Riding across Britain
BY DAVID ADAM
The sticky toffee pudding nestled next to a variety of cheesecakes reminded me that I was not in the Midwest. Standing in the dessert line inside a giant white tent at Lands End in Cornwall, I was queuing up for calories before starting an epic English bike ride. The following morning, I would join 800 other cyclists on the Ride Across Britain (RAB) that would take us 970 miles in nine days from the southwest tail of England to the northern tip of Scotland.
I enjoy long-distance, moderately-paced cycling. After a solo cross-country ride across the United States in 2014, I wanted to experience the same two-wheeled touch of the landscape, the people and the culture, but from a non-US perspective. Working full-time, planning an adventure in a foreign setting seemed a logistical nightmare. So when I read about RAB, organized by Threshold Sports and heavily funded by Deloitte, I jumped at the chance of a fully supported, well-planned British biking adventure.
RAB began in 2010 as a way to ride the south to the north span of Great Britain in relative comfort while raising money for charity. It has grown annually and collected one million pounds (roughly $1.3 million) to causes in 2017 alone.
The ride began the Saturday after Labor Day. Twenty nationalities were represented, ranging from 18 to 76 years old and skewed male. The typical rider was a 45- to the 55-year old successful business owner or independent consultant. Thankfully, most were inspired but time-stretched riders. A casual, supportive vibe played well in creating camaraderie on the road, at pit stops and at base camps as we helped, and encouraged all riders of all abilities.
My flight schedule had me arriving in Land’s End the day before the start. My two pre-trip worries were staging my bike in short order after its trek “across the pond” and getting my body through an average of 108 miles and 5,700 feet of climbing a day, all while tent camping. Thankfully, the RAB mechanics helped me in the setup phase and the rest of the RAB volunteers made the experience as comfortable as camping could be.
I brought my bike, a helmet, basic repair gear, a sleeping bag and clothes. A tent, sleeping pad, water bottles, food and drink were provided. While most riders had road bikes, we had an inspirational fat-tire rider and a couple who managed to ride a tandem through the intense elevation that was almost twice that of my USA ride. At ride’s end, the tandem couple was still talking to each other and looked no worse for the wear … impressive!
A typical day began at 5:30 in the morning with Queen’s “Bicycle Race” blaring from loudspeakers. Headlamp affixed, I would tramp through wet grass to take care of the morning business before heading to the main heated tent to fuel up. Breakfast options included beans, tomatoes, eggs, sausages or croissants, and cereals along with tea and coffee. Laundry days entailed queuing up to get clothes and a stop at the drying tent to get my cycling shoes. Once fed and dressed, I would fill up with electrolyte and caffeine tablets and gels prior to showing my identification to gain access to the bike corral. At 7:00, I’d queue to be among the first riders released to start the ride.
The day’s route varied from 100 to 127 miles and 2,500 to 9,000 feet of elevation gain. Where possible, this was on country roads that grew increasingly narrow as we cycled into Scotland, finally ending up as single-lane passageways with an occasional passing lane. Road surfaces were below American standards. The Brits termed the conditions “grippy” when the mix of pot-holes and patchy layers of blacktop kept eyes focused over the handlebars rather than around the horizon.
British vehicle drivers were courteous and generally gave space with riders clustering together in groups when we road through congested cities. Brit riders had a surprising calm about weaving in and out of stop-light delayed traffic that made me and my fellow foreigners uncomfortable.
The route was very well marked … not once did I get lost. Mechanical support was excellent with vans riding up and down the route, being available at each rest stop and at day’s end to offer repair help. Chaperones hung back to help those needing moral or medical assistance.
In the south, tall hedge rows lined both sides of the road with the occasional residential drive opening creating gusty winds. The village vistas of cozy stone cottages with small, flower-filled frontages were memorable. In the midlands, the rollers along the water in the Lake District provided a respite for the knees after the hilly first two days. Once in Scotland, little vegetation buffered the winds, but thankfully, headwinds were not common.
