Rapha Festive 500 – 2016

Yesterday I completed this year’s Festive 500 – an annual challenge set to the cycling community by the cycle clothing company Rapha. The challenge is for individuals to complete 500km (310 miles) of cycling over the eight days between Christmas Eve and the end of the year.

I wanted to complete the ride in one go, setting out at midnight on Christmas Eve and riding the 500km, but I had to bow out of this as things got a little hairy. I ended up cycling 445km over 37 hours on my light-touring bike, arriving home at lunchtime on Christmas Day. I then topped up the 55km yesterday on a regular ride on my Brompton.

The plan

The idea for my long ride was borne from an audax event I participated in last year. Audaxes are group cycling events where the aim is to cycle a reasonably long distance within a set time, but you don’t race anyone – the spirit or essence of the event is about endurance, and the word ‘audax’ is itself Latin for ‘bold’. The event I participated in last year was 300km or riding around the Kent countryside including some coastline, and I also cycled to and from the start, bringing the total distance to 415km – my longest single ride up until this week. Since participating in that, I wanted to repeat it, but ride along the coast as much as possible. My plan was to cycle from North London down to Brighton, then head East and follow the coast all the way around to the Thames Estuary, and come back into London along the Thames.

The preparation

I cycle fairly frequently, so I felt comfortable with my ability to cycle a long distance, and put in no special training ahead of this, however I was acutely aware this was a bit of a risky ride so needed to make sure the bike and equipment was as good as it could be to put more odds in my favour of finishing the ride and making it home!

I almost always use my Brompton folding bike for rides, but knew that I would be unlikely to be able to cycle that distance on a Brompton before I would need to sleep. The Brompton is super comfortable and really enjoyable to ride, but it’s simply less efficient than my Condor Fratello steel-framed light touring bike. So the Condor Fratello was chosen as my weapon of choice.

When I got home from the 415km last year my bottom was really suffering from being in the saddle for so long, I could hardly bear to sit down! I couldn’t face that again, so I made three changes:

1. I took the Brooks leather saddle that came with my Brompton and put it on the Condor. I’ve done about 25,000km on this saddle and it’s taken me in comfort on many a long ride.

2. I bought some bib shorts (you know, lycra dungarees..) – these are designed to provide comfort for cycling and have padding built-in to cushion the ride.

3. I bought chamois cream. This is a cream you smear on to the parts that rub prior to the ride and it prevents the rubbing causing any issues

When I did the long ride last year I just wore my Converse trainers, but this year I would need to improve efficiency so wanted to use a clipless system (where the shoes lock into the pedals). I’ve used SPD shoes before but found I got hot-spots in the balls of my feet after 50 miles. I went to my local bike shop and got the advice of the staff there, and walked away with a pair of carbon-soled shoes and Look cleats.

As I hadn’t ridden the Condor for months, and to test the shoes and the bib shorts before the main event, I used them on a 50 mile test ride around London. The shoes and bib shorts presented no issues, but I found my hands were hurting during the ride, so I bought a new handlebar stem to lift the position of the bars up and added another layer of bar-tape.

I fixed an Arkel Tailrider trunk bag to my bike – more aerodynamic and convenient to use than the pannier bags I’ve used previously.

Kit list

Ideally I’d travel as light as possible, but at the same time I needed to be as well-prepared as I could be considering it was:

a) Christmas – shops and transport close down – meaning I might not be able to buy food or have an easy get-home option if something goes wrong with the bike or me. I aimed to carry all the food I would need to sustain me for 36 hours of riding, and tools to get be out of a lot of possible situations

b) Winter – I needed to ensure I’d be warm enough, Storm Barbara was happening so the forecast was cold and windy

