RRTY= Randonneur Round the Year, it is a fairly simple concept of an award run by Audax UK:
You ride 1 calendar (organised ride on a specific date), permanent (set route/ride, but on a date of your choosing) or DIY (route and date dictated by yourself, but meeting specific criteria) event of at least 200km for 12 months consecutively. Simples.
We started in May this year, almost incidentally, and then as the months continued so did the impetus to keep going… especially as we would finish very conveniently in April 2022 leaving May free for our final preparations for the Round the World record attempt. It was a great motivator riding 1 long ride a month, planning them in and keeping momentum. An then we got Covid19 in November and missed our calendar ride. So, we planned a permanent version for the last available day we had in November.
One last chance.
Now there will be two schools of thought here:
#1 Why on earth are we exercising so soon after Covid? We should be resting to ensure full recovery and minimise the risk of complications. Especially as sub-zero temperatures and high winds are predicted with storm Arwyn (you know it’s bad when they have a name) and we should be wrapped up home with a mug of cocoa.
#2 It’s only 200km, ~130miles, in 14hours. Our average speed would need to be 9.5mph (even I struggle to ride that slow) and with a flat route, designed for winter riding with plenty of controls with hot food a drink. Surely, we should be able to drag our sorry arses around that after already done 6 out of the 12months!
But of course, it is not as simple as either. We are talking endurance riding here, not max wattage sprinting with our heart rates through the roof. The pace will always be steady and given that I have already been commuting to work on the bike and done a few short runs and rides and I would like to think we have taken ourselves to the limit enough times to know what we are capable of without putting our health at risk. But 9.5mph is easy on paper but not when you factor in stops, and the complications of winter riding.
And this is the key to RRTY: the winter months. It’s much easier if you have a whole month of weekends (or even weekdays) to choose from, but if like us you are restricted to certain date it is inevitable at some point you will be at the mercy of the UK weather.
It is not just the weather that makes winter riding hard though, but all the associated complications of colder temperatures and shorter days. The air is somehow heavier in winter, harder to move through the lungs and it feels like you get less oxygen from every breath as it mists out of your mouth. You expend more energy trying to warm the air up as it enters your body, and more energy in general is lost trying to stay warm. Maintaining heat while riding is a tricky balance between staying warm and not sweating as the sweat instantly cools against your skin making your body heat plummet, usually on the inevitable descent. And then if you have to stop for any reason, it is a race against time to do what needs to be done, I suffered a puncture in the back wheel in the first 15miles of this ride and we both worked quickly together to fix it and were cold enough after this. Hands are the worst, not only for the hot aches when they do finally warm up which have driven me to tears before, but also because of the impact it has on braking and changing gears subtly reducing your speed further. Every sip of your water bottle feels like and icicle has been driven directly into your chest and it is near impossible to stay properly hydrated in these conditions without stopping.
So, stop we do, spurning our usually petrol station forecourts for the warmth of cafes and pubs where this inevitably take longer, and the reluctance to leave is greater, dragging yourself from centrally heated bliss into the freezer outside once more. And then there are the layers, not only the time taken putting on and taking off, but the extra weight, the extra energy to move through limbs that feel stuffed like the Michelin man and the continual adjusting to maintain homeostasis.
And then there are the roads, we were lucky today as it is cold but remarkably dry but there is still the risk of icy- one of the most dangerous things to encounter, alongside some of the winter driving skills of the general public. I hate ice. It terrifies me.
So, with all these extra issues add on the seconds and minutes, these quickly become hours and your average speed drops dramatically. And then the sun sets mid-afternoon.
I love night riding, but there is no doubt it is slower. It takes you longer to read the road, motivation can drop, it’s hard for cars to pass you and easier to miss signs and get lost. So, time must be factored in for night riding and on a 200km this could be 5 hours in the dark, where this risk of ice with falling temperatures is higher too.
But knowing all this from numerous winter rides over the years we had a rough idea of what we were in for on the permanent version of Mr Pickwicks Crych Cymru (if anyone knows who Mr Pickwick is I’d love to know…) I spent the week before neurotically checking the weather on a range of sites and apps including epic ride weather which handily plots the weather along our route. It was obviously going to be a bit touch and go weather wise with the best case being a very chilly start (feeling like –6’c with wind gust over 30mph) but at least it was dry so with a much lower risk of ice thanks to Storm Arwyn blowing the dampness from the ground.
Another problem we had was that we had originally planned to camp over in our campervan before the ride to allow for an early start and speedy get away. This is usually fine, but there is not heating in the van when parked and the thought of trying to dress and get bikes off in the cold was just too much, so we bailed and decided to splash out on a Travelodge which provided us with somewhere warm to dress, eat breakfast and get as many cups of tea as we could stomach.
With this plan in place, I convinced Stevie we should at least start the ride. We both acknowledged the conditions were far from ideal and that we might still be so compromised from Covid the ride might not be possible, but I strongly felt we should at least start. Not just for the RRTY, although this means a great deal to me in terms of my motivation, but because we are cyclists; that is what we do. I had desperately missed being out on the bike in self isolation and I’d felt frustrated that I hadn’t been able to get beyond the usual lanes in so long. I didn’t just want an hour mooching about, I wanted the peace in my head that only comes from a whole day on the bike when your thoughts quieten and all you have to do is keep turning the pedals…
Start we did, full of an all you can eat breakfast and wrapped up warm- it was a great chance to tr out our Huub winter training jackets and these proved to be just the tickets- warm, stretchy, breathable and yet able hold off a light shower. I’m usually not a fan of fluorescent colours but I was certainly glad of the visibility of these when the light levels dropped.
If was a crisp and clear as expected and a very pleasant route out of Tewkesbury, meandering through the valleys. Stevie suffered with his hands a bit and then we both did after the puncture but warmed up again. However, we were obviously not back to peak performance, fine rolling along the flat but any hills had us crawling with tight chest unable to summon the power in our legs we were used to. A wrong turn and an unintended climb near Symonds Yat had us gasp for breath and questioning our ability to keep the speed up.
“Let’s get to Monmouth, there’s a Wetherspoons there”
We rolled along an unexpectedly gravelly track to the familiar riverside town and proceeded to take full advantage of the bottomless refills of hot drinks. But we had a problem: we were at quarter distance and by the time we had eaten this had taken us 4 hours… so making the 14-hour time limit would only be possible by riding faster, which was certainly not going to happen once it got dark.
We discussed it over yet more food, but the conclusion was clear- we would never make it round in time and it would a futile and extremely hard ride. As we had chosen a route that was pretty much out and back it was easy for us to turn around and ride back. The aches in our legs from so much enforced time off the bikes confirmed this was the right decision and Stevie is convinced the exceptional soreness in his derriere is a complication of Covid19, not lack of time in the saddle.
So, meander back we did and were definitely pleased with our decision as icy shower set in for the last 5miles into Tewkesbury- we would have coped but it would have been miserable and when we got back the van we had done 75 miles the thought of doing another 55 miles seemed impossible.
I am absolutely gutted to have to call it a day on another amazing challenge, but know we have made the right decision- we are still very much in recovery and know how far we can push ourselves. I am exceptionally proud of how we worked as a team, risk assessed the ride and made the appropriate decisions before and during the ride. It is these skills we will need to break the round the World record, not battering on regardless. I didn’t even have too much of a strop!
Bye bye RRTY… but onwards with training and riding and enjoying bikes!