Friday, October 14, 2022

Ride Across Britain (RAB) 2022

 No, it was not a randonneuring event. I thought it was much better.

My original plan for this year’s “Big Ride” was London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), which I had done in 2017. In fact, my motivation for attempting the 2021 edition of the Colorado High Country 1200k was to give me enough 1200k’s for guaranteed entry into LEL. I found additional motivation when LEL was lengthened from 1400k to 1500k, in order to actually ride through Edinburgh proper (instead of turning back towards London in the suburbs in sight of downtown Edinburgh as it did in 2017). However, while pre-riding DC Randonneurs 2021 600k, Mike W. told me about Ride Across Britain (RAB). Sometime in the fall I decided to switch to RAB as a less grueling, more enjoyable option.  Ride the length of Great Britain as a one-way trip, 100 miles a day instead of 200, full night’s sleep (albeit in a tent), catered meals, good services, lots of time in Scotland, all good.

There were 3 of us from D.C. Randonneurs registered. David R. (a native son who had done it before), Theresa F.,  and myself.  Mike had to drop out, deferring his ride to the next time it's held (scheduled for 2024). Just before the ride we found out that John M. and his wife Cindy also signed up, sort of at the last minute.

Logistics is always a challenge on big rides…moving 100 pounds of kit to the start, getting it to the finish, then back home again. The first leg was flying to the UK. British Airways has a once-daily flight out of BWI and a resonable luggage policy for bikes: a boxed bike counted as just a second piece of ordinary luggage ($90 each way, call BA at least 48 hours prior). After landing in Heathrow, Enterprise one-way car rental to Penzance, the nearest town/rental car outlet to the start. I considered rail travel, but it would have involved waiting over 12 hours for the train to depart London and it wasn’t clear that you could travel with a bike box. From Penzance to the start at Lands End a taxi that Theresa had been booked in advance (they tend to be in demand by riders). Getting from the start to the finish in this one-way event involved riding the bike there and booking with the RAB-affiliated European Bike Express (EBE) to ferry the bike box. Carriage of a bag was included in the event, but as an “international rider” who had to move both his event and non-event items  during the ride (mostly clothing for travel), I purchased an extra weight allowance from EBE and packed everything in a very large/heavy bag that the organizers moved every day. At the finish you were reunited with your bike box, so after packing your bike in the box international riders had themselves and all their stuff bussed/trucked to Inverness by service purchased from EBE. My original plan was to rent a car in Inverness and do a scenic drive to Edinburgh for some touring before flying home from there, but events precluded that and I flew home from Inverness, with a connecting flight at Heathrow.

I also needed some new equipment. Getting the bag was a challenge. It needed to be big (could be up to 120 liters, a bag metric that was new to me), waterproof (it would spend much time outdoors in damp/rainy conditions), and should have shoulder straps for ease of carrying.  After much research, several “out of stock” experiences, and one purchase that never shipped and had to be disputed I found the 110 liter, waterproof, “Bills Bag” from NRS that met all the requirements. Since it could not be locked I bought some chain from Home Depot and devised a way to lock it with a TSA lock. I also needed an air mattress, and purchased the Alpkit Dumo after seeing several glowing recommendations on the RAB rider forum. It had an internal manual inflation pump that made it super easy to set up every day and was quite comfortable. Everything else was in hand from previous events.

I wasn’t sure how to prepare for 9 consecutive 100 mile days. I'd ridden the total distance before, but in half that many days. The number of days was only new aspect, so the potential problem area seemed to be the saddle. I tried to not take any lengthy absences from the bike seat and just tried to ride as much as possible, throwing in some hilly stuff as well. I ended up doing over 1200 miles during the month prior. I also planned to do several 200k's in the last 2 weeks prior, but life happens. In the end, there were no saddle issues but I could have benefitted from being better ready for climbs (recurring deficiency). The only physical effect of the ride was a tenderness between my right ankle and achilles that lasted for several weeks that seemed to start on days of steep and extended climbing.

Finally, as was so successful for LEL, I spent much time on Google Streetview, familiarizing myself with the key parts of the drive from Heathrow to Penzance (hotel, gas stations, rental car facility, and walk back to hotel).  A virtual trip through key interchanges was very helpful preparation for the drive. 

Travel to RAB

The packout went fine, except I was surprised how full my 110 liter bag got so I had to leave some bulky clothing behind to make it all fit. In retrospect, I should have had lighter items such as hiking pants instead of jeans, fewer non-ride clothes, and perhaps a less bulky sleeping bag.

I met Theresa at BWI, and thanks to the Apple Air Tag Clint P. loaned me I could ensure that my bike box made it onto the plane. 

The bike is moving towards the plane...I feel better

I made it a point to sleep through the entire flight because we had a long drive after we landed, with the added complication that it had been years since driving on the left side of the road, or with a manual transmission.  We had to wait a while for a rental car shuttle, then wait longer for one big enough to carry our two bike boxes. The rental car office was chaos, and Theresa figured out you had to collar one of the employees running around outside the office in order to get a car.  He helped us load up the car, which was bigger than the one I reserved, and off we went down the M4 westbound.  Theresa mostly slept for the first half of the 6 hour drive to Penzance, while I fought off occasional bouts of drowsiness. Shortly after we hopped from the M4 to the M5 we stopped in Bridgewater to get a Costa coffee, and I got a pasty to eat. Both of which made the rest of the trip a snap. Along the way we got word that David R. had to drop out of the event because of a family issue, and that Queen Elizabeth was having some health issue.

