated the same closed minded cliques that can occur in most disciplines of cycling – road racing perhaps being the worst. Instead I met an incredible bunch of experienced, capable, knowledgeable people and best of all, open minded. Not for them “you must wear a helmet” or “you must have mudguards”. Instead, you can do what you want, as long as you realise the consequences. These seem to be my kind of people.
Back to the hard work
But the ride is done. A couple of weeks holiday and then it’s back to training hard for LEJOG record attempt number two. London – Edinburgh – London has been a great reminder of how much I love ultra endurance riding.