We’ve all been there. That long, hard, lonely ride that feels like it’ll never end. The darkest hour of the night, where your eyelids start to droop and you don’t think you can find it in you to keep turning the pedals. The moments where there’s nothing left in you, where giving up is unthinkable, but going on feels impossible.
Ask any endurance athlete and she’ll tell you of countless moments like this, be they in the 22nd mile of a marathon, or the 101st day of rowing across an ocean. My own personal witching hour tends to occur just before the sun comes up on an overnight ride, or on longer bike trips, where I’m overdue a rest day, but still two days’ ride from where I plan to stop, and race from sun-up to sundown to get there in one go, pushing against the current of exhaustion the whole way.
I can’t remember exactly when I hit upon the idea of an invisible peloton. I think it was borne of that desperation you feel when you reach the bottom of the tank, realize you still have much further to go, and start frantically grasping at anything that might possibly keep you going, just a bit longer. You don’t have any strength left of your own, so you start borrowing other people’s.
That day when I rode 100 miles into the wind from Sofia to Plovdiv (having ridden through two whole countries since my last shower, and four since my last rest day), I was thinking of Jure Robic, powering his way to victory in his fifth RAAM. As I struggled up the Karakoram Highway, tyres slipping on the gravel and mind hazy from the altitude, I remembered Dervla Murphy’s account of riding through the Afghan and Pakistani summers in 1963, crossing unpaved mountain passes on only three gears and a couple of boiled eggs. One day, when I was toiling miserably across the Taklamakan Desert, so exhausted by heat and headwinds I could barely keep the bike straight, I stumbled across a small homestead in the middle of nowhere, where other cyclists had stopped over the years, leaving their business cards and photographs with the kind family who lived there. Among all the other bits of paper my host handed me was a note and a passport photo from Sarah Outen, who’d been there a year before me. The effect was the same as if Outen herself had appeared alongside me – my mood instantly lifted, the tiredness in my legs seemed to abate, and I found I could go on after all.
Outen herself is no stranger to the invisible peloton. When we compared notes on our respective rides across Asia, she told me of one of her own hardest rides, racing through Russia’s Far East to make it across to Japan before the border closed.
I cycled 270km down Sakhalin on shocking roads and through the night to land at dawn in pissing, freezing rain and I imagined a huge peloton of everyone I knew around me, pulling me on, pushing me forwards and alongside. Amazing the mad things your brain can call to life when it needs to.
Amazing indeed. My own brain performed a similar miracle the night I cycled up Ventoux, three days into last year’s Transcontinental Race. As I approached the 21-kilometre climb I dissolved into tears. I knew I couldn’t do it. I had no energy left in my body, having burnt it all already on the 1,000km dash down from Belgium. And yet, as I kept turning the pedals, a strategy evolved, seemingly out of nowhere. As if I’d planned it all along, I methodically divided the 21km of Ventoux into 2km chunks, and decided to dedicate each stretch to a woman who inspires me. It sounds cheesy, but it worked. I thought about Outen again. I thought about other members of the Syndicate we didn’t yet know we’d create. I thought about friends and heroes, and people far stronger than me. When the wind gathered behind me, I imagined it was another cyclist, riding alongside me, her hand on the small of my back, helping me up the hill.
(I wrote a much longer blog post about that climb, in case you’re interested. In the spirit of endurance racing, it is 7,588 words long, and there are no pictures.)
The invisible peloton will be out in full force on next weekend’s North Coast 500. True, each of us will have our six fellow riders to rely on, along with the generous friends who are giving up their weekend to follow us in a camper van, hand us flapjacks, fix our punctures, and listen to us moaning about our saddlesore. And a lot of strong riders have already promised to come out and join us for parts of the route. Then there are those who can’t make it up to Scotland, but have assured us they’ll dedicate their Saturday club run to us, or sit up till the early hours, watching our blue dot slowly creeping its way across the map. When we hit our low points, as we all will at one moment or another, it will be an immense comfort to know that these people are there, out in the darkness, wishing us well, willing us on.
And then there are those people whose strength we’ll desperately call upon in those dark and terrible hours of the night, when hope is almost gone, and we are crazed from sugar and sleeplessness.
I’ll be thinking of Beryl Burton – Britain’s greatest cyclist, most famous for setting a 12-hour time-trial record that exceeded the men’s for two years, who died 20 years ago today.
I’ll be thinking of Kajsa Tylen, who’s currently on her way to smashing the women’s record for furthest distance cycled in a year. When I met Kajsa in Nottingham a couple of months ago she told me her friends all suffer from ‘Kajsa guilt’, telling her they can’t possibly moan about their rainy ten-mile commute now, knowing that she’s having to ride more than 80 miles a day, day in day out. If Kajsa can ride 30,000 miles in a year, then we can definitely ride 500 in a weekend.
I’ll be thinking of Dervla Murphy, now 85, who in her youth cycled across most of Asia on a three-speed bike called Rosinante, without tarmac or wifi.
I’ll be thinking of Sarah Outen on Sakhalin and Juliana Buhring in the final days of the TransAm Bike Race.
I'll be thinking of Jenn Hill, a formidable racer and writer, who inspired countless people to aim beyond what they thought they were capable of (and left us far too early).
I’ll be thinking about Lael Wilcox in the Tour Divide.
And Jill Homer in Iditarod.
I’ll be thinking of anyone my tired mind can grasp at, who has struggled, and suffered, and kept going, and eventually triumphed. I’ll imagine them riding alongside me, sharing their strength, shielding me from the wind, pushing and pulling me forward. They’ll be my invisible peloton.
Who’s in yours?