Spin instructor and PH drinker Helen Sharp rode across Britain in September. We asked her to tell us all how it went and what she learned from her biggest challenge yet...
So, it's done. My incredible journey from Land's End to John O'Groats is complete. 984 miles over three countries, 23 counties and with 50,401ft of climbing. For perspective that's over 13 times the Alpe d'Heuz and twice the height of Everest. I’ve burnt 32,837 calories and hate to think how many I’ve taken on-board!
From 10th Sept to 18th Sept, the same time as amazing Paralympic athletes were competing in Rio, myself and over 650 people, swapped their desk chairs for saddles and rode the length of the country to raise money for the British Paralympic Association. Deloitte Ride Across Britain is a fully supported ride where all you have to do is pedal (your food is provided, bags are transported, route is planned). The only additional challenge is that your accommodation every night is a tent!
There were many hills, some incredible descents, narrow country lanes, vast endless open roads (and a few busy ones) and some amazing scenery as we pedalled our way across the entire length of the country. The U.K. really has some amazing places to cycle and Scotland stole everyone’s hearts (especially thanks to the mini heatwave up there at the time).
It wasn’t easy. My right hamstring and knee gave up from mile 80 of day one and I often had to cycle through tears, in my lowest gear, powering with one leg as quickly as I could manage, frustratingly about 5mph. I struggled with letting go of the frustration I was feeling given an almost perfect run up. I found it hard to accept help from people (complete strangers at the beginning of the week) who offered to stay with me until the distance was banked and I had to suppress some competitiveness when at one stage I was last with the broom wagon behind me.
Despite this, I never walked, I just kept on pedalling. In the moments where the painkillers kicked in and my knee felt normal, I certainly made the most of it and was whizzing along in the peloton with the best of them, picking up over 50 cups and even two Queen of the Mountains 😀
It's an experience I wouldn't change, not even the injury, as the support I received from people (riders, medics, physio and crew) was heart warming. People taking part in Ride Across Britain exist in a bubble and it's a bubble I really wish I was still in...
Life in camp - the RAB bubble
Music blares out into the field you're camping in at 5:30 (5 on the early days!), you get out of your tent in whatever style (or lack of) is physically possible that early in the morning, force some bacon and eggs down, drop your bags to the smiling men from DHL and head to prepare your trusty steed.
Each day we were on the road between 6:30 and 7:30, relishing the opportunity to see the sunrise, to see the mist lift off the hills and welcome in each morning with the whizz of wheels and shouts of “morning”!
Riding on your own, in a group or a combination of the two allowed for some brilliant interactions - a chance to catch up with friends and a chance to make new ones. Each day was divided into stages by pitstops, usually two a day but three for the day we had 127 miles to cover. All you had to do to get between each one was turn the legs over and enjoy the views. It really was freedom at its best and it's incredible to take in where you can get to under your own steam. This was the pattern for nine days - Eat. Sleep. Ride. Repeat.
Fuel and hydration
I had a bag on my top tube which meant I could merrily stuff my face whilst cycling along, as well as carry more food than I could fit in my jersey pockets (I learnt in training that little but very often is what works for me).
My snacks included cereal bars, pip and nut almond butter and coconut sachets (a great alternative to gels), bananas and packets of Skittles. Due to my dietary requirements (coeliac - no gluten), at the second pitstop each day I would go and meet chef Tony (who was in fact a van driver who had volunteered and over the nine days apparently discovered a new passion for gluten free sandwich making).
My hydration regime was pretty simple thanks to Precision Hydration. In the morning I would fill up two bottles of water from camp, pop a 1000 tablet into one of them and off I went. I would aim to drink these two bottles as we covered 30-40 miles until the first pitstop, where I would refill usually just with water in both and do the next stint.
Complementing my official hydration strategy was Claude the butler (coffee van) - for me a crucial part of pitstop one activities. A caffeine hit to get me over half way for the day. In my jersey pocket I would take a PH 1000 sachet ready to add at the second pitstop - giving me enough to ride the final 30-40 miles of the day. I never had to use the sports nutrition product that was provided nor did I want to as I absolutely trusted what I had.
Training and preparation
I’m a part time spin instructor and, in the process of riding more outside, I met some great friends and have been reminded time and time again of how brilliant a social activity cycling is especially with the great group of ladies who I ride with through Queen of the Mountains.
I also tried to get some more practice at riding in big groups as well as early starts. Some of my training challenges included…
- The London Sportif, which with cycling to the start, riding 104 miles, getting slightly lost and having to ride home totalled about 125 miles. I could not wait to get off my bike!
- A weekend down in Somerset with friends who did LEJOG last year (they said LEJOG veterans made them sound old). This was great as we discussed packing tips and kit over numerous glasses of wine.
- Prudential Ride London in 4.48 hours from which I took about 3 days to feel human again.
- 450 miles in nine days. I undertook this training challenge at the same time as my friend Lisa, who lives in South Africa (you can guess who won the 'let's take photos of the scenery of our rides', competition). 450 miles in nine days - regardless of how I felt or what was going on at work, I was super focused on achieving the total distance and getting into the saddle day after day.
Training for the event required some serious focus and commitment. And not just from me, but also from what felt like the equivalent of an Olympian's support team!
During training I felt stronger and fitter than I ever have and it's down to the hard work and guidance of Bonia (Pilates instructor at BeMotion Pilates), Kirsten Cloete (Chiropractor at Wellforever clinic in Putney, London), Ryre Lee Cornish (Nutritionist at Move Nourish Change) and Alice Monger-Godfrey (Osteopath at AMG Osteo). I also had the benefit of several specialist cycling services from the team at Department of Endurance (Ben, Pat & Frank the dog). This included a Guru Bike fit, new saddle, new pedals, bike service and a wheel upgrade.
When I got back from my adventure, I was straight back into Pilates to gently encourage my body to move and to 'forget the pain’. Alice (my osteopath) also focused on treating a Popliteus strain in my right knee and Kirsten (my chiropractor) looking at the whole chain.
Things I learnt
- I'm pretty determined. The slogan of threshold sports (the organisers of the event) is very true. 'More is in you'. I spent nine days with people who showed some real grit.
- The sources of support aren't necessarily those you think of first. Some people who got behind me on the challenge really surprised me. Due to signal and the bubble effect, I couldn't always reply to friends and family but messages to me and via social media were all read and very much appreciated. They really did keep me pedalling.
- The U.K. is a beautiful country and nothing beats the Scottish Highlands in the sun.
- The kindness of cyclists - those who stayed with me were strangers at the beginning of the week. I think the friends I made will be good friends and the good friends I already had are now even better friends.
What's next? I've entered Cape Rouleur and the Cape Argus in South Africa in March so that guarantees a bit of winter training. After that - who knows! The week I returned I went to a talk at Rapha on women in ultra distance… 🙈