Tandem

A tandem is a bike designed to be ridden by more than one person. On a tandem the riders sit one behind the other, on a sociable they sit side by side.

The Captain steers, selects the gears, brakes and decides when both riders will pedal or coast. The Stoker provides power, can do the navigation, signalling to traffic and keep an eye out for potential dangers. A good Captain does nothing that could cause the Stoker anxiety and a good Stoker aims to remain in a neutral position to making it easier for the Captain to pilot the bike.

When ridden well, the tandem epitomises teamwork. Two people work together in harmony to propel the bike along efficiently and effectively. Two cyclists working well together will outperform better riders who have not developed the teamwork. Ridden badly, the tandem can be a short cut to the divorce courts.

Tandems are much faster going downhill than half bikes (the name Tandem riders give one person bikes), faster on the flat but for some reason that is the source of much debate, are significantly slower than half bikes going uphill.

The longest tandem was built by Students of the University of South Australia in 2015. A staggering 42 metres long it beat the previous record 35.8 metres set in 2011.

The earliest tandems date back to the 1890s.  Wikipedia has more about tandem bicycles.

End-to-End

End-to-end refers to the time taken to ride unpaced between Lands End in Cornwall and John O’Groats in Caithness; specifically, from the step by the back door of the Land’s End Hotel to the white line that crosses the drain in the turning circle at John O’Groats.

Riders may go in either direction, on any route of their choice. As the crow flies, it is approximately 603 miles (971km). However, to travel between the two points on roads permissible for travel by bike (i.e. excluding motorways or dual carriageways that prohibit use by bicycles) the shortest distance is approximately 836 miles (1354km).

The record is for the fastest time from start to finish.  The clock keeps running whether you’re cycling or stopped for whatever reason (bike repairs, food, toilet etc).

Route planning

Trade-offs

Every route is a series of compromises. The shortest route contains a lot of small roads and steep hills which sap more energy and effort than a slightly flatter longer route on main roads. Whilst it may be shorter in distance to ride through a town, it may be quicker to ride round the ring road avoiding stop start nature of town driving as a result of traffic, traffic lights, roundabouts and junctions. However a town may be quicker to ride through than the ring road at night when there is considerably less traffic on the road. Conversely, during rush hour, it maybe better to make an even longer detour to avoid delays.

 

Weather

Then there is the weather. In an ideal world the weather would provide a helpful tailwind the whole way. Whilst the route is generally northerly, the first 200 miles are north-east, the next 400 are northerly and then towards the

north of Scotland the route swings first north-east then north-west. The impact of all this is that a south-westerly wind whilst helpful for the first 200 miles adds significantly less value for the middle of the ride. As any pilot will tell you, a wind coming from 45 degrees behind you does not provide a force pushing three-quarters of what it would be if it were a tail wind but significantly less. A wind coming from the side adds no value and in fact makes life a bit more difficult as it makes handling the bike more of a challenge.

Low pressure weather systems that provide the prevailing southwesterly winds in the UK are fickle things. They shift and shimmy around with a corresponding change in both wind strength and direction. What can be a superb tail wind at the start can become an evil headwind 24 hours later. The challenge then is to leave when – on balance – the winds provide the best assistance taking into account the changes in route direction and the predicted changes in wind direction.

Rain

Whilst low pressures provide the right wind direction, they also bring with them rain. Roads covered in water are not only unpleasant to ride but also slower as a result of the friction created by surface water as well as the increased chance of a puncture from debris washed onto the road. Ideally then, it is windy and dry.

The challenge then is defining the right route, starting at the right time taking into account estimated times of arrival at the major conurbations and finding the best weather window when both riders and the support team are available to make the attempt. There is no disguising the significant element of luck that is needed.

Route

The record

Taking all this into account we started on the 5 May 2015 and cycled 842.6 miles (1356km).

Elevation

The route is not flat. It involves 40,543ft (12,537m) of ascent. To put this into context, the three peaks walk that takes in the three highest peaks in Scotland (Ben Nevis), England (Scafell Pike) and Wales (Snowdon) has a total of 3064m of ascent, i.e. a quarter of the amount in this ride. In fact, the amount of ascent is the equivalent of 1.4 x the height of Everest. The ascent is not evenly distributed. Cornwall and Devon make up the bulk of the climbing in the first half of the route. The second half begins with a steep climb over Shap, a brief respite and then the climb over the Highlands.

