West of Wales to east of England
8.30am. Whitesands Bay, St Davids. James.
Bicycle and man stand expectant on the beach. In the bay, the sea builds and curls, crashing and frothing as wind patterns the surface. Gannets circle then drop like arrows, tucking their wings tight in a torpedo-dive. Waves surge up the sand and fizz in retreat. A ceremonial baptism for rear wheel; feet suffer the same fate. The sky hangs heavy with clouds, a grey mass over the powerful sea.
Ahead is 400 miles of non-stop riding and a team of five each ready to take the baton. The opposite coast is the finish line; we will ride until we can ride no further. Luck wished, coat zipped, feet clipped. The road leads sharply upwards from the shore, instantly swallowed by the hills, the cogs of the challenge set in motion as the sea continues its slow crash against the shore.
The hills are many, and vicious. Brakes scream and judder on descents, lungs heave on climbs, the cool spring air crystallising in dizzying gasps. Pembrokeshire is a relentless series of peaks and troughs, a slow sprint through a serrated landscape of gorse, sheep and surf. There was talk of a tailwind but no such luck. Coastal view brings coastal breeze. Tarmac unfolds over each peak and round each winding descent. As the route heads inland, roar of traffic replaces pounding of sea. Hours have passed since the ceremonial departure, each mile feeling longer and harder as time marches on. Legs and lungs at tether’s end on the roll into Camarthen, exhausted, relieved, starving.
1.30pm, Carmarthen. Anna.
The hills roll like punches, hard-graft ascents followed by long freewheeling downs. Behind walls of grey stone, sheep bleat, heads raised as rider approaches, a clumsy jolt and a trot as this menace flashes by, a bump into their neighbour, then a lazy return to grazing. At the foot of the hills lies the river valley, a sharp scoop of rock gouged from its surroundings. Above it all the buzzards circle.
Castles are commonplace; that at Kidwelly passes without ceremony, and after the thick green of Pembrey Forest the hills peter out as the river finally reaches the estuary. An abandoned railway track allows easy passage as the view opens up: wide river melting into sea, with the spine-backed Gower resting across the water like a sleeping dragon. The mud flats extend for miles, shining with swirls of the sea. Wading birds crowd at water’s edge. The railway is built upon land reclaimed from industry; the docks, the shunting lines, the dirt all gone, the once-poisoned coast unrecognisable now. Pristine apartment complexes grow incongruously from the wasteland.
It’s a slow climb from Llanelli into the Swansea suburbs. Rain drops begin their patter near the summit; waterproofs are quickly pulled on, the sharp descent into Swansea coinciding with the heavens opening.
4pm. Swansea. Lenny.
The rain falls with a vengeance. Drops bounce from pavements as gutters swirl with rivulets that stampede down the carriageway. Tyres throw water into the air, spatterings of spray marking the passage of car and bicycle. Arms and thighs take the hit, slowly growing soggy as water seeps through overwhelmed waterproofs. Feet and shoulders sit heavy under water’s weight and droplets form on helmet tip. To stop moving is to freeze. Warmth is guaranteed only with continued motion.
From manicured harbour-fronts to the grinding industry of Port Talbot, NCN 4 weaves away from the city towards quieter roads. Into Parc Slip the route switches from tarmac to trail; mud sucks at tyres, slurping in the bog. This would have been lovely in the sunshine but now, with haze masking the landscape, water flicking into eyes, body struggling against cold, the rain saps at the spirits. Dusk descends early, a dreariness precipitated by the weather. Vehicle headlights beam through drumming rain as the route reaches the Cardiff suburbs, then it’s down to the Taff for the final stretch, following the rushing river towards the station. There is the team; the baton is passed by numb hands, soon after to be coaxed back to life in a long, hot shower.
8pm. Cardiff. Andy.
The city roars with commuter traffic and folk spill from the station. A group on a night out hurries past, squealing as stilettos splash through puddles, huddling under one umbrella. It’s a fight to leave, the movement contrary to all others. The city remains loud, overwhelming, dampened by the incessant rain. Ahead are four hours of riding into the growing night. Motivation is called into question.
Away from the city, rain and traffic eases. Darkness descends. Time and place become immaterial: what matters only is now. Wheels whirr over tarmac; legs move like pistons. The countryside between cities is eerily quiet. In the distance the red lights of the bridges come into view, a magnificent duo of construction spanning the water between Wales and England. The lights speak as a guide, drawing rider ever closer. On the approach ramp to the bridge, the suspension cables rise ghostly white into the darkened sky. It is strangely quiet of cars as the day marches into the night. A lone runner passes. Below, the water swirls, black as pitch, hypnotic, languid, deathly. Thoughts of falling, that improbable yet strangely tantalising scenario of bicycle and rider spiralling from the bridge. If it were to happen, no one would know. A brief pause, a glance, then a slow freewheel away from the bridge. The Gloucestershire flats bring a return to perspective, the scale of the surroundings normal once more, the ground solid.
Midnight. Thornbury. James.
