On Saturday the 18th of July 2016 I rode my first Ride to the Sun. It’s a 162km (100 mile) ride from Carlisle, in the North, West of England, over the border to Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. What makes this event different from the hundreds of other sportives, which take place throughout Europe and the UK, is that the Ride to the Sun is ridden through the night. There is no fixed start time, but the riders’ aim is to finish around 04:30am; just in time to watch the sun rise over the Firth of Forth on Edinburgh’s Cramond Beach.
I ride this kind of distance on a regular basis, and despite the fact that riding all night probably makes the 162km a little more demanding, I wanted to make things a bit harder. So I decided I would double the distance by cycling, from home, to the starting point in Carlisle. This made the whole ride a 331km (205 mile) round trip. This would also secure me a 300km Audax ride and the associated points and officially make me a Randonneur.
Planning an Endurance Ride
I plotted out my route using the Route Builder tool on Strava, submitted it to Audax UK and turned my mind to all the other little details that go along with planning a long distance ride; food, water, clothing, mechanical problems, contingency plans and so on.
I also need to consider pain medication and pain management, which can be a bit tricky to manage when out on the bike. Remembering to take medication is not always straight forward when you are cycling. Your usual daily routine is somewhat disrupted. Meals are not always available when you would normally eat and simply pulling over to the side of the road to take a few pills is not always an option, especially when on busy main roads. I looked at my intended route and considered timings and worked my medication timetable around planned rest stops and where I was likely to be able to stop for food breaks. I also aimed to leave enough time at Carlisle for an extended break where I could get off the bike and decompress my spine for a while. At the halfway point this seemed like an ideal time to do this. However, a couple of factors were to limit this time off the bike.
Departing on the 11:30 to Carlisle
I left home at 11:45, fifteen minutes later than planned, on Saturday morning. My chronic procrastination had meant that I was not as ready-to-go as I should have been that day. So, after a couple of hours of frantic saddlebag packing and stuffing food into my mouth and jersey pockets, I kissed, hugged and said fond farewells to my wife and daughter and was finally off.
I didn’t get far, though, before I had to stop. 5 minutes into my journey I got a puncture. Several obscene words spewed from my mouth as quick as the air leaked from the inner tube as I pulled over to the side of the road. Was this ride doomed from the start?
I am not a natural climber on the bike; being tall and with a broad frame. This makes me heavier than your typical mountain goat. However climbs like Paddy Slacks, the first major climb of the day, are the kind that I quite enjoy. It is long enough to be able to settle into a steady rhythm and it’s not steep enough to get your heart rate up to a point where you are really suffering; unless you attack it of course. On reaching the summit of Paddy Slacks I took a moment to take a few deep breaths before setting off down the other side towards the Gordon Arms and the Yarrow Valley. From there I would turn right and set off along the shores of the beautiful St. Mary’s Loch, towards Moffat, with the wind at my back and the sun emerging from behind broken clouds.
From Riding With a Tailwind to Struggling With a Block Headwind
For most of the first 100km (60 miles), I had the assistance of a tailwind, but as I got nearer to Moffat the wind began to turn; almost without my being aware of it. The forecast suggested this might happen around 6 o’clock that evening, but it was only 4pm . So when I emerged from the shelter of Craigieburn Forest, near Moffat, and turned South towards Lockerbie I was faced with a strong headwind. The hills and mountains of the Borders had opened out into the flatter plains of the Solway Firth. The next two and a half hours were to be a battle with the wind and with my mind.
Finding My Breaking Point
The road from Lockerbie to Carlisle was nearly my breaking point. I was tired from an hour long battle with the wind. I felt drained and weary, both mentally and physically. As I rode along the road which runs alongside the M74 motorway I was looking for a sign which indicated how far it was to Carlisle. I eventually found one and my heart sank. I realised I had another 2 hours before I could rest, eat and relax. I started doubting whether I was going to be able to make it all the way home to Edinburgh. I hadn’t even reached the halfway point. How would I feel in another couple of hours, when I would still have another eight hours to go?
The gently undulating roads at that point meant ten or fifteen minute periods of gradual uphill riding at a time. When you are tired and feeling low this can feel like torture and be enough to break you. I have to say it nearly did break me. However I eventually realised that these feelings of having no energy and the low mood were mainly caused by my blood sugar being low and not having had a rest since I left home nearly six hours ago. So I ate a banana and a cereal bar and a few minutes later started to feel better. I also took a few moments to alter my mental process. I worked out that I was still making good time. I told myself that it was only another hour or two of riding on my own and that when I met my friends in Carlisle I would have others to share the workload with. Best of all the wind would be behind us. The nasty headwind that had been my enemy for the past few hours would become my best friend on the return leg.
