Cycling in the bubble

Summer’s nearly over, so what better way to sign it off than a quick ride after work with your mates? 400 kilometres later, does it still seem like such a good idea?

05.30 and I’m not riding well. Cold, tired and irritable, the double quarter-pounder I devoured an hour or so ago has done little except make me feel sick, heavy, and unbearably drowsy. Small things that I haven’t worried about too much for the preceeding 10 hours feel like they’ve been put in place to deliberately wind me up; MK’s blazing tail-light, PG’s triple array of randomly flashing red LEDs, NC’s grindingly steady pace, all seem designed to kick the living shit out of me. I’m truly fucked. 

Fucked. With 200km to go. And to cap it all, I’m starting to nod like a red-eye commuter. 

Falling asleep. On a freakin’ bicycle. A new one on me. I let my three buddies drift off into the distance, telling myself that the last thing I want to do is take one of them out as my bike-handling becomes increasingly erratic. There’s an element of truth in this, but the stark reality is that I couldn’t keep their pace – relatively modest as it is – even if I wanted too, not without suffering for it later in the ride. It’s a time for realism, for what might be described as “ride management”. It’s that or a train home once the world wakes up.

So I retreat into my bubble, fantasise about stopping, laying down on the verge and drifting away, then snap to and rule it out as I imagine waking to concerned looks, to words of encouragement and support, well-meaning but nevertheless unbearable. No help required thanks, nothing to see here. I try to mentally switch up and imagine daylight, tell myself that daylight will restore equilibrium, and being awake will be a natural state, not self-imposed torture. I scan for the merest hint of colour in the sky ahead, listen for the faintest birdsong, but the eastern horizon remains resolutely black. And I hear a bastard owl.

Rolling out the previous evening the banter-bus had been running at full throttle, as it has done hundreds of times in the past, but there was nervousness behind the bravado, and the only thing that had made it possible to roll at all was the sheer surreality of the whole idea. The usual small talk at the shop that afternoon reflected this:

“What you up to tonight then, Matt?”

“I’m going for a ride, as it happens”

“Oh, that’s an unusual way to spend a Saturday evening. Where you going?”

“Erm… Winchester…”

What a nut-job. But not king nut-job, oh no. MK and NC were set on taking that crown, and to prove it had set out three hours earlier, looping in a quick 80km before stopping back at my place to refuel, adjust clothing to night-mode, collect PG and yours truly, and set out on my 400km DIY audax. I mean, why only do 400km when you can do 480? Might as well make it a nice round 300 miles.

And before the pedants carp that 480km is a little less than 300 miles, I’ll explain out that my 400km route was actually 406, and for a reason. I’d registered my intent to do a 400 with Audax UK, in a form known as a “Mandatory DIY”. You send in your planned route, pay four quid, and follow up with a GPX track to verify that you’ve completed it. Then you can have a badge. It’s a bit like being in Cubs.

The catch, occasionally, being that what comes up as a certain distance on Ride With GPS, my usual routing platform, often comes up a little shorter. And I was buggered if I was going to ride for 17 hours and wind up at 398.7km. Hence my explanation to the boys as to why we were doing a Tour de Winchester rather than rolling straight through, as well as other seemingly unnecessary random detours.

Familiarity is our friend for the opening couple of hours, winding out through Edenbridge and Lingfield towards Horley, from Kent into Surrey. Hundreds of kilometres over a dozen years mean that we know every pot-holed inch of these lanes, every ramp and every decline. It’s an easy introduction, the perfect loosener. 

What’s not so perfect is that NC’s front light fails after 17km. We’re all running Son dynamos with various front beacons, but NC’s Supernova E3 has decided to switch permanently into standlight mode, meaning that while other road users can just about see him, he can see bugger all when he’s on the front. This, it occurs to me, may be no bad thing if it keeps him OFF the front, because NC has a problem. He’s so feckin’ strong. Snag is, he doesn’t necessarily realise he’s strong, he just rolls his big gear at a constant cadence without a care in the world, doing his thing and leaving a wake of tortured riders behind him. Nothing malicious about it, just the cycling equivalent of casual racism.

Having ridden with him for years, and ridden long too, I know not to get drawn in but to let the gaps stretch out, even on the gentlest inclines. The trick to this game, for me at least, is to make it effortless, resist the temptation to give a few stamps out of the saddle just to keep up, because I know that doing that now will kill me down the road. Forget about burning matches, or any of that crap; don’t even open the box.

