A simple idea, travel by bike from Nottingham to our old home town of Cambridge to visit the folks. I didn't want to go by road, but finding a alternative route proved tricky, that was until I found the Midshires Way linked into the Threeshires Way and meaning we could pretty much get there all on bridleway. Ok it went a little out the way, but it seemed to make a logical and clean route to me. So after nearly two years since spotting the route, rolling up to Ken's birthday weekend, the weather, the time of year and the fact that he was looking for something to do, all made it an ideal time to give it ago. Initial early estimates put the route at 160 kilometres, however some more accurate mapping stretched it to 260. This didn't change my aims of trying to complete this route in a single push and Kenny was keen to keep me company. I had it all planned in my head and, if a little optimistic, saw no reason why it couldn't be done. My relationship with the Bridleway system was soon to be thoroughly tested.
Before setting off, doubts started to creep in to my mind. I had done hardly any exercise, bar a couple of rides to work a week for the last few months and I had been on a 3k run a couple of weeks ago where I tweaked a recurring knee problem. But I perhaps foolhardily didn't let it stop me. The furthest I had previously ridden in one sitting was around the 100 km Lord of the Loopsand that was a couple of years ago. I had come off that pretty unscathed after a similar lack of exercise, so despite being well over twice that distance, by my rationale it must be a lot flatter and therefore the riding should be a lot easier. Little was I expecting just how the English bridleways would turn and bite me.
We set off, lightweight and fast around 8pm. Some snacks, water, a light down jacket and plenty of enthusiasm for a easy sub 24 hour finish into Cambridge, possibly even in time for a lazy drink down by the Mill pond. The warm evening sun sent us on our way along the side of the Trent to pick up the Midshires Way, things were looking good.
The first section south and east from Nottingham towards Melton passed smoothly with the fading light, a nice mix of pleasant bridleways and road sections leading us at a comfortable pace into darkness proper. Lights came on as we took a lovely stretch through Old Wood out by Bunny Hill, the night finally taking a grip. For a while it felt great to be travelling at this time of day as the distance seemed to smoothly pass and we took in some great wildlife moments with owls and badgers all coming out to wave us on our merry way. We stopped for our first little snack just shy of 60k, sat outside the inviting warm glow of the Black Horse nestled in the centre of the quiet village of Grimston. It may have been close to the shortest night of the year, but it was just about to start feeling like one of the longest.
Further down the road we pulled in to a field, the way was signed straight ahead, but like many fields to come the actual route was not visible and in darkness made for some tricky route finding. We found ourselves in a corner with no real idea of the exact direction we should be heading. At this point we realised a compass would have come in very handy, plus we were not alone. Some cows had become fidgety with our movements on their turf and were rather disconcertingly stampeding in circles somewhere out in the darkness. Some heavy breathing made us turn as some 25 or 30 cows lined themselves up close behind to see what we were up to.
This was somewhat unnerving as they edged closer and Ken tried to get his i-Phone compass to work. I was ready to jump the fence and leave my bike and him to the rampaging herd. Finally we decided to turn back the way we came, so the cows stampeded off into the darkness once more. We tried to block the sound of heavy hooves and glimpses of dark shadows against a half moonlit sky from our minds as we tentatively realigned our position. We hit the correct corner of the field this time and with relief continued on our way. It wasn't long before we were faced with another series of fields to cross, this time a little more direct signage warned us.. "Beware: Bull in field with calves"
It was quickly becoming apparent that the Bridleways around these parts were not going to allow easy progress on a bike. We hit what seemed like a straightforward farm track cutting through the young sprouting crops, but it soon turned to mud. Sticky mud it was too, as my wheels quickly started to clog. I pushed on but my slow forward momentum ended as I hit a rut, came to a standstill and toppled sideways into the glutinous crud. I really, really hoped it wasn't going to be like this for the next 200 km.
Each turn of the pedals made the whole bike groan under the strain and the chain sounded as it was about to give up the ghost and snap on me. I found a stick and tried to unblock everything. It didn't take long for the memories of nice, pleasant tracks that had eased us into this ride to be wiped away. Now all of a sudden progress had turned very slow through a mix of unclear navigation and mud.
As the night continued I started to lose any kind of orientation as to where we were, or how far we had travelled. Ken had the maps, so I hoped he had a better idea than me. We had worked our way through the first two of our 11 printed maps, each turning of the page another step closer to the end. But this was 'Map 3' we were on. It was to turn infamous, testament to our current changing fortunes on the ride. Running from close to South Croxton down to the small village of Welham a seemingly endless run of unclear routes meant we were regularly stopping to try and negotiate our way across and around fields in the pitch black.
To be honest I can't really remember much about this section other than it just seemed to go on and on, and on. I had made the mistake of trying to guess how far we had travelled and every time we stopped to check the map I sank a little more at how little ground we had covered. Finally we passed the 50 mile mark, a third of the way, the daylight was starting to break through. I was sure that we should have been half way by this stage, but it was to prove a long time coming for this particular landmark. The final destination was almost starting to feel further away each time I checked back on the map.
