This feature appeared in the March 2020 of Cycling Plus magazine. To subscribe, save money on the regular price and receive a Lusso base layer worth £32.50, head here.
It’s a week before the start of the Rapha Festive 500 and my bike needs a new freewheel. I take it down to my local bike shop and find that owner Steve and mechanic Paul are both full of a cold. I keep my distance and hold my handkerchief over my mouth and nose. Like a scene from a cold war spy swap movie, I leave my bike halfway between them and me and back away to the door, shouting instructions over the heads of several Christmas shoppers.
“The freewheel’s buggered,” I say, “and I need a new one before Christmas Eve.” Paul gives my rear wheel a spin: “16-tooth? We can get that in for you tomorrow.” All I have to do now is negotiate my way back home without coming into contact with anyone coughing, sneezing or exhibiting the merest hint of the common cold. I am in voluntary quarantine, inhaling regular shots of Vicks First Defence nasal spray.
I can’t risk catching any germs on the eve of a challenge that will require me to ride 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Lonely this Christmas…
“So you expect me to do ALL the Christmas shopping?” asks my wife. “Just so you can go out and ride your bike over Christmas?”
My wife, bless her, is used to the role of cycling widow and she’s even agreed to be my emergency call-out service. I have decided that in the case of punctures or mechanicals, it will be easier to phone her and be rescued. There is nothing ‘quick release’ about my £600 Genesis Flyer single speed, so I’d rather do any repairs in the warmth of our hallway and make up the miles later, than be stuck on a freezing roadside struggling with a spanner and a seized axle nut.
There are eight days to complete the 500 kilometres, but I have incorporated two rest days into my schedule, partly to appease my wife and partly to give my body a chance to recuperate from demands it is not used to. My typical week’s riding is around 200 kilometres and I choose my days depending on whether it’s raining or not. The Festive 500 will be much more punishing. The last time I rode that distance in a week was more than two years ago in the sunshine and warmth of Portugal.
So my schedule will see me ride 100km on Christmas Eve followed by five rides of 80km. The night before my first ride, I make sure my two Garmins are fully charged – I’m carrying a spare as the old adage, ‘If it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen,’ is literally true in the case of the Festive 500. I also charge up my lights just in case as it starts getting dark at 3.30pm here in Angus. I turn to social media in search of inspiration. The Festive 500 hashtag is trending globally. This is the tenth year of the challenge and a record 119,775 riders have signed up.
Someone from Poland is asking if miles on an indoor trainer will count as there is heavy rain forecast for his region, while a rider in Holland wants to know what the official start time is. Some Australians have already completed their first rides and posted photos. They are wearing shorts and summer jerseys so I log off before I’m dissuaded altogether.
My wife lightens the mood by presenting me with an early Christmas present – a beautiful Café du Cycliste winter jacket with matching bib tights. They will remain in this pristine state until only halfway through my second ride.
I’m unaccountably nervous and I have a restless night’s sleep. Those 500 kilometres are already weighing heavily on me.
On your marks
I set off just before 10am, taking the hilly route to Dundee where my wife is buying the turkey from Marks and Spencer. I’ve said I’ll meet her and treat her to lunch. As I gain altitude on the back roads to Glamis, there is ice in the gutters and I can see billows of mist below and it’s not too long before I’m plunged into a real pea-souper and have to stop to switch on my lights. By the time I reach the foot of the climb to Lumley Den the mist has lifted, but lunch with my wife will have to be reduced to a quick coffee if I am to make it back home along the coast before it gets dark.
When I upload my 101 kilometres to Strava I see that dozens of riders have already completed the challenge, with a guy from Germany at the top of the leaderboard with 512km that he accomplished in one go.
On my own Strava feed I see that two local riders set out just after midnight. One of them rode around his local park for six hours, accumulating 167km and 87 metres in elevation. My own 711 metres of climbing suddenly looks pretty heroic. What, I wonder, drives someone to go out on a freezing December night at midnight to spend six hours riding around in circles? And what makes 50 other riders give them ‘Kudos’ for doing so?
I sleep much better knowing that my Festive 500 is now officially up and running. Christmas Day dawns with blue skies, light winds – and a warning of ice on untreated roads.
A late start today would allow time for a thaw, but I’ve promised my wife I’ll be back in time for Christmas lunch and the opening of our presents, so I’m on the road by 10am again, but I soon realise I will have to recalibrate my route. There is dangerous-looking ice in the gutters and my usual back roads are thickly layered in frost. I will have to stick to B-roads and hope that the council had a team of gritters on Christmas Day duty.
There seems to be a surprisingly high amount of traffic for these usually quiet roads – vehicles full of people travelling to families and loved ones, leading ordinary lives while I find myself embroiled in a challenge that reeks of ‘Billy no mates’ or ‘mid-life crisis’.