Although we had the rental car for 24 hours we wanted to return it by the end of the day, but the office closed at 5PM and time was tight.  We stopped at Morrisons in Penzance for an $83 tank of gas, then to the rental car office to see if they had after-hours drop off (they didn't). So we dropped Theresa and all our stuff at our hotel (Premier Inn), then I drove to the rental car office and arrived at 4:57. It had rained most of the day, and it was a mile and a half walk back to the hotel, so I carried my small backpack on the walk along the Southwest Coast Path back to the city centre. I noticed thick blackberry bushes along the path, and asked a lady walking her dogs to confirm that's what they were.  During the following days we rode past/feasted off hundreds of miles of these bushes:

About that time the skies opened up and, despite my jacket in my backpack, I got soaked from the waist down and so did the items in my backpack,  including my battery pack and GPS. I could hear water sloshing around inside my GPS. This was not surprising, the waterproof seals on it had been failing for a while.

David had made 6:30 dinner reservations at the Old Lifeboat House Bistro, and Theresa and I showed up without him, me wearing shower shoes (my only dry non-bike shoes). It was there that we heard of the Queen's passing. We had an outside table, but after we ordered it started raining and, fortunately, the hostess had held an inside table for us. We ended up next to a couple from Wisconsin with whom we compared travel plans.  They screwed up Theresa's order and brought her some mushroom dish by mistake. It looked great, so I ate it along with my entree. Afterwards we wandered around town and ultimately ended up at the Tremenheere, a Wetherspoon property (a chain famous for their economically-priced yet tasty ales - pints for 2 GBP). The rest of the evening was spent finally getting my phone’s roaming service working, getting my stuff from Theresa's room (there since the quick rental car drop-off), and trying to dry my wet stuff with a hair dryer or hanging it up.

Check-in Day: 9 September

The following morning I got up and continued drying my shoes (now wearable) and clothes from the day before. It seemed that my battery pack had dried some, as it (mostly) came back to life. Theresa and I kicked around Penzance, at low tide, 

hitting Costa Coffee, another pasty place, a pastry place, and others.  There was a big geothermal pool near the coast, and a pub called the Boatshed that included parts of old sailing ships in its structure. 

That main ceiling beam was a sailing ship mast

I considered buying a new battery pack at a cell phone store, and did buy a pair of lightweight waterproof pants at an outdoor store in case it was rainy in base camp, but I ended up never wearing them. We checked out of the hotel at noon and stored our stuff with the hotel until our taxi showed up at 1400 to take us to the first base camp, at Lands End. Base camps opened at 1400 daily.

The first order of business was to pick up our registration packets and put all the tags on our things (bike, bike box, bag) and wristbands on ourselves.

The top wristband in the above photo provided identification and your subgroup (red, yellow, green, blue, or purple) and was used most often to get your bike, which was tagged with the same number, out of the guarded corral. You got the orange wristband if you purchased the laundry service (collected after day 2, 4, and 6 and returned the next morning) and identified your laundry bag. The bottom band was your tent number in your subgroup, assigned by sequence of arrival. The number, and hence that paper band, changed every day - having that number on your wrist came in handy.

The second order of business was to build your bike and turn in your bike box. Fortunately the weather was nice, otherwise building your bike outdoors would have been difficult/miserable:

We were literally at land's end, camped on a bluff with our backs against the Atlantic:

Each rider had a 2-person tent, one side for you and one side for all your stuff. Here's my "Bill's Bag" (all 50 pounds of it), my Camelbak. and my laundry bag, in front of my tent (red 26) for the night before the ride started.

Theresa and I took a walk to the actual tip of land, and found a lady there painting a landscape scene. The "main venue" of each day's base camp was a big tent that held all 600 riders and 150 staff, where dinner and breakfast were served, the nightly 8:00 brief was held, the ~400-connection charging station was located, and where the pub was moved when we got up to the colder north . It was in here, on the evening we checked in that we saw King Charles address the nation following the passing of Queen Elizabeth. 

Other amenities included a bank of trailer-mounted flush restrooms:

And great shower rooms:

I pumped up my air mattress fully and went to bed in street clothes, on top of my sleeping bag (it wasn't cold).  My bedding was a bit too hard, I found that putting just enough air in the mattress to prevent much bodily contact with the ground was best, although one night I decided to just use the mattress as a pillow (instead of my non-ride clothes in a pillow case) and sleep on the hard ground. That was also comfortable.  I slept on one side with all my junk piled on the other side. Near my head was what I needed to put on in the morning: kit, shoes, helmet, and glasses (in my helmet, to protect them in case someone tripped and fell onto my tent). And in a clear spot next to me went my phone and head lamp, things I might need in the middle of the night. Perhaps it was the generators powering the portable light poles, or perhaps it was my lack of any real effort that day, but I didn't get to sleep until maybe 2300, just after they shut down the generators.

Day 1: 10 September

The first day of riding was billed to be the hardest based on there total amount of climbing (~9000 feet), so the 1-hour start window would open at 0630. I set an alarm for 0500, but was awakened at 0440 by a cacophony of zippers from the tents all around me. Zippers on sleeping bags, zippers on tents, duffel bags, jackets, jerseys, shaving kits...zippers, zippers, zippers! I got up and stepped out of my tent.  It was very wet from dew and ocean mist (not rain), but dry inside the tent as it was of double-walled construction that eliminated the usual "wet inside walls" experience. I got back in my tent and started packing my bag. This was my first time packing my bag outside of my home or hotel room, and wasn't sure how long this going to take in that tight, dark space. Once done, I realized my headlamp was still on my head - and it was essential for operations inside the dark tent. You kind of couldn't pack it in the bag because you needed it to pack the bag, so I just got into the habit of carrying it in my Camelbak every day. Later I saw Theresa and said I'd see her at breakfast, sitting near the door to the big tent to maximize fresh air (COVID concern).  However, once inside, I noticed the two large air ducts that supplied outside air to the tent and had  breakfast in the airstream coming out of one of those. Breakfast was excellent every day - full English breakfast, croissants, and so much more that I never touched. On later mornings I would either eat breakfast at the end of the tent opposite the serving line, where I was away from others, or outside the tent (where I ate most dinners and listened to the nightly brief).   I also saw John and Cindy for the first time that morning. They were not staying in tents at base camp, they were on the "plus" plan that featured hotel accommodations every night.   Before the start of the ride we heard that 3 bikes had been stolen from the corral around 0445, as the staff were transitioning from guarding the bikes to checking rider ID's when retrieving their bikes, a first in the history of RAB. Those riders were quickly provided with loaner bikes.

On most days riders were throttled onto the local roads in waves of ~30 every couple minutes. Here is the start for day 1:

Day 1 certainly lived up to its billing...very little of Cornwall and the part of Devon we rode through was flat. Lots of steep, but short, climbs and descents.  It dawned on me pretty quickly that this was a younger crowd than in my U.S. randonneuring experience. Average age was maybe 35-40. As happened last year, one rider came down one descent a little too hot and won himself an air ambulance ride. But it wasn't the "toughest day of the ride" in my opinion. The first landmark of the ride was St. Michael's Mount, just north of Penzance. Sort of a British counterpart to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France.  Most riders stopped for a photo at the first opportunity, but I didn't like how it was silhouetted by the rising sun. I rode a bit longer for a better angle for lighting:

In England it seemed we spent most of our time on narrow country lanes between hedgerows, which made for some cozy moments when encountering motor vehicles (which was a  frequent occurrence):

My GPS, still wet from 2 days prior, would not power up. I tried charging it from my dynohub but immediately got a screen I'd never seen before telling me to stop charging it.  Later, it spontaneously powered up, attempt to boot, and shut itself down, and did this repeatedly before it finally stayed up long enough to attempt to navigate with it (fail) or record the ride (successful). Perhaps bouncing around on the bike shook the water out of the right places for a while. But, by the end of the day it died for the last time, never to operate again. The battery pack was flaky. It would charge to a certain percentage, then seemingly stop charging, but it seemed to then charge the phone OK.

About that time we hit the first pit stop of the event. These were generally at the 1/3 and 2/3 points each day:  

These were impressive: a variety of drinks, meat pies, candies, fruit, rice pudding, chips, you name it. The second pit had all this, plus about 10 different kinds of sandwiches. Chocolate in Europe is so much better in the states, and I pounded it mercilessly at each stop (5-10 Freddos or Dairy Milk Mini's per stop) until they eventually ran out somewhere in Scotland...probably my fault. 

I also saw the riders with something I think they called "squash", which was concentrated berry juice that you would cut about 3:1 with water and was quite satisfying. I tried a swig of the stuff straight, it was like battery acid.  

At some point I found myself on a steep descent with a 1-lane bridge at the bottom and a car coming at me about to get on the bridge. I braked aggressively and pulled to the side of the road, and immediately heard someone yelling "WHOA!!" right behind me. This guy had been on my wheel and I didn't know it. Once things settled down and apologies were exchanged he said he thought I knew he was there because I had a helmet-mounted rear-view mirror.  Let me tell you, when I'm bombing down a hill at 35+ MPH my eyes are locked on what's up ahead, there's no time to look back.

By the way, that mirror got more comments and inquiries than anything else I had (the Infinity saddle, the front fender - really a rear fender -  and the Seven bicycle got a few). Definitely a business opportunity there.

Coming out of the second pit Theresa had a flat rear tire. She didn't want to change it, just pump it up.  Her pump wouldn't put air into the tire, which I later found to have one of 2 components needed for Presta valve use still in the Shrader valve position. We pumped it to 40 PSI at mile 70, then rolled as I monitored the shape of her tire. We then pumped it to 60 PSI at miles 80 and 95, and made it to camp where she turned it in to the mechanics to fix (although they replaced the tube, they did not find the hole). 

My enduring memories from the rest of that day are Truro, which impressed me as a nice little town, and Bodmin Moor/Minions, with stone ruins from the tin-mining days and wild ponies that wandered freely along the road. That painter from the day before was there again, capturing that scene. I had researched the RAB route to identify items of interest along the way, and got a quick peek of Launcheston Castle late in the day.

We made it to the Okehampton base camp, where I discovered my tail light had fallen off during the day, probably not secured enough to survive the rough roads.  Then a young lady wearing nothing but a towel ran past me...OK! 

Yes, this was the first experience most riders had with the showers. Each one had a roomy shower stall and an equally-sized outer area with a sink, mirror, shelf, 3 hooks, and a ceiling vent.  And you got a clean towel and plenty of hot water. An attendant would squeegee the floor of the place before you went in.

