I’m in a bit of a funk. I don’t really know what to do.
I’m one of those people that likes to pile their life plate high on things to do. I usually thrive when I’m busy. Riding bikes, seeing friends, working hard, side projects etc. Normally, I think I’m a pretty resilient human being. Happy to roll with life’s punches. Pick myself up, dust myself off and keep smiling.
Sometimes life throws you hard curve balls like bereavement, assholes and anxiety.
Sometimes it gets too much and something gives.
This time, it was me.
I’d noticed I’d been struggling. More teary than usual. More anxious. I won’t go into detail but one day it became too much.
I’m not sure where I go from here. I have reached out to friends and family who have been amazingly supportive. I’m waiting for therapy and counselling. I haven’t been able to see the GP because waiting times at my practice are so long. I have been spoken to the mental health nurse who has given me some ideas of places I can go for help. The NHS service that links individuals with local charities has nearly a month wait for a telephone consultation. I’m reading a book that my mum got me about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the meantime, learning some of the theory behind it before I start therapy.
I know that I am very lucky. I am not writing this to wallow or self indulge my emotions. Nor am I looking for sympathy. I am writing this to be honest.
I know that I am lucky to have a roof over my head, to have income that allows me to feed myself well and indulge my hobbies. I have amazing friends and a top mum. I have good physical health and I’m not looking after children/a disabled relative. But sometimes life is hard. It isn’t always rosy.
I’m still riding, although I have less energy and I’m incredibly anxious. I’ve been very grateful to Telbert for riding with me last week. Just getting me out of the house is an achievement some days. Finding the right balance between keeping busy/distracted, working on myself and time for rest.
When I feel like riding it helps. It is a bit of respite, gets me outside and distracts me. But it is just a fix, not a long term solution. Like a dodgy patch on a puncture. Putting pressure on myself doesn’t work at the moment, so I’m just taking each day as it comes.
When I was around 20 I remember coming across an article about a ride nicknamed ‘Wales in a weekend’. I was completely captivated by this account of three friends riding the Brian Chapman Memorial Audax together. This ride is Wales end to end in 600km. It starts in Chepstow by the Severn Bridge, goes up to the Menai Bridge that joins Anglesey to the mainland and back again to Chepstow.
The mental and physical toughness required to ride up and down Wales in under 40 hours was one thing but I was also fascinated by the complete grass roots nature of Audax. On an Audax there are no banners, no medals, no crowds. Bananas and beans on toast (not at the same time!) replace energy gels and protein bars. Steel is the frame material of choice and you’d be hard pushed to find a deep section carbon wheel. Audax is about understated, hard riding and is supported by an army of amazing volunteers who give up their weekend to help feed and organise exhausted, smelly, dishevelled cyclists.
This write up made a lasting impression on me. I banked it in the ‘amazing things I would like to do one day’ list thinking honestly I would probably never be able to do anything like it – this was years before I became a ‘proper’ cyclist. Nevertheless, I didn’t forget it.
Funny how once an idea is in your brain it stays there and resurfaces years later.
Fast forward about 5 years and I’m a bit more of a ‘proper’ cyclist aka roadie struggling to balance work, commuting, thesis corrections and then my grandmother died…
While I was slowly grinding my physical and mental health into the ground I followed dots along The Transcontinental Race 2016. Read ‘What Goes Around’ by Emily Chappell and Juliana Buhring’s ‘This Road I Ride’. I knew I wanted to do something, to do something for myself, an adventure and a challenge. But was I capable?
I met some awesome women through the Bristol cycling scene. One evening, at a flat party hosted by my friend Janine I said that I was thinking about signing up for the Transcontinental.
I was still unsure. I had never done anything like it before. I sought advice from people like Emily. She came back with something along the lines of ‘you are capable of so much more than you think’.
JFDI. Just Fucking Do It.
I put my TCR application in and before I even knew the outcome I joined Audax UK and signed up for the Bryan Chapman. I’d wanted to do it for so long and if I got a place on the TCR it would be great preparation. If I didn’t get a place on TCR I’d wanted to do this iconic Welsh ride for years and it would be a challenge in itself.
Fast forward 6 months and I’m rolling out of the Bullwark Community Centre in Chepstow.
Now, in true Eleanor fashion I wasn’t completely prepared. I’d spent the entire week leading up to this feeling run down and lethargic with low mood and glands the size of golf balls. But there was nothing actually wrong with me. I decided to drive to the start this time after the nightmare that was getting to the Brevet Cymru and anticipated post ride exhaustion. Except I missed the junction on the motorway, I was too excited at having seen cyclists crossing the bridge that I drove straight past the turning off for Chepstow!
I hurriedly parked the car, pulled my bike out the boot and reassembled her front wheel. Plugged in my dynamo, pulled on my shoes, strapped my seat post bag on and pushed off. Around the corner into the Bullwark community centre and the place was jammed with cyclists. I had time to quickly run inside, grab my Brevet card, run back out and search the sea of lycra for some distinctive Audax Club Bristol (ACB) orange. Friends located just in time. The mass of cyclists surged out of Bullwark, along the quiet residential streets and out of Chepstow at 6am.
Now I can’t compare this to the start of my first Audax, the Brevet Cymru, because I missed the start of that one! But it was amazing. A very understated start, no glamour and no ceremony as around 200 cyclists set off along the road to Monmouth. It was incredible riding with so many others, clearly I wasn’t the only one excited and we steamed along. There must have been around 60 still in our peloton when we went through Crickowell and it was still early enough in the morning that the few cars around didn’t seem to mind too much.
Along the road I met a rider called Dave, he asked if the cap I was wearing (my JFDI cap) was from Casquette magazine. I said it was and he asked if I knew the editor, Danielle. I said I had exchanged a few messages with her and we had vowed to ride together sometime this summer. Turns out he is a friend of the magazine and had given them some advice on a few projects! Small world!
The first control was the Honey Cafe in Bronllys. As the field hadn’t yet spread out very much it was busy. We weren’t sure whether it was a good idea to stop for a proper break here as it could waste valuable time, but when we saw how quickly the organised kitchen was churning out bacon butties we changed our minds. Baconed and caffinated we got back on our bikes feeling more human. The next control was at Llanidloes on the other side of Mid-Wales. This seemed like a really long way away and one of those places so much further North from where I grew up in west Wales that I didn’t know the area very well.
