GBDuro: The Racing Low-down
Last week our own cycling enthusiasts Richard Norgate and journalist Tom Hill packed up The Landrover (bikes an' all) and headed off to follow the cyclists (including PMRR's own Vic Peel) on their GBDuro adventure. Strap yourselves in, get yourself a cup of tea and check out their reflections on the journey so far below:
“Six flapjacks, two wraps, two Red Bulls, two packets of crisps. A couple of the big bars of Dairy Milk. A bottle of chocolate milk. Nine cereal bars, loads of Lucozade.”
It is Wednesday afternoon and Angus Young is sitting in the Garrigill Community Hall, devouring a bowl of soup and most of a loaf of bread, while trying to recall what he has consumed in the thirty hours since he started Stage 2 of the GBDURO. The list might seem a little excessive until you realise that food provided him with the energy to ride non-stop from Machynlleth in mid-Wales to the Cumbrian village that marks the second pausing point for this epic event.
The GBDURO is in its third year of running. It is a self-supported bikepacking race starting in Lands End and finishing in John O Groats, taking a mostly off-road route from the most southerly to the most northerly points of the UK. While in previous years riders could ride straight through checkpoints, this year they are held and set off together at a certain time; their cumulative times for each stage added up at the end of the race.
To the outsider, riding the length of the country is already a remarkable feat of endurance. This is magnified even further when you realise that the riders truly are self-supported. They ride with purpose-made luggage strapped to their bikes, carrying that all important food, clothing for all weathers and a sleeping bag and shelter. There is no support truck, no feed station (although riders can use shops en route to resupply). If the bike breaks, they must fix it themselves, or limp to a public bikeshop.
On the trail, riders are – for the most part – alone. It is a true solo endeavour as they battle through the hard times and savour the moments of pure joy. Reaching the checkpoint, the dynamic changes slightly. An oasis in the middle of the desert, it offers a shower, warmth, shelter and, maybe more importantly, company. CP2 is run by husband and wife James and Cerri, who stepped in at the last minute after the original volunteers had to drop out. Both are familiar with riding a long way (James recently rode the equally epic Great British Divide). Both understand the power of a smile and a warm mug of tea when you are exhausted. It is people like Ceri and James who keep amateur sport going. They are the Park Run volunteers, the childrens football coaches, the audax organisers and fell race planners. They take as much pleasure out of helping other people compete as they do themselves. And so they will make mugs of tea, cook huge vats of chilli and listen to tales of woe and glory until 8am on Friday, when the riders set off northwards; their next target Fort Augustus, around 500km away.
It’s a few hours before they are called to work again. Next in is Mark Beaumont. The record holder for cycling around the world recounts the descent off Great Dun Fell (one of the most technically challenging parts of the course… riding downhill isn’t always easy) while eating. The checkpoints are a unique opportunity for racers to compare notes; one that isn’t typically afforded in a non-stop event of this nature. It is a scene that is repeated over and over. There is no hint of competitiveness in their conversations. Just mutual respect and a genuine interest in how someone else found the experience. Some are left harrowed by the climbs and descents of the Dales, others were thankful after the monotony of the flat roads through Cheshire. All have had highs and lows. Exhaustion and second winds. The Guinness Book of Records Holder, talks to the chemistry teacher, who talks to the accountant and the architect, who chats to the electrical engineer.
An hour or two later, Carl Hopps arrives long after the sun has set, then first placed woman, Jaimi Wilson around 01:00 and a couple more riders in the early hours of the morning. It pays to push through and forgo sleep when you know you can recover a little before the next stage.
The following day, the steady trickle of racers is matched by almost as many notifications of “scratches”: riders pulling the plug on their attempts. For some, injuries call a premature end to their efforts. For others it’s a bike mechanical that is too severe to repair or ignore. It’s hardly surprising when you consider Garrigill is over 1000km into the course. You or I might expect to cover that distance in a month (or even longer) or “normal” riding. For others, there maybe isn’t a single reason for quitting other than they can’t quite mentally face continuing. The looming dread of days (and nights) of sleep deprivation, of physical exertion can play on your mind. Small niggles wear you down over time. Frustrations with your pace become all-consuming. Lands End to John O Groats is a long time to be in your own head.