Pubs still open as we crank on through Horley, filled with normal people getting averagely drunk on typical Saturday night in an unremarkable town. I think how weird we must look, an incongruous bubble of lycra and LEDs, a mad-monk squadron on its crazy pilgrimage to nowhere in particular. I’m proud, feel elated. But I quite fancy a pint.

The landscape, what’s visible of it, has been a mix of urban and rural so far, but as we press through the balance changes, the towns and villages begin to thin and night envelopes us. A wooded section just after Ockley sweeps, twists and tumbles like a crazy natural roller-coaster, strangely disorientating as darkness makes it difficult to tell whether we’re climbing or descending, with only the change in resistance from the pedals to provide a clue. We ride in a loose formation, using the whole road, confident in each other, confident in our machinery, confident that we’ll see the headlamps of any approaching traffic. 

Occasionally a security light trips on, or a dog barks to acknowledge our passage, to warn; does its owner stir in bed and wonder what’s occurring out there in the dark? I look up and see the landing lights of a plane heading into Gatwick, an ordinary sight made extraordinary through the prism, not just of Coronavirus, but of our personal weird-shit mission. Its white strobe blinks in the distance, tipping a wink at me. Press on son. 

Haslemere Station, sometime near midnight. I wonder if the last train left yet? Could be at Waterloo in an hour or so. Couple more to ride home from there. Oh stop it, you’re only 100km in.

The terrain has gradually become lumpier over recent kilometres. No mega-climbs, just repetitive, nagging ramps and short, sharp descents, occasionally rough and always unfamiliar, making it impossible to recoup going down what you lose going up. Anticipating the changes in gradient is difficult in the dark, and I’m glad to be running 1×11. It would be easy find yourself in the wrong chainring and end up panic-shifting. I’ve not dropped a chain in years, but wrapping one around the BB would not be a happy outcome just now.

Occasionally the road flattens and straightens, giving an opportunity to get down on the aerobars, an addition to my cockpit that I was skeptical about and, if I’m honest, slightly embarrassed about too. They always feel a little too “triathlete” for me, first step on a slippery slope that leads to sleeveless tops and riding sockless, but three of us have them on tonight because it also seems to be what endurance-racers do, so why not? Turns out they may be onto something. Initially, I was just looking to have an alternative riding position rather than gain any great aero advantage, but even on my Trek Crockett CX bike, decked out with various items of touring paraphernalia, and me perched on top in a flapping gilet, they really work.

Heading down a deserted A31 as part of an impromptu nocturnal team TT is a bizarre experience, but trust me and do it if you get the chance. It will surely make you smile. Unless you’re fourth wheel with no aerobars to hunker down on; PG tells us he was having to put in a big effort to stay in the train when we were down on the bars. Learning.

Strange as it sounds, we’ve not done a lot of homework about our route. I’d lifted it from a 600 that MK had dug up somewhere, chopped it down, and added a bit here and there to top it back up 400km. Bordering on reckless really, considering that the chances of stumbling across places to refuel were likely to be slim for the first 10 hours or more. Turns out that PG was a bit more organised, and had pinpointed a 24-hour service station near Winchester, 150km in. Still a fair old stint on a litre-and-a-half of water, so need to work on hydration strategy if we do this again.

But we’re homing on it now, and the omens are good; lights are on, the stacked displays of barbecue charcoal and AdBlue are still out front and there’s a car filling up. Coast in, unclip, mask-up and walk to the door. Locked. Bugger. Through the glass we can see a chiller full of Volvic, a Costa machine, Double-Deckers, grab bags of Hula-Hoops. Nutrition of champions, tantalisingly out of reach.

Bag of charcoal? No problem. Cup of coffee? Not so straightforward…

I take my turn at rattling the door handle, as if it’s going to magically unlock for one of us, like pulling Excalibur out of the stone. In a way though, it works, and a confused looking dude (can’t think what would be confusing about four guys in lycra trying to gain entry at two in the A.M.) emerges from out back and asks what we want. There’s a bit of a language barrier to overcome, not to mention some soundproof glazing, but using a mixture of sign language and exaggerated pronounciation we manage to get the message across. We need coffee, we need water, we need Double-Deckers. Confused dude complies, and juggles our feast out through the security drawer by his till, so we’re set. PG produces pizza from his seat pack – he really is organised – and we take the piss for a bit before accepting a slice.

After a prat-fall on ice 18 months ago, my shoulder sometimes gives me grief on longer rides, so I decide that one-third distance would be a good time to pop a precautionary ibuprofen or two. Slipping a couple of lurid coloured tablets into my mouth, I see that a police wagon has pulled in at one of the pumps, and hope that none of Hampshire’s finest has misinterpreted my pill-popping and thinks that Operation Puerto: The Sequel, needs to be played out at a Shell station near Winchester. But nah, they have no interest in us, and no interest in the car with half a number-plate that’s just pulled in next to them either. Must be going off shift.

