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As the 04:00 alarm pierced the tranquillity of the early morning, I knew that today was going to be something a little more special than the usual Saturday. Taking five before hauling myself out of bed, I gently eased the dimmer-switch on the bedside lamp up – softly flooding the room with light; giving my sleepy eyes an easy introduction to the day. A minute later, the central processing unit in my head was fully online; I was up and ready for action.
This day had been in the planning for some time. In fact, I had been tossing the idea around in my head from the time that I first developed a taste for long-cycle rides. On paper, it was simple enough – plot a route from home to Clare in Suffolk to see my best mate (who moved there about 10 years ago) then go ride it! The fact that the return journey could be knocking on the door of 110 miles (with the addition of a cheeky little Canewdon loop near home) actually made the plan even more appealing. Basing my calculations on an average speed of 16 mph, I figured I could set out in the early morning and be back home sipping an espresso around lunchtime.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea……at the Time!
Like many of these things, the plan was hatched a good while back – probably after a glass or two of red!! And, at the time, it seemed such a good idea that I’d already plotted the course. However, after hatching the plan and plotting the course, I then did noting with it – for a couple of years, in fact! But, every time I visited the course list in my Garmin Connect account, the course title, ‘CENTURY TO SUFFOLK’ pricked my conscience. I knew that, left unachieved, it would be a constant thorn in my side; but, every time I resolved to do it, I found reasons not to.
If I’m honest, most of the ‘reasons’ for not doing this boiled down to lack of confidence. Those corrosive doubts that set in after the bravado of the initial planning has worn off – it’s a flipping long way – what if you run out of legs half way there (or back) – what if you have a major mechanical – what if you get lost…..what if……what if…..what if!
Pragmatically, those are all valid concerns but, actually, they are all things that you can control for. This week, I knew that the time had come – time to man up, bury those doubts once and for all, do something epic, enjoy it and be richer for doing so.
I think that the trigger had been the events of the previous weekend – and another epic ride. After entering the annual London to Southend-on-Sea bike ride with my wife, I mentioned to the SMCC’s Wet Wipe that we were doing it. As things panned-out that particular weekend the usual SMCC Sunday ride had been cancelled – given that Mooga was on his holidays and half way up a mountain in Wales. For lack of anything better to do with his Sunday morning, Wet Wipe jumped at the chance to ride the L2S with us.
Traditionally, this 52 mile ride starts with a train ride from Southend-on-Sea to the start – near Stratford in London. That part of the day is never fun – hundreds of cyclists cramming themselves into cramped old rail carriages; dumping rusty old mountain bikes on top of your pride and joy and then to top it all off; a treacherous walk in road shoes and cleats across the shiny floors of Stratford station. For this very fact, we had all planned to ride the course on our winter bikes – to save our precious carbons from any harm. I’ll confess that the thought of the train journey and riding our winter bikes when the sun was high in the sky, was really beginning to take the edge off of the ride (for me, at least).
I knew that the same thoughts were playing on Wet Wipe’s mind, too and the text message from him just three days before the ride confirmed that. It simply read, “Why don’t we ride to the start on Sunday. 102 mile return from home!” Normally, I would not have hesitated in responding, “Let’s do it”. But this was slightly different as my wife was coming along with us. I mentioned the plan to her and, to be fair, she wasn’t immediately keen. She’s a strong and regular cyclist but the century was one milestone that she had yet to hit. She had also recently been advised by her doctor to avoid long cycle rides – as this could aggravate a recently diagnosed knee condition.
However, after initially rejecting the plan, gradually she began to ‘warm’ to it! I could tell by the way that she was talking about not looking forward to the train journey that it was getting more attractive to her by the day. Finally, on the day before the ride, she said, “I’ve always wanted to get the century – let’s do it”. Frantic text messages were exchanged with Wet Wipe and the plan agreed – we’d meet at 05:00 the following morning, ride to the start and then ride the course back home. As an added bonus, this plan meant that we could all ride our best carbon roadies. Perfect!
Who’s Idea Was This!
As the alarm sounded at 03:50 on Sunday morning, that plan seemed less attractive but, by 04:30 we were outside, clipping in and striking out to hook up with Wet Wipe.
The ride up was sublime – we didn’t see a single car for the majority of it. Being out in wonderful country lanes at that time of day was inspiring; there was an eerie calmness about the world that you seldom experience and a freshness to the air that you simply don’t get later in the day.
Lining up at the start in Victoria Park, we also had the personal satisfaction of knowing that we’d already ridden 52 miles more than the majority of those there.
