Cycling from Manchester to London

17th September 2014

On 7th September 2014 I cycled the 220 miles from Manchester to London to raise money for Ambitious about Autism. This was by far the longest ride I had ever embarked on, and one which was going to test me to my limits.

This bike ride really started a couple of months earlier, as I knew I was going to have to train to get to the finish. After Googling for how to train for long distance cycling the only advice I could find went something like this:

to train to ride a bike further, you need to ride your bike further

Solid advice there internet, no shortcuts then. So I set about creating a basic training plan. I entered all the distances I’d done over the past couple of months into a spreadsheet, took my average weekly distance, and projected the increase I would have to achieve each week to include the 220 mile ride.

The only other advice I found during my research also said something like, “only increase your workload by 5% week on week”. Thankfully my projections were within this limit. Now I had a plan. Ride further, with targets. Simple, right?

The problem with coming up with a plan is now I had to execute it. “The strategy is delivery” as we say at work. Twice a week I entered my numbers into my spreadsheet. I planned rides to let me achieve the week’s distances at weekends. This included rides to Brighton, around Sevenoaks, Southampton and back, and even around the Peak District.

Two weeks before the ride I believed I was ready. I hadn’t ridden the complete 220 miles in one go. I was now comfortable though doing 130 miles solo, at a pace higher than I was planning on doing the 220 miles, with a harder weeks workload than I planned for the week leading up to the ride.

The day of the ride

At 4:15am I finally realised that the alarm noise going off wasn’t in my dream and I needed to wake up. Looking out the window the sun hadn’t even begun to rise. Checking the weather forecast it looked like the day was going to be beautifully sunny. So, with the sun yet to come up, at 4:30 in the morning, I covered myself in sun cream.

After a quick bowl of muesli and some eggs I pulled on my kit: a merino base layer, shorts, jersey, arm warmers, knee warmers and a gilet and set off into a very, very foggy morning.

We arrived at Manchester Velodrome just as they were getting ready to set the first riders off. I’d hoped we’d be amongst the first riders leaving to give us the best chance of finishing, not to worry though it wasn’t a race.

We got through registration, handed our mid-way bags and finish line bags to the staff, grabbed a quick snack from the food table and lined up to start.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that nutrition is quite important when you’re cycling for 15 hours. I can manage 50-60 miles without worrying about food. 100 miles is just about doable with some basic food. 220 miles, food becomes important. The problem with food is your body can only absorb so much goodness every hour. So stopping for a couple of big meals doesn’t really help restore the deficit you’re creating. You need to be constantly feeding - little and often.

To let us do this, both Tekin and I had made ourselves some sushi rice parcels. Mine contained scrambled eggs, bacon and brown sugar - a great mix of slow carbs, protein and energy. I also had a pack of fig rolls, a bag of Jelly Babies and a pack of bite sized flapjack squares. I’d divided all the food in half and was going to pick up the second set just after half way from my mid-way bag. The rest was shoved in my jersey pockets and a triathlon-style feed bag on my toptube.

Throughout the day I was constantly munching on this food. The ride was broken up by 4 food stops. A chance to grab a little warm food and replenish your drinks bottles.

We rolled out of the velodrome in a group of around 12 people. It became obvious fairly quickly that we weren’t going to be able to keep pace with most of these people for the whole day. We kept up with them until the roads started to go upwards, when we dropped back and set our own pace. We were shortly joined by another pair on the road who we stayed with going over the initial hills in the Peak District.

There’d been a last minute change to the route. It now contained a much harder, much steeper “hill”. We’d just hit it. It hurt. Tekin refers to me as a mountain goat due to my ability to go up hills, but with the thick fog, and not being able to see the top, even this hill started to worry me. People were off their bikes and pushing. I powered through as best I could. My heart rate hit 189 bpm. My breathing was laboured. My legs were screaming. Then, almost as quickly as it started, we were done, over the top, it started to go down hill once again. We were over all the big hills in the peaks and the fog was giving way to blue skies and sunshine.

At this point we’d caught the rear end of a group of Rapha employees. It made sense, in terms of efficiency of a bunch, to stick with them until we got to the first food stop. The first food stop was a welcome sight. A chance to remove my knee warmers, as the sun was making it really nice and warm, and walk around for a minute and have a little food.

Unfortunately we just missed the large group leaving the feed stop. So it was just Tekin, myself and one other when we got rolling again. After riding for a while together it became clear I was more comfortable riding at a pace slightly higher than the they wanted to keep. I decided to push on and see if I could find the group ahead. I wanted a group to hide in on the flatter roads as my build isn’t really designed for pushing on flats. After 15 minutes of riding I caught the sight of the back of the large group. Another 20 minutes and I was in the middle of the group chatting and meeting new people.