We’re re-hydrated, but need to get some proper food down. PG’s on the case and reckons there’s a 24-hour MacDonalds at Petersfield, around 35km down route. Should be an easy couple of hours, so we head out. First there’s a loop of Winchester’s deserted city-centre to top up the mileage, followed by a spiteful little drag out of town, where I find for the first time – but not the last – that my legs have chucked it in while we were stopped. Seems to be a peril of advancing years that any stop takes longer to recover from, to get the heart rate back up, to get the blood pumping.

Pump it does though, eventually, and less than two rolling hours later we spot a little oasis of light, another bubble of activity in the darkness. My memory surfs back to distant, forgotten nights, to a late deadline on the Daily Mail, last days on Fleet Street. Walkng down Whitefriars Steet, past loading bays where trucks filled up with the early edition, a bustling scene in a sleeping city. On home via the Royal Mail sorting office in King Edward Street, vans coming and going, and through the meat market at Smithfield, more activity, more life in the night. Calm, naked darkness in between. There’s a lot of time to think when you spend 17 hours on a bike.

Coast in, unclip, mask-up and walk to the door. Locked. Oh for fuck’s sake…

We wander round to the order-point for the drive-thru, but the snag is our meagre weight isn’t enough to trigger the sensors beneath the tarmac that let the staff inside know that someone is waiting. Eventually, we manage to get our orders in but it’s a protracted process, meaning that by the time the last of us, happens to be me, has ordered the first has finished his finished his nutritious snack and is starting to shiver, itching to get going again. MK is searching for a little warmth by standing as close to the locked door as possible as I taxidermize my face with burger and fries. 

Rolling again, next stop Lewes, another 90km. Doesn’t sound a lot, but the thermometer is bordering on single digits and our bodies are experiencing their natural nocturnal fall in temperature, so we’re all shivering now.

And for the next hour or so my wretched corpse just doesn’t want to know. There’s more life in the roadkill that passes through the cone of light from my Sinewave Beacon, and even the novelty place names, Didling, Cocking, fail to cheer me up. Slowly though, the sleep/wake cycle starts to turn and work in my favour, and as we roll through the woodlands of Duncton Common I find I’m not just keeping up with the guys, but pulling turns on the front. 

Deer ahead, on the road and in the trees, ghostly silhouettes against a grey dawn. I slow and call a warning to the others, but I needn’t have bothered; looking around, they’re a long way back, clearly on a different sleep/wake cycle to me. I soft-pedal to get us back together, then press on. 

Not only has the clock turned in my favour, the parcour has too, now flat or gently rolling, meaning I can get into a rhythm, use my aerobars, set a good pace. Periodically I look round and see… nobody. Soft-pedal again, repeat the scenario. After a time it occurs to me that this might be becoming irritating, and while I’m kind of enjoying it, when the fun stops, as they say, stop.

We’re a few kilometres short of Steyning and I need a piss anyway, so pull over into a lay-by (a sign proclaims “Sussex cherries here”, though there isn’t a cherry-vendor to be seen), dismount, and wait for the guys. There’s a pervading smell of urine, so clearly I’m not the first person to have this idea. 

Three weary figures pull in. NC is ashen and hollow-cheeked, MK is uncharacteristically quiet, and PG is grumbling about something, either the smell of urine or the lack of cherries, I can’t tell. There’s some fishing around in pockets and seat-packs, Red Bull is produced and necked, then we’re on our way.

Just as quickly as my bubble of confidence was inflated I feel it punctured, as the short break and Red Bull have given NC wings again. It’s as-you-were, with NC and MK slowly disappearing off, but PG seems to have lost the will, or the legs, to keep up with them, so at least I have some company now as we chug up the hill past Pyecombe.

There’s a long downhill where I adopt my aero-tuck and let gravity do its thing, barrelling down towards the turn off for Ditchling. Up ahead NC and MK have pulled up to wait for us oldies, and I look behind for a sight of PG as I coast in next to them. There’s a clear view for maybe 500 metres back down the road, but no sign of PG, which is concerning. He’s not the fastest descender on the road (in-spite of being a demon off it) but this gap smacks of being a bit lily-livered, even for him. MK turns around to go find him, and a few minutes later we get the message to say that he’s punctured. Our only mechanical of the ride, as it turns out, but it puts a 20 minute dent in our schedule and while our schedule – sausage roll in Lewes at 08.30 – is purely self-imposed it’s funny how these things play on the mind and undermine the will. 

