Roughing it

When I told people that I was going to take part in this year’s Happy Days Rough Ride for the Homeless and sleep rough for three nights quite a few of my friends said, “Well, don’t you like doing that sort of thing anyway?” 

A fair comment, I suppose. As a seasoned audaxer and bike packer, I’ve slept in some pretty weird places with my bike, from bus shelters to bank ATM booths, carrying all of the kit I need along with me.  But the big difference is that I’m usually doing it in the summer months when the nights are warm and dry enough to sleep outdoors with lightweight kit. 

Sleeping out in February in a town centre is a whole different ball game. If it’s not freezing then it’s probably going to be wet and cold. But the whole point of Rough Ride is to experience life out on the streets in winter – a tough challenge that’s worthy of the donations that I’m asking people to give in order to raise money for the Happy Days homeless charity. 

I have to say that I was very apprehensive in the weeks leading up to it.  I feel the cold when I sleep outside, even in summer I often find that I’ll still need to wear all of my clothes and use a silk liner inside my sleeping bag and bivy bag, especially when my core temperature drops which always seems to happen at around three or four in the morning. What if I just couldn’t do it? Especially after I’d told everyone that I would be out for three nights. I didn’t want to take people’s money and then not be able to keep up my end of the bargain.

The plan for this year’s Rough Ride was for a group of riders to set off from the Happy Days Cafe in Sowerby Bridge and travel in an anticlockwise loop around the north of England, riding first to York, then up to South Shields, across to Carlisle, down to Morecambe, and finally back to Sowerby Bridge. Every night, once the riders reached their destination, they would be sleeping rough somewhere in the town centre. On the final night, back in Sowerby Bridge, riders would be joined by friends and supporters of the Happy Days charity for a homecoming celebration and big community sleep out at the local cricket club.

This is the second year that the Happy Days Rough Ride for the Homeless has taken place. It’s organised by Michael Collins who manages the Happy Days Bike Shop and Cafe in Sowerby Bridge. The Happy Days charity provides support and shelter to get people off the streets, provides them with accommodation and gives them training and skills to help get their lives back on track. You can find out more about the great work they do on their website:

Carlisle station
Arriving at Carlisle station

Michael set off from the Happy Days Cafe, along with fellow riders Darren Speight and Steve Marsden, last Monday morning with five big days in the saddle and five rough sleeps ahead of them.  I didn’t have enough holiday allowance left to be able to join in for the whole week, so instead had made a plan to catch the train up to Carlisle with my bike after work on Wednesday and join the lads on their last three rough sleeps and two days riding. We were also joined in Carlisle by two more riders, Jay Hemingway and Paul Mellon, so three became six.

We also had a support van, driven by Clint Gumery, and although Clint didn’t ride with us every day, he was still a very important part of the team and slept rough with us every night. Although we were carrying the majority of our kit with us on the bikes every day, we all had extra spare sleeping kit and dry clothes in the van just in case we needed it. We also had some rolls of silver roof insulation stuff that had been donated for us to put down on the floor under our bivy bags. 

The car park
Our car park accommodation in Carlisle

The Happy Days team had arranged a place for us to change and shower and lock up our bikes in each destination, along with suggestions for places to sleep. Although some of you might be thinking that having all this extra support is a bit of a cop-out, I think that it makes sense to be sure we had everything we needed to help us complete the challenge rather than being unable to complete it due to being unprepared, becoming ill due to bad conditions, or having our bikes and kit stolen.

I’d been keeping up with the lads’ progress over the first two days via social media and although the weather had been dry, the night-time temperatures on both nights had been around freezing. Steve had been regularly posting up live feeds on Facebook and by the morning of the third day he looked absolutely shattered. 

By the time Jay, Paul and myself caught up with them in Carlisle on Wednesday evening all three of them were really starting to feel the effects of the their first three days. Their ride over from South Shields to Carlisle had been a long, tough 100 miles for them. Some of the route was on off-road cycle paths and long stretches had been covered in snow and ice so they’d been forced to walk large parts of it. By the time they rolled into town it was already after dark.

Sleeping in the Carlisle car park
The lads opt for a covered spot to avoid the rain

Our ‘accommodation’ in Carlisle was a car park on the outskirts of town with a big gate that we could pull across for safety. After leaving our bikes and kit in the van, we walked into the town centre and grabbed a pizza for dinner. Amazingly my friend Rodger, who lives in Carlisle, managed to track us down while we were eating (I guess Carlisle’s not that big, but still…) and brought us a flask of coffee for the night ahead. This would be the first of many lovely gestures of help and support that we received over the next few days.

After pizza we occupied ourselves in the pub until just after midnight in an effort to keep indoors for as long as we could. The lads had a couple of pints each but I really didn’t want to drink anything as I was concerned that I’d have to get out of my bivy in the middle of the night for a wee in a car park! Of course, we were all very aware that spending the night in the pub is a luxury that not many homeless people would be able to enjoy and over the course of our few of days together our conversation often drifted back to how lucky we all were to have enough money to be able to find places to get out of the cold and wet. 

