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A year on the bike: Tom Owen’s most memorable rides of 2017

Tom recounts his favourite rides of 2017, from the dirt roads of West Africa, to riding London-Brighton-London... in January

With the end of the year fast approaching, RCUK’s team of writers will be looking back on three of their favourite rides of 2017, starting with Tom Owen.

From the hard-packed orange dirt roads of West Africa, to the rain-slicked dual carriageways around Horsham, with a brief stop for some Black Forest gateau along the way, Tom relives his most memorable rides of the year.

Rides of the year

  1. Tom Owen
  2. Ashley Quinlan
  3. George Scott

West Africa Cycle Challenge

I’d never stepped foot on the continent of Africa before this year. To fly into Freetown, Sierra Leone, then ride what was essentially a hybrid ‘shopping bike’ from Bo, in the south-east of the country all the way to the coast of Liberia, was a pretty special first visit.

The West Africa Cycle Challenge saw Tom ride from Bo, in Sierra Leone, to the coast of Liberia (Pic: Anna Jackson)

The route is about 300km, covered in four days. If that doesn’t sound that much, you have to remember this is all done on roads that are barely deserving of the term, and bikes that have a front suspension fork if you’re lucky. It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

It’s hard to convey in words the raw chaos, the hyper-vibrant colours and the unfathomable friendliness I encountered when riding the West Africa Cycle Challenge – fortunately, the fantastic photographer Anna Jackson was there to capture some images of the experience.

If we traveled slowly, that only made the experience more enjoyable. It gave me more time to look around and drink in the scenery; the vivid greens of the jungle and the instantly recognisable orange of African mud.

To cross the land border between Sierra Leone and Liberia was truly eye-opening – if the preceding parts of Africa had seemed chaotic, this was like somebody had turned the mayhem up to 11. Gigantic construction machinery stood dormant in an area as wide as a football pitch queuing to cross into Liberia, while all around these massive vehicles a seemingly endless river of people flowed past on either side.

When we got into Liberia there was a bit more tarmac, and while that offered some respite from the endless bumps and vibrations of the dirt roads that came before, it somehow also felt like we had less of a connection to the country. It was a strange relief to get back on packed dirt roads for the final run into Robertsport, the official finish of the route.

While the route only covered 300km in four days, ‘road’ conditions made progress slow (Pic: Anna Jackson)

I must mention George, an inspirational, 87-year-old cornishman, veteran of many LEJOG rides in his time, who set off from Bo with us and rode almost the entire route of the challenge. If I still have half his energy when I hit my eighties, I will be very, very happy indeed.

Oh and I got Malaria because I stopped taking my anti-malarial drugs when I came home. Always take the full course of drugs, kids.

The West Africa Cycle Challenge raises money for Street Child and will return in 2018 (Pic: Anna Jackson)

World Press Cycling Championships

How often do you get to ride in a World Championships? Not very often. Especially if, like me, you came to bike racing at the ripe old age of 28 and show absolutely zero aptitude for it. So when I learned that there is a worlds just for journalists, and that it is free to enter, I jumped at the chance.

Tom became the 21st-fastest journalist in the world back in October (Pic: Sportograf)

Unsurprisingly, the World Championship of tubby journalists chasing each other is not a big enough deal to have its own road closures, so is tacked onto a much bigger event – a three-day amateur gran fondo in the Black Forest of Germany. This collaboration meant we got to race on closed roads on a 80km route with feed zones, neutral support vehicles and a proper finishing arch at the end. As far as nurturing a sense of self-importance goes, I can’t think of a bike riding experience I’ve had that was more effective.

Tom’s ride wasn’t without incident, with an ill-timed puncture forcing a change of wheels (Pic: Sportograf)

While the race didn’t go to plan for me personally (as you can read here), to participate in such an epic event was incredibly good fun and I’d recommend having a target like that to anyone looking for something ‘special’ around which to base their season’s training. I haven’t explored the gran fondo scene nearly as much as I’d like, so am hoping to do a couple more similar events next season. And maybe even take another tilt at the journo worlds.

London-Brighton-London… in January

I really don’t even know how I ended up doing this ride. What started as a half-joke at the very start of the year rapidly got out of hand. By the final week of January, we were doing it.

The route had been proposed on my club WhatsApp group. “Anyone fancy this?” Inexplicably, people said ‘yes’. Oh dear, that meant we had to do it. London to Brighton and back in a day. In January. And ticking off a couple of the 100 Greatest Climbs along the way, just to make it more ‘fun’. In the end there were only two of us; me and my friend Olly, who is famous for smashing every single second of every ride he goes on. He has no ‘social’ setting.

To my surprise, the way down was actually alright. We knocked off the first 90km in about three hours, with just a single puncture impeding our progress. My tired old winter bike was beginning to show serious signs of wear, however, or rather, being absolutely worn out. I couldn’t shift back into the big ring after a climb, so summiting every hill lead to about two minutes of frantic leg-spinning as I waited for the chain to make it’s very, very slow way back onto the big ring. I had to deliberately ride over potholes and ruts to give the derailleur the little ‘nudge’ upward that it needed to jump the chain up.

Not only was Olly dropping me on the climbs, I couldn’t even pedal to keep up when we hit the descents.

London-Brighton-London is a long slog at any time of year, let alone in January, but sometimes the grimmest rides are the most memorable

We ate fish and chips on Brighton promenade. It was absolutely bloody freezing. The sight of Olly shivering in just a base layer and jersey warmed me up a bit, but I was extremely glad to get back on the bike. We rode up to the top of Steyning Bostal, then headed for home. It began to rain. All the strength went out of my legs. I was just chewing the bars, trying desperately to hold Olly’s wheel. We’d planned a route with Strava by clicking on Putney in south-west London, then Brighton, then Steyning, then Putney again – with no attention paid to the types of road we’d be on. This meant there wasn’t even any scenery to enjoy. Pure miserable.

We arrived after seven and three-quarter hours in the saddle, cold and wet through. I don’t think I rode for a fortnight after that. I had to replace the entire groupset on my bike – it was so caked in scum and dirt and grease that it wasn’t worth saving.

Why include such a miserable ride in this list? Well, sometimes cycling’s really really horrible, isn’t it?

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