Saturday, 5 July 2014

Bikestock 2014... Or How Many Rides Til I Sleep?

How do you inspire people to get on bikes?

That is the question that gets me out of bed every morning and out into schools and clubs around the city where I live. It is my job and my passion and to be honest a little bit of an obsession! I want to share this secret way of getting about that excites and energises me every day, 365 days a year.
How do I get people on bikes 365 days a year…? This is the starting point for my little adventure that took me to my local park and a world record…

Cut forward to 3pm on a sunny afternoon. June 26th 2014. For the previous couple of months, I had  been around many of the schools that I work with promoting my latest challenge as a Sustrans Bike It Officer in Brighton and Hove, Bikestock 2014. Bikestock is a bike festival with a challenge for schools in the area set up to raise money for Sustrans and East Sussex Association for Blind and Partially Sighted People and in the process inspire people to get riding their bikes as it is so much fun! 

The challenge: simple really, as a school, get as many people ready and able to ride as far as they can as a team to try and beat the distance that I was going to aim for as I attempted to ride around a mountain biking circuit in Stanmer park woods for 48 hours. Now here is the fun bit, I would be aiming to ride for at least 365 miles, (or a whole year’s riding if you rode 1 mile a day). I would be doing this in one go on a bike with 1 gear, for the record, a Cotic Simple 29er with no suspension apart from the air in the tyres.  This bike has been amazing, combining the fun of being rather like a 29er BMX with the zingyness of a steel frame/ carbon fork for long distance madness...
 It just so happened that if I made it I would beat the mountain bike 48 hour distance record which was 355.8 miles set by Dave Buchanan in 2011. This target was achievable I felt and it would also hopefully inspire as many young people as possible to ride and be part of something really special! So after countless assemblies, meetings, playground bike smoothie sessions, dropping off posters, pasting them everywhere, making sure that texts go out to parents, emails galore, after school training rides with families to the beach, Dr Bike sessions all day fixing bikes with pupils and parents to prepare for the big day. If I am honest, as I found myself on the start line of my course counting down to 3pm ready to start riding for the next 2 days solid, the hard part of the challenge was behind me, all I had to do now was to ride for 2 days and hope that people were inspired to turn up and ride with me in 44 hours’ time for the final 4 hours!

Back to the start and a quick chat with the lads from LatestTV and a kiss from my wife Catherine and we were off. The team from ESAB were also there to show support. I say we because in the last days before the ride, Rory Hitchens our local mountain bike legend had pulled out all the stops garnering support from far and wide to ensure that I would not be short of company and support in the low hours of the long ride ahead. So joining me at the start for the first couple of hours was Paul Winter, an incredibly fit ex teacher and a regular competetive triathlete who is fantastic company to ride with, with anecdotes galore and experience of pushing himself just that little bit too far… I can relate to that.

Writing this I can see and feel every dip and hollow, every root, every sweeping off camber curve, I know exactly when to put the power on to make it as far as I can before the lactic burn kicks in and the high gear (36:20) starts to make itself felt. I chose this course to be just about rollable with little legs on a BMX from Tesco yet interesting enough that when added together over 24 or 48 hours there would be enough climbing and descending and enough interesting bits to keep a rhythm going. 

From the start the track leads on a grassy track to the bottom of a rooty little climb through the woods, choosing the line here on a rigid bike is key to keeping the power down and carrying speed up and out into the sunshine (or moonlight) overlooking the Big Dog start field and a chain straining sharp rise through a right turn and back into the woods, the climb continues and then another right and we are swooping through a wide dirt path that levels out then up again for a 200m climb that takes you to the highest point of the course, past Stella Stump (named last year when my mates Nathan and Pete sat drinking beer and encouraging me into the night!).

Here is a lovely swoop down before a tricky but brakes off turn right over the flint foundations of an old wall, through a tight gap between trees, pumping the corner using 2 roots as a mini berm down again, past my base tent camp and around a small tree as tight as possible for a flat out fairly smooth grassy down hill overlooking Stanmer House. A slight rise and some jarring vehicle tracks set hard in the dirt and we are back swooping down, pumping twice and hopping rabbit holes to get back to the start… 1.33km. The total climbing on the route is about 35m so a profile that over time roughly adds up to the equivalent climbing of the South Downs Way in the same distance.


So getting into the swing of the ride Paul and I started slowly and built up to a comfortable pace of about 10mph using the small down hill sections to recover from the sharp climbs and energy sapping wind that hit us as we climbed over Iron Man hill (reference to a hallucination 36 hours into the ride!) Paul kindly stayed with me for a couple of hours making sure I was in good shape mentally before he headed off.  While we rode, friendly faces appeared by the side of the course waving encouragement, setting up picnics and cheering as I rode on by. 

