"You know Chang's doing 1000km's don't you?"
This news didn't come as a total surprise. The Christmas "holiday" isn't really a holiday when there is nowhere to go and nothing to do and our friend Tom would probably be the man we know most likely to make such a statement and then follow through on it. At that point our pedestrian hour long loop of the resi began to pale into insignificance and although we met him sporadically over the festive period we certainly didn't come close to finishing the original challenge this year let alone doubling it. In a year where the now traditional Festive 500 accepted indoor miles it's a timely reminder that outside is indeed free and that there's absolutely no replacement for genuine mental and physical graft. Being single and not having children probably helps as well but there is nothing to be taken away here at all.
Below is Tom's account of his feat. If it was light outside this Christmas there was a very good chance that he was on his bike. This might just be the start of something ridiculous.
N.B. Each date has the Strava file linked to view routes and rides.
I’d fully come to terms with my love for endurance cycling over the summer of 2020, after spending my teenage years into adulthood racing at an ‘elite’ level around the world. I absolutely loved racing, but I had a variety of set-backs at seemingly inconceivable times. In 2017, I had a horror season-ending crash in the very first race of the year, then upon returning the following year, I was diagnosed with severe anaemia and hypogonadism, completely debilitating me and leaving me with what was essentially chronic fatigue for over a year. Combining these two blockades with the completion of a BSc and the entrance into a MSc degree, the hectic life of university took over. Once I had overcome the underlying health conditions and recovered to full health, COVID-19 jumped in to ensure racing was still absolutely off the cards. This led to a frustrating few months, igniting a desire to go out and deal with this by spending all day on the bike, with friends but sometimes just with myself (especially over lockdown 1).
I came to the realisation that spending all day on my bike was the absolute pinnacle of my love of this sport. I suppose it was only through taking a break from racing in these conditions, when it wasn’t myself preventing myself from racing, that I could truly discover this. So here goes. My first step into endurance cycling proper.
The Festive 500 is an event held by the mammoth cycling brand Rapha, challenging anyone to ride a minimum of 500km between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. In the cold and icy Northern Hemisphere, this is quite an achievement. The leader-board, however, is often topped with ultra-endurance athletes doing as much as they possibly can during the time-frame, with many in the Southern Hemisphere riding all day and through the night, eventually clocking up over double the distance. But with the abandonment of a leader-board or aspect of competition this year, I set myself the goal of at least doubling it. A daunting, yet exciting task ahead, to mark my first step in future ultra-endurance goals.
05:30: I wake up with excitement. Today begins my challenge of riding 1000km on the bike between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. I’m going to kick it off with a 200km ride, something I’ve done before a few times but never deep in winter. That doesn’t matter now.
06:30: I miss the summer. Quite frankly, heading out on the bike for even one hour let alone eight during the winter in the northern hemisphere is a bit of a chore at the best of times. Why am I doing this? It’s 6am and pitch black. It’s just started to rain too. Lovely.
07:00: I head out; clad in the warmest and most waterproof clothing I have. My bike was packed with a frame bag full of food and spares, with no exact route planned other than meeting a friend in Blackmore to get to Saffron Walden. From there we’ll go our separate ways and I’ll head further north, somewhat indefinitely. I immediately remembered why I was doing this: I love it like nothing else.
08:30: I meet my friend, after riding 40km in and out the other side of a brilliant sunrise. It’s stopped raining, but my kit is damp through. Not the best way to start, but I soon forget about it.
08:45: I look down at my Garmin with surprise and am reminded that I’ve been out for nearly two hours. The break in my own isolation feels like I’ve just started a new ride. That’s good.
10:45: We reach Saffron Walden. The headwind has been heinous. I consume a hot chocolate and wrap some tin foil around my toes to keep them warm then crack on with the rest of my trip north. Once again I feel that I’ve just started, just this time with a good dusting of road spray
12:00: Just south of Newmarket. It’s snowing. There’s a massive flood behind me that I’ve just sacrificed the little warmth left in my feet to ride through. Time to get to the next village and head south again.
12:15: Tailwind. The god of cycling’s most coveted reward.
