There was no question about whether I was going to attempt the Rapha Festive500 again this year, with two more century rides to complete in order to meet my target for the Yearly Century Challenge and the whole week off in between jobs. Here’s a little insight into my week as it progresses…
Day 1: Christmas Eve: Exeter-Exmoor-Exeter 104mi
Having never ridden with chaps from the aptly named Exeter splinter group ‘The Breakaway‘, I was really nervous about tackling the winter century on Christmas Eve. Add that to unfamiliar (and rather lumpy) Devon roads, back on my first road bike and having not pushed myself too hard recently, it really was a challenge in my mind. I prepared as best as I could, making sure the bike was OK, all the kit I needed, even stripped off the tinsel and packed my pockets full of mince pies, nutrigrain bars and a banana.
Seemingly the only ones without family commitments so close to Christmas, I met Anders and Ed, two guys in their twenties, and we set off heading North out of the city. Anders took off like a bullet and I was soon falling off his wheel despite giving absolutely 100% trying to keep up. Was this a sign of things to come? Had I completely misjudged this ride? Thankfully Ed soon pulled up next to Anders and reminded him that this was a 100 miler and not just a quick thrash, so the full-throttle style was soon calmed and we managed to stick together a bit better.
We took the A38 up through Cullompton and Wellington to Taunton. There are a few short drags on the way, where the boys patiently waited at the top for to catch up. I felt guilty at times but I have been on both sides, and they were adamant that we would carry on together.
I was fuelling myself according to my guidelines from Training Food and my consultation with Renee McGregor. This was definitely high intensity – therefore 60g carbs per hour. I felt like I was constantly stuffing mince pies whilst the boys appeared to be eating next to nothing, but I tried to remember that it’s personal and this is what works for me. I would not let myself struggle today because I hadn’t eaten properly.
Taunton was the first major checkpoint at 33 miles in, and we agreed to stop at Wheddon Cross, on top of the moor, where it would be pretty much downhill all the way home. It was quite a slog all the way uphill to Williton near Watchet, passing the gorgeous Quantock Hills on the way. I was not sad to be missing the Crowcombe climb as we passed the village – one to conquer next year.
The next leg was Westerly, fighting the strengthening gusts near the North Devon coast along to the pretty old castle town of Dunster. We turned inland and south, now for the last climb up to Wheddon Cross. At this point I was really starting to struggle, and as soon as we hit the slight incline I just couldn’t keep up. I’d been feeling a bit nauseous from all the sugar and intensity, so I was incredibly glad once the seven mile climb was over, rolling into the Rest and Be Thankful Inn. Couldn’t be more aptly named.
Fuelled up on chips, revived with coffee and after changing a flat, the last 40 miles of the ride were just awesome. Despite the headwind, we quickly descended off Exmoor following the river Exe. We remained alongside the river all the way back to Exeter, the beautiful road heading down through the forests of Exmoor and out onto the open flood plain roads approaching the city as the winter sun lowered in the sky.
Even with 20 miles to go, I started to feel euphoric; I’d managed to stick with the guys and they had been so good too waiting for me at times, so encouraging and patient. That and I’d avoided the trouble I would end up in if I was home late for carols…
104 miles done, 19th century of the year and a pretty awesome way to start Christmas. Thanks chaps.
Day 2: Christmas Day 0mi
It’s a family day, after all.
Day 3: Boxing day: Abandoned Dartmoor Century 47mi
In hindsight, I’d clearly bitten off more than I could chew. Jon was coming to visit and meet the family without bike, which would be a good opportunity to spend some time together without riding. Therefore, I wanted to finish off my century challenge before he arrived; leaving Boxing Day as my last free whole day this year.
I didn’t listen to my body when I woke up exhausted, having been up half the night, not able to sleep. I was determined; I’d plotted the route, written my route card and packed the kit – I’d told everyone I was off for my last century and I was going to do just that.
Wanting to go out on a high, I’d planned a route that headed out to Dartmoor, over the North boundary past Okehampton and down to Tavistock to the West, then cutting back across the Moor to complete the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs #81: Rundlestone. It wouldn’t be an easy 100 miles even on a good summer’s day, and this was a cold December morning after the ‘excess‘ of Christmas day.
I didn’t ride so far on Christmas eve nor plan to ride on Boxing day to ‘earn‘ or ‘burn off‘ Christmas. There should be no shame in eating and drinking different things at this festive time of year; enjoying wholesome roast dinners and sweet treats with loved ones is all part of it. I hear those words a lot and choose to screen them out; rather than making out that I was on my bike to somehow ‘correct‘ what I had eaten and drunk, I was rather out to test my legs and my will, pockets laden with mince pies and stollen to fuel my ride rather than trying to amend for enjoying them.
It was 8am when I set out on my century ride, taking the rather naughty decision to ride my freshly-serviced C60 rather than my winter bike. I knew it would be a tough ride and wanted all the help I could get, but knowing that my annual insurance had just expired made me a little nervous riding it. I rode steadily into Exeter to warm up, roads abandoned by all other signs of life so early on Boxing day morning.
From Exeter out towards Tedburn St Mary I took Five Mill Hill; surely this is Devon’s way of trying to discourage cyclists?! The stabbing pains in my abdomen that I’d experienced on Christmas Eve soon returned, leaving me feeling weary and uncomfortable. I felt sure I was going to be sick, but determined to get that last century, I ploughed on. In 2015, after half a year of amenorrhoea (a stop to normal menstrual cycles due to insufficient nutrition and excessive exercise, in my case) I was overjoyed to see my periods return. Right now I wished that they’d do one.