I’ve covered 50km and I’m on my way home when I realise I’ve miscalculated my ‘safe’ route and I have no choice but to take a single-lane back road that connects one B-road with another. The alternative is an extra 20km of riding.
As I make the right-hand turn in front of the imposing gates of Lour House, my back wheel slides from under me and I land heavily on my thigh and arm. My first thought is of neither myself nor my bike but my lovely new kit. The sleeve is ripped. My wife really isn’t going to be impressed.
I get up and I’m hopping around clutching my thigh – almost going arse over heels again in the process – when I hear an unseen vehicle coming up the lane I was turning into. It slows down and squeezes past my bike. The old boy driving asks if I’m alright.
“Ice,” I say. “You get a lot of it on this stretch,” he says. “I know that now,” I reply before straightening my Santa hat and retrieving my bike, which is unscathed, thanks to having no derailleurs to be crumpled.
I am now faced with two kilometres of terror before I reach the comparative safety of the treated B-road. It’s all gradually downhill and I feather the brakes in-between the frosty and dubious-looking stretches. When I’m almost at the junction I feel the frame suddenly snake beneath me and my heart skips a beat, but I arrive at the dotted white lines upright and intact.
When I get home, my wife is more concerned with checking the sprouts than inspecting my road rash. By the time I sit down to my turkey and trimmings, I have a swelling the size of a melon.
Not box fresh
Boxing Day is a rest day. Frustratingly, the heavy rain that was forecast doesn’t materialise until the next day when I’m back on my bike. This is the lowest point of the week. My thigh is still throbbing and the rain is relentless for the three hours I’m out riding.
I’m cursing the name of Graeme Raeburn, the lead designer at Rapha who conceived the Festive 500 because he “wanted to experience life as a professional rider”. Why couldn’t he have gone for a week’s training camp in the Canaries?
My kit, gloves and overshoes repel the constant downpour well until I’m half an hour from home when they collectively give up the ghost and I’m soaked to the bone. I arrive at my front door, four kilometres behind my projected schedule, but I’m far too wet and miserable to contemplate riding up and down my road a few times to make up the numbers.
The next day it’s the wind. My Met Office app says 17mph, but it feels stronger. But at least it’s dry. And not icy. Or foggy. I really am clutching
at small mercies. After three-and-a-half hours I have logged 81 kilometres and I’m back on target for the week
The next day, Sunday, is supposed to be my second rest day but it’s sunny and dry so I decide I’d be stupid to waste it and manage a brisk 40 kilometres. This gives me the major psychological boost of knowing I now have two days to complete the final 120km.
My instinct proves correct as the next day I am soaked to the skin once again. I only need to accumulate 60km, but every time I look at my Garmin the numbers have hardly moved and I keep having to turn right and head further away from home when all I want to do is turn left.
That evening, I sense triumph is within my grasp until I cross-reference several different weather apps. All are predicting sub-zero temperatures with a risk of ice.
I deploy my contingency route, which is a loop with hardly any climbing and therefore no hazardous descents. But it’s only 40km long, so I’m going to have to find another 20km from somewhere. It’s the most nerve-wracking ride of the week. The A-road is busy, and no driver is making any concession for me positioning myself well away from the gutter and its possible ice traps.
Would I be out here now risking life and limb if it wasn’t for the Festive 500, especially after my tumble on Christmas Day? Definitely not.
What a damning admission, I realise after safely making it home. For the sake of an online challenge, I had chosen to go and ride in potentially dangerous conditions.
This is the dilemma at the heart of all challenges of this nature. There is no prize, just a place on the Festive 500 global leaderboard. I finished 28,007th out of 96,863. How much you’re prepared to risk for that – whether going out on icy roads or riding around a park in total darkness for six hours – only you can decide. [Editor’s note. For 2020 the Rapha Festive 500 will also count miles ridden indoors towards your total. Find out more here
Distance 53 miles/85.8km
Total elevation 710m
Grade It’s the cold that’ll get you
The most convenient mainline train stations are in Dundee, Arbroath and Montrose.
Where to stay
The Lucken cottage in the clifftop village of Auchmithie sleeps four for around £500 a week.
Where to eat
Cosy cafes include Kescoweth Coffee Shop near Brechin and the Old Bakery cafe in St Cyrus, just north of Montrose.
Steve and Paul at Angus Bike Chain, Commerce Street, Arbroath, offer a friendly, efficient service and a well-stocked shop. angusbikechain.com
The challenge runs from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve. Register for free at Strava.com. From just 94 entrants in 2010, the challenge attracted 120,000 riders from all over the world in 2019.
Words: Trevor Ward
Photos: Andy McCandlish