So this was it, crunch time. We had trained as best we could, cramming in plenty of Spinning towards the end, but this is where we were tested.
Carla and I drive to Swindon the night before launch o’clock, so we could be fresh in the morning. We ended up staying in quite a nice hotel minutes from the start line. After having gorged on pasta and salads, we decided to try and squeeze in a few hours sleep.
This hotel had absolutely beautiful beds, but we tossed and turned for hours; both of us terrified of what was to come. I felt like we were two lost souls, completely out of our depth, but clinging on to each other in the maelstrom. Neither of us knew how the hell we were going to be able to do this, but we were each others anchors.
After managing to get a couple of hours rest, we were up; eating our breakfast before heading to collect our bikes. It was bitter that early in the morning, and the air had a quiet peace to it; as if waiting.
We arrived at the start line, got introduced to our team, broke our camera attachment that we picked up for the GoPro to use on the trip (£200 well spent), and moved into position. We were first off, and immediately became even more terrified when we noted the slick lines of the light racing bikes that surrounded us; our heavy hybrids looked clunky and dated.
Setting off in the first group was daunting, we waited for the start. With a rousing ‘Go!’ and generous applause, we took our first nervous peddles. Within moments, our group was on the road and out of site; everything felt rather anti-climactic.
It became apparent that we were going to struggle with this, our group was setting the pace and Carla seemed to be in agony. In the first hour, we drifted closer and further from the group. Every time we encountered a hill, a part of me would feel crushed as I contemplated the long climbs.
I stayed with Carla, trying to encourage her, and make her realise how incredible she was for doing this. Portraying a cheery exterior was hard; inside, I wailed and screamed and sobbed. I had no idea how we were going to do this, my head was spinning at the enormity of the task. My thoughts kept coming back to Carla, I was so proud of her for doing this but I felt like we already failing; the training and stresses of a year all for nothing.
This continued for close to an hour before we finally lost our group. I was devastated that we were going to be out so soon, but I again focused on Carla. The very fact that she had signed up, trained, bought the equipment, and set off; knowing that she was the only woman, had severe asthma, and was woefully under-trained, was actually doing this, broke my heart. Never have I felt so bursting with pride, whatever happened now was irrelevant.
As we rounded the next corner, we came across another group; led by my brother, and race organiser. With some quick shuffling, he and Mark broke off and we had escorts. This was an enormous turning point. Having experienced and patient guides, people who were spotting and correcting our mistakes on the fly, made a gargantuan difference. We were soon progressing steadily, not quickly, but we were getting there and improving all the time.
Except for somebody clipping my bike in their Peugeot just before we stopped for lunch, we continued to get better and better throughout the day; keeping pace and making little changes to our setup as we learned. When we were approaching the final afternoon break, things started to get hard.
Due to our slower pace, our group had fallen behind and needed to catch up. A new pace was set, one that would get us there in time, we were completely unprepared for this. Coming down over the hills near Winchester, we started to crumble. Every push on the peddles was agony, the acid in my legs had lit them on fire; I felt like screaming at every step, but kept my head down and just kept pushing.
Finally, near Portsmouth, we reached the final climb. Miles of incline, leading up to the top of the cliffs. I put my bike in the highest gear and started to move, crawling up the endless road at a walking pace. It seemed like this was where I would fall, I had nothing left. Every metre was hard won, a piece of my soul in exchange for some distance. I have no idea how long it took, but I eventually crawled my way to the apex to join the others. Unsure whether to be sick, or cry, or both; I took a quick break before we set off into the City.
Every metre climbed now had to be descended. We hurtled down the tarmac towards the lights, flitting through traffic at a terrifying pace as we moved towards our goal. This was both thrilling and nerve-wracking, to come off would mean disaster at this speed. Spotting our support van, the group slowed and eventually came to a halt with the rest of the team. Carla and I were exhausted, shells of people filled with anxiety.
Carla and I spoke about the day, we confided our fears and shared our anxieties. We were both convinced that we couldn’t do it, even considering how best to get home. Could we take a coach with our bikes? Pride, or apathy through tiredness, prevailed.
After getting changed, the entire group headed into a nearby Wetherspoons for dinner. Our next issue now took hold. Throughout the day, we had been using caffeinated isotonic tablets in our water, to give a boost and hydrate. The caffeine was now having an adverse effect, we started to come down, heavily. Unable to face food, and feeling sick to our cores, we dragged ourselves through the meal and followed the group to the harbour.
Following a short walk, and a long wait, Carla and I boarded. The cabin was small, and in our fragile states, both of us felt extreme fear at being cooped into the space. Both of us fighting to stay strong for the other helped. We removed the caffeine tablets from our packs, settled in, and proceeded to stay awake for almost all of the night due to rough seas.
I make no bones about it, Carla and I were disastrously under-prepared for this. We hadn’t trained hard enough, we didn’t have our equipment set up perfectly, our nutrition wasn’t quite right, and we had given absolutely every last drop that we had to give to make it this far. We had beaten our previous record, of 38 miles, by an additional 52 miles; had added 10mph to our top speed; and consumed enough caffeine to keep an elephant up for the next 2 years. We felt spent, and terrified.
It is, without a shadow of a doubt, down to the collective patience and care of the rest of the team that we had made it this far. We would not have made it to the dock without the others, who had properly prepared, guiding and helping us. Whatever happened next, we had something to hold on to, something that we had achieved and could not be taken from us.