This is my original blog for all our non-caravanning trips since 2009 and more recently posts about coming to terms with being single again having been widowed in 2018. And anything else too really!

My caravanning blog is (Get Your) Legs Down and all our trips in the caravan are there. My grog blog is The Ale Archive where I list every beer I’ve ever tried.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Friday Night Ride to the Coast - A Personal Journey

FNRttC? So what's it all about? Well take the title literally and you get an idea. It's an annual event in aid of the Martlets Hospice here in Brighton, well Hove actually to coin an overused phrase. Basically we meet at the back of Victoria Coach station in London, set off at midnight, ride through country lanes, up and down a few hills and arrive in Brighton at breakfast time. Easy! It is organised by a group of cycling enthusiasts who do several rides to various coasts throughout the year.

Anyway, it was about May I think when I decided to do it and actually sent in my registration fee. Even then, whilst having not cycled any distance at all for many years, felt confident I could do it. I had toyed with it last year too but left it too late.

Why did I decide to do it? Well, I could say that I wanted to raise money for the Martlets which would be true but only partially. Whether it was the imminent arrival of the big four zero (and the apparently inevitable 'mid-life crisis') had anything to do with it I'm not sure. (that milestone is now thankfully visible only in the rear view mirror, a fact which my liver is extremely grateful for). I suppose really it's because it was something different.

As a kid, I liked bikes although never got a BMX or Chopper which were all the rage at the time. When I was old enough I would always cycle into town on Saturday mornings, and later on when I went to 'tech I would cycle - mostly.

Having gone through 'my first car period' I was back on two wheels going to work. At one point I was doing about 11 miles a day there and back on what was my granddad's old Rudge Whitworth, circa 1953. Heavy and slow but very comfortable, but never quite the same after one drunken night I went straight into the back of a parked car and ended up in hospital but emerged with nothing more than a few stitches, bruises and the mother of all hangovers.

It was soon after then that I bought my current steed - a Raleigh Atlantis mountain bike. Hardly state of the art but with a light (at the time) oversized frame and fifteen gears. One hundred and ten quid it cost after a rear carrier and lights were added and it served me well then too.

Myself and Trev bought our first house together a few years later, and where we were living, cycling to work wasn't really an option although I'd bought a car by then anyway. In fact in the four years we lived at Bar Hill, I don't think the bike ever came out the garage. I think I even contemplated getting rid of it.

However when we moved down to the South Coast six and a half years ago, the bike came with us. After we had settled in, Trev even bought one too, and very occasionally they would come out of the garage for a ride along the under cliff walk to Brighton. Mine would make a very slightly more regular appearance when a pang of conscience told me I should cycle the two minutes to the shop or library and not drive!

So, reversing back up memory lane to the more recent past, two things needed to be in good nick to do this - me and the bike. I wasn't too worried about me. I certainly wouldn't say I'm fit as the only regular exercise I get is scampering about delivering them bloody parcels six days a week. However, that does seem to hold the weight at bay as I don't generally watch what I eat (or drink). Twelve stone or there thereabouts is ok for my six foot frame, although more and more of that is gradually converging on the midriff. Skinny arms and no real upper body strength to speak of but that hardly mattered for this. The legs were important and they were in good shape thanks to those early days cycling and infrequent bursts on the exercise bike. The onset of bunions, more advanced in my left foot, due no doubt to excessive wearing of  winkle picker boots shouldn't make a difference as they only seem to be painful when I'm working! Have had Asthma all my life but have not used regular preventative puffers for years. A Ventolin is never far away though, as a comfort blanket as much as anything.

The bike was a different story. It looked sad and neglected. Rusty in places, covered in cobwebs and the gears were clogged with dirt. The handlebars pointed in a slightly different direction to the front wheel. Copious amounts of oil, a good soak and considerable brute force coaxed the locking bolt undone and that was sorted. The tyres were clearly past their use by date. Still plenty of tread but splitting at the walls. New tyres and tubes were procured and fitted. Brakes were ok and just needed adjusting up. Lights. A good front one was needed as a fair portion of the ride would be in country lanes without street lights. All that remained of the previous luminaires was the brackets. Fortunately, one of my presents for the aforementioned 40th was a set of cycle lights, the front one being extremely powerful. Clearly a lot of thought had gone into this and I was very grateful - thank you once again Rosemarie & Arnold.

