200 mile Summer Solstice Ride

200 mile Summer Solstice Ride

After ticking over the 100 mile mark and nearing the end of a long day in the saddle, I like to think that most cyclists make the joke about it only being their first lap when they return home. Or at least that’s how I rationalise my own desire to do such a ridiculously long ride. Surely everyone wants to be able to say they’ve ridden 200 miles on a push bike?

Since last summer, the idea of the double century ride had been on my mind. Not necessarily the forefront, but the seed had been planted and I knew it would have to be done. It came about after completing a 150 mile ride. Despite temperatures exceeding 30C, I finished feeling quite strong and almost a tad regretful that I didn’t have the time (or lights) to ride on into the night to hit such a daft milestone.

Another year on, and the longest day of the year was soon approaching. With crazy long lockdown rides and Everestings being the hot topic in cycling at the moment I was pumped up and ready to do my own long ride. And, with early indications suggesting a good sunny day, I knew that the solstice would be the perfect time to set a new personal record. I dropped a message in to my club group chat to float the idea, and to my absolute disbelief I had 4 others up for the challenge.

How do you prepare for 200 miles?

Food

For my usual long rides I tend to get away with stuffing some gels and cereal bars into my pockets, a small saddlebag for innertubes, and a couple of bottles of water. For this ride though, I knew I would need a little more room.

I opted to increase my storage capacity by using the Restrap Canister Bag, a perfectly sized handlebar bag which thankfully had straps long enough to fit the bars of my Factor O2. I found the weight distribution of a handlebar bag to be far more manageable than a larger saddlebag, primarily because they don’t sway when you’re out of the saddle. It also had two side pockets which were very useful for storing a battery pack, allowing easy access to a bit more juice mid-ride. I could not recommend this bag more to any cyclist looking to dabble into longer rides.

Food wise, I had no idea. The plan was to find a cafe after about 70 miles, a chip shop after 120, and then somewhere for a coffee after 160. Though the Covid-19 restrictions made this far more difficult to plan for. So just to make sure I wasn’t without food I packed myself 2 peanut butter and jam sandwiches, 2 bananas, 7 gels, 5 packs of Powergel gummies, 4 Nutrigrain bars, and a few bags of carb powder. Thankfully most of it squashed into the bag, although the total weight of all my food felt about the same as my bike.

Feeding my 200 mile ride.
The contents of my handlebar bag and pockets.

Training

I write this section with the benefit of hindsight because, spoiler alert, I completed the ride. Which now makes me certified to give advice for double century rides.

I may have only planned the ride a couple of weeks before, but I knew I was ready for it. I was feeling strong, motivated, and I’d comfortably completed a few century rides this year.

Having the legs for it is obviously important. You want to be easily able to complete 100 miles and finish with a spring in your step. Though it’s not entirely necessary to train for lengths any longer. If you can easily ride for 6-7 hours then your body will already be sufficiently adapted to the demands of long distance cycling. Upping the distance to 200 miles should be doable, as long as the effort is steady and nutrition is kept on top of.

By far the most important aspect is having the resilience to continue grinding for such a long time. There will be quiet periods, and your body will probably start hurting in a lot of places. My Zwift Century ride was a great test of mental resilience because riding for 5 hours on a stationary trainer was terribly dull.

If the idea of riding for 200 miles genuinely motivates you, then so long as you’ve got experience with relatively long rides, you will be able to do it.

The Route

Planning such a long route is by no means easy. For all of us it would be our longest ride, by quite a distance. The idea of riding from Derby to Skegness and back was mentioned, but it just didn’t feel significant enough. And with a total of about 3000ft of elevation, it almost felt like cheating.

I decided that we’d be riding from Derby to Wales via the Shropshire Hills AONB and a couple Top 100 hills, the most frightening of which being The Burway.