+ Giant Phase Carbon road shoes
+ Shoe covers to keep the wind off
+ Thin wool socks – wool stays warm even when wet
+ Long bib shorts
+ Short sleeve base layer T-shirt
+ Merino T-shirt
+ North Face quick-dry long-sleeve top
+ Gore-Tex ActiveShell cycling jacket
+ Merino wool buff
+ Merino wool hat
+ Helmet
+ Long-fingered windproof gloves
+ Mittens

+ Hub dynamo + front (SON) and rear (TopLine plus) lights – dynamo light brilliant and provides all the light needed for riding country roads at night
+ 2x Lezyne small USB lights as back-up
+ Head torch
+ 2x large battery packs
+ 2x Garmin 810 (these things have a habit of breaking on me) + charging cable
+ iPhone + charging cable

+ Spare folding tyre – used this
+ Two inner tubes – used this
+ Patch repair kit – used this
+ Spare chain link
+ Chain link tool
+ 3 tyre levers – used this
+ Pair pliers – used this
+ Penknife – used this
+ Allen key set – used this
+ Adjustable spanner
+ Spare brake cable
+ Spare gear cable
+ Electrical insulation tape – used this
+ 2 gas canisters and head for tyre inflation – used this
+ Oil
+Spoke key
+ 4 pairs latex gloves – used this
+ 3 spare spokes of the three different lengths for the two wheels
+ 3x straps
+ Zip-ties

+ Multi-purpose first-aid kit containing plasters, bandages
+ Micropore tape
+ Emergency foil blanket

+ 2x large (1 litre) water bottles
+ 2x margarita pizzas, wrapped in clingfilm into batches of 2 or 3 slices
+ 2x cheese, quorn ham and radish sandwiches
+ 2x Colin the veggie caterpillars
+ Numerous energy bars
+ Protein ball

The ride

London to Brighton

Leaving home at twenty minutes past midnight on Christmas Eve, the London streets were quiet and I arrived in Central London in good time. The skies were clear, the night was cold, and the bike felt good.

When I reached Waterloo Bridge I decided to get off the bike to take a quick picture. As I got off the bike I managed to swing my knee into the Garmin, knocking it from its mount and breaking a chunk of plastic from the mount. It was still usable but not held securely as previously.

I headed South and once I’d made it through the emptying bars and clubs of Clapham and Tooting, the roads became empty, and soon after Carshalton I was cycling on country lanes. The route was one a friend had recommended and it was great. This was the first time I’d ridden London to Brighton, and in retrospect, this was my favourite part of the trip as I was able to just get on with cycling at a steady pace on the fast and silky moonlit rolling roads.

I managed to knock off the Garmin from the handlebar when I got off the bike again to take another break. This time it switched itself off and once I’d got going again it took me a short time to realise the roads were missing from the display, although the GPS track I was following was displaying ok. I stopped further on when I reached a village with street lighting to take a look, only to discover the micro SD card containing the maps had fallen out. This was bad news as it meant I would need to switch to my phone for navigation. Not in itself a bad thing, but I was conscious of the fact that the phone is a lot more power-hungry than the Garmin. It also meant I was now relying solely on my phone for navigation – if anything happened to the phone I’d be in trouble. Anyhow, not much I could do about it, so I continued on.

Ditchling Beacon was a bit of a shock, I’d heard it was a big hill, but it is only when you’re cycling up that those words crystallise into meaning. When I reached the top I just pushed on as there wasn’t much of a view to see at night, then cycled down into Brighton. The cycle lanes coming into Brighton centre from Ditchling Beacon are great. I reached the pier at around 6am.

Brighton to Dungeness

Sadly the road East out of Brighton isn’t great for cycling. You have the choice of a road with fast heavy traffic, or using the pavement, which means you have to cycle more slowly to accommodate the bumps and detours around bus stops etc. After the best part of an hour dealing with these roads I headed for a petrol station to fuel up with a hot coffee before reaching Newhaven.