The A-roads we followed took us up a few long slog climbs and the heavens opened. Wales was being typically Welsh. The field had thinned out a bit by now and we had a handful of ACB riders and friends riding in a group. We discussed whether it was raining enough to warrant stopping to put on our rain jackets, by the time it took us not to make a decision it was too late and we were wet through! We needn’t have worried, this time it was just a passing shower.
We were enjoying the smooth rolling A-roads a bit too much and we sped along snacking on trail mix from our top tube bags to fuel as we rode. As we pulled in to Llanidloes at around midday our average speed was just a pip under 28km/h. Unsustainable. We all knew it and vowed to slow down! The climbs in Snowdonia would slow us down anyway and we weren’t even 1/4 of the way through. Pacing is important over 600km.
At Llanidloes the cafe control had turned their car park at the back of the cafe into an al fresco extension. Just another demonstration of how much organisation has gone into this weekend. Other road users bemoan cyclists but we do a lot to support rural businesses and cafes.
Next came the mountain road to Machynlleth which I’d ridden last December on day 2 of Bristol to Bangor. Realising that in half a day I’d covered what took us over 1.5 days to cover 6 months earlier made me realise how far I’ve come as a rider in a relatively short time. P.S. If I can do it, anyone can!
These hills were the first ‘proper’ climbs of the ride and I started to struggle. I was probably feeling the effects of having been under the weather the previous week but I was climbing like a snail. Luckily they all stopped to take in the view across the reservoir where I caught them up and we descended into Machynlleth together. Quick info control and we popped into Coop for some water – all that climbing had dehydrated us.
Someone in Co op said ‘is there an Audax on’. Clearly seeing a couple of cyclists rushing around the aisles in search of 2l bottles of water and chocolate bars is a telling sign! We said yes, we were riding the Bryan Chapman. He then started chatting to us outside the shop, asking us what gearing we were using on our bikes. We didn’t want to be rude but we really wanted to get going. It becomes all too easy to lose dead time to faffing and the boys were growing impatient. From Machynlleth it was into Snowdonia National Park.
Beautiful climbing and the sun came out. We stopped a couple of times to delayer. Leg warmers and arm warmers off. It felt like I hadn’t ridden with bare arms and legs in so long and the feeling of the wind and sunshine against my skin was wonderful. Up to Dolgellau we rode for our first stop at the King’s Youth Hostel. The figure of eight route stops here twice, the first time for food and the second time for food and if you’re lucky – a few hours sleep.
The road up to the King’s Hostel is a tiny little steep country lane, I took note of this as I knew the next time I would be climbing it in the dark with 375km in my legs. Not a nice thought. In the daylight it was a lovely rural lane running along a stream. The air was fresh. We were in the middle of untouched countryside and it smelled delicious! We envied the riders leaving as we arrived, but it wasn’t a race and we were still making amazing time!
The organisers take over the whole hostel and the amazing volunteers, many of them Audax riders themselves (I recognised Ian from the Brevet Cymru) know exactly how we are feeling and go out of their way to make sure we are welcomed and fed. Here, Dave (off of earlier) pounced on me to get a (very unflattering) picture of me in my JFDI cap to send to Danielle. I didn’t see him again until the end.
At King’s we passed over our Brevet Cards to be stamped and filled in a food order. I ordered everything (of course!) and had seconds of the apple pie! The place was full of cyclists and as people would finish and set off again new riders would arrive. We were starting to feel it a bit and shovelled in as much food as we could, we would need it later! A quick bit of faffing to repack and unpack my seat post bag with all the layers I’d shed over the afternoon and we were off again. At this point we had become a group of 7 which was much more manageable. A lot of people ride audax solo and this makes a lot of sense because everyone will ride at their own pace and have different strengths, weaknesses and surges. But so early into a ride this epic I think we were all glad of the company and the support that provided.
As we rolled down the steep tarmac out of King’s other riders were arriving. Role reversal. We wished them good luck.
The next bit of the ride was just stunning. We rode across the wooden railway bridge into Barmouth under blue skies and warm sunshine. Where the bridge ends there is a steep path into Barmouth and here we found a lone duckling sliding down on his bottom his feet unable to grip the steep concrete. I wanted to take him with us but the group didn’t think it would be neither fair nor aerodynamic to have a duckling mascot. We rode on along the beautiful North Wales coast in the sunshine. It was so beautiful. I’d never been here before and I’m determined to go back. It was torture not dumping the bike on the beach to go for a swim!
Rehydrating in the sunshine and as we approached Harlech Jess and I were both desperate for the toilet! Boys can just stop by the side of the road but it is harder for girls and there wasn’t anywhere discrete enough for us to stop so we went off to find a public loo while the men went off to find the info control. Relieved and reunited we plunged into the depths of Snowdonia through Beddgelert (where I inaccurately retold the story of how the place got its name) and up Llanberis Pass. Again, muggins here dropped like a stone on the climb but it was too beautiful not to enjoy the stunning landscapes of Snowdonia. An info control and a group photo at the top of the pass before layering up for the breathtaking descent.
I over-layered and quickly overheated on the final push on to Menai and the 300km point. At Menai we met ACB club mate Elfyn who’s headset was ‘fucked’ and he was hitching a lift back to King’s for the night. I felt for him. This is a gruelling ride and not where you want your equipment to fail.
At the Menai scout hall the volunteers were churning out baked potatoes and cheese and beans. Despite their efficiency I still had time to shove a couple of custard creams in my mouth while I waited for my potato (every second counts! time spent off the bike not eating is dead time!!). As we sat and ate conversation fell to fatigue. Jess said she thought 300km was her distance, long enough for a proper ride and any further and you just get exhausted. I said I thought 300km was the tolerance my bottom had for riding. Denise passed the Sudocrem. Water bottled filled we clip clopped outside.
The light was starting to fade. Rain was coming. We turned out dynamo lights on and layered up. I left my armwarmers and a base layer off to try and avoid boiling in my not-as-breathable-as-it-claims rain jacket. This is where it all started to go pear shaped for me.
