The Isle of Wight Challenge: John Evans reports on the charity bike ride he undertook in memory of Keith Dempster

October 13, 2015

Litigation Department Head, John Evans reports on the epic 400 mile bike ride from St Albans to the Isle of Wight and back which raised over £60,000 for charity.

Day 1

24 participants plus a 6 person support team met at 7.00am at Grove House in St Albans for the start of the ride. It was a chilly morning but thankfully the torrential rain from the day before had abated.

The first challenge was to remember everyone’s names. Not that easy when one factors in nicknames. So ‘Freddie’ was in fact ‘David’, ‘Jock’ was ‘Alistair’, ‘David’ was ‘Clarkie’, ‘Mark’ was ‘Bunty’ – well you see the problem.

For most of us the challenge over the next four days was one of endurance but for one of our number, David aka ‘Clarkie’ who had been blind since birth, and indeed for his ‘eyes’ at the front of their tandem, Andrew aka ‘Andrew’ – this was an epic challenge. Their sense of adventure and bravery was to be hugely respected from the very outset.

After some pictures and a ‘dynamic’ warm up stretching session with the St Albans ‘butch’ equivalent of the Green Goddess, we set off on our 110 mile first leg to the Isle of Wight.

Everyone decided to stay together for the first 50 miles, helping the tandem through traffic lights and junctions to minimise their stops although this bunch cycling did not endear us to the local car driving community. The pace was sedate, the weather was fair and I was starting to think that my impulsive decision to join this ride without having trained for distance was not such a stupid one. I had an early puncture but otherwise no issues.

After a 2000+ calorie lunch, the group split into those remaining with the tandem and a bunch of us ramping up the pace. That bunch was whittled down over the next 50 miles or so until there was a core of 6 of us left on the outskirts of Southampton. The weather continued to improve, the scenery was wonderful and the time was spent getting to know my new cycle mates and more importantly their many names.

We regrouped and refuelled on the ferry to the island just as it started to get dark and whilst the warm break was welcome, I knew that getting back on the bike at the other end for the 10 uphill  miles to the caravan park would be difficult on the already tired legs.

We finally arrived at our ‘1 star’ accommodation at around 8.00pm, showered and changed and went to the clubhouse for dinner. The menu promised much but the chef failed to deliver on any of that promise, which after 110 miles of cycling was pretty disappointing and close to life threatening for him. We drowned our sorrows with beer and Sambuca and resolved to eat elsewhere the next evening.

I finally turned in at around 11.30pm, arranged the three mattress springs around my body and fell asleep – living the dream!

Day 2

Knowing something of the pain of multi-day events from my Geneva trip last year, I had considered fashioning some bubble wrap shorts for extra comfort but realised the popping noise on the down-stroke of the pedal would be a bit of a giveaway.

Instead at around 8.30am I decided to carefully introduce my backside to the saddle: ‘saddle – backside, backside – saddle’ as we pushed off for the 85 or so miles around the island. That polite introduction seemed to do the trick as after about a mile or so I felt pretty good and was raring to go.

The Isle of Wight doesn’t look that large on a map but things are different if try to cycle around it. The terrain on the island is hilly and in places narrow and technical so we were never going to break any speed records. The weather was chilly at that time of the morning but we soon warmed up and enjoyed some patchy sunshine and incredible views throughout the morning.  Having checked the forecast however we knew rain would be upon us by around 3pm but I doubted the optimism of some of my cycle mates who believed we would be back at the caravans before then. Frankly I preferred the idea of rain to spending any more time in the caravan.

After some enforced route changes, due to closed roads and a coffee stop, we set off for Yarmouth via the chain-link ferry at Cowes. I was starting to feel stronger and having ridden the Randonee on the Isle of Wight on three previous occasions it fell to me (and my satnav) to drag the chaps around the route. Just outside Yarmouth as we hit a 1.5 mile uphill at a 14% gradient the heavens opened – bang on schedule. Rain was coming at us sideways and up from the road including from the wheels of the bikes in front. It was not ideal but since we knew it was coming there was no point moaning about it.

The choice in the rain was between taking off your glasses to ‘see’ only to be blinded by debris from the road, veer off course, over a cliff to certain death; or to leave them on and with reduced visibility, veer off course, over a cliff to certain death.  I bravely chose the latter and through some quirk of fate (or lack of dramatics) we all survived the hour long deluge intact if a little cold.

I would like to say that spirits remained high but I detected a change in the banter whilst riding which suggested to me that there was definitely a ‘minor lull’ during the pouring rain, which dip continued after it stopped and until things started to dry out a little.

The south of the island is where the bigger climbs are and with that amazing views and fantastically fast descents too. The challenge of emulating the cyclists on this years Vuelta was too much to resist and I posted a very respectable 47 mph top speed downhill that afternoon, on drying roads…. And with dirty glasses…..

The sun was well and truly out when we arrived back at the caravan site and after a shower and change of clothes we went to the pub to watch the rugby. The food was great (but then the bar was low from the night before) as was the beer and indeed the result of the rugby. All felt good and even the caravan site appeared to have notched up to ‘two’ stars when we got back.