Result – a world record

45 hours 11 minutes

Average speed 18.7mph (30km/h)

Beat the previous record of 50 hours 14 minutes and 25 seconds by over 5 hours

The record is validated by the Roads Record Association (RRA). They supplied an observer and a timekeeper to ensure we complied with the rules and to determine how long we had taken. Because of the duration of the record, a second observer / timekeeper joined us for part of the route to give the others a much needed break. All were volunteers. When a record is being attempted, members of the RRA are informed and many come out on the route to both note when we went past and report back and also to cheer us on our way. Their commitment and dedication was impressive with many on the roadside in the darkest hours of the night. It’s the combination of the work of the timekeepers, observers and members that provides the overall proof.

Since 1966, there have been 16 attempts that failed to break the record including two by Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell.

There are strict rules about providing assistance to the riders, how often support vehicles may pass and the encouragement that may be given. Details of all these can be found on the RRA website.

Don’t stop!

The record is the total time elapsed from the moment you leave Land’s End until the front wheel rolls over the white line in John O’Groats. The clock keeps running whether stopping to change clothes, repair the bike or to go to the toilet. The aim was to stop as little as possible. A change of clothes, toilet stop, replenishing the food supplies on the bike, swapping a wheel over was completed in one instance in about 5 minutes. The total time stopped throughout the whole ride was estimated at about 30 – 40 minutes, but it is difficult to be certain.

We ate whilst riding. Roughly every hour and a half the support crew would hand us a bag containing food and drink. We consumed sandwiches, cake, fruit, nuts, biscuits and the occasional handful of sweets. We drank water flavoured with cordial and laden with salts to replace those lost through sweating.

We burned over 20,000 calories. That’s the equivalent of about 8 days worth of food for the average man. We consumed about 11,000 calories, the equivalent of about 5.5 days worth of food. As a result, we both lost weight during the ride. It’s simply not possible to digest 20,000 calories in 45 hours, so we ate what the body could process and no more.

Winds

We benefitted from a superb tail wind for the first 200 miles which degraded into a helpful wind for the next 300 miles and then became a horrible headwind for 200 miles before easing back to a mildly indifferent cross wind before one final kick in the teeth over the last 20 miles hammering us with heavy rain and a mix of savage headwinds and crosswinds just when we needed it least.

Support team

Person Role
Coach Responsible for devising the training plan and helping think through ride strategy.
Team Leader Responsible for coordinating the team pre, during and post attempt to ensure the riders have everything they need, whenever they need it in the way the need it. Communicating with interested parties, and incident management should a problem arise.
Mechanic & Sponsor Responsible for sourcing and maintaining the training and race bikes.
Medic Responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of the riders and team throughout the attempt.
Crew Undertaking all the support team duties on the road such as preparing food for the riders and handing it over to them, preparing changes of clothes as required and dealing with road closures, and other traffic issues.
Nutritionist Responsible for advising the riders on diet during training, pre-attempt, during the attempt and helping recovery after the attempt.
Physiotherapist Responsible for rehabilitating the riders when they have broken parts of themselves.
Meteorologist Helping interpret weather charts when determining the right time to start.
Official RRA Observers Road Records Association (RRA) Observers whose job it is to make sure all the rules are complied with.
Public relations Help drive coverage of the attempt – helps provide value to sponsors.
Sponsors Without whom such attempts would be prohibitively expensive.
Family There is simply no way of attempting such a feat without the support and encouragement of one’s close family. It’s hard enough without having to negotiate time to train all the time.

Food

On average, the energy expended was approximately 450 calories per hour. More for Charlie, less for Dom (due to differences in heart rate at the required level of power output). Thus, during the ride, approximately 21,000 calories of energy were expended. This is the equivalent of about 10 days worth of energy for an adult.

It is impossible to replace the amount of energy expended with energy consumed. The rate of absorption is slower than the rate of expenditure. Any attempt to do so would result in a gut full of undigested food that would hamper performance.

From experience, we found we could consume between 30g and 90g of carbohydrate an hour. A gram of carbohydrate is 4 calories. Hence we found we could cope with 120 – 360 calories per hour. The energy shortfall is met from burning fat reserves and through the breakdown of protein in the muscles. Even at elite levels of body fat (6% – 8%) there is still enough fat stored in the body to fuel 4 marathons.

We were thinner at the end than when we started.