The sun was now rising and East of Newhaven there is a really pleasant pedestrian and cycle route through the Ouse Valley well away from the traffic. A little further East and my route took me onto the Esplanade at Seaford, where I got my first puncture. I’d pumped up my tyres to 110psi before leaving the house, but I think the weight of me and my rack bag bouncing along the poor road surface had caused a lot of air to come out of the tyres so they were riding a little soft and a bump caused the puncture. Being a windy day and on the seafront with the sound of the crashing waves it was actually really difficult to locate the hole as the hissing sound was lost to the ambient noise.

Back on the road again and across beautiful rolling countryside up to Beachy Head, before heading down to Eastbourne. Just after Bexhill I began to question my routing as a lot of the coastal paths weren’t that great to cycle on. Cycling on roads would have been much more efficient. It was here that I had puncture number two.  I leant my bike up against a wire fence and unzipped the saddle bag where the tools were. As I unzipped the tool bad the patch repair kit fell out, and through the wire fence into some deep grass. I couldn’t get round to the other side of the fence so I hunted down a stick and then spent some time edging the patch repair kit close to the fence so I could put my fingers through and pick it up. I got there in the end. I took the wheel of the bike. Again it was difficult to locate the hole due to the noise of the sea and the wind (it was a 16mph wind and I was right at the seafront). I couldn’t find anything in the tyre, but the tyre did have a lot of small pieces of glass embedded in it – a lot of them too small to be removed by the tweezers I had with me. I patched the tube and put the tyre back on. When I inflated the tyre I could see bits of air bubbling through small holes in the tyre, and the tyre was deflating. This time I located the source of the air coming out through what seemed like the valve. I found the problem to be that when after inflating the tube, unscrewing the pump hose actually loosened the valve core. I tightened it up with pliers but the same thing happened again. Just wanting to now fix the problem and get back on the road I changed to my spare folding tyre and a new tube.

I was now worried as I wasn’t happy with my spare tyre and only had 1 spare tube which was a bit iffy as it had a patch covering quite a large hole. I considered my options. I was only 150km into my ride and didn’t want to risk cycling the rest of the distance with no spares. I could probably catch a train back to London now, but if I left it much later I would probably find the Christmas break would mean there would be no trains to get home. Then if I got stuck somewhere my options would be to wait out until boxing day, pay hundreds for a cab, or annoy someone in London to drive out to rescue me. I didn’t like any of these options. It was almost mid-day on Christmas Eve at this point, and then I realised if I could find a bike shop that was open I’d be able to buy new tubes. I checked Google maps for bike shops and there was one just 10 minutes cycle away. I made a bee-line for it, and as I approached it I was really happy as I could see it was open as it had bikes on display outside. I entered the shop and there were two staff at that back, working on bikes. I explained my situation and bought three new tubes, a press-fit pump, and a new tyre. They didn’t have any folding tyres, so I bought a new non-folding tyre and they kindly switched it with the folding tyre I had fitted to the rear wheel so I could keep my folding tyre (which was only a 23mm racing tyre) as a spare. And what’s more they gave me a mince pie. I was now much happier as I could continue my planned ride and not have the worry about punctures. If you are in Hastings and need bike stuff, I highly recommend High Tide Cycles 🙂

The ride on to Dungeness had a few hills, but was mainly on-road, with just a few bits off off-road. Looking back on it, a lesson learned is that if the Google Streetview car can’t go there, don’t include it as part of your route! I reached Dungeness (214km) at around 14:15 on Christmas Eve.

Dungeness to Margate

Cycling from Dungeness to Folkestone was mainly without issue. There were a few areas of off-roading and also there were strong wind gusts which meant paying attention to the road with both hands on the handlebar at all times.

