Ride Across Britain guest post: Tony Ryan
Tony Ryan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Science and Team SUFFER captain, reflects on the final day of the Deloitte Ride Across Britain and crossing the finish line in John O’Groats.
Sunday 14 September: Kyle Of Sutherland to John O’Groats
“The ride to John O’Groats had a bit of a sting in the tail and reminded us that we had actually done something pretty special.
“But first a bit of context. In the afternoon Ron collected things people didn’t want to carry, such as coats gilets, gloves, arm and leg warmers, as the mornings were as cold as four degrees and the afternoon often up in the 20s. The last thing people do at night, back in their tents, is prepare their kit for the morning. Making sure the matching gloves, cap, socks, shorts and jersey are out, the Garmin is charged and the chammy cream close at hand. It also means having layers that you can shed or put back on as conditions change. Gilets come off and on, arms go up and down, and over the day things get stuffed into pockets that start to bulge with gear and food – so getting rid of some is a boon.
“We had a standing arrangement to meet at 7pm for dinner and normally around half past someone would say, “So, where is George?”. On Saturday night we sat around enjoying a preprandial drink as the afternoon sun turned to evening mist. I asked Ron the whereabouts of the bag of kit which prompted the inevitable, “So, where the **** is George?” On his birthday the answer was he had just been seen disappearing into the shower and tonight we heard he was still on the (self-massage) rollers. So once again we started dinner late and without his cheery presence. He’s a helpful cove and had collected the bag and distributed it’s contents most nights – and he reassured us he had the bag.
“Dinner was great in the tent and Lulu and her team did us proud. That night we heard the sobering news that Sally had died a day after her crash. Her team told us she would have wanted us to finish the ride: there were tears but we resolved to “do it for Sally”.
“In the briefing Andy Cook (route director) told us that it would be the coldest start. We’d have sunshine in the middle the day, but should take a coat as it can be cold at the finish. He also told us his favourite stretch of road in the UK was between Altnaharra and Betty Hill. We all had an early night, and went through the ritual of preparing kit for the morning – in my case deliberating between shorts and 3/4s, merino versus wind proof base layer, mitts or full finger gloves.
“Alarms were going off on camp from 4am and the wake up music was Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ at 5am. Jess, Jonny, Julian and Richard were due out at 6am and they nearly made this slot. The rest of us planned to hit the last departure time of 7am, and Matthew & David headed out on schedule. It was misty and not so cold, but being a physical chemist, I knew that damp air sucks up heat very well and it would feel much cooler once we started moving.
“At 7.15am I bellowed, “GEORGE”, across a campsite empty of cyclists but busy with crew dismantling what would be the last camp. A familiar figure came scurrying out of the mist crying, “Morning, sorry, thank You – just going to fill my bottles – thank you”. His arms were bare, not unusual, but also empty. When I asked him where my arm warmers and gilet were I was informed, “Safely on the truck to John O’Groats Tony – thank you!”. A lesson to me on being more specific with my question as I had asked after the bag of kit at breakfast. After the briefest of exchanges we set off, me grumpily armless and with no gilet, but heading into beautiful country. Patrick helpfully gave me a large plastic bag to keep the wind off, and I wore it tucked under my jersey all day. Unfortunately Dan Holling dropped off the back inside 100 m and, despite George offering to stay with him, chose his own pace and his own world of pain to start the day.
“After five miles we came across a Halfords service vehicle so I stopped to ask the driver if he had arm warmers or a gilet in the car, explaining why I didn’t have mine. The mechanic (who was also a keen cyclist) understood my problem and started to look around the car, couldn’t find any so started to empty the pockets of his jacket to give me. The crew were all brilliant and the Halfords fells were the best. I said thanks but pressed on without – the big group were moving fast and I got warmed up chasing back.
“The ride up the valley from Bonar Bridge was beautiful, with wooded glens, hanging valleys leading to wide open moors. The mist was starting to clear and the sun poking through the clouds, our team of 13 making rapid progress, riding a minute right and left on the front with a chorus of, “hole”, “gravel”, “coming through on your right”, and the cheery, “THANK YOU”, marking our progress. We must have passed a couple of hundred riders on the way to the first pit stop despite being stuck behind cars on the single track road on many occasions. The first 35 miles had flown by.
“The feed station was in a midge infested hamlet called Altnaharra and we wanted to be out of there quickly as we were being eaten alive. We were glad to see all the early starters there too and Mondelēz team had a minder called Jamie and, because we’d adopted Jess, he always came to seek us out, sometimes with extra chocolate from the special Cadbury stash. This time I started to rifle through his bag looking for… arm warmers. I found the next best thing – leg warmers – they didn’t smell too good but they weren’t too baggy (in fact a closer fit than either Rachel or Andy’s) and I was happy to have them on, not least because they stopped the midges biting my arms.
“Then we set off up the road and the next 20 miles to Betty Hill were absolutely beautiful. The road wound it’s way along the contours and varied from carpet smooth Tarmac to gravel-strewn pot holes. Perhaps we were too confident in our seamless team riding because a touch of wheels on a gravelly corners saw our first proper crash. I heard it happen and turned to see Dennis coming over his bar to do a forward roll with a half tuck and Rob taking a head-first bracken voluntarily to avoid taking Pierre out. The damage was some gravel rash to Dennis (elbow shoulder & hip) but we didn’t confirm that ’til pit stop two. At some point we passed Jess, Jonny, Julian and Richard, and as we waited for a puncture to be repaired they came steaming past us. So apart from Dan we knew everyone was going well.