Back over the Menai bridge and into Snowdonia as night and rain began to fall. I wasn’t managing to keep up on the climbs and slowly watched the rear red lights of my riding companions disappear into the distance. While trying to take a drink and with one hand on the handlebars I was caught in a vicious crosswind that came out of nowhere and was nearly blown off the bike. Rain pelting down, wind battering and darkness thickening I stopped enjoying and started enduring. One from the group held back with me for a while, I was grateful for the shield that he provided against the unrelenting headwind as we rode into Beddgelert. Somewhere along this ride we turned a corner and were faced with a wall of tarmac. I panicked, I had limited visibility in the dark with the rain gathering on my glasses, my chest tightened and I nearly had a panic attack that I wasn’t able to ride up the hill. Being unable to climb a hill and falling off or rolling down backwards is an anxiety of mine that often surfaces to plague me. I managed to hold the panic away but my chest had tightened and stayed like that. I couldn’t open my lungs to gulp the air that I needed to ride. In Trawsfynydd we rejoined the others who had stopped for a modest comfort break and the friendly cyclist stopped to go find some batteries for his headlight. I turned to one of the ACB riders, Martin, and said ‘I’m scared’. My chest was still tight and my breathing was shallow, no matter what I did I couldn’t force air deep into my hungry lungs. From Trawsfynydd to Dolgellau I crawled along, unable to breathe properly, terrified of the unfamiliar wilderness that lay in the darkess, cold and ready for this ride to be over. I felt sick. That jacket potato wasn’t sitting well in my stomach and my insides were grumbling. Was I going to need to stop to throw up?
I wasn’t in a good way. But I knew this road from when I’d ridden it last December and remembered a few landmarks like the turn off for Coed Y Brenin. I just did everything I could to keep the pedals turning and eventually started ticking off landmarks that told me I was getting closer to a point where I could stop and get warm and dry.
I knew what lay between me and the King’s Youth Hostel, those two sharp kicking hills. I turned off the main road and got out the saddle. I was struggling to get traction on the wet roads that were half covered in vegetation. My chest tightened. Rain on my goddam glasses meant I couldn’t see and there was only light cast in the direction my handlebars were pointed so I couldn’t see around corners. I freaked out, screamed. Made it to the top of the climb and unclipped. I bent over gulping air and fighting back the tears. Rob’s familiar voice came out of the darkness and he put his arm around me. They must have been waiting at the turning for me. It later emerged that they’d had to stop in an Audax Hotel (bus stop) before Dolgellau to rest and eat to fight off the tiredness. Rob bless his soggy socks comforted and reassured me and we rode the rest of the track up to the Hostel.
I removed my seat post bag and squelched into King’s.
It was 1am. Inside everyone was in a bad way. Martin’s knee was bad. Everyone was exhausted and soggy. Now, everyone says 400km is the hardest Audax distance because there is no sleep. That 600km is easier because you get a sleep. But for this ride we had already ridden 400km by the time we even got to the sleep stop! This didn’t seem logical to any of us. We ate in subdued silence. The fortune of being the underrepresented gender meant that Jess, Denise and myself got a bed for the night. Rob was contemplating riding back out into the night (we had passed riders leaving the hostel as we were arriving) but reconsidered that being out in the biblical weather alone at night might not be the smartest idea and he kipped down in the lounge for the night. We agreed to meet back in the main room for breakfast at 5.30am.
I went for a shower. I knew that it would help me warm up and my sore bum reminded me of the need to keep that area clean to avoid infection. The warm shower was bliss. My backside was sore and I gently cleaned myself with a bottle of hotel shampoo I’d packed. I dried myself off with the inside of a soggy leg warmer (who needs a towel?!) and pulled on some dry leggings and a soggy merino base layer. I climbed into my bunk and put my head on the pillow. Despite being utterly exhausted it was hard to sleep, the room was warm and muggy and people were constantly leaving and arriving in the building. I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat. I must have had some sleep because I was woken by Jess gently nudging my arm to stir me at 5.20am. I wasn’t convinced that the 3.5 hours lie down would have done much for me. I felt hungover, dehydrated from the warm night and legs sore from the previous 400km. One thing I was glad for, the clean and dry shorts I had packed.
I shovelled in some Spanish omelette for breakfast. Martin’s knee was in a bad way and he was going to pull out. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the prospect of getting back on the bike. When I rode the 400km two weeks previous I was wrecked and I wasn’t exactly feeling fresh as a daisy this time!
Once on the saddle I didn’t feel too bad. Amazed at what a difference a little bit of rest and some clean shorts can make. As we rode down that killer little road I met my friend Grace wheeling her bike. I had been looking out for her all ride and was so glad to see her. I unclipped and gave her a hug. She wasn’t in a great way and was unsure if she was going to be able to finish with a dead Di2 battery. I felt for her but was also amazed at how un-dishevelled she looked.
I quickly caught up with the others and rode into my tired legs. They felt OK, amazingly. I’m not sure how. The rain had stopped and the air smelled like fresh air in mid Wales smells first thing in the morning after a downpour (trust me, this is a thing).
Sunshine and second breakfast at the next control in Aberhafesp. My hamstrings were threatening cramp and I was crossing my fingers for bananas. On the approach Jess, Rob and myself were fantasising about what greasy terrible junk food we’d love to stuff our faces with. A few familiar faces at the control and I sat down to a banana and nutella sandwich (such luxury!) followed by a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee.
From here there were a fair few old climbs into Newtown before the next control at Llandrindod Wells. I lost Rob and Jess on the climbs just unable to keep pace with them on any incline. I arrived at the control as they left. I was riding solo at this point and placing a lot of faith in my GPS, route cards and own ability to navigate. Some soup, a bread roll and some lemon drizzle cake and a chat with some other riders. I knew there wasn’t far to go now, but it seemed further than I was capable of. My knee was also starting to make my brain aware of her presence. I popped some vitamin i (ibuprofen) as a precaution.
There were no more controls now until the finish and I wasn’t sure if I was capable of riding that 90 odd km without a proper rest to break it up. I kept telling myself it was only the distance of a club run, but I had over 500km in my legs! I set off by myself into the undulating Welsh lanes. Seriously, Wales. All the hills!
The sun was beating down and I stopped once to take off my arm warmers. I didn’t take off my knee warmers because I thought if my knee was going to be problematic I didn’t want to risk it getting too cold. I met an Islington rider near Boughrood and the company picked up my speed a little. But he dropped me on a climb.