Despite being rather ambitious (borderline delusional) with some of my goals, I was under no illusion just how long a 200 mile ride would take. I was anticipating it to take about 15 hours in total, with between 12-13 of those hours on the saddle.  The pace would need to be steady; any short bursts over hills would accumulate and cause some serious fatigue later on, and it would become almost impossible to keep on top of the calories if we were constantly pushing it. Also, if we wanted to be home before dark we’d need to set off early. For that reason, a 5am meet up was agreed.

Summer Solstice – 5am

The day started the same way that most of my cycling days start, with me running late. At 4.40am when I was due to leave I was still brushing my teeth, with an unlubed chain waiting patiently outside. 9 minutes later though I was finally on my way, albeit pedalling a tad harder than intended to make the start time of my own ride.

After a mandatory pre-ride photo, at 5.15am we were off.

5am pre-ride photo before tackling the 200 mile route.
5.15am and ready to get rolling. A long way to go.

Mile 22 – First Detour

After a whopping 22 miles, the first signs off a poorly checked route became apparent as we were instructed to turn directly into a field. I’d come accustomed to just relying on Strava to find the best roads but something had clearly gone awry.

Fortunately, only being 22 miles into the route, we had a rough idea of where we should instead be going. So, trustingly following one member of the group we made our first detour. It was only when we rejoined the route that we realised we had added an additional 5 miles.

Mile 45 – Cafe Stop 1 (Petrol Station)

Usually after almost 3 riding we’d be looking forward to a nice cafe stop and a bit of breakfast. But this is 2020 of course, and we don’t do that sort of thing because of pandemics. And also because it’s still only 8am. Therefore, a petrol station Costa coffee and a peanut butter sandwich would have to suffice.

Thankfully, since the last detour 23 miles ago, the route only tried to take us through a church and a primary school. What are you playing at Strava?

First petrol station cafe stop.
A glorious first cafe stop. All praise Costa coffee machines.

Mile 78 – The Burway

The Burway is not at all one of those hidden Top 100 climbs that seem to pop out of nowhere. From over 10 miles out, the towering hills surrounding Church Stretton were clearly visible, it was just a question of which one we’d be struggling up. Fortunately only 0.1 miles after a very long cafe stop, and after consuming about 800kcals, we found out.

The climb starts out ridiculously steep, topping out somewhere close to 25%. My initial plan was to not race this segment and with 80 miles already in the legs and 120 to go this was obviously quite sensible. The problem was that one of the guys I was riding with clearly wasn’t thinking along the same lines. Not wanting to finish anywhere but first up this climb, I started putting down the power. And after a pretty painful 15 minutes well above FTP we both finished the climb together, absolutely shattered. Only a 118 miles to go though…

Top of The Burway
Dying at the top of The Burway.

The Burway is a phenomenal climb though, and the road over the top of the hills is one of the most scenic roads I’ve ever cycled. However, the descent down the otherside, into Asterton, is terrifying.

Mile 100 – The Darkest Hour

The first century was a slow one, but that was okay. We had ticked off the biggest climb of the day, had our photo at the Welsh border, and was now in only double digits. But I was starting to feel quite off.

Cycling to the Welsh Border on a 200 mile round trip.
Main objective achieved, but a long way to go.

On the whole, it had been a steady first half and I had been regularly refuelling. 100 miles wasn’t unfamiliar cycling territory, and anyway, my legs still felt okay. My stomach, on the other hand, did not feel at all okay. But there was nothing I could do. We were now right in the middle of the Shropshire Hills, and the next stop wasn’t for 25 miles.

All you can do is keep pedalling

I think when you’re out on a regular long ride, like a century, and you start to tire or bonk, it’s much easier to give up psychologically. Reason being that it’s more likely that when you do start to tire you’ll be near the finish, or at least on familiar turf. So you can get away with dawdling to the finish, taking short cuts or flatter roads, or even calling it a day and getting a lift if things are that bad.

But when you’re on a huge outing like this there is nothing you can do. You’ve just got to stick to the route and hope for the best. The broom wagon is completely out of the question because of how far away you are. You can’t really even slow down that much, otherwise you’ll just end up out for even longer.