By midnight we were back at the car park where we set up our beds for the night. It was definitely warmer than the two previous nights but some rain had been forecast between 3am and 5am. Michael, Jay and Paul found a small undercover area next to some parked cars but it was too close to the gate for my liking, I preferred to be tucked away out of sight where passers-by wouldn’t be able to see us. I set my kit up around the corner along with Clint, Darren and Steve. We didn’t have any cover but were close to the wall of a building and out of sight. It was hard to get off to sleep as, even with earplugs in, the traffic from the road rumbled through the night. 

As predicted, I was woken by the pitter-patter of rain around 4am. The rain sounded very loud inside my bivy, even louder than inside a tent, probably because my ear was pressed up against it. To prevent the water getting in, I tried to close up the opening of my bivy with limited success and realised that the hood of my sleeping bag was getting pretty damp so shuffled further down inside and tried to close it up a bit more. I pulled my woolly hat over my ears and eyes and attempted to go back to sleep.

Half an hour later I was still awake. Big drops of water were falling on to me from the guttering of the building that I was sleeping up against and I knew I had to get out and move. Steve was also awake and had decided to go muscle his way onto the bit of covered space around the corner. That all seemed a bit too much like hard work to me, I just wanted to get back inside my bivy as quickly as possible so I shook as much water off as I could, shuffled all my kit a couple of metres away from the building and climbed back in.  

 my first soggy night outdoors
Survived my first soggy night outdoors

When I finally emerged from my bivy around 6.30am the rain had stopped. Just Darren and I were left out in the rain as the others had jumped ship to the covered area near the gate. The foil insulation that I’d been lying on was soaked through and my bivy was sat in a little puddle. My hat and the hood of my sleeping bag were pretty wet from where my bivy had been left slightly open but I wasn’t feeling cold and the inside of my sleeping bag was dry.  Thankfully, despite the puddle, the base of my bivy was watertight and the moisture that I could feel on the outside of my sleeping bag had been caused by condensation from breathing inside it all night rather than water getting in.

After getting packed up we laid all of our wet kit out over the van seats to dry and headed off into town to find a place for breakfast. While eating we compared as many different weather apps as we could find, looking for blue skies and a tailwind, but it wasn’t looking too promising so we resigned ourselves to getting on with it. After a good feed and many cups of coffee we were good to get on the road to Morecambe. Just as we were leaving the cafe we were approached again by someone who’d heard about what we were doing and wanted to make a donation.

Riding to the Lakes
Jay, Paul and Darren heading out of Carlisle

The route from Carlisle to Morecambe was around 70 miles avoiding the main roads and instead of taking the predictable route over Shap, we headed further east into the Lake District, skirted the edge of Ullswater and headed up and over Kirkstone Pass. 

Climb up Kirkstone
Starting the climb up Kirkstone Pass

Michael, Steve and Darren already had three days riding in their legs so I was pretty happy that the pace wasn’t too high, but when Jay and Paul got on the front with their fresh legs requests to take half a mile off were soon forthcoming from the back. We all knew that we’d have to tackle Kirkstone Pass at our own pace and agreed to regroup in the very conveniently placed pub at the summit. Paul and Darren shot off ahead while the rest of us took it at a more sedate pace. It was a bit steeper than I remembered but we were helped to the top by a tailwind for the last 300 or so metres. We also caught up with Clint at the top and decided, as we’d already completed half the day’s distance, that it would be a good place to stop for lunch. 

My kinesis at Kirkstone
At the top of Kirkstone Pass
Jay at the bar
Jay gets a round in at the Kirkstone Inn

After lunch the route bypassed Windermere, heading south east on a beautiful single-track, gated road that eventually led us out on to country lanes and down to the edge of the Kent Estuary. We’d made good time and didn’t want to arrive in Morecambe too early so we took a detour to Arnside for an afternoon stop. 

While the lads headed off to the pub I rode down to Arnside Promenade to take some photos of the sun setting across Morecambe bay but the wind was so strong that when I tried to prop my bike up against the railings it kept getting blown over. After a few attempts I gave up, bough a slice of cake and went to join the lads in the pub. 

Steve at Arnside
Steve in his stylish white kit on the way into Arnside

Happy Days had made arrangements for us to get showered and changed in the cricket club at Heysham, a couple of miles down the coast from Morecambe, but the groundskeeper wouldn’t be coming to open up for us until 7.30pm so we had no need to rush.

The final part of the route took us close to RSPB Leighton Moss which is well known for its starling murmurations. We weren’t aware of any of this while we were pedalling through but we arrived at just the right time of dusk to catch one in full flow. It was a pretty spectacular sight so we pulled over to watch. A few of us had a go at filming it on our phones but it was pretty hard to capture the scale and movement, there were so many birds and it was moving so quickly.  

We managed to hit the roads leading into Morecambe just in time for rush hour so the last few miles were pretty unpleasant but we got our heads down and got on with it, arriving in town around 6.45pm. After our obligatory photo shoot on the prom next to Eric’s statue we pedalled the last couple of miles along the seafront to Heysham where we met up with Clint and the van.

The weather had really started to come in and rain was forecast overnight so we hoped that the cricket club would have some kind of a pavilion where we’d be able to get some cover for the night. When we arrived everything was still locked up and we couldn’t get hold of the groundskeeper so we headed to the nearest pub to take shelter while we figured out how to get hold of him. 