13:00: Back in Saffron Walden. 170km in. It’s going to be longer than 200km, but I embrace it and thank my body for being so compliant in its abuse.
13:05: I forgot there was a massive hill to get out of Saffron Walden. I’m crying inside.
14:00: Home straight. I stop at the bakery in Dunmow, and ask for something as calorific as possible to build the morale. I’m asked where I’ve been: I say the list is too long, and just tell them the distance. Naturally, my sanity is questioned.
14:05: I’m devouring a huge Biscoff brownie. It literally tastes of success. As I wash it down with my bottle’s ice-cold contents, I notice that I’ve only drunk two 500ml bottles in nearly 7 hours. Oops.
14:45: I’m home. 220km. My mother has cooked and I eat every mouthful of this sweet potato and chickpea curry that I can possibly manage. I experience that sweet taste of success again.
15:30: I scuttle to the shower and devour its warmth, considering how strange the concept of Christmas is at this time. I listen to some unconventionally loud drum and bass. My parents don’t know what to think.
20:30: I lay in bed and within a minute I’m asleep.
06:30: It’s Christmas. I’ve always woken up early on Christmas day. Generally, it was a culmination of pure excitable joy; knowing that I could finally open what I have been longing for – in front of me for days with only a paper-thin layer of wrapping hiding its true identity. What a brilliant day Christmas is.
06:40: As I rise, I notice my mother has filled a stocking for tradition’s sake. This year it’s filled with chocolate and ride-food. She’s always been brilliant with presents.
07:00: Breakfast. I find myself eating rice on Christmas day at 7am. Wow. If only The Three Wise Men could see me now.
07:30: Roll out. A couple of hours to do before meeting a mate at 10. Since I began cycling nine years ago, I’ve always done an early ride before Christmas day truly begins. This year’s Christmas ride was to be the longest and earliest, but this Christmas was also to be different in a hundred other ways. The task ahead of me helped to keep my mind off that.
07:35: It’s not raining today, it’s another couple of degrees colder instead.
A sight for sore pies
08:00: The most beautiful sunrise I have ever witnessed in Essex. I take some time to absorb it. It’s inexplicably beautiful, grand and loud in its colour and size. I decide not to take a photo.
08:30: I turn to head the direction of the low and radiant sun. I fumble about on my helmet assuming I had indeed left with my glasses perched in between the helmet vents. I was wrong, in my already fatigued state, I had forgotten them. Now I’m blind, and begin diverting back towards home to get them.
09:45: Fortunately, I’m meeting my said mate close to home. I walk through the door to the surprise of my parents who assume that their son had cracked and sensibly decided to spend the whole of Christmas with them. How wrong they were. I pick up my glasses, eat a couple of mince pies, comment on the incredible sunrise and leave them slightly disappointed.
10:00: I tell myself I’ve just started. Just heading out on a 60km ride.
12:30: 121km flies by, and my promise to be back by mid-day is kept. Now time for festivities and food. I won’t be in a calorie deficit.
07:00: I’m tired. Getting out today is going to be a slog. It’s dark, it’s dismal. I decide that I can’t face another pre-dawn roll out.
08:00: I’m finally up and eating breakfast, although not much. I’m still pretty full from our families Christmas dinner. I’m meeting a mate at 09:30 for a couple of hours. I’ll see how the body is and hopefully get another 200km in.
09:30: I set off. I feel horrendous. Everything hurts. My friend reminds me that the third day will probably be the hardest. I acknowledge his statement and pray that it’s true. I haven’t often felt worse than this.
10:30: Somehow, my system re-boots. I’m not sure what’s happened but I’ve woken up again. I feel alive. Yes.
11:00: I leave my mate and embark on a spontaneous journey to Mersea Island. It’s bleak, windy and cold. What better day for it?
12:15: I’m at Mersea Island. Low tide. The marshes are beautiful even at their bleakest.
12:30: Shop stop time. 4 Danish pastries and some Volvic fruity water was the choice of today. I was drinking more today; it was a little warmer. My appetite had made a spectacular return, too.
