Having been relieved of my weekend pass to ride the Flatlands a fortnight earlier by my family, it was with some trepidation that I set out from home in the early dawn to ride my first solo 600 on a route renowned for its headwinds. And being a flat 600 — in places very, very flat — then I knew it would be a tough mental challenge too!
Note: this ride report is a mild rewrite of my submission to yacf, here. Codified names are the nicknames of people on the forum, sorry about that. The post date has been changed to the date of the ride.
TL:DR Yeah, if you can't be bothered to read it all then: I rode it, it was hard — very hard. I finished quicker than last year, but not by much. And my bum hurts.
I rode the Flatlands last year and we had a terrific tailwind all the way to Goole. I rode with a reasonably quick bunch, but we stopped at the controls and ate well, riding quickly in-between. After the turn, though, it became a real slog all the way back to Dunmow, with me giving up at one point, only to sort my head out and get back into the game. This time I wanted to avoid the massive bonks I had on the Sunday from last year and try to just coast through in a reasonably safe time. So I gave myself a couple of goals:
- Ride each leg at around 20kph average, using lower gears to reduce the effort — that gives nearly 31 hours' riding with plenty of time for climbing off the bike
- Enjoy the breaks off the bike — don't waste time, but don't fret either
- Get some sleep! Sleep-dep on a multi-day ride is my nemesis!
- Finish inside the 40 hours a BRM would allow (the perm is 42 hours)
Given that I live in Cambridge, with Tomsk's permission I started from and finished here. That meant the final 50km of the Flatlands was the first 50km of my Flatliner. I intended to leave the house at 4am so that I could hit roughly the same schedule as the Flatlands starting at 6 from Dunmow; however a week of very late nights meant I was already shattered, so I gave myself extra time in bed and left around 6.30am.
The run to Dunmow was okay: the traffic was slower than when I last rode it. I did get buzzed by the inevitable Audi-twits on the run to Saffron Walden, but nothing compared to what I would face later.
I left Dunmow around 9.15, so I was already over 3 hours behind a Flatlands run: as I extrapolated speeds and distances into arrival times, Kirton was going to be a close call for anything being open when I got there! Never mind, I would work something out.
The weather on Saturday was lovely: cool but sunny and warming in the afternoon with hardly any breeze. My biggest fear — a strong headwind on Sunday — seemed distant.
At Red Lodge I was recognised by the woman who served you all a fortnight ago and we had a chat: they were very pleased with how it went and were very interested in how all the riders had got on. And they are looking forward to seeing everyone again next year
The ride from Cambridge to Dunmow and up to Red Lodge contained most of the lumpiness for the weekend and was now out of the way, so I settled into a steady pace on the flat across to Ramsey, stopping at Pidley to take pictures of the mountain rescue team's signage — you have to have a sense of humour out here, as there isn't a lot else (that I can tell). Unless you're a farmer.
From Ramsey, it's out onto that long, straight flat road to Whittlesey: I have ridden this a few times recently and I am getting better at switching off and letting my legs spin under me, otherwise I'd go insane with boredom!
By now my first iPod had gone dead — that's my ancient one with the podcasts on — so now for a bit of Squeeze on the other one. Or the Beatles. Or whatever: your mind just wanders when you're out here all alone in the Fens (maybe it's just me).
Last year Veloman and I bounced Red Lodge and got to Whittlesey around lunchtime and headed for the Wetherspoons on the square. This time it was after 3pm, so I got a quick sandwich from the Nisa and headed back out onto the Fens for a picnic.
By now it was looking like I would possibly get halfway to Kirton before nightfall, which was well behind my original aim of leaving super-early. However, since it's a perm then the time I get anywhere is only important relative to the time I started out, which isn't important at all. My only worry was refilling the bottles somewhere, as I was draining them quicker than I usually do for some reason.
The run from Thorney to Spalding is my least favourite part of the northbound leg: the flat, exposed countryside with little in the way of variation or landmarks and usually with a headwind makes it an unpleasant slog. However, with the sun out and the air still, it was a nice run this time
Spalding to Boston was less pleasant: that leg seems to go on and on until you get to Kirton and then drop into Boston itself. The 'Spoons was rammed at this time, so I grabbed an ATM receipt and a bag of chips from the chippy around the corner. I then rode to Anton's Gowt — expecting to find a limping dancer, ah-ha! — and sat by the river eating my dinner in the peace and quiet. And it was truly, gloriously quiet at this point!
Back on the bike and the start of the next leg involves more very long and very straight roads. In the dark I could see car headlights what seemed like miles in front and miles behind, and they would take minutes to arrive! At least in the dark you don't expect to see interesting scenery, so I focused on my 20s.
Watching the clock, I could see that I would not make it to Kirton-in-Lindsey by closing time, so I stopped at the Crown in Glentham. Out of politeness I ordered a coke before asking for a bottle-refill and was given a round of scowls by the locals. So I quickly asked the landlady to top it up with a JD — in honour of our esteemed TG — which broke out some smiles The questions inevitably started and the whole pub seemed both interested and aghast, in the usual way. When I mentioned sleeping in a bus stop, one of the patrons offered me one of his spare rooms to sleep in on the way back! Unfortunately "the way back" didn't go that way, never mind.
