I love a good Strava challenge. I like the monthly Fondo and Monthly Training Series things and the ‘stupid little badge’ and so on. I know Strava winds a load of people up but I like it. I like the gamification and social aspects of it and I’ve found it inspiring and get a great deal out of it. I love seeing the big adventures people go on as well as the small improvements people are all making. I don’t sweat about KOMs or anything like that but it’s a great tool for motivating yourself to work a bit harder or drag yourself out before work.
Also, I don’t care what you think.
For the last few years Rapha, in association with Strava, has been doing an event over the Christmas period called the Festive 500. Any cyclist who has a web browser cannot have escaped it in the last few years through the prevalence of the hashtag #festive500 and various media surrounding it.
Since 2010, the Festive 500 has challenged cyclists to ride a total of 500km on the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Once again we invite you to join tens of thousands of riders in testing yourself on the bike over the holidays as part of this growing festive tradition.
2014 was my first full year of riding and recording on Strava. I went from riding 80km per week to 350km fairly comfortably by the end. That was a massive personal achievement for me and also meant I went down a dress size or two. But at the end of it all I felt that I didn’t need to do another challenge, I’d achieved enough. I wanted to spend time with my family who had been so supportive throughout and just relax doing some of the #festering500 instead and #alloutforgout.
This year I felt slightly different. I’d got into longer audax rides and felt more comfortable on the bike. I floated the idea with Emma and she didn’t have a problem with it. I did resolve to try and not be too antisocial about it though and still spend plenty of time with them but get out in the downtime bits of the day where everyone is asleep or watching Coronation Street. It also fitted in with hitting my riding targets for the year and making a nice round number for kms ridden in 2015.
So I made a plan. I listed out all the days available in SimpleNote as I do each month except from the 24th to 31st. I spent time looking at routes and working out where best to go depending on where we were staying at the time and then packed a bag full of all the riding kit I thought I might need.
This was to be the first ride obviously but I was constrained by time. We were due to drive to Bath as well as picking Grandma up in Weston-Super-Mare. I wanted to get a quick 60km in before we left and thought a quick trip to Kent would be good. I have a little pre-work loop I sometimes do but felt confident enough to not plan anything and just take a turn here and then do this bit or maybe that.
It wasn’t too exciting but out to Pilgrims via Beddlestead, along a bit and then back up Brasted hill, which never seems to get any easier. It was incredibly windy and even riding with Will it was hard work. I didn’t have much in the legs but made it round and back for a quick coffee with Will before heading back to Bath for Christmas.
63km / 437km left.
I had hoped to get up early, get out, do 60km and then be there for everyone waking up and getting breakfast. Turns out I couldn’t be bothered. A ride the day before, a long drive, a warm bed and a wet outlook conspired to keep me at home. I was kind of glad I did but still felt a pang of guilt. We enjoyed the day, I had a few beers, a glass of wine and loads and loads of food. I don’t normally drink that much at Christmas as around family and I’ve usually eaten too much. By the time everyone was dozing off on the sofa I found myself wanting to get out and turn the pedals. My jacket felt a little tight around the tummy area after that massive meal. The route I had planned for the morning wasn’t suitable so I just headed into Bath on my old commuting route – it’s down the A4 but it was so quiet it didn’t matter. Into Bath, a quick look at the Cathedral, a look back to Putney Bridge and then back through Batheaston. Getting to my usual turn I decided to take the steeper Bathford Hill. As soon as I turned onto it it started to get significantly darker. No more streetlights and just my dynamo light which was more powerful than I’d seen before on the streets of London. Even so it was pretty isolating at first with a kind of slight feeling of sensory deprivation. I could hear my breathing more than I remember and I don’t think it was just due to the big lunch. I carried on up, past the Kingsdown golf course which was a brilliant flat out descent, again in the pitch black. The corner at the end came up a little quick for my liking but fortunately made it round. Over the roundabout and then turned right at Chapel Plaister and around Wadswick lane. As I came round the corner I caught sight of a flashlight ahead which turned out to be a family out for a walk. They were equally as surprised to see me appear out of the darkness – I bid them a Happy Christmas and carried on. It was still pitch black but then I started to see Melksham and Chippenham glowing on the horizon which lifted the light levels considerably.
