Words: David Harmon | Photography: Elliot Jones | Date:
There is a part of me that eschews gadgets and gizmos, rejects outright the reliance of riders on Garmins, Strava and even at times on the humble map. A belligerent part of me instinctively bridles at the facility of these devices to control me and take away my freedom to sit up, look about, and enjoy the journey rather than the efficiencies of getting there.
They are the work of the Devil, or at least that’s what I tell myself.
The Rapha Manchester to London Challenge, a ride in aid of Ambitious about Autism, has thrown me into a crisis of faith. Although I cast aside these gadgets, I now find myself drawn to them once more.
I have in the past, like pretty much every cyclist in the history of the sport, found myself driven by the need to prove myself against someone or something. Once, that something was tandem point-to-point distance records. Four years ago next month, at 4.00 am on a cold and unseasonably wet morning, I stepped onto the back of a tandem on what I thought would be the beginning of a glorious and record breaking adventure. I naively dreamt that, after the record from Pembroke to Yarmouth was captured, others would tumble like dominoes. Ten hours later, behind schedule and still 100 miles short of the target, I stepped off the bike.
All hope of the record was gone, and eight months of training, calculating, measuring, planning and poring over routes, weather maps and equipment was all for nothing. There was no prospect of trying again in the following months. No wonder then that for nearly half a decade I have baulked at the very thought of measuring my efforts when those measurements left me with such emptiness.
One of the great advantages of leaving behind a decade commentating on professional road racing, where life in a hotel room was the norm, is the sudden and at first shocking feeling of again wanting precisely what was so hard to love sat on a roadside verge, defeated and miles adrift of the Suffolk coast, riding to challenge myself. I’ve realised that the beauty of tools such as Strava is that they’re a record of the thousands of men and women who follow each others’ wheel tracks, simply trying to go faster and further – just as has happened since the day the bicycle was invented.
Distance riding has a great and glorious past in Britain. Place-to-place road courses crisscross the country like a cat’s cradle, and the list of great record holders as long as your arm: TV commentator David Duffield; Phil Bayton, the ‘Staffordshire Engine’; specialists like Lynne Taylor and the diminutive Eileen Sheridan; Charlie Holland, the first Briton to ride the Tour de France; and even Phil Griffiths, current importer of Pinarello have all pounded the roads to write their names in the record books as the best of their generation.
Not one of those riders, however, has ever tested their mettle from Manchester to London.
Bizarrely for two such important cities, a recognized road record course between the two does not exist. Now that the Rapha Manchester to London Challenge hovers ahead of me as one of the longest and most beautiful single-day rides I will have undertaken since that day 4 years ago, I remember what drove me to my record attempt, that need to measure myself against something. But, unlike the focussed time on the back of a tandem, I get to share this challenge with others who, like me, enjoy the camaraderie and shared suffering of distance rides.
Making it to the end will be a huge step towards another crack at writing my own name in the record books and a huge achievement for everyone riding it. But more than that, it is a way of giving to others through an aspect of the sport I love so much.
Who knows, I might even start preparing with Strava.
Ride safe, ride long.