As I’ve started to enjoy getting off the beaten track, I’ve found myself yearning for a new challenge for the year. As someone who always get excited with hearing of new adventures, I can find myself quickly signed up for things without really thinking about just how far outside my comfort zone they are. This year has been no exception.
As I’ve been getting to know other riders being coached by coach Niel Copeland through Turn Cycling, conversations often turn to the various ultra and gravel events they are looking to ride. As events early in the year continued to be either cancelled or postponed, and international travel remained very uncertain, thought turned to domestic events.
I just listened to the chatter initially, but before I knew it I was asking questions about uk events….it’s dangerous territory once I start to get interested. As the joy for riding gravel was growing, and I realised that I had retained some fairly decent bike handling skills from my mountain bike days over 20 years ago, I started to wonder if I might be able to do an off road bike-packing race. I mean, come on, how hard could it be?
And so, buoyed by a little enthusiasm and a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out), I soon found myself signed up to ride in the June edition of The Great British Escapade.
The Great British Escapade
The Escapade is the brainchild of Kevin Francis and his partner Jo Holter who run event management company Ubiquitous Events. Kevin is no stranger to riding long distance events, and has his own ambitions to ride the Tour Divide in the next couple of years. They planned and created a Great British Divide (from Kent to the Isle of Skye) in 2020, although this has now been rescheduled for 2021. But recognising that not everyone has the time to take to ride such an epic journey, he created the Escapades, which are shorter events that can be done in just 3 days. It is the June edition of the Escapade that I have signed up for.
So, what does this event entail?
- 3 days of largely off road cycling in the South East of England
- 475km (300 miles)
- 8000m (26,250ft) climbing
- Fully self supported
- Lots of the North Downs Way, most of the South Downs Way, and lots of off-road bits that join them at either end.
‘What was I thinking?’ are words I have said a lot just recently. I am new to proper bike-packing, and new to long distance off road riding. And…..it was a little under 12 weeks from sign up to the actual event!!!
Testing the waters
Prior to signing up I had taken my Ribble CGR on a few trails just a couple of times recently. They were pretty tame ones if I’m honest. The trails were dry, not very technical, but I immediately remembered some of my old mountain bike handling skills. I loved the way it felt to not be fixed in one position on the bike, and the fact that you use your whole body rather than just your legs. The fact that I was trying off road climbs and descents for the first time on a drop bar bike was a very peculiar experience, and I didn’t feel the confidence that I used to have on flat bars. But, I was surprised just how nimble the bike was, and how it wasn’t quite as painful as I would have imagined.
After signing up though I knew that I didn’t have very long to improve my skills and get used to riding the bike through much tougher territory. But I had a plan. I always have a plan, it’s not always the right plan, but who cares about that. This plan however, was a good one. Living in the South much of the route wasn’t too far from where I lived. So I decided that I would endeavour over the 12 weeks to have ridden most of the route in small sections in advance so that I would know what I was up against.
I decided to start in the Surrey Hills, around Guildford and Haslemere. I had been told it was a real mix including a few technical sections, and some challenging climbs. My Ribble despite it’s title of Cross/Gravel/Road, had been purchased with a road spec, and this meant 700c wheels and a standard road chainset. Also after applying some VERY flawed logic, I had decided to buy it with cable disc brakes. I came to my senses too late after I bought it, but it was never really an issue on road, so I left it as it was. I had hoped that by just changing the tyres to some larger gravel tyres I would be fine. And on that first recon trip however, there were some issues. None insurmountable but I had decisions to be made.
The bike handles beautifully on the road sections – as expected, and also very well through woodlands and well worn trails. It was quick and nimble. On sandy sections however, it was a struggle and I found myself pushing more than I would like. The same applied to anything even vaguely technical if there were big drops or rocks. Going uphill was a mixed bag. My standard 11-32 was ok on smooth sections, but hopeless if the trail was loose, rocky or steep. So I found myself pushing again.
The question though I had to ask myself was if I was quick on some of the easier terrain, would that be enough to compensate for the extra times I might need to push, say compared to a mountain bike whose advantages were reversed.
It was time to experiment…..but first I needed to revive the mountain bike that had been sitting in my basement for too many years untouched and unloved.
You can follow my progress in getting ready for this event by following my blog, as I shall be posting regular updates, along with the occasional YouTube video.
Following on from last years amazing fundraising efforts for Solent Mind, I continue to fundraise this year too.
During 2020 and even more so in 2021 I’ve seen my own mental health suffer. I didn’t realise it at the time but things had been building up for a long time, and then the death of a family member over new year brought everything to a head. I saw a counsellor which helped me make sense of emotions and behaviours that I had experienced for around 40 years but had never resolved. Although I didn’t need to reach out to Solent Mind this time, I was comforted knowing that they would be there should I have needed them.
I am lucky to have a supportive family, and friends to reach out to, but not everyone can do that, and services such as Solent Mind are there for everyone.
So if you like what I do, and want to help support Mental Health services on the South Coast, then please consider donating at my fundraising link below.