Back up Park Lane and home. It was surprisingly warm out and I really didn’t need that winter jacket, even with only a baselayer. It was still windy although not as bad as the previous day. Kit in the wash and back in time to catch up with all the soaps and a celebratory beer.
I’ve been posting a pic of each ride to Facebook from Instagram during the Festive 500. I normally refrain from doing this but thought I would for this. Only one per day but you know, some people offer encouragement there which is nice. And then…
More to life than clocking up miles mate. Go see your family.
Ahh, I knew it would come at some point. That ride was a total of 1hr and 10mins away from my family – all of whom were asleep as far as I could tell. My mother was furious when she saw that! Fortunately she refrained from commenting.
34.4km / 393.6km left.
Although I didn’t manage the super early start I’d hoped for I still managed to get out just before 9am. I did the route I had planned for Christmas day heading out towards Westonbirt and the famous arboretum. I’d completed a similar route with Dad before towards Sherston previously but managed to add a few different fun looking roads when planning it on ridewithgps.com, by far my favourite part was riding the beautifully straight Fosse Way with a tailwind. The Fosse Way is a Roman road stretching from Exeter to Lincoln and large parts of which are still used as B roads today. Much like Pilgrims Way in Kent certain sections are gravel roads or even just bridleways now but the form of the historic way is largely traceable. My route planning failed to take account for this and almost took me on the muddy path it turned into. A quick check of the Garmin and I neatly carved around it. Normally I’d just give it a go but I was time limited and didn’t want to tempt punctures. After that it was an extremely muddy series of lanes which took me further into the Cotswolds, beautiful houses and fancy cars aplenty. I ended up at Westonbirt and realised the road I was intending to take was private and didn’t look like a goer – another route planning error on my part. Never mind, back to the main road to smash it up a bit further to get back on track. I’m getting good at re-planning routes on the hoof now having cocked it up so many times.
It was windy as hell all the time I was out, which was great on the way out, but having made it to the top of the loop it was now time to head back. Ugh, that really was horrid. Facing into hit along rough country lanes with the wind in my face and little shelter was horrid. Not having someone to share the pain with made it even more frustrating. Just try and tuck down, make myself as aero as possible and keep pedalling away.
I was rewarded for my earlier poor route planning decisions with some fantastic country lanes which guided me back towards Colerne and the now somewhat run down RAF base there. Amazingly I’d had so many lovely drivers give me so much space on the lanes that day. People literally throwing their cars or land rovers into the hedge to give me plenty of space. I really couldn’t believe it and greeted each one with a smile and a wave.
Having hit Colerne I knew what was next. A back road which is not for cars / access only which takes you from the valley floor right up to the top of Box Hill in a fairly short and brutal climb. It peaks at about 20% and was also covered in farm muck. Having made it up I wiggled back round the Quarrymans Arms and the lanes and home.
67.5km / 326.1km left.
Again not quite the early start I had planned. After driving from Bath to Cambridge the day before and a big meal and plenty to drink in the pub I finally dragged myself out at around 10.30. It was raining, more was scheduled for the day and there’s a gale blowing. Super. At least it wasn’t too cold.
I’d ridden most of this route before but again had a bit of a play in ridewithgps to see what I could do to remove some of the less pleasant bits I’d done last time. I realised that I was pretty close to the Blue Egg Cafe with my loop so dragged it down a little further on the off chance it was open. I wanted to make it just over 100k to get a good chunk of the distance done and get past that half way point in terms of distance.
You can see how grim it was from the above picture. 10.30 in the morning and barely light with all the cloud and rain. The first hour was horrid. That sinking feeling of, oh god what have I put myself up for. It was fine rain at first. The kind that soaks you through little by little. Sure enough my soft-shell was soaked on the forearms and chest and reducing it’s ability to keep me warm. On goes a rain jacket and try to keep warm. I passed pretty quickly from Cambridgeshire into Essex. The roads were good, drivers were generally considerate and after the first hour of pedalling I’d warmed up and got into a bit of a rhythm.
