Trafalgar Way Ride Report: Racing a Messenger over 300 miles!
Pascal here. As we rode out of Falmouth town centre it was hailing so hard that I couldn’t properly open my eyes or indeed feel my face! Still, only 304 miles to go…And so Dan and I were off, on our latest unsupported cycling challenge as we ready ourselves for our mighty 5000km cycle across the USA in July. For our latest two wheeled adventure, we would be cycling 305 miles from Falmouth (Cornwall) to central London.
Why? I hear you ask. Valid question! As two serving officers in the Royal Navy, we wanted this challenge to be topical, so we decided to take on the messenger who delivered the news of the victory of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Said messenger, Lt Lapenotiere, sailed directly from the Battle of Trafalgar (located just off the Spanish coast) to Falmouth, got off his ship and then travelled by horse to London at best speed. We would be following his route and attempting to beat his time of 38 hours, using our bikes rather than a horse.
SPOILER ALERT. We won!
The plan was a simple one. Start on Friday morning, ride 150 miles from Falmouth to Bridport (Dorset), find a Wetherspoons to eat multiple mixed grills in and have a quick rest, then continue on another 150 miles to London, arriving Saturday evening.
The first half of the ride was spent cycling either up a hill or down a hill, welcome to Cornwall and Devon. Dan lives in Cornwall, and so is very used to this type of cycling. I live in London, and so am not! What’s more, to best simulate our USA ride, we had fully loaded our touring bikes to ensure maximum weight. This added an extra layer of difficulty to the endless climbing, but meant we bombed down the hills at about a billion mph because our bikes weighed a tonne!
Ultra-endurance cycling is a long game, the key is to ride comfortably within yourself at a sustainable pace or else you will pay the price several days later in the ride. When you are fresh and keen to push on, it takes real discipline to keep your speed down and we had to make a conscious effort to do so for the first few hours. So far, so good.
And then the mechanical issue hit! My gear shifters failed about 50 miles in, leaving me unable to change gears on the rear wheel. My front derailleur was still working, so in summary I had access to only 2 of my usual 20 gears. To add insult to injury, this happened just as the hills of Dartmoor loomed on the horizon. This was going to get emotional!
My two remaining gears meant getting up the hills involved a lot of grinding and stomping on the pedals, and on the downhills and flats I was left unable to transfer any real power from my legs to my bike. Every time I tried, my legs would spin around in fresh air without any resistance, like those of a cartoon character and hilarious for Dan to watch. Less hilarious for me as the guy on the bike with 250 miles left to ride…I was limited to a top speed of 15.8 mph for the rest of the ride!
Still, this is what unsupported endurance cycling is all about. Things like this happen, it’s all about how you react to the difficulties and find solutions. By way of solution, Dan managed to find a Cornish pasty shop nearby, we filled our faces with a couple of dustbin lid sized beauts and ‘got on with it’. Whilst not 100% ideal, we made solid progress for the rest of the day, passing through Devon and on into Dorset as the sun went down. The temperature really dropped after dark, well below freezing, and we once again lost feeling in our faces ‘a la Falmouth depart’! Soon enough we found our mid-point Wetherspoons, made a lot of mixed grill go into our tummies and then rested in the warmth of the pub for a few hours to recharge our electronics and our heavy legs that were already filled with 12,000 ft of climbing.
Before we knew it, it was time to head back out into the cold and continue our cycle. ‘You don’t win races by sitting in warm pubs’, we told ourselves. Which is a shame, because sitting in warm pubs is really, really good fun!
As we left, a few of the regulars asked where we were headed. London, we said. They found this hilarious and reacted as if WE were the drunk ones, they then pointed out that London was well over 100 miles away. We were acutely aware of this (153 miles away, to be precise!), but we had a messenger to beat.
The second half the ride was relatively flat, compared to Cornwall and Devon anyway! Despite yet more comedy ‘air cycling’ by me, we made decent progress and were managing to average a respectable 15 mph. When we passed the 100 miles to go mark, we felt confident of a victory against Lt Lapenotiere with a couple of hours to spare. And so it transpired, we arrived into central London after 36 hours, as we made our final turn down Whitehall and to our finish point the streets were packed with thousands of people who had turned out to see us complete our magnificent feat of endurance. Or not. In reality, we hadn’t even actually properly researched where the finish point was and were unsure of exactly where to go!
After a solid 10 minutes of roadside googling in the cold London evening air, we eventually found the original finish point. We took the bikes over for a selfie, had a quick cuddle and then headed off for a kebab and pint. Now that’s how you finish a 300 mile ride!
Truth be told, we were proud of our efforts and didn’t feel the need for any fanfare or elaborate celebration. That’s not really our style, we like to set ourselves challenges and gain satisfaction from quietly getting them done; there is something very pure and rewarding about completing such rides unsupported. Riding a bike over 300 miles is definitely a challenge, but we managed to laugh and joke our way through the pain in true military fashion!
It felt good to be following in the tracks of a genuine Royal Navy hero, we like to think that Lt Lapenotiere would have approved of our efforts. Another successful training ride ticked off, now only 3 months to go until we fly out to San Diego and start the ‘Big One’!
And for our next challenge, we are going to cycle a stationary bike in a high street shop window. At least we will be able to feel our faces for that one…