This was my first year of cycling. Finished off in style.
And it’s done
When I first heard about this challenge it seemed just crazy enough, just hard enough, just about doable enough that I had to give it a go. The most I’d ever cycled in a month (August) was 698km. When I rode my first ever 50 (flat) miles at Easter I couldn’t walk properly for days.
What I liked about the Festive 500 was that it wasn’t a race. It didn’t matter how fast you did it or how far you rode. This was about getting out on the bike when you normally wouldn’t. It was about setting a target and getting there. It was about facing hardships and Christmas and time constraints and miserable weather and not giving up.
From my 4 hour ride in the cold and the dark and the rain on Boxing Day, to the 52km in the mud on Christmas Eve and the tough 102km up Cheddar Gorge and across the Mendips in winds that made it difficult to stay upright. This challenge was hard and fun and tough and amazing.
This was cycling. The things that make this sport and hobby and way of life so beautiful and important to us. This was all of them.
I celebrated with beer and Chinese and new shoes. Tonight I’m going to sleep harder than I’ve ever slept before and then give my legs a couple of days off.
Thanks Rapha. Thanks Strava. I cycled 500km this Christmas and I still can’t quite believe it.
500 kilometres. Redemption.
- Ride 1: Work (via almost Bath) (59.5km)
- Ride 2: Last Commute (14.1km)
- Ride 3: Christmas Eve Muddy Fun (52.1km)
- Ride 4: Stupid Nailsea Laps (101.4km)
- Ride 5: Portishead Clevedon Loop (32.7km)
- Ride 6: Night Rider (41.5km)
- Ride 7: Windy Mendips (102.0km)
- Ride 8: Almost There (32.6km)
- Ride 9: Grim (16.5km)
- Ride 10: Redemption (53.1km)
2004 Specialized Allez Elite
- Shimano 105
- 53/39, 12-25t, 9 speed
- ALX-330 Wheels
- Continental 23mm GP4000S
2007 Specialized Langster
- Sugino Crankset, Tektro Brakes
- 42/16t (usually free, sometimes fixed)
- ALX R500 Wheels
- Continental 25mm Ultra Gatorskins
The story starts with a three and a half year old and a 7am alarm call. I get the boy up and then look out the window. It’s cloudy, but dry. The heating isn’t on but it doesn’t feel cold. Is this really December? A quick breakfast, half a coffee, and then I’m ready to roll.
There’s something beautiful about a clean and shiny machine, but my workhorse suffers during the week. Daily commutes through the rain and the mud and by Friday I look at it with horror and despair. It’ll get the attention it deserves on Saturday afternoon, hanging from my custom bike stand (clothes line).
The lights are on in the street and it’s grey overhead as I hit start on the Garmin, but it’s even warmer than I expected and I’m not sure if the rain jacket was really needed. I have my backpack with me - it’s my last day of work for the year - and I need to take my laptop in to the office. The plan is to ride to Bristol, drop the bag in the office and then get in as many kilometres as I can before the day starts properly.
But the roads are dry and the clouds are meek and I don’t really fancy two rides up Park Street, so I fly through Bristol and hit the path to Bath.
Is there any better way to start the day? I used to walk down the street and wait at the bus stop. Every morning. When the bus eventually arrived I’d sit, staring out the window. Occasionally dozing, poking at my phone. Now I ride. Rain or shine, and I feel more alive than ever.
I spin my legs. It’s the Langster today and I grind out the miles, passing cyclists and walkers and dogs protected by outstretched arms and yells to “heel”. I finally reach the outskirts of Bath and stop at a bridge. Graffiti covers every inch. I know my tribe. I’m a cyclist.
Turning around I put my gloves in the bag and let my hands rest bare on the handlebars. I sit on 90rpm, 30km/hr, and smell the fresh air, watch the buzzard floating above the field and I push on back to Bristol.
Eventually I hit the traffic and I turn my lights back on. The train station, then Queen Square, then I sprint up Park Street towards the office. It’s only 60km, but it’s started. There is Christmas beer in the office and burritos for lunch, but all I can think about is more time on the bike. The next 440km.
317 commutes this year (4 on foot!) and I’m finally done. I like the distance. 14-15km depending on the route I take, but when I did it for the first time it took me over an hour. It now takes half that time, even on the Langster.
The end of the year means bringing everything home. My towel. My clothes. My laptop. And that means the dreaded backpack. I think it’s about 12 years old now. My mum won it in a competition and I took it and never gave it back. It’s seen better days.