As the night subsided to a chilly, overcast morning it immediately made for easier, but as it turned out no more straightforward, navigation. We could at least spot some of the yellow posts that had been so elusive at night, but routes were still far from obvious through many of the fields. Signage was still a constant struggle to decipher and would be right to the end. Pushing across hillsides in knee long grass to correct our course of attack, all added to the fun. Even when the route was obvious we were tested further by the ground conditions. Farmer's field... straight through please. The mud didn't ease up and we were often forced to push on un-rideable, sticky, churned up Bridleway that cut through farmers crops. When we could actually ride, the chain would cry out again under the strain and I would have to stop to peel away the clay mouldings that had formed my new makeshift fatty tyres and encased my freewheel.
Before we started I had concerns about my knees and how they would hold out for the ride. With the combination of the mud and grassy, bumpy fields they were being put under far greater strain than I had predicted (but hardly surprisingly). Some of the climbs were starting to become harder and I would find myself dropping quickly off the back of Ken and I had even started to get off and push on some sections. I fell into a zone, where all I could focus on was getting up a hill with the minimum of discomfort. No other thoughts passed through my mind other than how I could maintain upward momentum despite my incredibly slow pedal rotation. I would then stop, walk for a bit then try again.
This set me off thinking about how far we still had to go and it was starting to knock the morale at a far earlier stage than I would have liked, I started to wonder just how far I would actually manage. We passed the 100 km mark after a painfully slow climb up a farm track, where I lay down and closed my eyes to rest. I shouldn't have been surprised at how my body was coping considering the preparation I had, or hadn't done.
Despite still not being half way I was slightly buoyed by the fact that it was just another 30 km till we reached this point. The next few maps looked more straight forward and we hoped that we could perhaps start making up some time on our way down over the A14 and on towards Northampton. I shook the negative thoughts from my mind and we continued on.
Things did seem to ease slightly in terms of the route, but the last 12 hours and lack of decent food was starting to take its toll. Our mix of trail food had started to loose its appeal some way back, so with each little village we passed through we wished for a store that would allow us to pick up some proper food and refill our water, but with no luck. We reached Arthingworth just before the A14 with high hopes, only to be disappointed. Wearily we continued, dropping under the A14 and onto the Brampton Valley Way.
Welcoming this relief of riding on the flat solid surface, our pace picked up as we worked through the kilometres at a much healthier rate. Brixworth lay ahead and we were certain this would have just what we were after. It meant a slight detour of 2 or 3 miles and despite the inconvenient hill that led us in, we finally landed upon the saviour that was The Breadline. It was here that Ken then announced we were at the half way point. 130 km under our belts. Really? Didn't we pass half way about 2 hours ago!!?
My heart sank as this simply reinforced how slowly it was going. It certainly didn't take long however to get stuck into a wonderful ham and cheese panini. We then moved on to the convenience store where we devoured a pie each and some milk, stashed a bag of Haribo and continued on our way. Our bodies thanked us and our moods lifted considerably as we traced a path west around Northampton towards the M1. Things were looking up, however briefly, as the sun started to burn through and warm us from the chilly morning. The general fatigue had all but gone and I felt positive that I could continue for the duration now, whilst the ground had turned much drier in this region making travel across the fields somewhat easier. Or so I thought.
Despite feeling a lot fresher overall, it wasn't that long before my knee started to make progress difficult again. The sticky mud may have disappeared, but this was replaced with rutted, dry ground that made it a lot more jarring. For the next 5 or 6 hours the monotony of riding around the edge of fields on this grassy, bumpy surface would start grinding me down. Turning the corner into a new field would feel like I'd simply gone round in circles, as each one melded into the next. The odd tricky sections of route finding simply added to the frustration.
Blue skies set off the yellow rape fields beautifully, making for a glorious setting but unfortunately it didn't help me much. I was definitely loosing all positive energy. I may have well stayed closer to home and cycled around my local farmers field 100 times, cutting across the middle of it occasionally for good measure. Finally, however, we did pass the next big hurdle of 100 miles, then eventually made it to the Three Shires Way. I was really doubting weather I could go on much further now, but we decided to try and move on and get 200 km under the belt and see how I felt.
So leaving the Midshires Way we headed out towards Cambridge to see what the Three Shires Way had to offer. I don't know why I thought it would be different, but rather predictably it was straight back into the same slow grassy fields of the previous 12 hours. When I felt I'd been tested on all types of terrain we got dealt a track that was entirely covered in bark chippings. It probably wasn't anything like it, but to me at that stage it felt like riding in soft sand and so pretty much drew an end to my efforts.
It was a tough decision as my legs were not that tired really, but my knee was making it almost impossible to move my bike up any kind of hill. Our average speed was dropping and had reached a low 9 km/h. With 60 km left and potentially plenty of the same terrain to come, it could easily have ended up being another 10 hours riding. The decision was made, and made just a little sweeter by the fact that we could enjoy a nice pint at The Bell and Bear in Emberton while waiting for the rescue team to come and scoop me up. Our eyelids began to droop as we sat in the warm evening sun and reflected on the efforts. I had forced Ken to pull up short on a ride i had made him come on. 21 hours gone, finishing up at 197.5 km, we did consider riding around the village for another couple of km's.
So a incomplete challenge remains. For the following few days I would have said there was no chance of getting me on this again, but now... I may just give it another go. Was it fun? hmmm I'm not sure I'd go that far, but perhaps in a strange kind of way it was. There is certainly a weird kind of attraction to riding these bridleways with their mix of frustrating signage, long grass, bumpy surfaces and sticky mud.
It's obviously important to pick your ti