The challenge

Everything has gone great and both myself and my friend Paul successfully completed the challenge! It was a very tough day of riding, at a fast pace given the distance, but definitely worth it! A massive well done to all the other finishers! I would be enormously grateful for any late donations to my great charity Ambitious about Autism, which can be made here.

We arrived in Manchester on Saturday afternoon and after we checked-in to our hotel, went to the “pasta party” organized for the participants. There were lots of people at the party, and I immediately noticed that the average age of the participants was a lot lower compared to audax events. That was a bit worrying, since everyone looked very fit  (the challenge was not a race, but nobody wants to come dead last). We didn’t stay for long, we collected our entrants packs, ate a plate of pasta and went back to the hotel for an early sleep. Indeed, with a planned wake up time of 4:15 am, we went to sleep quite early, but unfortunately we got a false fire alarm at 11 which ruined my sleep. Anyway, I was not too worried since I was very careful not to tire myself at all on Saturday.

Eventually we got up, packed our stuff, and got to the starting line all ready for departure around 6 am. Paul and I had this pact that we wouldn’t try to stay together for longer than necessary, since this would slow down the one that felt stronger, and put the other one in danger of “hitting the wall” and eventually dropping out. At 6:10 we were set off in a group of 20 riders after a quick briefing about the signage of the route and something about road works that I didn’t pay the necessary attention to. Half a minute after departure, we had already missed a turn and kept on going to the wrong direction for around 2 miles. At some point people at the back of the group started wondering whether we were heading the correct way and this is when the app viewranger, which was provided for free for the event, proved very useful. A quick check on the phone and then immediately I turned back. The detour added an extra 4 miles to a planned 217 mile ride; not the ideal start to the day.

For the first hour or so, I found myself riding in a group of 20 riders (including my friend Paul) and eventually we navigated our way out of Manchester and into the Peak District. The first couple of hills started thinning the group out, and I found myself riding completely alone after the biggest hill of the day (which was around mile 25, on Cowlow lane close to Chapel-en-le-Frith). What a hill that was! The part of the briefing at the start that I failed to pay attention to, said that the planned big climb of the day (which was not too bad at 10.5% average over 0.6 miles) had to be replaced by this climb. The hill was a complete killer, and I made it even worse since I got confused about the direction I should head to at the bottom of it, and had to unclip from my pedals. I eventually managed to clip back in, and after a while found myself in a 0.3 mile part of the climb which averaged 16% gradient! I had to stay seated because there was a bit of gravel on the road and I was worried of losing traction by standing on the pedals, so I climbed that bit at 35 rpm and moving at the snail pace of 3.7 mph (my gps went to autopause a couple of times thinking I was not moving at all).

After the big climb came the best part of the route which was the Monsal trail. The Monsal trail is a compact gravel trail along an old railway line, which starts at Miller’s Dale and goes to Bakewell and runs roughly along river Wye. Riding on the gravel was fantastic (perhaps the slightly negative gradient helps), there were 2-3 tunnel sections which were quite special, and some absolutely stunning views of the river and the surrounding hills. Not long later, I arrived at the first feeding station which was in Carsington Water, 20 minutes behind schedule due to the early detour, despite the fact that I was going faster than planned. Nevertheless, I was happy that all the climbs of the day were behind me, and thought that ok it’s just a long flat stretch to the finish line (this proved to be completely wrong). I quickly got my brevet card stamped and filled my bottle with energy drink and took off again.

I rode again alone for around 20 miles and then I was very fortunate to get caught by two riders, Ian and number 167 (from Lancashire), who were looking for people to make a small group and try to help each other to get to the finish. I tried to take some turns on the front, but to be honest I wasn’t of much help and I was essentially being pulled by them until the next stop at mile 88. Again a relatively quick stop, drank a coke, ate a banana and a flapjack, got my card stamped,  and back on the road with my two new friends.

The next segment was what I anticipated to be the mentally toughest of the day, since it ran from mile 88 to mile 145. Feeling refreshed after the stop, I managed to pull a bit longer on the front. Around mile 100, we met up with my friend Ed from my local club in Leamington, which was a very much needed distraction from the immense distance lying ahead despite the huge distance already covered. Ed stayed with us for around 6 miles and stayed on the front giving the three of us some rest. It was a very nice gesture of him and I am very very thankful to him! Later on in the segment I started fading again, but thankfully my two companions were willing to pull me along, despite not taking equal amounts of time on the front. What I anticipated to be a flat terrain proved to be a very much undulating terrain with many many slow long drags and some 5-7% short hills. Eventually, we arrived at the next stop in Castle Ashby. A slightly longer stop, since our wetbacks awaited for us there, so I had a quick freshening up and restocked my “fuel” supplies. I also ate a baked potato, happily collected a complimentary Rapha gillet and got ready for departure. Ian suggested to wait a bit longer because there was a big group of riders setting off soon and indeed after five minutes we took off in a group of around 20.

Riding in a much bigger group was a relief and I thought that was essentially the end of the ride; i just had to follow these guys to the next stop and eventually the finish. Again this was wrong, since there were many many little hills so it took a huge effort to stay with the group. After another 40 miles we arrived at the last stop of the day at Woolmer Green. Another fairly quick stop, to get some more energy drink in my bottles, another coke and a stamp on my card before getting back on the road.

By that time, it became dark so I found myself in a group of 20 riders, riding in completely unlit and unknown to me roads, and all of us being tired after 12-13 hours on the saddle. The experience was exhilarating but scary, the 20 red backlights in flash mode providing a great spectacle, but the complete lack of awareness of what’s coming two meters up the road (since I couldn’t see past the riders in front of me) being very worrying. Again, what I thought was going to be just a cruise in London proved to be a very challenging ride, with many slow drags and some short hills.

Finally, we did arrive in London and made our way through the traffic, staying together the whole time, to reach the Olympic Velodrome in Stratford at around 9:30 pm. After 15 hours and 39 minutes I finally arrived at the finish line, and I was chuffed about it. I averaged 16.2 mph moving pace which I think for my ability is great! I genuinely feel that I did the best I could for the day.

The event was brilliantly organized by Rapha and Ambitious about Autism. We felt supported throughout the way, with cars driving along the route checking for mechanical and other emergencies. The feeding stations were stocked with a huge variety of options, gels, rice cakes, flapjacks, pies, potatoes, energy drinks, soft drinks, everything one could have asked for. The best part of the stops, was the uplifting and massively encouraging spirit of the ladies from Ambitious about Autism which was so important and I am massively thankful towards them. The moment we reached a stop, they were asking whether we needed any kind of help, and made us feel very well looked after.

I feel the need to thank some people here. First, I would like to thank my girlfriend Chara for enduring my obsession with this ride in the last three months and for being very supporting the whole time. I would again like to thank all of my sponsors who supported my charity, Ambitious about Autism! Massive thanks go to my friend Tzvetie, who has been a great training companion in the summer, and my friend Ed for being very supportive and meeting me en route. Last but definitely not least, I would like to thank my friend Paul, who also finished the ride (chapeau!), without whom I don’t even know how I would have got to the start line, let alone get through the route and find my way back home!

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