On the edge of Dartmoor I had a brief stop at Tinkern Farm to visit an old school friend and his Dad. Stopping for five minutes to catch up and wish them well left me feeling the chill; I’d dressed fine for Exeter but up here was a different story. Windproof layer donned and I was on my way again. The few miles between Crockernwell and Whiddon Down seemed so far, as I gobbled down two squares of my Auntie’s Christmas cake and tried to ignore the discomfort. I was 20 miles in and really not enjoying myself at all.
I stopped at a bus shelter to dispose of my tin foil and soon found myself slumped in the shelter on the verge of tears. I tried calling a few friends, hoping for the sound of a familiar voice and words of encouragement to pick me up and give me the confidence to send me well on my way. Everyone was busy, so I soon came to the conclusion that this wasn’t for me – today was not the day for a century; I am not in the business of making myself feel miserable. I’d chop off the most Westerly part of my route and head straight into the Moor to Moretonhampstead and back into Exeter to get home.
It wasn’t long on that Moor road before a smile started to creep across my face. I’d pretty much been climbing the whole way out of Exeter and now I could start to reap the reward. Of course from Moretonhampstead to Dunsford the best descent in Devon* left me feeling awesome and knowing that I was heading home to my family, a warm house and Christmas leftovers was pretty good motivation. The undulating Six Mile Hill soon landed me back in Exeter and I took the most direct route back home. At 47 miles, I’d usually loop to the next village and back to notch up the half-century, but today I just knew it wasn’t worth it.
The decision to abandon the century attempt wasn’t an easy one to make, but I tried to leave the guilt and shame behind on the Moor. Sure, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but perhaps I will learn to set my expectations a little more realistically and listen to what my body is trying to tell me. After all, there’s still time…
*voted by me.
Day 4: 27th December: 0 miles
No bikes, just homewares shopping.
Day 5: 28th December: 0 miles
No bikes, just a stroll around Killerton NT, Devon.
Day 6: 29th December: 0 miles
No bikes, just a roadtrip to Dorset, eating copious amounts of Christmas puddings and a walk on Avon Heath.
Day 7: Cranbourne Chase and the New Forest 101 miles
Today was the very last opportunity for the twentieth century of the year – achieving my annual target hung on its success (nothing like leaving it to the last minute eh?). Based for a few days in Dorset, I took the opportunity to head out to both Cranbourne Chase and the New Forest for the 100 miles, taking in Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.
I knew that it would be cold but I really hadn’t anticipated minus three as I headed out West from Ferndown to Wimbourne. I took the quieter back lane running parallel to the main road to Blandford, although the small patches of ice on Cowgrove Road soon multiplied and spread into road-wide sheets of black ice. Running next to the River Stour, the mist was thick and freezing, clinging to my eyelashes, hair and clothes.
After opting to head back onto the gritted main road to Blandford I was making faster progress but could still barely feel my fingers and toes. I had scoffed at Jon the night before suggesting that I have my first stop only 17 miles in, but right now I could only think about how heavenly a pot of tea in a warm café would be. I found the delightful SoBa Café and spend maybe half an hour warming up and chatting the the lovely young guy who had established the business.
Thawed out, fuelled up on tea and in good spirits from my natter, I headed North for the only real hill of the day. I amused myself along the main road drag singing my own bike-related version of ‘My Favorite Things’ from the Sound of Music. Thankfully there seemed to be no other cyclists out today… Heading up the famous Zig Zag Hill onto the Cranbourne Chase was more fun than the descent I’d had a few months ago, with the four or five tight bends allowing the gradient to be relatively gentle up the terrible tarmac. Up on the top, the thick mist still lingered.
It was a good few miles of gentle descent on back lanes down East towards Salisbury, where I then turned South to head for the New Forest. By now, having munched through the brownie I had picked up already and half way into the ride I felt ready for something savoury and warm – a pasty would be just the ticket. However, I soon learnt touring that to have something specific in mind often leads to failure and disappointment, so when I came across a village shop selling cheese rolls I opted for one of those and a small bag of white chocolate mice.
The woodlands signified the start of my trip into the New Forest. I climbed for a little while, then out to the familiar Nomansland village and up out onto the common. Out in the open, I broke into another world – bright, warm yellow sunshine, clear blue skies and not even a whisper of mist. I enjoyed the open, quiet flat roads taking in the landscape and passing the roaming donkeys and ponies. Soon I turned onto Ornamental Drive; a famous route through the forest with many non-native trees including some super-tall Giant Redwoods. With the sinking afternoon winter sun streaming through between the trees, it was a truly beautiful few miles.
With 70 or so miles under my belt with the setting sun and mist creeping back in, I knew it would be a good idea to crack on. A quick stop for more fuel in Brockenhurst and I spent the last part of my ride on foggy main roads along the coast (no chance of seeing the sea). I was glad to finally be back after a total of 101 miles, pretty soggy and drained, yet euphoric that I’d done it – 20 century rides in 2017; now give me that certificate!
Day 8: 31st December: 0 miles
I’d totally intended on riding the remaining 60 miles (or 100km) today to finish off the Festive500, but after driving The Van for a couple of hours through drizzle to get back to Bristol for New Years Eve I came to see sense. Would I actually enjoy it? I couldn’t convince myself that I would. It was still misty, drizzly and so dark already; there were so many other things to do and organise and New Years in the evening to be ready for.
I’m coming to learn that there’s more to life than riding a bike. I couldn’t be more chuffed about completing my Yearly Century Challenge, so abandoning the Festive500 is no big deal. Festive400 for me this year instead.
Happy New Year one and all.