OCTOBER 20, 2023
The Long Road to Ruin
Words by Alan Colville
I’d disregarded the societal norms of doing, thinking, or behaving. Being out of kilter - sidestepping the everyday and mundane - felt liberating and exciting. Having within arms reach all I need to cycle hundreds of miles is a powerful feeling of control and freedom. This is the best way to explain why people do ultra-endurance events: just to break free.
On the surface, this article is about participating in GBDURO, a UK-based ultra-endurance cycling event. But in these unprecedented times, and with the sustainability ethos of event organiser The Racing Collective in mind, it’s also about shining a light on the world we ride in, and the impact we all have on it.
Leave no trace
Because of its magnitude, GBDURO was my big 2023 event focus. GBDURO is a 2000km self-supported bikepacking enduro ride from Land's End to John O'Groats, traversing road, gravel, singletrack, and everything in between. Split into four individual stages of approximately 500 km each, the route is designed to immerse riders in the rich and unique history that has shaped the British Isles. As remote as it gets in our busy country, it uses small lanes to connect off-road sections. Most of the time is spent off-road, painfully eking out kilometres.
In keeping with its strong environmental focus, GBDURO enforces a no-fly policy, meaning riders must be able to get both to and from the start/finish without taking a flight, using public transport. This year's event was also a 'zero-waste' race, meaning riders had to carry all non-biodegradable rubbish with them. This focused every buying and packing decision not only on carrying less, but also how to leave no trace along the way.
The 2,000km GBDURO end-to-end UK route.
Note: The Racing Collective ask that riders don't reveal too much about locations of the hardest sections, or crucial resupply points. This article respects this, in the interest of others who choose to take on this intrepid adventure.
Breaking down the build-up
2022 had been the year of my first (and many more) 24-hour mountain bike races and so I fancied trying something different in 2023. To help with preparation for GBDURO I did my first gravel event, the Gravel Rally, which is organised by the team behind the Pan Celtic race series. With 8 stages set over 160 km of epic terrain across Snowdonia, it was the perfect opportunity to see what this trendy gravel bike thing was about, and it did not disappoint. Quite honestly, it was one of the best days I've ever had on a bike!
The Gravel Rally 2023. Image by Ariel Wojciechowski.
Next, I did two monster rides using different parts of the GBDURO route. Firstly in May I rode from Bristol to Manchester, which was over 500 km and 10,000 metres of vertical, completed in 38 hours. And then the second ride in mid-June was from Land's End to Bristol, covering 424km and 7,000 metres of elevation in a moving time of 28 hours. Both rides gave a lot of valuable insight that would help me to refine my strategies for the race.
Kit grids might look cool on Instagram, but they are also a genuinely useful tool for planning what you carry on long distance rides.
Perhaps most importantly, I'd discovered my biggest challenge as a vegetarian coeliac would be finding enough of the right kind of nutrition from filling stations and small shops, especially in the more remote parts of Wales. I’d need to start GBDURO fully loaded with Mountain Fuel nutrition for all of Stage 1, and even some for Stage 2. This was extra weight and meant leaving out some planned kit, but I had little choice.
The final big preparation ride was MTB Epics ‘Smoke Ring Challenge’. This unique 200-mile anti-clockwise ring around London is not what you’d expect. It’s a proper challenge, mixing up road, singletrack, bridleways, and canals. I'd eventually finish just behind Cristian Batista (a fellow GBDURO 2023 rider) after 17 hours. By this time, I felt I knew exactly what was needed for GBDURO in terms of bike, kit, and nutrition. See the end of this article for a full breakdown.
The Smoke Ring Challenge was a great test of mind, body and kit.
What to wear
After completing my Bristol to Manchester ride, Ed Bartlett from local cycling apparel brand Kostüme got in touch with a bold claim that his kit goes further than other known brands. I'm a particularly tricky customer when it comes to bib shorts, riding further, across disciplines, with little to no body fat, and missing my right glute max due to a road traffic accident, so my interest was piqued.