In Abergavenny I was joined by a couple of Pembrokeshire lads who we’d met on the first day. I rode with them on the flats along to Usk. I was enjoying the lack of incline and settled into my TT bars and powered along at 30kph. One of them asked me if I’d ever time trialled. I said I hadn’t but he encouraged me to give it a go. He said he’d once ridden Brevet Cymru with the national 12h TT champion and they’d got back by 3pm!
We rode along and accidentally dropped one of them. His friend stopped to wait for him and I carried on saying they’d catch me on the hill. In Usk I caught up with Rob and Jess grabbing a sit down outside the village shop. As we started along the road to Chepstow (nearly there now!) we experienced a couple of close passes by motorbikes. They dropped me on the climb and the Pembrokeshire boys caught me, and dropped me. As I crested the hill before Chepstow at the alpacas sign a scooter came down the hill telling me there had been an accident and police were turning traffic along. My heart sank, those close passes by motorbikes. What if a cyclist was involved? I also wasn’t going to turn around, I was getting back to Chepstow come hell of high water. I came across the accident and the policeman said as I was on a pushbike I could go through, I asked if a cyclist was involved ‘no, a motorbike’ was the response. I was relieved that my friends were safe.
My knee was in agony as I crawled up into Chepstow. I had an internal argument about which bit of my body hurt more out of my knee and my bum. When who comes up behind me but Robin who I’d met at the start of the Brevet Cymru! We rode into Chepstow and the Bullwark community centre. I unclipped and hobbled into the hall and handed over my Brevet Card for the final time. Relieved. Exhausted.
I hobbled into the back garden and collapsed on the floor next to Rob and Jess. The amazing organises were concerned about the state of my legs and fussed about, I reassured them I was fine. It took me about 3 hours waiting around the control to feel safe enough to drive home and in that time I met Judith, an incredible rider who has ridden this ride 11 times! Audax royalty as one other rider described. She’s also a bit of an authority on saddles so I picked her brain on that topic! Just as I went to go fetch the car to load up to go home Grace comes around the corner. I was so pleased that she’d been able to finish despite all her setbacks. We had a cuddle and a quick chat. She showed me the kitten that I’d missed at King’s. We both exchanged fears at how hard this ride had been and how would we do the 4,000km Transcontinental if we found 600km so challenging? I don’t know the answer.
After the ride people have congratulated me on finishing my first 600km. I just feel frustrated at not having ridden well. At being dropped on every hill and having had such a bad time on Saturday night in the wind and rain. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved something, I just feel frustrated with myself. I’m disappointed that I let myself have such a breakdown at night. Far from making me feel like I’m better prepared for the TCR I’m worried that I don’t have it in me.
Back in January I rode some 150 miles home to Bristol from Cambridge. The weather was gnarly and it was my longest trip so far. I was broken afterwards. My bottom was so sore I couldn’t even sit on the turbo at home to spin my legs out. I was tired, constantly hungry because I hadn’t eaten enough while I was on the bike. Legs exhausted. It took me about a week before I could get back on the bike and my legs still felt empty. I tried to chase Grace Lambert-Smith around the lake district the weekend after and boy I could tell that my legs weren’t happy.
I’m not going to lie, I really questioned whether my goals were completely unrealistic and out of my reach. If I want to do the TCR then I’ll need to be tapping more than that mileage daily, for two weeks!
I didn’t have too long to panic because another week and I was off on holiday to sunny South Africa for 10 days to see an old friend get married. Barring a near death experience with a Kudu while driving at night the holiday was just what I needed to have a good rest, some sunshine and forget about cycling for a bit.
Back from holiday, I started to regret the 10 days of eating and boozing. But meh! You only live once.
Once back I made an effort to try and commit to a more regular training schedule. Trying to get in 4 sessions a week, fitting it around work. Longer rides when I can but trying not to burn out. I made an effort to join in on club rides when I could. When I ride by myself I have a tendency to just pootle along, at snail’s pace. Which is great for a fun day out. Not great for a 4,000km race. Riding with a club is a great way to make my brain and my body think that riding faster is a thing.
For the most part I managed to stick with it and kept up pretty consistent efforts over the weeks of March.
In early April, following the death of Mike Hall I decided to off and do the Gospel Pass Audax from Bristol. 225km with 2,700m of lovely borderland hills. This was the most climbing I’d attempted so far in one sitting and boy did my legs know it! More than that, my arse was aware that this was the longest I’d spent in the saddle since January.
I have a new saddle now, a Specialized power. It is brilliant for relieving pressure on my lady parts and has resolved all discomfort in this area. The downside is that less pressure through my lady parts means more pressure through my sit bones. I’ve been riding this saddle a while and I don’t know if I’m breaking it in or it is breaking me in. Either way I’m not sure how much longer I can persevere.
The good new is, although I did burn myself out a little bit somewhere in the hills around Hay on Wye, two days later I was back on the bike. Ok my legs didn’t feel fresh but I was riding at decent pace and able to maintain contact with the saddle!
The following week my legs still didn’t feel fresh but my numbers on Strava were looking good. I keep on getting personal records (PRs) on local segments and even managed one up a hill! Internally I felt like I wasn’t riding as strong or as fast as I should but outwardly there didn’t seem to be too much to worry about.
Easter weekend came around and I was off up to Scotland with some friends (I might write something about this because Scotland is epic!). While I couldn’t keep up with the boys all weekend/on every hill I managed to stay with them and even beat Jimmy up the Cairngorm climb. My speed was good and my legs seemed to be getting used to day after day of turning the pedals (recovery helped by hot baths, loch swimming and whisky!).
After Easter my school friend Laura was getting married back where we used to live in Wales. I’ve previously written about the challenges in balancing work, bikes and life while still making time for friends. So what better way to put all of this into practice than to cycle to the wedding! It was about 190km out on Friday and 160km back on Monday.
My arse issues still aren’t resolved but at least the skin seems to be healing. My legs keep turning, they even feel strong on occasion.
In summary, I’m building up volume. It seems to be working although I’m not sure how effective it is. I seem to be getting stronger, faster. My body aches a bit, but is also capable of getting back on the bike sooner.
The real test will be this weekend where I attempt the 400km Brevet Cymru…
Last Thursday night I went to sleep with my friend Chris messaging on Whatsapp worrying that Mike Hall’s tracker had stopped unexpectedly. We had both been dot watching the Indian Pacific Wheel Race Page. Chris is a worrier and only the night before was having kittens that Kristof (another racer and possibly not human) had slept for longer than 4 hours and might have died from a car/exposure/eaten by a kangaroo.
