I’m not sure where I first heard about GBDURO, but I recall the entry taking a few hours to complete in the early hours of Jan 1st 2019, thanks to being slightly inebriated. I can’t in all honesty blame the New Years festivities, as I had already registered my interest earlier in 2018, so my name was down and I was potentially signed up to the inaugural on and off road, End to End.
I knew I would have to up my game a lot, having mostly ridden for fun over the last few years and my annual mileage had gradually dwindled to 5000 miles from an average of 8000-9000 miles back in 2015. 5000 miles p.a is more than enough for most riders but having ridden for such a long time I seemed to be managing to gain weight, something I’ve struggled with as I get older. I’m now a full 30 kilos heavier than the young Gary that raced a MTB in the late eighties /early 90’s so when the road goes upwards, don’t I half know all about it these days!
My GB DURO entry was officially accepted around the end of January 2019 and I began training in earnest; I say training I just rode my bike more. I completed a few ‘there -and-back’ rides in preparation: one to Lyme Regis and back, and then a ride to the Forest of Dean fully loaded. Finally a few weeks before the event, I rode 100 miles or so form home out towards the Mendips, camped out overnight for the first time, and then joined the newly released route of the GBDURO with the intention of making it to Brecon. The plan was that my partner would join me there and drive back (I know right, absolute star). No word of a lie, I absolutely froze overnight and couldn’t wait to get going again the next morning. In retrospect my decision to sleep right on the top of Black Down (the highest point in the Mendips) was a schoolboy error. The first descent that morning was an eye opener and a clue as to what to expect in the GBDURO, as this was MTB territory whilst doable on a gravel bike not really ideal. Before long I was cycling up what felt like a wall heading towards Bristol, the severity of the route taking me a bit by surprise and easing as I headed Westwards over the Chepstow bridge and into Wales. The going was pretty slow thanks to the Welsh hills and my partner ended up picking me up near Usk, so I didn’t quite make Brecon as planned. Frankly this experience made me nervous enough to contact the organisers and ask if anyone had completed the first stage in it’s entirety…and no was the answer. The GBDURO had been divided into four stages with rendezvous points at the end of each stage with a group start point the next day. I was now nervous that I wouldn’t be able to reach the end of the first stage with everyone else.
One day to go
We travelled down to Lands End on Friday 21st June via the UK Cannondale head office in Poole, as I wanted to double, triple, quadruple check something on my new Cannondale Topstone. It was vaguely en route and gave me piece of mind, however the stop off ended up adding a lot of time to the journey thanks to a lot of tourist and weekend traffic. Arriving late we stayed at the Lands End hotel but despite the journey I didn’t sleep at all, not even for five minutes. It was as if I was going into battle, but pretty sure I was coming back…. I think 🙂
By 0730 am I was loaded up and keen to get going I pedalled down to the start, bumping into riders and recognising a few celebrity cyclists and non other than EF Education World Tour pro Lachlan Morton. One of the organisers was handing out the brevet cards and sweat bands and when I asked for them was told that they were for riders doing their event, “yes that’s me”… said, “who are you?” …” I’m Gary Bird” I said, the reply was “I thought you were a randomer”. So not the welcome I was expecting and one I’ve clearly still got a chip on my shoulder about 🙂
There was a group photo and after a few words from Phillipa and Miles from the Racing Collective (GB DURO organisers) and we were off at last. The first few km were pretty steady but my HR was high, due mostly I guess to anxiety. After 20 minutes or so we started making our way across heath land and there were a few crashes due to the terrain being a fairly tight single track path. I didn’t want to miss out so crashed, avoiding another fallen rider and then had my own pretty heavy stack but I was okay. I burped the tubeless front wheel but no real harm done. The riders were now all spread out and that’s how things would remain. I managed to settle into a rhythm but was experiencing a bit of discomfort with my right knee after a few hours riding, it felt like I was wearing someone else’s shoes and the cleats were in the wrong position. The route was brutal with lots of short sharp inclines mostly on tarmac and a flat section along the camel trail giving a little bit of respite. The climb up to Bodmin proving especially difficult then a nuts headwind thanks to a strong South easterly. Eventually I ended up hooking up with Callum, one of the other riders after he caught me near Holsworthy, and shortly after we parted company as I headed off course for a few miles looking for a pub dinner. The lovely folk at the Bickford Arms at Brandis Corner looked after me and hearing that I was about to set off in the dark for a camp spot near Torrington insisted on me staying in one of their en-suite rooms. I had a real crisis that lasted for at least half a second (or less), as you see the whole concept of GBDURO is about self sufficiency. I was kind of bending the rules but after almost 13 hours 176km including hike a bike! an actual bed had it’s appeal.