Having been designed and tested specifically for long distance cycling, Kostüme's bib shorts, jersey, and vest were an instant hit on The Smoke Ring Challenge, coping admirably with 17 hours and 200 miles in the saddle. I loved the capacity of the 6-pocket cargo jersey, but it's the comfort and performance of the bib shorts that sealed the deal. If the kit hadn't worked, I simply wouldn't have considered it for an important race like GBDURO.
It helped that Kostüme make a genuine attempt at being sustainable, not only with 100% recycled fabrics across the range, but also a clever pre-order system that cuts waste. But as a designer, I also liked their ‘serious fun’ ethos, meaning that seriously capable technical gear doesn't have to be black, neon yellow or orange. For GBDURO, I'd be pretty in pink!
Finally, they continuously deconstruct and reconstruct things to make them the best they can possibly be, to near obsessive levels. I saw this in action as I reported back potential improvements, and changes were often implemented before my next ride! Finally, I had reliable all-day-and-night comfort and utility on the bike.
Pretty in Pink! Kostüme proves that highly capable technical apparel can be fun too.
With all the (known) issues ironed out, my bike, kit and nutrition were ready to go!
Stage 1 - Land's End to Ysbyty Cynfyn (mid-Wales)
GBDURO rules state that public transport must be used to get both to the start of the race, and back again from the finish. Getting the train from Bristol to Penzance the night before, I rode the final stretch to Land's End. On the morning of the event, after inevitable last-minute faffing, I gathered on the start line at 8am with 31 other brave souls. After a quick event briefing, we were off with a tailwind and 640 km/11,000 metres of climbing ahead of us.
The longest of the four stages, Stage 1 starts on beautiful coastal paths before hitting roads to climb out of Cornwall. Entering the night, we rode over 3 different areas of natural beauty - Exmoor, the Quantocks, and finally the Mendip hills - my local stomping ground. 24 hours after the start and with over 400 km in the legs, I was back home in Bristol. Seeing my wife, daughters and friends here gave me a huge lift to push on into day 2.
Arriving at Ashton Court, Bristol. Seeing friends and family made the smile a few Watts brighter.
The real work began as I crossed into Wales, routing through the Brecon Beacons National Park to near Aberystwyth. High points included The Gap, which takes you between Pen Y Fan and Fan Y Big, and Pontsticill Reservoir, with its steam train. At around 530km in I was also buoyed to see photographer and friend, Ant Pease, who captured the below image.
Before the weather began to take a serious turn for the worse. Image: Anthony Pease.
As the day progressed the weather became increasingly challenging, first with heavy rain, and then fog through the 'Endless Forest'. After 39 hours of riding without sleep, I was shivering cold, and sleep deprivation was hitting hard. I was hallucinating, with long periods of déjà vu, forgetfulness and imagining I was elsewhere. I had lost my mind, and become incapable of making good decisions. The final 13 kilometres to Camp 1 took a disproportionately slow 90 minutes, and everything I had left in me to get there.
Camp 1 - Daf's Farm, Ysbyty Cynfyn (mid-Wales)
After about 4 hours of sleep, I woke at sunrise with people moving around outside. We swapped stories as we refuelled, washed and fixed bikes, or went to get spares. Time at Daf's farm flew in the rain, being well looked after, before it was time to get packed and ready for the next stage.
Hi-tech bike wash facilities at Camp 2.
Stage 2 - Ysbyty cynfyn, mid Wales to Garrigill (North Pennines)
With 473 km and 9,000 metres of climbing, Stage 2 took in the Cambrian Mountains (aka the Desert of Wales, so called for its lack of roads and towns and general inaccessibility), Snowdonia National Park, Yorkshire Dales, and the North Pennines (AONB). I was keen to redeem myself after the poor end to Stage 1.
'Toto, I've got a feeling we aren't in Kansas any more.'
Riding through the singletrack and gravel of North Wales was a real highlight, followed by the beautifully hard Bwlch-y-Groes climb. And with North Wales behind me, it was then a flat road to Manchester.
The beautiful (and beautifully hard) Bwlch-y-Groes climb.
The event had obviously captured people's imagination, with messages coming through from all over. We were even being joined en-route by complete strangers. This was a great lift! But the dot-watching was interrupted on Stage 2, when my tracker died. I rode many kilometres with the tracker inside my bib shorts to try to dry it out. Luckily, it worked!