We were all pretty concerned about how rough the night ahead was looking weatherwise, with 50mph winds and heavy rain forecast. We even contemplated whether or not we could get away with sleeping in the pub’s covered smoking area after everyone had gone home for the night. 

Eating fish and chips in the pub
Clint can’t quite believe the size of that fish

While Michael and Clint tried to get more information about the night’s arrangements the rest of us settled into the pub and ordered dinner. It had already started to rain and none of us were eager to get back outside. The pub’s clientele were quite smart and obviously not used to seeing people wandering around it in full cycling kit on a Thursday evening. We had to run the gauntlet of some very funny stares every time one of us went to the toilet which was located right at the other end of the pub to where we were sitting. 

Eventually we managed to get in touch with the groundskeeper, who admitted that he’d forgotten we were coming, but nevertheless made us welcome when we arrived. Unfortunately the covered pavilion that we’d been hoping for didn’t materialise, but we were able to stay in the clubhouse until it closed at 11.30pm. Once locked up we wouldn’t be able to gain entry again until the groundskeeper returned at 7.30am the following morning. 

We looked around the site for places to get a bit of shelter from the rain but they were few and far between. Our bikes were locked away in a metal container but once they were all in there was no room left to accommodate any bodies. Looking for somewhere to keep dry must be a situation that homeless people regularly find themselves in when the weather turns bad.  

There was a small amount of space in the shed where the lawn mower was kept but not enough for all of us and the strong smell of petrol was overpowering. Jay resigned himself to a night outside in the rain and set up his bivy on a wooden bench next to the clubhouse. While the rest of us were trying to figure out just how many of us could fit in the lawnmower shed, Michael went back into the village in search of anything with a bit of shelter – if all else failed we could always try sneaking back into the pub’s covered smoking area after kicking-out time.   

Night 2 in my bivy
Settling down for a second night in the rain

A few minutes later he was back with news of a concrete covered area with a tiled floor in front of an old toilet block. It sounded pretty good to me, and far more preferable to being shoehorned into the stinky lawn mower shed, so I bundled up my sleep kit and made my way across the car park while Michael went to rescue an already soggy Jay from the bench.

There were two covered platforms so Michael and I took one while Jay had the other. The tiled floor was already wet but we still had some silver insulation roll left to put underneath our bivys. The wind was blowing some rain inside but this was much better than being totally exposed. 

Just as I was settling down I realised how visible we were. I’d been so concerned with just finding anywhere covered to get out of the wind and rain that it was only now that I was starting to relax and take in my surroundings. We were literally no more than 10 metres from the road through the village, set back in a little park area. We were pretty invisible right now in the dark but as soon as it started to get light we would be very much on-show and we wouldn’t be able to get access to the clubhouse, or our bikes, until the groundskeeper came back to open up at 7.30am. 

I tried to push the thoughts out of my head and reassure myself that it would all be fine. I was very thankful that Michael and Jay were both close by if anyone were to disturb us in the night. 

The rain pitter-pattered on the outside of my bivy once again and it felt a lot colder than the night before. My sleep was interrupted by bouts of a cramp-like sensation in my quads, a feeling that I’d not experienced before, and although there was very little I could do about it wrapped up in my bivy bag, I certainly wasn’t about to get out of it so I tried to massage the pain away. 

Heysham sleep spot
Inspecting the night’s accommodation in the cold light of day

I woke around 6.30am to discover that Jay was no longer with us. People were now starting to walk and cycle to work and a few dog walkers walked directly past us. It was still dark enough for them not to have to make eye contact with me which I was relieved about. After attempting to take a few photos in the dark, with an hour still to kill before the groundskeeper arrived, I buried my head back in my bivy – there was no way I was getting up yet as I had nowhere to go and it was still lashing it down and blowing a gale. 

Our bed in Morecambe
I’ve probably slept in worse places but defintely not in February

I must’ve drifted back off to sleep because when I awoke again it was 7.50am and bright daylight. Michael was still asleep so I gave him a nudge and we packed up our kit and legged it back across the car park to the cricket club. It seems that I’d had a better night’s sleep than I thought because I’d managed to sleep through all the good stuff. Turns out that Jay left us in the early hours because he got bothered by a fox sniffing around and decided to jump ship to the lawnmower shed. While he was making his way across the car park he was chased by a police officer who was out looking for a woman who’d gone missing from the village. After describing the woman to Jay the officer’s parting shot was, “Take care if you see her, she’s carrying a blade!” Not exactly what you want to hear when you’re sleeping outside.

Long shot across Morecambe Beach
Heading along Morecambe Bay in the wind and rain

It took us quite a long time to get ourselves sorted and packed up that morning. The groundskeeper kept the cups of tea and coffee flowing in the clubhouse and none of us were in a hurry to get on the road despite having another 70 miles to ride back to Sowerby Bridge.  The cafe that we’d hoped to go to for breakfast was closed so we ended up back in the posh pub where they put on a good spread for us while we stared out of the windows at the rain pouring down.