That was the realisation that I had at this point in the ride. The only option would be to get my head down and hold on to the back of the group and wait it out. The one thing that did improve however was the route. From the point I started feeling unwell till the next stop it was almost all downhill. It was exactly what I needed to get a little bit of recovery time.

In hindsight, loading up on the calories before my hardest effort of the day almost certainly caused the nausea. Poor planning or poor pacing? Maybe a little of both.

Mile 126 – Cafe Stop 3 (Chip Shop)

After what felt like an age, but realistically was one of the fastest hours thanks to gravity, we arrived in Ironbridge. Our planned chip shop stop. And, more importantly for me I had finally perked up again. Maybe my body had finally processed that vast quantity of sugar I had consumed.

Ironically though after blaming the dreadful past hour on overeating I was actually quite hungry again. Almost all the food with me was sugar and my drink was full of carb mixture so I had stopped eating for a while after getting nauseous. This was a risky tactic because if I was bonking then not eating would’ve only made things worse, but thankfully it had worked.

I absolutely smashed back a portion of chips and peas though, and was now fired up and ready to tackle the remaining 74 miles.

The joy a portion of chips brings
All I needed was some chips!

Mile 160 – Cafe Stop 4 (or should I say Costa machine stop 2?)

The previous 34 miles were pretty unexceptional. A lot of main roads and a slight tailwind had meant we’d chomped through the miles, including one section where we averaged over 26mph for 10 miles.

Yet, fast as the miles may have been, they were very quiet. The banter had most certainly taken a hit. One by one we all ticked over our personal records for longest ride, but it was hard to get too excited given the distance that remained.

Eventually we arrived into the small village of Eccleshall, and decided we would make our final stop. One final Costa machine coffee, and a few little treats to raise morale. It was at this point that we realised we had less than a usual weekend ride left to go. This was it now, the final few hours.

Setting off from that Co-op, we rode hard. A second wind had come over us and the banter picked up again. For the past 60 miles or so we were resigned to the fact that our only purpose for that day was to pedal. But now, as more familiar road signs popped up around us we were once again enjoying being on our bikes.

Mile 181 – A Scenic Detour

So I mentioned earlier that the route kind of wasn’t checked through all that well. But up to now I’d managed to conceal all of the times it attempted to take us off road by continuing along the road and hoping. Well, after 181 miles and 14 hours my luck ran out. The cycle path ended suddenly and turned into a field, and the only way through was to pick our bikes up and wade through the nettles. As you can imagine, this went down a treat with everyone.

Slight bit of planned off-roading to stimulate the brain…

The 200 Mile Club

At last we were rolling on familiar roads, and the terrible route mistake soon became forgotten as the miles edged closer to that 200 mile mark. At this stage my arms were in agony from spending an entire day supporting myself and my neck would no longer turn. But the thought of hitting 200 miles, real food, a beer, and sleep made it easy to ignore all the niggles.

This had been a serious adventure. 12 hours on a bike is a long time, but it hadn’t destroyed us. In fact, I could’ve probably continued riding for hours longer because I was now just in absolute cycling mode.

Hitting 200 miles felt very satisfying. Until that day I personally knew of nobody that had ridden so far. I now knew of five. Five nutters that, with just over a weeks notice, agreed to meet me at 5am to ride to another country and back in one go.

The first of many epics?

200 miles is one hell of a ride but I’m proud to have been able to complete it, and also pleased that it didn’t completely ruin me. It also makes me incredibly optimistic about planning future epic rides; I’m sure I can still squeeze a few more miles into one day.

Long rides are a completely different side of cycling and one that I’ve found I really enjoy. It’s a chance to explore new roads, see new sights, and go further afield. It’s also only on those long rides that you truly experience a complete range of emotions; from the almost breaking point lows to the highs of achieving new personal bests.

I learnt that I do have both the physical and mental strength to take on these big challenges and I’ve inspired myself to keep setting the bar higher. So I hope that this does become the first of many, and I will start planning my next adventure very soon.

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