To avoid falling into chronic sleep deprivation again, I napped for 20-minutes in a field just outside of Manchester. And after a few strange encounters with late-night partygoers while passing through the city, it was on to the Pennine Bridleway, which turned into a slog through the night. It helped bumping into Steven, and later John, as we could struggle through together. By this point, all the usual stimulants like coffee or sugar had very little effect.
Micro-napping in a field before tackling the Manchester nightlife.
Rivals become comrades
Gargrave, near Skipton in the Pennines, was the first morning refuelling opportunity. Exhausted, I found a cafe to reboot myself for the remaining 12 hours. First Cristian and then Steven rocked up. Cristian was struggling, and couldn't take on any solids. Steven, on the other hand, wanted two full English breakfasts, and a side of chips! In the delirium, we shared stories as we refuelled - much to the bemusement of the staff - before heading off again. Unforgettable!
In what other sporting discipline would competitors sit down to swap stories mid-race? Camaraderie and mutual respect plays a big part in long-distance riding and racing.
Climbing out of Gargrave, I discovered my sore feet was in fact trench foot, which would require regular stops henceforth to air them. Miraculously my legs were still feeling strong, but so were Cristian's. We rode hard and hit Great Dun Fell at the perfect time to catch a beautiful sunset. Often touted as 'the greatest climb in England’ it didn't disappoint, topping out at 835 metres.
Then, the final push to the town hall in Garrigill, where Cristian and I finished joint 3rd. What a privilege! At this point, there was a clear leader in Donnie but Will was doing a great job at keeping him on his toes. At nearly twice the age of the others, I was happy to be up there and competitive.
The Spanish Speedster Cristian still going strong.
Camp 2 - Town Hall, Garrigill (North Pennines)
At Camp 2, we were greeted with big smiles from wonderful volunteers, and I quickly got into my routine: eat, pitch tent, wash kit, shower, eat again and then sleep. The next day, there was lots to do; cleaning, fixing bikes, or cycling to shops for provisions. Time flew, and people kept arriving at camp right up until the start of Stage 3, which meant little to no recovery time for tired bodies and minds.
While riding to Nenthead for provisions, my rear gear cable unexpectedly snapped. I pushed the few remaining kilometres to town, and joined Cristian, Will and Donnie, who all needed repairs at North Pennine Cycles. This tiny, apparently disorganised shop had everything we needed. The owner, Dave, who's a local cycling legend and skilled mechanic, fixed us all up with expert care.
Local legend Dave from North Pennine Cycles doing what he loves best.
Stage 3 - Garrigill to Fort Augustus (Scottish Highlands)
With 6,700 metres of climbing in 485 kilometres, my aim for Stage 3 was to be consistent, especially through the night section, by taking it steadier for the first third of the stage. The topography was visibly changing, with less signs of habitation and more long gravel sections, as we journeyed through Kielder Forest. As I crossed the border into Scotland, I couldn’t really believe I'd cycled this far.
Kielder deserves every bit of its reputation amongst gravel riders.
The beginning of the end
There's a saying in mountaineering that it's a domino effect of many little things combined that get you in the end. On Stage 1 I lost my wallet, so my phone was my only way of paying for things. Next, my power bank stopped recharging. Finally, my phone lead gave up, so I kept my phone switched off to save battery. Without my phone, I couldn't stay in touch with people, or get a lift from listening to music. I was also increasingly struggling to find gluten free food, so I was starting to ration until the next big refuel in Sterling.
Perhaps my spirits and energy were a bit lower than normal around 10 hours into the stage, as I passed over a 600-metre gravel climb in the Blackhouse Forest on the way to Peebles. I don't remember much, as I started to descend, except hitting the ground hard. Maybe it was a momentary lapse of concentration, which more often than not you could get away with. But as the adrenaline kicked in and I grabbed the handlebars to get back onto the bike, the grinding together of bits in my shoulder told me in no uncertain terms that my race was over.
Having a little unplanned lie-down in the Scottish Borders.