So, pre-ride training. This won't take long because there wasn't much. Something somewhere told me that I would manage anyway, I don't know why. We have an exercise bike in the bedroom that gets an occasional dusting off but that sat untouched for at least a month before the ride. However, two days before and we needed to go to B & Q. Again. Honestly the amount we spend over there we should have our own parking space. Anyway, Trev suggested that I should cycle over and meet him there. It was a good idea - the climb up to Telscombe Cliffs, the relatively flat main road through Peacehaven, the climb up to Newhaven Heights and following descent would be a good microcosm of the ride itself. Well it took 36 minutes to get there and 30 back with a distance of about 12 miles. I was quite happy with this - my pace was still similar to what I used to manage some 12-13 years ago cycling to and from work. The bike seemed fine too - the wheels ran true and the gears worked - well most of 'em anyway. It also gave me a chance to pick up a couple of cheap led torches from the discount shop. Testing had shown that the battery pack on the light set would only last about four hours, long enough for the parts of the ride with no streetlights (estimated at 3-4 hours) but not for the whole ride. One of the torches, secured to the handlebars with cable ties would provide adequate illumination when being seen was more important. The other would act as backup and come in handy for punctures or any running repairs.

So forward to the day of the ride. Work as usual in the morning. A quiet day would have been nice but predictably it was the busiest of the week, the post bank holiday catch-up notwithstanding. The delivery would be late too due to, we were advised, 'unforeseen circumstances' which meant as usual that someone had ****ed up. Again!

However, we were still done and home by about 2pm. Then it was time for a nap and to start preparing the stuff I would need to take. The ride organiser; Simon Legg, who deserves a medal for his sterling work had sent out regular emails full of useful advice for FNRttC novices like myself, the last being an up to date (and as it turned out, extremely accurate) weather forecast for the night ahead.

Two spare inner tubes were top of the list, followed by tyre levers, pump and a adjustable spanner. All the lights, which would not be attached until later, as would the water bottle, filled with a weak cordial drink. A bottle of Powerade also went in for later in the ride when my sugar and mineral levels would need a boost. Bananas, six of, choccy bars, ditto, route sheet, mobile, paracetamol, deep heat cream and Ventolin completed the list. This was checked and rechecked about a dozen times in three hours, probably the first sign of nerves I guess.

Clearly I needed to 'pre-fuel' for the long night ahead, and Trev duly obliged with a huge plate of meatballs and pasta. A look on the FNRttC Facebook page indicated that preparation for many involved eating a lot. Simon's forecast predicted little wind and it was perhaps this point that was to be the least accurate!

We drove to Brighton Station and got the 19:20 train to Victoria, getting in about 20:10 and walking straight to check on Semley Place, then around the block to check on the local boozers. We settled on one around the back that was the quietest. The first pint, shandy only, was well, ok, but the following London Pride was much better. Soon it was nearly 10pm and we headed back to Semley Place to sign in and dump the bike then met up with some friends who were coming to see me off. Another pub and another pint, this time of juice and lemonade, followed by the first of the choccy bars. A little concerned that I hadn't put away quite enough calories couple with the fact that our friends hadn't eaten at all took us back to Victoria and Burger King. Now I know that I speak for all four of us when I say that it was the crappiest BK any of us had ever had. Most of mine went in the bin. Then it was back to Semley place which was now heaving with Lycra clad enthusiasts and slightly nervous looking novices alike. I fixed the lights up, done some final checks and listened to the safety briefing.

It was nearly time for the off and I waved goodbye, Ash & Stu would be heading for the tube and Trev would be waiting for the 1am train back to Brighton. The first lot - of which I just happened to be part of, were headed out to the road and at exactly midnight we were off. Marshalls would herd us along for the first part of the ride. The traffic in London was still abundant and it take some organising to get some 300 odd people on to the road.