Pauls muddy jacket
Paul really needs to fit some mudguards

It was 10am before we managed to drag ourselves back onto the bikes.  Our route took us back through Morecambe, along the start of the Way of the Roses cycle route and into Lancaster where we crossed the river Lune and picked up the gravel track to Glasson Dock. The track was flooded in places and we realised just how much rain had come down overnight. By the time we’d made it to the cafe at the end of the track we were all soaked through, especially Paul who was riding without mudguards. 

We pulled in at the Cafe d’ Lune for a quick toilet break. We weren’t going to stop for coffee as we’d not really pedalled far enough and were already behind schedule, but as we got chatting to the staff about what we were doing they offered us coffee on the house and gave us a donation. Another lovely gesture made by people we’d never met before. 

The Cafe de Lune
The lovely staff at the Cafe d’ Lune gave us free coffee and a donation

Back out on the road we got our heads down and tried to make up some time. We were hoping for a Westerly to blow us back across the Pennines but the wind was coming more from the south. Darren, who was by far the strongest rider, stayed on the front for most of the morning.  We were all doing ok on the flat but as soon as we hit an incline I was quickly off the back and struggled to get back on.  

Booths in Longridge
We just can’t resist the lure of a garage forecourt

As the morning went on the rain stopped and by the time we’d reached Longridge for lunch the sun was shining and we were all way too hot. Instead of a cafe stop we decided to try and save time by going to a garage with a supermarket, although I’m not really sure how much time we saved in the end as there was a lot of faffing and kit removal going on. 

Terrain-wise, we’d had it fairly easy so far but we all knew that there were a few lumps to get over to before we’d be back in Yorkshire. We’d made up time so decided to have another cafe stop in Padiham and we were all in good spirits despite being tired. Despite the big climb to come, we knew that we’d be back in Sowerby Bridge before dark. 

In the Cafe at Padiham
Padiham – the final cafe stop of our trip

The final climb of the the day was a familiar one to me. The Long Causeway climbs up from Cliviger, across the moors behind Todmorden and over to Hebden Bridge. It’s a route that I ride fairly regularly as it’s not too far from where my dad lives. Despite the climb up, it’s still far more preferable to pedalling through Todmorden on the valley’s busy A-road. It’s an exposed route on the calmest of days but with Friday’s strong winds it was incredibly tough to keep the bike steady. 

Every time I cycled past a gap in the wall I was blown into the side of the road. Occasionally the road bent around to the north and we’d get the benefit of a tailwind for a short time but mostly it was a long slog into a strong crosswind. We all rode across the causeway at our own pace. Darren and Paul were somewhere out in front and out of sight even before the half way point, me and Jay were somewhere in the middle with Michael and Steve not too far behind. 

Long Causeway long shot
Heading over the Long Causeway

We regrouped just before the start of the descent. There are a couple of routes that descend back down into the valley, but the most direct – and most unpleasant, as far as I’m concerned – is Mytholm Steeps. I’d prefer to pedal the extra four miles into Hebden Bridge than ride down this horrible hill. It’s very steep (Veloviewer reckons 31% at its steepest), twisty and sections can often be a bit slippery as it’s hidden in the trees. It’s also a bit of a rat run so you’ve usually got a car right up your backside too. I don’t think I’ve ever managed it in one go as I always have to stop for a little breather and release my white knuckles from their vice-like grip around my brake levers, and today was no exception – in fact I stopped three times. 

The lads were very patiently waiting for me at the junction in the valley. From here we hopped on to the canal for the final few miles back to Happy Days. With probably less than a mile to go on what had, up to now, been a mechanical-free trip, Jay’s chain came off and got jammed behind his cassette. We had to remove the wheel to free it but less than five minutes later it happened again. I didn’t need much of an excuse to get off and push up the 20% slope that leads off the canal into Sowerby so I kept Jay company while we both pushed up. 

Karl in the happy days cafe
Karl makes us all a brew back at Happy Days Cafe

Minutes later we were at the Happy Days Cafe, all in one piece, more or less, to be greeted by family and friends, cups of coffee, plenty of beer, pasta and treacle pudding. We’d made it back and now all we had left to complete our fundraiser was one final rough sleep, but with the winds picking up and Storm Eric on the way, it looked like we going to be heading for the roughest of rough sleeps. 

After a good feed at the shop we made our way over to Sowerby Cricket Club for a bit of a do before the big Sleepout. Here we said our goodbyes to Steve as he needed to get home for his wedding anniversary, and I think he was certainly looking forward to a good kip in his own bed. The remaining five of us would be joined by family, friends, supporters and staff from Happy Days for our final night under the stars.

Although the party was a great homecoming, we were all pretty tired, and despite the storm warning, I was glad when 11pm rolled around and I could finally get my head down. Tonight’s communal sleeping area, with its covered gazebo roof and huge plastic groundsheet, was positively luxurious compared to my previous two nights’ locations. 

All of the spaces in the centre were full so I got my kit set up in the corner, popped my earplugs in and got hunkered down for the night. Jay and Paul were also on the edge, only half under the covered area, while Michael and Darren went off to sleep around the other side of the building as Darren’s young daughters were sleeping out in the van so he needed to be close by. 

