The plan is for the two of us, (myself and cycling partner Nick.W-W) to participate in a 750 km off road race in Spain in September. Starts and finishes in Granada. Called the 'Badlands' race....see https://www.transiberica.cc/badlands/
As part of the preparation for the race we decided that a good race to test our gear and ourselves on would be the Great British Escapade Race that starts and finishes in Canterbury, Kent, UK. It is a 450 km race that is advertised as being a unique bike packing race that is 85% off road. In reality , as we were to discover in both our training rides and the race itself, it is a long distance Mountain Bike Race.
The course runs westward from Canterbury along the North Downs Way to Farnham, where it turns south to pick the South Downs Way near Steynning , heading east to Eastbourne before turning North to finish in Canterbury.
Looking chippy and ready .....
When you think of the North Downs way, think goat track. It's mostly a narrow trail through woods and fields, that would be technical in the best of conditions. So too the ride from Farnham to Steynning . The South Downs Way is ostensibly one bare hill after another where you are totally exposed to the elements.
We had done the sensible thing and ridden 75% of the course in training. Our first training ride was from Canterbury to Sevenoaks (just west of Maidstone). A nice little 100km taster of things to come.
A few weeks later we rode from Sevenoaks, headed westward, then south and then east and around to Eastbourne. This involved sleeping overnight in a disused farmers shed. A mere 240 km ride . The weekend we did this second training ride it was the end of a week in which every day had seen rain. It was still raining when we set off and in addition there was a gale force wind warning for the south coast of England. The track was a quagmire, the puddles were small lakes, and the wind was ferocious
Suffice to say we came off the second training ride happy in our accomplishment and somewhat comforted by the knowledge that as we had survived these conditions we could survive anything else that was thrown our way come race day. Surely it couldn't be worse
Well at least that's what we thought.
Getting to the start line involved a train to London, a train to Tonbridge, a 7 km ride to Nick W-W's and then an hours drive to the outskirts of Canterbury. From there it was a 10 km ride to farmers shed in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.
You can picture the scene. Hard core athletes (the author not being one of them) all look a like. Thin to the point of looking gaunt and in desperate need of a decent feed involving a big steak and robust glass or two of red wine (something the author IS used to). Suffice to say the lady pushing chocolate cupcakes was struggling to get takers. Until she reached me. I agreed with her reasoning. We were about to burn a billion calories. What damage was a 400 calorie cupcake going to do? Worryingly my cycle partner didn't indulge.
Doubly worryingly all of our fellow riders were seemingly carrying less equipment than ourselves which gave the impression they didn't think this wasn't going to take them too long to do.
We were under no such illusions and were carrying bivvy bags to sleep in.
A few hours before the ride, the organiser had emailed the group of starters warning that lightening was forecast for the area and if it eventuated then the start would be delayed. Thankfully the lightening didn't arrive and we set off in muggy conditions at exactly 5 pm.
Our intention had been to ride through the first night and as far as possible into Friday before taking a sleep. Hopefully somewhere on the South Downs, leaving us 'only' 120-150 km to do on Saturday. We were hoping to be back at the start by 5 pm on Saturday.
The first 30 km was a mix of country lanes, wooded forest trails, open fields and then onto the North Downs Way proper. Which is primarily a rutted dirt track complete with gullies, large rocks and tree roots to be navigated. There were few chances to top up our water and it was with some relief that we arrived at a pre planned fuelling stop at the 65km point (5 hours into the ride) which was a 24 hours service station. At this point I phoned the wife to let her know we were travelling well and feeling remarkably OK. This upbeat feeling was pierced by her question when she asked what the weather was like. My response that it was dry but muggy was different to her response when I asked her why the question. ''It's belting rain here'' came her reply
In this country most of the weather blows in from the South West. Where we stood at that moment was North East of my home. It meant only one of two things . Either we were heading towards the weather or it was coming towards us.
I relayed this information out aloud to Nick W-W and the group of fellow competitors who had also stopped to refuel.
As the sun had now set, and the tree covered track was quite dark , we fired up our lights ( helmet and handlebar) and set off leaving behind some competitors who were donning wet weather gear in anticipation of the weather to come. 5 km later and half way up the first ''hike & bike'' slope ( which is cycling parlance for '' a slope so f**king steep you had no choice but to dismount and push your bike) we were wondering how the guy who had donned both waterproof trousers and jacket at the petrol station was going to fare given it was muggier than a steamy night in Singapore and not a drop of rain had arrived.
