Ride Across Britain 2021
By Sue Foster
‘More is in you’. That is the tagline of Threshold Sports, the company behind Ride Across Britain (RAB), a 960 mile endurance cycling event which takes place over 9 days every September (except when a pandemic gets in the way). It was conceived by Threshold founder and Olympic oarsman James Cracknell in 2010 who wanted to create a cycling event that would challenge individuals, get people outdoors and achieve something new and exciting in a supportive environment.
2020 was a big birthday year for me and having decided that I needed to mark the occasion with a cycling challenge, I signed up for RAB in 2020. Training started in January and I just began hitting the milestone rides when Covid struck and the event was pretty soon cancelled. So, roll on to 2021. Training became like a job, four sessions per week which included a short fast ride, our Wednesday CTC rides, some of which I did with the A group to improve my speed and distance and if the weather wasn’t good, an hour or so at home on the Wattbike. Whilst coping well physically with the training, as September approached, my anxiety levels had increased to a level that was well outside of my comfort zone and my view of the world completely shrunk to cycling, RAB and kit that need to be purchased for the trip. In order to make the challenge ‘tougher’ James Cracknell decided that RABBERS would camp in a festival-style atmosphere each night. Now I am not a seasoned camper by any means so this was yet another aspect of the trip that I needed to nail beforehand. With a newly purchased airbed I camped out in a tent in the back garden for a few nights and then got up early in the morning to cycle.
Not wishing to raise expectations, or create an atmosphere of suspense at this point in the account, I will issue a spoiler alert; I didn’t make it to JOG but did cycle the length of England in 5 and a half days a feat of which I am extremely proud. For a blow by blow account of my RAB journey read on…….
After a rather fraught and delayed train journey down to Penzance, I arrived at the RAB campsite feeling extremely nervous and stressed. Threshold is renowned for its excellent logistics and organisation and the campsite (think Glastonbury without live music) was incredible; a dining marquee feeding over 1000 people each mealtime, a staff of medics and physios each with their own treatment areas, drying marquees for wet gear, shower cubicles which were transported to the next campsite each day and for those with time or energy to bother about their appearance, a tent with hairdryers and mirrors.
The only good thing I could latch on to at by this stage however was the fact that, at long last, tomorrow I would start cycling and the impending event would become a reality. Tent located, dinner eaten, I snuggled into my sleeping bag for a fitful few hours sleep before joining the start line at 6:30 the following morning.
DAY ONE Lands End to Okehampton 104 miles 9042ft
The RAB alarm clock of Queen’s ‘I Want To Ride My Bicycle’ was blasted around the campsite at 5:30 just to alert anyone who wasn’t fully awake by then that the adventure had begun. Being very aware that I would be one of the slower riders, I pushed my way to the front of an ever-increasing crocodile of riders approaching the start line at 6:30. I knew I was going need every minute of riding time until the 7pm cut off to reach Okehampton. In any event, the journey had started and in theory all I had to do to get to JOG was keep pedalling.
St Michael’s Mount was the first real landmark of the morning glimpsed through drizzle it still looked impressive. Today’s route was to cover some 17 climbs according to Strava, the highest being the Minions on Bodmin Moor at 980 ft. The sun came out and I actually remember enjoying some early parts of the morning.
Around lunchtime, rumours began circulating that there was a road closure somewhere ahead so we would be taking a diverted route. Well, with lovely sunshine and fellow cyclists to chat to, who would be worried about a little detail like a change in route?
I ticked off the place names and climbs and conquered the Minions. Surely, I would reach Okehampton soon? The total elevation reading on my Garmin was telling me that I should be there already. Threshold have very strict rules regarding cut off times at pit stops and at the end of each day. If you arrive outside of the cut-off times you incur a strike. And three strikes and you are out of RAB. On the face of it this might seem harsh however despite being a rider who was constantly under the time cosh, I can see why it is necessary for such a large event.
So, approaching the finish line along with a few other slower riders, at 7:10, I had an impending sense of dread that a strike was heading my way. We were greeted on the finish line by Andy Cook, the wonderfully supportive race director who announced to the relief of us all that no one would get a strike today as the road closure had resulted in an extra 800 ft of climbing! An unfortunate young RABBER had collided with a vehicle sustaining a head injury and had to be airlifted to hospital in Plymouth. He spent a week unconscious but hear has now recovered thankfully.
DAY TWO Okehampton to Bath 113miles 7680ft
Not quite so much climbing today but still a challenge with Cothelstone Hill and Cheddar Gorge on our route and longer than originally planned as our overnight stop was changed a couple of weeks before the event started. So, once again the clock was ticking. A fair few riders either missed cut off times at the pit stops today or threw in the towel and got on the broom wagon, however with the support and encouragement of the chaperones, I reached Bath, but 20 mins after the 7pm cut off and I incurred my first strike.
The chaperones are the guardian angels of RAB. This amazing team of 30 riders – mostly men - just love riding their bikes and are recruited by RAB to support, help and supervise RABBERS out on the route. Mainly strong club riders and even one Olympian (Nathan Robertson) they were expert at sussing out who should be left alone, who wanted to chat and certainly on the first day, sniffing out who and who hadn’t completed the training programme.