We went over Chelsea Bridge and through Clapham Common. And stopped. We were waiting to get on the South Circular but obviously the marshals were looking for a big enough gap in the traffic to get us many of us on the road as possible. Still it gave me a chance to have a look around. Clapham Common has a reputation for certain nocturnal happenings but whilst there were a few guys hanging around there was no sign of George Michael.

It was 12:34am (according to my Facebook update) when we got moving, turning on to Balham Hill and down in to Tooting, passing Figge's Marsh and into Mitcham. Two things of note along this first bit although exactly where I can't say. I guess I was still absorbing the enormity of the task we had all just embarked on. The first was bike trouble and for a brief moment I thought that was it. I was freewheeling as much as possible, mainly to conserve energy but the chain suddenly get mangled. The back gears were still feeding the chain through. I learnt to stop it happening by keeping peddling bit this was to become a bit of a pain in the arse later on as well shall see. The second was a fight at one of the many boozers. The police were already there, and more were turning up, but of more concern was that some of the FNRttC'ers, resplendent in their 'Friday's' jerseys seemed to be involved too. However it transpired, as I later came to understand that said cyclists were actually coppers too and have dived to the aid of colleagues trying to deal with aforementioned fracas.

At Mitcham Common, and with confirmation that marshals were in place along route we were let off the leash. Which basically meant that the experienced lycrists sped off into the night and the rest of us just sort of carried on as before!

It was 01:29 when I stopped again, having clocked up only ten miles and being somewhere in the vicinity of Wallington. At this rate my guestimate of six to seven hours was looking very optimistic. With banana and choccy scoffed and Facebook updated I was off again.

On to Reigate and the first major hill of the night. After initially getting off and walking I realised it wasn't that steep and having selected the lowest possible gear, made it slowly and painfully to the top. Then it was across the M25 and down Reigate Hill. This was where not being able to freewheel was a problem. Basically, if I wanted to go fast I had to pedal fast and my legs were already feeling shot, so I was braking all the way down. How many people I woke up with the squeal from the back brakes I shall never know!

At the bottom I stopped again to do another mileage check and update - 20 miles on and 02:38. The first torch had failed so the new front light went on. For the first time on the ride I could see no-one behind or ahead of me. It was just me and the bike - and there was something nice about that.

Soon after we were to turn off the main road and on to the three and a half mile Lonesome Lane, the first part of the ride without any streetlights. The bright front light was a godsend here but the surface was pretty good. This cannot be said of the next part however, the Horley Badlands. A narrow, private road, unlit, with a plethora of bumps, pot holes, mud and bollards. Whoever had laid the speed bumps had very kindly left gaps in the middle, which was fine if you was alert enough but several cries of "Ow, **** it!" could be heard both forward and aft, as aching bums and legs were jarred again and again. Our route sheet advised that we might be in the company of wallabies as we traversed this particular section. We didn't see any but there was plenty of evidence to suggest they were around as I skidded on it more than once.

We exited the Badlands, went under the M23 and were back on country lanes heading for Copthorne, the halfway point and food laid on at the school. My bum was now really hurting but any attempt to ease the pressure by standing up on the pedals only met with bolts of agonising pain from my thighs and calves. I was so pleased as after what seemed like an age, the school finally appeared. I parked up, dismounted with considerable effort and headed inside to the sports hall. It was now 04:00 and 32 miles in, just a little over half way. My ETA was looking increasingly unlikely.

Coffee, tea, water, cakes and crisps were all on offer thanks to yet more volunteers from the Martlets. Sixty or so fellow cyclists were here, some in groups, others on their own. Some looked as fresh as could be others looked (like me) ready for the knackers yard. I had one coffee then used another to wash down some paracetamol. Two bananas, another choccy bar and the remains of the cordial completed the banquet. I then pulled down my trousers and massaged copious amounts of deep heat into my thighs, bum and lower back. No one batted an eyelid. They'd either seen it all before or were too knackered to care.

