Don’t try this at home.

A fortnight ago, I was sitting in a rather nice restaurant in France, enjoying a spectacular meal washed down with a pint. That day’s ride had been easy, we’re talking that rarest of situations, a flat route with the benefit of a tailwind. The sun was shining, the company was good, and my bike didn’t need cleaning. You get the picture, it was a nice day that had put me in a good mood. Discussion turned to the upcoming club century ride. It’s been going for a few years now and is probably the most popular ride of the year. The route is relatively easy, the feed stations are well stocked and, with so many riders participating, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll find a group going at a suitable pace. Every time I’ve ridden a century, I’ve climbed off the bike at the end and vowed to never do another one. My last one was back in March, therefore, by the time that fateful evening arrived I’d had adequate time to forget how much my legs hurt and had reached a point where I was open to another 100 miler.

An idea popped into my head, in my contented state it was all too easy to let rational thought fall by the wayside, and convince myself that it would be fun to try and ride the route of the club century alone, trying to set a solo course record. Even more stupidly, I let the plan slip to couple of people – making it next to impossible to take the sensible option and back out of the ride the day before. Of course, once I got home from France and had a couple of rides on the potholed, muddy, and narrow UK roads, I realised that the task lying ahead of me was not exactly going to be an easy one and would require careful planning. If you’re a normal person i.e., not a cycling geek then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

First and foremost, I turned my attention to bike setup. I was torn between an aero road bike and full on time trial setup. The former would have been more comfortable and quicker through the corners but in the end I decided on the latter, opting for straight line speed above all else. So far, the furthest I’d ridden that machine was a mere 56 miles a couple of years back. Earlier in the year during a 25 mile TT, I realised that the saddle needed changing – without going into too much detail, the old one wasn’t doing wonders for my chances of being able to have children later in life. I hoped that the one I found on eBay for £15 would do the trick. The bike was set up with a very aggressive riding position, prioritising speed over comfort. I can just about hold that position for an hour, the prospect of doing it for at least four and a half didn’t bear thinking about so I swallowed my pride and raised the stem by a couple of centimetres. Things were made more complicated by the questionable weather forecast. In the interest of safety, I swapped the 90 mm carbon wheel I usually run on the front for a 45 mm carbon-alloy hybrid.

In typical last-minute fashion, it occurred to me a couple of days before the big ride that the bike didn’t have any bottle cages fitted and offered nowhere to store food. Fortunately, I’d hung onto the aero bottles (yes, that’s a thing) that I used to use for triathlon. I borrowed a top tube bag from my father and found that it would just about accommodate the essentials; four energy gels, pump, puncture repair kit, phone, car key and bank card. On the day, I taped a couple more gels to the top tube just to be safe. If there’s one thing you really want to avoid on long rides, it’s running out of fuel. Finally, I thought long and hard about the best kit for the job. In the end I went with a skinsuit, not exactly flattering to look at but, from an aerodynamic perspective, much faster than an ordinary jersey and short combo. Rather than a long-tail TT helmet I opted for a aero road model, knowing that I’d struggle to hold my head still for such a long period of time and, therefore, fail to reap the full benefits of the former. Anyway, enough of geeky stuff – onto the actual ride.

I woke up early, wolfed down a massive bowl of porridge and loaded my bike into car. I wanted to set off as early as possible, I told my family that this was because I didn’t want to get entangled with any large groups  which would be tricky to get past. In reality, it had rather a lot to do with making sure nobody was subjected to the sight of me in my skinsuit. At first, the signs were positive. My legs felt fresh, the sun was shining and, mercifully, the first 5 miles were almost all downhill. On the main road out of town I was confident that my decision to ride a TT bike had been the right one, riding in the aero position made it easy to maintain a fast pace.

