On Sunday the 3rd I completed a 100km Solo Charity Bike Ride, as kindly advertised earlier by RCUK. For those of you not aware of my circumstances, I was knocked off my bike in June 05 and suffered major trauma to various areas of my body. The Charity Ride was simply my way of raising funds and saying thank-you to the Devon Air Ambulance – who airlifted me to hospital and literally saved my life.
Planning for the event began back in October 05
After a few months of vegetating on the settee, I had enough flexibility in my knees to begin training. I would train a few nights a week on the turbo trainer in the garage, watching old tour highlights for inspiration and admiring my pearly-white socks. The great sock debate of 05 (and eventually 06) proved an incredibly powerful weapon in keeping me sane during those lengthening winter evenings on the turbo. I have no doubt in saying that the sock debate entirely stopped my brain from dribbling out my ear at times.
In December I hit the gym. Leg weights, some exercise biking, a bit of rowing and some squash built my fitness back up gradually. The rowing helped rebuild my back and upper body muscles, and the squash and cycling kept me in form from a cardio-vascular perspective. I really enjoyed nights at the gym – it was an entirely new location for me to be in, surrounded by men whose necks appeared to be larger than my chest. I adopted a cunning strategy to disarm them, attempting to convince them the large raised scars on my knees were from wrestling great whites off the Great Barrier Reef. Although this ploy was largely ineffective, it allowed me to replace my (quite a bit larger) fellow gym-goers protein shakes with goat’s milk while they were laughing. (“Try getting bigger without creatine, monkey boy”!)
I kept up the gym-going with small cardio-vascular workouts up until March, when I returned whole-heartedly to the road. I increased my training to 4 days a week, occasionally cycling to college. Though, I had to stop this crafty bit of time-scheduling, as the History lecturer began to notice me dribbling tiredly onto my notes and confusing General Franco with Miguel Indurain. (“What!? They’re both Spanish”!)
This brought me neatly up to June, the anniversary of the crash, and the summer holidays. With no schoolwork to worry about, I could concentrate solely on training. I bought a Polar S725x HRM (recommended on RCUK) and the Lance Armstrong Performance Program (also recommended in the RCUK forum).
For five weeks I did nothing but get up, eat, cycle, eat, sleep, get up, relax, sleep each day. Don’t worry, it works. I put 4.7kg of muscle on in the first 14 days of the intermediate program, that’s more muscle than what 3 months of gym-work did. I continued with the program seeing massive improvements in my times. At my peak, I did 9 miles, 235m ascent in zone 2 (65-70% of MHR) in 30 minutes dead (18mph). I had effectively set fire to the seat of armchair cycling and had re-emerged a lean, mean, climbing machine. Ok, most of you could manage that in your sleep, but let a young man have his day-dreaming! Then, disaster struck. In a comradely wrestle with my younger brother, (he’s a rugby player, I’m a skinny cyclist- who do you think won?) I hit my knee. I had an effusion (liquid seepage/bleeding around the kneecap) which reacted badly with the mass of scar tissue already there and it swelled up badly, remaining that way for three weeks. 3 weeks of absolutely no cycling or fitness-work of any kind.
I was under strict orders to Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate the knee. Even if I had taken a risk and ignored doctor’s advice, I couldn’t cycle as my knee was too swollen to make a full pedal revolution. During this frustrating time, I wrote e-mails to various people telling them about the sponsored ride. The Devon Air Ambulance (www.daat.org) sent me some sponsor forms, which I distributed among local newsagents and the Bike Sheds at Exeter and Crediton. I contacted local newspapers the ‘Express & Echo’ and ‘Crediton County Courier’ who very kindly ran articles to raise publicity. I returned from a short holiday seeing my Uncle in Germany to find a message on the answering machine from the Sunday People. They were running an article on the Devon Air Ambulance and wanted to speak to me. I was initially slightly dubious of the morality of papers (hey, look at L’Equipe!) but I jumped at the chance when I realised it would raise the Air Ambulance’s profile in general. Eamonn Holmes (A SP columnist) also promised to donate £5000 from his Man of the People charity fund. Now I may well be an uncharacteristically un-spotty teenager who characteristically struggles to wake up before midday, but even to me it seemed to be a pretty good deal. The article ‘should’ appear on Sunday 10th September, if you’re interested.