Refuelling and maintenance of self completed I headed outside. We had been warned not to linger too long here as tiredness and tightening of the muscles would very soon set in. It was good advice. I swapped over the torch and refilled the water bottle with the Powerade, done a quick Facebook update and gingerly climbed back on.

Turners hill, then Ardingly were the next villages of note. The weather forecast had been spot on and it was pretty misty in places. It was 05:22 when I hit Lindfield and marked off 42 miles. We were all quite spread out now, everyone finding their own pace. Those that were together didn't say much. The chatter and laughter of the first hour or so had long since faded as people concentrated on the task ahead. It was soon after Lindfield that the sky began to lighten as dawn broke other the South Downs.

Isn't Adrenaline wonderful. Despite having been in the saddle for nearly six hours, the pain wasn't as intense and I going faster than at anytime previous. I was thinking this and just entering the village of Ditching when a familiar car horn announced the arrival of Trev ready with the camera. I grinned, waved and pushed on, reaching the base of Ditchling Beacon at 06:25. Despite vague notions of having a go at cycling up early on it just wasn't going to happen. I dismounted and started the long ascent. I was not alone as many others were doing the same. It took 21 minutes to get to the top and I'm mighty pleased at that. Sadly the mist had obscured what is normally a terrific view but frankly I couldn't give a ****! I had made it to the top and was nearly home.

Just one more incline, this time in Ditchling Road just before the golf course then it was all downhill to the seafront. The freewheeling problem seemed to have sorted itself out so I stopped peddling, stretched my back and let gravity do the work. I clocked up 27 mph as I went through the speed camera further down, though later learnt that one of the lycrists had managed to set it off, hitting 38 mph. Nice one.

I was grinning as I passed Old Steine and went across the roundabout into Madeira Drive but the eyes started misting up as I began to realise what I had achieved and the tears were flowing freely by time I came to a final halt outside the Madeira Cafe at 07:15. I'd done it! Trev came to meet me and stood by with the camera while I signed in and got my medal, still shaking with emotion - and probably tiredness too. The cafe was doing breakfast but I just couldn't face eating. I stood for a while, taking it all in, then climbed gingerly into the car and went home.

If I thought getting into the car was tricky getting out again, only five minutes later was almost impossible. I stripped off and went straight into the shower while Trev made the tea - the second notable event of the day!

We both went to bed for a while but couldn't really sleep, I'm sure the adrenaline was still pumping and the muscles had seized up again. Nothing but a long hot bath would do the trick I decided, and soon it would be beer o'clock.

Well, that's my story but there wouldn't have been one to tell if it wasn't for the hard work of many others, so at the risk of turning this into some snivelling rambling Oscar acceptance speech the following should get a mention and big thank you:

the Martlets volunteers for their services at the beginning, middle and end of the ride, the school for the loan of their facilities and the marshals for keeping us on the right track and offering words of encouragement. Even the ones who said it was only 5 or 10 minutes to the half way point when it was in fact half an hour! I understand why you done it though! Biggest thanks must go to Simon Legg for organising the whole thing and to all those that sponsored me and made it so much more worthwhile.

I was asked a number of times over the weekend whether I would do it again and the answer was an unequivocal yes. It was one of the best things I have ever done and am already looking forward to next year. Although there are four criteria to be met. First; too enjoy it even more, second; to do it quicker, third; to raise more money and fourth; to ride up the beacon. Hmm, perhaps we'll leave it at three! As I mentioned before, this ride is but one of a number of (non charity) rides organised throughout the year by Simon and I may even consider one of these too.

Enjoy the accompanying photos, either attached if you are reading the email version or below if you are on the blog.

I'm still wondering why I found it so emotional at the end. I'm not over endowed with self confidence but, as I said earlier, I always believed I could do this. There were plenty of people on the ride older and in worse physical shape than me and they all managed it too. Perhaps it's because it was so personal, I don't know.

The now crumpled and torn route sheet still sits on my desk as I finish typing this on Monday night and I flip through it again for about the hundredth time. I've had the atlas out and traced the route and done the same thing on Google maps too, more than once. Yes, this came to mean a lot to me.

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