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Joining the Dots

Taking a break from the usual WorldTour calendar, Lachlan Morton rides the length of mainland UK. Setting off from Cornwall, he was joined by dotwatchers on his way north to John o’ Groats.

05 July 2019

GBDuro is a strange sort of race, if a race is even what you would call it.

The organisers – The Racing Collective – call it a scrappy rolling picnic.

The format is the same as an enduro, which is a race that’s made up of several segments. Each segment is raced against the clock, and the lowest total time elapsed on those parts signifies your winner. What does the winner get? At GBDuro, the winner gets nothing.

The 2000km route is split into four stages. This is not a small undertaking, even when it’s broken into bits. The shortest stage is 380km, more than most riders will have ever gone in one go. It also largely avoids roads – it takes on walker’s paths and bridleways on a route that’s often totally impassable to cars and just as often, it turns out, impassable to bikes.

In planning the Alternative Calendar, EF Education First’s riders and sports directors had been worried that the more standard all-in-one ultra-distance events (if standard is really a word that can be applied at all) would have pushed riders too far, encouraging them to ride for too long with little to no rest. GBDuro offered a slightly more manageable format.

One of the things that’s special about a race like GBDuro is that anybody can enter. You might find yourself pitted against a postman, or a doctor, or a student. Or you might find yourself starting alongside a professional cyclist.

A WorldTour rider turning up to a grassroots race like GBDuro will inevitably draw its detractors, perhaps the same people who are fed up of sport being ruined by science, or big business buying wins instead of scraping them out any which way they can. And that does happen – but not here.

Like most ultra-endurance events, GBDuro is unsupported. Each rider carries everything they need, arranges everything they need when they need it – if they can get to it. The EF Gone Racing film crew were there to make a film about Lachlan’s progress, but we were not there to help him. At times this meant watching his bike lights run out of battery while he slept in a verge, or seeing him wander up and down the main street of a tiny village in a daze, passing back and forth under a sign for a B&B, desperate to have a shower and lie down on a bed.

This is a far cry from the WorldTour, where some teams carry a rider’s preferred mattress in a climate-controlled truck to ensure top quality rest. Contrast that with Lachlan sleeping in a pile of leaves for forty-five minutes at three o’clock in the morning – a pile we never would have found him if not for a stationary dot on a map.

That dot on the map is one of the more interesting parts about an event like this. There are no helicopters or motorbikes with cameras on them, beaming pictures by satellite for our entertainment. Instead – and while not mandatory at GBDuro – it is a common requirement at ultra-endurance races that riders carry a GPS tracker. The tracker sends a signal every five minutes which moves a marker with the rider’s name on it along the course. This is how people keep up with your race. These people are the dot watchers.

For those who haven’t done it before, dotwatching is a curious pastime. It’s really as simple as the name suggests – all you are really doing is watching a dot as it makes it way slowly along a route from one point to another. It sounds inane, but it’s not.

Dotwatching has its highs. Heated rivalries might emerge, or sometimes a dot moves further than you thought possible. Maybe you went to bed at night expecting that your rider might soon do the same, only to wake up in the morning and find they’ve ridden 300km in a superhuman effort all while you slept. Dotwatching has its lows too. Sometimes the dot hasn’t moved in hours, and you start to worry there might be something wrong, and all you can do is watch.

But sometimes you can do more than watch. Many of the people watching dots at home would then turn out at the side of the road. It might be a short chat at 2 o’clock in the morning outside Bristol or a 60km ride towards the Lakes.

Bobby McNicol grew up in Brisbane, Australia – up the coat from Lachlan’s hometown of Port Macquarie – but relocated to the UK five years ago, and lives now in Manchester.

“It was actually Lachy and his brother Gus who inspired me to get back into cycling when I came across the first Thereabouts film, and I’ve followed Lachy’s career since then. When I saw that GBDuro would take him past my flat I got hooked on tracking him and, luckily enough, the timing meant I could ride out and meet him.”

Bobby picked Lachlan up en route through Cheshire, as he reached the outskirts of Manchester.

“I spent a few hours with him. It was a pretty surreal experience riding alongside a world tour rider, chatting about his ride and whatever else came up. We stopped for a pizza and a pint in town, then I rolled out of Manchester with him and he was on his way.”

We often talk about cycling as being one of the most accessible sports in the world – there aren’t many where you can step onto the field of your favourite sport with its very best proponents. This summer, you can ride up the Tourmalet before the pros – but you can’t ride the parcours with them. At races like GBDuro, you can. And if there’s one thing we all know about cycling it’s that riding with someone is a unique way of getting to know them.

