EN­TER­ING THE RECORD BOOKS

Can a de­cent club-level rider pedal them­selves into the pres­ti­gious Road Records As­so­ci­a­tion record books? We sent Richard Abra­ham to find out

Cycling Weekly - - Feature -

This isn’t a story about break­ing a record. First of all, we didn’t know whether I had man­aged to do so un­til a cou­ple of months after the at­tempt. And, what’s more, mem­ory has con­densed five hours and three min­utes of cy­cling through beau­ti­ful Welsh hills and not-so-beau­ti­ful Welsh dual car­riage­way into noth­ing more than mi­nus­cule pho­to­graphic snip­pets.

In­stead this is a story about at­tempts; about hope, un­cer­tainty, ex­pec­ta­tion, ela­tion, dis­ap­point­ment, and the hon­est thrill of giv­ing some­thing a go. Al­though none of these seemed par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant on the small hill on the A40 in the vil­lage of Bwlch, one of those few vivid snip­pets of mem­ory that I hope — when old age and se­nil­ity comes around — will be one of the first to go.

Bwlch was very near the fin­ish of my Bre­con Bea­cons cir­cuit, a loop es­tab­lished two years ago by the Road Records As­so­ci­a­tion (RRA) like a worm on a hook to lure out rid­ers and re­verse a re­cent de­cline in record at­tempts. I was the first to take the bait.

The RRA is a Bri­tish cy­cling in­sti­tu­tion. It is the cus­to­dian of Bri­tain’s road rid­ing records, the most fa­mous of which is Land’s End to John o’ Groats. Its record books are packed with other pres­ti­gious ti­tles like London to Ed­in­burgh, Pem­broke to Great Yar­mouth and London to Bath and back, and the names on its roll of hon­our in­clude Gethin But­ler, Eileen Sheri­dan, John Wood­burn, Ralph Dadswell and now Mike Broad­with, who broke the End to End record just a few days be­fore my at­tempt in Wales.

Broad­with rode for al­most two days through thun­der­storms and neck pain; my at­tempt, at 104 miles (more on that miss­ing mile later), was the short­est of the cir­cuits avail­able to choose from. I had to set a stan­dard time of four hours and 55 min­utes.

A few weeks be­fore my at­tempt I had sought the ad­vice of the good doc­tor of time tri­alling whose name and pho­to­shopped mugshot will be fa­mil­iar to read­ers of this mag­a­zine. Dr Hutch’s ad­vice was to ride it on ‘feel’. Well ac­tu­ally, his ad­vice was to ride it on power but since I had never used a power me­ter I had bet­ter stick to feel, he said.

“Hun­dred-mile TTS are quite dif­fi­cult if you’re do­ing them flat out,” he added, be­fore wish­ing me good luck and telling me he was about to go on hol­i­day.

One thing about rid­ing on feel is that you be­come very at­tuned to your body’s sen­sa­tions. And I felt aw­ful. For pretty much all of it. Es­pe­cially in Bwlch. Cy­clists are used to deal­ing with pain from sprint­ing up a hill, or rac­ing a 10mile TT. But there’s a dif­fer­ent type of pro­found dis­com­fort re­served for those lit­tle hills that you have to tackle after five hours of hard rid­ing. It’s what pro rid­ers are get­ting at when they talk about ‘go­ing deep’: hold­ing your hand in the fire and see­ing how long you can keep it there. Your back, arms, shoul­ders, lungs and en­tire essence feel like they are slowly

“I rode on feel. I felt aw­ful for pretty much all of it”

be­ing picked apart on a molec­u­lar level.

In an in­ter­view not so long ago, Gary Kemp — the half of the Span­dau Bal­let twins who got into cy­cling not Easten­ders — reck­oned that there is a cer­tain mu­si­cal­ity to cy­cling. How cer­tain riffs and cer­tain tunes ro­tate in your grey mat­ter as you ride along. Well it turns out I had an early 90s rave track by The Prodigy on per­ma­nent loop for 303 min­utes, which I sus­pect is what se­cret

po­lice use to ex­tract valu­able in­for­ma­tion from cap­tives.

This is de rigueur for a record at­tempt too: the men­tal an­guish to com­pound the phys­i­cal dis­com­fort. That’s why I wasn’t look­ing at my aver­age speed, based on an­other piece of ad­vice from Glenn Long­land, a man who has five RRA records to his name and dozens more ac­co­lades in the world of time tri­alling, most no­tably be­com­ing the first to aver­age over 25mph for 12 hours.

“You’ve just got to go out and ride it.”

