Britain. Completed it, mate.
Long-time friend of Jam Cycling, Toby Cummins, took on the monumental challenge that is Ride Across Britain. Residing up in the Cold Dark North with a young family and working in London 4 days a week, completing RAB was very much about getting the months in the lead-up to the event right. Ensuring every ride was worthwhile and contributing to the overall goal. Here he describes the lead up to the event and shares in great detail the ups and downs of 9 days in the saddle, riding across Britain...
I’m by no means an athlete. And at not far short of 40, over 90kg and with a full time job and three kids (plus a dog) - it’s probably fair to say that I am never likely to be either. But like many cyclists I’ve often looked at the famous Land’s End to John O Groats ride and thought “one day”.
Let me give you a quick little backstory - I started cycling in about 2011. It was a thing of necessity rather than any obvious love for the thing. I needed to get to work and being stuck in a car for an hour each way or spending the same time on a bike felt like an easy equation to solve. I quickly got the bug. The endorphin itch, followed by the technical fabric, the wanky cyclist stuff that I fully appreciate those not into it don’t get or want to get. But I got it. Then it got me.
Within a few years I was cycling up to 7,000km a year. Riding with big groups and taking on challenges like London to Paris. I’d raised thousands for charity and shed a few pounds (weight and cash) along the way. Early in that journey, I’d set myself the arbitrary target of doing “LEJOG” by the time I was 40. It was a long way off. But now I’m 38. It had to be this year or next. Spurred on by the passing of a friend of ours (and mother of two) last year at the age of 40, I should raise money for the hospice that cared for her too, I thought.
So I checked with my wife. (She’s been with me from when I first picked up a bike and through my fully fledged obsession.) I’m sure she’s not delighted about the time I take to ride (sometimes selfishly, sometimes not), the cost of it or all the “wanging on about it” that I do. But she’s hugely supportive, encouraging and, above all, generous, so she kindly supported me again. At this point, it’s on. I’m going to do it. But how?
In researching the route, the ride and the logistics it became obvious quickly that Ride Across Britain was the only realistic way for me to go. It’s a fully supported, 1,600km, 700 person, 9 day ride each year sponsored by Deloitte and run by the events company Threshold. Despite the unappealing prospect of 9 days camping, this event had all the key benefits I needed - plenty of food, board(ish), routes planned, mechanical and medical support if needed and lots of likeminded people to while away the long days on the bike with.
So that was the ride sorted. Now I just needed to get myself in suitable shape to complete it. If I’m honest, I think I probably could have “done” it as I was back in December 2017 by just riding lots before the event. But I didn’t want to struggle through 9 consecutive days of over 100 miles and suffer to the end. I’d heard tales of very capable cyclists that had never ridden again after enduring this experience. I know myself well enough to know that I didn’t have the time or the discipline to train properly. So I needed a plan to get me as ready as possible in the 9 months I had. People build babies in less time. Surely I could manage this?
The Plan and The Prep
I knew that my buddy George had done RAB before. So I got in touch and we talked through how using power data (he distributes Infocrank power meters) and some pragmatic pseudo-training would give me both the body and the data I needed to not just complete the challenge but do so in comfort. If I threw in a bunch of weight loss I might be able to do it with a smile on my face. I wanted to find it seemingly easy - just like the way those maddeningly impressive people I regularly ride with these days make the things like London-Edinburgh-Edinburgh or 400km Audaxes look casually painless.
Between us we dreamed up a plan that involved measuring things that I’d never measured before (power, weight, fatigue, etc) and using that data to understand how my body could cope best with the challenge of 1,600km in 9 days.
For starters the bit that I had most control over, my weight. The aim to get from a portly 93kg to under 84kg by the start of RAB. I found it easiest to visualize a 10kg bag of rice and think about how little I wanted to carry that 1 mile, let alone 1,000. The change in approach for me was to count calories - using the app My Fitness Pal, I set achievable weekly goals and took it slowly - trying to lose weight gradually over 9 months rather than try to lose it all and then battle to keep it off. This proved easier than I had expected. I didn’t achieve my goal but got down to 86kg by the start line. Of that I’m proud. That I did it whilst still eating ludicrous amounts of pizza I am really proud of!