10 mins later it did.
First it was a drizzle which combined with the muggy conditions produced a lovely steamy mist which our lights were unable to penetrate.
The drizzle got progressively heavier until the point around 1 am when it was consistent enough to be classified as rain.
Given all the rain this part of the country had in May (wettest on record) and the first part of June it didn't take too long for the already saturated water table to spill over. The track become greasier by the minute and going downhill became almost as slow as going up hill as wheel treads became clogged with mud and brake pads started to wear down.
At one point near 2 am I was cycling at snails pace up a hill, in the rain, on a narrow greasy muddy track and the front wheel was moving so slowly the dynamo attached to it was producing barely enough power to drive my main front light. To finish the painful scene my lower legs would periodically brush up against the surrounding foliage which appeared to be nothing more than stinging nettles.
By the time we crossed the Medway River (north of Maidstone) the rain was relentless but at least the steaminess had dissipated. Now it was starting to get mildly chilly.
As dawn broke we found ourselves West of Reigate Hill and not a long way from the first checkpoint. Buoyed by the first lights of dawn we pressed on through the rain which was only making things slower. The track crossed a farmers field in a diagonal direction and the mud so thick that its collection on my frame managed to push the chain off .
Some 3-4 km prior to the first checkpoint at Box Hill there was the hardest and steepest ''hike & bike'' sector of the race.
So steep that you had to push your bike one revolution of the wheels, hold the brakes whilst you then pulled yourself up alongside the bike and then repeat. Push, pull, push, pull. Half way up the slope there was a victim of the recent turbulent weather. A massive tree so. long and voluminous that going around it was not an option. At this point we had been cycling for 12 hours, and we now found ourselves dragging our fully laden bikes up and over the tree on an impossibly steep section of terrain. Fun it was not. Especially when you looked at a map which showed there was a road route around this particular hill that could have been navigated in less time than it took me to type this.
I had started to fantasise about the warm food and drinks awaiting us at Checkpoint One. (165km ) Fantasy it was. Our arrival at 6.05 am was greeted by a solitary race ' official'' who signed our cards and pointed us in the direction of a solitary water tap which we used to clean our bikes and refill our bottles.
15 minutes later, and with the rain now a torrential downpour we set off again. The rain was so heavy that with every wind gust the water would cascade off the trees in such volume that it felt like you were cycling under a large bore shower head.
Cycling up the track was akin to cycling up a small stream with water flowing rapidly against you. Cycling the flats was disrupted by large puddles, the depth of which could only be discovered by cycling gingerly though them. On occasion this meant cycling through water levels that now fully submerged your pedals and crankshafts. Cycling down hill was treacherous with worn out brake pads providing little stopping power, smalls streams barring any tread, and tree roots and rock surfaces smoother than a wet marble top.
it wasn't fun and our average pace reflected it. To checkpoint one we hd averaged 15 kph. For the first 40 km after check point one that pace had dipped to 8 kph.
We were now wet to the bone , and bone cold too.
At 11 am, and in the middle of some random forest we stopped a dog walker and asked her for directions to the nearest cafe. Even though it meant backtracking some 5 km off the planned route we took her directions and headed that way.
Sitting in the cafe and having brought our uncontrollable shivering to a temporary halt we took stock.
We were at the western most point of the ride. We had cycled 205 km. The route from here took us directly south. Having done this sector on our second training ride we knew it was the most technically demanding and physically hardest sector of the race. The torrential rain showed no sign of abating and a cursory look at the weather forecast revealed that it was due to stay this way for the next 12 hours.
Wet, cold, riding bikes with minimal braking power, and feeling bruised and battered from coming off our bikes 2-3 times each and the hardest sector to come we decided reluctantly to call it quits.
Cue phone call to the organiser to inform him of our decision. Followed quickly by a second phone call to a local taxi company to take us to Aldershot where the nearest train station was located. Train from there to London and 3 hours after we stopped I was luxuriating in a hot bath wondering to myself what the last 18 hours was all about.
I am still wondering.