There is something both scary and exciting about doing something for the first time. The reality is that you never know if you can do something until you try. You can spend your time talking about things, or actually living them. I do a bit of both, but in recent years I’ve decided that life is just too short to waste it dreaming. The things that 10 years ago I said I could never do….. well I’ve given many of them a good shot, with varying degrees of success. With every challenge I set myself, I’ve learned new things about myself. I’ve learned that I can do crazy things. But, I’ve also learned that I have developed a remarkable mental toughness for adversity, and will to carry on, even when many others might quit. I’ve also found out that Type 2 fun does exist, and you mostly don’t realise you had fun until after.
After weeks of training, planning, and riding parts of the route, I was about as ready to ride as I could have been.
The Great British Escapade was to be my first attempt at an off-road ultra. The route is advertised as 485 km long, which sounds a really long way, but I prefer 300 miles, which is a much smaller number.
In training, I had made sure that I had previously ridden the sections that worried me the most. So, sections of the North Downs where there would be technical climbs and descents had been ridden. I had ridden most of the South Downs section, which is where the bulk of the long climbs could be found, and I had ridden the section that I was most scared of, the night section, but in daylight so I knew what to expect.
Despite all my training, when I set off for the start of the Escapade, I still hadn’t actually ridden anything meaningful off-road at night, so I would still be plunged into the unknown when the time came.
I parked Dora at the designated parking point in Canterbury, getting quickly ready to ride to the start. My bike was packed and ready to go, but so heavy. “There must be more stuff here than I need” I thought, so quickly looked through for anything else I could leave behind.
- Electronics…..yep needed all of those
- Toolkit….already pared to the bone
- Clothing….did I really need spare kit….I decided I did
- Food…..a big gap between resupply points, but I could resupply, so I’ll review this
In reality I only took out a few sachets of energy drink. I probably reduced my load by just a few grams, but it made me feel better.
Within a few minutes I heard my name being called out in northern voices……. “Happy Birthday, we’ve got something for you”.
Angie and the two Kates had arrived, and the very nervous energy was apparent. They produced a cupcake with a frog on it, which I promptly scoffed. Well it wasn’t going to travel well was it?
Kate told me she’d been feeling really sick at the thought of the ride, and she just needed to start riding now.
The other Katie felt the same, so much so that she Vlogged about it here
Riding to the start together it was too late now to grab a coffee at the pre-start meet point of The Independent Peddler. We registered, picked up our rider pack of Brevet Card and cloth badge, then went off to mingle with the other riders.
Kevin, the organiser of the event had promised me that he had ordered the good weather for the event, but in the days running up to the start it was clear that his order had got a bit muddled up. Instead we were due a very stormy 24 hours. Thankfully the storm was wet rather than windy, as it’s high wind that scares me more, especially when we were due to ride through lots and lots of wooded areas. The night before though, Coach Niel seemed to be trying to psych us all out, by telling us of the apocalyptic thunderstorms that were over Canterbury on Wednesday. A real light show apparently. To be honest, whilst I love to watch them from the safety of a car or building, thunder and lightning whilst out on the bike are my biggest fear of all. I had checked and rechecked the forecast, and thankfully couldn’t see thunderstorms listed, just rain, from around midnight, and then constant…..for hours.
But, as we sat on the grass at the start, only 5 females present (the remaining 2 were on their way), it was warm and dry and we relaxed a little, putting aside for a while the inevitable horrors to come.
I chatted to my Turn Cycling team mates, and Niel, clearly excited about the whole thing turned himself into roving reporter mode.
Here’s the interview he did with me, but check his channel for his other posts about the event too.
The calm before the storm
I had considered riding the whole first 12 hours with the other 3, but the reality was that I was on a mountain bike, which would be slow on the ‘easy’ bits and tarmac, but more capable on technical descents. They were on gravel bikes and are all great climbers but didn’t have the confidence descending that I did. Although our pacing would most likely average out to be quite similar, if we all stuck together it would slow all our progress. So we opted to all start together, and figured we’d keep crossing paths as the ride went on.
