The Festive 500: A challenge by half

The founder of the annual event had to cycle 1,000km to realise 500km was enough.

We don’t get many white Christmases in England but 2009 was one of them. Carols were sung around open fires, glasses were filled with sherry and somewhere near Edenbridge, on a road cut through frosted woods, Graeme Raeburn discovered that the grease had frozen solid in his hubs.

“It was Christmas Day and I had left the bike outside my Mum’s. I didn’t realise how cold it had got,” said Rapha’s Lead Designer. “On the way back to London I was in the middle of this dark wood and my pedals were just spinning. I was thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’ Eventually I worked out a way of accelerating and somehow engaging the free hub.”

Graeme’s plans for Christmas were being tested before they had really started, and they were grand plans indeed. Inspired by the words of ‘Grandfather of the Tour de France’ Henri Desgrange in his book Le Tête et les Jambes (The Head and The Legs) he had chosen one of the harshest Christmases in living memory to embark on a challenge that defined the term epic. Over the course of eight days Graeme wanted to cover 1,000km on his bike, because “it seems a nice amount.”

“We were working on the first Pro Team range and I had been talking to the Rapha Condor riders about staying fit and motivated through winter. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to put myself in their shoes. I had a lot of time off between Christmas and New Year and I wanted to try and live the life of a pro rider. That turned out to be quite an ambitious target.”

“It was extremely tough, pretty gruelling. Going out when it was just getting light and getting back in the dark was quite challenging.”

Graeme achieved his aim, but admitted pushing himself to the edge was “a bit pointless.” It also turned out that Team Rapha Condor were riding nowhere near 1,000km between Christmas and New Year.

“I think 500km was probably more in line with what some of the pro riders were actually doing, and a bit more reasonable and sociable to attain.”

Graeme laid down the gauntlet for the next year. On the inaugural Festive 500 in 2010, which was also a white Christmas, 94 riders took up the challenge. The idea caught on and last year, 72,283 riders signed up. Only 13,311 completed the full distance, but no one said it would be easy.

Besides, Graeme insists this is one challenge where it is the taking part that really counts: “I always wanted it to be on a social level, to go out as groups and explore new roads and new places. You don’t have to do the 500km. Why don’t you just do five rides? Why don’t you just have the ambition to go out? That’s the most important thing about it. Sure, the 500 is a great goal but set yourself a personal goal and get out and enjoy the experience. Feeling good about yourself and not having to lose the Christmas kilos you put on when you sit around eating chocolates is a nice thing and this is the motivation for it.

“For me it’s not a mile chasing, head banging, bar chewing, macho thing. It’s really about getting out there, enjoying being out on your bike and being with other people or visiting other people. It’s about the spirit of Christmas. OK, maybe not the first 1,000km, that was a one man against the elements kind of thing. But otherwise.”

Plus, Graeme adds, the great thing about cycling 500km is that at least some of it should be awe-inspiring: “I’ve seen some beautiful landscapes that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, like when the sun is just coming up and there’s no one else around and you’re like, ‘wow this is amazing.’”

It’s not all about getting stranded in dark and frosty woods.

Graeme Raeburn’s tips for a successful Festive 500

  • The community element is really important. It is so nice to meet people and ride routes you’ve never ridden before.
  • My family were very supportive. Having family all over the south east meant I was able to ride to social events and people are happy to provide a square meal when you’ve ridden 100km to go and see them.
  • I would plan out my rides in advance, what social events were going on and which ones I could ride to.
  • Try and get it done early because you don’t want to be chasing hollow miles at the last minute.
  • The safety aspect is important. Make sure you have working lights and hi-vis clothing.
  • Rewards were a big thing for me, knowing I had fantastic food to look forward to or even a new pair of socks, that was a great motivator.
  • Check the forecast.