Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I went on a bit of an adventure on Friday
It’s been an itch of mine for a while to try some longer rides, and the fact that my parents’ house is almost exactly 100 miles away (at least, as the bike rides) has been niggling away in my brain. Riding a hundred miles by bike is a strange sort of feat in a way – many, if not most, people I know would consider it to be a ridiculous proposition, and yet I also know plenty of people for whom a 100 mile ride is a mere warm up, something to get the legs going before taking on a proper challenge like crossing a continent. But it seemed to me like a nice round number (more on this later) and eminently doable, while still being impressive enough to feel quite pleased with myself if and when I completed it.
Up until now, my approach to going for longer rides than I’m used to has been: 1) get on the bike; and 2) keep pedalling until I got there, which has served me well enough up to about 50 miles. However, trying to double that felt like a bit of a stretch so I’ve been asking around for advice from people who do this sort of thing regularly and actually putting most of it into practice, not just in the training beforehand (oh, OK, I never did get around to doing intervals…) but on the ride itself, and actually it all proved invaluable.
So for anyone who’s intrigued by the idea of riding longer distances but doesn’t quite know if they’ll be able to, here are the top tips I received, and how it panned out on the day.
I knew that if I was to get to my parents at a reasonable hour, I had to start at silly o’clock and I can honestly say that getting up at 4:30am was the hardest part of the whole adventure. But my experienced cycle touring pals all agreed that the trick to getting a lot of miles under your belt was to set off at the crack of dawn and get as far as you could before taking your first well deserved break. I knew my brain doesn’t really work that well in the small hours so I’d taken the precaution of writing a checklist the night before to make sure nothing got forgotten which mostly worked out, although when it came to planning my lunch it turned out that I should have been a bit more specific than just ‘sandwich’
Catering hiccups aside, I was out of the door by ten past five, sharing the first stretch of road with nobody but a badger strolling along the verge, and it really was worth the wrench of getting up that early. The roads were blissfully quiet and the air was still (a bonus as the wind was in my face for most of the ride from about 8am onwards) and it was one of those glorious summer mornings with the light gilding everything it touched. Apart from the odd dopey dog and oblivious dog walker on the cycle path, I didn’t have to deal with any traffic, and for the first 20 odd miles I knew the route pretty well so I could mostly concentrate on just pedalling and making good progress with the birds all singing their little feathery heads off in the hedgerows beside me.
I wasn’t aiming for any really super speedy time, but I had been a bit … vague with my parents about my plans, in that they knew we were coming but I hadn’t actually mentioned I was planning to cycle there as I didn’t want them worrying. So I wanted to get to Duns reasonably close to our normal arrival time. I knew I was never going to be a fast cyclist, but as I started preparing for this ride a lot of people had told me that the key was not so much to ride fast but to stop as little as possible and I had been surprised at how much difference it made to my overall speed. I’m a terrible faffer as a rule, but after a couple of stops to check in with the family WhatsApp group, text the other half reassuring him that I was still alive, and send some tweets to anyone interested in following along, I then just put my head down and cracked on. I knew that the big climb would start about 33 miles in and top out almost 10 miles and over 750 feet later and, as the hills loomed up ahead of me, I promised myself a cup of coffee and a break at the top if I just kept going until the ascent was out of the way.
I was pretty pleased to make it the whole way without getting off and pushing, although I was grateful to have the road to myself (apart from the sheep) so I could make all the faces I needed to to get over the last little kick upwards at the top. At this point I was feeling pretty good – it was only 9:30, I’d got the worst of the climbing out of the way (or at least, so I thought) and my legs were holding up fine. I almost had to force myself to stop, having got into the rhythm of just pedalling ever onwards. But I knew it was time to take a break, update Twitter, take a celebratory selfie and refuel with coffee and a sustaining oatcake with peanut butter (having ridden the first 40 miles sustained by a bowl of Alpen before setting off and a couple of jelly babies) and start the descent to my next destination – the cafe and (more importantly) the toilets at St Mary’s Loch…
Manage the inputs (and the outputs)
If there’s one cliché about long distance anythings, it’s that it’s as much about the eating and drinking as the cycling or running or what have you. I had planned my food strategy carefully – my route took me past very few cafes (the St Mary’s Loch one cannot be relied upon to be open in my experience), or even shops, so I carried most of what I consumed on the ride: a packet of jelly babies (everyone agrees you need to have jelly babies; I don’t know if other sweets would do but I wasn’t prepared to risk it, so jelly babies it was), two emergency pork pies (nobody says pork pies, but as far as I am concerned, the whole point of massive bike rides is to earn the chance to have a guilt free pork pie), oatcakes, a full flask of coffee and two water bottles (which turned out to be two water bottles too few – I should have been better at refilling on the way). With that plus the all-important cake as I headed into Selkirk, I never really felt as if I was running on empty.
What people put less emphasis on is the fact that what goes in must also (partially) come out and I knew that the countryside I would be riding through wasn’t overly endowed with handy bushes. Perhaps other people are made of sterner stuff but I have never found it that easy to pee in anything but private and even if there aren’t any other humans around, the disapproving gaze of a sheep can be equally disconcerting. Most of the public toilets I would pass in the Borders were shut due to the pandemic, so let us all pause in appreciation for a moment for the efforts of the cleaner who has kept the St Mary’s Loch toilets open throughout.
With that important business done, it was time to enjoy the (mostly) downhill run to Selkirk with no navigation to worry about, not too much traffic, the sun-warmed gorse sending blasts of coconut scent as I passed, just me and the bike and the road unspooling endlessly ahead.
