Mid Winter 200 miler - Observations of a recently thawed out cyclist!
Pascal here. As I type this up today, the morning after the day before, there are still a couple of finger tips where I haven't quite regained full feeling - the joy of riding long in winter! In this article I will cover some of the key components of the ride, to give an insight into the type of training we are undertaking at the moment, ready to cycle across America next July.
It will hopefully also act as a potential guide to others who may be planning their own long winter ride. With that in mind, I have categorised my observations so that people can jump to sections which may be of interest. It's a bit of a long post, so might be worth grabbing a cuppa first...!
Hydration - Along with eating regularly, keeping yourself hydrated is absolutely key. Failing to do so will undermine your entire ride, it's vital you keep the fluids going in throughout the day. It's too late to start drinking once you're thirsty, at that point you will already be starting to become dehydrated, then it all starts to fall apart a little! When riding long in winter it is invariably pretty cold, you have no natural reminder to keep drinking and you often won't feel like it - unlike in the summer, when the sun beating down on you is a constant reminder that you should be sipping away. I found that I was really having to force the drink down yesterday, especially given how ice cold my drink bottle content was.
For that reason, both Dan and I apply a '20 minute cycle' to our rides, which originates from our flying days in the military. When flying sorties, all military aircrew strictly adhere to the ‘20 minute cycle’, every 20 mins we do the following: check fuel levels, make a radio call back to base, check all aircraft systems are working correctly, check all weapon systems are ready and make a note of position. This is done without fail, on the hour, 20 past and then again at 20 to, it becomes habit and guarantees you assess your situation regularly. It allows you to pick up issues early, we always apply this technique when we are on our bikes. Now, we don’t have any weapons on our bikes, so we have instead adapted it to make it food and drink based!
Using this routine, we make sure we are regularly downing some drink and eating (yet another!) chunk of energy bar, thus guaranteeing we don’t ‘bonk’ on our longer rides. This technical (ish) term describes what happens when a cyclist runs out of energy later in their ride, due to his/her failure to eat and drink enough earlier on. Your only remaining option at that point is to curtail your ride, then deny to any of your mates that you ever even went out in the first place...Well, that’s what we’d do anyway!
In terms of specifics, I ride with two 1 litre bottles on the bike, one for water and the other containing an electrolyte mixture, alternating between the two and drinking in equal measure over the course of the ride. We use RAWVELO products, as they are supporting the expedition – we like that they are completely organic (no weird ingredients that you can’t even pronounce in them!), and they work for us. It’s a personal choice, and I’m sure others have brands that work for them. My suggestion is to stick with an electrolyte drink that works personally for you, you don’t want to be finding out mid way through a 14 hour ride that the new brand you’re trying out for the first time doesn’t agree with your stomach, nobody wants that! If you are unsure, try out options on a shorter ride, until you have full confidence in your choice.
Nutrition – Much of the hydration points above apply equally to nutrition, we stick to the ‘20 minute cycle’ for both, and that works really well for us. I include gels here, for some reason gels can really vary between brands, in terms of their potential impact on the stomach. Without going into too much detail on the potential negative effects, I would definitely, definitely recommend a bit of trial and error on the gel front. Whilst for me there is nothing funnier than seeing Dan having to regularly leap off his bike and towards the nearest bushes for some emergency ablutions action, this has the potential to ruin any longer ride.
On my 200 miler yesterday I went without gels throughout, I far prefer solid fuel. On a longer ride, speed is far less of an issue, you can slow down (even stop completely, which I do for some foods) and enjoy some delightful baked products – pain au chocs, croissants, brownies, eccles cakes, hot cross buns (a valid choice all year around, in my opinion), etc, it’s half the fun of the ride. It’s not like in a triathlon when you’re pedalling frantically whilst trying to throw gels down your neck every 15 mins, to avoid your pace dropping. In such races I generally end up throwing most of the gel over my face, in my hair, all over my cycling gloves, anywhere but into my mouth basically. Either that or I end up dropping the bloody gel sachet whilst trying to open it whilst cycling, narrowly missing a roadside tree in the process!
Little and often is the best policy, for both hydration and nutrition on longer rides. When we are not in the midst of a national pandemic and café/pub stops become an option again, I would thoroughly recommend planning such a stop every 50 miles or so. That in turn helps break up a long ride into more manageable chunks, which is psychologically easier to deal with than setting off and staring down the barrel of a 14 hour non-stop ride. I did exactly this yesterday, and found it tough (thanks to COVID Tier 4 restrictions). In normal times, I would have positioned a country pub stop at the 120 mile point and stopped for a proper 45 minute meal and sit down off the bike. It gives you something to focus on during the first half, and by the 120 mile stage you will have broken the back of the ride and it’s all downhill home from the pub (psychologically, unless you’re riding up and down a mountain).