Except I woke on Friday morning to a string of messages from Chris:
“12.54pm fuck fuck fuck
12.54pm I feel sick
6.22am If you aren’t aware already Mike was tragically killed in an accident involving a car. ”
My stomach sank. Everything sank. I checked Twitter/Facebook/Instagram. It was real. Not some nightmare that I might wake up from.
Mike Hall was the most accomplished ultra endurance cyclist. He won every race that he entered between 2012 and 2016, including the World Cycle Race (a race around the world), Tour Divide (twice), and the TransAm setting record-breaking times in each of them.
I never met Mike, but those who knew him describe him as humble, quiet and modest. A huge inspiration and creative influence in the world of ultra endurance cycling. He also gave back to the community with his race – the Transcontinental.
On Friday I decided to ride the route of the Gospel Pass Audax from Bristol. A 200kn+ round route. My legs and heart were heavy the whole way and the feeling hasn’t lifted. Why would the death of a stranger affect me so much? Cycling usually makes most things seem better. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.
Mike was such a huge influence in the global community of ultra cycling. A gentle giant of the sport. We have lost a pillar of the community.
If you go out for a drive you do not expect to be involved in a road traffic accident. Yet, if you go out on a bike you’re half expecting every car to have it in for you. Doubting whether drivers have seen you. Heart rate jumping every time you see a dozy pedestrian walking out without looking for bikes. People deserve to ride bikes in safety.
My father was killed in a road accident. He wasn’t cycling, he was in the ‘relative’ safety of a car. Except over two decades ago when cars were tin cans without airbags. Is it just incredibly selfish of me to go off and have adventures on bikes? What am I putting my mother through with worry. I got an insight into what it is like to be on the other side of the adventure. A dot watcher. Watching the phone for news of a friend/loved one.
Most people come home from most journeys/races/adventures safe. But for someone as experienced as Mike to be killed in an accident with a car…. Am I kidding myself about the real risks associated with what I’m doing? I can’t put words in his mouth but I don’t think my dad would have wanted me to shut myself away from the world. Nor would he want me sending my mum sick with worry.
I don’t know what to do. Or how to process all of these emotions. Riding helps, but I don’t think that is the answer.
Apologies for radio silence. February was busy and then March it felt like I had been swallowed by a black cloud. I’ve been really struggling with my mood, motivation and finding any time to balance training with work. Now that the clocks are about to spring forward an hour to announce the start of British Summer Time (YES!) I’m shaking off my black cloud and ready to bound into spring.
It has been hard. The cold, dark British winter really got to me. My job allows for flexible hours but when you have an hour commute either side it gets tough. If you have to be in for a 9.30am meeting and all of your friends are off on the Tuesday morning DRK ride, combine Strava FOMO and you start to worry that you’re just not training enough.
Something I’ve learned is that there is no point being too harsh on yourself about these things. When the Transcontinental is over I will need to go back to my job, life, family and friends. I also want to keep cycling, keep my love of cycling and think about other events and adventures to do in the future. Worrying myself, letting myself be worried and comparing myself to others will not help. I’ve also got the added pressure of my PhD corrections which also need to be prioritised. All of these things require energy, motivation and concentration. If I’m going to be balancing everything I need to be realistic.
Well I’m trying to manage it all. I wrote down on a piece of paper all the things that I have to do. Then I broke it down, what will I achieve each month, each week, then break that down into a plan for each day the week ahead. It doesn’t always involve cycling and if I feel exhausted or ill I give myself a break.
I have no idea if this strategy will work. I make no pretences about knowing what I’m doing. I’m making this up as I go along. It is more of a coping strategy than ‘how to properly approach training for the Transcontinental’. Let’s be honest. We can’t all be professional bike adventurers. I’m a real woman trying to have a real job, a life and an adventure. Stressing myself out about not doing it ‘by the book’ is not constructive. This is a personal challenge. I’m not competing against anyone else. I’m not racing against anyone else. I’m competing against me
Sometime last year I saw an advert for a brand that was looking for ambassadors. That brand was Pearl Izumi. From the information available it sounded pretty sweet.
“We are looking for a diverse group of athletes…”
“Successful champions will receive limited edition Pearl Izumi kit, online discounts, invitations to exclusive events, entrance to races, monthly fitness goals and expert tuition to really test themselves.”
So I threw my hat into the ring and applied. I was successful. Wopeee!
“For the 2017 season, you will be pink, black & hi-viz yellow (women) and blue, black & hi-viz yellow (men).”
Now these kits are the same as what had been shown in the promo shots. Perhaps foolishly, I assumed that they wouldn’t do that again! I mean who is that backwards to make that mistake twice?! Turns out Pearl Izumi is that backwards.
So today I requested to withdraw from the programme.
I am not willing to be an ambassador for a brand that requires/encourages individuals to wear colours that are assigned to them according to their gender.
People are individuals. We are not defined by gender. Yes I wear pink and I am a woman but this is a choice. Not all women wear pink, some men would like to have more choice of pink kit. Some people don’t identify by the gender they were born with, or with any gender at all! We should not stereotype and we should challenge those that do. Research shows that giving children blue or pink to wear affects how others treat them. Gender stereotypes can lead to little girls thinking that brilliance is a male trait. Over use of pink in advertising campaigns actually renders these campaigns less effective at targeting women. The cycling industry has a huge diversity problem. How are we supposed to build an increasingly inclusive cycling community when we reinforce gender stereotypes?
Gender and stereotypes are not a black and white matter. Nor are they blue and pink.
In other news, anyone looking to sponsor a ‘difficult’ woman?!
I have been incredibly touched by supportive and encouraging messages from the cycling twittersphere. Women that I look up to like Kajsa Tylen, Emily Chappell, Rickie Cotter and Juliete Elliot, women that I’ve watched as they achieve incredible things on two wheels are interested in my riding, cheering me on, telling me that I’m made of tough stuff. And also the men, Steve Abraham is never far away when I’m in need of a little encouragement or straight talking!
Someone that I’ve never met said that I had inspired them to ride a 200km solo Audax in February.
