trails and tribulations

Updated: Jul 7, 2019

Racing my bike to the extremities of the island I live on was more than just a physical trip, it forced me to confront my own ideas and preconceptions at every turn.

Portraits of me taken by Dan Monaghan @cadenceimages

What do I want?

Gravel. I don't know if anyone ever actually used the word, but I went into GBDURO imagining a grand, fun adventure with mile upon mile of smooth flowing compacted gravel roads, broken up only by idyllic country lanes.

This idea would soon be smashed into gravel dust: Within an hour of the grand depart we were confronted with technical singletrack across deeply rutted, rocky moorland. It caused havoc in our little peloton with bodies and bikes flying in every direction, only a select few skilled riders picking their way through the wreckage unscathed.

Suddenly I felt stupid with my expensive custom gravel bike, deep section aero wheels and gravel-scenester ironic Hawaiian shirt. I felt like a roadie fraud hopelessly out of his depth. I was in full self-reflective mode - I don't have the skills for this, I'm not enjoying it, what do I want then? Who am I? Aaaaaargh?!!! And this was all in the first hour.

We were confronted with technical singletrack across deeply rutted, rocky moorland

As the race got into its rhythm and my mind settled down, the answers revealed themselves. This was not the pre-packaged American gravel scene I'd been seduced by on Instagram, it was our own British answer to riding long distances on mixed surfaces. After a while I realised not only was it exactly what I wanted to be doing, but that I already had a strong link to this kind of riding. Without being conscious of it, I'd picked up a thread that had become lost when I was a teenager: I was again riding the same kind of terrain I used to ride on my mountain bike in the early naughties with my dad. I had a tent strapped to my bike just like I did as a teenager when I'd go off on multi day trips with my mates. It was OK, I had a claim to this.

I felt like I'd reconnected with an old version of myself and I felt reassured this was confirmation that I was on the right 'path'. The motivation was coming from somewhere deep within that started long before anyone dangled a camping mug on their seatpack, in fact before a seatpack had even been invented! I was not following a trend, I was following an instinct.

A change of mindset

By the time I was surrounded by the steep valley walls of deepest Wales I'd got a feel for what this race was all about. I'd tackled and survived a handful of off-road sections that pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone. Careering down the rocky descent from Exmoor in pitch darkness, barely in control of my bike, all I wanted to do was make it all stop. But I knew the only way out of this situation was to go through it and out the other side. After a brief pause to collect my thoughts I pushed off again and pointed the front wheel at the least scary looking rock, hoping it would ricochet off at an angle that wouldn't send me flying over the bars.

When I made it to the bottom in one piece, the sense of relief and achievement was quickly replaced with an urgent realisation: This was not going to be the easy, fun adventure I'd imagined. I had to quickly change my mindset from enjoying something that was within my control and comfort zone, to taking on and overcoming something that was very much not. These sections would keep cropping up, and from that point on, my new mindset allowed me to get through them, whereas before I was in danger of scratching because 'If I'm not enjoying it, what's the point?'.

The collective

I've always liked to ride my bike alone, but more and more I'm appreciating the importance of belonging to a group, a tribe. The extreme demands that this race put on such a small group of pioneers quickly forged a strong sense of camaraderie, with a lot of solitary souls opening up and helping each other through the tough times. There's a tension between the race and the collective, characterised by the awkward moment two competitors find themselves riding together. Technically you're engaged in battle, but you're also leaning on each other for emotional support. The format of this race meant that the clock stopped at checkpoints, creating a sanctuary of relaxation to break the tension of the competition and allow everyone to catch up on valuable sleep. The atmosphere of solidarity and support at the checkpoints was so incredible that it was always hard to leave. They will remain as some of my most treasured memories from the experience.

Striking a balance

For me it was difficult to know what mental approach to take: I was in a race so I wanted to go as fast as I could, but I had another agenda. I needed to gather photography of my experience and record my podcast audio updates as I went through the journey. On day two I was surprised to find myself jostling for position near the front of the field and got caught up with the idea of maintaining my position at all costs. I was missing great opportunities to get photos and was rushing shots when I did stop.

I had to seriously assess what I wanted to get out of this experience. If I'd have come one place higher who would care? Would it mean that much to me? Compared to if I got to the end with no photos to show, knowing I'd passed up the chance to record the experience of a lifetime - inexcusable. The decision was made easier because the race was SO hard it was clear that simply finishing would constitute a victory. So I had to sacrifice some speed for photos, a trade off that I was very comfortable with.

I had to seriously assess what I wanted to get out of this experience.

The Lachlan Effect

I'd been involved in GBDURO from its inception, so I had a clear picture of just how tiny and grass roots the event is. So it was a surreal and mind blowing turn of events when it was revealed that Lachlan Morton, a world tour pro on the Rapha Education First race team, would be taking part. I didn't believe it would happen until I was standing in front of him in a pub at Land's End chatting about how he was feeling about the race. The 'alternative race program' driven by Rapha is a bold and controversial move that has already garnered the full range of reactions, including predictably a lot of cynical detractors who see it as a disingenuous PR stunt that pollutes the purity of these amateur events. Personally, I think it's win-win for everybody. The media coverage GBDURO received was astronomical because of Lachlan's involvement, and the way he fully embraced its ethos, was moved by the experience and has talked openly about how special it was is priceless recognition and credibility for our scene. For right or for wrong, UCI world tours are still seen as the benchmark for the ultimate in endurance and suffering on a bike, so to have a pro try out one of our scrappy amateur grass roots ultra distance events and say he now realises he hadn't done anything hard before in his life, makes me feel proud to have completed the same race (even if I finished about 4 days later!).

He said he felt like a 12 year old kid going off on a bike ride.

Whatever the reasons for Rapha and EF (and it's a clever move on their part as it will generate much more PR than anything the team is likely to do in the Tour de France), talking to Lachlan ahead of the start it seemed like he was the one pushing to be involved in GBDURO out of sheer enthusiasm for anti-UCI pure bike racing and adventure, he said he felt like a 12 year old kid going off on a bike ride. I asked how the team would even allow their riders to do something so physically damaging mid-season and he basically said they didn't, but no one really know what this race was and didn't check until it was too late and he was on the finish line!

Something special

It feels like I've been part of a very special event where a lot of factors came together somehow to chaotically create something unique. It was a retro celebration of 90s cross country mountain biking, it was an illicit tour through Britain's hidden industrial infrastructure, it was an SAS survival training mission across an unforgiving wilderness, it was a Scout camp with sponge pudding and lashings of custard, it was everything. Please don't make me do it again!