At mile 5, things began to get a bit trickier. TT bikes are infamously difficult to handle and I had to concentrate hard to navigate mine through some narrow, twisty country lanes. Inevitably, I took a couple of wrong turns in the process. It didn’t help that there had been some heavy rain during the preceding few days, leaving mud and debris on the roads. A large stone, well hidden by a patch of mud, put a spanner into the works at mile 25. The 23mm slick tyre I was running on the rear was no match for the stone in question and, inevitably, I punctured. In theory, I was well prepared and properly equipped to deal with it. Sadly, the reality wasn’t quite as straightforward. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a patch to properly adhere to the inner tube. Worse still, I hadn’t had enough space on the bike for a spare one. In the end the only solution was to knot the tube and hope that it would hold. Luckily, the first feed stop was only another mile up the road. I had no choice but to wait there until the groups started rolling in, hoping someone would have a spare tube that could be adapted to fit my deep section wheel. Ever reliable, my father had a spare that worked perfectly. I’m never going to hear the end of that one.

Thanks to that incident, I completely lost the benefit of my early start. Truth be told, I was feeling very irritable. On a more positive note, the roads soon improved and once again I could get to work on raising my average speed. That was, until it started to rain. At that point I came very close to bailing out, I’ll admit that a few close shaves in the past have made me quite nervous about riding a road bike in the wet. Keeping going became a mental test rather than a physical one. I was able to hold off the fast group until mile 50 when they came flying past. Getting caught was inevitable, despite my aerodynamic advantage, a well coordinated group of quick riders would always have been faster. Nonetheless, the sight of the group vanishing into the distance was demoralising. Suffice to say, the first half of the ride had not exactly gone according to plan.

I’ve always found that, from a mental perspective, miles 50-75 of a century are easily the hardest. Your legs feel fatigued from the sizeable distance you’ve already covered but there’s still a long way to go. You’ve got to be careful not to listen to that little voice in your head that pipes up, telling you that you won’t get round. I can say with honesty that that particular segment of the ride was a real struggle. I’d been in riding in TT position for much longer than I’m used to, my neck and lower back were loudly protesting. In typical UK style, by mile 60 the rain had stopped and given way to bright sunshine in the space of about half an hour. This phenomenon was very much a double-edged sword, the roads had dried out but the heat came into play. I only had enough room to carry a litre of water in total, which I was now having to carefully ration. Completing the ride was not a foregone conclusion.

With 3o miles to go, the fatigue really began to kick in. I broke the ride down into 5 mile segments, a strategy I learned during my running days. My nutrition plan had worked relatively well, and I just about had enough energy gels left to get me through the final leg. Small climbs that I wouldn’t have noticed during the first 25 miles now required what felt like herculean efforts. Desperate times call for desperate measures, having not bought a pair of headphones with me I put my phone on full blast. It probably wasn’t the best idea to ride through all those sleepy little villages with heavy metal blasting out of my top tube bag, however, at the time I really didn’t care. Thanks to the combination of heat, tiredness and dehydration, I wasn’t exactly thinking straight. I can’t deny that my grandmother would probably have fainted if she’d heard the language I used when I arrived at any particularly steep climbs.

With 10 miles remaining, I briefly pulled over to take my final gel and check on my average speed. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d been going more quickly than I’d thought. That quick glance at my garmin, coupled with the thought of a cold recovery drink followed by a shower, gave me the mental boost I needed to make it home. The last 5 miles were almost entirely uphill, in some ways I was relieved because it gave me an excuse to get out of TT position and ride on the base bar – by that point my neck was on fire. The sight of the town sign that signified the start of the final two kilometres genuinely bought a tear to my eye. I’ve rarely been so relieved to have finished a ride. Having been cycling for a few years, I’m used to pushing myself, this ride took it to the next level. I was pleased with my time of 4 hours and 54 minutes, giving an average speed of 20.4 MPH. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but, factoring in the puncture incident, rain, and everything else, I decided to take it as a win.

24 Hours later, I’m writing this sat on the sofa where I’ve spent most of the day. I can testify that pretty much everything hurts, including a few muscles I didn’t know I had. I’ll take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped organise yesterday’s ride, without their continued investment of time and effort, it simply wouldn’t be possible for it to take place each year. I’m going to end with the following, just in case you ever think that a solo century is a good idea. It isn’t. Don’t do it. See sense. Save yourself.

Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply