Header photo by Catherine Dunn.
I travelled from Bristol down to Land’s End on Friday the 12th, the day before the race started. It’s a GBDuro tradition that the riders meet at Sennen Cove for beers and a pub dinner on the evening of the race and this was a nice opportunity to meet some of the riders, over a few of Bristol Beer Factories “clear heads”.
I was staying at the Land’s End Youth Hostel which is about 7km from Sennen Cove, so after a few hours at the beach and a fish and chips style carb load I slowly rolled my way towards St Just for my first Co-op raid of the race.
With snacks and breakfast acquired I headed to the hostel to relax and enjoy what would be my last nights sleep in an actual bed for the next 10 days.
Day 1: The roll out & Cornwall
The race started at 8am and we rolled away from Land’s End along nice gravel cycle paths and typically narrow Cornish lanes before hitting the first real off-road section, a semi-technical piece of singletrack winding the riders towards Hayle. A fully loaded bike always takes some getting use to, especially on anything remotely techy, and this was a nice shakedown early on.
The dotwatcher support throughout Cornwall was incredible, it felt like there were people out supporting riders every few kilometres. A personal highlight was my girlfriend’s Mum and Dad who were waiting near Hayle giving all the riders big cheers of encouragement and waving them on with their bright Giro pink umbrella.
It was only 9am but you could already feel the warmth of the sun. There was an amber weather warning for extreme heat released for the first two days of the race with temperatures predicted to hit 33+ degrees on both days. With the looming heatwave in mind I was very wary of pushing too hard and ending up with heatstroke. Initially, my race plan was to stop every 6-8 hours (100-150km) to refuel as I could carry plenty of food, but more importantly 3.5L of fluids.
70km in the temperature was pushing towards 30 degrees and I’d started guzzling through my water in an attempt to stay cool amongst the never ending wave of short and steep Cornish climbs. A Spar was a very welcome sight and a quick water and ice resupply (filling my camelbak with ice was a gamechanger) and I was on my way again. Day 1 quickly transpired into stopping every few hours for water and more easily digestible food, this was frustrating as I knew my stoppage time would be mounting up, but it was apparent the first two days were going to be all about survival.
Getting through Cornwall and Devon felt quite transitional, a case of getting the riders into Wales towards the best riding the UK has to offer as quickly as possible. I’ve ridden a lot in Cornwall and there’s some amazing riding both on and off road around the coastal areas however given the heat I was happy to be bee-lining towards what I told myself would be a cooler Welsh climate.
200km came by and I was content-ish with the time I was making given the weather, I’d planned a big resupply here and was happy to slump on the floor for 15 minutes to try and catch up on some much needed calories. As I rolled on the day was fading and thankfully the temperature had dropped to around 26 degrees.
I was joined by Henry for some welcome company shortly after this resupply and we chatted away as we rolled towards Exmoor and the first real test of a climb, Dunkery Beacon. Henry turned off to get some sleep and I pressed on towards Exmoor, keen to eat up a few more km’s before turning in for a couple hours of sleep.
My rough race plan was to hit the Quantocks on day 1 after approximately 300km and to get a couple hours of sleep, before another ~270km on day 2, leaving me with just 70km for day 3 to roll into CP1 by lunchtime.
Dunkery Beacon came and went and I bounced down the very sketchy descent in total darkness, accompanied for a little while by race organiser and media rider Miles who was filming riders throughout the race.
I knew I was approximately 30km from the top of the Quantocks and decided to get over the next climb and get some sleep. It was pushing 2.30am by this point and upon reaching the top of the climb at 276km I gave myself 3 hours to sort my kit out and get some sleep before pushing on again. One positive of the heat was that I didn’t need much kit to sleep on, just my sleeping mat in the grass and my down jacket was plenty warm enough.
2 hours or so of nervy and adrenaline filled sleep and I was off again.
Day 2: Heat exhaustion
I was keen today to get another 270km or so in the legs today as this would give me less than 100km on day 3 to make CP1, this felt manageable and not a million miles from the schedule I wanted to keep to. I climbed over the Quantocks with spectacular sea views over my left shoulder and dropped down towards Bridgewater where I had planned to resupply. From Bridgewater it was 35km on flat roads towards Cheddar where I’d climb over the Mendips.
It was late morning and it was getting really, really hot. I was Bristol bound and coming onto home roads and knew there was a village shop in Mark a few minutes away. George and Emily were both sat outside nursing ice lollies and I was happy to find more lucozade and milkshakes inside. Milkshakes were quickly becoming my main calorie supply as my appetite was waning and I was really struggling to keep solid foods down, happily liquid calories are refreshing and crucially easy to digest.
I knew the climbs and descents over the Mendips were hard, I’ve ridden them all before as I live just off the route through Bristol. Unloaded the climbs are hard but rideable, but with the bike loaded up in 34 degree heat as the time ticked past midday they were a totally different animal. Looking back now this was the hardest part of the race for me. I kept telling myself it would be cooler once I got to Wales and that if I could just make it to Bristol I’d get a well needed morale boost as my girlfriend would be waiting at the Suspension Bridge. Plus, a few friends had said they would ride to meet me and keep me away from any tempting home comforts!
I’d considered scratching over the Mendips. My flat is just 200m from the Suspension Bridge into Bristol and I knew the suffering could be over so so soon. I also knew I’d hate myself if I gave in so soon, and that the forecast for Monday onwards was far more manageable. Within moments, scratching here for me wasn’t an option.