Still, my non-cycling friends think I’m insane and I’m still not comfortable telling my mum what I’m up to. She knows I’m doing the Transcon but I’m not embellishing too much about how much I plan on suffering in the saddle. She probably reads this so knows full well what I’m up to, but I haven’t got the guts to tell her directly. Probably because I’m afraid she’ll worry.
There are still a lot of cyclists who think I’m nuts, out of my depth and taken on a challenge that is beyond my capability. Tonight at the Bristol Bike Project a guy asked me ‘How long is your longest ride?’
(FYI this is probably the most common question asked by men after announcing that I’m doing the TCR. Women mostly go ‘WOW! Good luck!’. Maybe this comes form an innate male desire to compare sizes… anyway.. )
There are some reasons why this is a valid question.
It is an ultra endurance cycling race. One does need to be able to travel far and fast.
There are a lot of reasons why this isn’t a valid question.
Yes it is a bike race, but it isn’t just about the physical challenge. A lot of it is up here *points to head*.
Nothing prepares you for riding the Transcontinental like riding the Transcontinental. Yes, experience is important but it doesn’t guarantee success. I posted on the TCR Women’s facebook group to say how intimidated I was to find myself considering athletes like Juliana Buhring (fastest woman around the world) and Shu Pillinger (first Bristish woman to complete the race across america or RAAM) ‘peers’. Shu responded with ‘Most of us are newbies to this race! Welcome to the level playing field’. TCR veteran Fran added ‘And as the last races have shown, experience doesn’t necessarily mean a guarantee for success.. TCR is a very special beast!’
I’m not going to ride it tomorrow. I’m going to cycle my little legs of between now and July. I’m going to spend the next 6 or so months becoming the most competent rider I can be.
If I fail it isn’t a ‘failure’. It will be a bloody good adventure and has been the start of a new chapter in my life where I stop doubting myself and start doing.
SO… in a very roundabout way. The point I was trying to make is:
Yes you are riding solo and unsupported, but you’re being cheered on by friends, strangers, fellow riders. Everyone loves a nutter on a bike and they are willing you to succeed.
The Adventure Syndicate are really the embodiment of this spirit. Emily contacted me around Christmas time asking if she could use one of the pictures from our Wales adventure on the Syndicate’s blog. It seemed appropriate as the Syndicate were instrumental in us getting our act off the ground. Her response wasn’t what I expected (because we look up to our heroes and think they are infallible)
‘This blog post is making me reflect on what it is we’re actually doing, and how we’re doing it, and sometimes I’m not even sure’
Well I think it does come down creating a supportive community of people who will support eachother, answer questions, share advice, encourage and empower. Then this can drown out the voices of the haters and non-believers.
The Syndicate also introduced me to Rickie Cotter who is THE most fearless and endearing person I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Oh and she is an incredible athlete to boot!
So often we (and especially I think as women) are told that some things are too much/dangerous/stupid/silly/difficult. No wonder there was a shocking headline last week that little girls feel they are less capable and talented than little boys.
This is why the This Girl Can campaign is so strong. It strikes a message in nearly every woman. That fear of judgement. That fear of failure. The Adventure Syndicate just takes this to the next level my making a niche community for women who like to do unorthodox things on two wheels. I’m a scientist and to use science speak – they lower the activation energy required for an adventure (chemical reaction) to take place.
Other people believe in out abilities. We just need to believe them ourselves! I shall close with a quote from the organisers of London Edinburgh London.
‘My experience is that woman are more capable than they think whilst men are less capable than they say. Believe in yourself.’
My friend Caroline had got engaged, my friend Jo had an offer accepted on a house, Ellie had just finished a round of exams and I had passed my PhD defence. We had a lot to celebrate and a catch up was required.
Because of the aforementioned PhD defence I hadn’t spent much time riding my bike in January and I was feeling training guilt.
I was aware that TCR training would conflict a lot with my social life. If there is even the possibility of having my cake an eating it then I’ll try my hardest. I love cake.
It came up at a nice round distance of 150 miles. Longer than I’d ridden before. Not far off the sort of miles I should be putting in on average per day on the TCR.
I’d missed out on doing any sort of proper Audax ride in January. I’m one of those ‘start as you mean to go on’ sort of people and felt that I needed to do one epic ride this month.
It is quite far.
It is winter.
The forecast wasn’t good.
Due to aforementioned time off the bike I wasn’t exactly in peak winter form, far from it. I was actually feeling quite tired and exhausted and nearly cancelled on the weekend.
I spoke to Caroline on Wednesday evening, offering my congratulations and precocious apologies incase I didn’t make the weekend. Then I did a 30 minute HIIT session on my new turbo (more about that another time). I felt better from speaking with her, and better for having done some exercise. Mentally, I started making a kit list.
I’d only be cycling one way, so I could travel very light. I could borrow things like jumpers. My saddle pack was so light I could still bunny hop (important in winter when the roads are full of potholes!).
I set off at 6.30 am from Cambridge on Sunday morning. I had meant to set off earlier but with so much to celebrate with the girls I had drunk quite a lot of wine, not had much sleep and my head was sore. One day I will start behaving responsibly, that day was not today! Fuelled by a banana and with an emergency flapjack in my pocket I pedalled off into the darkness.
Oxford was approximately half way, I really wanted to make it there by lunchtime to meet my old friends from the Condors for lunch/coffee/cake. Cambridge and surrounds were dead flat = speed but there was a pretty constant headwind = not speed and my garmin was having difficulty = faff. I managed to find a coffee and a waffle for breakfast and purchase more flapjacks. I ate a flapjack an hour to keep fuelled.
La la la off we go. I had a suspicion that I wouldn’t make Oxford for 12. Probably more a late lunch. In spite of the hangover, wind, garmin faff I was maintaining an average speed over 14 miles per hour, which felt comfortable. I’d had a bike fitting with Tony Corke ((FYI this man is a bike fitting genius (in preparation for my custom Quirk frame)) and he had made a few modifications to my trusty Bianchi which had already been fitted to me but made it much more comfortable for endurance riding. My legs were spinning happily, feeling strong. My back felt good. Kit worked out well for the conditions and once the sun was up I felt comfortable temperature wise.
Somewhere after the turning off to Milton Keynes it started to rain. Lightly at first, but by the time I cycled in to Oxford it was pouring. I stopped at Peloton for a coffee, hoping that the Condor ladies might have been running late but alas. Nevermind, there was cyclocross on the telly and coffee and cake. Unfortunately they had been busy and run out of all substantial food, I’d need to pop to a supermarket to get some sandwiches later.