“He’s just a really genuine guy. He’s the perfect ambassador for cycling, and this is what the sport should be about.”

Sam Ingle is from Millthrop, a small hamlet in Cumbria, another rider who made his way out to pedal with the pro. He’d expected to see Lachlan Morton on Tuesday afternoon, but when he woke that morning he found the Australian was just 16km away.

“I jumped on the bike and battled a headwind to the Coal Road – my favourite local climb – stopping twice to check his dot. I arrived with minutes to spare. It was so cold and exposed on the summit I descended and waited in the valley below. Out of the gloom emerged a flash of pink. Lachlan was on a mission, carving the corner I was waiting by and I think I gave him a shock when I rolled up alongside – visibility was particularly terrible. I asked how he was doing. The response: ‘you should’ve stayed in bed.’”

We’ve all had those days we struggled to get up, but when you’re out there you soon know it was truly worth the effort.

“I was so chuffed that he didn’t mind me riding with him. Seeing the face behind the dot reminded me of the immense effort put into making that dot actually move across the screen. The kilometres ticked away as we talked all things cycling, from his new bike to the world champs course that will climb over Buttertubs Pass only a few kilometres away. It was clear Lachlan’s motivation to tap out the seemingly endless miles was derived from his love of riding bikes. The time we spent riding, without glancing at power numbers or average speeds, was a refreshing break from what can be such a data driven sport.”

Further north, self-confessed amateur dotwatcher Gordon Gillespie staked out the foot of Corrieyairack Pass, a steep climb known to walkers and mountain bikers.

“I follow Race Across America each year, mainly via their tracking service but that’s it, nothing else. When I saw GBDuro was using a tracker I was delighted. Thursday looked to be the day as Lachlan closed in on stage three, and it didn’t disappoint for Scotland – temperatures in the mid twenties and wide blue skies are rare to say the least.”

As a keen cyclist, retired photographer and a local too, with the dot to watch Gordon knew just where to go, and when.

“I picked a spot at the bottom of the pass where a small ford is located with a decent view of the climb ahead. Camera ready, I waited. Within half an hour Lachlan popped up over the brow of a small climb and rolled down towards where I was sitting. I have to say I was delighted when he stopped to shake hands and chat for a moment or two – he’s a really pleasant bloke.”

At the finish, Lachlan described the race as unimaginably hard – the hardest thing he’d ever done. But he also said it was the most incredible experience of his life, and almost the whole time he’d been riding there was a smile on his face.

Perhaps the team had been right to be worried. At the finish, Lachlan’s measured fatigue was higher than it had been after the Vuelta a España in 2017, a three-week Grand Tour which famously includes some of Europe’s toughest climbs. That means GBDuro is one of the hardest things anybody could ever do, whether you’re a pro or not.

Chapeau to all the riders of GBDuro, in particular all the finishers: Angus Young, Fraser Hughes, Andy Deacon, Mark Tillett, Philippa Battye, Tom Probert, Pete Crawforth, Meg Pugh and Mauro Saltalamacchia. A remarkable journey.

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The gear

Lachlan rode the brand new Cannondale Topstone with a full set of waterproof Rapha packs. The front bag carried his sleep kit – a Sea to Summit Spark SpI Down Sleeping Bag (the forecast was too cold for the Rapha half sleeping bag) and a Thermarest NeoAir UberLite Small Sleeping Mat, both inside a Terra Nova Moonlite Bag Cover – with plenty of space left for food.

The frame pack carried more food, tools and batteries, plus the on-bike clothes he would shed through day including the Rapha Down Jacket, his team-issue race cape and Pro Team Lightweight Gilet. Lachlan used the Garmin 1030 external battery pack to keep his computer going through the night, and carried a USB power bank to charge other items, including a pair of Cateye Rapid X lights and a Garmin Varia headlight for visibility in the dark. He also wore a battery powered head torch for added directional illumination at night. Lachlan kept his phone on airplane mode for the most part so he could listen to music while riding without draining the battery excessively, and turned it back on to upload checkpoint photos (if there was signal to be had).

The seat pack carried off-bike clothes, of which he didn’t pack many – trackpants, a t-shirt and a merino hat. He took our mantra “pack light, travel far” to extreme lengths.

Lachlan raced in a Classic Merino Mesh Base Layer, team-issue Cargo Bib Shorts, Flyweight Jersey and Pro Team Socks.

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