By now there was a frenzy of interest in the event- emails and phone calls coming in left, right and centre. This was not my initial intention. I just wanted to complete the 100k as a personal challenge. It was a statement of, “hey, I’m still here. Look, I can even cycle 63 miles”. And I aimed banish any nagging personal doubts I had, as to whether I was simply an armchair cyclist with delusions of ‘grimpeur’. At this point, I contacted RCUK, vowing this would be my final act of raising awareness for the charity before concentrating on the ride. A short correspondence with Rebecca ensued, resulting in an article on the home page. I turned focus to the ride however, it was 3 days away and my knee was not in a good position to ride.
The day before the ride, the swelling had reduced a lot- but it was still not enough. Frantic stretching exercises, hot baths, ice-packs and massages could not help. I rode the turbo trainer that day- with my seat-post jacked up as high as was possible without castration- and managed 2 pedal revolutions. The flexibility was not there. I was, to say the least, a little unhappy with events. I had 3 weeks of no training under my belt, and couldn’t even pedal for 2 minutes. The furthest I had cycled non-stop was 39 miles. I decided against informing sponsors and the media. I was going to finish the ride if it meant staying out of the saddle the whole way.
The big day arrives – 100k day
Sunday the 3rd defied the ‘clear, dry, sunny’ weather forecast by staging its own production of ‘The Tempest’. It was blustery, damp, raining and dark. I had decided, lying in bed listening to the rain on my window, was going to fool me into believing it was sunny. Needless to say, this mental façade lasted for all of 8 minutes.
I ate breakfast; two large bowls of cereal, two sausages and some carbo-loader drink. My knee was still swollen, but down a little from the day before. A quick test on the turbo-trainer proved what I had accepted some days before- the knee wouldn’t pedal smoothly. BUT, it could pedal and that was enough for me. Yes, it did hurt a little as I reached the dead-spot in my pedal stroke, and yes it was stiff, ungainly,… like someone else’s leg stitched in place of my own. I thought of Tyler Hamilton; finishing 4th in the tour, having ridden since Stage 3 with a broken collar-bone. I gritted my teeth and rode out the garage door.
The first hour and a half of the ride passed quickly. I rode, my heart-rate hovering at the top end of zone 2, through the rain. I had plenty of time to think. I made a promise to myself at the crash; I wouldn’t sit on my backside anymore. It was as I crested the small climb on the way back from Winkleigh that I realised- in a shocking swoop of delicious irony – I was still sitting on my backside, albeit in slightly worse circumstances.
My knee seemed to have stabilised a little; the blood-flow and gentle repetitive movement of pedalling lulling it into a relaxed state of submission. I ate a Go Bar every hour, and took sips of High5 4:1 whenever it seemed safe to do so. I didn’t want to crash.
I arrived in Bishop’s Tawton, on the outskirts of Barnstaple in 2 and a half hours. A light film of sweat covered my face- I had unavoidably ascended into zone 3 for the climb up from the bridge. I had done 37 miles by this point, and was feeling okay. I stopped, getting off my bike and catching a quick few minutes stretching. It also allowed me to refuel a lot easier.
I should take this point to describe the surroundings, extolling the virtues of Devon’s lush countryside – the rolling farmland and chestnut ponies prancing contentedly in their hillocky paddocks. The truth is, I didn’t notice any of it. On most rides, I enjoy the scenery; the small birds fluttering out of the hedges and dive-bombing your sparkling front wheel; the opportunity of drafting behind tractors. This ride was a whole lot more serious. I have never felt more concentrated, determined, and holistically ‘working’ ever before. I thought of only the road, winding its way through the trees- it’s lazy meandering the polar opposite of my driven, strained effort. I was jerked out of my reverie by a cyclist coming towards me on the other side of the road – he waved, grinning broadly. There was a conspiratorial air about our fleeting meeting – an unspoken acknowledgement, a fellowship, an understanding. I decided to pick up the pace. I learnt during training that if you put enough time into the road, eventually the road would give you something back. I was calling in a favour.