George suggested that by using an InfoCrank power meter (and by switching the same crank unit between my two bikes), within weeks he would have the power data needed to build up some sensible and easy to manage training for me. Even working away from home a lot as I have been in the time I was preparing for the ride, I didn’t have the ability to spin long sessions on a turbo. Everything had to be adaptable to me, riding my bike, on real roads. After an initial FTP test (done with friends!) and then seeding data into Training Peaks for a month or so, he was able to give me a plan that took into account my crazy transient life circumstances.
These sessions varied from basic intervals to fairly simplified ramp tests and a LOT of riding in Zone 2 (for the novices: the Power/HR Zone that’s slightly below “trying hard”. Maddening to ride in exclusively for long periods). RAB was never going to be a race for me. So building Zone 2 endurance was key. By July and August I was lighter, had data driven hacks for improving performance and with the ludicrously long hot summer we had in the UK, I was riding over 250km every week (more than double last year’s norm). I was pretty much ready. Certainly ready as I’ll ever be.
What I wasn’t expecting was a message from George the night before I was due to set off, lying in a tent thinking “what on earth have I got myself into”, explaining that I now had a “magic number”. The number was 205w. A normalised power number that I had to try and ride belowfor each of the 9 days of RAB. Under the number was fine, over it was absolutely not fine. There you go. Go out and make yourself a hero lad. But always under 205w.
The Ride Across Britain
Days 1 - 3: The South and West
Every epic ride should probably begin with an unholy tent-based 5am wake up call over a greenfield site public address system and a dewy roll to a start line with 700 other hopeful lunatics. Well at least this one did.
Clipped in and starting out from Land’s End in Cornwall, the first day of LEJOG is much vaunted as the toughest - 170km and 3,000m^ (7hrs 52m) of undulating parcours with lots of steep pitches. Ironically the type of landscape I am used to in the Cold Dark North, but had hardly ridden all year with being away for work. I spent the first part of the day powered by adrenaline, enthusiasm and the excellent food in base camp. Reaching lunch I realised my numbers weren’t right - I was over the magic number - my legs were beginning to tell me this too. I switched up my Wahoo display so that the only thing on my display was my NP. Just the magic number.
It became a fun game for me for the next 8.5 days. Actually in truth it didn’t.
I had wrestled it back to just under 205W by the end of Day 1. On Day 2, I had one of my best ever days on a bike and came in at just under 200 rolling through the beautiful sun drenched Quantocks and Mendips from Oakhampton to Bath in an unfamiliar group of 4 (180km, 2,350m^, 7hrs 45m). It was an emotional day on the bike ending in the city where I was at school for 6 years and meeting friends at the finish (including the widower of my friend, for whom I was fundraising). I was also delighted not to be in a tent that night. Blesséd relief as the circus stops at Bath Uni on Day 2.
I learned quickly that the key to RAB is finding a good group and working within it. By Day 3 and the relatively short and flat stage from Bath to Ludlow (160km, 2,000m^, 7hrs 18m), I had found a fantastic group of 12 to ride with. The NP number was almost forgotten. I certainly wasn’t risking 205 anymore. Instead the data was helping me to stay fresh (even with a burgeoning chest infection) and know which sections of the day I could push in and which I had to take easy. The group was moving fluidly and within it I was relatively strong so could pull long sections near the front but remain relatively fresh. Ideal. I’d even developed a penchant for capturing the country signs as we passed – a bumper day this with 2 countries and 7 counties!
The thing the magic number didn’t tell me though was that not eating enough in the middle section of the day would leave me desperately close to hitting a brick wall by lunch on Day 3. Fatigued, latently-ill and facing far too much headwind at the front of the group, I’d over extended. A salutary lesson that not just one number rules them all. Still, arrival in Ludlow meant I was a third through and coping pretty well.
Day 1 - 203W
Day 2 - 197W
Day 3 - 191W
Days 4 - 6: Heading to (and Leaving) Home
In previous years, the weather had been pivotal for RAB participants. We were pretty lucky all told – largely dry, either supported or at least not hindered by a strong Westerly wind and in relative warmth – it certainly could have been worse. 2017 was WAY worse.