Big Sleep Out
Jay and Paul settle down under the gazebo for a blustery night ahead

As the night went on the gale really picked up and the gazebo groaned under the strain. It sounded like it might get blown across the pitch at any moment. I just snuggled further into my bivy and listened to the wind howl. I was dry for the first time in three nights so this felt like a huge result. The large plastic groundsheet had been lifted up by the wind and was flapping around on the outside of my bivy. At one point it felt like the wind might actually lift me off the ground but I was still nice and warm inside my sleeping bag and was determined to see out the night. 

At around 6.30am I heard a few voices and figured people around me were starting to make a move. I didn’t really have anywhere to go though as my bike was locked up in the cafe and I wouldn’t be able to get in until after 9am, so I rolled over and stayed put. By now the plastic sheeting was flapping around all over the place and enveloping me inside it so I thought I’d better stick my head out of my bivy to see what was happening. Turns out I was the last person left out there! 

Night 3 in my bivy
The last one sleeping, surrounded by a sea of plastic

Everyone who’d been sleeping under the gazebo had abandoned their sleeping bags and taken refuge in the cricket club’s changing rooms. Jay was up and about trying to search through the carnage for his inflatable pillow which must’ve blown away in the night. I was a bit surprised that I was the only person still camped out and we joked that the plastic sheeting was now only being held down by my weight. 

Despite feeling knackered, I was really pleased with myself. I’d felt that I had a duty to all of the people who’d sponsored me to see it through and not find excuses to wimp out so I was very happy that I’d managed to stick it out. 

I dragged myself and my sleep kit into the changing rooms to join the others and grab a cuppa. Jay and Paul had both brought their bikes with them to the cricket club so were getting packed up so they could head off home early. Paul had a long drive back down south ahead of him and needed to get on the road. Michael and Darren were still sleeping out around the other side of the building out of the wind. Michael had managed to find a spot in a doorway with a bit of cover but Darren was completely soaked as he’d just been sleeping out next to the van and had no shelter from the rain all night. 

So that was it, all done and dusted. We’d made it though our final rough sleep and could look forward to a night back in our own beds. Between us we’d managed to raise over £5000 for Happy Days and all had an experience that we wouldn’t forget in a hurry.

Throughout the three days I’d been taking photos whenever I had the opportunity and sharing our Rough Ride on social media was important to me. I wanted to document as much of the experience as I could and keep people at home regularly informed of how we were doing and where we were sleeping, so as well as taking photos during our rides, every night I took photos of our ‘accommodation’ and another every morning when I woke up. 

A couple of people on social media accused us of looking like we were all enjoying it all a bit too much. So, did I enjoy the experience? Well, yes, I did. 

I was cold, wet and sleep-deprived for three days but I wasn’t alone and that’s really what got me through it. The seven of us were all in it together and sharing an experience like this really helps you to just get on with it. We instantly got on well, had a great camaraderie and developed a great bond between us all in a very short space of time. Each night we sat in the pub delaying the onset of another cold, wet sleep but knowing that we weren’t alone made it easier to get out there and do it.

After taking this challenge I can honestly say that anyone who thinks that sleeping rough is a ‘lifestyle choice’ really needs their head examined. As I’d joined the lads half way though, I’d only had to suffer being outside for three nights but that was enough to give me a taste of how hard it would be to have no choice but to do this every night. We had each other, plenty of cash for food, good kit and lovely bikes to ride, outside support and people back home spurring us on. We also had warm beds and loved ones to go back to. For us the experience was temporary – we had a way out. 

So, if you think what we’ve just done sounds hard and not something you’d like to try, spare a thought for those who have no choice and no hope. In the 21st century it is shocking to think that in a country like Britain, on any given night, between 4,000 and 5,000 people bed down on the streets – a figure that has almost doubled since 2010.

Our fundraising efforts will help Happy Days to make a very small, but important, dent in that number. so if you’ve not sponsored us already, please do now:

Happy Days info board

Round and around

Looking back down Fleet Moss on Dave’s Dales Tour 200km Audax.

I’m very happy to report that last month I completed my second ‘Randonnée Round the Year’ award.

It feels really good to be able to write that down and finally feel a sense of achievement after what has been a bit of a difficult year for me on the bike.

2017 was always going to be a tough year to follow and somewhere along the way this year I lost my mojo. After Normandicat back in May, despite riding a strong 600 in the same month, I felt disappointed and without another big event to work towards, started to lose my focus. I’ve suffered a few minor bouts of illness, put on a bit of weight and struggled through most of my training sessions, watching my FTP steadily decline and my power-to-weight ratio plummet over the summer.

The RRtY Badge.

In turn, that’s all had a negative effect on how I feel when I’m on the bike. Still, it would be unfair to say that I haven’t had some great adventures on my bike this year. I’ve worked as a cycle tour guide in Scotland, ridden in the Alps and had a really memorable experience managing Control Point Three in Poland on this year’s Transcontinental Race. I’ve visited some fantastic places and met some lovely people but, from a personal goals point of view, 2018 hasn’t felt great at all up until now. Thankfully, throughout this year’s ups and downs, I’ve had my Randonnee Round the Year attempt ticking along in the background and now that it’s complete, I’m so glad that I stuck with it.