I found myself riding in groups half the time and cycling solo the other half. Pack riders often kept a pace that made viewing the scenery difficult and I struggled adjusting to the left-side biking and the language nuances. Signal calling created confusion as “car up” and “car back” were flipped around. Once I called “Truck!” to warn bikers behind of a sixteen wheeler approaching a roundabout only to be corrected by a rider to my rear with a “Lorry!” retort.
The elevation was equally challenging. I enjoyed the steep uphill grades but was soft on downhills. Accustom to the expansive and distant views of riding country roads in south central Wisconsin, I sheepishly shied from careening down British hills at full force. The bottom of the hills often banked sharply left or right with trees and stone walls blocking views afield. As a result, my erratic pace gave me opportunity to meet more people while cycling.
Each of the two or three daily rest stops involved a timer station along with conveniences. Snacks had a British twist and included fruit, chocolate, quinoa bars, crisps (potato chips), rice and toffee puddings and a variety of meat pies. A fee-based coffee cart (think Starbucks on wheels) was often around and had long queues on the cold and wet days which came far too often for mid-September. In the minds of the natives and repeat foreign riders, we had “rubbish” weather which proved to be the wettest, coldest and overall least sunny RAB ride of the eight to date. Despite this, the “Keep calm and carry on” resolve of the volunteers and organizers bolstered our spirits. A majority of those starting the trip succeeded in finishing and didn’t need the “broom wagon” that swept up riders unable to make the days full distance.
While we rode, the RAB support crew had six hours to pack up, push ahead and fully set up at the next base camp by 2:00 p.m. when the first riders finished. I tended to be among the first to leave and arrived in camp earlier than most. That made possible a longer (and possibly hotter) shower and no lines for the 10 minute massage offered up every other day by a volunteer crew of students from the University of Birmingham. With the bike corralled, I would get a tent assignment, pick up my luggage (courtesy of volunteers) and find my tent. Laid out in rows of straight lines, the fields of tents reminded me of the precision of Midwestern corn fields. After cleaning up, I’d dump gear at the drying tents, my electronics at the juice bar (charging stations) and would go to the main tent where a mid-day snack of soups and warm breads tied me over until dinner began at 6:00. A stretching area with rollers and yoga mats helped keep my muscles loose and a travelling pub offered local brews, and ciders to kept me well hydrated.
Base camps were often located at the outskirts of towns in fields or horse racetracks, though one night we had the luxury of dorm dwellings in Bath. On about half of the afternoons following my ride, I walked into the nearest town to visit a local pub for free Wi-Fi and a cask ale, or to visit a castle or church.
Dinner was not to be missed, as the food was flavorful and varied, and the conversation with fellow riders engaging. Five main entrees included vegetarian and gluten free choices; often local and ethnic specialties like linguine with pan fried prawns. Salads and soups were nightly staples; one of my favorites was the beet and quinoa with roasted squash. The pièce de résistance was the dessert bar with at least four cheesecake and two other fruit, chocolate or pudding options. The mileage, coupled with cool, damp conditions and the lack of a solid mid-day meal meant at least two plates of desserts a night. Despite this, I found myself hungry a few hours later and took to sneaking food into my tent at night for midnight snacks.
Each evening offered a rider recap at 8:00 with an overview of next day’s ride, usually avoiding commentary on the cruddy weather. An inspirational speech touting a featured charity or a local celebrity followed. One night we heard from British professional racer and former Deloitte alumni Mark Cavendish, who stuck around and road with us the next day.
I crossed the finish line on the sea overlooking the Orkney Islands on the sunniest day of the ride. I would rank the experience among my most favorite adventure efforts. The ride itself was nice with scenery in Scotland taking top billing, but the sights took a backseat to the people I met – my fellow riders, the volunteers and the Brits I encountered along the way. Oh, the food was pretty sweet, too.
Note: For more information on the tour, CLICK HERE.