Monday, 21 March 2016

Keeping the RRTY alive, thanks to Steve Abraham

As time went on, it was looking more and more unlikely that I would be able to keep the Randonneur Round The Year (RRTY) going this month. Two years and three months in, scuppered by a broken arm that wouldn't be ready to weight bear before the end of March.  

However, the endurance machine and all round audax hero Steve Abraham saved the day by arranging hire of a Circe Morpheous from Blue Yonder tandems.  It wasn't just for me, there is already a growing list of injured riders waiting to be passenger of such a legendary pilot. I was, however, the 'first into the breach' and probably a good representation of an average passenger, off my normal level of fitness due to injury, and completely unused to the recumbent position. 

Steve was planning to arrive on Friday evening, to stay the night before and we'd set out Saturday refreshed and ready for the challenge.  Of course, this is far too easy for a man who spent all of last year trying to ride over 200 miles a day on the HAMR attempt, and who had continued with the challenge even with a broken ankle resulting from an RTA with a drunk moped rider.  Sure enough, Steve rode through the night, from Milton Keynes, solo on a bike designed for two.  88 miles before even starting out with a passenger, in an aim to get a double century ticked off on the Circe, and to act as a training ride.  

The route was designed to be relatively low level, running either side of the Severn Valley from home, with Chepstow being the halfway point.  It wasn't as dramatic in scenery as Welsh mountain epic, but it was very pleasant along the lanes, with nice views of the river, May Hill and the Severn Valley through the day. A grey, dry day; the lack of rain much appreciated. 

The lanes were mostly OK, relatively clean and well surfaced.  Note 'mostly'.  There was a rather interesting 'road closed' compound to negotiate. Not your ordinary gas trench where you can squeeze past with no one noticing.  Oh no.  This was a full on 'dig the road up' job, involving relaying of a culvert.  

Luckily they had already infilled the sides with concrete and we were able to get through, with a little negotiation and use of a timber plank.  Of course we could have diverted round, but where is the fun in that?

It would be a lie to say I found the whole 200 km to be super relaxing.  It actually wasn't.  It was pretty scary, being on the front, totally out of control and unable to see much due to the lower position. Descending on lanes turned me into a squealing bundle of nerves at times, but A Road descending was great and, I found taking photos helped take my mind off the feeling of being a human battering ram.  Or 'talking shopping basket', as Steve liked to put it.

This was a particularly fun descent which opened out to views of the nearby Severn.  

It really was great being 'hands free' and being able to take photos.  An ashen day, but I love those big moody dry day skies, and they went on for miles.  The bare hedges were appreciated even more than normal, as they opened up the views from the low recumbent position.

The hedgerows were brightened by the spring flowers, petite pastel wild daffodils en-mass in Dymock, and primroses in the Lydney lanes.

Through the lanes we discussed Steve's HAMR attempt and all the issues he faced through the year, along with how the record had been brought back to life.  We also spent much time discussing the amazing Kasja Tylen and her attempt at breaking the women's record.  It is often said there are a handful of ladies in the UK who have the potential to physically manage it, however, the physical aspect is only one part, the mental commitment to ride for a year is massive.  Kasja is the only lady brave enough, tough enough and committed enough to stand up and say 'I'm going to have a go'. What a lady!  I would love to see her continue to do well in her attempt, not just for her bravery, but for her reasons behind the challenge, as laid out in her mission statement.  This seems like a great reason to take on such an epic challenge.

We both started to get hungry around 10 miles from Chepstow, so it was a relief to see the Severn Bridges in the distance and knowing Wetherspoons was not far away.

