2nd part of the recap of my protracted cycle from John O'Groats to Lands End. The rivetting (and fairly cycling-based) installment can be found Here!
Day 4 - East Renfrewshire to Ullswater
Distance - 210km
Another massive day on the road, and again riders were being sent off from 6.30am. The Unit assembled at the start for a 7am kick-off, minus Tom and Simon, who had both suffered fairly serious knee injuries the previous day. We started off with more tough, undulating terrain, so worked through it at a sensible pace. The weather had truely turned for the better by now, and I spent most of the day picking up a decent level of suntan and sunburn, and ended up with a comedy checkerboard across my body.
Past the first pitstop, and the terrain changed to some fantastic sweeping downhills. Toby, who knew the roads in this area very well, led us through some fantastic high-speed descents, and once again we started to move up the field. The second pitstop was at Gretna, just on the border, and approaching the town for about 10-15 miles was a long, flat section of road, and we could see small groups of cyclists strung out ahead of us. Spirits were high, and we formed up into our (now standard) chain-gang, and truly put the hammer down...we shot past about 60-70 cyclists, and over a 20 mile period averaged about 23-24mph. It was a real "in the zone" moment (and one all 5 of us still talk abut with massive grins on our faces). Whenever we had a new person at the front of the chain we expected the pace to drop back down to sensible levels, but everyone was feeling really good, and we ended up shooting into Gretna's pitstop about 20-30 minutes earlier than we expected. That section was one of the high points of the trip for me...a fantastic feeling of flying through the Scottish countryside, while watching other cyclists try (and fail) to stay with us!
Past Gretna we hit the border (hurahh!) and, after negotiating the urban area of Carlisle (going through big cities and towns were my least favourite sections...far too easy for groups to be split up) we were welcomed to the lake District with the vicious climb of Fell Hill, our first encounter with a properly steep bit of terrain. the climbs continued as we headed inwards, until we reached the descent towards Ullswater, and once again fantastic, sweeping roads with the fantastic views of the lake, while the sun beat down. We came flying into the base camp as a unit, completing one of the best days yet.
The base-camp was at the foot of the rather infamous Kirkstone Pass, one of the only ways through the Lakes, and renown as a tough ascent (the Sport relief £1,000,000 cycle had passed this way, and there was a famous clip of David Walliams coming to grief on Kirkstone, an image that stuck in many RAB'bers minds). I had a visit from a mate (Harry) in the evening...he was on holiday in the Lakes, and was (is currently) doing the ride from Lands End to John O'Groats the month after...only there would be 3 of them, not 600, and they wouldn't have all the support crew RAB had. I sensed jealousy as I showed him the base camp, with the massage crew working flat out!
Day 5 - Ullswater to Manchester
Distance - 186km
After the huge distances and ascents of the previous two days, day 5 promised to be fairly gentle...once we had Kirkstone out of the way. In all honesty it wasn't as bad as I feared...it was long, and it was steep, however it was never un-manageable, and it occasionally levelled off a bit, to give some respite. The best indication I can give is that that it took us 20 minutes to do the first 5km of the day, and 6 minutes to do the second 5km (as we flew down the other side!), and quickly (once again) became the leaders on the road.
As we departed the Lake district the roads levelled off, and we made good time. David, in particular, was on form, and did some huge lead-outs...hauling the rest of us along at 20mph while one of the support motorbikes acted as an outrider for us, keeping traffic clear. Compared with the previous 2 days there was very little ascent of note, so we had a fairly comfortable cycle into the more urban areas of Bolton...
...where it all kicked off a bit. A couple of riders had killed themselves to catch us, and during the broken trip through Bolton they got past us and sprinted off into the distance. As a group we made a decision to let them go, rather than try and sprint to catch them, and instead do what we did best, and set a decent pursuit pace. this led to us regaining sight of them with 2 miles to go. For their part they thought they were well clear, and failed to spot us until we were about 100 metres behind, at which point it was too late, and we wolf-packed them and shot towards the finish in a group sprint. I probably would have lost, only a marshal mis-directed us, and sent us all into the service entrance of the Base Camp...I was fastest to turn round and complete the 50 metre sprint to the correct entrance, so comically stole the stage victory in a comical way (and I claim it still, despite the whinging of the other racers!)(it's not a race!)
Day 6 - Manchester to Ludlow
Distance - 173km
One of the shortest days on the ride, and with statistically the least ascent, however there was one major feature of today's ride...a hill called Lond Mynd. Chris was local to the area, and had been advising us that it really was " a bit of a ramp". I knew the stats...about a mile long, and 25% gradient. Chris was going to ride ahead of the group today, as he had arranged with various local's that if he was first through towns etc, and ahead of James Cracknell then his sponsorship would be doubled. Toby had been taken down with a stomach bug, which was gutting for him, so Stuart, David and myself set off into the country roads near the welsh border.
The first 60-70 miles were fairly un-eventful...we were loathe to really hammer along as we had far more work each to do, and we were all mindful of the Mynd.
We hit the hills at about 100km in...there was an initial ascent of a minor foothill, which was tough but doable, then a long descent towards the foot of Long Mynd. As we got closer we could see the road heading up the side of the mound...it looked steep even from there...
Reaching the bottom you turn a sharp left, go over a cattlegrid, and then begin a fairly straight ascent on a single track road. I made in about 100 metres before my knee started to scream with pain, already in my lowest gear, out of the saddle, and my heartrate shooting up. Stuart was ahead of me, still in the saddle and forcing the pedals round. I made a call, hopped off and began the long push. David went past me, looking fairly paced, however after a couple of minutes I saw them both hop out of the saddle and walk up.
I really can't describe how vicious Long Mynd is, and I take my hat off to the few who beat it. I know Chris, Tom and Simon did, however I don't think I was mentally or physically prepared for that beast. My heartrate was well above my average "effort" level just walking up...the gradients varied from 21% to 28%...there is nothing in Berkshire like it (as examples, Sulham Hill at the back of Tilehurst is a mere 15%, while Walbury Hill, the highest point in the South-East has one ascent of 18%). The three of us reformed at the top of the main ascent, made a few comments regarding the geography, and then set off along the "looks flat, but was still a 10% gradient" remainder, before suffering a fairly terrifying descent into Church Stretton (I had both brakes fully locked, and was still at 20mph down the single-track, hairpin-laden road). Long Mynd had beaten me, but maybe sometimes it's good to know there are challenges out there.
The approach to the Base Camp was a sedate affair...we met up with Chris to find that he had beasted the course (locals had sprayed his name on the Mynd on the way up ala Tour de France...he had great support in his home town). We were based in Ludlow race course, so it made a nice change to eat under a proper roof in the clubhouse. As we were preparing to call it a night, we were approached my Mr. Cracknell with a proposition...he needed to do a teelvised training sequence for his next challenge with Ben Fogle, did we want to be the training pack? It would mean an early start the next day. Big cheesy grins all round ensued. Early day tomorrow then!
One more instalment to go...the trials and tribulations of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, those well-renowned flat areas?