Randonnée Round the Year (RRtY) is an Audax UK award that requires you to ride at least a 200km audax event in every month of the year for 12 successive months. The events can be organised audaxes, perms (a set route that you can ride any time of the year) or DIYs (routes that you create yourself). You can start RRtY in any month you choose but if you miss a month you have to start all over again.

I started my first RRtY in September 2015. That year had been all about Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) and focusing on getting the qualifying rides done, so once PBP was over I felt like I needed something to fill the void and give me something new to focus on. It requires a level of commitment to keep riding all year round and I find it a good way to keep motivated to ride during the winter months when it’s all too easy to find an excuse to hide indoors.

Starting out in September means that I get all of those ‘tough’ winter ones, where I always end up finishing in the dark, out of the way early, leaving me with (hopefully) progressively better weather and lighter evenings ahead. Surprisingly, I find that the summer ones are harder to accomplish, usually because there’s so much more going on. Holidays, social life, weekend work and other cycling events all conspire to fill my weekends and often leave me with very little time to fit a 200km audax in from May to August.

I ended up missing out on last Year’s RRtY because I didn’t log a ride during August, even though I rode over 200km a day on plenty of days during the Transcontinental Race. I just forgot to register one of those days as a DIY 200 before I set off, so none of them counted towards it. I won’t make that mistake again.

My RRtYs are usually a mixture of organised events and DIYs, although I do prefer to take part in an organised event if I can. Being able to ride a given route with others, in a part of the UK that I don’t know very well, is one of the main things that appeals to me about audaxing and what keeps it interesting.

DIYs are my back-up when I can’t manage to fit an organised event in. It is possible to ride the same route more than once in the same 12-month block so I have a little collection of DIY routes plotted that start and finish in Sheffield if there’s nothing on the Audax calendar that works for me.

I still submit all of my DIY rides the old-fashioned way with a pre-validated route and receipt-based controls, because I don’t trust the reliability of my GPS devices enough to complete a DIY by GPS. I’ve had a few epic device fails on organised audaxes over the years and had to resort to using the route sheet and a couple of pages pulled out of a road atlas to get me round. Don’t get me wrong, when they work, GPS devices are fantastic and have really opened up the world of audaxing to a new generation of riders but I’m not prepared to take the risk of just recording the ride on my GPS unit on a DIY when I really need to prove that I’ve done it.

If you’re looking for a long-term challenge, a way to keep riding through the winter months, or just a way keep up motivation levels, Randonnée Round the Year might be worth considering. It’s given me a long-term goal to work towards and a reason to keep getting back on the bike in what would otherwise have been a disappointing year. It’s also turned out to be quite a social affair I’ve managed to encourage a few of my riding buddies to have a go at it too.

2019 is PBP year so that will keep me well and truly focused from next January. But for now, to keep ticking over, I’ve decided to do it all over again. Last weekend I embarked on what will hopefully be my third successful attempt at Randonnée Round the Year with ‘Dave’s Dales Tour Plus’, probably one the prettiest 200km audaxes around the Yorkshire Dales.

So, one down, just 11 more to go.  

The descent into Upper Wharfedale, Dave’s Dales Tour 200km audax.




Not Quite Normandicat

Ready for the off.

Not finishing a ride sucks.

When I enter a long-distance audax or cycling event, although I believe that I am completely capable of making it to the finish, I’m still aware that there are many things that can happen along the way that could prevent me from finishing.

In my preparation I try to mitigate the risk as much as possible. I make sure that my route is nailed down, kit is well-tested, bike is prepped and, if possible, I try to come up with a few ‘plan-B’ scenarios in advance, just in case, as I know mistakes are more likely to occur when I’m tired. I also have a stubborn streak that will often keep me pushing on through to find a way through situations when others may choose to call it a day, but sometimes things just don’t go according to plan and despite all the preparation, those plan B’s just don’t quite cut it.  A few simple mistakes can soon stack up and cost you your ride.

This was the situation that Julie and I found ourselves in earlier this month when we took part in the Normandicat as a pair – A 900(ish) km ‘free-route’ cycling event that circumnavigates the region of Normandy in France. Riders plot their own route, which must take in nine checkpoints that are situated throughout the region. The event starts in Saint Vigor le Grand, just outside Bayeux, at 10 pm on a Wednesday evening. From there riders may travel in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, taking in all of the checkpoints, to arrive back at the start by Saturday at 8pm – a 70-hour time limit.

Ride briefing.

We’d plotted a route just over 900km and planned to travel in a clockwise direction. Usually during this type of event we would have chosen to bivy, but as it was still early May and considering the lousy track weather we’d had with the weather so far this year, we decided to sleep indoors in 24-hour access motels. The limited locations of this type of hotel along our chosen route dictated what our daily distances would be.

Travelling clockwise also involved catching an early-morning ferry across the Seine to reach our first chosen control at Jumieges Abbey. As the ferry didn’t run during the night we’d planned to cycle 73 km into the first night and have a few hours sleep at Deauville, arriving at the ferry early Saturday morning. This broke down the remainder of our journey into 350 km on the Thursday, 300 km on the Friday and 188km on the final day.

We’d planned to have around three hours sleep per night and if we stuck to our usual 20 kmph average we’d make it back for the finisher’s meal with a couple of hours to spare.