Today was billed as one of the most beautiful days for
scenery; Chepstow Castle, Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley,
DAY FOUR Ludlow to Haydock Park 107miles 3589ft
A day we were all looking forward to (the shortest distance and virtually no climbing) the route took us through Herefordshire and on into the flat plains of Cheshire. I had high hopes of getting in at a reasonable time, having a leisurely shower, dinner and sorting out my kit. A few of us arrived together at 5:45pm thinking we had done well until bumping into a young guy Chris who told us that he had arrived in at 1:30pm, had food, showered and an afternoon nap! We told him we hated him ( he was actually a lovely guy). The serious point is though that for these faster riders, they crucially get more rest time than those of us out riding for 11-12 hours each day.
DAY 5 Haydock Park to Carlisle 120miles 6430ft
A memorable day in may ways and not all good…
A lovely sunny morning and the Cheshire lanes were proving wonderful cycling ground as we headed north towards the Lake District. With 900 riders taking part, I guess accidents are inevitable however when a rider comes off and is badly injured it brings the potential dangers of cycling into sharp focus. I was cycling with chaperone Jamie, a retired GP when the rider behind me skidded on a gravelly and potholed downhill section. I heard the crash and we ran back to find that the rider was unconscious and breathing heavily. An ambulance and RAB support vehicle were summoned and once further help arrived, I was told to carry on cycling . We later learned that the rider thankfully regained consciousness in the ambulance. His helmet which had sustained severe damage had most certainly saved him from a bad head injury. He was ‘lucky’ to escape with 3 broken ribs, a fractured collar bone and a punctured lung.
Day 5 includes one of
the iconic climbs of RAB; Shap Fell. I knew I would be hard pressed for time and
having stopped for the accident I was one of the last to leave pit stop 2. The
afternoon was scorching and en route to the start of the climb, I acquired the
company of three chaperones, Tom, Jim and Richard who made getting me to
Carlisle by 7pm, their afternoon project. Shap isn’t so much steep (nothing
greater than an average 2.6 % gradient) but just long, very long. It was
clearly decided that I needed distracting from the task in hand and Richard
took up the mantle of entertainer in chief. He is from Lancashire, with a broad
accent and made me laugh so much I nearly fell off my bike as he recited all
verses of ‘Albert and the Lion’ whilst ascending Shap. If you don’t know
this monologue, Google it, its hilarious.
Reaching the summit at 1400ft there still lay another 23 miles of undulating road to Carlisle to cover within our time deadline. The chaperone trio decided to give me a cycling masterclass. Reaching ridiculous speeds on the downhills I pedalled my way to camp under a volley of orders to ‘change gear’, ‘keep pedalling’, ‘keep on my wheel’. We made it with 2 minutes to spare and it felt wonderful. I had never ridden so fast in my life. Little did I know that that was to be my last full day of RAB.
DAY 6 Carlisle to Edinburgh 62miles 2510ft
Leaving Carlisle on a drizzly grey morning, a route landmark was in sight – the Scottish border. I had cycled the length of England in 5 and a bit days which felt like a real achievement. Like many cyclists, I had often experienced neck and shoulder pain after long rides so I didn’t pay too much attention when I felt the muscles in my neck stiffening up late morning. Stopping to stretch off the bike usually did the trick however I found myself stopping more and more frequently and realised that I was finding it hard to actually hold my head up. My discomfort and difficulty was spotted by one of the passing chaperones and he suggested that we pull off the route into a service station to check my neck out. Following him across a couple of roundabouts I realised that my ability to look up, or left or right was non-existent, not an ideal situation for a cyclist! It was pretty apparent that I couldn’t continue and would have to get on the broom wagon, the worst outcome and certainly not the option I wanted. I joined the band of that day’s retirees on the bus as we headed to Edinburgh.
Once back in camp I sought out the services of the physios who gave me a pummelling and applied some of the new wonder Rock Tape with the aim of my neck feeling better the next morning allowing me to continue cycling.
DAY 7 Edinburgh to Strathdon
Cycling that morning very soon revealed that my neck was still an issue and after ploughing on over the Forth Bridge to a small town called Kelty, I knew I couldn’t continue. With a heavy heart, I called the support crew and consoled myself in a café with a coffee and a sausage roll whilst waiting to be collected. This would be my third strike, so the end of RAB for me. A grim day on the broom wagon which would wend its way to Strathdon lay ahead. We picked up casualties of the gastric bug that was sweeping through the camp as well as a guy having an acute hypoglycaemic episode and others who had stopped riding for one reason or another. Strathdon was my last night on RAB and I travelled to Inverness and homeward the following day.
I do feel disappointed that I didn’t make it to JOG but have taken solace in the fact of what I did achieve. RAB was an amazing experience; cycling through beautiful and varied countryside, meeting a raft of wonderful supportive folks and achieving that incredible feeling of knowing that I have transported myself, under my own steam, from Lands End to the Scottish border. So, do I regret signing up for it? Not at all. It pushed me to limits that I would not have thought possible and an opportunity to see if there was more in me!
POSTSCRIPT: I have now seen a specialist physio/bike fitter who has diagnosed Upper Crossed Syndrome as the reason for my neck pain and lack of movement. He assures me that this fancy sounding ailment is very common in long distance cyclists but the good news is that it is easy to correct with exercises.