Crossing the finish line at Priory Park in Southend, was a fantastic feeling. As the volunteer marshals greeted us and slipped finisher medals around our necks, I almost wanted to ask for a second – given that we’d ridden the route twice. But, you know what; the personal satisfaction was worth more than any bit of tin. Riding the few miles home from the park, I grinned when my wife threw her arms in the air – Tour de France stage winner style – at the precise moment her Garmin ticked past 100 miles – her first century in the bag!
Funny how Things Turn Out!!
I’m glad that Wet Wipe sewed the seed of that plan and even happier that my wife rose to the challenge. The experience was fantastic for all of us and we each took away a head full of great memories – together with a big dose of personal satisfaction. As intense as it was, that buzz was short-lived. The very next day – after the endorphins had subsided – I was almost craving the next epic challenge. The voice of my conscience started whispering, “Century to Suffolk”!
Although I knew I wanted to do it, the same doubts and ‘reasons’ that had always prevented me made themselves known, too. Then, in an odd twist of fate, I pulled a hamstring during my Monday evening run (the very day after the L2S ride) – bringing about an enforced-rest from running. It was this that became the catalyst for me finally committing the Suffolk ride.
As any athlete will tell you – any enforced break in your training routine is torture; you feel lazy, convince yourself that you’re gaining weight (not in a good way), you feel fitness slipping away from you minute-by-minute, you get twitchy – basically, you climb the walls. Although running was out of the question for me, riding was not. In fact, consensus of opinion is that cycling is pretty good recovery for hamstring injuries.
With cycling now firmly established as the only exercise ‘staple’ the Suffolk Century epic suddenly acquired a fresh lustre. Notwithstanding this, I knew I needed one final incentive to fully commit to it. At times like this, peer pressure is a wonderful motivator; without pausing to think, I had openly stated my intent through Twitter and Facebook. That always gets me through the door.
Setting out that morning, I knew my wife had concerns of her own. Although I’m no stranger to the long ride, I usually do it in company; not solo. Oddly for me, though, the solitary nature of this particular challenge also became part of the appeal. This was for me – and me alone. Sharing it could have somehow diluted the experience. Notwithstanding my wife’s concerns, this morning, I was riding for Suffolk!
At 05:00 on a Saturday morning, most of the world is still asleep. Roads devoid of traffic lend an effortless flow to your cycling and in no time, I was well established into the ride. For the first 20 miles or so, my route followed roads that I’m no stranger to. Being familiar with those lanes, I know every bend, every undulation and, more importantly, every pothole!! Wafting along almost in auto-pilot, I had time to take in the beauty of the morning and, as I crested the second gentle climb of the day, the sun finally made its debut – slipping nervously out from behind the clouds and dousing the glorious views across open, rolling farmland on either side of me in a soft milky orange haze.
The man from the Met Office had promised biblical downpours by mid-morning and, for that reason alone, I was astride my trusty old winter trainer; rather than my lithe carbon beauty. But, with every passing mile, the sun gained confidence – creeping higher in the sky and bolder in colour. Passing the 30-mile point, this was turning into a classic summer morning. And, even better, as the route unfolded before me, the same roads that for so many months I had convinced myself would be impassable farm tracks, chosen at random by the Garmin map makers, revealed themselves to be some of the finest stretches of rural tarmac it has ever been my pleasure to ride; glorious flowing country roads through acre-upon-acre of open farmland and chocolate box villages. Nir flipping vana!!!
Despite the strengthening sun the fresh morning air still clung to the last ‘bite’ of the night now passed. Every now and again, small patches of fog sat in dips in the landscape, trapping warmer air; giving an odd sensation as I descended into them – like slipping back under the duvet on a crisp winter morning.
Time flies when you’re having fun and in no time at all, I was stopping for a brief break in the beautiful little village of Finchingfield. Standing by the village pond and sipping my electrolyte drink, I cast my mind back – just a couple of weeks – when my wife and I had driven here. As nice as that was, it was just a drive. Standing there, drinking in the morning after 44 miles in the saddle – and another 60 or so to go - the simple fact that I was there bore a completely different significance.
Half Way There!
The last ten-mile stretch to Clare was equally as good. Parking my bike by the ‘CLARE’ road sign for the obligatory ‘road trip’ photo I felt like I’d just won the Tour de France. In my mind, I’d pictured myself here with my bike so many times before but secretly always believed that it would never happen. Equally, I never imagined that HAL would get me here – but bless his little silicon heart – he didn’t miss a turn for me. Five minutes later, I was pulling up outside my mate’s house and making my way into his kitchen for a coffee a catch up and a bloody long talk about bikes. Nice!