Clothing – Neither Dan nor I come from traditional road biking backgrounds, so we probably don’t take the most traditional approach to how we dress for our rides. However, we both spend a lot of time in the outdoors enjoying other pursuits (hiking, climbing, skiing, mountaineering, etc..), so we know the importance of dressing correctly, particularly when the temperature drops. On longer winter rides, you don’t need to be dressed head to toe in a lycra skinsuit, it’s really not about minimising wind resistance and saving time – it's about avoiding the onset of hypothermia! Yesterday, with the temperature between 0-3 °C throughout, I was layered up to the max. This included a merino base layer throughout, under my cycling tights in the case of the lower half. I also doubled up in the sock and glove departments, with thin merino socks/gloves beneath my main outer socks/gloves. Whilst merino base layers are that bit more expensive, they are absolutely worth the extra cost, do it! I generally finish off my foot area with neoprene overshoes. Whether rain is forecast or not, overshoes offer additional warmth and I wouldn’t go on a winter ride of 2+ hours without some on.
Finishing off on the top half, over the base layer went two mid layers and then a waterproof top layer (taped seams, to stop any water getting in for as long as possible). One of my two mid layers had a hood that I tucked under my helmet, a buff over my neck and chin area completed the sexy look!
On the subject of rain, I chose to go yesterday as the forecast was largely rain free. Unless I had no other option, I would not go on a 150+ mile winter ride if rain was forecast throughout the day. You will not be able to keep dry, you will become wet and cold after a couple of hours, you will not enjoy it – any idiot can be cold and wet, best to be avoided. Speaking as someone who has been cold and wet many, many times in my own military career!
The one downside to not having cycling specific clothing, becomes apparent when the pockets are loaded up. Typically, cycle clothing has its storage pockets on the back of the top. For my ride yesterday, I was wearing outdoor kit with pockets on the front. Once I’d stuffed the pockets full of snacks, I looked like an 8 months pregnant woman, a strong and unusual look for a guy to rock. Luckily, there were few other people stupid enough to be setting off at 6 am for a 14-hour ride in freezing temperatures, so my street cred remained intact (at 0%…).
Route Planning – Whenever I go long (150+ miles), I always front load the route with difficulty. Yesterday was no exception, I included the majority of the elevation in the front half of the route, leaving a downhill/flatter second half. This is great for when morale and energy start to drop, psychologically knowing that you’ve done most of the hard work. The same applies to wind, where possible. Although sometimes harder to plan, I will always have my first half into a headwind (I work off the principle that the prevailing wind in southern England is generally from the south west). As with elevation, this then leaves you with a lovely tailwind pushing you back home in the second half, to your awaiting hot bath.
I use the Strava route planning function, which you need to pay £5 a month for. It’s generally pretty good, I will use the route popularity heatmap when going into unknown areas, relying on routes that local cyclists typically use. Occasionally you end up on boggy canal towpath (happened yesterday at the 11 hour point, there was much swearing. Apologies to the residents of Woking, you didn’t need to hear some of those words!), but on the whole it works well. Dan uses bike mapping service Komoot, which he finds to be good.
As mentioned earlier, when not in the midst of a global pandemic, I would always structure my long rides around café/pub stops every 50 miles. This then allows you to work in 3 hour (ish) chunks of riding, which is far easier to process than one 10-15 hour block of riding. You can look forward to proper food and regular breaks out of the saddle, saves you carrying 25 energy bars too and looking like an expectant mother (with a beard, hmm)! This wasn't an option for me yesterday, I had to instead look longingly into fire lit country houses, as I cycled past trying to remember what it felt like being able to feel my hands and feet.
Not a planning issue as such, but worth mentioning pace at this point. When going long, I’ve found it is really important to start slow, proper slow. For me, this means riding at 80% of normal pace for the first 2/3 of the ride. To put figures on that, if I am riding up to and including 100 miles, I will ride at 17-18 mph. For 150+ miles, I will ride at 13-14 mph, only increasing above that pace for the final third of the ride, if I am feeling comfortable and in a good place with regards my hydration/nutrition. If you push too hard too early, you will struggle in the last part. You will likely still complete, but the final 50 miles will be unnecessarily emotional. Been there, done that! Only a box of 6 Krispy Kreme Donuts from a petrol station got me through that particular ride....
Electronics – I am more of a runner by background, where you just lace up your trainers and get out the door for an hour. Cycling, different ball game, there is so much electronic kit! When you start riding for 10+ hours, you then run into the issue of battery charge limitations, particularly if you can’t stop for a quick recharge enroute (eg at a café), as was the case for me yesterday. The main components to consider are: lights, bike computer, bike computer back up (more of that later...) and mobile phone. I’ll run through what I did for my ride, with each.