I had forgotten from last year that this part of the route has more hills than the route description gives it credit for: certainly nothing compared to Essex (which is not a lot compared to Wessex, but there's always someone with something bigger!). And so I winched my way up and over the top to Kirton-in-Lindsey.
In the square everything was closed and the receipt frlom the Tesco cashpoint didn't have the place name on it at all. At the One Stop, the cashpoint was out of order! Aaargh! So I asked a couple who were out walking their dog whether there was another cashpoint in Kirton — it turned out he was the owner of the One Stop, Mr Holt himself, and was very interested in what the ride was about and how everyone had got on the fortnight earlier. He said they had served 70 cups of coffee to cyclists that day; I asked if that had been a problem and he said not at all, he was delighted! He pointed out that the cashpoint wouldn't give cash but would give receipts, so I tried it, but the address was given as Gainsborough, aaargh! I eventually found the HSBC cashpoint — it's not obvious — and got a suitable PoP, plus a selfie just in case.
The drop from Kirton to the plain below is fairly rapid and the temperature fell considerably. I had put on some of my night gear at the top, but not all, and I was regretting it a little. But got to keep hitting those 20s: my legs were starting to feel fatigued rather than out-and-out drained, and even maintaining 20s was proving hard: I didn't want to over-extend myself at any time, in order to keep some in reserve for the return leg (which would fortunately be 50km shorter, as I started in Cambridge).
The leg from Kirton to Goole is quite short compared to the previous leg and in the dark it disappeared quickly. Last year I remember dropping off the back of the fast group in the final 15km and riding in alone at a more steady pace, having reached my limit, but this year I was tired, but not hitting any walls. I was, however, around 3 hours slower getting to this point than last year: partly due to riding on my own and the lack of tailwind. Plus I stopped one extra time this year compared to last, due to starting at a different place. However, my hope was that the return leg this year would be much quicker, because I completely blew up last year and rode my slowest ever 100km!
As I rolled into McDonald's I was faced with a bevy of Police-people, and I was expecting at least some passing interest, but nothing at all. A couple of quarter pounders with fries and a coffee and I had a lazy snooze in the chair. It was about 3.30am and I was the only customer.
Back on the bike and a quick spin up and over the M62. As I was descending back towards Goole, I noticed that my Garmin wasn't updating distance, even though I had reset the lap. A quick off-and-on and this time it locked up on "loading maps" — aargh! Okay, do the basic reset — still locked up. Do the more complicated reset (difficult on a moving bike as it needs two fingers for 10 seconds) — still locked up. Bugger! Consider my options:
- I have the paper routesheet on my handlebar anyway, that should be sufficient
- Except that it's still dark and I don't know how much juice I have left in my head torch
- If I have to wait for daylight then I will still have the same problem later in the evening … but wait, I have a spare front light (just in case)!
- And what if I lose the routesheet, do I know the route off by heart?
- No, but I also have a map — harder to ride to, but still possible.
And then I remembered that when I had been without my Garmin — I had had to send it off when it broke a month ago, and got a reconditioned unit back in return — then I had paired my Garmin running watch with my bike sensors. I rode slowly for a bit while manically hitting buttons on watch until I had a basic bike display set up on it. Apart from having to turn the light on to read it it worked very well as a backup speedo, and at least I was able to tell how far I'd gone so I knew how far to the next turn on my routesheet!
I remember last year, the run from Goole to Sleaford was absolute hell, because I was so sleepy-tired and my legs had given up! Veloman was exceedingly patient with me and didn't fuss when I climbed off the bike several times. This time, on my own, I had the challenge of motivating myself, and keeping my own mind off the pain, discomfort and thoughts of the distance left to cover. I was at least as sleepy-tired as last year, but my legs felt okay …
… until I yawned and then they STOPPED!! I have experienced this with sleep-dep on most of the multi-day rides I've ridden, in that when my body tells me to yawn, it disconnects my legs and I roll to a stop before cranking slowly back up to speed. Rinse and repeat to arrivée, taking substantially longer than expected. I was a bit disappointed, because I'd had half an hour's snooze time in McDonald's, so I thought I'd be good for a few hours on the bike, but I had to take the 3* hotel in Belton for another 20 minutes to get me to Gainsborough.
On the way out of Gainsborough I missed the left turn next to Lidl the same as I did last year! Although this year, at least I had an excuse in that my GPS was dead. And the climb out of Gainsborough was a welcome relief as my saddle was undertaking a war of attrition on my netherly bits.
The sun was rising, so I spent the run to Lincoln looking for a comfortable field to catch another 20 winks. In the end I opted for the aforementioned oak-beamed bus shelter overlooking the plains. However, by this time (I think it must've been 10am) the cars were whizzing past and it was impossible to get any rest at all. In fact the ferocity of the vehicular noise was quite unnerving and put me off the next section.
