I can’t remember when I stopped counting. I know not what compels me to ride all day, traversing distances people think twice about when driving. Anything less than 100 miles is now a short ride. When did that happen?
Big rides. Big means different things to different people. It’s all comparative. My 100 miles is a not a big ride to the ultra-nutters with more audax badges than sense. In their world 200km is a warm-up and a big ride is anything from 400-600km.
What’s a big ride?
A big ride is any ride where fatigue kicks in. The ride where you’re empty, done, yet still hours from home. These are the big rides I remember. The adventure unforgettable, an indelible imprint on your mind, dare I say, on your cycling soul.
A big ride is not a long ride. Long is different depending on perspective, long is defined by the experience. Big rides are measured by time not distance. Six hours is six hours to one and all.
Six hours is a long time on a bike. My longest ride is 8 hours 47 minutes riding time. Longer than a day’s work with no lunch break, longer than a good night’s sleep. A journey this long by car, by plane would be insufferable.
Yet cycling time operates on another dimension. Feeling good? You’ll barely notice time passing any more than you do the wind brushing past your cheeks. Feeling bad? You’ll feel every second. Minutes stretch into days, nights. The final hour on the bike is an eternity. You get home older but none the wiser. Next week will be more of the same.
It all starts with a crazy notion
The idea comes from where, who knows? A big ride is a need not a desire. The rational self goes AWOL and we take leave of our senses. I love cycling but six hours plus on a bike is too much. A gourmand can only eat so much food and still enjoy it, a lush is drunk long before the last pint.
The destination is not important. Nor the route. This is a journey through time not space. Extreme meditation. A ride into the dark centre of ourselves. Yet plan we must.
The route, the food, the clothing, the lifestyle leading up to the big day. Control is required yet no matter how well prepared you’ll suffer atop that saddle come journey end.
First big ride – 20 miles!
I remember my first 20 mile ride as a 14 year old. It felt huge. My world was much smaller then. Leaving the local estate was akin to an arctic adventure. The sense of excitement of riding new roads and discovering new frontiers. The satisfying tiredness welcome, the weariness a badge of honour.
A combination of excitement and a nervous fear of the unknown. A mechanical and miles from home. Running short on water, food, energy. On bad days there’s a genuine worry you do not have the strength to make it back home. Mind over matter, the pedals keep on turning.
Many years later I still thirst for such adventures only the scale has changed.
The longest days
Cleats click-clack into pedals, locking you into a commitment you’ve made only to yourself. Cheerio world. You will return a different person.
Up before the sun, daylight a precious commodity outside of the summer months. Watching the sun rise is always special, a rare sight for most, a communion with Earth and space all at the same time. You should feel inconsequential in the realms of such vastness yet the opposite applies. Rarely does life have as much meaning as it does right now.
Everything is awe inspiring. The song call of birds, the dew on the grass, the lingering low lying mist. Streets, usually chaotic, are calm, empty, the roads yours and yours alone. It is impossible not to feel privileged, smug even. All those fools still tucked up in bed, missing out on life, idiots!
Novelty deceives the clock. Hour one passes in a blur of excited energy. Must pace it better. You a boundless ball of energy, yet you know this is far from true. Your powers are limited and must be rationed. Yet off you go, sprinting up hills, swooping around corners like a pro, your aero tuck exquisite. You’re an excitable child ripping the wrapping paper off the many birthday presents, neglecting to pause and appreciate the precious gifts.
Ease up, look up. Appreciate the sights, sounds and smells. At one with the bike, with the landscape. Calmer with every pedal stroke, feeling closer to home the further you travel from the house you left. This feels right, like it’s meant to be, like it’s always been.
Memories fade and a new reality forms. Long gone are the office, the bills, the famines and wars. Life is simpler here. Pedal, drink, eat. There are no deadlines, nothing to defend, nothing to gain. Free, you do not belong anywhere. You have nowhere to be, to go, the route you’re following is not a means to an end. You ride not for arrival, not even the journey. You ride for the escape.
Tailwind, headwind, no wind. It matters not in the early miles. You float. The first few hours a gift, little sign of strain or sweat. You could ride forever.
Halfway. No longer riding away from something but back towards everything you left behind. A change in mindset as much as direction.
The spell broken. Thoughts turn to how long it will take to finish, the chores that await on your return. Aches and pains emerge. Remember me, buddy, they whisper, voices that deepen with each pedal stroke.
Food is the answer to the question you should have asked much earlier. It’s too late now, the deficit too great, a hunger that won’t be vanquished until three days from now long after the ride is over.
Hills emerge from nowhere. Mountains made out of molehills. You’re slow travelling down hill. Now would be the time for that pro aero position you were nailing at mile two only your tired body refuses to conform. This is not posture, this is a collapsed heap. It’s less about being efficient and more about not falling off.
Slower than a standstill
Weariness is the price you pay for feeding your soul.
Three more hours on the bike. What would normally be a short ride is now a life sentence. Thoughts of quitting plague you. That shortcut you programmed into the route plays on loop. Only the bailout option is no option at all. There is no gun to your head, no incentive to finish the full ride. You can bail at any time yet you know this will not happen no matter how much you consider it.
It’s about now you begin talking to yourself. The loneliness has kicked in, the desperation. You are not the voice of reason. Cows, trees, damn the sky, all get a good talking to. You sing, voice weary and cracking. The only songs you remember are sad lullabies, suffering etched into every line.
Time to treat yourself like a child. Soft words of encouragement. Blackmailing yourself with incentives of coffee, of that gel warming in your jersey pocket, of the meal you’ll devour when you climb off the saddle.
Six hours in. The world has become oh so very small. Head down, tunnel vision, the next metre of road your only focus. You’re a discombobulation of knees, your every muscle cramping and distorting your body into a grimace. Birdsong long gone, a solemn hush has descended so the road can read you your last rites.
The mental games well underway. Breaking the ride down into miles, into minutes, so many minutes. Alone, earlier you sought escape from others, now you only want to take leave of yourself.
What about you? What’s a big ride? What are the rides you can’t forget, now matter how hard you try!