Cover Image by Mark Gray @r011erb0y
It’s a simple enough concept… start at Minster on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent at sunrise and cycle across the country to arrive in Weston Super Mare, Somerset before the sun sets on the longest day (well, the nearest Saturday to the longest day).
It’s a distance of 330kms with just under 3,000 metres of climbing.
It would be the furthest that I had ever cycled in one day.
Anyone who cycles or runs long distances knows that you don’t need to try and match the exact distance in training, but you do need to build up distance and intensity. The key to taking on a distance like this is all in the planning, and luckily I love planning.
I worked with my friend and cycling coach Michelle Sharland to create a training plan. I built up my fitness over the winter, on the indoor trainer, outside when the weather permitted, adding in strength training and a lot of mobility work. I worked on my nutrition – not only what I should be eating and drinking in the weeks up to the ride – but also how to keep my energy levels up over a full day of non-stop riding. I gradually started increasing the outside rides from 2 hours to 3, and 4-hour rides - nothing outlandish - just consistent. I rode a 200km audax in April and did a 225km ride in early June. Both gave me confidence that 330km was doable.
Everything was going really well until… I took a tumble from my gravel bike in March, giving myself mild concussion and having to sit out the event I had originally been targeting - the 400km London-Wales-London Audax. I kept up the turbo sessions and was able to get back to some decent outdoor rides towards the end of April.
(Elen is in the middle)
Having the event start on one side of the country and finish on the other meant I needed someone to drive me to Kent, and then back to Dorking from Weston Super Mare. Fellow gA-er Erica Chambers volunteered to soigneur for me and, with her husband Tim, became the best support crew anyone could ask for. We found ourselves spending (a bit of) the night in a caravan park on Sheppey, waking up at 3.45am to get to the start line by dawn. We had pre-arranged meeting points through the day for me to restock on food and water, and, if everything went wrong, to scoop me up and take me home.
I started at 4.45am just as the sun was rising on the east coast. I rode along in the wheels of a large peloton that got us to Crystal Palace. London was yet to wake up so we had the roads to ourselves. I met my support crew in Shepperton to restock with food and to drop off my jacket (it was cold at 4am but already getting warm by 8!). From there I found two men to ride with who had also completed the Étape last year – and we formed a pretty effective chain gang, each of us taking a turn on the front before peeling off to the back for a rest. It was working well so at the half way lunch stop we agreed it would be mutually beneficial for us to stick together - so we rode together all the way to Weston Super Mare.
(Elen is in front)
As the ride progressed, the temperature increased – which wasn’t ideal, but we just concentrated on working together to get to the next stop. The heat was radiating off the road making my feet swell uncomfortably, so I undid the straps on my shoes and tried to ignore the pain! The scenery helped - through the rolling hills of Wiltshire and along the Vale of the White Horse. Sometimes our group of three swelled to five or six, before those riders would drop back or ride on ahead.
The second half of the ride was not only hotter but also lumpier than the first half. In the back of mind I knew we needed to climb the back of Cheddar Gorge before dropping down the final descent to the coast. I was slightly dreading this - I was tired and could feel the 300kms I’d already ridden in my legs. We dropped down another roller and I found myself in a cool ravine, the road twisting ahead of me. I saw a wild goat at the side of the road and realised that the climbing was done - I was on the way down through the gorge! The cool evening air shaded by the tall cliffs either side of the road was delicious, and I relished each twist and turn of the road.
I made it to Weston Super Mare just after 7pm. Well before sunset, and the first woman to finish. It was an epic day - the challenge, the scenery, the people, the conversations, and the success! Now… what next…?
Image by Mark Gray @r011erb0y
(PS thank you for all the messages from the girls ALIVE gang during the day - you were wonderfully supportive. Most of all thanks to Erica (and Tim) for driving across the country and back again, keeping me and my fellow riders fed and watered. Invaluable!)