The distance to the next food stop disappeared as I made small talk. We talked about everything, from unreleased Rapha shoes to recent holidays they’d been on. The talking really helps to make miles disappear and this group were really friendly.

At feed stop number two there were the most delicious warm pies and beetroot salad. Warm food was such a welcome change from sushi rice and flapjack.

After a few minutes we were back rolling again. The group I was in had grown a little and we started on what would be the longest, but one of the flattest, sections of the day.

During this section I decided it was probably my turn to do a spell on the front of the group. I lasted a couple of minutes before realising that my legs were just not ready for pulling the group along. I worried at this point if I’d even make it to the finish. I quickly retreated into the pack to take shelter.

Feed stop number three was a welcome sight. Set at the cafe of a castle, it looked really very grand as we turned into the driveway. This was also where would get access to our halfway bags. This was fortunate as I’d just finished all of the food in my jersey pockets.

A warm jacket potato topped with tuna, a cup of tea and a chocolate bar and I was feeling good to start cycling again.

I was feeling much better after eating so positioned myself on the front of the group as we rolled out. I led that group for a good amount of time before my legs asked for a break. I moved 3 places back and let someone else take over pacemaking duties.

Next thing I knew the thing I’d been dreading all day happened. I punctured. I feared this would be the start of a long, solo ride back to London. I shouted that I was stopping and moved out of the way expecting to watch the group disappear down the road. To my surprise they all pulled up and waited. There was no formal “group” here. No one had put us together. None of them had known me just hours earlier, we were strangers. Strangers with a common goal that had bonded us together, to work as a group, united. I was humbled.

I quickly changed my tube checking for objects on the inside of the tyre. Then, just as I got the tyre back on. Two men come running round the corner holding a track pump. One of the group I was riding with had contacted a support car. This was the most welcome sight I could have only dreamt about. They quickly pumped my tyre up while I tided away my stuff. I was back on the road. Still in awe at what had just happened, I thanked everyone I could.

I could remember from looking at the elevation profile for the day that there was one last serious climb still to come. It was 15km before the next food stop. Right on queue we arrived at it. For some reason when I spotted someone making a bid to get to the top first I raced after him. I powered to the top of the climb, the other chap locked next to me. Neither of us giving an inch.

Almost as quickly as the climb was over I regretted it. I felt a subtle cramp in my quads. The kind of cramp that, if I had allowed to grow, would have made the last 50ish miles to London agony. I hid in the bunch to let my legs recover.

The fourth, and final feed stop was joyous to see. It was a marker to tell us there was only 33 miles to go. We didn’t stop at that stop for long, enough for a can of coke and half a ham sandwich, wanting to get back on the road and get to the finish. The sun had just set so we all made sure our lights were on and we had our jackets and arm warmers on.

Pulling out of that stop felt fantastic. After 187 miles we were now in striking distance of the finish. Finally I knew I could make it. We were going to make it.

Once again I positioned myself on the front of the group. With the sun set, no street lighting, and trees covering most the roads, it got very dark. My bright front light let me navigate the dark lanes. A couple of short climbs later we arrived on lit main roads.

We had less than 10 miles to go. As far as we were concerned we were there, nothing could stop us now. I started moving around the group and everyone was smiling, happy. The realisation that we had just ridden over 200 miles had set in.

A couple of turns later and I could see the London Olympic Velodrome. We turned onto the criterium circuit and I started my sprint. I was determined to lead the group over the finish line. Crossing the line out of the corner of my eye I spotted my parents and Asha waiting for me. I sat back, turned around and cycled over to them. I was done, it was over.

The group I was with had dispanded into the groups of people, finding loved ones, friends, colleagues and people they knew. We’d spent hours riding alongside each other but once again we’d converted to strangers.

Before I knew it I was walking in my front door and trying to find my bed. I was shattered and my body ached. The Rapha and Ambitous about Autisum support teams had been fantastic. I hadn’t had to worry about anything from the moment I set off to the moment I crossed the finish line, anything other than peddling and enjoying the day.

The small collections of families who had positioned themselves along the route cheering us past were a completely unexpected and welcome surprise. The tweets and messages from back home were uplifting and made me forget the aches in my legs. The other riders were so friendly, welcoming, and supportive that it felt like we could’ve achieved anything.

I hope that they run the ride again next year. I’d really encourage people to sign up for the challenge. It was one of the best days on the bike I’ve experienced, and I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry. It was also great to beat our fundraising goal and raise lots of money for Ambitious about Autism.

riding along the lanes with a group in tow