Back at the helm for the graveyard shift, the only one that will both start and end in total darkness. Groggy from snatches of sleep in the car. The Cotswolds are at once expansive and oppressive, the darkness almost tangible, the utter nothingness of the midnight hour setting the senses on edge. Phantoms creep at the edge of restricted sight, breaths sound cacophonous in the vast emptiness. Hills rise without warning, the darkness swallowing each clue as to the terrain. The headlight beam stretches ahead, carving out a narrow cone, illuminating dipping branches of trees, sudden potholes and road signs that glare back. Moths stray into the chilly beam. A vehicle approaches, lights blinding with a quick overwhelming white, then passes to leave a steadily fading tattoo on the retina. In the villages all are asleep. It’s a translucent beauty when one is not quite able to see; a suggestion of countryside stretches into the blackness. Silent but for the owls, still but for the fox. The dark is deep and absolute. And in the silence, in the calm, there is a strange sense of freedom.
Senses are jolted as the front light fails. Blackness pounces like a monster. Pannier fumble, phone locate, support car call. The remainder of the ride will be in convoy, the engine purr bringing an end to the dream-like state. A while later the front brake snaps and the remaining miles are ridden carefully, a cable tie holding the parts in temporary place. The lights of Cirencester beckon, a town asleep but for the stumbling revellers of the night before. Waiting beneath garish street lamps for the changeover, the panic has been replaced by calm relief. The worst happened. We are still going.
3am. Cirencester. Anna.
Lights from the town fade to nothing on the exit from Cirencester. The road seems to vanish as if into a tunnel, the countryside ahead completely devoid of light. Haze blurs the periphery; a cool dampness hits the lungs. Miles pass beneath wheels on fast, flat roads. Here at last is the tailwind. In a matter of hours this route will pour with commuters but now, it is shared only with the night creatures. Taking a brief pause, with air no longer rushing in ears, there is the faintly discernible screech of an owl. Later, resting on a darkened village bench sipping tea, a late-night police patrol stops to investigate. Witching-hour riders are a strange lot.
Dawn happens both all of a sudden and creepingly unnoticeably. The first suggestions of light are so faint they could be the reflected lamps of a distant town. Blacks become greys, the road flanked by the faint suggestion of fields and trees. Banners of brightness flutter on the horizon, absorbing the dark, colours becoming distinguishable: yellows, blues, pinks. By 5am the sky is light, the birds shouting with overwhelming energy. It’s a transition few see, the daily miracle of night morphing into day, the passing-on of absolute nothingness. The vibrancy unleashed by daybreak pulses through the air: the world is alive. Tired but emboldened, all that is left is to freewheel into sleepy Oxford, an eye-witness to the making of a new day.
6am. Oxford. Will.
Oxford appears as a ghost town at this hour, the only people wandering amongst its sandy buildings the early morning workers. Another cyclist approaches, a young lad, headphones on, singing at the top of his voice. It’s impossible not to smile. Once beyond the city limits there are few vehicles: on these country lanes, only the wind moves past. There is significance in riding between the two prestigious university towns, to be following a route along which ghost trains of the Varsity Line clatter. It’s calm and cool, with only a whisper of yesterday’s rain, the tailwind a gentle but decisive hand.
The route crosses into roads familiar from past racing circuits and suddenly this is another day and another ride, being carried along in a bunch sprint, watching the breakaway lurch forward, mind whirring with tactics of whether to give chase or sit tight and wait for someone else to make the move. Rhythmic, controlled breaths, the slow build of lactic acid in the legs providing focus as wheels and pedals continue their furious spin.
Back in the present, the mileometer ticks over to 100; there is life in the legs yet, and the approach to Cambridge is cloaked in satisfaction for having the independence and fitness to cover such distances.
Midday. Cambridge. James.
The day is young but the challenge is old: we have been riding solidly since yesterday morning. Body and mind are fatigued with the effort and lack of sleep. Routine is well-worn: ride, baton-pass, rest, refuel, support-car drive, change, fuel, get on it again. Cycling is now along main roads: the picturesque is done. The coast cannot come quickly enough.
3.30pm. Botesdale. Anna.
The final baton-pass, the last push. The Suffolk flats roll fast on the dual carriageway. In a sleep-deprived state a turn is missed: a five mile detour summons tears of exhaustion and frustration. Re-fuel, recover, resume. The roads pass through tunnels of trees, the air warm, the terrain kind. The sprint to the finish line begins.
Desperate for the inevitable descent to the water, the legs grow heavy. The flattening land brings a sense of the coast, the suggestion of sea floating beyond the horizon. On the approach to Lowestoft, a cyclist is waiting by the verge. James! The final miles are ridden as a duo. Across the Broads at last, fatigued, pained, willing the road to end, wondering if it will ever descend, then it does, sharply, to the docks, and there it is, the sea.
8pm. Lowestoft. Anna and James.
Sea crashes dull and grey against dull, grey breakwater. The tidal defences sit stacked against the concrete, unfazed by the strength of the waves. A dial announces the corners of the UK, highlighting this, the most easterly point of mainland Britain. Out at sea wind turbines spin. There is no beach, no ramp on which to wet our wheels, so we make do with gazing out to the horizon, grey with mist. The light begins to fade. We clench hands triumphantly to the sky. West to east; sea to sea; shore to shore. The ride is complete.