The scenery was pretty good as the weather cleared slightly. Lots of old farms, oast houses, windmills and water towers. Although it’s pretty flat round there it seems to be rolling countryside which is deceptive. You don’t get a good go at a hill like in Kent or Wiltshire. It’s these long slow rolling climbs which are deceptive in terms of effort required and you don’t really ever seem to get a good flat section to have a break. It would have been nice to stop and admire more of the concrete water towers but I was aware of time away from people and wanted to push on.
I recognised a few places as they were on the Dunwich route. The lovely green and bridge of Great Bradfield was lovely to see in the daylight. Round the corner was the Blue Egg which was sadly closed. I was kind of counting on this but couldn’t find anything on their website or social media saying they were closed. No bother. Had a bar, a glug of water and got back on with it.
The route had been brilliant so far, lots of villages, quiet lanes and not many cars. Of course this had to come to an abrupt end at some point. After successfully navigating around a short section of muddy road I didn’t fancy I found myself on a much longer section that looked like this.
Fuck it. It was a bit warmer, the weather had cleared a bit and I thought it can’t go on for that long can it? I rode through the first one using the logic that the middle of the puddle is the hard surface and would mean I wouldn’t get stuck in the mud. Woo, it’s a deep one. Past the bottom bracket and covering both hubs. Err, keep going, try not to lose too much speed. Cleats are a bit sticky, almost fall in. The sealing on the dynamo hub is pretty good as it’s continued to work since despite being fully submerged.
This went on for ages and finally the ground firmed up and was more rideable and then turned right onto a proper road. I couldn’t help feeling smug about having ridden it and enjoying the stupidity of it all. It’s the kind of thing I’d normally ride on a MTB or CX bike. The bike was completely filthy.
The loop back was a bit easier. A bit of a tail wind and I’d managed to find myself on more lovely quiet country lanes. As I headed further west I passed more cyclists and a club run out on their local loop. After a final detour round the back of the main road and over the railway line I was back on the road towards the pub. I was so filthy I had to strip off most of my kit in the yard, wash myself down and then go for a shower. Food, a tin of coke and a pint of IPA later I felt brilliant. I felt like I’d really achieved something on that ride and was so glad I’d gone out.
113.1km /213km left
A rest day! A trip to Cambridge with Emma and her Mum, a nice lunch in the pub and then a drive back to London. I cycled the pizza bike to meet Richard and Tom and hear about their festive 500 at the Spitalfields Cycle Club which serves beer rather than just the coffee at the Soho one! Tom had already completed his – he’s ten years old. So it gave me an extra incentive to complete it. Sadly my phone didn’t record the ride there but an extra 10km back didn’t do any harm to the overall total. It felt like it was achievable but I really didn’t want the last day to be about getting extra kms in to just nudge it over the 500km mark.
10.6km / 202.4km left.
It felt good to be up nice and early for this one compared to the rest. An RCC ride had been organised to head out to Kent for ‘about 100km’. No route was available and the ride was fully booked. It was being run by Will who I’d emailed the night before to see if it was ok to tag on to. If it was full on the day I wouldn’t go with them and just do my own thing but had a sneaky feeling that not everyone would turn up to a mucky ride round Kent over the Christmas break. My suspicions were correct and we met with a considerably smaller group at Gails in Dulwich. The coffee is considerably better than the thick brown liquid served at Cafe St Germain in Crystal Palace. Off we went, and it was so good to be riding in a group and with wheels to follow as well as not being too worried about directions. That’s someone else’s problem. Plenty of people in the group didn’t have mudguards and the lanes were filthy. I managed to move around the group so that I didn’t have to sit on anyone’s wheel which was spraying up crap. It meant spending a bit more time on the front but a small price to pay for not having a face full of crap.
Whilst thinking about mudguards it struck me that those ass savers are the most selfish thing you can buy if you’re riding in a group. You’re making sure your ass is dry but showering the person behind in crap. Get some proper guards! I also used to think it was just about keeping spray from going up your back and chin but having used them two years in a row they significantly reduce the amount of crap that gets thrown over your legs and body, improving your chances of keeping warm and clean(er).