It was a little chillier than the previous night. I slept in flannel jammie pants and a henley top, again on top of the sleeping bag; and slept like a log.

Day 2: 11 September

I woke to my alarm (not zippers), and began to refine my morning routine.  Having seen that breakfast was being served earlier than advertised, the morning routine was becoming: get up, head call, check bike for flats, get breakfast and fill water bottle while the big tent was essentially empty, return to the tent to dress, pack up, and sweep up any grassy (or other) residue out of the tent, drop off bag for transport and drop off used shower towel, get bike, and queue up for the start.

This sunrise was the most spectacular of the event. Many snapped this photo and shared it later on the riders forum:

While waiting for the start I struck up a conversation with a staff member from Oxford named Ed, who said he was waiting to assist a rider with a broken arm pack up and get on his bike. WHAT???  Stay tuned...

While in the start queue another rider told me how tubeless tires were a Godsend during hedge trimming season because of the thorns left on the road. Later that day we passed a truck-mounted hedge trimmer. Stay tuned...

It was a foggy/spooky scene for the first hour or so:

We rolled through Tiverton, which was a fairly good sized town, and past a Costa Coffee. About a mile beyond there it dawned on me what a missed opportunity it was to not stop for a latte at Costa. I looked for another the rest of that morning and the rest of the event, but didn't notice another when I was in the mood.  Seems like they're only in the bigger towns, maybe some gas stations.

At one of the pits the staff convinced me that when in Rome try a pork pie. It was pretty good.

Most days had a big climb, and this day's was Cothelstone. It was a grind, but not outrageous. Stay tuned for Scotland…

I fiddled with the USB Werk charger - that thing that takes the output of the SON 28 hub generator and charges USB devices (phone, tail lights, battery pack, GPS when it's working) - to see why the battery pack wasn't charging normally. My routine was to charge the battery pack during each day's ride, charge my tail light once that was charged, then use the battery pack to charge the phone overnight.  Despite the charging station in the big tent, I wasn't comfortable leaving my phone there. Plugging and unplugging the USB cable from the USB Werk to the battery pack seemed to help some.

There were a couple more climbs that day. The next was Cheddar Gorge, a winding trip up this fairly steep, narrow, and rocky feature:

That painter was there yet again, but this was the last time we saw her. It was early in this event, the legs were fresh, and they wanted to go; so I hammered to the top of this climb - a moved dubbed "the Jack attack" by one of the chaperones (staff who rode among the riders to provide encouragement, assistance, etc.)

Once over the top it was a great ride through the Mendip Hills followed by the rapid descent into the historic town of Bath. The trip through downtown was very cool/scenic, and reminiscent of all the times I had been there in my last job.  From there it was a fairly “grippy” (steep) climb up Bannerdown Hill to base camp at Batheaston. Again, the legs wanted to hammer to the top, so I let them.

I had been in contact with Jeff S., my UK counterpart from my last job, who lived nearby and agreed to meet me for a beer at base camp. I gave his name to camp security so that they would let him into camp. Once I got my bike corralled I went to get my bag and was surprised that staff carried it to my tent for me, which they offered to do on several days. After showering, and grabbing a plate of dinner from the big tent I ran into him just as I was coming outside to eat.  We hung out for at least an hour, trading rounds at the camp pub.

This was the first night to turn in laundry.  6 garments max, bike stuff only, with the strap contained in the mesh laundry bag threaded through an opening in each garment (hence no socks) and buckled into a closed loop.  

It was cooler still as we moved further north.  I used the sleeping bag as a blanket.

Day 3: 12 September

So the day started before dawn with a couple of ladies giggling at me as I emerged from one the ladies rooms. Apparently this was becoming a problem at base camp. The cause was lighting: there was a sign above the doors to the ladies-only rooms, but when it was dark outside all you could see was the lighted doorway - the signs were concealed by glare. After a couple days the organizers figured out a solution and put the "ladies only" signs inside the entrance, where they were lighted and visible.

I ate breakfast wondering why somebody's iPhone alarm was going off continuously, until I realized it was my phone in my pocket, somewhat muffled.  The day was not getting off to a great start.

Laundry was ready for pickup, warm and dry, hanging vertically:

To troubleshoot my on-bike charging problem, I swapped out the micro USB cable on the bike for another in my bag to watch how the battery pack charged that day. Later, the battery pack charge indication again stalled at one point - 91% - but after a while immediately popped up to 99%. So it seemed the issue was the battery pack, not the cable. However, it still charged the phone just fine.

We got rolling, and about 25 miles in we crossed the Severn Bridge for a brief ride in Wales. The tidal current was impressive:

The first pit was just past the bridge. Between the towns of St. Briavels and Coleford there was a large flock of sheep lying by the side of the road, unfenced.  I later found out that freely wandering sheep had been a common practice in this area since Norman times.  There was outstanding scenery along the Wye River:

Here's some of the riders at the second pit of the day, in Fownhope:

In Mordford, a little after that pit, came the only time I went off-course because of my own mistake (others would lead me off-course later). I had no GPS, and the route was marked with frequent blue/white arrow signs, but they were easy to miss since the UK uses a very similar design with the same color scheme for other road signage. I must have missed one and headed west instead of continuing north. Whenever I didn't see a route marker sign for a while it was reassuring to see cyclists up the road from me - hopefully RAB'ers on the route.  I probably only went about a half mile before I realized there were no cyclists in sight, even with a long line of sight.  Circling back I regained the route. 