Everyone at work trickles home early. I slip out of Bristol and look up at the bridge. I don’t ride over it in the winter and my three year old smartphone doesn’t do it justice, but Brunel’s bridge is the best suspension bridge in the world.
Well the four hour ride in the morning didn’t eventuate today. Last minute Christmas shopping, arrival of the in-laws, cleaning the Langster and jobs around the house meant it was 2pm before I’d managed to even think about riding.
After lunch the wife and I spent an hour walking around the village (leaving our boy in the capable hands of his Nanna). Once we got back I grabbed the Allez, got changed and cycled off beneath the darkening skies.
It was showery, the roads were muddy and dirty, but there were patches of blue and the sun peeked out when it could.
I love riding through Ashton Court. I’ve had deer jump across the road metres in front of my bike, and the small climb brings back memories of my first ever commute when I had to get off and walk. I’ve never let that happen again.
Beggar Bush Lane into the wind and a quick descent down to Portbury (mind the ICE!) and then respite beneath the M5. Cars echo overhead and I’m thankful I ride.
I’ve tried this route once before. An adventure home from work. All was good until a wasp flew into my helmet and stung my head. 16 holes. 32 holes. Loads of airflow. Yeah, that’s great until the wasps attack.
There’s something great about this part of Bristol. A 20 minute ride out of the city and it almost feels like you’re in an abandoned world. Is this City 17? Should I be watching out for Combine?
So far the ride has been green, but now it becomes more cyclocross than road and my clothes turn brown with mud. My shoe slides and squelches into the hedge as I pull over for a car and a horse.
The sea beckons and a short burst gets me a view of the channel. The wind is blowing and the weather’s coming in. I pound through the lanes, settling into a steady rhythm on the flat and hit my 50 target with time to spare.
I clean my bike and look inside at those dozing on the sofa. That used to be me. But now I ride my bike.
Refreshed and happy, I’m greeted at the door with “Daddy, I’m a chocolate cake!” Ah, family and fun. This is Christmas. I think I’ll have a beer from home to celebrate.
It started way too early. 500 hours wasn’t the 500 I’d been thinking of when I signed up for this thing, but that’s what time my alarm was set for. Had breakfast, got dressed, emergency cleat change, some chain lube and I was ready to go.
Of course as soon as I left home it started raining. The first 45 minutes was steady drizzle. It was 6am, boxing day, and I was riding in the dark through the rain. Complete madness.
Because of the weather I decided to start with roads I knew. Laps of the local town. There were lights, the roads were OK and it was a decent rolling route that would let me steadily eat up the miles.
It was also boring and monotonous. And I was wet. The rain soaked all the way to my bones from the start and my sodden feet hated every minute. But this Festive 500 is about more than just a fun ride every now and then, so I decided to stick it out and suffer.
When the birds started cheeping at 7:08am and then the sun came out, I decided not to change my route. I stuck to my laps. Terrible, painful, uninteresting laps.
And I did them. All 16 of them. 16 sets of lights. 64 roundabouts. Nobody else, then a lone runner, then joggers and cars, then the shop opened and people bought their papers and the world woke up. And I rode my 100 in the cold and the dark and the rain.
This was more like it. Only an hour or so to spare, but dry roads and no wind made for a great spin on the bike. Yesterday’s soggy ride and the dull ache in my legs quickly melted away as I sped through the lanes and climbed Belmont Hill.
Today my brakes worked properly again. Simple pleasures! I hate descending in the wet, so I made the most of things and pushed the cars down towards the sea. Then 20km on the flat. Steady, solid, tempo riding. Three minutes stuck behind some horses was the only blemish, but even that didn’t diminish the pleasure. No photos this morning; just the memories.
The boy is in bed and the roads are still dry. 240 more to do by Saturday and it looks like it will rain later in the week. Oh why the hell not. A ride at 9pm on a Tuesday night is no crazier than getting up at 5am for 100km on boxing day.
If anything, this ride represents more about my journey as a cyclist than any other so far. At the top there I say this was my first year of cycling, but that’s a bit of a lie. I started riding my bike to work in 2010 and clocked up just over 1000km. However, once September arrived and it got cold and dark I gave up. By last Christmas I’d put back on all the weight I’d lost and my bike was gathering cobwebs in the shed.
2011 was different. I started cycling early in the year and I never stopped.
This year I became a cyclist. I’m now free from public transport and bus stops and leaving work at set times and standing in the cold and the rain and handing over money to sit on a urine-smelling-bus packed in like a sardine. And that’s only when the bus even bothers to show up! Buying decent lights got me past September this year and since November most of my riding has been in the dark.
