The saying mind over matter was never more appropriate when I attempted to tackle the MITIE London Revolution on the weekend of 18-19 May, my first major cycling “sportive”. Not only did I have what turned out to be the wrong bike, the wrong kit and the wrong kind of water, I certainly didn’t have the right hill-climbing experience to cycle 180 miles in two days.
But perseverance, coupled with a positive mindset and lots of encouragement from fellow cyclists and the wonderful chaperones who escorted the field, helped me cycle the furthest I have ever cycled before.
On the first day I trundled 75 miles (out of a possible 100) and on the second day I did 88 miles (out of a possible 88). I was chuffed, but exhausted. And the first thing I did when I got home was go to the pub in my full smelly cycling kit, I was so desperate for a beer!
What had I let myself in for?
I had initially decided to enter the event because it sounded like an excellent challenge, one that would push me physically and give me a goal to work towards. But as the weekend crept closer I began to quietly dread it. My training regime had been poor and during the week before the event my shoulder and neck were giving me gyp — I wasn’t convinced I could sit in the saddle for a couple of hours, let alone a couple of days. Admittedly, I considered pulling out.
To give me an extra incentive to do the challenge, two days before the event I decided to raise money for Arthritis Research UK — I chose this charity because I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis in 2008 — and let everyone know, via mass emails, Twitter and my book blog, that I was taking part and would appreciate a little financial encouragement.
I figured going “public” like this would leave me little wriggle room to get out of cycling all those miles, because how on earth could I face people wanting to know how it had all panned out? I was delighted that so many friends, colleagues and social media followers dipped their hands in their pockets. Within a day people had pledged more than £150 — and a week later it now stands at £400 (with Gift Aid included).
One anonymous donor wrote: “Suspected you were bonkers; glad to have confirmation” — and I have to admit that getting up at 5am on the Saturday did make me question my own sanity. What the hell made me think this was a good idea?
It didn’t help that I had to get my bike, my 10kg overnight bag and my sleeping bag to Peruvian Wharf — on the other side of London — by public transport, which proved a challenge in itself, not helped by some parts of the District Line being out of service for engineering work that weekend. So by the time I got to the start line I’d already cycled three miles, was stressed out, thirsty — and knackered.
Then I took one look at all the other competitors — 90 per cent men, mostly with high-end road bikes — and began to feel totally out of place.
No going back now
But there was no backing out now. I queued up to register and was given an envelope containing a number for my bike, luggage tags, a timing chip sticker to put on my helmet and a purple wrist band. (The colour indicated where I should put my luggage and bike during storage times, and which section of Windsor Racecourse I would find my tent.)
Once I’d dumped my luggage, it was time for a very quick breakfast of porridge, fruit and coffee from the one and only concession stand. I then filled my waterbottle and got into the queue for the staggered start.
The event start time was between 7.30am and 9.30am. I had wanted to get away early to give myself the maximum time to complete the first 100 mile stage. But I had underestimated how long it would take to get to Docklands and get myself sorted at the Peruvian Wharf end, so by the time I set off with my Other Half (OH) it was closer to 9am.
Once out on the quiet city roads around Docklands it was a relief to finally expend some of that nervous energy by pedalling in the sunshine.
The first 15 or so miles was relatively straightforward, flat and urban — the types of road conditions to which I’m attuned and to which my hybrid commuter bike is well suited. But when we got out into the countryside the terrain suddenly became rather undulating and the road surface was often very broken up in places.
The first major hill I had to climb nearly killed me. But I was determined to get up it without getting off my bike, because I knew that if I did that with the first hill I would do it with the rest of the hills. The sense of achievement when I got to the top was amazing — little did I know this would be the first of DOZENS of energy-sapping hills that would follow over the next two days.
It was at this point I began to wonder about OH. I had lost sight of him when we were still in town, but I had expected he might have caught up — and every time I looked over my shoulder I kept expecting to see his bright yellow cycling jacket.
By the time I reached the first pit stop at mile 38 I was incredibly tired and very, very hungry. Unfortunately, the ravenous hoards had arrived before me, and there were no flapjacks left and the bananas were running out. There was plenty of high-energy junk food though, so I inhaled a packet of crisps, two tea cakes and a couple of chocolate bars, gulped down with about a litre of water. But what I really wanted was something substantial — like a hefty sandwich (or two) — but I was told I’d have to cycle to the next pit stop at mile 72 to get that kind of fare.
Perhaps I’d sit here a while and wait for OH. But when I checked my text messages, he told me to keep on going — he had “technical issues”.