“We had a following wind up to Betty Hill, and then the road went up and east, and our teamwork fell apart! A stiff climb into the wind saw George and Dale press ahead, Pierre, Rachel, Dennis and Andy were together, the rest fractured behind, and when Andy took off in pursuit all the discipline had gone. We all passed a struggling Jonny, myself at the bottom of the longest grind. Seeing Ron at the top I asked him to wait there to check on Dan H’s progress. Once over that I could start to chase the group, quickly catching Dan L. I found Rob S watering a ‘men at work’ sign. We combined together until I spotted Jess ahead. Rob didn’t come with me so I sheltered her from the wind all the way to the final pit stop. We’d all fought the wind for 10 miles, scattered all over the road. Times were tough and the sufferers were found wanting of discipline and so suffered on their own.
“This was a wind blown final leg and a keen reminder of how tough our journey could have been. I’d anticipated (and packed for) far worse weather and expected many days pushing into wind and rain. Well the weather put a show on for us all the way, with either a head- or side-wind for the last 50 miles. Team orders were to stick together on the last section and the group, huddled in all the clothing they possessed in the lee of the transit van, knew it made sense. Groups self-assembled based on speed. John, David, Matthew, Mike and Jonny started out together. These groups rearranged a little on the run in – Dan L switching back and Dan H being brought through by a couple of chaperones. Rob A had grown in confidence as the ride wore on so he took a risk and pressed on with the bigger group – a risk that paid off.
“A big group of 16 were given strict instructions on how to ride in the wind. The stiff easterly wind meant we couldn’t set up an echelon from the right hand side so we were in neat pairs doing a minute a side on the front. If the leaders forgot to change over Rachel called out the minutes. The nature of this style of riding means discipline is of the essence, any fiddling with food or drinks needs to be done carefully and changing clothes has to be on the safer leeward side. It was a new experience for many of the group and they were amazed at the group benefit, especially when they were at the back out of the wind. In a group this size you only take the wind 1/12th of the time so can make better progress, as opposed to a pair who must take the wind half the time (or one of the all of the time) so we passed another couple of hundred riders on this section too.
“The signs told us that John O’Groats was getting nearer and some discussion about the finish started. I was happy sitting in the wheels knowing that Julian (who can really chew a stem in a long break) was way behind acting as chaperone, Andy was too nice to go long (and anyway I was confident I could suck his wheel if needed), and the other big units had found it had found it hard work. Dennis and I had a quick chat deciding that the person most likely to try and sneak off the front was Al (he has form) and we weren’t strong enough to get rid of Andy with a quick move. Two miles out the jockeying for position started in earnest: we’d been comfy in each other’s wheels all week now, perhaps too comfy? A gravelly corner saw a little movement in the group I pulled in out of the wind. Andy followed me, Dennis didn’t have enough room and Andy’s rear QR ripped out 4 spokes on Dennis’s front wheel. He’s really a mountain biker so he stayed up right but the melee was enough for Al to sneak off. I chased up to him and we had a chat about all finishing together so we sat up and waited for the rest. They brought news of Dennis’s wheel – he was a mile from the finish and his wheel was trashed so we pressed on in order to take a wheel back to him. Ron and Caroline Holley were waiting to take pictures and Rob A and I crossed the line together arms aloft followed by Al, Dale, Pierre, Rob S and Pat. We’d set off last and passed 500 other riders on the way. We hung the bikes up and Al removed his front wheel to be taken by a crew member back to Andy, Rachel, Jess M and George, who had waited for Dennis. Thankfully for the organisers, our unspoken plans for a sprint finish were thwarted as too were our enunciated plans for a big group to finish together.
“I went to the bar to get the beers in whilst Rob S got the well earned roll-ups going and Patrick went to find the transport. Dennis rolled over the line with his gregarios to have a beer pressed in his hand and I got out a Sharpie so we could all sign the back of the jersey that Jess M had been wearing.
“Next home was Matthew Holley who had escaped his group to catch on with another that was moving faster! Caroline and I nearly missed him. Ron took loads of pictures and got another round of beers in, and Dave, Jonny and Dan L rolled in followed by Richard and Mike who had always planned to finish together. Dan Holling was chaperoned home quicker than we thought but soon had a medal round his neck and a roll up in his hand. Rachel led a group out back to bring our Jess and Julian home – they found them just where Dennis had lost his wheel and I was pleased to meet up with them (in my Polaris arm warmers) quarter of a mile out. Seeing the team home was great.
“The euphoria at the finish was palpable and some team members slept with their medals around their necks. Everyone hugged everyone else, said goodbye to friends they’d met along the journey from other teams, and gathered together for a chaotic photo – glass of champagne in hand.
“Showers were taken and soup eaten as the bikes and bags were packed away. A late night visit to a fish and chip shop, with a nip of whisky as we stood in the queue, saw us draw up to the SYHA in Edinburgh in the early hours. Driver regulations meant we had an enforced lie in and a leisurely start the following morning.
“Lunchtime conversation was about the events of the week, the state of people’s bottoms and the overwhelming sense of achievement – for example John Jones’ gritty determination being replaced by a warm glow of satisfaction and a grin. I write this late on Monday in the back of a van coming down the A1. Three days of stubble on my face, some soreness in the legs, and the warmth in my heart of a job well done.
“This is a group of staff, students and alumni who have come together and made a team, built relationships that will support them in the future, raised a tidy sum for the cause and learned a lot about being a cyclist rather than someone who rides a bike.
“But we come home in the sad knowledge that we lost one of our colleagues along the way, a sadness that puts everything in perspective, and the grim realisation that it could have been anyone of us.”