5pm came, and we were released into the ride in small groups every couple of minutes. After leaving the farm, we were riding straight through fields, mercifully not very muddy despite Armageddon having been apparently unleashed weather-wise a few hours earlier. The route quickly disappeared into some beautiful woodlands, and again, there wasn’t too much mud, and the riding was nice and straightforward. The girls disappeared into the distance, as this was terrain that they and their bikes were very at home in. Every now and then after a descent I would catch up with them, and then watch them ride into the sunset again.
As we joined the Pilgrims way, a well trodden path, mud and puddles became more evident. I was pretty pleased with how I was coping with them, and opting to ride carefully through puddles rather than around them. But then, as if tempting face, I rode through a puddle, but lost my balance the other side on hitting an uneven patch of mud. Over I went, landing softly in a squishy bit. All my right side was caked in mud, it was under my fingernails, in my pedals and all over my handlebars. But amazingly there was no damage to either me or my bike. “Ok”, I thought, “falling off isn’t so bad when it’s muddy, at least you get a soft landing”. I brushed myself off as best I could, and set back off along the Pilgrims way, being a little more careful to go straight through the mud in future.
I started to get a bit hungry, but was finding it hard to eat on the bike while moving. It’s a lot easier to do when riding on the road, but off road, I was having to keep both hands on the bike, which meant stopping briefly each time I wanted food. Aware that it would be both dark and rainy shortly, I kept moving, wanting to make the most of the remaining light and dryness. But eventually I arrived at Hollingbourne, where I had already decided I would take a few minutes, and freshen up and eat some substantial food that I had been carrying. I turned to see the Dirty Habit pub, and more particularly their garden which had a sign welcoming ramblers and cyclists to make use of their tables, shelter and free water. That was just what I needed, so stopped a while to clean and top up my water bottles, eat, and wash off some of the mud. It was almost dark now, so I set up myself up for the night riding, and made sure everything I needed was handy. I was only a few miles from the 24 hour petrol station that I planned to restock at, but it would still be more than an hour before I reached it.
I hadn’t seen the girls for a while now, but I knew they would have been flying along this section. I expected that I might catch up with them later though as we approached some really nasty wooded sections in the dark.
However, I was regularly crossing paths with 2 other guys who were also on hard tail mountain bikes. They had said they were military men, and were surprised to see me tackling this kind of event on my own. This was not a sexist comment, but more of an observation that it was so unusual. They thought I was brave, but that’s not the way I see it. Maybe it’s that I’m older now, but in the UK I don’t really see that there’s any difference between a woman tackling solo adventures to men. We have the same capacity to work things out, we can both suffer, and we can both prevail. Occasionally issues of strength can be a factor, but that’s about it. It’s not bravery that gets us out there, it’s desire….and preparation. Although it’s fear of the unknown that stops so many others. But riding with these guys from time to time was nice. It broke the monotony of the darkness and we just chatted away. I have no idea what about, but that didn’t matter. I did ask their names, but unfortunately I only remember that one was called Ben. Once I’m on a long ride like this my brain doesn’t retain much information – like names. My focus is on moving forwards, eating, drinking, and on this ride, staying upright.
So, from this point, Ben and his friends will be ‘The Guys’ and Katie, Kate and Angie will be ‘The Girls’
The rain came around 11pm. Just drizzle to start with, so nothing too terrible to ride in. It had been really hot and humid earlier, so the rain was initially quite refreshing. But the riding was hard. Straight after the Services the route went brutally up and down, I was pushing up each climb, but unlike on my practice ride, these climbs became waterfalls as the rain poured down. In the woods though we were sheltered from the worst of the rain, despite the effect that the water was having on the trails. But as I approached the Medway bridge I decided to stop briefly and add more layers. The temperature had started to drop now, but at least it wasn’t long until daylight.
I shared my thoughts so far from under the bridge here. The weary face says it all really.