Eroica Britannia – the final miles

35 miles gone, about 20 to go. Out of the first feed station we descended a small way down a main road which then rose again. It rose, and rose and rose. I was in my very lowest gear, and working hard. I wasn’t the slowest on the hill, but was pulling first 9 mph, then 8, 7, then 6. 6mph is pretty much my limit. I kept going, really getting into a strong rhythm with my breathing and pedalling, determined to tough it out. We must have climbed for several miles, and around each bend I was hoping to see the crest. Then I came round one bend and saw the hill got even steeper…

Oh no, oh fuck no, I thought to myself. There was no point fighting it, so I got off and walked. Below 6mph my efficiency drops so low that it starts to eat away at me. Kingston Hill round the corner at home is as steep, but it’s only 100 yards long so doesn’t take that much out of me. I knew if I tried to stay in the saddle here I’d be seriously into the red, putting my chances of finishing the ride in jeopardy. 

So I walked to the point were the gradient relented and took this photo while I got my breath back. Some way back I’d passed a rather older rider, probably in his 70s, and then I saw him coming towards me, still on the bike, toughing it up the hill! It’s one of the most impressive sights I’ve seen anywhere. I bet he was hard as nails when he was a young ‘un. I gave him a BIG thumbs up, and I’ll never forget how he just angled his head at me in a very British jesture that said “I’ve still got it pal, still. bloody. got it…” 

I started to encounter quite a few bikes that were limping a bit, and one or two making rather a lot of ticking noises from the sprockets. I imagine it’s no coincidence that literally every such bike had Campagnolo derailleurs, but they’d never be convinced. My SunTour drivetrain worked absolutely faultlessly throughout, not a single change out of place, though I did on occasion (and for the first time ever) get confused between the two levers and put it in big/big by mistake. I was pretty tired.

By now the sun had risen even higher and it just kept getting warmer. I hate hot weather with a passion when I’m standing still, this was way beyond my comfort zone. We got to the top and it was just beating down, unrelenting, with no shade whatsoever. There was another descent, and I could feel the copious sweat evaporating from my jersey, and then another climb began. I got back in my rhytmn, kept my pedalling constant, and just kept going, trying to tough it out. At one point I could feel I was in a spot of bother so again, I had to stop to catch my breath. “You OK pal?” Said one passing rider. I was, but if I’d kept going I wouldn’t have been. I got back on but then yet again the road ticked up, my speed went down and this time walking really was the best option. No-one overtook me up that climb, they were riding at walking pace themselves.

This was absolutely the toughest part of any ride I’d ever done, but I got to the top and after another descent, whether by luck or by deliberate design, we happened upon the 25 milers coming the other way at just that point. They so obviously had a different feel to them, less serious, more jovial, many on three-speeds, often kitted out in full tweed or flowery dresses, with baskets and bunting and so on, ringing their bells as they went. It really lifted my spirits and there was a lovely feeling of mutual admiration, we respected the spirit in which they were riding, and they respected our very obvious efforts.

We separated from the 25 milers and then joined the main road again, again going uphill. I had a slightly dicey moment as I met an oncoming car without realising quite in time what was happening, but we negotiated our way around each other and pressed on. Again the road ticked up slightly and again I had to walk a stretch, accompanied by a middle-aged man on some pre-war single speed bike. “You’ve got gears!” He said, to which I replied that I’d also got the legacy of smoking for 15 years, and how true that was. Anyway, it levelled off again and before long we reached the solace of the final feed stop, just five miles from the finish.

The place was a pub that had a band on playing just for us, and the food available was the same as before, with the addition of a free beer for those who wanted it. I ate the banana I’d brought with me from the previous stop, sank another can of lemonade and refilled my bidon, then had a small drop of beer just as a sort of toast to my achievements, texted my fiancée to say I was nearly done, got my book stamped and set off again.

There was a bit of a rise up before we joined a very lumpy gravel path, which I had to walk not because I couldn’t manage the gradient but simply because I couldn’t get enough grip to stay upright. We then rejoined the road, and this followed a river through a small valley. Huge vertical banks of grass either side, with sheep bleating at us. At this point I knew I was nearly there, and starting to get a bit emotional. The scenery just added to it. Those couple of miles felt so surreal, again it was as if I was dreaming it. 

We came out of the valley and were reacquainted with our 25 mile brethren, this time going the same way. We were directed down a very narrow path with bizarre big-leafed plants either side, like something out of Willy Wonka’s factory, and it took me a while before I realised it was just overgrown wild rhubarb! The path we were on had some pretty rocky gravel, and as it started to go down hill it got rockier still. Soon we started to see more and more bikes by the side of the path with punctures, and I started to have problems staying upright again. I got off to walk downhill now, because when all you’ve got on your head is a casquette the thought of a crash is no bloody joke I can tell you. This was the least pleasant part of the ride, walking half a mile over rocky stones, the sun beating down, no shade, and not a breath of wind either. Damn it was hot.

At the bottom I got back on my bike, we went up a little embankment and joined the railway. I knew I was close. I also knew I still had a bit in the tank. I started to press a little, doing about 16mph and passing virtually everyone in sight. I got in the drops and pedalled for home. We crossed over the road, went past the brickworks we’d passed on the way out and at last I knew – I’d only bloody done it!

Approaching the finish there was a guy on the trail clapping us in, and he high-fived me as I went past. We turned left, climbed up to the finish line and as I crossed there were some children with outstretched hands, so I reached over to give them a high-five too. I was there! I was home! The ride I’d been nervous about for so many months, my Big Hairy Audaceous Goal was ACCOMPLISHED!

I met my fiancée, who being who she is was thoughtful enough to great me with a bottle of water first and a hug second. We wandered over to the HQ tent, were I picked up my final stamp and a free can of beer for finishing. I drank the (rather warm) beer pretty quickly, and had a somewhat colder shandy too, while I jibbered relentlessly to my fiancée about what the ride was like.

While I was having my beer, I heard a noise that could only be one thing. I know a V12 when I hear one, and I definitely know a Rolls Royce Merlin V12! The flypast! They’d booked a Lancaster bomber but, unknown to me, had had to substitute it at the last minute. We rushed out to watch as a magnificent Mk1 Hawker Hurricane, of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, flew by, turned, and flew back past us again. Always a glorious sight and sound. Lest we forget, the machine guns in that Hurricane were, likely as not, made by a certain Birmingham Small Arms… I must confess I got slightly irritated by the kid behind me who was yelling “Ooh look! A Spitfire! Look it’s a real Spitfire!” No laddie it’s a real Hurricane. What do they teach kids these days? When I was his age I knew the bloody difference! I’m turning into one of those cantankerous old gits…

I took the bike back to the car and headed to the campsite to start getting things ready to go. I went for a quick shower and happened upon the lovely guy who helped us with our bags on the Friday. He’d just had his shower. I was so pleased to see him, he’d done the 55 miles too. We exchanged our war stories and compared notes on how our similarly-equipped bikes had performed. Just before we parted ways he asked me simply “Would you do it again?”

In a heartbeat I would! Hills and sunburn and all!


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