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Words: Collyn Ahart | Photos: Phil Gale
There were a few nervous faces amongst the 49 riders rolling out of Bordeaux on an overcast Friday the 13th September. Superstition is always considered on a big ride and Simon Mottram’s team – no. 13 – ensured their race numbers were pinned upside down. Others trying to defy the impending doom donned lucky caps, strapped talismanic toys to their bars, or simply bit their nails as they waited to get going. But successfully riding 617km, roughly two-thirds the length of France, from Bordeaux to Paris, was not about chance. It was, in retrospect, a brilliant opportunity for heroism, adventure and camaraderie. As had been articulated at the previous night’s send-off dinner by Martyn Craddock, an Ambitious About Autism trustee riding the event, every rider was heading into the unknown… Here, Collyn Ahart, the event's only female rider, describes the experience.
At some point between 11pm and midnight a question came into my mind: “What can you actually do?” The wheels in front of me hummed away, illuminated by the flickering red lights of a dozen or so riders.
You’re not supposed to enter into these things lightly, and I should have known what I got myself into, but in some ways there is absolutely no true preparation you can do for a ride like the Bordeaux-Paris Challenge. I was here as the result of one too many beers only three days before, at the send-off party at Rapha’s Cyle Club in London. Attending this soirée would seal my fate as a last-minute member of a four-person team attempting to ride relay over 617kms, through the night.
And in the cold dead of night, after only three hours of riding in darkness with another seven to go, you get asked, “So, have you got another 450 kilometers in your legs?”. This unfathomable question plays tricks on your mind. You start paying attention to the number of pedal strokes; a change in tarmac sends your heart rate searching for punctures and paranoid at missing a turn, we slow to a timid roll through every junction, our weary eyes straining to find the next reflective arrow signaling the way.
At 3am you’re still relatively lucid, but by 5am, you start looking for traces of a sunrise that refuses to appear. Pointing to the left at the dim glow of a nearby town, we’d convinced ourselves the sun was rising. Dismayed however at the detail that it should technically rise on our right.
Even at the end of summer, a night on a bike is a long night. I can only imagine what goes through the minds of the extraordinary time trialists, those who race across America, the all-night warriors who set out time and again into the black. Solo missions are not for us. Sharing of water, food, the last remaining painkillers and even a light when your own has flickered to darkness - all become normal.
People throw the word “adventure” around a lot these days. Social media, somewhat ironically, loves to define escapism. And the various definitions of “adventure” all involve risk. When we set out there was no guarantee of anything. I had no plan, per se, about my own ride for Bordeaux to Paris. I would ride as long as I could, then ride again until I couldn't any longer. So in the middle of the night, whenever I asked myself how long I could ride, the answer was always “further”, until it just wasn’t possible. But even then I kept riding, supported by the kind words and laughter of my teammates struggling around me. I spent most of the night riding with Dave, an absolute soldier of the road.
None of us planned to ride the full distance, but when I suggested it might be possible, he kept going. His head and shoulders bobbed in fatigue in front of me, but they kept moving forward.
About 4am, the mists rolled in. We zipped up our gilets and squinted into the cloud which sat atop us. It had nothing on the rain that would come later, but it was enough to make us cold. The temperature at that time of night plummets and if you stop for even a moment to change light batteries or put on a jacket, your body starts to shiver. So we kept moving, our minds aiming at distant golden glows on the horizon, hoping they were the sun, hoping they were a checkpoint.
So many riders were ahead of us, and at that hour we passed no one. I started to fall asleep. My eyes drifted shut and would jerk open a second later. I was expecting various pains in my body to keep me awake, as they have done on previous long rides, but at 350km, everything blurs, even the pain. Saddle sores, knee aches, shoulder aches, the dull twinge in the back of the neck. My triceps cramped and every time I reached back to check my long-since removed glasses were still on the back of my head, my arm would twang with pain. I’d finished my ibuprofen and sipped with false hope that my bidon full of caffeinated electrolyte would keep my eyes open.
As we rolled into the checkpoint, 360km down, I cracked. I had to stop. My eyes refused to stay open and my sense of humour was failing. In a fruitless attempt to get back on my bike I changed into a new set of clothes, dry shorts, dry baselayer, rain jacket, oversocks… and standing in the changing room peering into the mirror at my tired eyes, the rain came. Game over.
The point at which you give up is a special one. A lot of people (outside cycling) see shame in stopping, but before this ride, I couldn’t possibly comprehend the distance of 360km in one go, let alone 600. The numbers were too big, too staggering. You can’t train to ride a 24, so perhaps it’s dumb luck that I didn’t. I didn’t have months to build up the cost of failure in my mind. No matter how far I would go that night, it felt like a success. Only three months before, I set out on the Women’s 100, a slow return from injury, and 100km was the most I could ride. To reach 360, with an extral 65 on the final leg yet to come, I was a changed rider.
Riding into Paris, the teams had fragmented, and so a group of 20 or so headed into the city together in the unrelenting rain. We laughed and sang and some people swilled Armagnac as we set out. A final few kilometers and we’d be warm and dry, the biggest ride of our lives making its home in our legs. So much more than an adventure because in many ways, there was no risk, because there was no failure, only hope and the audacity to keep going.
The £250, 000 target is still yet to be reached, but you can help us get there by following the link to Simon Mottram’s fundraising page here »
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