It’s a mind game
One thing I was a bit worried about when planning this ride was doing the distance on my own – I knew that the miles just disappear when I’m in good company and can chat as I go, but I wasn’t sure how it would be with just me. However, while I didn’t get into the sort of meditative zen state that some have described experiencing on longer solo rides, I did find I was perfectly happy in my own company. I have a busy brain as a whole, and what with snatches of earworms, thinking about the route ahead, composing this blog post, and trying to come up with the best way of describing the appalling cyclist-repelling surface that the Borders Council had decided to lay on their main roads (some combination of not enough tarmac and overly large stones that had the bike vibrating like a jackhammer on the descents) I was perfectly entertained. I had done enough route preparation to know how many miles to the next stop, and that really helped me to keep pushing on, ticking down the miles towards Selkirk where I’d planned to stop for lunch. Despite a freshening headwind (there’s never a westerly when you want one) if I kept turning the pedals, then the miles kept ticking away and I made good enough time that I was eating my lunch before noon, and able to stop at the Waterwheel Cafe for a cake afterwards (and another strategic wee) with my legs now starting to feel the effort of the ride but willing enough to keep going after I’d had a break.
Know your route
Once out of Selkirk, things got a little more complicated. Selkirk to Melrose was lovely – an off road path the whole way and then another road closed off to cars that took me over the Tweed on an ancient bridge dwarfed by the adjacent trunk road. From there, I was in completely unknown territory. I’ve not cycled much in the Borders and only knew the roads we took by car, which I didn’t fancy much on the bike. Also, all roads seem to lead to Kelso, so if you don’t want to go to Kelso, then there’s a lot of navigating to be done to avoid it. I had spent a lot of time the evening before working out a route that seemed to offer the best combination of avoiding main roads and avoiding Kelso while still being easy enough to navigate on the road without too many stops to check my route. At the very last minute, I discovered the ‘Borders Loop’ which promised a cycle route from Melrose to Duns but crucially it wasn’t clear if it was signposted on the road or not. I did have a quick look at the route online, and it seemed a bit longer than my preferred option, so after pondering mildly why it wasn’t taking the route I’d chosen, I decided I’d stick with what I’d planned. I had my trusty OS maps which are my preferred navigation method so although it would mean a bit of stopping and starting, I was confident I’d find my way.
Anyway, as it turns out, Borders back roads are very different from those I’m used to round us. Our roads tend to follow the river valleys and while they go up and down a fair bit, they usually go round the worst of the hills if they can be avoided. Borders roads, not so much: they seem to take more of a direct approach, except when they make a dramatic 90 degree turn, and contours be damned. This didn’t show up very clearly when I was route planning, because the climb over the pass before St Mary’s Loch had dwarfed the contours of the shorter, but much steeper, climbs in the Borders. As I pedalled round a corner and confronted the sight of the road shooting up apparently vertically, I realised that the last 20 miles were going to be tougher than I’d expected. I noticed a ‘Border loop’ sign enticingly pointing me downhill at one point as I plodded up another wall of a climb and briefly contemplated putting my navigational fate in the hands of the Borders council signposting department and just following it, but I decided against. The end was in sight. How hard could it be?
When you read various accounts of long distance rides, the failure of whichever electronic gizmo was being used to navigate at the crucial moment does tend to loom large, so I wasn’t surprised when my GPS battery died on me with 15 miles to go. No matter, I thought, as I turned a corner and contemplated yet another vertical wall of road. I wasn’t even using it to navigate. I had my map and so far I was on course, even if the course I’d chosen, and was doggedly sticking to, was going up every single sodding hill. My main worry was that both my water bottles were empty, and Greenlaw (where I knew there was a shop, the brilliantly named Blackadder Mini Market) seemed like a long way off. I stopped at a likely field gate half way up another hill and chugged the rest of my flask of coffee, only slightly put off by the slurry spreading tractor squeezing past me into the field. One last ridiculous climb up (in retrospect, going via Hume Castle was always going to involve a bit of a climb) one swooping descent into Greenlaw to raid the shop for any form of liquid (with the England – Scotland match on in the evening I was pretty much the only customer who wasn’t coming in for a case of beer), and I settled on a nearby bench to check my route for the final 10 mile stretch to Duns.
Maps, famously, can’t run out of battery and they never lose signal. But it turns out that if you awkwardly stuff them in the top of your pannier after checking for the 17th time that yes, you do need to go up that hill, then they can fall out onto the road without you noticing. The quiet backroads route I’d planned wasn’t going to be an option given my appalling sense of direction (I have even managed to get lost in the grid of Manhattan). My only choice was to take the main road from Greenlaw to Duns which I knew well from our many drives over. And yes, it meant one last hill out of Greenlaw, the steepest of all, which I’m not ashamed to say I walked up because the alternative was weaving all over the road. It also meant that my final distance (according to my route planner, given the death of the GPS) was about 97 miles, rather than the nice round hundred I’d aimed for. But as I staggered down the steps to my parents’ front door, I decided that was good enough. I’d achieved what I’d set out to do, and I hadn’t died. A proper century could wait another day.
And so I’ve done it – my longest ride ever, and an itch scratched. But as everyone knows, scratching an itch only makes it worse. Over the last few months as I’ve ridden more miles and found out what I’m capable of, I’m finding that my horizons are expanding. If you’ve ridden a hundred miles (well, within a rounding error of a hundred miles) then you’re only 25 miles or so away from 200 kms. And if I can ride from my house to Duns, then where else might my legs be able to take me?
At the moment, I don’t know (and I’ve promised my mum that if we visit again, I’ll stick to the car). But I’m interested in possibly finding out …