All went well on our first night. We had a tailwind and made really good progress, arriving in Deauville an hour ahead of hour schedule at 1am. We decided that we’d make the most of the hour gained by having an extra 30 minutes sleep and set off 30 minutes earlier than planned on Thursday morning.

Waking up to light rain on Saturday morning made us feel justified in our decision to stay in hotels rather than bivy. First priority of the day was breakfast. Julie had planned out a list of potential food stops along our route in advance, however when we were

Breakfast number one.

making our plans we hadn’t realised that the Thursday was bank holiday in France. Thankfully, the boulangerie that we had listed 30 km into the ride opened at 7 am, as planned, and we arrived shortly after. The baker and his assistant certainly didn’t seem to be too happy about being open so early on a bank holiday and netted us with grumpy faces. The supermarkets on our list, however, were all closed until after lunch so we had to take it easy with the remainder of our ride snacks until we could find one that was open.

The roads were very quiet with it being a bank holiday and again we arrived at the ferry ahead of our predicted schedule. Upon arrival we bumped into another pair of riders

On the ferry to Jumieges.

from Belgium. They’d bivied in the woods close to the river but hadn’t slept very well due to the cold and damp conditions throughout night. We boarded the ferry together and chatted about out prospective routes and plans. They were planning on visiting the checkpoints in the same order as us so we expected to be seeing more of each other throughout the rest of the day.

The Abbey at Jumièges was our first checkpoint. As we weren’t wearing trackers, we validated our arrival by taking a photo and posting it on social media with the hashtag #normandicat and our pairs race number ’26’. This was a nice way of doing it as enabled us to follow the whereabouts and progress of all of the riders from our phones really easily.

Pair 26 checking in at checkpoint one.

Using the phone for social media uses up the power more quickly but I have an Igaro D1 USB charger attached to my Dynamo so I can charge up my phone during the day as I’m riding along. In order to keep the wires connected to the dynamo my quick release skewer needs to be done up super-tight and unfortunately it hadn’t been done up quite tight enough and the wires had been put under strain. I thought I’d noticed it just in time as my light cable wires were still connected but when I started to charge my phone nothing happened and I realised that the charger cable wires had snapped free from the connector block. I had a back-up charger with me and, as the light was still working (more important than the phone), I didn’t really want to have a go at fixing it until I could be certain that could do it somewhere where I could see what I was doing properly.

We weren’t the only ones having power problems. Our friend V, who was taking part as a solo rider, had also posted upon social media that her dynamo had also failed leaving her with no lights, so she’d had to stop riding as soon as it was dark on the first night and bivy until it was light enough to ride, although she’d had very little actual sleep, so she was behind her schedule and in need of a bike shop.

Julie and I had a second breakfast in a creperie near the Abbey and the discussed the consequences of my knackered charging lead. When we are bivying Julie usually brings along a big power bank that we can use alongside my Igaro to charge our Garmins and other devices for a few days at a time away from a plug-in power source. However seeing as we weren’t bivying and this event was only 70 hours in duration we’d decided not to bring it this time. Now that my dynamo charger had failed, we weren’t sure how long my small back-up charger would last so we decided to just go down to using one Garmin between us instead of one each as we usually do, in order to save its power for later as we expected to be riding for around 20 hours on the first full day.

Undeterred and with a plan we headed off to our second control 66km to the north of our current location, near Neufchatel. The sun was shining now and the day was shaping up to be a hot one. We were keeping our eyes peeled for an open supermarket along the route and were due to pass through a village with a few shops around 30 km away. I’d been struggling to get all of my gears for most of the morning and wondered if I’d somehow managed to give my rear mech a bit of a knock  getting it in and out of the hotel earlier – bikes and hotel room doors are never a good combination. Thankfully there were only a few short hills on an otherwise flattish route so I wasn’t really having to change gear that much and decided I’d just wait until we stopped for food and take a look then.

The village of Quincampoix came good on the supermarket front so we decided to have an early lunch and stock-up on ride snacks here for the rest of the day just in case we weren’t so lucky later on. Julie went into the supermarket while I stayed outside to take a look at my gears. The mech looked pretty straight so I figured that the problem lay somewhere with the cable. I pulled on it, immediately felt it go slack in my hand and realised that the cable had snapped. The cable end was stuck in the shifter and I couldn’t get it out, so even though I had a spare cable with me,  I couldn’t fit the new one without first removing the end of the old one.

This wasn’t part of the plan.

I was pretty annoyed as this was the second time that this had happened to me in the space of a year and this was a new shifter, but I was also annoyed with myself because I’d not bothered to fit new cables before the event. They were last changed back in January and, as I’d not ridden as much as usual this year due to the lousy weather, I’d assumed they’d be ok.

I was concentrating so much on my own situation that I didn’t notice Julie dropping further and further behind. Julie had slowed down as she’d been feeling pretty sick since we’d stopped for lunch. My speed was very erratic as I was making the most of the flat sections then slowing down every time I had to grind up a hill, so I wasn’t the greatest riding partner, yo-yoing along the road as I sped up and slowed down.