Except that the next section is the city of Lincoln: I do enjoy a gratuitous diversion for a bit of cobbled sightseeing A lovely run down through the city streets and back out into the one-way system. The dual-carriageway was very busy at this time, but I held my lane and everyone was very obliging.
The climb up Canwick Hill was taken in absolute bottom gear: I had nothing to prove and plenty to lose by racing up it, so I took my time. At the top, once through the Premier Inn junction, this road just goes on, and on, and on. This would be the most unpleasant leg of the whole ride, because the traffic was constant and persistently too close! I got honked several times too — and I don't think they were showing their appreciation.
My resolve wore out before Scopwick and I dived into a field for another 20 minutes' sleep: at last I got to use the rollmat I'd carried on several rides now! Very comfy, I felt great afterwards and my legs started up again, woohoo!
In Sleaford I headed for the Packhorse, but by now it was well past noon and the place was packed: it took an hour to get lunch and get out! Never again will I enter a Wetherspoon's … when it's busy
After Sleaford, the return to quiet country roads was a welcome respite from the traffic an hour earlier. The food was weighing heavy, though, and I stopped for another brief shut-eye out on Sempringham Fen. The sun was bright and the air wonderfully warm and in my drowsiness I set my alarm for half an hour before I was going to sleep instead of half an hour after!! Aargh! I woke up more than an hour later, disorientated and unable to work out why it was so late. It took half an hour on the bike before I figured it out
I resumed this, the longest leg of the ride: the flatland-hell from Sleaford to Chatteris! That's what I remember it being last year, both on Flatlands and LEL, with terrifically strong, strength-sapping headwinds all the way. As I set off I could feel a breeze in my face and it looked like the wind might be strengthening. However, when I got to Crowland Airfield, the wind sock was barely off the mast:
And this is an actual video of the wind turbines not spinning after Whittlesey (if you look closely, you can't see them turning):
There was a tiny bit of a headbreeze, but nothing like last year, and I rolled easily through, maintaining my 20s average. By now my legs were screaming, although that could have been sympathetic pain from my rearly bits — I think I need to try a Brooks Imperial
This is a desolate part of the country with soulless villages, derelict farms and featureless landscapes. At least that's what it seems to me, but I grew up spoilt by the richly varied and visually interesting lands of North Wales. I have tried to describe how empty the fens feel to the Junior Wilkyboys, but words fail to express it well enough.
From Chatteris it's barely 30km to the finish for me, so I bounced the Green Welly and had a quick garage stop instead. And then to the final leg: since I had nothing to lose, I raised my tempo, but was only able to turn 25s on the run in. That's still plenty quick enough for me to get back within time and after nearly 600km is an okay tempo I think. I know these roads well, so even though it was now dark again, I had no need for the routesheet. Ironically I cycled right past the end of our road, but had to continue to the garage for my final PoP of the weekend.
600+km (not sure exactly, since I don't have a GPS track from my Garmin) in 38hrs 45mins. That's a pretty poor time, considering how little climbing was involved and how dedicated I was to maintaining a steady but gentle pace. But I think this is one of the hardest ways to ride any 600: solo, without any hills to get one outta the saddle and to provide respite down the other side, so every kilometre has to be pedalled (and my knees are reminding me that's what they've done!). I've ridden two Bryan Chapman's quicker than this — one on little wheels, even — as well as To Holl and Back over the Pennines. It was, however, quicker than my attempt last year, even adjusting for last year's over-distance. It probably didn't help that I barely rode the bike over the summer
Unfortunately, due to the demise of my Garmin, I don't know whether I managed 20kph while I was on the bike. I think on the whole I did, but I can't be sure. I managed to resurrect the Garmin by doing a factory reset, but if I had done that on the road then I would've lost the route and all the track I'd recorded to that point … and anyway I couldn't remember the screen-press sequence.
Some interesting things I learnt … The first is that riding steadily is fine: turning 20s felt easy and the first two legs I averaged 20kph including the stop. In theory if I had kept doing that pace then I could've done a 30-hour ride without any sleep, which would have been an amazing time for me.
The second is that sleep-dep is a real problem for me: I need sleep or the second day is virtually a write-off.
The third is that this ride is much more fun with other people to talk to: talking to yourself for nearly 40 hours is tedious (at least it is for me). Also, take notes, because you'll forget most of what you discussed [with yourself] by the time you get home
The fourth is that I need to sort out my saddle: a certain man-worrying discomfort has made Mrs Wilkyboy insist that I do something about it, yikes!!
And the final biggie is if the weather is fine then take a rollmat and sleep just about anywhere! No need for bus shelters, just pick somewhere that isn't a cold-spot and snuggle down. I didn't bother with a bag, just lay down where I was, and was more than warm enough.
That completes my Essex SR, just a day before the end of the season, as well as being my September RRTY ride. I do expect that I will ride this again, but I will need to do some significant mental preparation beforehand to try to erase the numbness from my mind.
Thank you again Tom for creating such a benign-monster classic ride!