For the final 20 miles of the ride I fell in with groups of riders pacelining it to the finish, perhaps the only time in the event I did so.  There was a final turn across traffic to enter base camp, and I made a cheeky move to do so.  Nobody else followed, I deserved the blaring horn I got for the move, and I thought I'd get some comments from my fellow riders, yet none said anything to me...almost as if they wished they had thought to make the same move.  My Apple lightning stub cable must have fallen out of my charger bag at that point because one of the others picked it up and handed it to me.

Base camp was at the Ludlow horse racecourse. My tent was the blue one on the left:

There was an ice cream truck there, and I bought a cone.

At this point I had perfected the post-ride routine: drop off the bike, get a tent assignment, get the bag, empty the bag into the tent, put on shower shoes, stuff shaving kit and jammies into the Camelbak, pick up a towel, shower/change, drop off shower stuff at tent, get a beer (if I felt like it), dinner, nightly brief, bed.

The organizers started awarding "RAB'er of the Day" honors to someone nominated by other riders, who had "done a solid" for other riders, with the prize being a big customized and well appointed tent for the night.  That night we found out that the winner had given it away to the final rider to finish that day. Pretty cool.     

Day 4: 13 September

This was the "flat" day the organizers were talking about, only 3200 feet of climbing. I got into the second start wave, as I tried to do for the rest of the event (the first wave being reserved for sponsor-affiliated riders - the "Babble Rabble" - and yesterday's swept-up riders), but found the pace was not too fast. There were lots of pretty fast riders in this event. It seemed that even when cruising at 18-20 MPH I was constantly being passed by riders going 3-5 MPH faster. I was fine with this, since it helped GPS-less navigation by giving me riders to follow. My theory is the fastest riders would start late in the start window to prevent arriving at the daily base camp before the 1400 opening time, which was totally doable.

A little hand numbness started on this day, but never got as bad as it does on a 1200k.

Early on the ride I watched a guy stop on a steep uphill, attempt to get started again, lose it, and end up spread eagle on his back in the middle of the road. He said he was fine, laughed it off, and got going.  Shortly thereafter was a fenced area with a ton of sheep against the fence looking at me. I stopped to take a photo, but as soon as I pulled out my phone they all scattered. Hmmm. I later found out that "sheep worrying" is a thing. In fact, it's against the law to let your dog "worry sheep."

At the first pit I received an email from the rental car company in Inverness that said my reservation for the day following the ride was cancelled because of the Queen's funeral that day. This was a big problem - that was how we were getting to Edinburgh for our flight home. The afternoon involved a lot of urban riding as we reached the outskirts of Manchester, the most of any point of the event. And it was the start of rush hour.

At the end of the ride I called the rental car outlet and was told it was possible  to get a car the following day if I wanted, and later decided that's what we wanted to do, but by then they were closed.  We went about booking a second night in Inverness after the ride until we could get the car. I contacted the hotel we were in for the first night, but they could not confirm a second night yet. So Christine got me a second night at the Travelodge just down the street. I just needed to get the car re-reserved.

Base camp was another horse racetrack, Haydock. Most of camp was in the infield, but the deal was we had to use their food concession/dining room for meals (in place of "the big tent"). It was similar to what Lulu's catering service had been providing RAB the rest of the time,  but as a bonus they had mushrooms with favorite part of an English breakfast. There was also a free ice cream cone concession, which I hit several times.  The grandstands provided a bit of an elevated view of base camp:

This shot from inside there infield shows two other features of the event. In the foreground is one of many hand santizer stands that we were constantly being reminded to use to prevent the spread of "D&V disease". We all learned to step on the base before pressing the dispense button so it wouldn't fall over…something I must have used 100 times. Behind it are the 4 disposal/recycling containers: food waste, mixed recyclables, "terra cycling" (things like potato chip bags and candy wrappers), and non-recyclables:

It was also the second laundry day. I was pretty cooked/sleepy/stiff at the end of that "flat" day for some reason. But it got better over the next 2-3 days. It was getting chilly as we worked our way north, the last day for shorts and short sleeves.

Day 5: 14 September

The day got off to a rough start: my front tire failed the morning "squeeze test." I quickly completed the rest of the morning routine, then went to the mechanics to buy a tube. I had packed 2, but since I was about to use 1, and the mechanics were right there, replace it immediately. The mechanic's stand was hectic, hence comical. They initially brought me the wrong tube, then when they brought the right tube and presented me the credit card machine. I paid, but then they realized I had paid for another rider's repairs. Instead of the 8 GBP for the tube I had just paid 15 GBP. The quick fix was to give me a second tube, hence a 1 GBP savings.  I was a bit pleased that this was not a rear flat, breaking my streak of perhaps 15 rear flats in a row, but I was disappointed that the Specialized Air Lock sealant tube didn't seal. In fact, the sealant was all over the inside of the tire. I worked on a wooden picnic table, slightly bending one of the electrical outlet tabs on my SON 28 dynohub in the process (but was still able to make the connections afterwards).  Riders departed past me as I worked, the only day they were not launched in waves. I found one of those thorns that I had been warned about and easily removed it.  I inflated the tire and installed the wheel on the bike but it would not rotate freely...catching in the brake caliper. I found that part of the tire bead was not clinched by the rim and had bulged out, requiring deflation/adjustment/reinflation.  Finally,  I was off…into Manchester morning rush hour. Averaging 10 MPH during 2 hours of traffic snarls and short traffic lights. I was still hurting from yesterday so I took it easy that day.  I did don my jacket for part of the day, for the first time.  Here is a nice shot outside Lancaster at a place called Knotts Wood:

At some point a guy on a recumbent cut in front of me after passing, missing my front wheel by less than an inch and almost taking me down.  I think this was the day the guy with the broken arm passed me...he was pretty fast even with just 1 arm.  I talked to him at the next pit, asking about his bike. It was a road bike, with no brake lever on the broken arm (left) side. On the right side was a brake lever that pulled both brakes simultaneously.  He also had electric shifting, I believe both sets of buttons on the right side as well. He would pass me a couple more times in the next couple days, and complete even the nastiest of climbs. 

The big climb of this day was Shap Fell, about 1400 feet with a reasonable grade, but it did not really bother me much (see the final photo). 

It must have been windy that day, because the "RABers of the Day" were DC Randonneurs’ John and Cindy for towing a bunch of riders behind their tandem. However, they were on the "Plus Plan" (sleeping in hotel rooms, not the tent), so they had no use for the nice tent they had earned.  They offered it up to Theresa and me, and she took them up on it.

Base camp was a third horse racetrack in a row, at Carlisle, the last camp in England. Once there we continued to work the problem of getting home after the event.

Day 6: 15 September

I woke up a little early thinking about my failed Wahoo Elemnt Bolt GPS and how others with the same failure mode (loss of waterproofing) had gotten free replacements. So I went to the company website on my phone and filled out a problem report and included a photo of my GPS/serial number.  I was almost immediately asked for proof of purchase (which I had long lost back home), which I let them know.  I also received a photo from my daughter that showed her name in the credits to a movie. 

It was now far enough north that full fingered gloves and a jacket were needed all day.  Not long into the ride we crossed into Scotland and I got the almost-mandatory selfie at the sign (with two RAB course arrows hanging from it):

Scotland was beautiful as always. Here are some photos from the Moffatt/Devil's Beeftub area. The first one is a bull (far left) grunting while leading the herd to follow him:

We had joined part of the LEL 2017 route for a while. As I had planned, I departed the RAB route when it diverged from the LEL route to follow the latter for about a half mile to Broughton to retake a photo of Clint and me from 5 years prior taking a coffee break at the Broughton Village Store.  I even wore the same jersey. As soon as I departed the RAB route I met two RABers who had done the same, albeit by accident. They excitedly told me I was off-route, but I assured them I knew what I was doing and that it was on purpose. The photo didn't quite work out, as there had been some changes:

Another photo a bit later, near Biggar:

During the event there had been a couple moments where my pedals would lock momentarily, then release with maybe a bit of backpedal.  However, it finally got bad enough that they locked and stayed locked, an opportunity to get off the bike and find the reason. It turned out to be the chain getting caught under a screw that mounted my rear rack. For this event I removed the rear rack as unnecessary weight and left the screw, but without the rack it protruded further into the drivetrain. On an aggressive downshift from the smallest cog, usually when going from flat road to a sudden pitch up, the chain would cock across several cogs and raise up enough to get caught under the screw.  The solution would have been to remove the screw, but this had happened enough that the screw threads were damaged and the screw would not thread all the way out.  It did retract enough to clear the problem, and once I got home I had to cut the screw off and replaced it.

I was feeling strong towards the end of the day, and even stronger upon cresting a ridge a couple miles from the finish and spotting a familiar sight I hadn't seen for a few years: the three bridges of Edinburgh spanning the Firth of Forth.

This was the final laundry day. I continued working the return trip home problem in base camp.  Christine and I had rearranged hotels to add a day in Inverness and subtract a day in Edinburgh, but could not find a rental car other than one that would have cost about $700 for the day's drive.  I even stayed up from 0200-0400 that morning working with her on a solution that never materialized. At the end of all that I realized it might be time to forget Edinburgh/the rental car and just fly home from Inverness, if it were feasible.

Day 7: 16 September

We were further north and it was colder still. It would also rain occasionally, but not the soaking kind of rain we get back home. Small droplets, maybe the size of  drizzle/light shower, driven by a strong wind. We got rolling in the dark to cross the Firth:

My first objective that day was to visit the home of friends David and Ann in Kinross. We had stayed with them a few years ago to ride the Etape Caledonia, and their house was right on the RAB route. Unfortunately they were in the U.S. that day, but I texted them this photo:

Departing Kinross we climbed a fairly tough hill that I didn't remember from my previous visit, and which didn't really stand out on the route elevation profile. Later that morning we passed what's billed as "the world's tallest hedge", in Meikleour:

Another verdant field of sheep just east of Pitlochry, the town where David and I started Etape Caledonia in 2018:

When you see a rainbow in sunny weather, get ready for rain:

What happened next has been called one of the most epic events in the history of RAB. As we approached the "big climb of the day" at Glenshee (2200 feet, with the final 1.5 miles > 8% grade) the weather deteriorated. It got darker, colder, and started to rain.