The power of flat­tery

To ex­plain why I found my­self go­ing out and rid­ing it in the first place, we have to go back to a phone call from CW’S fea­tures editor tempt­ing me to give it a go. “It’s an aver­age of around 20mph,” he said. “That’s be­yond me but it sounds like some­thing you can do.”

It sounded like some­thing I could do: 20mph for 100 miles or so. And flat­tery will get you ev­ery­where.

The RRA had a rec­om­mended start point out­side Bre­con, a layby along­side a pub car park, which seemed as good as any. From the Old Ford Inn in Llan­ham­lach we would head west on the A40, turn south over the Black Moun­tain Pass, re­turn north-east via the Head of the Val­leys road, cut­ting the cor­ner to avoid Aber­gavenny and head­ing back to the pub for drinks and pork scratch­ings. Easy.

The only prob­lem was this: with no pre­vi­ous at­tempts, the RRA had set a stan­dard time to beat that was low enough to en­sure that the first name on the board would be be­fit­ting of the RRA, but not too low as to dis­cour­age at­tempts. In real­ity it meant an aver­age of 21.8mph, not 20mph. And given words like ‘moun­tain pass’ and ‘valley’, it wasn’t a sur­prise to see that there was over 2,100m of as­cent to cover too.

Blown by the wind

Snip­pet num­ber two: the A465 out­side Neath, a road which will be fa­mil­iar to time tri­al­lists who head to South Wales to race. Time tri­alling is per­fect for this road: the only kind of ride you want to do on it is one where you are aim­ing to fin­ish and get off it as quickly as pos­si­ble.

When con­di­tions are good, this is a record-break­ing place. There’s a slight de­scent that sends you down the valley and, in most in­stances, a roar­ing west­erly off the Bris­tol Chan­nel to blow you back up again. This is where Marcin Bi­ałobłocki clocked 42-58 for 25 miles in May this year, av­er­ag­ing 34.9mph.

How­ever, on my cho­sen day in mid-june, the un­sea­son­able Welsh sun­shine brought with it an un­usual northerly wind. It was a cross­wind most of the time, turn­ing to a tail­wind when a lorry would thun­der by, and then a head­wind shortly after.

“Time tri­alling is per­fect for this road: you’re aim­ing to get off it very quickly”

In some re­spects, a record at­tempt like this is a very long-dis­tance sport­ing course time trial. There are hills, twists, turns and pot­holes to test the full spec­trum of a rider’s abil­ity. But it is also so much more than that. Rather than turn­ing up and rid­ing an ‘off-thepeg’ CTT event, in this case you take re­spon­si­bil­ity for ev­ery el­e­ment of your ride. Choos­ing a day, plot­ting your route, and work­ing out pac­ing, nutri­tion and equip­ment is a lot to think about.

There are then the stip­u­la­tions of the RRA, which are there to guar­an­tee the safety and au­then­tic­ity of the ride. A fol­low­ing car, with RRA signs and a flash­ing light, is re­quired. You must sub­mit an en­try form with a route and sched­ule, which means pre­dict­ing your aver­age speeds and cal­cu­lat­ing your ap­prox­i­mate ar­rival times at cer­tain points on the course. Feeds can be from the side of the road and must be static (no hand­ing up of bot­tles from a mov­ing ve­hi­cle) and any­one in­volved in the at­tempt, which in our case in­cluded a mag­a­zine pho­tog­ra­pher, must have an of­fi­cial ob­server to en­sure that there is no il­le­gal as­sis­tance or gen­eral skul­dug­gery.

This is where Ian and Brid­get Boon, and their friend Brian Grif­fiths, come in. They are shin­ing ex­am­ples of the vol­un­teers on which the sport of cy­cling de­pends. Ian would be driv­ing the fol­low­ing car (his blue van) and hand­ing up bot­tles at pre-ar­ranged points. Brian would be up front with him, ob­serv­ing, keep­ing time and mix­ing me some en­ergy drinks. Mean­while Brid­get would be rid­ing with Chris, the pho­tog­ra­pher, to keep time.

While a cir­cuit ride like mine is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward to or­gan­ise in

com­par­i­son to a longer dis­tance, pointto-point record at­tempt, it rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment of time and ef­fort.

My sup­port crew had in fact only just got back from Scot­land and Mike Broad­with’s End to End, their first ex­pe­ri­ence of vol­un­teer­ing for the RRA and a very spe­cial thing to be a part of.

“One van turned around and went straight back to London,” Brid­get re­called of the end of Broad­with’s ride. “The rest of us stopped in In­ver­ness, found a ho­tel, had break­fast, got a bit of sleep, then went and had a curry.”