Starting at 6 am, I had 2 hours of dark riding in the morning. Finishing at 10 pm, I then had another 6 hours of darkness in the evening. Most bike lights have a battery life of 4-6 hours ish, depending on the mode (high power setting, low power setting, flashing, etc...) you use them in. This meant that I had to take two sets of front and back lights, one for the morning session of darkness and then a second set for the evening session. Clearly, in summer you could do such a ride fully in daylight, so you’re sorted. I did not have that luxury. I also always ride with a head torch tucked away somewhere on me, useful to have when trying to do things in the pitch black you encounter on country lanes by night (eg open a food packet, adjust an item of clothing, etc..). It also acts as my emergency bike light, in the event that I get a double battery failure on the front or back lights, I just wrap the head torch onto the bike.
As a final thought on bike lights for country lanes at night, we aim for 500 lumens brightness, any less and you might not see the endless pot holes we have on our crap roads!
If you have a basic bike computer like me (Garmin 520), you will encounter battery life issues on rides of 150+ miles. The battery life of such items is about 10-12 hours, which generally leaves me 2-3 hours short on longer rides, even when fully charged at the start. To offset this issue, I have my Garmin running watch (Garmin 235 Forerunner) on my wrist for longer rides, as a bike computer back up for when the bike computer runs out of battery. I then start the running watch in bike mode to capture the last few hours, once my bike computer gives up. Once home, you can actually combine the two activities into one ride summary, using an online programme called ‘gotoes’ (www.gotoes.org). I’m a bit of a technophobe, and it only takes me 5 mins to combine the activity, it’s very self-explanatory – but you must have Strava to use it (I believe).
The mobile phone is a crucial bit of kit, and should go with you (fully charged) whenever you head into the great outdoors. It can save your life, and often does save the lives of those stranded in the UK hills. As a result, I keep my fully charged mobile fully switched off and in my pocket on longer rides. If it all goes wrong, it is your lifeline for finding out where you are/researching public transport options home/contacting the emergency services/locating nearby food options in extremis/some out of area tinder swiping/calling someone to pick you up – delete as appropriate, you get the idea. It’s an invaluable piece of kit.
I only crack it out for entertainment value (music/podcast) when I am within a couple of hours of home, and know the options for getting home if it all goes wrong with the bike (big mechanical fail). At that point, I crank up the mid 90s hip hop or 80s power rock and storm the last 30 odd miles home, singing loudly for the benefit of passing members of the public (again, sorry to the residents of Woking, I am a truly awful singer. But how can you not sing along to Meat Loaf or Guns N’ Roses?). At that stage, it is very much a morale item, it was much needed in that role yesterday. Listening to a bit Stormzy for the final 90 minutes took my mind off the hypothermia.
The Mental Side – In endurance activities, mental resilience is important and obtained through experience. Having completed multiple marathons, ultramarathons, endurance rides and triathlons up to Ironman length, I am pretty well acquainted with the devil and the angel that sit on my shoulders during such long events. Yesterday they were both along for the ride, joy! There were peaks and there were troughs, there always are. My advice is always to wait for them to pass, they always do.
Taking the peaks first. These usually come earlier in the ride, when you are full of beans. I always feel strong during these peaks, and the natural temptation is to push harder. The key discipline is to avoid doing this, as you will pay for it later in the ride. I always think of it in terms of the ‘long game’. It’s hard when you are riding familiar hills, and others are passing you up them, when usually they might not. Just remember, they probably aren’t riding a 200 miler! Unless it’s someone like Mark Beaumont, in which case he is probably riding a 500 miler, at some insanely fast pace.
And then there are the troughs! They can come out of nowhere, and make you start doubting you can complete. These ALWAYS pass, you just need to work through them. For the trough times yesterday, I fended off the doubt by concentrating on the aforementioned ‘20 minute cycle’, concentrating on what delights I will have to eat/drink at my next one and trying to guess what mileage figure I will be at when I get there (the mental maths always takes me ages....!) Focusing my mind on tactical level detail like this stops it from getting lost on the big strategic questions (will I finish? 8 hours still to go? Will is start raining in 3 hours times?...All wasted energy really), I then find the trough naturally passes and I’m back in the game.
We focus a lot on the physical, but it’s important to train the mind. My long ride yesterday was part of that process, mental resilience is going to be a key aspect of our America expedition. Cycling 100 miles day after day, for 40 days is going to take plenty of mental toughness. With it being mid-summer at that point, at least we will be able to feel our hands and feet.....
The main aspect that is driving us on through the winter months is the cause of our challenge, to raise awareness and funds for military mental health. The troughs we encounter on our cold rides pale into insignificance when compared to the long term and deep mental health impact operating in a warzone has on many serving personnel. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity does truly fantastic work supporting personnel and their families through the dark times, all proceeds from our ride will go directly to the charity - if you have any spare change, it would be epic if you would consider donating at:
I hope that was insightful and perhaps useful to others. If in doubt, get out and ride!