Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Day 3: Alveston to Stonehenge

The day started out in pretty much the same as the day before. Check the bikes and throw your bags into the back of the van. Get a brief from Ross and away we go. My only concern were that my legs were now aching, but just in a very tired way. I had taken some re-hydration sachets the night before and took another before the ride started. So the rest of my body felt fine. Those re-hydration sachets really are that good. I spent the next 30-40 minutes with Jason, there were a lot of winding country lanes and not by way of a challenge, but my pump falling out of my back pocket left me behind so I decided to potter along with Zoe who was close for 5-10 minutes. Zoe was supported by Dean, because she had broken Gavin (sorry Gavin, but nobody appears to be arguing with that assessment). It was only until about an hour into the ride, that I felt my legs start to recover, so at the next hill I bid my goodbyes to Zoe and started to clock up some distance. I had Igor in my sights in the distance and anted to catch, him being ultra fit (and 26 years old) he was difficult to catch. I got my bearings again as I crossed the M4 towards Castle Combe, I descended down a small hill and could see Igor even further in the distance, with one of the group at a junction looking on. As I approached it became clear that Igor had not seen the sign to go left an no amount of shouting or wolf whistling was going to get his attention. Rather than chase him and get lost ourselves, we rang Ross and carried on. About a dozen or so of the group had caught up with us. I chatted with Liz for about 5 minutes until we hit a gravel track. Everybody slowed down on their road bikes, but I was on a cyclocross and my bike was built for this sort of terrain, so I shot off and really enjoyed the exhilaration of the ride for the next mile or so. My legs now felt good, the rain and gales that were forecast, were holding off and I just wanted to chew up the next couple of miles to the first water stop as quickly as I could.

The water stop was outside a pub that was closed, so there were no toilets. I didn't want to hang around for too long as my legs were beginning to stiffen again. Gavin arrived and I could see the news was not good by the look on his face. He had literally pedaled the last five miles on one leg as his knee had finally given up the ghost. He packed his bike into the van and joined Lynn. Igor had managed to get a lift to the water stop with Ross who went out in the support car to find him. I set off with Jason once again, despite it only being a short stop, my legs were stiff again and I had resigned myself to the fact that this would continue through the day. The miles seemed to roll by quite easily, we criss-crossed the M4 a few times and saw some fantastic country-side a few hills got in the way, but nothing substantial, until the final hill before the lunch stop. The air was beginning to cool and I knew it would not be long before the rain came, the hill was a challenge, but I managed to get all the way to the top, which felt like an achievement after the drama the day before and the pub was literally a couple of hundred yards after the summit. We had arrived at the pub in very good time and lunch was far from ready, but at least we had somewhere to shelter as the rain started to lash down outside.

After lunch, the rain had cleared somewhat and the next water stop was after a town called Marlborough. We had a hill to climb onto the 'Marlborough flats', where a white horse had been etched into the hill. The wind was up and it appeared to be coming straight off the hill and from the bottom it looked very steep indeed. As soon as I hit the hill, it turned to the left and was fairly sheltered from the wind right to the top, I had my legs back quite quickly and found myself passing quite a few other cyclists. As I reached the summit there was a long descent down the other side, but the wind had whipped up again. I held off going all out on the descent as a sudden gust would have had me off my bike quite easily, but others were less apprehensive, and quite a few who I had passed on the hill zipped past me. I think they were either very lucky, or just better at descents than me.

It did not seem like long before we entered Marlborough, I realised that I had visited Marlborough previously with my sister-in-law and her family who lived close by in Chippenham. Just after Marlborough there was a hill, not steep, but very long. I was chasing Igor and Owen (our Wales HASSRA representative) and the traffic was busy. A van and a car were behind them and I found myself drafting behind the car. As the car accelerated I managed to keep pace for a hundred yards or so as I passed both Igor and Owen at a pace. As the car accelerated away, I was inspired, my legs felt good and and I was spinning very fast in a high gear with no sign of tiring, so I decided to carry on attacking the hill. It really did feel good and I'm still surprised now where it came from. With every ascent comes a descent, and this one was special too, after the hill I really wanted to enjoy the descent too, so got myself into the drops for the first time that day and just went for it like a man possessed, partly because I could, but also partly for the satisfaction after holding back on the previous hill. It was not long before I was at the 2nd water stop. This was a nice, warm and friendly country pub, that served lovely coffee, which was very welcome considering it was now quite damp outside. We stayed in the pub for a while as we were now riding to strict timings to get to Stonehenge at 6.00pm, which was good for the banter. We had really some together as a group. Dean finally arrived with Zoe. She had broken him too. So I decided to ride with Zoe for the rest of way.