We ate “normal food”:

  • Sandwiches (peanut butter and jam, marmite, cheese, jam, honey and banana)
  • Cake (especially fruitcake)
  • Sweets (licorice allsorts, jelly babies, rhubarb and custard)
  • Biscuits (ginger to help with nausea)
  • Chocolate dates
  • Chocolate brazils
  • A small number of energy gels

During the successful attempt, the support crew provided two hot meals. One, a scrambled egg sandwich and the other a deep fried vegetable burger which was discarded uneaten.

We drank water flavoured with cordial with the addition of electrolyte salts.

Training

On average we trained for 70 hours a month. Some months more, some less. This comprised of a polarised training approach where most of the work done outside and at the slow steady riding pace we would be riding during the record attempt. The rest of the training was at very high intensity and done predominantly on a turbo trainer (think indoor bike). Often, we trained twice a day.

During the week, for the most part, we trained separately. At weekends we did most of the long rides and on the tandem. In a typical week, we would get up at 5am, drink coffee, sometimes eat a light breakfast and train for between 1 and 3 hours. In the evening we would do a further 60 – 90 minutes of training. Weekend rides would start as early as 4:30am and sometimes go through the night.

Prior to breaking the record, I had already spent years training at this sort of intensity for both previous attempts, other ultra distance races and prior to that Ironman triathlons. Charlie came from a background of racing shorter distance time trials (predominantly 10 – 50 miles in duration). In the 10 months Charlie trained specifically for this event he found time for a massive increase in time spent training.

The winter of 2014/15 was notable for being very wet. Many, many hours were spent training in the rain. It was not pleasant. In addition to physical fitness, we also worked hard on becoming a great team. Many hours were spent reviewing the way we rode together and how it could be improved.

The nature of the training meant that if there was a family event such as a sports match, or a weekend away to see friends we would choose to ride there whilst our respective wives drove. We stopped watching television and spent very little time socialising. We reckoned that if we could watch TV we could train or work and that would be more likely to help us break the record.

Training to break the record was an anti-social business.

Sleep devprivation

Staying awake for long periods of time is hard. The body is remarkable in its determination to induce sleep. So powerful is this drive that it will happen even when you don’t want it too. It is possible to fall asleep whilst riding a bike. The worst time of day is between 2am and 4am. You’ve already been awake for over 20 hours and exercising hard for the whole of that time. By the time you get to the second night and you’ve been awake for 40 hours working hard the whole time it becomes incredibly hard to stay awake and keep focused.

You are fighting not just the mental battle but a whole range of physiological hormonal changes that are degrading performance. Sleep is inevitable – it’s a question of delaying it for as long as possible. Things that help include caffeine, talking to each other, singing and playing simple memory games. All of these things are like jumping up and down on a freezing cold day trying to keep warm. It helps for about 5 minutes, but the cold soon returns and all you want to do is get into somewhere warm and dry. There is only so much you can take before you have to do something about it.

In the end, apart from one momentary lapse when one rider drifted off for few seconds fortunately without crashing, both riders stayed awake for the duration of the ride.

Previous attempts

2012

The record

In 2012 I made my first attempt on the record with Consultant Paediatrician Ian Rodd. We completed the distance in a time of over 58 hours. Whilst significantly slower than the record, it provided valuable lessons that informed subsequent attempts. We needed to be faster, stop less and be more efficient when we did stop.

2014

The record

In 2014 I was joined by the cycling legend Glenn Longland. This attempt failed when just after going over the summit of Shap, Glenn collapsed from exhaustion and required hospitalisation. The lessons from this trip were the importance of both riders training together as much as possible and the value of a scientific approach to training.

Success factors

Our successful record attempt was predicated on five key factors:

Training: We followed the training plan devised and supervised by Professor Simon Jobson of the University of Winchester. Both riders had the same coach which allowed Simon to ensure we both arrived at the start in the peak of condition.

Teamwork: We spent hours and hours riding the bike together learning how to be a really great team on the bike. We liked training together and we were and are good friends.

Support team: Our support team had plenty of experience, knew what to do and when and were reliable and dependable. They were able to cope with changing circumstances. They knew how to keep themselves going throughout this long ride. Their care and attention was outstanding, in truth – world class.

Support: Without the support from our families we simply would not have been able to do the training required. With their love, encouragement and tolerance we were able to bury ourselves in the work required.

Luck: Whilst we analysed weather patterns to determine when the best time to ride would be, ultimately it was a good dose of luck that meant conditions were favorable at the time we intended to ride. Luck played a part in only having very minor mechanical problems during the ride and few traffic problems. We could have been luckier, but we also could have been far less lucky than we were.