I’ve always been a fan of Strava‘s virtual cycling challenges. It’s not just the woven ‘swimming badge’ they sometimes offer as a reward or the kudos from fellow Strava-ists. It’s the sense of being a part of something global and accepting the challenge to ride that bit further or higher or commit to riding on an arbitrary day not knowing what the weather will be or how you’ll be feeling. I’ve taken crazy detours to and from work to top up my distance for the Spring Classics badge and taken the train to London to meet with complete strangers (now friends) to ride the Women’s 100 in the pouring rain on treacherous pothole-ridden roads. Even on the challenges I’ve taken alone, I’ve never been truly alone. One of the beautiful things about this time we live in means we can browse social media using hashtags and connect with fellow cyclists around the world. OK the wind on that #braverthantheelements was truly heartbreaking but damn! Those ladies in Canada on skinny tires in the driving snow! Chapeau!
The Rapha Festive 500 has been on my to-do list for a while but in the nine years since I moved to Southampton, I spent the first eight Christmasses on planes, trains and busses, dashing around family and friends dispersed across York, Newcastle and Glasgow, with my little troupe of bicycles taking a well-earned rest back home. This year however, was a bit different. My partner and I ended up stuck in Southampton over the festive period but we decided to turn a bad situation into a golden opportunity and made the commitment to ride the Festive 500.
The Festive 500 is an annual event taking place over the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. There’s no rules, no organised mass-participation course – all you need to do is get on your bike and ride 500km (just over 310 miles) during that period. Not a big ask in terms of distance but this is the time of year when everyone’s at their busiest and there’s the added risk of storms, floods and ice to contend with for those super-tough cyclists in countries where it’s actually winter. Lucky for us, since we would be visiting family in the New Year instead of over
Christmas, we had little in the way of commitments. Out of the eight days, I would only be working two and although Storm Barbara threatened to blow our chances away it amounted to little more than a bit of wind on the first day.
The first ride filled us with confidence; although the wind was high enough to make some descents feel like an uphill struggle, it was relatively warm for December and we managed to get 129km in the bag straight away. By the end of day four, we had 411km under our belts and we were pretty confident. I had to go to work for two days but we still had December 30th and 31st to get those last 89km. That Festive 500 badge was pretty much a dead cert. Then winter arrived.
Below-freezing temperatures overnight before our penultimate day had left a blanket of fog so thick visibility was limited to a matter of metres. No worries – the weather forecast predicted it would be gone by midday so we waited. And waited. And checked the forecast again. The forecast had changed – the fog wouldn’t actually lift until 16:00! In that case, we were left with one option. We had already agreed that riding the winding roads of the New Forest would be an accident waiting to happen so begrudgingly we made our way to the local park, riding laps and desperately trying to avoid the dogs and children weaving across the paths on their shiney Christmas bikes until the fog miraculously began to lift. Our confidence grew and we were losing patience with the busy park so we finally decided that we were ready to risk getting out on some real roads. However, the temperature was dropping again and as we rode out from the city centre I began to develop a thin layer of frost and started to lose sensation in my hands until I could no longer operate the gears or brakes. Defeated, we had to call it a day and arrived back home with only 62km to go and one day to do it. Having initially thought 500km over an unusually warm Christmas period would be easy, I was reminded what a fickle beast the British weather can be and how seasons can change overnight and knock all your plans sideways in one swipe.
New Years Eve had come around all too quickly and whilst things had gone so well in the first half that I had visions of triumphantly finishing on 600km+, things were suddenly starting to look uncertain. With another severe weather warning for fog in effect until at least 10am, we kept ourselves busy at the supermarket before embarking on the last leg. Things were looking good – visibility was already improving by 09:30. Hurrying home to get changed, we were feeling pretty confident. Until the fog started to roll in again. So close to our goal, there was no question that we would bail now so armed with our best lights we set out for our last ride of the Festive 500. We thought our worst fears had come true as we rode further and further out of town and the fog once more enveloped everything around us, leaving us with only 10 meters of good visibility ahead. Mentally calculating loops in the more sheltered suburbs of Southampton as a last resort, we rode on in the murk but once we reached the shelter of the New Forest, the fog began to clear and suddenly the forest was beautiful. The battleship grey of the sky with rays of light desperately punching through, skeletal trees in silhouette, verdant fields contrasted with the gold of the last fallen leaves of autumn. This is why we ride in winter and in those final kms the sun bathed everything in a golden light and reminded me what I love about this time of year.
- MADE IT! And the sun came out for us!
I started the Festive 500 feeling cocky. With an unseasonably temperate short-term forecast and six days ahead of me to ride 500km, I wondered if it would even feel like much of a challenge. When the weather changed after my two days back in the office, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a dead cert at all. 500km in six days isn’t a challenge for me but getting through the changing British weather unscathed and riding even when I would normally think I’d rather not – that’s the challenge. Although it will probably be business as usual next Christmas and my bikes will be enjoying a break, I’m proud of my achievement this year and would gladly do it all again.