13:00: I find myself doing a lap of the Abberton Reservoir. A beautiful nature reserve and a location that had been for so many years associated with hard-line road racing, as the centrepiece of some of England’s biggest races. Battles had been done here, crashes had been had and both positive and negative emotions had flown. Right now, there was nothing; just absorption of the environment and the moment itself.
14:00: I face the headwind. I had been riding for a while in tailwind and I knew what was coming. I just wasn’t thinking about it.
15:00: It’s getting dark, in my desire to get home as quick as possible I find myself on a huge A-road between Coggeshall and Braintree. I get off it once I realise it was very unpleasant. A dog walker tells me I’m crazy riding on that and that I should take the back road through Cressing. He was right, the lanes were beautiful. My desire to rush home is replaced with the feeling of new-found adventure.
15:40: Not far from home now but still on the lanes. Lights on full flash. It’s started to rain. I don’t even care. I’m enjoying this adventure in the dark.
16:00: My mood changes. It’s pitch-black, increasingly wet and I’m getting hungry again. I’m a couple of kilometres from home. I’ve passed 175km, 25km short of my target at the start of the day. Do I, Don’t I….
16:05. I don’t. Before I know it, I’m back home in the warmth, ending the ride at 177km in just under 6 hours. My parents are concerned, telling me I shouldn’t be out after dark. I’ve got good lights I tell them, I’m fine.
17:00: A big dinner. I crawl to the shower. I spend 45 minutes in there, listening to the loudest and most vibrant bassline music I know. Somehow, I’m excited for tomorrow. My parents wonder how on earth they’ve brought up such an odd kid.
07:30: There’s been a huge storm overnight. Trees are down and lanes are flooded left, right and centre. It’s dark, almost ominous as I wake up. I question whether I’ll make it out. I have to be back early today for some meetings related to my PhD proposals. Maybe a day off would be wise?
08:00. I look at the forecast for the hundredth time. I decide that the ice of tomorrow and the sun of one hour’s time equalled a good decision to ride today. Here goes. 140km will do.
09:00. Back on the road. Nobody to meet today. I ignore my body’s sensations, knowing that it doesn’t matter whether I feel good or bad. All that matters is that I’m going to head north to some of my favourite lanes. The sun’s out.
10:00: I come across the fifth flood. They’re big today. I accept that my feet are going to get wet and think about future trends of flooding. Will this become normal?
11:30: Lots of planes as I ride past Stansted runway. Mostly cargo but I do spot one Ryanair. I ponder where each flight is going or coming from. Isn’t air travel fascinating? My mind begins on a journey as I consider the fundamental lack of sustainability associated with aviation. Maybe Stansted will be flooded someday soon. Karma is real, after all.
13:00: It’s gone by quick today. My mind is having great fun, playing with the roadside stimuli. I’m an hour away from home as I decide to head back, knowing that I’ll probably do a loop.
13:30: An impassable flood. It’s deep and even the cars aren’t planning on challenging it. I turn around and accept that I’m now in for a bit of pressure, knowing that I need to be on Skype by 14:30 but the way home is about 40 minutes on a good day.
14:15: I’m through the door and fed, a military-grade operation which I learnt to perfect when arriving home from training with 15 minutes to spare before a lecture at uni. Good times. I run up the stairs and prepare my notes. My supervisor is running late. I let off a huge sigh of relief.
16:00: A good meeting, but I’m in knackered. I take a nap. Bad decision.
18:00: I’m awoken by Greek cakes arriving, courtesy of family. I eat way too much. Time for some tavli.
01:00: I’m in bed, only just going to sleep after some festivities. Uh oh.
09:00: I wake up and look outside at white roofs, covered in frost and icy puddles in the street. I’m tired, really tired.
11:00: I connect the turbo trainer and enter the virtual world of Zwift. After less than half an hour I stop and decide to take a day off and go hard tomorrow. Virtual rides on Zwift count for the Festive 500 this year. But doing 500km also counts. I’m doing 1000km and I’m doing it in the real world.
06:00: It’s bloody freezing outside. I don’t think it’s any warmer than yesterday. But I’ve committed to myself that today is the day. I’m going to do 230km and round up to 900km.