I was travelling light, this meant that I’d just chucked everything in a seat post bag and got on my way. I didn’t have the fuel pod I usually have on longer rides. So despite having a power pack, there was no way of charging my garmin while riding because there was no way of keeping the power pack wired in to the little GPS unit. Error. I had to wait about an hour in Oxford to recharge things. Still, I was glad of the chance to dry off and chat to a guy who built his own frames.
I left Oxford, stopping quickly to grab a supermarket sandwich, sausage rolls and supplies. Laden with emergency hot cross buns. I head out on the old familiar roads south east from Oxford a little after 3pm. The emergency buns are important. Firstly, the plastic packaging was waterproof. Secondly, although I didn’t quite manage to eat enough on this ride I do always like to have more food than I think I might eat. Nothing worse than running out of food, and therefore energy.
It was pissing it down. I can’t comfortably wear contacts all day. My glasses were beading with rain, misting up, and visibility was pretty poor in the rainy dusk. I managed to maintain my average speed until Farringdon (about half way between Oxford and Swindon) until my garmin crashed again. B*gger. I sheltered from the rain under an archway and tried to un-crash it and check the route on my phone so I knew where I was going. By this point not a single bit of me remained that wasn’t soggy. Luckily, thanks to primaloft socks and merino linings in my gloves, I was still warm. Just damp warm, like the warm water that pools in a wetsuit. My bike wasn’t enjoying the weather either. My gears were starting to crunch a bit but trying to clean the chain was futile.
Onwards! It was pitch dark by now. Night riding isn’t something I’m hugely used to or comfortable with, but I know that being good in the night will be key for the TCR. I’d turned off the A420 and the minor roads had very little with which I use to help me see what the road ahead was doing i.e. no road markings or cats eyes. With rain, fog and my glasses reducing visibility this wasn’t ideal. I turned my garmin off battery saver mode and kept the map displayed, at least now I could see the shape of the road and get early warning for any large bends.
The rain got heavier and heavier. I was so drenched I was starting to get cold and my glasses were fogging so badly I really couldn’t see very well. I rode past a pub and made a snap decision to stop, it was around 17.00 by now. The snap decision pub was amazing. There was a roaring fire, I undressed and tried to dry off what I could. Grabbed my battery pack to top up my lights and my garmin and drank sweet tea (a comfort thing of mine). Pubs are the best thing about the UK. Even in a tiny village, on a Sunday evening you can find somewhere warm and welcoming! I’d missed this in the French countryside.
Here I had a hilarious conversation with a family in the pub. The lady told me I was mad, crazy and why didn’t I just get a lift home. The man told me I was very brave to be out cycling. Then I told them I was riding to Bristol – even more batty. Then I told them I’d ridden from Cambridge. Jaws hit the floor! They were very supported and said they admired my courage. I don’t think it is necessarily courageous, or brave. You just need to be stubborn enough to not back down once you’ve put the idea into your head. Whatever the weather.
However, I did get a message from my amazing friend Janine letting me know that she was a bit concerned and would be up late working and if I needed her to come to my rescue then she would. What a mega babe.
On we go.
What followed was slow, wet and painful. Struggling all day in the wind and rain had taken its toll on my body. My hands and feet were water logged. My arse was in agony (more on saddle issues another time). My back was starting to hurt (related to saddle issues). My bike was a little unhappy. My stomach was unhappy and I felt sick. It was pitch black, rainy and I still had 50 miles to cover.
I made more frequent stops. Rode more slowly. Huffed and puffed my way up the smallest incline. Stopping every 30-60 mins to send a few messages to Janine. Me to moan about how difficult this was. Her to offer amazing words of encouragement. Malmesbury was about half way from my pub stop and home. When I got there I popped inside a hotel for the loo (unhappy stomach) and checked my garmin. 26 miles to go. Easy. Well, easy on fresh legs (and arse!). The temptation to call Janine and bail was there, but I was so close. I got back out on the pitch black country lanes, riding ever more slowly, struggling to keep warm. Maybe I should call her? Just keep going legs. What would happen if I gave up now? I’d be really annoyed with myself, I’d still not forgiven myself for my Paris DNF. But I was finding it tough. Tough is what I’m made of right? Hard as nails. That’s what my friends tell me, even if I don’t believe it myself. A few miles of pep talking myself and I had less than 10 miles to go! I started seeing road signs for the areas of Bristol in the north. I could see the light pollution. I have never been so glad to see light pollution. I rolled in to civilisation. Arse screaming, legs aching, bike complaining.
I turned up at my house minutes before midnight. Stopped my GPS (I had to recover it from one last crash first). Text friends to let them know I’d got back safely. My awesome housemate put the kettle on and I had a warm shower. I fell asleep without eating anything, I was too tired and I had work in the morning. This in hindsight was an error and I don’t think I’d eaten enough fuel all day.
I’ve spent all on Monday grazing and I’ve only just stopped feeling hungry after some tuna and quinoa but I’m still dehydrated (despite being soggy to the core yesterday!). I got home from work and sorted out my kit and cleaned my bike. I missed out on the pub quiz I normally do with work friends.
This year will be full of compromises. Social life vs bike life. Good things rarely come without hard work and compromise. You’ve got to want it. Luckily I also have amazing friends who will tolerate and support me through this. Cheers folks! I’ll dedicate a few night miles to you when I’m in a dark place!
Alpkit seat post bag containing : casual clothes (a dress, pants, tights, shoes, toothbrush, Northface thermoball (upgraded from my Patagonia down because primaloft is still insulating when wet, lesson learned from Paris!), power pack and usb cables).
On my lower half: velocio fly bib shorts (the fly makes for easy comfort breaks and the chamois is the best I have found), madison thermal leg warmers (purchased after I read a review on Total women’s cycling that they didn’t give sausage legs (I have massive thighs)), primaloft socks (again, warm when wet), my usual fizik shoes plus neoprene toe covers and overshoes.
Upper body: M&S sports bra (just the right level of support), Aldi merino (wool keeps you warm even when wet and yes Aldi! It doesn’t need to cost the earth!), Rapha deep winter jersey – this jersey is amazing and toasty, my As Bold As reflective gilet, Rapha merino headband a FDI cap, Giro helmet and a pair of Madison gloves to top it all off.