It was dark when I arrived at Folkestone and I remember from having done it previously that there were two big hills coming up. The first hill was basically getting from sea-level to the top of the white cliffs, then shortly after there would be another climb up past Dover castle. I thought I had copied the route from my last visit, but it soon transpired that I was cycling up a hill I had not been up before. Things got bad when I’d been cycling up a steep hill, then the route told me to take the steps up a stone bridge and follow the road up from there. I carried the bike up the steps, then started across the bridge. The bridge was so steep I was unable to walk up it. I got about halfway across only to see that on the other side it carried on being just as steep but the surface turned to grass. In my cleats my feet were slipping it was so steep (it must have been 35-40 degree slope) and I had to turn around and head back. This in itself was hard work. I eventually made it off the bridge, down the hill and then after a while found the correct hill to cycle up. Exhausting.

At this point the roads had very fast traffic and it seemed the drivers were keen to get home quickly as it was Christmas Eve. It felt dangerous. I was wearing full hi-viz and reflective gear with bright lights, but rode on pavements wherever they were available.

Over the second big hill, and after a while the route went off-road. Very off-road. The bike was sliding around in the mud and at one point I had to get off the bike to push it through the mud. My shoes, like the bike sank about two inches into the mud, and looking all around there were no non-muddy areas to cycle on. Anyhow, I kept going and eventually concrete paths reappeared (yes!) and I was able to continue.

At another point the route told me to go one way, only to find out the cycle path petered out and I had to double-back and re-route along the road.

All of this meant slow progress and it was pretty tiring.

It was really nice to reach Ramsgate, where there were people out enjoying themselves in restaurants and pubs, and lots of boats had Christmas lights on display. The whole marina looked fantastic. My joy was short-lived, when I received another puncture in the rear tyre. I wheeled the bike to a bus-stop to get a bit of shelter from the wind and fixed it.

A lot of the cycle around the coast from this point was quite exposed to the wind, and when on the path right by the sea, there were sections miles-long which were constructed from concrete slabs. The slabs were around 3m long, so the wheels were continually bumping from one slab to the next. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum,.. for miles!  I reached Margate (304km) at around 9pm.

Margate to Rochester

By the time I’d reached Margate, the wind had got up to 19mph. I would now be heading West directly into the wind for the next 130km, and the forecast was for the wind to remain at 19mph. It was also pretty cold. I would cycle along the coast for a bit and take shelter from time to time where I could in concrete beach huts. It was hard going and I used my buff as a balaclava, but still felt very exposed to the wind. I followed my route as I didn’t want to ad-lib, but it would have been so much better to have planned the route along the main roads, rather than the beach paths.

13km west of Margate the path just ended at a construction site. I didn’t have reception on my phone, but luckily the app I had been using for navigation had cached enough of the local roads for me to be able to figure out I could back on myself about 4km and would then be able to try an A road back to the west. A roads can vary greatly. Some are great to cycle on, and some may as well be motorways and are completely unsuitable for a bike, which makes it tricky to improvise if you don’t know the roads. Luckily the road I’d picked was ok.

At Grays I turned off to get back onto my planned route, and got back to the coastal path. After Whitstable, the route took me down some very dark and narrow back alleys for a mile. Again, reviewing the route now I see the Google Streetview didn’t make it there, I should have avoided it too.

It rained for a bit. As I was using my phone for navigation it was a bit tricky as I daren’t leave the phone out in the rain as if the water damaged it I would be truly stuck, so I had to cycle a bit, then get the phone from my pocket, cycle a bit more and so on. Fortunately the rain lasted no more than an hour.

Heading towards Faversham, the roads went through countryside. I noticed a rubbing noise getting worse and worse, which turned out to be mud from early drying up and getting caked between the tyre and mudguard. In fact it got so bad that at one point the wheels on the bike would not turn. The mud was dry and compressed. I couldn’t remove it with any sticks I found which would snap. In the end I used the sharp end of a tyre lever to hack away the mud to an acceptable level and adapted the rear mudguard to sit further away from the tyre by using black electrical tape to extend the mudguard stays. I would have removed and ditched the mudguards, but to do this I would have had to undo the brake assembly which I didn’t fancy doing. It took about 45 minutes to complete the work, and for this the head-torch was invaluable to free up both hands to do the work.

