It was the first 14% ascent 3 hours or so out from John O’Groats that brought the first pangs of doubt. “What had I started? How could I be so stupid?” John O’Groats to Lands End, unsupported, over 7 days, solo, on a single speed bike. The agony of that first climb that sent my heart rate soaring into the stratosphere and my spirits to the depth of the oceans as I hauled my laden bike to the over the brow of the hill. It was the first of many reminders throughout the trip that endurance is so much more about your state of mind than it is fitness. Yet, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding, enjoyable journeys I have made. From the stunning scenery, to the people I met, to the realisation that at its most basic, success was little more than keeping going.
It’s hard to describe the pleasure that comes from knowing that all you have to do that day is pedal. There’s no rush to get somewhere, nobody waiting, nobody needing a problem solved, a lift somewhere or help with some activity or other. Swing your leg over the saddle, clip in and spin away. The grabbed Sunday morning ride in which 100 miles seems to take so long is replaced with the steady passing of mile after mile distracted by an ever changing view, weather or terrain. Hills become something to be savoured for the steady rhythm they bring and the change of pace.
Success seemed to come from beginning to relax and cut oneself a little slack. Years of watching heart rate and cadence replaced by simply focussing on flowing. On a single speed bike there is little other choice. Above 22mph your legs ‘spin out’ as the cadence reaches ever higher levels; hills are taken at whatever speed one can maintain in the chosen gear. Cadence is irrelevant. The choice is limited to do I sit or stand? This decision rests more on the state of one’s back or neck at that given moment. Nutrition is governed more by what the local shops sell rather than your favourite choice of gel or sports bar. Life becomes simple, uncluttered, focussed, and a sense of physical connection with the landscape. On a single speed, there’s no “whose chain set is better?” ego comparisons. There’s no need to prove yourself, there is no expectation of performance that riding a Cervelo P3 brings. It’s pure zen.
Was it all plain sailing? Hell no. The lows were bad. Sitting on the side of a busy road staring at the twisted remains of a rear wheel after a spoke snapped after only 28 miles with 117 miles to go was tough. Removing the spoke and truing the wheel meant riding the rest of the day with the fear of further spoke failures – the constant churning of the mind over how to handle the problem if another spoke broke. Climbing the 1400ft Shap fell in Cumbria with the rain trammelling down my neck and the cold, wind driven into my bones and hours of riding still left required all the tactics I could drum up from the low points racing Ironman events to rebuild the mental state in order to keep going. These lows soon pass and are replaced by highs that provide the lasting memories. The buzz from overtaking a bunch climbing onto Dartmoor after 6 days in the saddle; the stunning scenery of Loch Ness and Loch Lomond or the mountain pass descent into Drumnadrochit; sitting in the sun near Gloucester, mug of tea in hand replacing a spoke and wiling a way an hour or two truing the wheel; the sheer pleasure that comes from tackling such a trip after a winter of solid training; the realisation that the all those strength sessions climbing hills and the hours of riding in the dark had paid off was awesome. These things more than compensate for the low points.
When you are on your own, people talk to you; from the owners of the B&Bs to other cyclists, or the snatched conversation with someone in a shop. The journey has become a memory of faces and places; Denis and his wife, who washed my kit, left me a beer and flapjack in my room and lent me his track pump and charged £25 for a beautifully clean room and exceptionally well furnished bathroom and offered to ride with me at the start of the day to show me the ‘short cuts’. Sarah, who left me oatcakes and Nutella (great combo by the way) to make sure I had something to eat before my very early 5am start. J-P who joined me on the last day and stretched himself from his previously longest ride of 70 miles to the 130miles I needed to cover and whose wife and son provide such pleasant company at the end of the trip; Richard who canned a day at work to ride 70 miles with me. This is aside from the may, many people whom everyday sent me a text message of encouragement. In a country where sometimes the cyclist can seem such a second class citizen, these experiences provided a memorable reminder of the goodness people can show.
In many ways I am very lucky, I have a fantastic and supportive wife who supports and encourages me in these mini epic undertakings, who, in a few words on the phone can pick up on my mood and says the right things, sends the right SMS messages to boost my morale. Then there is Ian Mayhew, a great coach whose simple confidence in my ability to do it meant I kept reassuring myself that “Ian reckons I can do it” whenever I wandered into the garage to stare at my bike and question my sanity. Could I do it without these people, I doubt it, but then solo endurance activities are a team sport, even if it’s just you doing the riding.
So what lessons did I learn?
- It’s all in the mind. You have to really want to achieve it, and if you do, everything else will take care of itself.
- Single speed seems a crazy way to go but it’s an egoless, pure, simple way of travelling, but you need to invest several months of riding one to begin to ‘get it’.
- Nutrition really does count. Not only does it help you ride consistently it also helps keep your spirits up. Try feeling good when you are hungry, or tired or worse, both.
- Whatever kit you need, divide it by two and then recognise you still have too much. At the end of Day 3 I posted my spare kit home.
- There’s always something to think about when long distance riding, you might think you will get bored, but you won’t.
- Go with the flow, when you are feeling good, go for it, when you are not, keep it simple and easy until you begin to feel better.
- Learn to recognize when you are feeling low and develop simple strategies to help you rebuild your positive state.
- Tell everyone you plan to do it so you can’t bottle out. Better still, tell them you are going to do it on a single speed, it only adds to the self imposed pressure.
- Enjoy it! It’s not a form of punishment!
- Get the support of people whose opinions you value.