The route was taking us East and towards Tunbridge to an amazing coffee place Scott (Mr Caffeine Mag) knew. A few roads were familiar from a previous Knatts Valley loop but most were new to me which was great. Most were strewn with muck which had been washed off from the fields in the recent rain and storms. Some people winced at it but I loved it! Big tyres, disc brakes and mudguards were perfect for this.
One person was plagued with punctures and left the group fairly early as he needed to be back in time. The rest of us pushed on to Tonbridge where we were treated to a decent downpour for the 20km leading up to. At least there’s posh coffee there! We get to Tunbridge and said posh coffee place is closed. So the next stop is the train station which has a little coffee shop out the front. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Cue 12 wet cyclists huddling in a station foyer trying to warm up with bitter coffee and cake.
On we go and back onto the final set of lanes heading back towards London, legs spinning to try and warm up from the stop. Again more new lanes to me. Neil and I lose the group slightly but carry on what we think is the route. I give a bit of a push up a hill out of the saddle and snap a rear spoke which makes the wheel all out of shape and a bit egg like. It’s certainly not round anymore. A quick roadside wheel bodge with a spoke key and it’s enough to get back. We catch up with the rest of the group at the Ide Hill cafe where we bump in to Will and Marta who’ve just come out on a bit of a jaunt for cake and fresh air. A banana and a Tunnocks tea cake provides enough fuel for the return leg.
After this the group forms a more organised bunch as we head on the main road around Biggin Hill airport. The pace rises with Will and Tim on the front. 45 – 50kph and we’re tanking along. Oooooh this is what I’ve missed from the laps sessions. Feels great to be in a bunch again. All that remains is the final sprint back into Crystal Palace and up Annerly Hill. I’m pretty much done by this point and can’t muster the energy for a sprint up the hill. We end up with coffee, coke, beer and cheese toasties at Cadence / Fee & Brown whilst the mechanic there kindly repairs my wheel.
122.3km / 80.1km left.
Another rest day. A trip into town with Emma, two exhibitions, a trip on the Thames Clipper and a burger on the way home. Not a bad way to recuperate really. My legs were sore though.
This is it. 80km to do. I’d talked Seb into riding and the weather looked surprisingly good with a slight chance of rain. The temperature was dropping compared to the previous warm days but looking like not a bad way to end it. Rather than stretch out a Kent route or go out to Surrey I thought a ride to Whitstable would be good. The route follows Pilgrims way for the majority of it, at least for the sections which are rideable.
After a chilly start the weather turned out to be glorious. We had a slight tailwind and managed to tank it along Pilrgims lane although again was strewn with mud and puddles. Kent was beautiful in the sunshine though. The furrows, vineyards and farm houses all looked incredible in the winter light.
We had a few spots of rain but no more than 20 mins in total. I celebrated when the Garmin ticked over 80km knowing that I’d completed the challenge! Dan left us 20k before the end with knee issues and we pushed on to Whitstable. As you crest the corner off Pilgrims and onto the seafront the wind hits you. Seb seemed to surge into it and I struggled to keep up and even hold a wheel. My excuse was that he hadn’t done as much riding as me the week before. We got there, fought our way through the Whitstable traffic and found the best chip shop in town. A long queue had formed but it was well worth the wait.
A quick trip to the seafront for a terrible staged photo and then a dash for the train.
In our haste we hadn’t purchased any beer to celebrate and there was no trolley on the train. Never mind. The fish and chips was amazing. I day dreamed of a hot bath and a cold beer.
122.1km / 533km completed!
All that remained was a slow limp home from St Pancras south and to upload that final Garmin file. At times I really thought I wouldn’t do it. It was far further than I thought it would be. I know what 500km feels like but doing it in winter was more of a challenge than I thought it would be. The hardest thing was doing rides solo and into horrific headwinds. It’s done. I have a real sense of achievement and my legs have just about recovered.
Including the ride back from the station I covered 543km and managed to not fall off or have any punctures. The only mechanical was a broken spoke which isn’t bad going really. It also meant I’d hit my riding targets and passed 12,000km and almost 100,000m of climbing. Pretty pleased with that.
Next year? Maybe not, I feel I’ve done this challenge now and ticked it off the list. We’ll see.
It’s time to clean the bike.
And here’s a pointless heat map generated from Strava of all the rides.