The RRA’S records are Bri­tain’s equiv­a­lent of Bordeaux-paris, Paris­brest-paris and, ul­ti­mately, stuff like Paris-roubaix. How­ever, our historic point-to-point routes were de­nied the road rac­ing her­itage of those on the con­ti­nent thanks to the ban­ning of road rac­ing for a large part of the early 20th cen­tury. As a re­sult we got our TT cul­ture, and our place-to-place rides re­main fairly low-key, solo ven­tures. To­day ‘PBP’ and Bordeaux-paris bask in their glam­orous past as mod­ern-day Au­dax events at­tract­ing thou­sands, yet records like Liver­pool to Ed­in­burgh

“We’re all World­tour pros ham­strung by busy sched­ules and Sun­day lunches”

or London to Pem­broke are al­most for­got­ten. Record-break­ing End to Ends are achieved by maths teach­ers and cul­mi­nate in a curry in In­ver­ness.

This is not to be snide. Quite the op­po­site: this is their charm. Flasks of tea, sto­ries shared, friends made. But it means that, with a lit­tle bit of ef­fort, dis­tinctly aver­age cy­clists like me have the chance to be part of it and in­scribe their name along­side some of the big­gest and great­est names in Bri­tish cy­cle sport.

Ex­cuses, ex­cuses

Un­til you get to those very good cy­clists — who are so good at cy­cling that they don’t have to make any ex­cuses and are there­fore not very good at it — cy­clists like you and me are pretty good at mak­ing ex­cuses.

Those wheels? Could have saved 30 sec­onds. New skin­suit? A minute. Ba­si­cally, we’re all World­tour pros who are just ham­strung by our equip­ment, busy sched­ules and Sun­day lunches.

When you ac­tu­ally have a record to reach, those ex­cuses just mul­ti­ply. How long was I stopped at those tem­po­rary traf­fic lights? How much was I held up by that Kia Pi­canto? What about when I slowed down to avoid rid­ing into a sheep with enough ki­netic en­ergy to turn us into a pul­verised cloud of wool and car­bon-fi­bre.

For my ride, the ul­ti­mate ex­cuse came in the form of the road­works on the A465 between Bryn­mawr and Aber­gavenny, an enor­mous gorge-widen­ing scheme that has tem­po­rar­ily banned cy­clists from the very road I had been ob­li­gated to ride. What’s more, it was a fast A-road of about five miles, all of which were down­hill.

Re­search be­fore­hand had alerted me to the road­works and I had plot­ted a di­ver­sion and OK’D it with the RRA; a drive around the course the pre­vi­ous day in­formed me that the cy­clist ban ex­tended fur­ther than I thought and it meant an ad­di­tional, im­promptu di­ver­sion through a town cen­tre, some more traf­fic lights, and up some more steep hills.

So, the record? The RRA con­vened, dis­cussed the rel­a­tive mer­its of my ride, and de­cided that the time lost to those late diversions and an ad­di­tional mile of rid­ing on slower roads meant my time (though over eight min­utes longer than the stan­dard) qual­i­fied for the record.

We broke it. Five hours, three min­utes and 47 sec­onds. The pork scratch­ings had to wait — I passed out for a few min­utes after cross­ing the line and the pub was closed, though we did even­tu­ally find some­where for a cup of tea.

But it’s not about that. It’s about putting your­self out there, the chal­lenge of step­ping up, hav­ing a go. The RRA is do­ing just that with its own at­tempt to rein­vig­o­rate a Bri­tish cy­cling in­sti­tu­tion. Its records are still worth at­tempt­ing and they are still worth break­ing. As Broad­with proved ear­lier this year, ev­ery one of them is un­break­able un­til some­one breaks it. So have a go. What’s your ex­cuse not to?

Rolling moun­tains hint at a pun­ish­ing par­cours

Richard read­ies the steed for his Bre­cons record bid

Mak­ing things of­fi­cial!

It’s a labour of love for RRA mem­bers

A brief respite, stretch­ing aches ac­crued from the aero tuck

As­sum­ing the po­si­tion, rid­ing in earnest for the record

A-roads opened up the op­por­tu­nity to put down some record-sav­ing power

Time­keep­ers: stealthy, stopwatch-bran­dish­ing stal­warts

The orig­i­nal cir­cuit was in­ter­rupted by road­works An un­planned de­tour took Richard into the hus­tle and bus­tle of a town — re­plete with recordthreat­en­ing red lights

High up on the Bea­cons and the ef­fort re­mains un­remit­ting

Sweaty di­shevel­ment: the hall­mark of a hard day’s toil

Pork scratch­ings and a pint beckon for this record breaker

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