Day 7 - Ludlow to Cheddar
Distance - 174km
It was an early start, as we needed to be on the start line and ready to go by 6.30am. Breakfast was thrown down our respective gullets, overladen bags chucked on the lorry, drinks bottles prepped, and pockets filled with gels and bars. A bleary-eyed bunch assembled on the start line...it was the full crew of Chris, David, Stuart, Toby, Simon, Tom and myself. We'd all been advised to wear the official ride tops, and those who didn't have them were changed. We were briefed by the PR lass that it would be about an hour of filming, and the pace would be "no more than 17 or 18 miles an hour", which is a perfectly acceptable speed.
Cracknell turned up stylishly late, had a quick chat to the camera team (we had one camera on a motorbike, and a couple of outriders to keep the roads clear, tehn we saddled up, headed over the start line (the only time we were allowed to cycle over it, all the other starts were on foot, and saddling up on the nearby roads, and then Cracknell powered off at 25mph. A sensible bunch of people would have not tried to keep up, and make sure the pace stayed down in the manageable region...
...so of course we all sprinted off after him, and hunkered down into a chain as we screamed through the deserted Ludlow streets. The pace that Cracknell set was fairly brutal, moreso as we were all carrying wear and tear injuries of one description or another. The camerabike meanwhile zoomed up and down the line, capturing what may have been quite good shots, but probably look like a bunch of amateurs being hauled along by a double-olympiad. After the initial burst james peeled off, and we started a rotation at the front of the chain, which basically turned into a "who can drag the chain along at the most painful speed" competition, which quickly degenerated into a game of survival, as in ones and twos we started to lose riders. I dropped off at the 45 minute mark, leaving Toby and Stuart to tuck into Cracknells wake and vanish off into the distance...
We reformed about 6-7 miles before the first pitstop (minus Tom and Simon, who I suspect were broken by the stupid pace), and carried on a a slightly more sedate pace for some more shots, as the camera crew had set themselves up for some stationary drive-by sets. We finally rolled into the pit stop totally blown, wioth the realisation that we had another 70-odd miles to go today. Cracknell said his goodbyes, and dashed off into the distance, catching up with Alan "Ex Ironman UK Champion", while we planned a more leisurely pace...
...only there were some signage issues. As we were on the road so early the route had not been fully checked, and it turned out that there had been a road closure overnight. David (who was local to the area) nipped off down a road, followed by Chris, while the rest of us hesitated, and lost them very quickly. 10 minutes of "where do we go" discussions ensued at the pitstop, until a local friend of David offered to guide us back to the main road and the route. Toby, Stuart and myself hared off after his Land Rover, and we dashed through some back lanes before re-appearing on the main road again...about 20-30 minutes later we came across David and Stuart, and it turned out that we'd been taken a fairly easy way around a bit of a hill!
The middle of the stage took us briefly into Wales, and then over the Severn Estuary on the bridge (a fairly spectacular bit of cycling, and most of us were wobbling along with phones out try to capture the view), and then over the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This was Stuarts home area, and he had a load of supporters out to cheer him on, so it was fairly awesome we were first out on the road by such a distance (nothing like a half hour head start to make you look fast!).
The finale of the day was a fairly brutal ascent of the Meddip Hills...a 5-mile constant drag upto base camp. Chris led Stuart into a stage victory (his parents were at the base camp), while the rest of us ground our way up to a finish. A tough day, especially given the brutal first hour. The filming was for Cracknell and Fogles next BBC TV programme, which I believe is a massive off-road cycling race in Mexico...keep an eye out for a training sequence where there is a little chap with red sleeves on a bike...that'll be me :-)
Day 8 - Cheddar to Lauceston
Distance - 190km
Lots of people had this one flagged as the toughest day...the third longest by distance, and the second by total ascent, however rather than the long sweeping climbs of Scotland we would be entering Devon and Cornwall, with it's notoriously sharp, steep sections.
Stuart had come down ill overnight, and while he was cycling, he was definitely taking it easy, and Toby was still not 100%, so he stayed back as well, so 3 of us set out at 7am...it started pretty sedately, with the descent from the Mendips (we didn't do the gorge road...it simply wasn't safe for so many cyclists), but after some nice roads we hit a stretch of flat, and put in some good time... Soon though, we hit the Quantock Hills, and with that a series of fairly brutal climbs, and with that the tone was set for the day.
That said, we'd done enough hills now that we weer able to get into the right mindset, and grind our way up them. We came across some early-starters (including one unfortunate enough to be wearing a polka-dot "King of the Mountains" top that we destroyed on a hill. Rule 1 - Never wear a cycling top that proclaims you to be excellent unless you can back it up), and typically dropped them in our wake. The tactic, as always, was not to sweat the hills, and work the flatter sections. As we made our way into Cornwall the climbs continued, and we just concentrated on keeping energy levels high, and protecting the various knee injuries.