Passing through Ditchling lifts the mood again. Although we still have around 140km to go we’re on home ground, riding on familiar tarmac, ticking off familiar landmarks, anticipating the rise and fall of the road and knowing where we have a nice stretch on which to make good time without flogging ourselves. 

Sausage rolls and coffee at the BP station in Lewes have become a ritual over the years, and they’re welcome this September morning, but this ritual also involves having to get the legs going again on the dragging climb up the A26. And with 275km in the bag those legs are H-E-A-V-Y. Factor in that it’s a busy stretch of road, so there’s usually a chugging diesel-engined accompaniment until you branch off towards Ringmer, and it’s a pretty unpleasant way to start a Sunday morning. 

Over the top of the climb though things flatten off, and we’re trundling along nicely when a rag-tag Eastbourne Rovers train eases past us, nodding polite greetings as they go. Could be that tiredness has addled my brain and I’m getting paranoid, but their greetings also seem slightly pitying, and I’m not having that. So I quickly hop on the back, thinking the guys will follow my lead. In an unexpected burst of maturity, they don’t, so I’m flying solo on the back as the Rovers subtly increase their pace in an effort to throw me off. Fortunately, the dude in front of me is huge and punches a great hole in the air for me to huddle into, and as the road is pretty flat it’s not a problem to sit in. I’m pondering how to find a dignified exit strategy when after a few kilometres they slow and peel off down a right turn, meaning I can nonchalantly yell a quick “thank you” for the tow, and wish them well, thus extricating myself from the situation with pride intact, albeit possibly looking like a bit of a nob.

Fairly level as far as Hailsham, then through Battle towards Brede and Broad Oak things get progressively choppier. PG and I form a brotherhood of blaspheming as each successive ramp seems steeper and longer than the one before. He has a function on his Garmin that I don’t altogether approve of, that tells you how many climbs your route contains, and how far to the top of the current one. He likes it, calls it useful, but I hate it, call it a pain in the arse; I don’t want to know I’m on climb six out of 11, just feel free to tell me when I’m on 11, or better still, over it. Thing is, now it’s in my head that he has this knowledge I find myself asking what climb we’re on, frequently to be told, as my legs and lungs burn, that this one doesn’t count as a climb at all. What the…

Another brief water-stop in Rye, and we start out across the open expanse of Romney Marsh. The gentle north-east breeze that gave us a little assistance through the night as we headed west, has been freshening as the day has progressed, and there’s now a strong block-headwind to fight with on this, the most exposed part of the route. I’m truly hanging now, desperate to hold the wheel because I know that if I lose it I’ll be truly screwed and probably end up grinding slowly to a halt. Turning north-west at Brenzett doesn’t really help, in fact it makes things worse as the headwind becomes a cross-wind from the right, so there’s nowhere to hide.

Good news though, is that we’re finally heading towards our finish rather than away from it and I know it should take something under two hours to get home from here. Under normal circumstances that is, and these are hardly normal circumstances. Familiar little climbs and ramps that I’d usually not give a second thought to claw me back, grinding me down as I griz my way up them. Emergency jelly-bean stop in Tenterden but it doesn’t help much. I’m not hungry, or short of food; the tank isn’t empty but someone tied a knot in the fuel line.

A few beers in celebration had seemed a good idea when I suggested that option, sometime back in the darkness, but nobody is up for that any more and even NC, who’s normally game for a pint or six, takes a rain-check, peeling off towards home as we near Goudhurst, rather than seeing out the rest of the route. He looks reassuringly shagged, which makes me feel a little better about the state I find myself in.

Brenchley Ramp, a cheeky little bastard of a gradient that I only ever seem to tackle at the end of a ride, marks the official finish of the climbing according to PG’s Garmin and he lets me know this. Well hal-ay-frickin-lujah. I go up there so slowly it’s positively comical.

I’m pretty much just turning the pedals over for the last few kilometres of the run-in, and my minimum-effort mantra of the night before isn’t dictated by self-discipline anymore, it’s dictated by being the only kind of effort I can manage. Nice flat run in with a good tailwind and I’m half expecting MK to light it up in the hope of going out with a bang, or more accurately, with a Strava PB, but he finishes up very sedately, peeling off right towards home. PG heads off next leaving me to roll the last few hundred metres alone. 

So I’m back in my solo bubble as I finish up, experiencing the same parallel reality I felt as we barrelled through Horley last night. All around, people do ordinary stuff, ordinary Sunday, ordinary town, while I glide through un-noticed and unremarkable, but feeling rather extraordinary. 

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