After a hard week at work (and in the case of Frank, a long drive down from Yorkshire) Dan, Brian and I together with Frank and Phil rendezvoused at Maidenhead train station last Friday morning to begin our first major RAAM format training exercise. The team had suffered a last minute blow with Anthony being unable to take the time off work, but plans had been put in place for Anthony to meet us in Carmarthen in west Wales at approximately 10.30 that night so all was good.
Our base for the trip was a converted van with 9 seats and a load area for the bikes. Tim Westwood had clearly had a hand in its conversion as it also sported a playstation, two drop down tvs and a “massive” sound system, however the chances to use these bits of kit never quite materialised….
The plan was to cycle in relay format from Maidenhead, through the rolling countryside of west England, make the jump through to Wales and continue through the Brecon Beacons and on to the ferry port at Pembroke in plenty of time for the 2.55am sailing to Rosslare in Ireland. Once in Ireland we intended to travel up through the Wicklow Gap and onto Barretstown for lunch and a tour, before departing for the 8.45pm ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and the return trip through Snowdonia and the Cotswolds.
Having set off at approximately 11am we knew that time would be tight to cover the first 260 mile leg so we got stuck in straight away and took 30 minute pulls. The first few pulls passed in a blur of adrenaline and a feeling of finally getting onto the road in a race format. This section was great cycling. We had great weather, lots of energy and free flowing roads. The afternoon continued in good spirits and despite a few teething problems with our race radio systems (we seemed to pick up every taxi company and farmer within a 5 mile radius) we were flying along and making excellent time.
We quickly settled in to a race routine which broadly went something like this:
1. 20-30 minutes flat out on the bike until Phil radioed in for a change over, at which point the support van would blast ahead up the road to find a place to park and get the next rider ready.
2. The changeover would pass in a blur as Phil grabbed our radio, handed it over to the next rider and got them going. In the meantime we would reorganise the bikes in the back of the van for the next shift and then get under way to catch the rider on the road.
3. Once in the van the person who just finished their shift would get their legs elevated, take on as much High5 4:1 energy drink as possible and begin the recovery process.
4. Once the next rider had finished their 30 minutes you would help with the changeover and then begin preparing yourself for the next pull. This meant ingesting copious amounts of energy gel (an acquired taste), prepping your shoes, radio, helmet and drink for the next pull and generally getting in the “zone”.
5. Phil then announced the next change over and you got on the bike ready to set off for the next pull.
This strategy worked extremely well and we soon found ourselves blasting in to Wales with our sights set on Brecon. As dusk fell we were all beginning to feel the effects of the day so decide to take on board some of our caffeinated energy drinks. These worked fantastically and saw us post some of our fastest pulls of the trip through the Welsh valleys and into nightfall.
We had arranged a brief stop off to meet Finola, a potential crew member for around 11pm but due to our excellent pace we managed to meet far earlier than planned and carried on to Carmarthen to meet Anthony. Unfortunately during the next hour it transpired that Finola would be unable to join us on RAAM so we parted company shortly before arriving at the train station full of disappointment but with some excellent advice and guidance.
Once atCarmarthenwe met up with Anthony and began the final pulls of the day to get to Pembroke. The Welsh roads at nightfall were pretty entertaining but we arrived shortly aftermidnightwith approximately 260 miles under our belts and lots of lessons learned.
Anyone who has visited Pembroke ferry terminal can probably appreciate our disappointment when we realised that our “dinner” for the night was going to have to consist of a warmed up sausage roll and a stale sandwich. After eating we boarded the ferry and headed straight for the bench seats for a sleep. After a fitful few hours of sleep we arrived in Rosslare in Ireland at 6am and readied ourselves for the day ahead with a petrol station breakfast. The morning shifts were fantastic with rolling countryside and country lanes being the order of the day. As we progressed through the day we began to steadily climb, culminating in a brutal few shifts which took us up the Wicklow Gap. I heroically opted to save my climbing legs for later in the trip and volunteered to take the shift that took in the descent which was great fun. I topped out at approximately 50mph and despite a few “moments” in the huge cross winds (the deep section wheels I was running act rather like a sail in crosswinds meaning you can easily be knocked several feet off line by a nasty gust of wind) made it down without any problems. From there on in we took a few more pulls until Dan delivered us to Barretstown.
We met Dee and Bernie from Barretstown and Kate (Kate works at Norton Rose but regularly volunteers herself as a carer) at the gates and began a tour of the Barretstown site. We all had a great time over the next hour and were able to see the entire site, which includes craft rooms, a theatre, the cottages at which the families stay, a fully equipped medical wing and the fantastic climbing frame apparatus which towers over most of the site. After the tour we were directed to the castle for showers and a change of clothes (our first in nearly 30 hours) and then taken to the dining hall for a fantastic and much needed lunch. We were forced to say our good byes shortly after this as the ferry from Dublin loomed, but we would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone at Barretstown for having us and showing us some of the wonderful work that you guys do.
After leaving we had an 80 mile or so hop into the outskirts of Dublin before piling into the van for the trip through the city centre to the ferry port. Passing through Dublin and its myriad bars on a Saturday evening without getting the chance to get stuck into some booze was tough but we luckily managed to resist temptation. We arrived at the ferry port in plenty of time and were again disappointed to discover that decent food was not available. After a couple of hours during which we gave the van a spring clean, got the bikes prepped for night riding and tried to catch some fitful rest we boarded the ferry, had some of the world’s most over priced food (£13 for a dry piece of chicken, 4 new potatoes and some veg) and got our heads down for a couple of hours sleep.
We arrived in Holyhead at midnight and immediately set about covering the 260 or so miles home as fast as possible. We hit some good climbing through Snowdonia and passed through what we all imagine was some pretty spectacular scenery but as it was pitch black other than the narrow beam of our lights we were none the wiser. The next few hours passed without any major drama until we started nearing Shrewsbury at dawn. We encountered more than a few confused petrol station attendants as we all piled into the shops stripping the shelves of huge bottles of water, flapjacks and anything else unhealthy. At this point we were all struggling to adjust our body clocks which wasn’t helped by the noticeable drop in temperature however we soldiered on and soon warmed up thanks to the rising sun and “bumpy” terrain.
The final run in to Maidenhead was great fun as we were treated to fast roads and warm weather. Each of us hit some of the hardest pulls of the trip and ensured that our average speed stayed slightly above target pace for RAAM. Having arrived in Maidenhead we were all able to breathe a sigh of relief having not only survived our toughest test yet but having come out of the other side of it with a lot of lessons learnt and a set of excellent performances. Massive thanks go to Phil and Frank who drove, navigated and carried out seem less changeovers tirelessly – without them the trip would not have been possible.
We are now left with about 8 training weeks until the race and a whole host of admin tasks to get us ready in time. Our intention is to hit training as hard as possible in the run up to the race to capitalise on the work done so far and to ensure we all get to the start line in tip top shape. We are however faced with a number of tough decisions including whether to shave or not to shave (I’m not just talking about my ginger beard) and whether or not to report Dan for crimes against fashion for sporting several sets of 1990’s adidas track suit bottoms!
We will shortly begin the process of selling tickets for our launch event dinner and race night which is being held at Norton Rose on 24 May. Tickets are priced at a minimum donation of £75 (with all proceeds going to Barretstown) which gets you a champagne reception, three course meal and a great nights entertainment. Please get in touch with us if you would like to attend!
Keep checking back on the blog for updates (we will be posting a video of the trip shortly) and please use the link below to donate to Barretstown.
Edit – Thanks very much to Jo Barnes and her band Spoonfed who provided the music for the video with their tracks Where to now and Pensive.