At the final pitstop we bumped into Johnathon (who I cycled with on day 2)... He'd not been able to fit into a group throughout the week (I said he was a bit weird...), but asked to cycle with us. (I'm aware the next bit makes me seem like a bit of an arsehole...but fuck it...) We begrudgingly accepted, however then went on a bit of a go-slow, riding three abreast and chatting. After a while he headed off by himself, at which point we formed up into a chain and hammered past him. He absolutely killed himself to get back onto our tail, at which point we slowed up, claimed exhaustion, and started chatting again. He, quite probably slightly miffed, went off ahead again (while we sniggered like school children)...
...about a mile later there was a surprise food stop. I pulled up to grab a chocolate brownie, and got split off from Chris and David. Fortunately we were approaching a slightly less hilly section of A-Road, which is really my speciality, so I put down the hammer and did a bit of TT work. I very quickly caught up with Johnathon...not wanting to give him a free ride, I claimed my knee was starting to go, and I needed to take it gently, and dropped back to about 100 metres behind him (you can probably see where this is going already). I waited until a decent bit of road, while he picked up another straggler, and tried to get a bit of team-work going with him, and then dropped down onto my aerobars (my roadbike is set up to emulate a Time Trial bike, so in expense for a bit of comfort I can add 2-3 miles per hour onto my cruising speed) and smashed past them. Neither of them had anything left in the tank, and I quickly left them standing.
I caught sight of David and Chris in the distance, and spent the next 10 miles slowly reeling them in (they had thought I was Cracknell in the distance, and so gave me a bit of a chase). I finally caught them, then we had a run into the base camp (up a final series of viciously sharp hills), and overtaking a final couple of riders (including one right at the end...he must have been gutted). Thus ended the day of childish one-up-manship. Childish? Yes, however great fun. and remember kids...it's not a race!
Day 9 - Lauceston to Lands End
Distance - 150km
The final day, and we were greeted with glorious sunshine. Everyone knew that today was going to be just a little bit daft...by now there were 20 or so "hardcore" types, who all had a bit of a race-head on.
Everyone set off in the same pack, however almost immediately we hit a 20% hill on a narrow farm lane, and lots of the weaker riders got off to push their bikes, splitting us all up. David And Chris pulled off ahead, and I killed myself to catch them, however then lost them again over Bodmin Moor...those 2 were on a mission, and I couldn't quite keep up on the hills. I settled into a Time-Trial mentality, which basically involves me riding to my heart rate. The vast majority of my training was solo, so I was fairly comfortable keeping a steady pace.
As far as I can work out everyone rolled through the first pitstop without a pause, I know I did. I'd stocked up to do the entire 95 miles without a break if need be...and with that I carried on. I caught and overtook one pack, and while it was tiring work (this was the first time I'd done a section fully solo) I was making good time...unfortunately though, my bowels decided that I really needed to stop at the second pitstop (and I was the first person to do so)...
...which was lucky in a way, as the second and third people to stop were Toby and Stuart. Company for the final 30 miles was just what the Doctor ordered, and as an added bonus Toby was on top form, pushing us to the finish. Stuarts parents were on the road as well in a car, so we hammered toward Lands End!
Rolling into Penzance (with a glorious view of St.Micheals Mount) we thought "nearly there", only to discover that we were being taken out of Penzance up the pig of a 20% ascent. After that it was a series of other sharp inclines and declines, and some comedian in the road department had decided to start signposting Lands End in half mile increments, effectively slowing down the approach mentally...
Coming round a corner, thinking "where the hell is this place", we saw the crowd of people and the big blue arch. Off goes the sprint, and we all power over the finish line, while one marshal screams at us to slow down before we plough into the barriers. Man hugs all round! Rob was at the finish line with Kate and felix to watch us come in as well, which was excellent, thought I was properly pumped and almost certainly making no sense.
We were then dragged off for some publicity photos (we made the newsletter), and a series of daft photos were taken around the iconic sign. After calming down, having a cuppa and a bit of cake, it was then the slightly anti-climactic dis-assembly of the noble steed (1006 miles, no mechanical issues or punctures. I love my bike), and a bus trip to the base camp, where I chilled with Rob, Kate, Felix, Stuart and Toby for a few hours, eating pig and ice-cream.
Next time (the epilogue) I'll go through the highs and lows. one thing I would say that if you ever get the chance to do something like JOGLE, you should! An utterly life-affirming experience!