It’s 11:45 PM as I stand in a hay barn enjoying a few minutes of relief from the pouring rain. I’ve been riding for over 16.5 hours now, covering 233km over mixed terrain; there were the long gravel roads, the wheel-clogging clay and the ice-like mud earlier in the day, linked by sections of road-and-gravel-riding.
In hindsight, I got lucky. The rain was supposed to start at 7 PM, but it held off until 9:30 where it came in thick and fast, instantly leaving me drenched to the skin; it’s that sort of rain where it doesn’t matter how good your waterproofs are, they don’t help.
Lying on a hay bail I weigh up just getting my sleeping bag out and kipping here, hoping the rain will blow over by the morning. I have no idea where I am, all I can see on the GPS is the purple line showing 200m either side. The plan has been the same pretty much all day: follow the purple line until I get to a resupply point, and then pick up enough to get me to the next one. I go over to the bike, pull my phone out, and load the route map, quickly realising I’m almost in Warminster, less than 30km from the end. Being how close I am to the ground I know lifts my spirits, I find my self thinking I can do this, I can finish this tonight. Little did I know I was about to start the hardest 2.5 hours of riding of my life.
It’s just us bike packers and a few dog-walkers up in the morning cloud where we meet at the Westbury White Horse car park. We’re stood in a huddle where John, the race organiser, is holding the race briefing, giving us the heads up on the conditions further out. As he talks I’m regretting not fitting some more knobbly tyres already, but it’s no use worrying about that now, we’re just a few minutes off starting. It’s 7:50 when John gives us the all-clear, and Chris and I head out leading the pack.
Riding next to Chris was a great way to start the day, having someone to chat to while I got into the swing of things. We set a fast pace on the gravel roads, both of us riding gravel bikes with bigs gears meant this was the perfect ground for us to carry some real speed. We rode like this for the first 55km of gravel roads until our ways split as Chris headed off onto the 160km course and I pressed on for the 250km goal.
This was where things slowed down for me; the mud thickened, and the ground surface changed to clay which meant my tight mud clearances quickly clogged to the point where my wheels would barely turn in my frame. Heading out of this section it was slippery and wet with multiple. Sections of a flooded track which meant getting off a carefully pushing the bike around or risking going in headfirst.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped at a church where Alun and John caught up with me. We rode together for a while until the trails narrowed later in the morning where the slippery and rutted ground made progress difficult with my now semi-slick rear tyre, where the others were cruising up the trails without an issue. Once we got back onto the open roads I could make use of my big gears again and rode fairly hard until the first resupply point at 112km where I stopped to grab some lunch at just gone 2 PM. Alun andJohn caught me again here, so we sat and ate together.
The Middle Bit
We rode out as a group, but I was keen to up the pace while I had the roads to my advantage. On the first climb I got up and out the saddle, and that was the last time I’d see either of the others for a while. I kept pushing hard, the terrain through the next 57km seemed to suit my riding style and the bike well so I kept my pace high, stopping only a few times to drink and eat, but never for more than a few minutes at a time.
Somewhere in this section made up of a mix of bridleways and roads my front mech stopped working properly, forcing me to really work in order to get into the big ring. Surprisingly, I felt pretty good, albeit tired towards the last 10km or so. By this point, my front mech had stopped working entirely, so I was having to get off the bike and manually switch between chainrings.
Through sheer luck, I stopped to look at the OS map at the right time to see I happened to be in the right place to turn off for Solstice services (169km) and ended up rolling in at just gone 7 PM for some dinner. Normally I’m a big hater of McDonald’s, but right now that was exactly what I needed: calorific food, and a big coffee. There was some fiasco around not being able to refill my water bottles because they were so dirty, but I eventually persuaded them to do it so I could get on my way. As I stopped there for a long time I was surprised not to see any of the other riders. I headed back out, now into the pitch-black night.
The Dark Bit
15km of fast mixed road and bridleway riding saw me catch up with Alun and John, which was a surprise as I’d known they were heading for Solstice services for a feed as well. “I thought you were ahead! Any idea how long until Solstice services?”, one of them asked as I rolled up. I told them I’d come from there, and it was 15km backtrack if they wanted to stop there. We chatted for a few minutes while Alun and John tried to figure out what to do about food having missed the services. I pressed on into the Darkness just in time for the rain to arrive, and a few minutes after that I crashed straight into some brambles on a slippery descent.
I picked myself up, carefully removing the brambles from my jacket and gave the bike a quick once-over. The front-wheel had just washed out but my wrist I injured last December was pretty painful. I’d just jarred it, so I ignored it, and got back on the bike. There was nothing I could do about it out on some remote track miles from anywhere.
40km of fast-ish road and gravel riding later I found myself in the barn, lying on the hay bail, cold and trying to decide what to do next. If I’d known what was coming I probably wouldn’t have left. At this point, the heels of my hands were numb from the vibrations. My wrists hurt. My lower back hurt. My shoulders hurt. My knees, they were the worst.
For the rest of the route I was mostly walking the off-road sections, simply too tired to battle the mud now. On the road, I’d ride as fast as I could, but nowhere near the speed I was doing earlier the day. As the silhouette of Battlesbury Hill finally loomed up in the darkness I was finally on ground I knew and started to attack the push-up of what seemed like a mountain with the slick mud that covered it in the rain. Topping out I didn’t want to risk washing out on the narrow ridge that route followed around the edge and so continued pushing until I finally found the descent down the other side.
Finally: the home straight. Through the barracks on the edge of Warminster, up the golf-course climb, across the plain, and push the rutted descent on the other side — it’s slippery at the best of times, I can’t afford a crash now — quick loop on the farm track and road seeing me up and out the saddle on the final climb. At this point, I feel like I’ve done it, yet somehow the track at the top seems to go on forever, every bump causing more pain from the ever-worsening wrist.
I’ve done it. I arrive at the gate on that marks the finishing line and lean my bike up on it, attempt to figure out how to take a photo of it (protip: wipe the mud off the camera lens first) before rolling down the hill to that van.
The next morning open the van door to see a waterfall poor out from all the rain runoff from the bike and my kit. Little did I know at this point I’d been first at the finish, with Alun and John finishing two hours behind, and Alex and John having to scratch. Will I be back next year? Well, there’s 39minutes to shave off for my sub 18h goal…
Plainsuffering was organised by John Pagen of Cannimore Cycles. If you’re interested in competing next year, keep an eye on their Facebook page.
For a full route profile, see my Strava profile.
All photos in this article were shot on my iPhone 7, and are unedited, so sorry about the image quality.
Finally, my setup is photographed below. The bike is a Fairlight Secan, the handlebar pack is by Restrap, the framebag is by Apidura and the seatpack is by Alpkit. I’ll cover what I carry for an overnighter in more detail soon.