How to do big bike rides

Staring out of the train window on an early-morning journey to Glasgow, trying to ignore the various weirdos and club-goers in various states of undress on their way back home from a big night in Manchester, I was reminded of epic rides of the past few years. I was myself slightly lacking in sleep after the previous evening’s awards ceremony (I won one!), but I was thinking about the next couple of days and the part I was going to play. I was fully-clothed. The sun was shining. I was ready.

As the railway winds its way north, it’s flanked on either side by Cumbrian Fells on the left and the Dales on the right. I thought about the times me and Dave had tackled a monster of a route that included most of the hills that I could see. Both times we’ve attempted it, we’ve covered vast distances and climbed dozens of hills while we followed a line on a map that craftily links together several ‘classic’ Lakeland and Dales rides into a single and rather daunting figure of eight, bisected by the M6 and the train track I’m currently travelling on.

We’ve recounted the adventures and amazed (and bored to death, probably) anyone that has been slightly willing to listen. The ‘daft rides’ have had more than their fair share of incident – torn tyres, four-hour unplanned detours and desperate descents of Cross Fell to reach the car before we were plunged into total darkness have all been unwelcome additions to already tough days out, but we’ve dealt with them, carried on and laughed about them days and weeks later in the pub. If you’re prepared to push the widely-accepted limits of ‘going out for a bike ride’ then you’d better be ready for the expected outcome and lots of other stuff to change while you’re out. It’ll still be ace, it certainly won’t be a waste of time, it’ll just be that the way things happen and the eventual outcomes might be different from how you imagined.

Alternatively you could get lucky and that luck, in addition to your planning, fitness and skill, will make everything you’d planned to do just happen like clockwork.

Phil’s been planning, improving his fitness and honing his skills for months for his own epic ride. In a lot of respects, it’s more ‘out there’ in terms of a challenge than many others you could think of. The West Highland Way is a long-distance trail that links Scotland’s largest city to the foot of its largest mountain. Phil’s aim was to ride from Glasgow, the start of ‘The Way’ along  its 96 mile length to Fort William. He would then turn around and ride back again. The West Highland Way Double has been attempted a few times, completed successfully by a couple of riders (the current record being 38 hours) but beaten many. This is a challenge of 192 miles and around 22000 feet of ascent. It’s what you might call ‘hairy-chested’ or just plain ‘massive’.

I was one half of Phil’s two-man support crew, which involved not much more than driving around in the van and stopping at various check points along the route to check Phil was ok and to be there for him if anything went wrong. The WHW passes through a good number of villages so apart from staying up all night, the task from a non-rider’s point of view isn’t too difficult. Be in the right place at the right time, check he’s ok and then move on to the next rendezvous.

Despite me taking up countless of my friends (including Phil’s) and family’s weekends with them supporting me in 24 hour races, I’ve never really done any kind of pit support for anyone else before so this was going to be an eye-opener – a chance to repay a couple of favours to Phil for the times he’s stayed up all night during big races I’ve been in and at the end of the day, what are mates for eh?

I’m not going to go into loads of detail about what I know about the route and I definitely can’t tell you much about how, inwardly, Phil coped with the challenge – he’ll want to do that himself anyway – but what I can say is that he was making this look very easy. I was worried that he was going too fast, dipping too far into his bank account of endurance and would suffer for that earlier than he would have wanted, but throughout the weekend I didn’t really see any sign of proper weakness or despair. Appearances were telling me that mentally, he was completely focussed and unfazed by the enormity of the task ahead and neither Rod nor I had any need to even offer words of comfort or encouragement. We did anyway, because that’s just what human beings do, and again, that’s what mates are for… but the occasional ‘GO ON LAD!’ or a ‘GET ON WITH IT!’ could hardly be classed as a pep-talk.

I even had a bike with me, to be used in case Phil really needed to be dragged down a hillside or in case he needed the insurance policy of another rider for a tricky section in the dark, but in reality the bike was only used by me to ride a while ahead of Phil and wait in a bush with a camera, film some video footage of him as he rode past and then put the bike back in the van.

Well after the halfway point, all the expected outcomes were still in place and he was ahead of schedule. Phil’s planning, fitness and skill were making it all just happen like clockwork.

And that’s how it remained – checkpoints came and went, mile after mile of the incredibly hilly, rocky and often unrideable trail passed beneath his wheels, me and Rod started to get bored of the routine ‘you ok?’. ‘yeah, feelin’ good’. ‘oh. Ok. Sod off then’. ‘Right. See you in a bit.’ conversations with Phil at every checkpoint so we started to eat all of our food, moan about the weather and discuss motorbikes and long distance running. We’d never met before this weekend but luckily we’ve got plenty in common.

Eventually the sun came up, the routine continued and we started to make projections about Phil’s completion time. While it was never in doubt in Phil’s mind, for an observer the early stages of a challenge like this have a certain fragility and while the whole thing can end abruptly at any point, as you get into the final few hours and the task ahead is a comparatively small one things start to become more certain. Phil was looking at knocking a massive 9 hours off the previous record. His physical state, while he’s looked better, certainly gave no cause for concern.

A couple more checkpoints, more dull conversations that we tried to liven up with loud farting and name-calling. Me and Rod went to a café for a cooked breakfast while Phil tackled the treacherous Loch Lomond section of the route. It was dangerous and we were dead worried about him riding/scrambling over the boulders, outcrops and precipitous narrow sections of trail for the second time in a day, but we had scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee and haggis in a warm cafe. Phil who?

The final checkpoint. Just 7 miles to go. The lad was flying. We ran back to the van and made it to the end of the WHW a few minutes before Phil reached the end of his ride, back where he started, in 28 hours and 59 minutes. JOB. DONE.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what my award (the 2012 winner of the Prestwich Special Recognition for Sport Award, me) looks like…..