But Day 4 from Ludlow to Haydock was our first real experience of rain on the ride. It had been a stage I was looking forward to (173km, ^1,200m, 7hrs 26m). After a few Shropshire lumps in the morning, it’s basically a flat smashfest from racecourse to racecourse through some lovely middle-England countryside. In our group of 12 it should have been a breeze. But with a chest infection, a face full of mud, limited visibility and low mood - it was a real slog. But we got it done and by mid-afternoon we were onto roads I vaguely knew. The Cheshire Lanes welcomed us with sunshine and a familiarity that warmed the soul. Preparing me for Day 5.
Day 5 was always going to be a huge part of this journey (174km, ^1,950m, 7hr 48m). The talismanic ascent of Shap Fell at the end of the day, the very familiar home roads in the Cold Dark North and above all the chance to see and hug my family.
It was also the halfway point of the route. Wait. What? Half way! I live so far north that it hadn’t really occurred to me that my house is only pretty much half way. It was a chastening shock to see the sign explicitly spelling it out. But the day itself lived up to expectations. It was sunny (which neverhappens). The Lancashire fells were on fine form, the Cumbrian mountains sparkled and the wind was kind. That is until the last 5 miles from camp, when we turned West and were met by a face full of tornado. It is amazing how much impact a headwind can make. Especially with 800km in your legs.
Day 6 was hard. It was always going to be because it was 185km (^1,500m, 7hr 27m) and the start of three consecutive monster days into Scotland. But I really hadn’t factored in my emotional fragility by this point.
Physically I was doing ok. A tough morning getting into Scotland was a perfect example of the RAB rule of thirds. Every day has three (and some four) sections punctuated by lunch and rest stops. In the whole of RAB I only ever had net-positive days (where at least 2/3 of the day was good or great). But Days 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 all had one “bad” segment. The morning of Day 6 was my fault. I got my kit choice wrong and was cold and damp by the first rest stop. 3 of us took the selfish (self-preservation?) choice to leave the group behind and powered on, assisted by a 50km/h tail wind for long sections. We got home earliest of all our days. It was a nice change.
But then I was pfaffing at the charging bank in the main marquee when a song that makes me think of my family came over the PA. I immediately broke down and started crying. It just got too much. The fatigue. The fact that I was riding away from my home and my family. The enormity of the two days ahead. I went to clean my bike (in cold water!) to get away from the masses. Not a great time for our resident vlogger to stumble across me on her “tour of the camp vlog”!
This was when I discovered the real benefit of the thing that Threshold call the “RAB Bubble”. The feeling of overwhelming positivity that surrounds and buoys those taking part in this amazing adventure together. Surrounded by new friends, road companions, I was quickly back to myself and ready for the challenge ahead. The Cairngorms and then the final push.
Day 4 - 173W
Day 5 - 191W
Day 6 – 185W
Days 7 - 9: Scotland is MASSIVE
After the emotional difficulty of Day 6, Days 7 and 8 were always the stages that I’d worried about most physically! Over 1,000km in; Colder by the day; And then BAM! The best part of 400km in two days with well over 4,000m of climbing.
This was the first year that RAB had headed east after Edinburgh rather than taking the traditional iconic roads through Glencoe to the west. It had caused a lot of negative buzz in the lead up to the event because riders were unsure of what to make of the Cairngorms and the prospect of climbing over not one but two ski resort summits on much longer stages than previous editions.
I was disappointed not to be seeing Glencoe, but looked forward to Glenshee and The Lecht. I was right to be positive about the new experience. These were some of the best moments of the whole adventure. But I was right to fear these days too. They were monsters.
Day 7 (182km, ^2,586m, 8hr 33m) started in horrible cold drizzle and it wasn’t until after the first rest stop that the weather improved. Having passed over the Forth Bridge we were into the wilds of Scotland proper. We drifted through open plains in the lowlands before we turned a corner to find ourselves rolling through one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen.
Those that know me will have heard me wang on about the beauty of the Honister Valley from Buttermere. Even I was prepared to admit that the Spittal of Glenshee might just be more spectacular. The savage climb at the end of it was worthy too. We descended into the Cairngorms proper, tracking a river through Balmoral and then we turned up a small climb which eventually opened out onto a microcosm of paradise. The last hour of Day 7 will stay with me forever. The light, the never-ending scenery, the tranquility and the last few climbs of a long hard day in the saddle were just breathtaking. I could have ridden that last hour forever.