However, first there were a few more rough lanes to negotiate before we could power along the A48 into town.  Power we did, or should I say, Steve did.  I have never pushed such massive gears in my life, it was all I could do to assist the pedals to turn and I struggled to put enough weight through them without being able to grip the handles tightly by my side.  I am not allowed to put any pressure through the arm yet, so Steve was having to work hard stomping up climbs whilst I did everything I could to contribute. I think I would have been able to assist more if we ran smaller gears as I would have been able to spin and use my lungs as well as muscle, but then again, I am supposed to stay away from becoming anaerobic until this bone is well healed (the operation was less than three weeks ago) so it was probably better for me to not get into oxygen debt over a 200 km distance.

The wound was superficially infected, due to an internal stitch breaking through, but the riding seemed to help get the Flucloxacillin where it needed to be and the surrounding redness had reduced by the time we got to 'spoons. I had been very worried about riding with the infected arm, due to the risk of it spreading into the metalwork, but in the end decided to risk it. There wouldn't be another opportunity to do the ride, I could genuinely rest the arm all day whilst on the front and if it got any worse, well, I could always stop and phone home to collect me.

We had some trouble in the morning with the front brake sticking on at junctions, and when Steve needed to quickly stop on the A48 coming into Chepstow it jammed solid. That was a little scary, sat helpless in the middle of the A48 right hand turn lane whilst traffic built up and tried to squeeze past. It was a good feeling to arrive safely at 'spoons and get food on order, whilst we chatted to some of the riders passing through on 'The Dean' 300 km. The Audax scene is small and close-knit, yet very welcoming and familiar faces appear on most rides.

Wetherspoons is great for vegan curry. This was gorgeous! I love the fact that veganism is now so mainstream, you can get a great tasty feed in an every day establishment.

From the pub we had a stomping climb up out of Chepstow, but the Magic-Morpheous-Machine handled it like a dream and before we knew it, we were heading to the Severn Bridge. Always very much fun crossing the river.

Just love the view across the Estuary, and the places I knew as a child.  It never fails to make me smile.

15 mph.  Not quite our average moving, but not far off.  On A roads and straights the bike was OK. Sure, not carbon solo upright fast, but it shifted and our moving speeds were often much higher than I expected with us readily holding 16+ mph.  However, negotiating the blind lanes and traffic, canal paths and other features had quite an impact.  It was still more than quick enough to get round with several hours in hand.

After the bridge, we saw the last of the Dean riders as we headed North to home.  With careful planning it is possible to completely avoid the A38 to Gloucester, and we had miles of quiet lanes through Oldbury, Hill, Berkeley and Cambridge to pedal.  The northerly wind was noticable, but not overbearing in the shelter of the back-roads.

This is a view over to home-turf in the distance, the hills where I grew up and the fields I played in as a child.  No matter how far I travel, now, when I return, I always feel a lovely sense of belonging.

Again, with careful routing, we diverted around the A38 via Frocester, before making our way to the Gloucester-Sharpness canal towpath.  I had stuck this in for fun. I knew we weren't going to be breaking speed records, and is it always a pleasure to ride alongside the boats. Boats and bikes, seemingly a great combination.

We had a late start, and lazy lunch, so it was a relief to get to the off-road sections whilst it was still light, but late enough for the paths to be pretty much deserted of dog walkers, fishermen and families.

Seagulls flew alongside and fought over rubbish as we passed into the urban inner of Gloucester City, unnoticed by the masses in their cars fighting for space after store closing time.

The light began to drop as dusk set in, and the air chilled, but it wasn't far from home. Just 35 km left, but far enough to need a short break and some food.

I was beginning to cramp in my left glute, my right ankle was very sore, and my back was bruised from pressing into the seat harness and pushing such big gears, so stretching (whilst phoning home to say everything was OK), was a real relief.  Steve 'rested his eyes' audax style, stood up with his head on a Carradice. Totally understandable for a man who had just ridden through the night and day before.  2 minutes later and it was like a reset button had been pressed, he was ready to go and get that endurance engine back on fire.

The night set in and my helmet light supplemented the dynamo hub of the Circe for the blackness of the last kilometers home.  Home to tea, food, and no doubt for Steve, some very well deserved sleep.