Thursday, 30 July 2015

Barton in the Beans to Bruges.....

We set off on the first of our annual ‘challenges’ on a bright, warm sunny afternoon. I had booked a half day off work, raced home, got changed and wheeled out my bike just as Gary pulled onto the drive. Ten minutes later we were on our way, heading from Barton in the Beans to Bruges via Northampton, Tilbury, Folkestone and Calais. A journey of 300 miles with three days to complete.

It all started off very well, a few gentle hills through Earl Shilton and the outskirts of Leicester but mostly beautiful English countryside at the height of its powers. After about 30 miles I started to feel very tired – a combination of the heat and a 5.30am start this morning were catching up. My feet were hurting and so was my back. I’ve been struggling with my back since Christmas – and while it’s not totally incapacitating it does give me some Gip!

We passed through Naseby, pausing at the village sign and looking out for any marauding roundheads . Soon after Gary’s bike developed a strange ‘grating’ noise from somewhere towards his rear end. We stopped to have a fiddle but nothing was apparent. We pressed on to our overnight stop at Moulton, just outside Northampton. A large hotel/guesthouse firmly seated in the 70s tradition of hotel d├ęcor but comfortable enough and with an excellent pub just a walk around the corner, ideal for our needs. We enjoyed a few pints of 'Sunchaser' I think it was -  helped down with a mound of fish and chips. A Jazz band  started their set and we sat, contentedly, at the bar. Then Gary had a cramp attack, his screams in perfect harmony with the be-bop tunes from the band. Back at our room we consulted our iPhones and found a number of cycle shops within a few miles, Gaz was keen to get his wheel diagnosed and we decided to delay setting off in the morning, call round a few shops to find one familiar with Mavic wheels and detour there to get the thing sorted. Phone calls would commence at 9.00am sharp.

Breakfast was okayish – and once done Gary started on the phoning. Meanwhile I popped to the shops to buy a roll of sellotape. We’d sent parcels ahead with clothes etc – but nothing to reseal the packages for their return journey. When I got back Gary had found a suitable local bike shop ‘just two miles away’ he said. Perfect.

Ten miles later and feeling like we were going round in circles the iPhone came in handy again – Google maps coming to the rescue to find a route through a park and, finally, to the shop situated at the edge of a lake. The lad at the counter was helpful, the mechanic not so. 
Dunno’ he said 
Ain’t see nuffin like that before’ 
But can you look at it enquired Gary….
‘Yeah, probably, but not for an hour or so’
Gary resisted the temptation to flatten him on the spot, opting instead for the entirely sensible option of buying another set of wheels instead.
‘No problem’ said the helpful one
‘But you’ll need to go to our other shop’
Thankfully that was just a stones throw away. Ten minutes later Gary was the proud owner of a spanking new, shiny set of wheels. Just need to pop back to shop 1 now to get them fitted.
Once there Mr Awkward had turned into Mr Helpful. He’d fixed the problem, which, according to him was just ‘a bit of shit in the hub’
Gaz, now somewhat flustered with the tooing and froing decided to have his old wheel back on the bike – and his new set posted to him at home – he’ll use them on one of his older bikes.
So, just a ten mile ride back to our start point and we’ll be ready for the off.

After such a wearying start to proceedings we were dramatically behind schedule. It was 11.00am before we set off from where we’d been staying the night before. Our destination was Horndon on the Hill, somewhere North of Tilbury Docks. We initially made reasonable progress but it wasn’t long before I started to suffer with backache, quickly followed by footache. We stopped at Newport Pagnell for a bite of lunch and a pint of shandy. It was roasting hot, I could have happily dropped to sleep. We pressed on, past the Aston Martin factory and gradually working our way South. We meandered around Milton Keynes and on through Stevenage towards Epping. My back was sore but my arse was worse. I’ve cycled thousands of miles over the past few years and never had a problem my undercarriage.

Popular myth has it that eating a curry the night before is a major cause (not guilty), closely followed by not shaving your perineum (guilty) – some even say that saddle sores are more common around Mardi Gras. Whatever the cause I was in some considerable discomfort, probably not helped by my continual adjustment of riding position to alleviate backache. In the old days cyclists would put slabs of raw steak in their shorts to cushion the abraded area – a remedy that I would happily have tried if there’d been a butcher handy. Even the pro’s, hardened by thousands of miles in the saddle every year fall victim to what is commonly known as ‘crotchitis’ – Fabled riders such as Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly have abandoned races when the pain became too great.

I soldiered on – disgruntled, agitated, wishing it was over. Our stops were becoming increasingly frequent. I said to Gaz that I couldn’t ride any further – I’d have to be picked up by International Rescue…. Please don’t make me get back on the bike. As we toiled up another hill Gary caught his rear wheel on a stone which somehow managed not only to puncture his tube but also gash a hole in the side of his tyre. I welcomed the enforced break but felt slightly concerned at how far we had fallen behind. It took about a half hour to patch up the tyre and repair the puncture. By now Gary’s GPS device was running out of battery life. Only one thing to do here – stop at a pub, get a drink, ask the barman to plug it in for a while. This we did – in fact we did it twice.

By about 9.00pm we were somewhere near Billericay. We’d ridden over 100 miles. It was getting dark. Gary had a couple of pea sized lights which were better than nothing -  which is precisely what I had. Gary put the red rear light on my bike and I held my phone in front of me with the flashlight app on. Totally useless for illumination but at least oncoming traffic would see something. By the time we reached Billericay it was more or less total darkness. The GPS had long since gone to sleep for the day. We decided to find a taxi to complete the final few miles, much safer and we’d get to our B&B before the deadline. This we did – hiring a minibus to take us to The Bell Inn. – good job we did , we were further away that we had thought, the journey by taxi took about half an hour – we arrived at the pub at about 11.00pm – we’d cycled 118 miles were totally knackered, hungry and, in my case, very sore.

Thankfully International Rescue (Kate and Val) had called ahead and arranged for sandwiches and cheese to be left in our room – unfortunately there was no raw steak. We didn’t even manage to get a drink, just wolf down the food, take a shower and then bed…..

Next morning I started the day with a healthy cocktail of painkillers. My back felt reasonable but my bum was red-raw. Breakfast was taken in a very stylish conservatoire, continental in style and menu with ‘help yourself’ croissants, ham and cheese. We opted for the full English. By 9.00am we were about to set off. By 9.01 I was in agony. As soon as my rear end settled itself onto the saddle I knew this was going to be a tough day – I was immediately in total discomfort. I took some more painkillers and carried on. We were heading for a ferry across the Thames around Tilbury Docks to take us across to Gravesend. Gary had found another bike shop there – this time he intended to get a replacement tyre. The ride to Tilbury was just about bearable – at least the pain from my arse distracted me from the pain in my back. The crossing was a short affair but at least I didn’t have to sit on the saddle. All too soon we were across the water and heading for the bike shop – I opted to push my bike through the town – less painful. With a new rear tyre for Gary and a handful of energy gels for me we headed towards Rochester and another river crossing via the bridge there. We stopped for a coffee overlooking the castle before remounting and tackling what was the longest hill so far, out of Rochester heading South towards Folkestone. We were in Kent now ambling over the Kent Downs passing through various pretty villages the names of which I forgot to record. My total fixation was the pain and suffering I was inflicting on myself – sheer misery isn’t anywhere near a strong enough description. We stopped somewhere for lunch – Godknows where but I remember the pub was called ‘The Dirty Habit’ – with a picture of a nun on the sign I think? It was a quiet place but good food if a little meagre. We noticed that we were on the Pilgrims Way and the single track road that Gary had found would have been a satisfyingly beautiful ride in any other circumstances. Somewhere on this route I pulled over to answer the call of nature – I texted Gary, telling him to pull over at the next junction and wait for me. He called me a little while later asking where I was – I was just setting out back on the road – but I never found him. I came to the first junction, no sign of him so I stayed on the main road – I passed a pub, more junctions – still no Gaz? – We spoke on the phone and he said he’d head back – but after half an hour we gave up – It was everyman for himself – meet at the Premier Inn, Folkestone. I’d passed a signpost for Hythe so I knew I was roughly heading in the right direction. By now my phone had died so no help from Google maps – I saw a man in his garden and asked him for directions – and then tackled a series of long, steep inclines that left my back trembling and my arse like someone had attacked it with a flamethrower. As I crawled up the next hill a cyclist overtook me – I called out to him – 
‘….Help me, please…. do you have any raw steak?’ 

Actually I asked him if I was on the right road to Hythe. He said kind of but asked me what address – I told him that actually it was Folkestone I was looking for and that I knew it was a shortish ride along the coast from Hythe – He told me there was a better way and said he’d ride with me for a few miles. Turns out this guy was a local racing cyclist out on a regular training ride. I told him it was a bit hilly for me, but he and his mate would go out in search of big hills and race each other to the top! – Nutters! We were moving along at a steady pace now – the idle chit-chat distracting me from the glowing pain in my nether regions. Then, as we toiled up yet another hill, I heard a familiar voice from behind…..‘Wanker’…..  We both looked round expecting some disgruntled motorist to lay into us for riding two-abreast – but no – amazingly it was Gary… he’d somehow met up with us an hour or so after we lost each other. I’m still amazed by this… of all the country lanes and tracks in the county of Kent he managed to pick the one we were on.

Now we were ‘together’ again and the friendly racing snake disappeared in a puff of chamois cream. But that was fine, we were back on track – Folkestone just a few miles hence. The last couple of miles passed quite quickly – we got a bit of a spurt on riding into Folkestone and there at the end, sitting on an outside table, in the sunshine were two pints of Stella Artois – courtesy of the girls from International Rescue – perfect. I maneuvered myself tentatively from my mount and hobbled to the table like an old man of 90 – if there’d been a zimmerframe I’d have used it. I was totally, totally wrecked, damaged, destroyed. All I could think of was lying down in a darkened room…. And raw steak.

The tunnel trip across to Calais was its usual uneventful self. I dozed uncomfortably in the car and then we were there. A short drive through Calais to the hotel, unload the bikes and bags and we were done. Unfortunately I was in no state  to celebrate our arrival in France. All I could manage was a glass of water and straight to bed. My undercarriage remained painfully sore – a plate of Steak Tartar would have been useful maybe? Our support team, after travelling from the Midlands, picking up our bags from the overnight stops on their way, were left to find their own entertainment for the evening (sorry girls!). Apparently there was a Cirque de Soleil type circus in the town square and a big firework display at the end. Despite it being no more than a hundred yards away  I didn’t hear a thing.
 
There are many examples of riders continuing despite serious injuries – Tyler Hamilton rode the 2003 Tour de France with a broken collarbone – the pain so intense that he ground down his teeth to stubs during the process. Bernard Hinault rode through a blizzard and ended up with frostbitten fingers, so bad that they remain numb to this day. Geraint Thomas rode the Tour after fracturing his pelvis…. I have massive admiration for these and all the other ‘heroes’ – but I’m not a professional – I’m doing this for fun, for enjoyment, for pleasure. There should be no shame in abandoning a ride – it happens all the time in cycling. So reluctantly, on Saturday morning I announced that I couldn’t make the final stage. I did try sitting on the bike but the pain was just unbearable. Sad but unavoidable, and compounded by the fact that the hard work was done. The final stage along the coast through Dunkirk and into Belgium was flat – it would have been fairly easy in normal circumstances. It’s a shame but there it is.

After a few days in Bruges I felt much better. My injuries were such that as long as I didn’t go near a bike saddle I was okay. We spent time exploring this wonderful City and sampling some of the Belgium beers. The Bed and Breakfast we stayed in was the best ever and I came home forgetting the worst and determined to complete our next challenge – The Dunwich Dynamo.




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