Front light: Lezyne super drive plus 2 spare batteries.
Rear light: Moon something or other I bought in Winchester when my lezyne rear broke from too much mud and moisture.
Navigation: thanks to Gareth Baines for the route, Garmin Edge 820 supplemented by my phone when it froze.
After the adventure, misadventure and worsening of my lungs after Bristol to Paris I decided to get the train on my return from Paris to Dieppe on the 2nd of January.
The 2nd January was also the day that 850 adventurous cyclists from 52 countries all around the world were frantically refreshing their emails and jumping at every ‘ping’ of a new message appearing in their inbox. It was the day that applicants to the the Transcontinental Race No5 were finding out if they were successful in gaining a place on one of the most brutal bicycle races around.
The Transcontinental isn’t like any other race. There is no set route but a number of checkpoints and riders must navigate their own way between these. The race requires riders to be completely self supported, using only resources that are commercially available. No getting your mum to visit you half way with a fresh supply of inner tubes and some welshcakes! Riders pedal to cover an average of 250km a day (and more) to try and make it to the checkpoints before the cutoff. This year is pretty special as it will see the strongest and largest women’s field take to the race with around 50 female entrants and there are some real superstars in there!
So here I was waiting at train station for a connection in Northern France. Frantically refreshing my email. There is a facebook group for this race and I knew from the posts on there that unsuccessful applicants had been notified. Still I had no email. Does this mean I’ve got in? And then… ping!
Now Mike Hall the race organiser clearly has a sense of humour. The email read
“Once again we were very heavily oversubscribed, and this year more so than ever.
We had over 850 entries from 52 countries and even though I have increased the amount of offers again as much as I dare, there are still a lot of people that we’ve had to disappoint.”
Oh so maybe I haven’t got in….
“However, congratulations are in order:
Your application has been successful and we would like to offer you a place in Transcontinental No.5″
Now I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor but I could feel my pulse quicken and a surge of adrenaline accompanied with butterflies moshing in my stomach. I was happy, excited, terrified.
This isn’t straightforward (sorry if you expected it to be!).
I wasn’t sporty as a child. I was active and outdoorsy but loathed lycra and PE lessons. I discovered sport at uni and embraced it. I discovered these amazing communities of supportive, friendly and rock-solid friends for life sorts through rowing and rugby. I also learned that I liked pushing myself. I’d always pushed myself mentally but physical challenge added a whole new dimension. It also turned out that once I’d become active it was very bad for me to stop being active. When I let physical activity take a back seat (exams, heavy lab schedules, injury etc) I found that a mental health ‘wobble’ was never far around the corner. More recently tough times both in my academic and private lives alongside starting my first real job I’ve found it harder and harder to cope. Work life balance went out the window. I fell back into old self destructive habits of serial dating and binge drinking. Surprise surprise! That is not the answer.
Long solo trips on the bike and finding a new community of friends through cycling has been instrumental in helping me regain my feeling of self worth and get the upper hand over some of my anxieties.
Six pretty intense years at university had forced me to put adventure (mostly) on the back burner but I carried on reading. I read about a 600km audax through Wales (the Bryan Chapman Memorial which I will be riding this summer) and I discovered the Transcontinental race and inspiring women like Dervla Murphy, Emily Chappell, Juliana Burhing and Laura Scott. When I started riding my road bike more regularly and with increasing confidence I knew riding a race like the Transcontinental was a goal, I didn’t know if it was achievable and I never gave this goal a timeframe.
OK, the Transcontinental isn’t a team sport but there is this brilliantly supportive and welcoming community around the race to offer advice and encouragement. You might be racing solo but you’re not alone. You’re sharing the roads with 200 or so other nutters. In addition, friends, family and internet randoms will be watching your dot from the GPS tracker and sending encouraging messages as called upon.
Because if not now then when? JFDI and all that.
Do I say yes?
Applying to race the Transcon is one thing. I’m not sure what I thought my chances of getting a spot were. Now it was real. My friends (both cycling and non cycling) seemed to be split. Most were full of congratulations, encouragement, excited for me and eager to join me on training rides (bunch of nutters I love you all). I also got the impression that some think that this is something I’m not capable of, whether physically or mentally. This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done times a million, squared and then times a million again.
I have a lot of work ahead of me in terms of mental and physical preparation. If I tried to ride it tomorrow I’m not sure I’d get anywhere very far or fast! Luckily, I’m not riding it tomorrow! But no matter how prepared you are, the only thing to prepare you for riding the Transcontinental is…. riding the Transcontinental.
I’m going to give this everything I’ve got. Yes, I’m not an experienced ultra long distance cyclist. I’m not even that experienced when it comes to cycling. Or travelling. I’ve never even been backpacking or interrailing through Europe.
So can I do it?
Fundamentally no one knows the answer to this question until after the fact. There are some things that will not play to my advantage. I had surgery on my right knee 2.5 years ago and that will constantly be playing on my mind. Lots of pilates please! I am less experienced, there is no beating about the bush on this one. I need to be careful not to go out all guns blazing trying to prove myself, exhaust myself and have to scratch from the race.
There are some things that will play to my advantage. I’m optimistic and determined. In the first year of my PhD a friend asked if I wanted to join a team that was going to try and swim a relay of the English Channel. I’d never done long distance swimming before. Never done outdoor swimming besides swimming in the river on a hot day. Few days before the channel swim I fell off my bike and ended up swimming with a bin bag gaffa taped to my leg to cover up a reasonably sized gash. I was in hospital the next day for stitches! You can argue about whether or not that was the most sensible thing to do (sorry mum!) but I know that I don’t give up and that when called upon I can find this reserve of mental and physical strength to get a job done.
Oh… and the best advantage in the book by a country mile… I’m Welsh!
Hi. I’m El. 25. I grew up in South West Wales and now I live in Bristol. I like riding bikes. I’ve always cycled but got in to doing it a little more seriously after a knee injury. I ride because I love it. It started off being about physical health but now it’s just as much about the mental health. I find it very rewarding from getting from A to B by the power of my own body (well and cake too). I have decided to write a blog. To share things I’ve learned from trial and error, stories, photos, my journey. At best, I hope that this will inspire and inform others. At worst, no one will bother to read it. What can go wrong…?!