Once again, there’s no competitive joy at hearing another racer has scratched. Those who have made it to the checkpoint repeatedly refresh the tracking app (each racer carries a GPS tracker that allows the organisers and public to see where they are on course) willing the next rider along the route. Almost all of them have scratched from similar races in the past. There is so much potential for things to go wrong, it’s almost inevitable if you do enough of them. Even race leader Angus scratched from the previous year's edition.
Steep learning curve:
One rider who has never scratched from a bikepacking event is Vic Peel. That’s because she has never done one before. The Paria Magic Rock Racing supported rider hadn’t even bikepacked before this year. She rolls into CP2 around mid-afternoon Thursday. Like most of the racers, her legs are covered in small scratches and bruises left by undergrowth, bouncing rocks and even just climbing on and off a heavily loaded bike over and over again. But, were it not for a couple of those telltale clues, there is little to suggest that she isn’t just returning from a short spin around hills above her Barnoldswick home. We chat for a while and she is taking everything in her stride, riding conservatively, using a strategy of long days followed by an easier one to reach each checkpoint. There have been moments of doubt – like puncturing as the route passed not far from her mum’s house near Skipton – but she’s dealt with them and carried on. “I had a happy cry there”.
The inside of the community hall has developed a distinctive, er, odour. Wet kit is hung over every available radiator or handle. Some riders find a quiet corner and catch up on sleep. Others are too wired to rest, the contrast of the relative busyness of the hall jarring against the silence of the moors. Instead, they concentrate on preparing for the next stage, rinsing the worst of the mud off their bikes, checking them over, replacing brake pads and lubing chains.
I grab snatches of conversations as I sit and listen.
“The main part of McDonalds was closed, so I rode up to the drive-thru. They refused to take my order. They said it was against health and safety. I asked them to talk me through that but they wouldn’t budge”
“I had a happy cry there”
“This has been the first time since Covid that I feel like I’ve truly had my own headspace”
“I was riding through Manchester and this group shouted down my name from a balcony!”
Bikepacking races are far from your traditional spectator sport. But, the advent of GPS trackers has led to the phenomenon of dotwatching. Now anyone can follow the progress of the riders online, watching small dots move along an imaginary line along the map. I can personally vouch for how absorbing it becomes. It reminds me of waiting for live rugby scores to come through via Ceefax (I admit this is showing my age a little). By stripping away so much of the information relating to the situation it almost enhances the tension. Why has the rider not moved for an hour? Are they okay? Zoom in, and find the dot just outside a Tesco Express and breathe a sigh of relief. Watch slow-speed cat and mouse antics played out over days. It’s unlikely to replace Match of the Day anytime soon, but the beauty of these races is they aren’t played in stadiums. Any of us can stand at the side of the road or trail and watch the riders pass. And that's what hundreds of people have done; some fortunate enough to have the route pass their house, others riding out into the hills to offer riders moral support.
A few dotwatchers arrive on Friday morning to watch the 08:00 depart. They actually arrive in time to see the last rider make the cut off (later riders are allowed to continue, but they are not included in the official finishers list). Leslie Brown arrives at 07:23, having bivvied for a few hours the night before.
There is little ceremony as the clock ticks past 07:59. In fact, most riders are still making last minute adjustments; tightening straps, shoving a last scrap of food in their mouth. There feels like little point in rushing when you will be on your bike for the foreseeable future. Shortly after, a handful begin to roll down the road and by ten past nearly every rider is on their way.
Back inside, the community hall is all but silent. James washes up the last of the breakfast dishes. The GBDURO train has moved on...
In the few days since, many riders are already well on their way into CP4 (the final stage) with the finish line rapidly closing in for many. Congratulations to Mark Beaumont for taking the GBDuro title, an amazing achievement! We would also like to shout out Angus for a stellar ride, despite the bad luck and overall result. Vic is still moving strong and started CP4 at 07:54 on (Mon) morning. Vic is still in high spirits despite a tough route, biblical conditions and 1580km ridden so far! She is fast approaching the finish with less than 100km to go, What an unbelievable ride! Good luck to all the riders on their last push to John O Groats.