One of my most successful schools, Coldean Primary had decided to use my ride as an opportunity to bring their Thursday Bike Club out led by teacher Andy Wilson.
The kids, staff and parents soon joined in and rode with us for a few laps, a taste of things to come! It was a real boost and a reminder of just why I was doing this, helping me to focus. It can never be underestimated the power of a positive mind on rides like this and it helps so much to have support be it acknowledgement, a wheel to ride with or a smiling face. I resolve to look strong whenever there is an audience and this in turn helps me to feel strong too! Ian Smith, our Bike It Champion teacher from Moulsecoomb Primary turned up with Kemi from the 67 Centre to add support and encouraging words as we swooped by I was settling into the ride nicely…

There is a lot of talk about mindfulness at the moment and a ride like this allows you to be in the moment, focusing on the acts of riding, tweaking your line, looking for smooth places that don’t jar, pedaling smoothly, being fluid, being powerful, being Zen like in your breathing. As the laps built I learned the best line, learned when to sprint, where to recover, where it is best to drink, where to pump the bike for more free speed. Mindfulness also allows you to process, larger thoughts in manageable chunks and to work through things in a methodical way, though when it all gets too much you can return to the breathing and the pedaling to keep a balance going. Pedaling and handling the bike was the thread that held the ride together but as people and thoughts came and went, I was able to give them time in my mind as I rode either with or past them.

Barney my 8 year old son
 and his Mum, Mandi showed up after about an hour and this was great for my head. They walked around the course popping up in various places getting a few snatched words on my progress and again allowing me to look strong on the outside to keep up appearances, which in turn helped with how I felt inside. Seeing Barney’s face each lap was a real boost and as they settled down to a picnic, I was filled with pride for my little man who loves adventure and who really understands how to get the most out of life, being excited by pushing himself physically and mentally even at a young age.

Dan Lawson, legend of the Ultra-Distance running world appeared and ran with me in a few places talking at ease while running at bike speed! He was confident in me and his parting words were “you are going to do this!” no hint of doubt in his mind. Dan inspired me to set Bikestock up as an accessible challenge after I ran with him on his own world record attempt, running 520 miles on a treadmill in 5 days with school kids from all over Brighton coming along to be part of his challenge. Inspiring them to run with him, Genius! If Dan says I can do it, I can do it, I though as I upped my speed ripping up Iron Man hill (I'll tell you later!) at the bottom of the course.

Rick McKewan a teacher from Moulsecoomb, joined me soon after for a few laps on his way out to meet the gang from Brighton MTB who were out on a regular Thursday ride, it is great riding with Rick who shares a passion for mountain biking and inspires his pupils as a year 6 teacher, regularly riding one of his nice bikes in to school and storing it in the classroom, his kids love his bikes and they are obviously encouraged by Rick who is a fantastic role model for his pupils, managing to stay cool and be a cyclist at the same time. He is part of the team at the school who have managed to massively boost cycling in Moulsecoomb, so much that it is obvious when I ride through the estate, greeted by kids out on bikes PLAYING!

My wife Catherine returned with Ruby and Louisa who added a bit of zing to my ride, things were settling down now and the nerves that I had felt this morning were not so much in evidence. They stayed trackside, willing me to a rhythm that is so important to complete a long distance ride like this. Catherine knows me better than I know myself on rides like this and she goes through a great deal of head searching to enable her to cope with the pain and physical effort that she knows I am experiencing. She also makes a mean jacket potato and homous which is pretty much the only thing I can eat at any point in the ride! The head plays such an important part of endurance as it is all about managing fear and confidence. The amazing support that I received from home, from Catherine and the kids has been essential to allow me to feel that they have faith in me to put in the effort needed to do anything! I feel that my family knows that I will put in the work needed to get through this and this gives me strength to carry on when it all goes to the wall. In a lull before the start, Catherine said to me, "You can do this!" and I took this with me throughout the ride, even when I didn't believe it myself. I need to know that I have their blessing before pushing myself hard.

Next on the scene was Lyndsay Burtonshaw, young dynamo volunteer extraordinaire who has helped me run the after school bike clubs that I have set up through my work with Sustrans as  Bike It Officer. Lyndsay arrived with a massive smile and a flask of Yogi tea that would help settle my stomach as my power switched over to long distance mode relying on burning food directly as my glycogen stores depleted. We did a swift 7 laps together as the heavens opened and the track became fairly muddy quite quickly. I had to move up a gear in my motivation even if I couldn't on my bike. Lyndsay headed home as I plodded on, left to my own thoughts for a while.

Rick returned in force as the night descended and I had been riding for around 6 hours, with the guys from Brighton MTB who took it in turns to chat as we passed the time rhythmically railing the same lines over and over, they were courteously allowing me to seek the smoothest line, something that would prove to be so important later on when tendons and aches started to niggle away at me. The mind can catastrophically hijack you on a long ride such as this and it often amazes me how much of a boost I get from focusing on catching someone up ahead, or when a loved one appears and I want to let them think that I am not suffering.

