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The brief respite afforded by the ferry had made little difference to our physical condition. The coffee had perked things up but I knew that the next 80 miles would be tough, bodies would start to ache more and more and the lack of sleep had the potential to cause an accident. I couldn’t imagine how difficult this would be without the support crew; thank goodness they were still alert and willing to help with the mundane tasks that mental fatigue make difficult.
We rolled off the ferry to be greeted by Phil’s cousin, Fiona, she lived nearby and had made the effort to meet us with flapjack and biscuits. It was nice to see a friendly face and also provided an opportunity to grab a picture of us with a ferry in the background. This was posted to Face Book quickly.
We rolled quietly out of the terminal; it was 11pm with few people about. A couple made mention of how bright our lights seemed, this was comforting given the worry of cycling overnight. Jamie and Simon had remained on the mainland with the van waiting for us to return for the homeward leg. They had become increasingly worried about navigating at night via very minor roads and had spent the afternoon Googling a better, simpler route. The plan led us through New Milton to pick up the A338 at Ringwood; the new route ensured we followed A type roads that presumably had some decent lighting. It was the simple option to avoid getting lost. I hoped that the traffic would be minimal given the time of night but still couldn’t help thinking that a tired driver might just take a corner a little too fast…..
We made good time for the first 50 miles, stopping occasionally to top up on food or drink. The temperature was reasonable but stopping in shady lay-bys soon led to discernible heat loss; some of these places had an ethereal feel to them in the full moon light. I had to remind myself to speak quietly in residential areas. Phil had been troubled by a painful left knee for the first 5 miles or so, he pushed through the uncomfortable period and eventually things settled down. I knew he was worried about a ride-threatening injury occurring; it was little comfort to know that an injured rider could see the trip out in the van, ultimately that was failure.
Jamie and Simon were also starting to feel the effects of being awake for so long as they concentrated on route finding. They would get out of the van at each stop to sort the riders out, swapping their warm cab for the chilly night air. They were stopping at every junction and indicating the route, ensuring we kept to the plan. Reaching the A338 at Ringwood was a relief, there was little chance now that we would lose our way and this was definitely the homeward leg.
We pulled up around 35 miles from home to take 10 minutes rest. The pace had dropped, each of us feeling the 215 miles already in the bag. Despite pork pies and ginger cake, my mood was low and my body was complaining, the next 35 miles would be difficult but there was no question of giving up. Phil had worked hard to put this challenge together for a very personal cause; I knew we would get the job done regardless of the discomfort. My neck was the single biggest issue for me, turning to look behind was painful and restricted, I just had to keep stretching it at every opportunity.
‘I don’t want to cycle with you two ***** anymore,’ I said, smiling.
‘But it’s not 2am yet, it’s only 1.45am,’ said Phil and we all laughed. The remembered prophecy of 20 odd hours ago raised our mood a little.
‘I don’t care; I’ll still feel the same in 15 minutes.’ This trip demanded a good sense of humour.
We left the A338 briefly and found ourselves on a single track road presumably used by farmers. The full moon revealed the surrounding fields and made silhouettes of the trees; I felt as if we were disturbing things by being here at this time of night. We met two lads walking in the opposite direction, saying hello as we rode past. Nothing too out of the ordinary other than it was 3am.
The van waited for us where the track re-joined the A338, Hungerford wasn’t that far away but turning the pedals was becoming more and more difficult. Mark had almost fallen asleep as he was riding; this was a reminder to us that there were many things that could ruin our chances of completing the ride. I made a decision to stop eating on the move because the risk of falling off was becoming more real.
Personally, I felt there was one last big obstacle, the climb out of Hungerford. This had been playing on my mind since Lymington and was becoming more of a concern as we coasted down the hill through Hungerford town centre; the place was completely silent. We indicated left towards Wantage, what for I have no idea because there was no traffic about to show our manoeuvring intentions to. The hill began.
I had blown the climb out of all proportion, whether this was due to fatigue or fear of failing I do not know but we got to the top without incident. The pace was very slow now as we rolled into the lay-by just before the M4 junction with the A338 for a 5 minute break before starting the last, lumpy 12 miles.
Phil’s head rested on his handle bars, he was drawing on deeply buried energy reserves that would need a whole crèche of Jelly Babies to replace; a cycling staple of Phil’s. It was getting more and more difficult to force food down; I’d had enough of sweet stuff but knew that it would be cycling suicide if I didn’t continue to put energy into a failing system. I was stood clutching my empty drinks bottle but doing nothing.
What’s up mate? Here, let me have it,’ said Simon. He took the top off and refilled it. That simple task was beyond me, the thought of stepping up into the van was just impossible; once again, the support crew took care of us.
Mark was quiet; I knew he was probably hurting like the rest of us but he was dealing with it in his own way. Despite our physical states, I didn’t hear one word of complaint, the finish was within sniffing distance now and no one was giving up.
Let’s get this done then,’ said Phil.
It was a struggle to get back on to the saddle. I wobbled off up the road and under the M4, not really caring if a 38 ton truck was coming off the North bound carriage way at speed or not, I didn’t have the energy to look up so it was academic anyway.
We had a short climb before enjoying the long downhill stretch into Great Shefford. The pace had improved a bit, possibly a combination of the food stop and the finish being within grasping distance. A few inclines came and went but I didn’t really have any clue as to where we were, I just kept ticking down the miles in my head, trying to be conservative in my estimates. The moonlight and rapidly approaching dawn gave a strange quality to the landscape; all I could see were my handle bars and front wheel.
The last shallow climb loomed and brought us to the top of Manor Road above Wantage, I couldn’t remember passing the monument at Fawley but it was somewhere behind us. We pulled in to the lay-by next to the van to cover a few check list items. This was the last bit, only downhill now to the finish. We reminded each other to keep the speed in check to avoid a crash; Mark set up his Go-Pro to film the arrival in the town square. It was time to complete what we had started.
The descent was without issue, we regrouped again at the bottom with Simon and Jamie. They made sure all was well and then headed off to the square to let people know we were close. The silence was absolute once the van had gone; we set off for the last time but a little less conscious of the aches and pains. The last 11 miles had been sketchy but I could not recall anything of cycling past the familiar sites of Manor Road, I suddenly became alert as we passed Church Street. We avoided the post truck coming out of the square and then formed a row of 3 riders to take the finish tape together.
A surprising number of people had gathered to welcome us home. There was a Champaign finish provided by Jason, friends and family were cheering (including Adam and Harriet); we even had a ‘well done’ from the market traders who were setting up for the day. I have never been so happy to get off a bike before. I knew that Brian was up to speed on our progress and finish via Face Book, although he wasn’t at the finish line in person I know he was there in spirit as a part of our team.
We’d done what we had set out to achieve in 24 hours and 50 minutes, all 243 miles of it. It was a massive achievement of which we are all proud. It was just as good as completing Land’s End to John O’Groats but in a different way. Regardless of that, the tears were the same. Same time next year chaps?
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