Setting out for my return leg, the sun was still shining, I’d spent an hour and a half catching up with a mate who I’d not seen in years, the bike was running more sweetly than it has in ages and all was right with the world. In fact, all was
right for about 60 seconds. Approaching the end of the High Street, HAL Suddenly threw up rogue navigation prompt. Before I had a chance to even think, he’d shut himself down; at that point, my heart sank a little.
Not only did this not bode well for actually finding my way home but it also meant that I would not be able to record my epic ride as one continuous track. Still, no worry, start the little fella up again, chalk it up to experience and get back on with the ride. Much like the grand arivee in Priory park, I didn’t need a number on the computer to appreciate what I had achieved. As HAL regained his composure I played my trump card – instructing him to follow a simpler – but slightly longer - ‘contingency’ route home that I had planned just the night before.
In a way, I was a bit sad that I would not be following the same route back that had led me there. Again, the voice of doubt kicked in; but how wrong it was. After a further minor GPS glitch and a brief chat with another rider (and really nice guy) at Tilbury Juxta Clare as HAL (once again) composed himself, I was once again rolling gently along beautiful lanes which were, oddly, just as free from traffic as those that I’d ridden a good few hours earlier.
The High-point…..So to Speak!
As these virgin lanes slowly turned back into the familiar roads of my weekend rides, I was aware that the high-point of the return leg was approaching – a full climb of the mighty North Hill at just beyond the 90 mile point. By this point, the legs were beginning to tire, making my ill-conceived plan to complete the climb in the big ring soon a very unattractive proposition. Sharply stabbing the shift lever to drop into my climbing gears, I knew that the ride was already epic enough; I really had nothing else to prove. Shortly afterward, HAL prompted me to take a turn that I didn’t fancy. I ignored him and, in one final act of defiance, he promptly shut down – again! Still, no worries; I didn’t need turn-by-turn guidance from here and, frankly, I was enjoying the ride too much to let anything worry me by this point.
One Final Choice!
Passing over the small hump-backed bridge that crosses the river at Battlesbridge I had one further choice to make; did I take the short route back through Rayleigh or the longer route home through Lower Road and Ashingdon? My conscience kicked in – steering me toward the longer route and two further short sharp little climbs; Coventry Hill and Ashingdon Hill.
Pausing for my last drink stop of the day at the top of Ashingdon Hill, just six miles lay between me and home. In some ways, those were the longest six miles of the ride – main roads, packed with cars, littered with broken glass and with myopic pedestrians wandering randomly out from the kerb; as myopic pedestrians are wan to do. But, I got through them and with the bike parked safely in the hallway and a cool recovery drink slipping gently down; the sense of achievement was enormous. Two epic rides in as many weekends; two century rides within two weeks, the Suffolk ride done and a sea of endorphins now coursing through my veins – natures reward for six hours and nigh-on 110 miles in the saddle.
Because…I’m Worth it!
Rested and showered, I topped the day off with a stroll into Leigh-on-Sea to reward myself with a freshly made fruit smoothie.
Standing at the counter of the smoothie bar, I paused to watch the world rushing by – hundreds of people, caught up in their own frantic little bubbles with life passing them by. I wondered how many of them had done something epic that morning and, truth be told, I’ll never know. In all honesty, even those who had ticked a box that morning would probably have looked at me as no more than ‘that bloke at the bar in the funny sunglasses – like the ones Chris Froome wears’. But, as I have said before, I don't think that rides like this – days like this – are about getting a T Shirt or a medal; they aren’t about showing the world what you’ve done – they are simply about the fulfilment that comes from having simply done it.
At Last…..My Conscience is Clear!
I logged in to Garmin Connect this morning and the ‘CENTURY TO SUFFOLK’ ride is still there. But now, it doesn’t prick my conscience; it stirs my pride. These days, I can look anyone in the eye and say with all conviction, “That’s a great route – we really should ride it”, rather than sheepishly responding, “I keep meaning to do that one…” Having racked up two century rides in as many weekends and having now ticked off the ‘big one’, I’ve had enough epicness (did I just invent that word) for a little while. But, you know what, I do believe that I’ve developed a taste for it. Why is it that suddenly Wet Wipes proposal for the SMCC to ride Lands End to John o’ Groats on a Tridem suddenly seems appealing! Watch this space for more on that one!!!
If there is a ride that you’ve been promising yourself that you’ll complete then get it done. Life is for living and, as my dad would say, “you only get one lap of the track”. Get out there – do something epic and do it for no one else but yourself.