Mike Simpson

(ab)Normal

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I really must remember to be more-vague when answering the ‘what did you do at the weekend?’ question, especially to non-cyclists. My reply today was met with a confused reaction. I think they a) thought I was lying and b) thought I was a freak.

My aim for Saturday was to ride a lap of London without venturing inside the M25. Now the M25 is 117miles in total, but riding outside it and keeping to quiet roads meant it would be close to 200miles. Adding a few detours to include specific hills the planned route was finalised at 213 miles. I had dreamt up the route last August but I didn’t have time to ride it before the cyclocross season. As soon as that ended I gave it a go. However mid-January was not a clever time to attempt it, within 25 miles I was soaking wet, very cold and riding through flooded lanes. A closed road then made me realise things were conspiring against me, I turned back. Home by 9am having ridden only 50miles was disappointing but I knew I’d return to the challenge.

Now April, better weather, more daylight and less flooded roads, it was game on. I started at first light. I knew the first 50 miles and the last 50 miles of the route well but the middle 100 miles was to be all new to me. I had written a stats list and taped it to my top tube, just a guide really, a dozen points of reference on the route, to break things up a bit. The first one is the 50 mile point at Chestnut Lake where I plan to stop for a coffee. Last time I was here there was a lovely barista van. As I pulled in I was hoping I wasn’t too early and it would be open but in fact it wasn’t there at all. Caffeine-less I pressed on.

Soon after I was in uncharted territory, I didn’t know the next 100 miles at all. I soon discovered the downside of plotting a route on quiet roads. Sometimes they are not roads at all! I followed my Garmin route along a rough track and then an off road path (well it was Paris Roubaix weekend) up to a ‘private no entry’ sign. Oops, back along the off road and I try and re-route. I get back to the road but I soon realise my only alternative is a road that goes under the M25, riding inside it is not allowed in my whole ethos of the trip. I stop 50 metres from the underpass. Decisions, decisions, do I break my rule and dip inside the M25, or plough on through pass the private land sign? Sod it, how private can it be? So it’s another U turn and back down the rough track for the third time. Into the private estate and luckily it’s still early so no one I around. Within a mile I’m back on the public road. Panic over.

Panic over that is until an hour or so later when my quest for quiet traffic free roads leads me into trouble again. Through Thorndon Park, initially it’s ok, nice deserted tarmac. I soon get the impression that I’m not going to pop out the other side too easily. The road narrows, I pass a ‘no vehicles beyond this point’ sign, the road turns into a track, still ok but then it turns into a path. I’m committed to this route so I just plough on……. into a ploughed field!!! I am so off road at this point I couldn’t help but laugh. I’m struggling through mud on a road bike during a 200 mile ride, it wasn’t even a footpath. I stubbornly continue to follow the pink line on my Garmin screen. After two fields I return to a footpath, then a track and finally appear back on tarmac. It’s an adventure after all.

All this skylarking has slowed me up and I had a ferry to catch. Obviously I had no intention of using the Dartford Tunnel so my only option was the Tilbury passenger ferry (not in service on Sundays). I had the ferry times but my off road excursion had delayed me and I would have to catch a later ferry than planned. However another route cock up (i.e. another unrideable path) meant I was heading to the port on the wrong road. At this stage I was flat out trying to get to the ferry. Despite another couple of wrong turns I made it but had expended a lot of energy and I was not yet halfway.

Now on the other side of the Thames I was keen to get through Gravesend asap, Saturday lunchtime and there was far too many people and traffic. This is where I made a major school boy error. Out of water I should have stopped but a busy high street is no place to leave my bike and go into a shop, so I decide to wait to get on the outskirts of town to buy water. It’s a testament to my quiet route that for the next 20 miles there was absolutely nowhere to buy water. I did not even see anyone in their garden I could ask. An hour or so without water on a long ride is stupid and although I had food, my legs needed water. I was slowing and struggling a bit. Luckily I had arranged to meet Davina for lunch at 120 miles. A few pints of milk and a couple of boiled eggs later and I was ready to head off again, now with my support van behind me.

I do not use energy drinks and rarely use energy bars. I prefer malt loaf and bananas to eat and water and skimmed milk to drink during rides. I used to use Torq bars a lot but over the years they had become smaller and smaller, they are now about half the size they were 7 years ago. Do they think their customer base are idiots? Into the second half of a long ride I switch from sweet food to savoury and at 140miles I crack open the salty nuts to prevent any cramping late on.

I could have used 30 miles of the A25 all the way from Sevenoaks to Dorking. It would have been so much quicker and easier but that was not the point of the ride. I also wanted to include some new climbs. York’s Hill and Toys Hill are included in Simon Warren’s excellent ‘100 Greatest Cycling Climbs’ book, so I plotted a somewhat convoluted route to include them. By this stage I was not in a state to attack them hard but it was good to ride them. I make it to Box Hill and now I am back on familiar roads. It was fantastic riding down Box Hill, I am used to riding up it and had not really ever taken the time to admire the views on the descent. It was great payback to ride fast down it but the two climbs before and after Box Hill (Pebble Hill and Ranmore Road) are savage.

I find that time speeds up during long rides. That first hour really drags on, but then time seems to go by progressively quicker. In the second half the miles fly by. I’m also now increasing the pace as the ride gets closer to finishing. I temporarily lose my support van as I cross a footbridge over the A3 (I avoid all main junctions, I hate fighting traffic), but we re-group for the traditional 200mile quick curry stop in Sunningdale (well I broke the rule slightly here and stopped at 190miles). Now it was just a case of riding home through Ascot and Maidenhead, although somehow I managed to get lost in Ascot and ended up adding a few miles to the trip.

Riding into your home town after being out all day is always a great sensation. I am sometimes hit with jealously when I wonder what the people I see in town have been doing all day when I’ve been stuck on my bike. Shopping, chilling, seeing friends, having fun. But these thoughts are quickly dismissed as I appreciate the simple pleasures that a long ride brings. When I look back on it all, the races and the hard sessions will all play second fiddle to that sense of wellbeing that you get at the end of a long day in the saddle and when my body no longer permits me to spend all day riding, I think it will be these vintage days I’ll miss the most.

So as the gentleman who asked me about my weekend walks off somewhat perplexed, I have to reassure myself that, at least it is normal to me. Last year a chap swam the entire coast from Land’s End to John O’Groats (www.seanconway.com) and a friend rode across the Alps in one ride (www.mikecotty.co.uk) , so with the company I keep, I’m far from a freak.



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