I rode the next 16.5 miles, or so I would like to imagine, in a fifty-minute blaze of cycling fury. I swooped round bends and sprinted over small inclines, my pedalling smooth and fluid.
After that, it all went a bit downhill. To tell the truth, I went too hard over the 16.5 miles. I hadn’t trained for that type of hard-effort event; I still had 9 miles to go and only one gel left. I had ‘hit-the-wall’ twice during my cycling training, and it was not something I relished experiencing. I slowed the pace down and finished off my remaining gel and drink. I looked down at the sweat-spattered face of my HRM and almost choked. I had completed 53.5 miles in 3 hours 21. My original plan was to go at zone 2 for the whole ride and hope to complete in sub-5 hours. My hard effort had dramatically changed this, and I felt a new plan forming. With 9 miles to go, I had a chance to break sub-4. The jersey zip came down, I stretched my back, licked my lips- and dug in for what was to be the most painful part of the ride. I knew I would complete the ride; it was now a personal goal to get a 3:?? time.
There was no doubt that I was slowing. I was weakening, sapped by my earlier- somewhat foolhardy- efforts. Cycling is a balance between the muscle to push the pedals, and the weight it takes to do so. Lightness is my strength, that is why I like hills. Not because I can go up faster than other people all the time, but I have an advantage. Sometimes just a small advantage; that little bit of confidence can turn the tables; make you dig deeper, fight harder, suffer more than the next guy. We all have talents. Some of you can push monster gears, the tendons in your legs bulging powerfully, like Greek gods. You might be daring and brave enough to have a killer sprint, the primal-fury bursting from within you when everyone is beyond fatigue. The final 9 miles, from Chulmleigh Junction to the Devonshire Dumpling pub, was uphill. I knew where my talents laid.
I crossed the finish line – 3:51.21!
The irony of the story – the wonderful dark slant that made the whole event more interesting and memorable was that 3 metres after the finish line I crashed. Devon cyclists will know the Devonshire Dumpling pub (on the A377 between Lapford and Copplestone) has an awful road surface outside it. I know it as well, it’s just a shame I forgot to recall it at the right moment. Before I knew what had happened, my wheel span in one of the many 1-inch deep cracks on the road. I gained some unexpected, and entirely unwanted, air miles – picking up the odd bruise and scrape in the process. I lay on the floor, grinning from ear-to-ear, choc-a-bloc full of endorphins, trying not to laugh.
“Boy crashes. Stages ride to thank those who saved him after crash. Completes ride. Boy crashes.” I wouldn’t want it any other way.
A big thank you!
My original fund-raising target was in the region of £500, this high target has been far surpassed. I have taken – either in pledges or in cash, over £780, not including the £5000 from the Sunday People or the money which will be coming in from RCUK.
I would like to thank, first and foremost everyone who has supported this endeavour, whether through sponsorship, advice, guidance or simply passing on the word. It is a sad fact that there are so many of you the list, if written it would carry on for several pages. You may believe that you were only contributing, adding to an event. The often-neglected truth is that without all of you, without your kind words, your compassion and most of all your interest, this event would not even be possible. You ARE the event.
I would also like to thank the Bike Sheds at Exeter and Crediton for putting sponsorship forms up and taking donations, and the Post Office and people of Morchard Bishop (my adopted hometown) who have never ceased to amaze me in how friendly, supportive and wholly caring they are. It really feels like home.
Kerra Maddern, the Express and Echo reporter who helped spread the word.
Louisa at the Sunday People. (for convincing Eamonn to part with his cash!)
My family – Dad who accompanied and inspired me on training rides. Mum who accepts my many cycling related shenanigans, and is the world’s best soigneur. My younger brother, Joe, for frequently driving me out of the house and onto my bike.