Updated: Aug 24, 2020
Participants in every sport share a common goal: the search for an elusive moment of perfection. The perfect volleyed goal, the perfect innings, the perfect golf shot. It is the moment that keeps you coming back to a sport. The moment where everything feels just right as if you were made for just this. You don't even need to be the world's best to achieve it. Anyone of any ability can suddenly have everything click into place and be left wondering, why can't it always be like this?
Somewhere around 10:30 on Friday night, on tiny lanes weaving their way through the Chiltern hills, in pitch black with nothing to illuminate the way but my front light and in near total silence, I had a moment. And it wasn't fleeting. It was one of the best hours I have ever spent on a bike. The weather was still so warm I had my jersey fully unzipped. The only sounds were the whirring of my chain, the occasional sheep and the beeping of my Garmin with directions.
This is the hour I will choose to remember most on my ride from Warwick to Hove on my new Meteor Works Aesir: a 250km ride that started at 6 pm on Friday and finished early Saturday afternoon. The intention had been to ride 100km south on Friday evening after work, stop overnight and complete the ride on Saturday at a leisurely pace. I wanted to test out my Aesir and also bivvy for the first time en route. The latter was the bigger test because I am no fan of camping but do want to be more adventurous on my long rides home, so I needed to crack this.
Let me start by sharing what went well. Apart from my perfect hour, there was lots to enjoy. I mean, I finished and there were plenty of times on Saturday when I thought I wouldn't as heat and fatigue took over. The last 30km, in particular, seemed to take forever. There were the pre-dawn hours riding in the dark into and out of Reading and unexpectedly coming across a beautiful bridge with lights there. The excitement of hitting my first off-road trails and paths through woodland. The friend who checked in on me and invited me to his home and made me breakfast at 7.30 am on Saturday (thanks Ron!). The first couple of hours on the Downs Link, a gravel trail that runs for 60km from Surrey through to Shoreham on the coast. All of these were memorable.
And of course the bike. I bought the Aesir to open up new adventures and it has done exactly that. Once I got used to handling it fully laden with bags it was superb. As my confidence increased I got faster and faster over the gravel (until I got really tired towards the end at least). The single chainring gearing worked and I needed every one of the 11 gears, including the big dinner plate-sized cog to get over the tougher hills.
I should also be honest enough to share what didn’t work, starting with the fact I seriously underestimated how hard this would be. The combination of the distance, the weight of the bike and kit, the surfaces, the lack of sleep and the heat made this as tough a ride as I have ever done. This will come as no surprise to those that regularly ride off-road, but 100km on trails and gravel is much more tiring than on the road. The need to concentrate on picking your line through gravel, potholes, tree roots etc means it's hard to relax.
By the end, I was running on fumes. That's also a result of once again messing up my hydration and nutrition. I simply didn’t eat and drink enough. I don't know how many times I am going to get this wrong before I fix it.
And what about the bivvy experience? I didn’t sleep. I had a three hour rest. I picked the wrong spot in the woods at the top of the Chilterns. I'll tell you this, nature is fucking noisy. Muntjac deer barking*, owls hooting and the constant movement of small animals in the leaves around me meant I couldn't get to sleep. I've avoided bivvying because of an irrational fear of being woken up by a badger or something. That's the thing with irrational fears though, they make no sense. Knowing that doesn’t help you. What I should have thought about is how noisy the constant movement of insects on dry leaves crackling around my head would be. Note to self, next time sleep on the grass. By 2.30 am I was still wide awake and then things started dropping out of the trees above me as some bird decided to clean house. At first, it was the occasional tapping sound as something hit the ground, but within 10 minutes it started raining stuff down on me and pinging off my bike. At 3 am I gave up and decided to get back on the road. As I packed up I found my missing banana squashed beneath my bivvy bag swarming with insects - well that explains that.
Finally a word on the route. I used Komoot to plan it because it offers the opportunity to easily switch between road, touring and gravel bike routes. I made a few adjustments to visit a friend on the way and he, in turn, used local knowledge to help me avoid some roads. I switched between national cycle network routes and the already mentioned Downs Link off-road trail. It was mostly great, except for the last 15km which felt like Komoot had hurried to complete their homework on the school bus in order to have something to hand in. I was directed down a heavily rutted farm track, then across two farm fields with horses and cows in. To be fair I made this harder for myself in comedy style. An inner tube had fallen out of my seat bag and got wrapped around the rear axle and brake calliper. What are the chances of that? I spent 10 minutes cutting it away with a penknife one of my daughters bought me for Christmas. Not before I had lost a kilo in sweat though and sworn at the top of my voice to watching impassive cows.
As a punishment for my foul language, the route then proposed to send me up the 17% Devil's Dyke road which felt like an unnecessarily cruel option so close to the finish. I opted for a 10% alternative on a main road with fast moving traffic and the dinner plate gear came into its own.
This was not my first bikepacking trip of course, but it was my first attempt at being self-sufficient. So much of it worked that I will definitely repeat it very soon. Even if I look an absolute state at the finish.
Meteor Works Aesir - A+
Rapha Brevet (everything) - A+
Rapha bar bag, saddlebag & frame bag - B the saddlebag doesn’t work really
Alpkit bivvy & sleepmat - B (I can't blame the kit for my lack of sleep)
I originally thought this weird sound was foxes turns out to be Muntjac deer barking