At one point around here an owl flew about 5m ahead of me along a country lane for about 100m. It was magical.

It was now 1:30am on Christmas Day. I was somewhere in the middle of nowhere and the route took me off the road onto a dirt cycle track. Probably good fun on a bike with big tyres, but not on my 25mm tyres. Things got a bit worse as the surface changed to a kind of metal chain link where the bike would continuously slip from side to side. Luckily I managed to stay upright and the route then took me past a sewage works.

It is fair to say at this point I just wanted to get home. My original plan had been to pop in to the Isle of Sheppey and Isle of Grain, but I just didn’t know what other surprises my route had in store for me. So instead when I reached Faversham, I checked Google maps, and saw there is what looks like a roman road all the way to Rochester. I navigated to that, and it was fantastic to be on tarmac again. And even better knowing I was heading the quickest possible way home.

From Rochester to London I followed my original route. I was very tired when I reached Gravesend and Dartford, but kept pushing on, and around dawn I found a petrol station open and got a coffee. With the sun now up I felt somewhat rejuvenated, and when I reached the Thames I took it very easy cycling along enjoying the views and factories (but not so much the smell from Crossness sewage works). I had the last of my pizza slices at a scenic spot, then pushed on very slowly home to North London. Cycling through London on Christmas morning is pretty pleasant since there is so little traffic. However, Swains Lane was hard work. When I reached home at around 11:20am on Christmas Day I very carefully stopped Strava and had the pint of milk I’d purchased as my recovery drink. I ran a hot bath, then had a mince pie and a beer before heading to bed. I’d been out for 35 hours, and cycling for over 27 of those. I got up in the evening for a few hours before returning to bed for a normal nights sleep, and was up at a regular time on Boxing Day to prepare a nut roast to take with me to my family lunch.

Overall it was a very tough ride. If there had been an easy out at any point from half-way through I would have taken it, but the fact was that my easiest way out was to keep cycling, and deal with all the obstacles. It was really interesting to see Christmas played out in the lives of people on the way. From joggers out on Christmas Eve, to seeing people in Argos at 4pm, people out for meals in nice restaurants, karaoke singers, country pubs with late night drinking, people attending midnight mass, then the still of the night before Christmas Day.

Strava link of ride: https://www.strava.com/activities/810919993

Aches and pains etc

I was actually pretty comfortable on the ride, just a bit cold.

I’m pleased the bib shorts padding / chamois cream / saddle worked well – I suffered no problems in this department.

Three days later I still have pins and needles at the tips of my fingers. I’ve had this before and I think if I perform nerve flossing exercises I hope to be ok in a few days. I need to add extra padding to my gloves.

Muscles – I could feel my thigh muscles a bit after the ride, e.g. When bending to sit down, but not bad at all.

My lips got pretty badly burned from cycling in the cold wind. A layer of skin cracked and has come off, but I’ve been treating them with vaseline and they are pretty much back to normal now.

On Boxing Day I woke up with a bit of a sore throat and cough, which has turned into a regular cold. Hot lemon tea to the rescue.

Top-up ride

The day after Boxing Day I was available to go for another bike ride. There was a group ride happening but with my cold and slight tiredness I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep up, so instead opted to take a gentle ride along the Lea Valley. I took my Brompton, and it is almost like it uses a completely different muscle group as I felt good riding it and nothing was sore or tired. On my return I took a more hilly interesting route, finishing the Festive 500 with a ride up Swains Lane.

Strava link of ride: https://www.strava.com/activities/812746126

What next?

I currently have no plans. I have a few days to think of some resolutions. My 2016 resolution was actually to cut back a bit on cycling so I spent more time on other things such as my piano project and finding a new job. Not sure what 2017 holds yet, although the Transcontinental Race 2018 looks appealing…

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