Rob Lee having finished his epic ride (photo: Neil Newell)
Rob Lee rides across the finish line (photo: Neil Newell)
The thing I enjoy most about cycling is that there always seems to be another ‘next big thing’ to aspire to or challenge myself with. It’s a seemingly endless opportunity to do something different, to up the challenge yet again and in doing so to see something, either within ourselves or in the world around us, that the majority of the population misses out on. The core of my interest lies in these new experiences applied to the weave of an endurance athlete’s tapestry! Sometimes you see the beauty because it’s really there, before your eyes, and other times simply because you are too tired to see anything but. As my good friend Gav is often keen to point out ‘people pay good money to experience those sort of hallucinations!’
The question I’m most oft asked by riders and racers I meet is ‘how do you ride a bike virtually non-stop for 24 hours?’. The answer is simple really: I built up to it gradually and can clearly remember the days when an hour’s race would leave me sore and battered for a week. Eventually, I guess, I was going to end up going for the South Downs Double. It’s the next step, a long ride, similar in demand to a solo 24 but built with one inescapable difference: the passage of time brings you closer to failure as opposed to the end of the challenge!
Having finally taken it on the inevitable question is then ‘what did I think?’
The first thing to note is that it’s a bloody long way, second, it’s a bloody long way and third, yes you guessed it! It’s a bloody long way the South Downs and back, but beyond that it’s a great big, amazing, magical adventure. One rider, one bike, that silly long distance to cover and the ridiculous absurdity of turning around and coming all the way back to the place you started, a metaphor for life perhaps? I don’t know, maybe that is too deep and not really something I’m into, but I can say that despite the pain, the dehydration and the peculiar rash I now have on my chest, back and forehead, it was one of the best things I’ve ever attempted and possibly the closest I have felt to being spiritually touched.
I know there are a lot of people out there who will have expected me to have undertaken this with a bit of a serious head on and prepared rigorously for the task ahead so I’ll start by laying that one to rest before we go any further. Due to certain aspects of my personal life a big chunk of my training has had to be forsaken for the best part of the past 10 months. That’s a fact. I’m not as fit as I have been by a long way but, and it’s a serious but, I do have experience, confidence and the sheer stubborn headedness required so I thought I’d follow my heart, have a damn good go at it and to hell with the outcome. Failure was a distinct possibility.
The real adventure started a week previously when I made the decision that trying and failing would feel a lot better than not stepping up to the challenge at all. After all who’s the loser, the rider who fails trying or the one who just sits on their butt at home and talks the talk? When it comes to the SDW Double I’ve been talking the talk for far too long and with that realisation it got easier and easier to just do it (which is how I ended up setting out from Winchester virtually unannounced) and harder and harder to not be nervous.
On Tuesday 6 May 2008 at 8.30 in the morning I loaded my kit bag and bike into the car and drove to work. I work in a bike shop in Bristol and so spent a 9 hour shift, on my feet, talking to customers, fixing bikes, trying to eat, trying to get hydrated and gradually get more and more nervous and excited. At 7pm I left work and drove to Swindon, had dinner in my old house, had a shower, got changed into my ride kit and phoned a friend for a quick chat.
By 9.30pm I was in Marlborough to borrow some pedals from a friend, a short chat, best wishes and into the car for the final drive to Winchester. I arrived at 10.30 and decided that a 30 minute nap would be better than nothing so set an alarm and lay across the front seats of my car. 11pm, showdown! Out of my slumber I had just enough time to down my pre-ride bottles of For Goodness Shakes, put on the final bits of kit, checked my lights and set out to meet the current record holder, Neil Newell, so that he could fit the tracker and GPS to the my bike and start the official ‘atomic’ clock on my attempt.
Everything felt amazing and being alive became very real all in an instant. Texts from a few friends and sponsors came in as Neil made the last checks on my bike and the tracking kit. We shock hands as he told me how he wished he was going for the ride (but that he didn’t fancy carrying the 7.3kg bag of food and goodies!) and then wished me the best of luck in the way only a true sporting person can, with pure honesty. He counted down and I set out into the night. It was invigorating.
I’d decided that the only way to ride this first time out was to go purely on feel. I had my heart rate monitor on but didn’t look at it and I had a few ideas about where I’d need to be in what sort of time in order to be in contention but really I just wanted to ride it and see where that took me. I zipped out of Winchester, over the motorway and into the awaiting countryside which enveloped me in darkness and the indulgent privacy of my own personal ride. Trail after hill, after drop, through a wood, another hill and on. A constant unreeling of familiar tracks and unfamiliar shadows, of owls that would fly away two fence posts and land only to await my approach and repeat. The deer in herds too big to believe they survive undisturbed in our congested Southern counties. Badgers and stoats and sheep and rabbits all running for cover.
The night was pure magic and I felt so happy as I made my steady progress hindered only by the ridiculously heavy bag (contents included 48 SIS gels, 12 rounds of sandwiches, 12 SIS Go bars and 2 bottles of For Goodness Shakes. All my spares, lights, water and tools were strapped to the bike which added another 5kg to the overall riders/bike/kit mass. My power-to-weight ratio was very much not as it could have been!). As I passed through Queen Elizabeth Country Park I decided to take the longer of the two possible routes as it had been left undecided as to whether the cyclists should follow the equestrian route or the MTB trail. It added a little bit of time but nothing major.
My first tap-stop was at Cocking and was also the first time that I actually realised what I was doing! The enormity of the thing was too ridiculous to contemplate at that point so I concentrated on the practical side of things, the process, and just got on with it. I suppose I stopped at that first tap for maybe 10 minutes; I don’t know for sure but I certainly wasn’t rushing and a good long look up at the stars in the night sky was high on the agenda.