Zoe was concerned that she might break me. I ankle was aching a little by now, but that was my only complaint from the 3 days remarkably, so we just pootled along. We had a 3rd Water stop at an army base, but I couldn't remember how far away, but it seemed to last an age as we went down country lanes and the occassional A-road. The rides consisted of a number of small hills, which were a challenge for Zoe, but I kept telling her to attack the hill and drop her heels to find a different position and more power in her stroke. I don't know if it helped her much, but I'd like to think it might have passed the time for her a little better listen to me harping on.

By the time we reached the 3rd Water stop the rain and wind was howling. The traffic appeared to be getting busier and we were glad to reach the comfort of the pub at last. Another coffee was just what the doctor ordered. the banter continued and at 5:15 we set off on the final push towards Stonehenge. It felt like ages, and I'm certain it was more than the 2 miles that Ross had announced, but I had gotten used to not believing him by now. Zoe and I set off, we were spurred on by the company of Gavin and Dean for the last bit and we tried to stick together as a bunch. I had lost my bearing again and we appeared to go all the points of the compass, but eventually we reached a descent where we could see Stonehenge in the distance. I'd like to say that I felt ecstatic as I crossed the finish line, but to be honest I was glad it was over. I was wet and cold and the slow ride as a bunch had not allowed me to get the blood flowing again. There were a few people cheering us across the finish line and we were beckoned towards a small event shelter were we were provided with a t-shirt and some drinks and snacks. The HASSRA group had a team photo and we were then beckoned towards the entrance in order to enter the Stonehenge site.

After some waiting we were allowed into the site, where we were pictured riding across a finish line just by the side of the stones. We were also surprised wen they asked us to place our bikes on the grass and wander around the stones freely. This, to me, was an absolute privilege. We saw some visitors who were walking around an outer path, so be on the inner path and then able to wander freely was unbelievable. We had a couple of minutes of wandering a taking pictures of ourselves, when I found myself in the center of the stones, and someone beckoning us to the edge for a group photo. I had my phone set up for a panoramic photo and everybody just disappeared to the edge of the stones, I was there alone for a few seconds and took the opportunity for a 360 degree panoramic photo. I felt like the cat that had got the cream. Fantastic. I have published the photo in a separate blog entry. After the group photo we were allowed to wander for a while longer. A lady called Carolyn from the wider group was an archaeologist and new quite a few things about the site, so listening to her whilst she provided some interesting bits of knowledge was a pleasure.

To get to our hotel, we have to cross a field, or add a couple of miles by going back up the road were had just come down. The field was a no-brainer, but it was a walk for the road bikers (who ended up with a ton of mud in their cleats) or a rid for the mountain bikers and the one who had a cyclocross (guess who that was). Ambling across the field with Igor and Dean ahead of everyone else was fulfilling, but also very nervous. I could feel the rest of the group watching as they walked and I'm sure one or two were hoping that I would fall off, but in a comedy way. Anyway, I didn't fall off and the gamble payed off. Despite my wheel being caked with mud I was able the clip back into my pedals... something that not everyone was able to do, which made pedaling the rest of the way twice as difficult. We followed a dual carriage way for a short while to the hotel. As we came over a fly-over at the junction to the hotel, we were met by the most glorious sunset I have seen in a very long time. I could have stopped to take a photo, but I just couldn't be bothered at that point, so that will have to stay in my memory.

Once at the hotel, we loaded the bikes into the back of the van for the return trip to South Wales and checked into the hotel. After a shower and a freshen up we went down to the bar for a couple of well earned beers and a meal. The night was a fantastic finale to a fantastic weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole event, including the hardship and feel really honored to have taken part. I volunteered for this challenge because I wanted to push new boundaries. I have pushed these boundaries much further than I expected. As I move on, I am committed to riding more endurance type events and will look at doing self supported expeditions. I would like to thank everybody who has supported me in raising money for the Stonehenge cycle challenge, at the time of writing this last blog, I had raised £210.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Day 2 Brecon to Alveston: Stonehenge cycle ride

Day 2 started out well. After the last ten miles the day before, there were bound to be a number of slow punctures. I was lucky, my tyres had held, but I replaced the air in the front tyre as this had been blown up with a CO2 cannister by the side of the road when I had a puncture. CO2 reacts with the rubber in the inner tube, so it is usually best to replace as soon as practical. We were on the road about 8.00am, and I set off with Jason, one of the HASSRA guys from Manchester. Until that evening, I hadn't spoken to Jason, as it never clicked he was from HASSRA before.

It turned out he preferred to ride at a pace that was similar to mine, so we stuck together until the first Water stop. The roads were fantastic we went on a dual carriageway for about half a mile out of town and then peeled off onto a country lane. We seemed to ride through a valley and I was expecting at any time to peel off the road and hit a serious climb, but it never came. It was probably just as well, as my legs were still stiff from the day before, but after about 30 minutes they loosened up and I started to stretch my pace out a bit.

