In February 2017, a few fellow cyclists from the Shutt Ridley Racing Team organised a training trip to Calpe in Spain. A well-known pre-season cycling destination for many cyclists keen to escape the final throws of winter and get a taste of sunshine and warmth. We who were left behind were subjected to a barrage of scenic photos, depicting clear blue skies with tales of leisurely café stops in the Spanish sun.
For those of us either not having the funds or the time to spend a week away, I organised a long weekend cycling trip to the Brecon Beacons in Wales. I drew up plans for 3 long rides, taking in some of the top climbs and popular cycling routes in the area. All we needed was for the weather to be on our side and we had a trip guaranteed to match that of our team mates abroad. Unfortunately, the weather was against us. That weekend we were subjected to horizontal rain, gale force winds and temperatures barely reaching above 3 degrees.
The ride I had planned for the Saturday was a 108 mile, 11,500ft of climbing epic. Of the 9 riders who set out on the Friday ride, only 6 remained who were willing to take on the scheduled Saturday ride. The morning began with us cowering over our porridge and coffee, looking out of the windows of the youth hostel and watching the dark clouds roll out over the valley. The rain had already begun to fall, it was chilly indoors let alone outside and I’m certain none of us relished the idea of dressing up in Lycra and stepping out into those awful conditions.
Part bravado, part peer pressure, we set off. The going was slow and painful from the start. Cold fingers and toes, sodden wet kit within the first 5 miles. After 20 miles, around an hour and a half’s worth of riding, we were in a shabby state. A tap on my shoulder asked me to pull off the road and find someplace to stop. We soon hit a small town and piled into a local newsagent. A food hygiene rating certificate on the door promoted a 1 out of 5-star rating. Simon was cold, hypothermic, shivering uncontrollably. We dressed him up in an emergency silver foil blanket and stood huddled together in the newsagents, dripping wet, with puddles growing at our feet, wondering what to do. It was obvious that Simon couldn’t continue. We filled him up with hot tea from a drinks machine and the vendors finest 1-star rated hotdogs. Food items which wouldn’t have merited a second glance under normal conditions, were wolfed down with relish. The proprietor stood silently behind his counter at a loss for words, obviously dumbfounded. We may well have been escapees from some kind of institution. Who on earth were these Lycra clad, dripping wet creatures which dared to venture out in such conditions?
Should we go on? Could we go on? We looked around at each other and weighed up our options. Turn back or continue? 20 miles into a 100+ mile ride. Freeze here, or freeze out there? Well, at least we would be moving, surely it can’t get much worse? We decided to push on, after all, we were cyclists, what else would we do? Richard volunteered to remain with Simon and get a taxi back to the hostel, (a wise decision) and the 4 remaining riders stepped back out into the cold and set off.
The next mile was a steep uphill slog, a mostly terrible experience. A climb which should have helped to warm us up only served to throw our spirits deeper into the mire. 21 miles into a 100+ mile ride, turn back now or throw all caution and common sense to the wind and continue? We pushed on.
30 miles in and we reached a point in the ride where the route took us ever further away from the hostel. If we turned right here, we could be back home, warm and dry within the hour. Choose to take a left turn and the route took us ever further into the dark and cold unknown. Only the cold and wet, the windy and hilly awaited us. It was a truly desperate situation; we were at the edge of what most could reasonably endure. It was at this moment, an extreme point, where those three words were uttered. Those words which shall forever bring to me a smile and a crooked sense of amusement. F-T-S! Tim was off!
Only 3 remained. For the next 30 miles we slogged on. How or where, over what hills or what roads, I can’t recall. It was beyond awful. A partial memory of a dead straight, long decent at speeds of over 45 mph brings back feelings of dread. I would have gone slower, if only my brakes would have worked, or if my fingers would have had enough sensation to fully apply the brakes. The roads resembled rivers, the cold was unbearable, our kit was soaked, it was insane.
55 miles in, we had to take a rest. We arrived at a fish and chip shop, dismounted, or rather fell off our bikes, and bundled our way inside. A Welsh fish and chip shop around 1pm on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon, in late February 2017. If you were the serving girl behind the counter, serving 3 stray, ragged, wild looking cyclists coffee with extra large portions of chips with peas and curry sauce, thank you. Thank you. Oh, thank you! For I think you may well have saved our lives!
We warmed up, as much as is possible in soaking wet gear. We filled our bellies. We laughed, both at the conditions and at ourselves. We laughed at the insanity of the situation, at the thought that we could quite possibly be in Spain, sunning ourselves and enjoying the Spanish countryside, dressed only in shorts and jerseys. Where would be the fun in that?
It is here, in these most extreme conditions, that friendships are tried and tested. It is here that relationships can either grow or flounder. It was there, in that Welsh fish and chip stop, bitterly cold and desperate, with over 50 similar miles yet to cycle, that the camaraderie which carried us across the mountains from Salzburg to Milan was born.
It was there that the three remaining cyclists on that doomed ride, Jos Busby, Justin Belcher and myself, formed a cycling relationship, a mutual respect and an understanding which any hardship could not overcome. Whatever may befall us, whatever the elements could throw at us, there was no event which could ever be as worse.
“One day,” we said as we slowly tucked into our chips, barely able to lift our shivering hands to our mouths; “We’ll go on a trip and send back photos that’ll make them all jealous!”
- Luke Souter