Rider after rider stopped. First John, who called Mountain Rescue. Then Jordan, who wrapped me up and fed me. Then Pete stopped, as the cold and pain set in. I'm forever grateful to those guys, who without a second thought put their own racing ambitions to one side to help.
Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue rolled up in a jeep, and immediately asked 'are you Alan, and is it true you have one butt cheek?!' Turns out it was the legendary cyclist Rickie Cotter who took the Mountain Rescue call. Rickie knows me well, and had kindly shared the story of my past injury with the rest of the team. Mountain Rescue took me to the Borders Hospital before transporting my bike back to HQ for safekeeping. Thank you to Paul, Tom, Tim, and the other wonderful mountain rescue team. As is often the case, the vital mountain rescue service is a charitable operation run by volunteers and funded by donations. If you’re reading this and feeling generous, please do think about sending them a few quid! It might just be you who needs their help one day.
The mountain rescue service doing their thing (voluntarily)
Assessing the damage
An X-Ray at the hospital confirmed what I already knew: a broken collarbone. The staff were amazing, calling a taxi and booking a hotel for the night. The next morning, I called Paul from Mountain Rescue to arrange to collect my bike. Paul not only took me to the train, he even loaded my bike on for me. Top man!
Paul from mountain rescue even helped to load my bike onto the train home.
And that was that. After 1319km of the planned 1992km journey, my race was over. Hero to zero in the blink of an eye. Making the long training journey home with only the use of one hand, back to the ones I love, I had no real regrets. Not even a broken collarbone can take away the experiences from an adventure like GBDURO. It reinforced my belief that we can all do more than we think we can, and we are better than we think we are. To the 15 riders who eventually finished, fair play to you!
Before starting to regularly ride longer distances, I knew bits and pieces of the UK. I had assumed there were plenty of fairly untouched areas. However, since riding GBDURO, I understand now that the UK is one of the most industrialised countries in the world. If you look at the raw stats, it's no real surprise, with 70% of land taken up by agribusiness. My first-hand experience is that there’s barely an ecosystem intact, and wildlife and insects are hanging on by a thread.
Covering such large distances fairly quickly by bike, you see first-hand, like a timelapse in your mind, that England and Wales are just one big farm dotted with towns and cities. I’m sad to say it, and it shouldn’t really be a surprise. But it was still shocking to me to witness the scale.
My mindset to the world I ride in - and the impact I have on it - has changed irrevocably, thanks directly to The Racing Collective and the unique GBDURO experience.
A big thumbs-up for the GBDURO experience regardless of the end result.
I've experienced the crux of the GBDURO journey, even without reaching the final destination. I pushed myself hard, and I was competitive. Finishing would have been the icing on the cake, of course, especially with the Scottish leg being described as the pay-off for completing the earlier stages.
Since GBDURO, my recovery has gone really well. After 6 weeks, I was already back running, cycling outdoors, and plotting my next adventure. Maybe I'll return to complete the job, and ride the section from where I fell through to John O’Groats as a one hit ride, just for the fun of it. Either way, the knowledge and experience I’ve gained will undoubtedly have a positive impact on future rides and races.
As this was my first bikepacking adventure, I thought it was worth sharing what worked, and what I've learned:
Top 3 rated:
Planning and performance:
Know the route inside out
Take care of the little things early, before they become big
Nap before the sleep monster gets you
Take care of the contact points - hands, bum, and feet - at all costs
Know your pace, train at it, and stick to it even when you feel good
Pack for every eventuality, especially cold and wet weather
Overstocked is always better than under
Eat before you're hungry, and drink before you're thirsty
If you don’t ‘feel’ like eating, it usually means you need to
Mix food types, tastes and textures, especially salt, sugar, protein and fat
When you eat is more important than what, so get calories in any form you can at whatever time is right for you
Nights are harder, so be prepared for the drop in blood sugar, core body temp, dehydration and sleep fatigue
The rig and kit
To The Racing Collective, my fellow riders, and all the wonderful volunteers.
To Jane, Amy, Esme, my brother Eugene, my Mum and Dad for the constant support.
To Oli Beckinsale, my coach for getting me to the start line in perfect shape, mentally and physically.
Alan Colville is a World record holding ultra cyclist and adventurer.