So tonight I embrace it and enjoy it, thanks to the lights that let me keep riding.
I consider Barrow Gurney but I take the route to Clevedon instead. I’m a wannabe, not a real pro. The real pros don’t have to ride their bikes like this as night.
Later, a “cafe” stop and a call to loved ones to let them know I’m fine and that I got a bit caught up in the ride.
Then I pedal home in the dark on my own.
Finally a “proper” ride, albeit a windy and mad one. Half a day to myself so the goal was to get in another hundred and hit 80% of the 500 target. Thankfully I managed to stay on the bike the whole time (just) and I’m now left with two days and only 97 kilometres to go.
With the family sorted I warmed up with the wind at my back and another climb up Belmont hill. A slow one to lift the heart rate and get the legs moving. Descending towards the sea, the first of the rain showers hit and I sheltered under the motorway until it passed. No point getting soaked this early. Monday morning showed just how miserable a 4 hour ride is if you start it in the rain.
Turning left at Portishead the crosswinds came and I spent the next 85km fighting with the bike. Remind me to never ride on a road with “Moor” in its name when the wind is like this. I found shelter in the lanes when I could, and held on for dear life when it tried to take my bike out from under me.
The wind brought rain showers, so much of the day was spent out-sprinting and skirting them, or finding shelter when I had to. Bus stops, trees, and then an old abandoned pig shed by the edge of the road.
The first time I rode Cheddar Gorge was back in October. Thanks to the Great English Summer, the 1st of October was my favourite summer day of the whole year. As I hit the first slope, a guy on a shiny Felt AR2 passed me. I sat with him for a while but he soon disappeared into the distance. Near the top, I was overtaken for the second (and last) time. This time by someone on a steel-framed singlespeed who absolutely flew past.
It just goes to show, although it’s all about the bike, it’s never about the bike!
Hitting the top of the climb I turned left and started the ride towards home. The wind up here was insane. I’ve never seen the clouds rolling in so fast.
I had a short breather with the wind at my back on the way to and past Yoxter, but it wasn’t long before the rain came again and I had to think about finding some shelter and getting something to eat.
When I started the day I thought I might grab lunch in a cafe. Instead I stood in an old barn eating a ham and cheese sandwich drinking diluted energy drink and sheltering from the wind and rain.
This festive 500 has not been a romantic and fun adventure. It’s been cold and windy and dark and hard, but I’ve still loved almost every moment. Hell, it’s probably fair to say I’ve loved all the moments I hated too.
Once the sky cleared I did my typically snail-like descent down to the lake, snapped a couple of pics, then rode the last 20k back towards Bristol.
I was knackered, but I’m almost there.
And I love riding my bike.
Unapologetically flat after 5 hours sleep and on yesterday’s legs. It started off spitting but quickly turned into steady, very wet rain. Chipping away at the last 100 just in case it’s miserable tomorrow and I fall at the last hurdle. Not long to go now.
First the morning ride. Next it’s the park to help my three year old conquer his fear of the “death slide”. Lunch with the family. TV and dinosaur books on the sofa while the wife napped upstairs. Then it’s 5pm and it’s dark and wet outside. May as well go for another ride, right?
This one was pretty grim. Lots of foggy darkness and pothole swerving and bemused neighbours shaking their heads as I rolled out again.
I think I might finish all this off on the Langster in the morning.
The last day dawns. 48 to go. Up too late to join the Bristol Road Club, so it’s a coffee, change of saddle, check of the bike and then off into a damp and windy winter’s day. It’s 12 degrees and I’m thankful again that there’s been no ice on the roads this year.
Heart rate monitor is on and connected but the suffering is low. A couple of hours at moderate or tempo is all I need. Strava tells me Thursday was Extreme. There’s no need for Epic today.
Tightening the rear wheel and we have the first casualty of the week. No punctures or falls or broken bits. Maintenance, luck, and good tyres. Thanks little spanner, you’ve served me well.
Back on the singlespeed, I somehow manage to bump into the group at kilometre 5 and hop on the back. It’s a good way to finish this challenge. The first 450 were all on my own, so I settle in and relax and let myself enjoy the flow of the group, the chatting, and letting someone else pull into the wind.
I hang on for an hour, then turn for home. Let’s get this challenge done. The sun peeks from behind a cloud as the 500th clicks over, and ten minutes later I’m standing over my bike outside my door. I can’t believe it’s over.
One bike. One rider.
500 kilometres. Redemption.