07:00: I’m on the road. I’ve got layers upon layers on, and I’m actually quite warm (contrary to the registered 0 degrees). I’ll keep to main roads until dawn, then I’ll meet a friend and explore some new roads in Hertfordshire.
08:00: Dawn. I don’t even notice it. It’s so dark today, the cloud seems as thick as the atmosphere itself. Great day to be on the bike for 8 hours.
09:00: 55km down, I begin part 2 of my ride after meeting my friend. Fortunately, he says he’s unfit. I thank my guardian angels.
12:30: 140km down. Some beautiful Hertfordshire lanes fly by in warm company. I leave my friend with a shot of tequila, and begin my task of completing another 100km, part 3. I head east to the coast. At least that way I can ensure there are no shortcuts home. I love the coast.
15:00: Everything in the past 2.5 hours was a bit of a blur. I’m in my favourite part of Essex, rolling through the Tolleshunt lanes. 200km ticks by. I’m probably an hour from home.
15:30: I reach Heybridge and find an Asda. It’s getting dark and I’m getting hungry as hell. I eat about a thousand calories and feel ready to battle the crosswind home. 20km to go.
16:00: 234km and with a great feeling of elation and pleasure I return. What a day.
17:00 Ok, I can’t stand up. My left calf is in agony. I stretch and foam roll for 30 minutes, knowing that tomorrow must go ahead.
20:00. I’m in bed, filled from head to toe with food, fatigue and messages of encouragement from friends. The final adventure tomorrow.
06:30: I’m up and feeling excited again. I can stand up - the pain in my left calf has dissipated, slightly. Only 95km left to do today but I had other ideas. I’m meeting a friend from London and we’re going to deep Hertfordshire today. Another adventure on the cards.
07:30: My appetite has warped from sweet to savoury. I find myself eating an M&S chickpea mayo sandwich on top of my original breakfast. At 7am. This is heresy.
08:15: It’s cold today. Freezing, in fact. Usually, I put foil over my socks but today I’m going for a plastic bag. Apparently it’s good.
08:30: I’m off. The weather is a stark contrast to yesterday. Radiant sunshine, white fields and misty trees. I’m riding slow but feeling invigorated by this weather, in the knowledge that my goal of 1000km is all but complete.
08:45: The ice is crazy today. I decide to take the main roads for now.
09:30: I meet my mate in Abridge. We chuckle about how cold it is. As we climb up to Theydon Bois, we pass a huge car crash that had been sectioned off by police. It had been caused by sheet ice. We looked at ourselves in terror, contemplating the sanity of our decision to subject ourselves to these lethal icy roads.
10:00: We pass a Giro D’Italia winner. Big up Tao. Ice can’t stop you if you’re ice cold yourself.
11:30: We’re deep in Hertfordshire now and recall our reasons for embarking on this trip. New roads and new landscapes are always worth it.
12:00: I pass my 1000km total. I smile and survey the beauty of the rolling, pre-Chiltern landscape.
13:30: Back in Essex. We stop at an M&S food hall. I eat a packet of “Christmas” jaffa cakes and down some Coke. I’ve ridden 120km but the company has seen it fly by. I’m 30km from home but the caffeine has invigorated me to finish off my challenge with a final 100 mile (160km) ride. Loop time.
15:00: I reach home on 161km and a 1066km total. Give. Me. Food.
15:30: My left calf is in a state of constant cramp. I really can’t stand up now. Send help.
18:00: I still haven’t showered. I haven’t stopped grazing either. I’m slumped over the kitchen table with a hot water bottle to hand and feel somewhat detached from reality. I am finished.
18:30: I finally drag myself to the shower, and sit down. A seated shower is the sign of defeat. I more than happily admit that.
21:00: The week is complete, one day in advance. 7 days, 6 rides. My ability to conquer this gives me a warm sense of wonder for the future, excitement for summer trips and future goals post-lockdown. One thing is for sure, it certainly saved a would-be crappy Christmas.
Thanks, Rapha. Over and out.
"My parents wonder how on earth they’ve brought up such an odd kid."