Then it arrived, Day 8 (196km, ^2,163m, 9hr 04m). We awoke to sub-zero temperatures. Frost had sealed the zips on our tents. That we would climb up to a ski resort within 10km of the tape dropping seemed ever more appropriate (and intimidating). Our group set off late. We battled over the beautiful but bastardly slopes of The Lecht and descended into Tomintoul where we sought refuge in a hotel with a fire and proper coffee. (The biggest disappointment of RAB, the coffee was hard to find and harder to drink). A blissful refuge - until we realised that we’d lingered in the warm glow of the fire too long and were in severe danger of being “cut”. (Timekeeping on RAB is military in nature, but hadn’t troubled us to this point. Now it was all focusing. We had no intention of coming this far to end up on the broom wagon!)
What followed for the middle third of Day 8 was only possible because of the training I’d done and the power numbers I’d kept to thus far each day. Our group’s effectiveness had been sadly hampered by the (completely understandable) deterioration of a number of its members and a few being troubled with digestive issues. I felt good so I sat on the front solidly in a single file line on a relentless a-road for a full hour heading North out of Inverness. A big turn.
We stopped for emergency Coke and proper loos for the women in the group at a garage to the horrid realisation that unless a few of the stronger amongst us did what would amount to a 10 mile TTT, we were likely to be on the bus. This wasn’t what I needed having just emptied the tank pulling alone for 20 miles. The challenge spurred us on though. Around half the group splintered away and smashed through to the third rest stop (long day!) – my own normalised power went up by over 50w for a full hour - and we made it. Just.
But then we had to do something similar again for the final 35km of the day to stay ahead of the wagon. Two of us rode on strongly together to make sure we made the cut and then, at 192km and nearly 9hrs we made it home for the day, we immediately decided we’d go back out to help taxi the remainder of our group home. That additional 5km hurt, but the satisfaction at making sure we all got home, and all inside the time, was amazing.
I’d anticipated an anticlimax on Day 9. The reality of impending life after an event of this nature. The fact that we’d end in such a far away and inaccessible place. But I hadn’t ever considered that I’d be sad because I felt so good that I’d want to carry on riding into Days 10, 11, 12 and beyond. If it hadn’t been for the hooling 60km/h tail wind on the last day I might have considered turning round and heading back! Being persistently under the magic number had left me thoroughly capable of continuing further.
The day itself (168km, ^1,798m, 7hr 18m) was a procession if I’m honest – 7hrs in Zone 2. A couple of the group were really struggling by now and it was an honour to be able ride in support of them for 100 miles. We would finish together as we had ridden for over 1,000km.
The wind was insane by the time we reached the stunning North Coast 500 and the last stretch into John O Groats. At times it was borderline unsafe for some of the smaller and taller members of the group. But again, we got it done. We arrived at the northernmost point to a fanfare, some fizz and the inevitable start of a journey home. We hugged our new friends and promised to meet again out on the roads of Britain.
Day 7 - 188W
Day 8 - 176W
Day 9 – 150W
I’m still not an athlete. I’ve put back on much of the weight I lost and I’m very firmly not training for anything – I’ve remembered my family! But the top screen on my Wahoo still resolutely shows the magic number. It doesn’t mean much out of context of a big challenge (save to remind me how using it had been instrumental in getting me from top to bottom). The power data helped me go well beyond my initial goal - completing the ride in relative comfort and good cheer.
Whenever anyone asks me, which a fair few have, I say that I can’t recommend this experience enough. The route, the people, the event, the support – the Bubble. It’ll never burst. Thanks to George for agreeing to make this silly project work and to all those that tolerated, supported, encouraged and sponsored my mad cap adventure from one end of our beautiful land to the other in nine glorious days last autumn.
So that’s it then. Britain, completed it mate.
A Few Final Stats:
1,588km / 21,547^ / 9 Days / 8 Tents / More packets of Randoms than you could (or should) count / oh, and an Av NP of 184 / Funds Raised £5,049 (plus a bit offline).
Thank you so much to Toby for sharing his journey with us!
Feeling inspired? If you've got goals to smash in 2019 and need a power meter, check out the InfoCrank here: https://www.jam-cycling.com/infocrank
Want to talk about it? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org