I wasn’t going to scratch, but I was physically and mentally smashed to pieces by the time I’d cleared the Mendips and finally made it to Bristol. I’ve never felt so exhausted, so overwhelmed by the heat. I sat down in the shade by the Suspension Bridge with my girlfriend, Lily, and started to cry. I didn’t feel sad, I was just so spent. It’s a strange sensation being so exhausted you’re just overcome with emotion. I pulled myself together a bit and enjoyed lying in the grass for 10 minutes happily chatting to Lil, this was a big morale boost at a well needed moment. I ate a little more before rolling on towards Wales. Getting to Wales felt like a big milestone on this first stage and I was keen to get there where I knew there was a Greggs just off the route in Chepstow.
A few friends appeared to ride with me as I headed out of Bristol towards the Severn Bridge, this was another big morale boost and a nice distraction from the heat and distance still to go.
The route wriggled itself frustratingly slowly towards the Severn Bridge, seemingly following every cycle path in the area rather than following the fast rolling lanes which take you directly there. One bush fire at the side of the road later I was on the Severn Bridge with another big morale boost waiting at the far side for me. My Mum and Dad had come down to cheer me on into Wales, I was planning to stop at a Greggs in Chepstow to reset a little and fuel up for the push towards CP1 so I was grateful for their company while I nursed down some food.
It wasn’t really any cooler in Wales, but I knew that by the following morning the heat would have passed and my body could start to function better. The start of the route into Wales was fairly unmemorable, my main memory being a climb which was made up of 10-15 tall steps. The type of step where I had to really lug the bike up and over, not an easy feat at this point.
It was evening now as I ticked over 200km for the day, I knew there was a 24 hour McDonalds in Brynmawr, the holy grail of refuels. It’s real Welsh valley vibes here and I was surprised to found a bouncer on the door McDonalds who unfortunately told me there was an hour long wait for food(!). Disappointing, but I definitely wasn’t going to wait. I filled my bottles, went to the toilet, and rolled on.
George had the same McDonalds refuel idea as me, and we rode from McDonalds into the night together, chancing across a small shop just about to close where we could buy some more food. I always carried a lot of food but I always get bored of the food I have so am a sucker for a quick resupply and mixing up my ride snacks.
We weren’t far from The Gap now, maybe 40km or so but my legs were definitely fading and it was almost 1am. George and I rolled on together for a while, just about making it down a descent through an overgrown, bushy field which wasn’t overly easy to navigate. We were onto fairly quick rolling fire roads at this point and I saw a small clearing and decided to get my head down for a few hours.
This time around, I was asleep as soon as I my head hit my pillow. I’d only ridden 233km on day 2 so I was now behind my ideal schedule, but I was still riding which after the previous 500km was the only important thing to me at this point.
Day 3: 140km to CP1
“Only” 140km to go at this point. It was 4am as I was packing my bags and Emily came riding by having slept much earlier on in the evening before pushing on again from midnight onwards.
I was very close to The Gap as this point and as I began to ride and push my way to the summit I could see Emily’s rear light both a short and long distance ahead of me on the climb. It’s funny the comfort you get in certain situations from just seeing another rider in the distance. Everyone says The Gap is beautiful and it is, but I’ve only ridden it twice both with a fully loaded gravel bike during a race, and if I’m honest I’ve hated it both times.
Photo by forthehellofit.cc
Some faster rolling roads after descending from the Brecon Beacons and I passed Emily chatting to some dotwatchers who gave me a very welcome cheer as I rode through. About an hour later I was well aware of how hungry I must be, given how little I’d managed to eat in the previous 12 hours or so. I sat down at the side of the road and forced myself to eat one of the sausage rolls I’d saved from Greggs yesterday. It just about went down with plenty of water…
I got to my feet ready to push on, knowing I’d consumed a few calories at least before I threw up everything I’d just eaten all over the road. Lovely. I rolled on, concerned about how I could actually make it to the checkpoint. I was on a fast rolling A road at this point and was enjoying riding at a good pace when I spotted a sign advertising hot baps at the Trecastle breakfast van somewhere up the road.
Emily was already there sipping a coffee, I ordered a breakfast bap and a coffee, hoping if I could stomach the food this could propel me onwards. The bap was amazing. I felt so much better almost instantly and for the first time of the race knew I could make it to CP1. It was approaching 9am and we were 100km from the checkpoint, I had estimated this as 7 hours of riding but Emily had ridden the route last year so I was curious if she thought my timings were reasonable. Thankfully she did and 7 hours of criss-crossing later we arrived to CP1 separated by just a few minutes.
Just after the breakfast van was the Epynt military road, a hard road climb followed by an amazing, long road descent on a perfect tarmac surface. Onto the never ending forest roads around the Elan Valley and the finish was truly in sight.
In my mind once I was 25km from the finish I was basically there, little did I know the last 25km were seriously hard work and would take almost 2 hours to complete. Mentally this was a really tough moment, but eventually hitting the final climb and knowing it was just a bumpy descent down to Daf’s farm was an amazing feeling.
I rolled in at 3.57pm on day 3, giving me a finishing time of 55 hours and 57 minutes. This was approximately 4 hours slower than I’d initially aimed for but this was enough for 9th place and I was just happy to have made it.
Stage 1 Stats
Time: 55 hours 57 minutes
Photo by Simon Hill.