We arrived at checkpoint two, took our photo and tried giving the bike shop a call to let them know we were coming. No answer. That meant that they were probably shut – it was a bank holiday after all. I still felt pretty strong at this stage and was beginning to wonder if it would be possible for me to complete the event with just my two gears. Other people complete these events on single-speeds so why couldn’t I have a go? Normandy isn’t that hilly and we were still making good time at this point. I was feeling positive.

Checkpoint two

Given that nobody had picked up the phone at the bike shop we decided not to take a detour there and just head straight over to checkpoint three at Lyons La Foret, 60 km to the south. In the afternoon heat we were getting low on water and all of the shops and restaurants were closed in the villages we were riding through. We were just about giving up hope of finding any water when we rode past a football pitch with a little clubhouse. We sneaked through the clubhouse gate hoping that we’d find an outside tap and we were in luck!

Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be fine!

With our hydration issues solved we pressed on to checkpoint three. As we got closer to our destination the road started getting a little more undulating and I was beginning to find it hard work as my legs were starting to tire from pushing bigger gear. Julie was still suffering and kept dropping back so we were both releived to arrive in the pretty little village of Lyons La Foret around 4pm and find everything open. The main square was full of people and most of the shops and cafes were busy. There was even a bike hire shop but unfortunately the guy working there didn’t have any tools and couldn’t really help me.

We bumped into a few other competitors including the pair of Belgian riders we’d met earlier that morning. As we chatted about my gearing situation and possible makeshift solutions, we noticed that my rear mech’s barrel adjuster was missing. In my haste to remove the old cable and housing I’d forgotten to screw my barrel adjuster in tightly and it must’ve jiggled out as I’d been riding along – I felt like a right idiot for forgetting to check such a fundamental thing. I can put it down to tiredness and frustration but I still should have taken more care.

Lyons-La-Foret – checkpoint three for us.

We had a longer than planed stop in Lyons-La-foret as the cafe owner offered to let us plug in our devices to charge them up for a while. I was beginning to doubt whether my legs had the ability to pedal a further 160 km to our booked accommodation in Alencon with my limited gear options as my knees were starting to feel a little sore. But after a rest, a sandwich and two coffees I felt ok to get back on the bike, physically at least, if not mentally.

Once those feelings of doubt started to creep in, it was the beginning of the end and I couldn’t talk myself back into a positive frame of mind. Two hours later, after struggling up a hill on quite a busy main road around 30km south of Rouen, we pulled into a petrol station forecourt to have a breather and I told Julie that I didn’t think I could continue.

Knowing when to make that very difficult call to scratch during an event – and being happy with your decision to do so – is a very personal experience. Except that when you’re competing as pair you’re not just making that decision for yourself – you also have your race partner to consider.

Julie didn’t put up much of a fight. She was still feeling sick despite our long rest at Lyons-La-Foret and as we’d only been using one Garmin on my bike for most of the day, without a route to follow she was also feeling pretty demotivated. She’d been keeping quiet about how she’d been feeling because of my determination to keep going, and because she knew the feeling would probably pass, but now that she didn’t have to keep going I think she was happy that I’d made the decision for both of us.

So at around 7pm, only 21 hours after setting off and with around a quarter of the distance covered, we officially scratched from the race. We cycled back toward the outskirts of Rouen to find a hotel, take stock of the days events and think about what we should do for the remainder of our trip now that we were no longer racing.

That night in the hotel was difficult for me. As I played the day’s events over and over in my mind I was annoyed at myself for not replacing the cables before the race and for not winding my barrel adjuster in enough once the cable had snapped. I was also angry at myself for giving in and not pushing on further, for doubting my own ability to continue.  Other people ride events like this on single-speed bikes, why couldn’t I? But the decision had been made and it was pointless beating myself up over it. The most important thing was that we were both safe and well.

As Julie and I talked it through I think we both realised that that the biggest mistake we’d made was underestimating the race itself. We’d both made the assumption that a three-day race would somehow be easier than a longer event but in many respects a shorter race is tougher as there’s much less wriggle room if something goes wrong and less of a chance to make up the lost time.

I have to believe that I made the right decision to scratch. We went on to get my bike fixed the next day at a brilliant bike shop in Rouen – massive thanks to Quinten for sorting out my trapped gear cable and finding a spare barrel adjuster for my rear mech. What a star! I guess if we’d have continued trying to race we wouldn’t have visited that great little shop and I could’ve spent the remainder of our trip riding around with two gears and sore legs. Instead we made our way back to Bayeaux at a much more leisurely pace with a full complement of gears and much happier knees.

The following day we rode out to what would have been our final control at St. Vaast and had lunch at the seaside before heading back to attend the finisher’s dinner despite not ‘finishing’. That turned out to be a great morale-boosting decision for us both as we discovered that we weren’t the only competitors to have scratched and it was reassuring to chat with other riders who were experiencing the same emotions that we were feeling.

Despite not finishing the Normandicat I still really enjoyed the part of the race that we managed to complete. The event organiser, Xavier, and his army of volunteers who made sure we were all looked after and well fed, should be proud of what they have created. The event took us through some of the loveliest parts of Normandy and the checkpoints that Xavier has chosen are quirky and interesting. It’s just a shame that we only got the chance to visit half of them.

I hope to be back again next year to see the other half and finish what we started – complete with new cables. That’s one mistake I won’t make again in a hurry.