The water stop was in a picturesque village by a river outside a small coffee shop. I parked up and ate a few nibbles (banana, tracker bar), to keep me topped up and we took a photo by the side of the river once everybody had caught up. I did not really want to hang around afterwards, as I could feel my legs beginning to stiffen again and I didn't want to break my legs in again after every stop. To start with there were about half a dozen people in front of me, and I was happy to keep this place for the time being. A couple of miles in, a hill soon loomed upon us, not a particularly steep one, but required us to lean into it a bit and put in a bit more energy. I soon found myself up the front again, with a guy called Paul. There were two other guys up front, but it turned out they had decided to take an excursion to a steep hill close by.

We were told there was plenty of time to the next stop and that lunch would not be ready until 12:30, but the roads were too good to ride slowly so we pushed ahead. It was me and Paul for what seemed like about 15 miles. We had the re-assurance of the road signs from the organisers so were alright. We were looking for a swing bridge, which was close to the Lunch stop, as the swing bridge loomed, about ten riders descended upon us, they had been chasing us since the Water stop and had just caught up with us as we reached the Lunch stop. It was 11:30 and the lunch stop was a Golf club that served some lovely soup and sandwiches followed by a pasta salad, which after the mornings efforts went down really well. The two guys who took a detour got a rapturous welcome when they arrived late to the Lunch stop. A few were OK, with it, but a few were pissed off. Certainly, the organisers feared the worst and couldn't rest until they knew they were safe.

At 1:30 when we came out of the golf club, the legs were stiff again. I was joined by Brendan, John and Mark from HASSRA and we cycled out together. We were told that the 2nd water stop was just after a big hill, after a while, just as the legs loosened up again, we reached the hill and started to attack it. Brendan was off in front, followed by me, Mark and then John. The hill really was a challenge and had a few twists and turns. Brendan was gaining distance on us all at his own pace and I concentrated on staying on the bike and using him as motivation to get up the hill. He disappeared around a corner and just as I was reaching the corner and he was coming back in site, Mark was beginning to overtake me. Just at the same moment we noticed that Brendan had got off his bike and was pushing it up the hill. I was determined not to stop and kept with Mark, but then Mark suddenly stopped, shouted I'm going as he was still clipped in and just toppled over onto his right. It was a bizarre situation, I really did not want to get off my bike and I was looking back at Mark as I peddled  I could see the pain in his face, he really was hurting, and it was clear to me, me had broken his collar bone in the fall. I had no choice but to stop and go and assist. I helped Mark to unclip, moved his bike to the side of the road and then encouraged him away from the centre of the road to the edge where it was much safer from passing cars. I was then clear that he had not broken his collar bone after all, but probably got a shock through his arm as he went down on it. I was relieved that I didn't have a medical emergency on my hands and pushed Mark's bike up the remainder of the hill as he walked by the side. At the top of the hill, he had recovered enough to get back on the bike and we rode together to the second water stop, which was a good few miles further than what we were expecting from our lunch time brief. I was disappointed that I did not conquer the hill, but equally I was not prepared to cycle back to the bottom and have another attempt, so I will let that one go.

We were compensated for the extended ride by what I consider to be the most fantastic view of the trip. We were on top of a hill which overlooked the Severn estuary, it was quite a view point with the sea in the distance along with Lundy island and we could just make out the Servern bridge, which was mostly obscured by the houses we were stood between. For me, it was the first time in over 2 days that I had managed to get my bearings. After the water stop, was also the best descent of the trip. We were descending through country lanes again, reaching speeds in excess of 30 mph. It felt really exhilarating and appeared to go on for miles. We had a short climb before we re-grouped to cross the Servern. I wasn't sure what to expect from the crossing, we were told we would be climbing for about a mile before we reached the centre of the bridge and started heading down hill, I was expecting some fierce cross wind or being close to the traffic, but the reality was neither, instead I got another fantastic view and a sense of perspective about just how wide the servern estuary is as we cycled over the foot and cycle path.

After the bridge, we went at our own pace again before we ended up at a Holiday Inn near Alveston. I felt really good at the end of the ride, much better than I expected after 2 long rides back to back. I collected my room key and after a bath header to the bar to enjoy a well earned beer. That evening everyone spirits were high consider we had covered nearly 130 miles in two days. Quite a few of us could hardly believe this achievement, but everyone was in bed at a reasonable time as we did not want to rest on our laurels with the day ahead. THe weatherwas forecast as wet with gales, so there was a deal of trepidation amongst quite a few of us.