It started with a beer, maybe several beers, and the conversation ended up with a discussion about how we (Pete, my riding mate) needed to do something more than ride our local trails. We ride them most weeks and they aren’t much fun. Fields and bridle paths with bits of road to join them up. We have Cannock chase an hour away and we head to a Welsh trail centre or two twice a year with a bunch of mates.
All good in their own way but nothing EPIC and when you’ve had a few beers doing something epic seems like a good idea.
This was about 18 months ago I think and I’d recently found out that the Grand Union canal that passes very close to my house goes all the way to London. I’ve ridden the canal occasionally, head towards Birmingham and there is the Hatton Locks cafe and Waterman pub, a bit further Shrewley tunnel and you can do some circular routes. A couple of mates ride the canal regularly but it’s all a bit, well, boring.
But London. That’s a long way, a bit silly to think about riding there. So think about it we did and the plan was hatched.
Let’s ride to London for a beer! On the tow path. On our new rigid singlespeed bikes. The canal is largely flat anyway so how hard can it be ?
The idea brewed for a while and on talking to fellow cyclists we were met with comments about it being very difficult, so in June 2014 we did a test. On the SS’s heading towards London, 90 mins out then turn round and come back. A nice 3 hr ride to see how hard it really was.
The reality ended up being it’s quite hard. We felt broken, arms, hands, legs, back, neck. It all hurt. The canal may be flat but it’s not all maintained and a rigid bike batters your body or makes you work really hard to be out of the saddle a lot.
We did some research. We’d estimated it at 100 miles so I mapped it out in detail on Strava. It came in at 120 miles. 20% more than we’d expected. We found a few people who’d ridden the route over 2 days with a B&B break overnight. Reports talked of long unmaintained sections that were very hard work with it getting easier nearer London. This was the sensible option. So we stuck with our original plan and decided to train for it.
A year passed and we’d done no training. Not singlespeed on canal training. Bugger.
A decision had to be made. “Postpone and train”, “forget it and have a beer locally” or “have a go anyway – how hard can it be?”.
“Have a go anyway – how hard can it be?” won.
Thursday night saw a phonecall to discuss the details of out departure the next Saturday. We sensibly decided to not attempt it on the rigid SS’s but to use full suspension. It’s a long way and we would not doubt have more chance of success if we were less beat up. A departure time of 5.30 was agreed, lights would be needed and the last train home was 10.08 pm.
My alarm went off at 4am. I went back to sleep. My second alarm went off at 4.30 and I crawled out of bed. Said hello to our new puppy and sorted him out, sorted breakfast and headed out in my riding kit to the garage to to the last minute fettling that seems obligatory before any sort of ride. I’d decided to take my largest Camelbak as it had the largest bladder – 3l and it was full. A waterproof and a few tools plus a dozen or more gels, some Clif bars and a bag of peanuts were inside yet it felt really heavy.
Pete arrived at 5.30 on the dot just as I’d finished my fettling. Nervous words and laughter followed then we headed off to the canal.
The first few miles were on ‘maintained’ tow path and although we’d agreed to aim for a 10mph average we were going along at 16mph or so. We were both having the same thoughts of making good progress while we were fresh and all the dog walkers were in bed. It didn’t take long before we hit countryside where it’s grassy, bumpy and hard going. We thought the recent rain might soften it up but it was fine. We also thought the grass may be long and hard work but it wasn’t.
We reached Braunston at around 20 miles and I was starting to feel saddle sore. Not a good feeling with 5 times that still to cover. I wondered if I was going to make it. Pete was also feeling it and I wondered if he would make it.
We stopped every hour for a quick 5 mins to eat, take stock and have a bit of respite from the saddle and around 12 midday and 50ish miles (I think) we decided to stop at the first pub that was open for some food. The sun was out, got an outside table, food came quickly and we were soon back on our way.
From this point on things we started ticking the miles off in 10’s. Getting to 60 was good as every mile meant we were nearer to London than home and were therefore pretty much committed to making it. Hitting 70 sounds like you’re a lot nearer with only 50 ! miles to go. 80 is two thirds of the way there and 90 is almost 100.
Just before 100miles and around 4.30 we decided it was second big stop time for coffee and cake. First option was The Bear on the Barge pub which didn’t have either but given we’d stopped we settled for a pint of Pepsi and a chat. Which raises an interesting point of talking during the ride was quite difficult as you’re usually single file.
By this point it was the longest we’d both ridden and we knew we would make it. Resuming however was very painful and it took a good 5 minutes for the pain to subside and the rhythm to return. The next milestone was 100 miles then the Paddington branch turn. These seemed to take forever and felt like the longest miles we rode all day. When the turn came the end was 13.5 miles away and we encountered more people, increasingly so as we got nearer the end. All to be expected and actually a welcome relief as people mean getting out of the saddle for yet more relief.
The last stop was 5 miles from the end for a quick gel and a bit of pain relief for Pete’s knee. Then a trundle into the Paddington basin and slight disbelief that we’d reached the end and in a time that we hadn’t thought possible. Total elapsed time as just over 12hrs with around 10hrs of ride time and a 12mph average speed.
Photo’s were taken, Facebook updated and we headed to Marylebone. The sports bar and grill is next door with outside tables so we settled ourselves down, ordered some food and drank that well earned beer that was the goal of the ride. We got a train around 7.30 and I was home by 9. I don’t think we stopped smiling on the train.
So that’s it. We weren’t that confident we could make it as it was quite a bit further than either of us had ridden but in the end it felt easier than I expected. We agreed that if we had to we could have done another 2 or 3 hours (so 30-40 miles) if we had to.
For me the biggest point I take from this trip is that we are all capable of things we’re not sure we can do, able to ride distances we don’t think we can and that giving yourself no bail out option means you put up with things you’d normally stop for. Now we need to work out the next epic challenge.