At 10 on the dot as promised, Shirley Price
, Chair of ESAB appeared, as if by magic, with a flask of hot coffee to revive my soul as I allowed myself a minute or so to gulp it down and to fill her in on my progress. Shirley promised to be back at 7 with more of the same and disappeared back into the night for a well earned rest. Shirley is no ordinary 82 year old and she spends her time raising money for ESAB by doing stuff most of us could only dream of. In the last few years she has done a wing walk on a bi-plane and a 12000ft parachute jump. For her 85 th birthday she wants to paraglide over Mont-Blanc… She has booked it already!

I spent a while then just riding the route, shutting down unnecessary noise in my body, focusing on the line I was riding, as the last light disappeared I was thankful for my faithful USE Revo which has never put a foot wrong in nearly 2 years of constant use. 800 lumens of free light with excellent optics powered by a hub dynamo that is so efficient, I kept it running for 48 hours feeling no drag whatsoever. The bike was going great and I felt good after feeling a little unsure at the start.

Rory Hitchens, scared the life out of me, as he appeared with his colleague, Nigel after a couple of hours of riding on my own. Between laps we grabbed a sentence at a time on my progress and Rory told me that he had put the word out to the mountain-biking world in Brighton and also to Road CC who were publishing the record attempt online. All of this seemed to add force to my pedal strokes as I climbed at the limit of my gear repeating every 5 minutes knowing that I would have a brief respite to recover before heading up the next climb. Rory found the best vantage point for some photos and some abbreviated encouragement, peppered with news and advice. I sped up as I wanted to hear the next installment. 

As I stopped for a break Rory gave me a welcome treat of hot chocolate,
nectar after about 10 hours riding. I had covered 100 miles and was feeling fresh, while pacing my effort, allowing myself glimpses into the task ahead, well aware that I had 38 hours to go. Rory had also raided his energy supplies and showed me caffeinated and regular Clif Bloks and bars which over the next couple of hours would fuel me as I rode to my first proper break at 330 am. On multi day rides I find that I need sleep like anyone else. I can ride a 24 in one go without a sleep but 2 or more days and I find that I need to get some shut eye. I planned to sleep from 330-5am an hour and a half to fool my body into thinking I had slept all night. I read somewhere that if you have a complete REM cycle of sleep you can wake easily and feel revived enough for another long day in the saddle. I had been up since 5 thinking, sorting and then riding so sleep was my next treat at 330.

The Iron Man Came to The Top of the Hill..
I said goodbye to Rory and Nigel who said I should leave the energy bars within easy reach of the track for when I felt rough and wanted a refill. I must have ridden on rhythmically, trance like spinning, gliding, pumping, gliding, sprinting up the hill trying to beat the 25 second burn then recovering. Night wore into me spooking me as I rode alone. The first signs of hallucinations appeared in my peripheral vision as I crested the bottom climb and there in front of me higher than  the trees was The Iron Man,
His great iron head, shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom, slowly turned to the right, slowly turned to the left. His iron ears turned, this way, that way. He was hearing the sea. His eyes, like headlamps, glowed white, then red, then infrared, searching the sea. Never before had the Iron Man seen the sea.
He swayed in the strong wind that pressed against his back. He swayed forward, on the brink of the high cliff.” 
Looking later in daylight I could make out the tree that had become this fearsome shape in the night, at the time it spooked me enough to stamp so hard on the pedals that I felt something give. Each pedal 2 and a half pedal strokes and a click now juddered through the frame. I stopped to look and found that I had half snapped a link in my chain. Despite the adrenaline surging through my hallucinating brain, I resolved to spin smoothly back to camp and fix the chain whilst refueling. I limped on up the rest of the climb to the top of the course. Suddenly faced with a mechanical, time was ticking and this would eat into my recovery and rest time…

As I returned to base camp (My son Barney’s tent filled with bottles of drinking water, tools, supplies and a sleeping bag) I saw that Rory and Nigel had arranged my refreshments beautifully to fuel me through the night. I scoffed a Clif Bar thanking the long departed boys into the dark and faffed around eventually deciding to replace the 100 mile old chain with a better quality new one to save time and worry. Normally this would take 5 minutes but in my state of mind it took 20.
I got back on, chilled and rode for a further hour. This shook me and I knew that all of this effort could be threatened by an unforeseen mechanical problem. I eventually settled back down and rode with less panic.

The familiar nausea of riding through the night crept in as I fought to drink and eat to fuel my weary muscles. Failure to top up the calories that I was burning would end in more than tears! I must have been burning 500-700 calories an hour but was only really taking on 250. This is enough to directly fuel your muscles but is a bare minimum that I need to keep going at the pace that I needed to maintain.
 Later as I returned camp to sleep at around 3:30, I saw that someone… or something had raided my stores and all of the 4 packs of caffeinated Shot Bloks and another caffeinated bar had disappeared! After a little investigation, I surmised that out there somewhere, was a fox, wired to the nines probably spinning around chasing its own tail and it may well be out there even now, having had the equivalent of 6 cups of coffee! I laughed briefly, wolfed down some cold porridge mix, crawled in to the tent, then slept like the dead… As soon as my head hit the down bag, I woke after what seemed like a few seconds to my 450am alarm…. Ugggh!! It was raining and I needed to get back on my bike!