Just beyond center of the above photo the road pitched up to over 12% and a fierce howling headwind was blowing. "UPHILL AND INTO THE WIND IS NO WAY TO GO THROUGH LIFE SON!" The steep grade/low gear combination caused my front wheel to frequently "wheelie" up off the road, then the wind would try to send it in some random direction. OMFG!! If it were colder it would have been a blizzard/mass casualty event. I didn't want to be the first rider in sight to start walking so I kept struggling with the pedals. It seemed like every 10 feet was a victory in itself. Eventually I saw riders start to walk, but by then the summit was in sight and I had resolved to stay on the bike, and did. Just over the top was the second pit of the day, and it was a scary place. The cold, howling wind rattled the tents even though they had been tied down to whatever was available.  I got my supplies and got the hell out of there.  I later found out that numerous riders abandoned at that point and got on the sweeper bus.  The headwinds were so strong that you had to PEDAL down the backside for about 5-10 miles before they subsided.  It was so miserable up there I didn't even pull out my phone for a photo. Later, from a distance,  it looked so calm: 

This was the start of the scenic River Dee, along which we would spend much of the rest of the day. We also passed Balmoral Castle, where Queen Elizabeth had just spent her final days. Near the end of the day's ride one of the chaperones, escorting a group of riders, asked me what was in my Camelbak.  I was going to rattle off its contents, but got uproarious laughter from his group after the first item: "my wallet" (perceived as: my wealth requires I carry this huge wallet on my back).  I would hear more about "my wallet" on subsequent days. 

At base camp I made one last (unsuccessful) attempt to rent a car at a decent rate to drive to Edinburgh, then implemented my plan to fly from Inverness. British Airways only charged me $70 to make the change.  That was a welcome break after days of Christine and me trying to arrange return travel. However, I was unable to cancel my Edinburgh hotel reservation online, or even by contacting the hotel. Inexplicably, when I had delayed my arrival 1 day LATER because of the second day in Inverness, they had moved my cancellation deadline 1 day EARLIER...and I was already beyond it. I was charged over $200 for the room as a result, but after returning home and writing Hilton about it my money was refunded.

I also received a discount code from Wahoo for the purchase of a new Elemnt Bolt GPS unit, which I bought when I got home. It was about at this point I thought better of charging my phone from a battery pack that had been wetted and was acting flaky, so for the rest of the event I charged it from the charging station in the big tent (but did not leave it there for extended periods).

Day 8: 17 September

The day began with the news that at least 5 riders were sent home because of COVID, the first (and last) time this had been discussed at the event. The weather forecast was for a greater chance of rain than yesterday, so I put on my sock covers to keep my feet dry (if I also wore my rain pants...stay tuned). Not 9 miles after the start we reached the "big climb of the day": The Lecht. We were greeted with a "22% grade" sign, which was just the first phase of the climb. I managed to get up that grade OK, although others were already walking,  and then it pitched down to more like 15%. But after Glenshee the day before, the steep stuff  I'd just climbed, and the sustained grade I was on at that point, I had had enough and pushed the bike for about a quarter mile to catch my breath and let my legs recover a bit.  Here's a picture right before getting back on. I wondered how steep it would be after the road disappeared into the clouds:

I managed to stay on the bike through the twin 2100 foot summits, and then we were on the edge of Speyside "whiskey country". This is the River Avon near Corgarff, before it meets the River Spey:

There is a shiny, square, silver sculpture along this stretch called “Still”, kind of an open-ended mirrored hallway through which to view the area that I saw while researching the route and planned to visit.  While flying along this stretch I caught it out of the corner of my eye, not along the road but above me and to the right.  Not knowing if I could get to it, I kept rolling.

It was rainy off-and-on, but not enough to really wet you. I wore my jacket more for temperature than for rain, and my gloves, tights, etc. never really got wet. After the first pit we rode through Culloden, famous for its historic battlefield and where we rode under the impressive  Culloden Viaduct, a huge 1/3 mile long masonry train bridge:

We rode through downtown Inverness, knowing we'd be right back there tomorrow after the event was over, and left town via the Kessock Bridge.  We climbed for a while, and about 10 miles later were looking at this view of Cromartie Firth and the mile-and-a-quarter long Cromartie Bridge. It was a fun descent and crossing.

Along the way I noticed a 'tick-tick' sound coming from the bike. It was at the same frequency as wheel rotation, so I stopped and spun each wheel...nothing.  Got going again and it was back. Stopped and spun my wheels again, nothing.  So it seemed to happen only when the wheel carried some weight.  I did a quick check of spoke tension but everything seemed OK.  I thought I'd have the mechanics at base camp look at it at the end of the day, but having seen how frenetic their shop was back in Haydock, I figured they had many more pressing issues to deal with than a funny sound. So I left it alone as it came and went the rest of the event.  As of this writing, it hasn't recurred.

The final treat of the day was hearing other riders saying that we were coming up on the spot where you could see base camp from miles away. I’m not sure where this spot was, perhaps the Struie Hill viewpoint. It overlooked the Dornoch Firth and its inland extension the Kyle of Sutherland. Sure enough, if you looked hard enough, there was base camp.

I motored pretty hard to get to base camp, thinking if you could see it it couldn't be too far away, but it turned out to be about 8 miles.