The legends at the Bickford Arms had left me cereal and milk in my room, I was up at 4am and on the road by 5am. Cycling a few miles picking up the route with plenty of enthusiasm I head towards Great Torrington, with the run into the town being magnificent this early in the morning and the town itself being ultra quiet this early. Whilst stopped and making a few adjustments, a fellow rider Lida a Finnish competitor pedalled up to me and we rode together for a few km and from there it was hill after hill. I was caught by Francis Cade and Rob Quirk who were riding together and we repeated the pattern of the day before where they would blast past then stop regularly as they were a lot more organised with refuelling stops. The climb up to and over Exmoor and particularly the descent off Dunkery Beacon and it’s rock strewn path was nothing short of brutal, but worse was to come as the next range of hills -the Quantocks were equally if not more ridiculous and I started to get a bit more frustrated with the route and myself. It was hard to get a rhythm going and I was conscious of how slow I was on the really steep stuff, I wanted to make decent progress but it felt as if I was riding towing an anvil. Off the Quantocks the bike took a proper beating through rocky paths and I eventually ended up in Bridgewater at a One Stop, so never mind towing an anvil I was so hungry it now felt like I’d eaten one. Back on the bike and Lida passed me on her way into town (looking for fish and chips it turned out). Attempting to follow the route proved an issue thanks to a bridge under reconstruction which cost me a bit of time and then I realised I had a rear flat. This was a pain as I’d obviously compressed the rear tyre against a rock descending off the Quantocks and split it near the valve.Being a Sunday afternoon no shops were open but some locals were brilliant offering help or a lift to the railway station. I hadn’t been impressed with Bridgewater itself but the locals were prepared to go out of their way for a complete stranger. It was quite frankly heart warming! Eventually I managed to fit a tube that would keep a ‘Park tools’ patch in place and reinflate the tyre, Lida caught me just as I was packing up and we rode together across the Somerset levels. We stopped at a pub in Wedmore (The Swann) on our way towards the Mendips and I asked in passing if there was a hotel in town fully expecting for my tyre with it’s widening split to give way a few kms up the road. Andy at the pub, generously gave me his mobile number (not in that way !) but suggested if I punctured within an hour or so he’d come get me as they had accommodation above the pub!! I could hardly believe this generous offer. Lida and I rode together then ended up inching our way up the incredibly steep climb up the side of the mendips pushing our bikes up a rock strewn path in the pitch black . Once over the top we began picking up part of the route I had ridden some weeks earlier in preparation making Black Down gone midnight. I’d suggested camping near Bristol airport an hour or so ahead and by 2.15am I was setting up my tent with Lida preferring a different spot in woodland nearby. It had been a bit of a faff finding the ideal spot as I get nervous rough camping especially with a posh carbon bike with me. 207km covered over a 21 hour period including stops.
I’d managed about four hours sleep and made my way into Bristol hoping to find a bike shop close to the route, Lida was already ahead of me. Just past 9am and I’m outside BikeUK Bristol and looking for a decent gravel tyre, ending up with new sealant and a Schwable G-One I was off back up towards the Clifton bridge where I bumped into Callum. We rode together towards Newport bridge and across into Wales. My right knee was now swollen but my left foot started bothering me as well and I became aware that my second metatarsal had began to swell quite badly compressing my foot in the shoe. It was uncomfortable to begin with but not awful. I’d resigned myself to not making the first rendezvous point by nightfall as I’d lost at least 4-5 hours with repairing the tyre and going off course to find a bike shop. This part of the route was familiar to me with some steep climbs interspersed with decent off road sections my foot was getting worse and I was concerned about it as my arch had began to lift in my shoe forcing me to crab my foot. Callum and I stopped in Usk for a bite to eat and I said that I didn’t think I would be able to continue much further. I telephoned my partner and asked if she would be able to pick me up later in the day from a point further along the route as I suppose I wanted to just keep going and see how far I could get and how I felt as the day progressed. And so she made it clear that for me, changing my mind about continuing on would not be an option when she managed to get to our arranged rendezvous point to collect me: something I completely understood. I then pedaled onwards over some brutal climb out of the USK valley in bottom gear one at walking pace and down the other side towards Blaenavon, a bit of road work then cross country towards the gap at Brecon. On my way a guy by the side of the trail had been dot watching (each participant has to have a GPS spot tracker) whilst chatting to him, he mentioned that Callum wasn’t far ahead and that he had heard I was pulling out. The guy really lifted my spirits, I cycled off with tears welling in my eyes feeling a bit of a fraud knowing I was giving up and completely being overwhelmed with a sense of failure. The terrain on my way up to the gap was stunning and above all else this being a dry day in Wales felt good. I made good progress on the rocky path up to the gap and crested at sunset. The feeling I got up there on a proper Mountain having cycled all the way from Lands End across the most unforgiving terrain whilst carrying additional equipment will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was absolutely stunning at the top I made my way down and initially struggled with the first km and its rocks but then worked my way off towards Brecon where I was meeting my other half. By the time we eventually found each other I could barely get up off the ground from sitting on the road by a small bridge in the pitch dark. We made our way for a take away and onto a B&B she had booked. I was gutted but glad it was all over as I couldn’t walk properly: carrying on would just have resulted in long lasting damage. Over 14 hours 131km covered including bike repair and stops.
I climbed over 8000 metres over the three days and fell 115km short of the stage one end at Ysbyty Cynfyn (that’s not a made up name it’s a place in Wales)! The first stage was the hardest of the four by a long chalk with the most climbing and longest distance and of the 24 or so starters took out around 9 riders with only 12 going on to complete the event. One being a World Tour Pro who we were all in awe of, riding loaded with minimal stops he did the most incredible ride I’ve ever witnessed.
It’s taken a long time to write and I guess come to terms with failing. I hope to have another go in 2020 (if I manage to get in to the event) and of course if they run it again. I think you can learn a lot about yourself when you push your body hard, I was capable of not asking myself the question of why but not ignore the discomfort of injury.