This was to be my third riding of this classic overnight event: the start is at the southern edge of Essex and heads through the night to the north-Norfolk coast in time for an early breakfast, before meandering back southwards again.
The plan for this "helpers' ride", aka "route check" was to meet for a curry in Mannintree, Essex around 9pm and start the ride once sated. There were going to be four of us for curry, plus Steve 'Teethgrinder' Abraham for the ride itself (although there's no way we'd keep up with him for long, as he's very strong). As it turned out, one person got stuck at work, another got a cold, and Steve headed down to Exeter to take advantage of a monstrous tail wind the following day.
So it was to be just Tom Deakins (the organiser) and myself for curry.
“A ferocious 20mph headwind all the way back”
I caught the train to Ipswich, but this time rode the 16km/10miles from there to Manningtree, as the first part of a planned +100 ECE to extend the 300km ride to 400km.
It's a bit daunting knowing that I am going to be riding alone with Tom: Tom's a notoriously strong rider, known affectionately as 'Tomsk the Tank Engine' for his stamina into a headwind, dragging a long line of tired cyclists behind him. But with just the two of us, I knew I would find it a struggle to keep up.
The forecast was for a light 8mph tailwind all the way north, turning into a ferocious 20mph headwind all the way back. Being on the Brompton meant I lacked any drop bars to get out of the wind: this is one of the Achille's heels of riding long-distance on the Brompton, the other being its climbing ability (although strictly speaking that's down to my riding ability). Fortunately this isn't a particularly hilly ride, and Tom rides fixed-gear, so, from experience of other fixie-riders, any climbs would be well-paced.
I had hoped to hit 22-23kph rolling speed northwards and keep my heart rate below 140 or so. However, Tom's baseline rolling speed was more like 24-26kph, meaning I was a couple of kph quicker than target. Plus it felt like I had a cold or something coming, because my HR was all over the place — much higher than I was expecting!
“We stopped under the only street lamp in the square”
The northbound run is surprisingly pleasant — even though it uses a long stretch of the notoriously busy A1065 from Mildenhall to Swaffham: since we were riding this section well after midnight, there were very few cars and we rode side-by-side most of the way. I have a couple of mirrors with me — one on the helment and one on the bike — and so it was easy to call "car up!" well before time. We spent a lot of time in quiet contemplation and other times discussing intricacies of route sheet nomenclature; this is a comfortable ride for light conversation.
Just before Castle Acre Tom noticed that his front lights had become loose, so we stopped under the only street lamp in the square for him to tighten the bracket up.
Riding just the two of us meant we rolled slower than a large group would ride. Last year I spent a good deal of the northbound leg on the front doing my share of pulling the group, but we were favoured with a stronger tailwind then and I did get the chance to sit on and get a rest. With just two side-by-side we still made it to the turn southwards in a respectable 7h20m.
“The forecast headwind had arrived”
From the turn at 150-odd kilometres in, the roads become much less laney and the traffic increases, making it harder to ride side-by-side. It didn't help this time that the forecast headwind had arrived and was steadily increasing in strength. It was time to let Tom do his thing: I shamelessly hid out of the wind behind him.
It was at this point that I realised that I had rolled out of my comfort zone and was now pretty tired — both physically and sleepily. The café at the turn was closed when we arrived at 5.30am, so we carried on through Dereham to the Farm Café at Yaxham Waters Holiday Park, which opened at 7am. I had a standard breakfast — I really couldn't face anything larger — and then put my head down for a 10-minute snooze on the bench: sleep-dep is my perennial bug-bear, and a cat-nap does make all the difference.
For the whole of the southbound leg I had trouble keeping up with Tom. Nevertheless, I managed better than last year, when I was dropped off the group by North Creake, and even better than 2013, when I dropped off just after Fakenham. This time I clung on all the way to Wymondham, although admittedly I think Tom dropped his pace a little at times to let me hook back on — for which I thank you Tom!
“Select bottom gear and spin a bit, cursing the wind”
Shortly after Wymondham I reeled Tom back in and told him I was dropping off to ride at my own pace so he could ride at his. The headwind now was brutal, but whenever Tom dropped me by a few metres and I was having to reel him back then I was in the wind on my own anyway, but pushing at a pace I couldn't maintain for the rest of the day. There was no point slowing Tom down in the face of the inevitable.
Now I was on my own, I settled into a rhythm: select bottom gear and spin a bit, cursing the wind. My speed on the exposed sections dropped to as low as 12kph!
In the end I phoned an old friend and we chatted, taking my mind off the pain and I managed to keep moving forwards.
Feeding was an issue: I had decided to try Steve Abraham's trick of a bag full of sausages, but this just made me feel sick and bloated for the whole ride: probably indigestion caused by the pork. I also had nuts and raisins and these seemed to work okay, although sometimes bits from the nuts caused me to cough and splutter, which was worrying! I opened the jelly babies shortly after releasing Tom — you can't ride on pure sugar all day long, but it's useful to lift the spirits and inject some immediate fuel. I bought more 'happy food' at the control in Needham Market for the final leg and managed some respectable speeds and all the climbs back to arrivée.
“In just over 80km, Tom had made back a whole hour”
As I climbed the short road back up to Manningtree station (arrivée), I could see Tom standing on the platform: it turned out he had got back about an hour before me, just as his train was pulling out of the station. Even as we chatted, his next train arrived and he was gone. So in just over 80km, Tom had made back a whole hour — he must've been riding at 20kph to my 16.3kph moving into that insane headwind! I'm super-impressed
Overall, I rode it in 17h36m — not my quickest, nor my slowest — with a moving time of 14h46m — my equal-slowest — for a moving average of over 20kph. Given the challenging southbound conditions, this is on target for a good season and hopefully a good PBP. The 3 hours stoppage time is a little worrying — although half of that was when we stopped for breakfast; perhaps Tom let me snooze for longer than I realised, again, thank you Tom! This was also my second double-century of 2015, with about 340km ridden in 24 hours, 348km home-to-home (for reference, Steve Abraham rode a couple of miles further, but he rode all of his miles straight into that headwind!)
Since this was the route-check ride, the point was to follow the route sheet instruction-by-instruction and check each was still accurate: there were a number of signage changes as well as some minor road changes (an extra roundabout); the route sheet and GPS files for the ride itself in two weeks should now be spot on. I hope everyone else has a good ride, and I wouldn't want to wish any sort of inclement weather on y'all …
Although I had intended to extend this 300 to 400, by the time I arrived at Manningtree, I was simply too tired to contemplate another 95km into the wind. If it had been PBP or LEL then I would've gotten on with it, but I don't need the suffering for suffering's sake (and a single point). However, I didn't just climb onto the first train at Manningtree; instead I rode the 16km back to Ipswich station, this time with the wind on my back. In spite of how tired I was feeling, I was still able to climb pretty strongly and spin along at a fair rate, and by Cambridge I had recovered enough to race the buses and taxis into the city centre at 30kph into the wind
For me this was my second qualifier ride for Paris-Brest-Paris, as well as my second March ride for RRTY purposes. Next up: a DIY or perm 200 and then Asparagus & Strawberries 400.