The Ride to the Sun Begins
I met up with my friends from Pentland Velo at Bitts Park in Carlisle along with several-hundred other Ride to the Sun participants. There was the usual buzz of activity and excitement that you find at the start of a cycling event. My low mood from earlier on was long gone and, as I ate a sandwich and chatted to my friends, I began to feel more buoyant and the tiredness and doubts from earlier vanished.
The six of us left Carlisle around quarter to eight in the evening. Despite the distance I had already covered I felt great. The wind was now behind me and having others to accompany me on the return leg made everything feel easier. The flat parcours of the first 70km or so (around 40 miles) of the Ride to the Sun meant the pace was high. On a couple of occasions we had to remind ourselves that we needed to rein it in a bit or we would end up arriving in Edinburgh far too early. After all the whole purpose of the event was to arrive in Edinburgh to watch the sun rise. At that pace we would have a long wait before sunrise. So we knocked the pace back a notch and things became a lot more relaxed.
The Devil’s Beeftub
After being dinner for a large cloud of midgies, whilst in the queue for the chippy at Moffat, we set off on the long grind that is the Devil’s Beef Tub. It’s name is believed to be derived from legends of cattle rustlers hiding stolen cattle in the bowl-shaped valley which is formed by surrounding hills. After 245km (150 miles) the long climb was a bit tough on the legs, but the chat from my friends and the wind behind me helped me up immensely.
Clubbin’ at The Crook Inn
From the top of The Beef Tub it is 25km (15 miles) of gradual descent until the village of Broughton. Before we reached Broughton we had a scheduled stop at The Crook Inn, once one of the first licensed inns in Scotland; now closed awaiting refurbishment. The Ride to the Sun organisers had told us that there was an opportunity to stop here and fill our water bottles and one of the event sponsors had provided bananas for the riders. They also said there would be a surprise waiting for us. And what a surprise it was. There was an outdoor nightclub there; complete with a real-life Bananaman handing out bananas and glow-sticks. It was a very surreal experience after 13 hours on the road.
The Road to Cramond
After a break at The Crook we were once again on the road seeing long lines of red LED lights streaming away into the distance. We were rolling along at a decent pace, even though sleep deprivation was starting to take it’s toll. We were all beginning to feel a little weary. I started to notice my reaction times were getting slower and my mind was wandering. When we stopped, so one of my fellow Pentland Velo riders could repair a puncture, the mood of our group was quite sombre, even though a few of us were still trying to make jokes to lighten the mood a litlle.
Before long we started to see some light in the sky. Not long after that we began to pass through the satellite towns which surround Edinburgh. It felt strange to be riding under street lights again after nearly four hours of complete darkness. Then came the ride through central Edinburgh.
Cycling in Edinburgh at Night
It was 3am on a Sunday morning. The nightclubs were closing and the streets were filled with drunk people and taxis. We were sleep-deprived and physically exhausted. Still, we could not resist racing through Edinburgh’s city centre at break-neck speed. We couldn’t help ourselves. We had huge grins and hollow eyes as we weaved in and out of parked cars and tram lines; threading our way down Lothian Road in single file hoping that one of these steamin’ revellers didn’t stagger out in front of us. It was great fun; if not horrendously dangerous, but we didn’t care. We were nearly at the finish; this was the beginning of the end of our overnight adventure from one side of the border to another.
Cramond Beach at Sunrise
We descended the steep, winding lane through Cramond Village some time around 3:30am. By then we were engulfed by the gloomy half-light that comes just before dawn when there is light in the sky, but the sun has not yet risen. We had made it through the night unscathed and we were quite rightly pleased with ourselves and each other. The most challenging things which we had encountered were midgies, low blood sugars and a puncture. We took photos, congratulated each other on a great and challenging ride and then made our way back up the hill to Cramond Kirk. There Fresh Start, an Edinburgh based charity, were serving coffee and bacon rolls in exchange for a donation. After we had eaten we returned to the shore just in time to watch the sun rise.
I was delighted. I had completed my first 300km ride. I was officially a Randonneur. I had been confident I would manage the distance, but had been unsure what state I would be in by the end. In fact I felt physically fine. I was tired, but not as physically tired as I expected. It was more sleep deprivation. I reckon I would have managed the ride home, but my amazing wife and my daughter had got out of bed in the early hours to come and meet me at the finish; so fortunately I didn’t need to.
Now it’s time to plan my first 400km (250 mile) ride!
Stats for this ride…
- Distance: 331km (206 miles)
- Av Speed: 26.6km/h (16.5mph)
- Metres of Ascent: 2675m
- Calories Burnt: 8,354
- Moving Time: 12:26
- Total Time: 15:46