After getting to base camp I followed the routine: tent assigned, get bag, empty bag into the tent, shower. When I returned from the shower the tent was...empty??????  I checked my wristband and I was indeed at the assigned into which of the 600 other tents had I emptied my bag? I started "knocking" on nearby tents before peeking inside to look for my stuff, they were clearly occupied but their fortunately tenants all elsewhere and I was spared the embarrassment of being totally confused. Eventually I came up with a hypothesis that proved correct: I had confused tent #59 (assigned) with tent #49 (where I found my stuff). I did a couple quick trips to move my stuff to my assigned tent and I don't think anybody noticed.

That afternoon I had got a voicemail from the Royal Highland Hotel in Inverness. I had been looking for a second night there for Theresa and me so we wouldn't have to schlep our 100 pounds of stuff a couple blocks down the street to the Travelodge for the second night, and the message was that we got the second night. YAY!  I found out that the only way to cancel the Travelodge was in person, for which there was plenty of time as you had until noon on check-in day.

Day 9: 18 September

Final day. Although many riders were relieved that this was the last day of this 980 mile journey, I was feeling a bit melancholy knowing this adventure was about to end. I was in my happy place: riding long-distance, in the UK (especially Scotland), cask ale, Costa Coffee, full English breakfast (although never got the superior Scottish/haggis version), pastys, Cadbury chocolate...

The start window opened at 0600 to allow time at the end to take care of logistics, box your bike, catch your bus, etc. The "big climb of the day" went up 900 feet, but it played out over 20 miles and I don't think I even noticed it. Rain was forecast again, and shortly into the ride it showed up...big time. I made the mistake of not zipping up my jacket (it can get warm in there) or donning my waterproof over-gloves (cheap Home Depot rubber gloves) or rain pants, based on not needing them in the rain on previous days. But this rain must have been heavier because my hands were cold and wet inside my gloves and I soon felt cold rainwater running down inside my sock covers.  I stopped to zip up my jacket and put my rubber gloves over my wet gloves and continued on to the first pit.

I was miserable by the time I got to the pit at Altnaharra. I was cold, wet, and needed to eat and drink but just didn't want to.  I finally donned the last bit of clothing I had, my rain pants. They always make me steamy, like a turkey in a roasting bag, but that's exactly what I needed at that point. This was also the spot that we had been warned about for months. The midges, clouds of biting Scottish gnats, would be there.  I had bought a midge net to cover my head and neck, and had it in my Camelbak, but either because of the rain or because I was already miserable I didn't notice them. I had to stop and check to see if they were there. They were, in clouds, but were the least of my issues.  I forced myself to eat some meat pies (the Cadbury chocolate had run out by then) and drink something, and got rolling again.

Everything soon changed for the better.  I began to roast nicely in my rain pants. The rain stopped and the sun came out.  I improvised a clothes line on the front of my bike to dry my wet socks and gloves (I absolutely hate when those are wet), riding barehanded and sockless in my shoes. The good fortune included the scenery...easily the best of the entire event.  The Strathnaver area featured a quiet road with numerous historical markers along the River Naver with freely roaming sheep. It went on for miles and miles:

The spot where the inland beauty of Strathnaver meets the sandy/rocky beauty of to ocean, Bettyhill, is now on my list of the most scenic places ever visited (along with Glencoe, Skye, and Loch Lomond/The Trossachs; all in Scotland):

At the second pit, after about 30 miles on the clothes line in a stiff breeze, the gloves and socks were basically dry, so I put them back on:

Theresa and I had agreed to meet at that pit and ride to the finish together, so we linked up for the final miles along the north coast with views of the Orkney Islands. This was near Thurso:

But all good things must come to an end, and so did RAB. We crossed the finish at John O'Groats and heard our names announced over the PA system:

The next rider to finish was met by family or friends, and got a champagne spraydown. This ride is a real big deal for many.

Next came the scramble to wrap everything up and make the bus to Inverness.  We quickly found our bags and bike boxes. Fortunately the weather was nice so boxing up the bike outdoors was not a problem, although for some reason my handlebars would not twist around the attached cabling they way they did for the trip over and it took me quite a while to finish boxing my bike and turn it in for transport. Theresa finished her bike first, figured out how the transport situation, and got us onto the 1800 bus instead of our reserved 1830 bus.  After turning in my boxed bike I found a "changing tent", a large empty tent where you could change clothes. It was fantastic to get into "real” clothes and shoes for the first time in 9 days. With time to spare I found a small food/beer concession (almost sold out) and got some of both.

We got on the bus, followed by a truck carrying bike boxes, and 3 hours later got off the bus at the train station in Inverness. Our hotel was right there. I checked into the  hotel and dumped my stuff in my room while Theresa waited for the truck/bikes. By the time I got back she had our bikes, and we retired to our rooms.

The next day was the funeral for Queen Elizabeth and the country was pretty much shut down. After walking down to the Travelodge to cancel that reservation, I watched the funeral in my cozy room:

The trip home was uneventful. The taxi driver who picked me up at the hotel at 0430 didn't think my bike box would fit in the back of his Mercedes and was concerned it would damage his vehicle, but I showed him it could be done and everything was fine. During the 7-hour layover at Heathrow I stocked up on Cadbury/Toblerone/Drambuie at the Duty Free, and had my final cask ale(s).

Feedback for the organizers

Is there any way to avoid Manchester evening rush hour followed by morning rush hour?  My only comment on an otherwise EXCELLENT route.

Could Lulu's catering include mushrooms with the full English breakfast?  Could we have haggis in Scotland?

In summary

The best time I've ever had on a bike.  You can see why, on this shot from Shap Fell…