The next day was an early start to ride the 13 miles to Yarmouth to catch the 8.30 ferry to Lymington and then 87 miles to Swindon.  As I was nodding off on the world’s most uncomfortable bed wondering if my quads would ever unlock again, I couldn’t help but muse at what Keith would have made of all of this. I concluded he would probably have cried with laughter looking down at the state of the caravan and the deeply uncomfortable occupant in it.

Day 3

13 miles to Yarmouth and then 87 miles from Lymington to Swindon. It was cold but the forecast was for good weather which lifted our spirits and indeed was accurate at first. I successfully went through the ‘saddle/backside’ introductions once again and we all enjoyed a pretty leisurely ride to Yarmouth with almost nothing on the roads. Disembarking at Lymington however was disappointing as the promised good weather simply did not materialise. It was cold and misty.  We set off at a fair pace and once again 6 of us took off out front. The route was to take us through the New Forrest, which was awash with cycling events, and then on through Wiltshire up to Swindon.

The push through the New Forest was at a punishing pace into a strong headwind. We averaged around 21 mph for at least 15 miles before being attacked by a surly ‘pack’ of donkeys – a pretty normal thing in the New Forrest. For the sake of the donkeys we decided to moderate things a little.

The New Forest 100 sportive was taking place that day and we had been passing some riders for much of the morning where our routes intersected.  Pushing on a little in the expectation of a break shortly was no problem, after all we were seasoned multi day riders and not mere 100 mile day trippers! And then disaster, the promised coffee stop at 35 miles did not happen because the pub was closed – we stopped but there was no coffee!

We topped off our water and discussed the distance still to go to Swindon. It was decided to moderate the pace a little or risk blowing up our legs.  Having just that moment discussed moderating the pace, I took the lead out of from the coffee stop and fuelled by bananas and sugar I wound up the pace very considerably. I had some sportive riders in my sights and wanted to catch them up before letting another in my group take over the pace making. As it happened we caught a few of the sportive riders who tried to hang for a while by hiding in our peloton but they were soon rinsed out the back before we turned off their route and up towards Swindon. My co-riders complained at the injection of pace but the sense of satisfaction was too much to resist  – I’m not at all competitive you understand!

The rest of the morning was pretty challenging but the scenery was spectacular in places. Lunch was at 58 miles and was very welcome. The support crew has pulled in at a pub where the locals were holding a ‘carrot festival’ – yes, I kid you not! Maybe they knew more than we did about ‘excuses to meet your mates at the pub’ but it all seemed a little too ‘local’ and so before there was time to ponder it further, we were off again. By now the sun was out and the weather was glorious and hot. We rode up through Marlborough and the outlying villages up to Swindon which were stunning. Then we arrived at Swindon, not so stunning. We reached the hotel at around 3pm to comfortable rooms, a gym, pool and a Starbucks. Heaven. The rest of the group came in around 2.5 hours later.

That evening over real food and before going up to a real bed, a plan was hatched whereby we all 24 of us would try to ride into St Albans around about the same time. It was decided that the 6 of us (the ‘A Team’ – but without the ‘fear of flying’ and ‘gold fetish’) would set off two hours behind the others. This was perfect as it allowed for a lie-in, with a departure time for us of around 10.30am. The challenge was laid out at dinner and various attempts were made by Paul aka Ronnie, to drug the other riders with Sambuca, Prosecco and red wine. Unfortunately he ‘accidently’ drugged himself more than anyone else and was an utter shambles at breakfast the following day.

Day 4 – the final day

The weather was great and by the time I got down for breakfast the first group had left. Someone had caught Paul aka Ronnie trying to leave early as he was worried about the shabby state he was in but we persuaded him to wait and stick to the agreement.

We left on time and once out of Swindon and after a killer 22% hill, we felt pretty good. The weather was amazing and the rolling countryside was just perfect for fast touring. Everyone (except Ronnie) took turns on the front and as a result we were catching the other group fast. It was by far the most enjoyable day for me and the 90 or so miles felt effortless. I had by now trained myself into this ride albeit on the last day so I was really enjoying every second. I hadfinally become a narrow-hipped Columbian Hill Climber.  When we stopped at the coffee stop the other group were only 45 minutes ahead of us. We would surely be able to catch them by lunchtime which  in fact we did with only 2 miles to spare.

After lunch the terrain got a little more lumpy but we were almost at the end and so no-one cared. We were all riding strongly and ate up the miles to Tring and finally St Albans. As the lead group we waited at a local pub for the main group to arrive before we all rode together to the finish at the St Michael’s Manor Hotel. Family, friends and some press met us there with news that the 24 or us had raised nearly £60,000 for our respective charities.

My sincere thanks to collegues and clients that sponsored me. My sponsorship page remains open if anyone would still like to donate. Please visit: www.virginmoneygiving.com/team/renniegroveiowchallenge

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