So, out on the road I headed — and I swear, for the next 15 miles, I did not see one single cyclist. It was possibly the loneliest stretch of cycling I’d ever done. And yet it was possibly the most glorious landscape I’d ever cycled through, especially the parts around Epping Forest, which were absolutely magical and oh-so green and lush and leafy.
Cycling with company
When I got to this cycling path (above) at mile 50 I stopped for a drink and a snack. I checked my phone for messages to find out that OH had called it quits — he had hit a rut in the road, flown over the handlebars, hurt his elbow and shoulder, and broken his front wheel. He was now taking himself home on the District Line.
Admittedly, I was feeling a bit upset by this news — and didn’t relish the prospect of cycling the rest of the way by myself. But when one of the cycling chaperones caught up with me he kind of spurred me on. It turns out he had tried to fix OH’s front wheel and assured me he was okay. “Come on, let’s go,” he said. “There’s loads of people behind you and you don’t want them to catch you up!”
Of course, people did start catching up — and I was grateful for the company. It was wonderful to cycle alongside two others — another chaperone and a female cyclist on a road bike — for about 10 miles, whom I chatted to and had a few laughs with. The chaperone told me I had a “proper” bike, which was his polite way of saying it was too heavy for road cycling, something that was becoming more apparent with every hill I heaved it up.
Eventually, I dropped back as weariness and hunger took its toll. It was now close to 4pm and I hadn’t eaten anything substantial since my rushed porridge at 8.30am.
The last three miles to the second pit stop were possibly the longest three miles I’d ever ridden. I simply had no energy and I was no longer enjoying the ride. Every turn of the pedal was a humungous effort and the little voice inside my head was getting louder and more negative with every revolution. But I’m very grateful that I was now riding alongside a cyclist who felt exactly the same way and together we kept egging each other on — I’m not sure I would have made it without her help otherwise.
A late, late lunch
Once at the pit stop it was time to finally hoe into some much needed lunch — albeit a not very tasty pre-packaged tuna sandwich on white bread. To be honest, I was so hungry I wouldn’t have cared what was on offer. I wolfed it down, alongside a packet of crisps, a banana and a chocolate bar. Then I visited the cafeteria and bought a huge chocolate brownie and a stinking hot cup of coffee AND I WAS STILL HUNGRY.
At this stage, I got talking to an older chap who had decided to throw the towel in for the day — he was planning on catching the “sweeper bus” the rest of the way. I then caught up with the girl I’d cycled the last few miles with and she was doing likewise — she was having problems with her legs. Me? My legs were fine but my neck and shoulders were stiffening up and I was absolutely exhausted. The thought of having to cycle another 25 miles or so wasn’t one I relished. The bus was the easy option but it felt like the right thing to do — there was a chance I wouldn’t reach the finish line before the 7.30pm close anyway.
So I got in the minibus with about 10 others while my trusty bike was packaged in bubblewrap and put into a separate vehicle. We were reunited at Windsor racecourse, where I wheeled her into the “purple” bike park watched over by security guards all night.
I was then assigned a tent — already put up, ready and waiting for me — in the purple zone and given a sleeping mat. My luggage was also there for me to collect from the nearby purple truck. It couldn’t have been easier to get myself settled for the night.
There was the option to have a free massage, but I wanted a shower first and, unfortunately, the queue was a little too long. Time for dinner then. No need to dress up — just wear your sweaty cycling kit — and tuck into the world’s biggest plate of pasta, stir-fried vegetables, tomato salad and bread. I finished with apple crumble and about two litres of runny custard, and then I felt so stuffed all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep.
But I still needed that shower. And the queues were still long. So I bought myself a beer and drank it while I waited for my iPhone to recharge at the plug sockets set up in the grandstand specifically for this purpose.
No sooner was my phone charged than the organisers called me to check I was okay. Because I’d caught the sweeper bus, I hadn’t cycled across the finish line where the timing chip on my helmet would have registered my progress. If I’d known that in advance I would have cycled across the finish line after I picked up my bike from the transportation vehicle and before I parked it in the secure bike park. Oh well — it was nice someone cared enough to check I hadn’t got lost or been run over!
At 9pm I headed to the now deserted showers and washed the day’s dirt and grime from my skin, before hitting the sack at about 10pm. I was feeling nervous about the next day and was contemplating pulling out — or only cycling a short distance — but would see how I was feeling in the morning before making a decision…
Total distance: 74.72miles (120.22km) | Ride time: 7hr 03min 48sec | Average speed: 10.5mph