Cocking through to Amberley went without incident and at a fair pace that was easily sustainable. My legs felt good, the air was good and as I climbed away from the rivers and upwards towards Amberley Mount the morning bird-song hit overload with a clarity that took on a surreal feeling. These are long climbs here but it all felt good and I was surprised by how fresh I felt. I thought of others who had had incidents with the wild life, crashes and near-misses, so kept the speed down and well within my reaction time and had little worries. I figured that this approach would also protect my tyres and preserve upper body strength through reduced battering.
Sunrise was the deal-setter on this ride for me; the sky went through a gradual twist of colours and with a beauty that competes with any sunrise I’ve seen in any other place on the planet. I was mesmerised for a few minutes and simply had to press pause and absorb the view. Time slipped, was only minutes but my brain knew no difference between a minute and an hour at the moment in time. Burnt to memory that sunrise will be replayed for a long time to come.
The sun was rapidly ascending as I approached my second tap stop at the YHA on Truleigh Hill and I took the opportunity that the new day presented with a quick sort of my bag of tricks and wash of bottles before setting onwards across to the biggest hills of the day. All I remember from this part of the ride are short glimpses of Rory and Neil as they tracked my progress and took the odd photo and an increasing sense that the temperature was going to get murderously high. By the third tap stop my fears where starting to manifest. It was going to be really hot today, so I stripped my clothing back to the bare minimum, doused myself in icy cold water, applied copious amounts of sun block and headed for the turn. It was only about 8 in the morning!
By the turn it was HOT! I’m not good in the heat; give me 24 hours of rain on the side of a high mountain and I’m your man but heat? Forget it. Still it was a good, safely paced turn time which gave me the best part of 13 hours to make the return journey and still get in under the record. I knew I could do it but it was just going to hurt and the degree of hurt would dictate the final time. On the way out I was riding at a pace that I had considered I could produce a negative split – ride back faster than I’d ridden out – but the sun had different ideas, which I hadn’t considered. Had I thought about this I’d have started sooner, kept cool for longer and smashed out the first leg a good hour faster. Hindsight eh? Never mind, maybe next time.
As I got back to the tap at my head was baking inside my lid and things were feeling rather hard. I spent a long time at that tap, mixing drinks, staggering around, drinking, pouring water over myself and desperately trying to reduce my core temperature. The enormity hit home with a vengeance at this point, it’s a freaking long way, and the reality of what it would take just to finish the thing at all sunk in. I remembered an email that Mike Cotty sent me last year at a very hard point in my life that talked about looking in the mirror and being ready to face the world. The truth about the record, and that it really did mean a lot to try and take this, bubbled up from inside, I thought about my team, my family, my existence, the enthusiasm Rory and Neil had shown for me trying this and from that moment on it was all forward motion.
Sometimes in a ride of this length it’s like being outside your body and watching it happen to someone else. So weird. I can feel the pain yet can’t feel it, everything hurts, every cell in your body seems to be telling you to stop yet you don’t and you don’t even consider stopping. Coming over the hills towards Chantry Ring the bit was well and truly between my teeth. This was pain, this was me defined, a lone rider hauling arse, stood up, powering the biggest gear I could manage. I don’t ride these climbs in the big ring when I’m fresh but today I was accessing the once-a-year reserve power system. Smashing it. Jenn Hopkins was out there to see me pass, a rider I respect so much, it meant a lot to see her there, so much… and then Neil… and then others… word was out, I knew it then, I’d finish even if it broke me forever.
As I dropped into Amberley I remembered the tap by the river. By now I was properly cooked and solid food as remaining just that, solid and tucked away in the bag of tricks. I could chew but I couldn’t swallow and 50 miles on gels and water is a bitch when you have been awake for 30 hours and still have another 5 to ride. Gels where making me gag but the only source of calories I could muster, water was making me gag, thnking about eating was making me gag. It was soooooo freaking hot I can’t describe. Anyway, the tap, I remembered it and decided that I’d whack it on full and just crawl under it for a bit! All the way down that descent all I thought about was that tap. The tap, there’s a tap down here, nice cold water, lovely tap, can’t wait. I pulled up at the tap, it was hot, I was cooked, dropped my bike and walked over to the tap. Press button… one drip! Press button… nothing! SOB…
I didn’t think, didn’t swear, just picked up my bike and rode up the next climb. At Cocking there is a tap!
I once lived in East Wittering and so from Cocking onwards I feel like I’m on home turf. I know this part of the SDW so well and I know how long each section should take me. To get here with a good few hours to spare was splendid. I knew I could do it despite the pain, despite being sick if I ate anything, despite the fact that I was deliriously thinking about falling asleep under every bush I passed, I knew I could do it.
Just Butser Hill and I’m home I thought. Butser is big, Butser is a bitch at six in the evening when you’ve been riding for a night and a day. Butser is quicker on foot. I walked. I wasn’t going to but got overtaken by an elderly gent with a walking stick and realised the folly of riding. A nice evening for a walk I thought.
From here it really is a blur. I can recount a few places where I saw things that were not there. I can recall which hills hurt me and which I sailed over. I can see the sun setting over Winchester. I can remember powering the last few miles as I realised I could duck under 21 hours. I can remember the hurt of my entire body. I remember what it felt like to finsish and the joy of seeing Fi, Neil and Mike at the finish. I remember, it felt good, I felt alive, I understood what it meant to do the double.