The Rapha Festive 500 is an annual challenge to all of us to blow away the Christmas cobwebs and get out on our bikes, at a time of year when many of us would otherwise end up surgically attached to the sofa. Thousands of cyclists all over the world will be attempting to ride 500km over the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Year. Emily Chappell decided to see what all the fuss was about.
When I first decided to do the Festive 500 I thought I’d take it to extremes, and try to squeeze as many rounds of 500km as I possibly could into the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Year. I could manage at least three, I told myself, and wouldn’t that be excellent training for next year’s Transcontinental?
Then good sense prevailed. I thought about just how many miles I’ve already covered this year (perhaps fewer than people like Kajsa Tylen and Amanda Coker, but nonetheless more than in any other year of my life), remembered that for once my whole family would be in the same place for longer than a couple of hours, and that it would be a shame to miss out on all their bad puns and good company.
So I decided on a different challenge: I’ve decided I’ll try to get my Christmas mileage as close to 500km as I possibly can. To help me keep track, I’ve finally given in to peer pressure, and joined Strava. (I’ve always claimed that Strava would be like crack cocaine for someone with my overblown competitive instincts, and so far I’m not wrong.)
Day 1 – Christmas Eve
I could have picked a better day for a bike ride. Mid Wales was still buckling under the remnants of Storm Barbara, with trees bent almost double in the wind, and windowpanes rattling as squalls of rain battered against them.
But the Pennant Hill QOM was my carrot, and an overheated house full of noisy siblings was my stick, and at 2pm sharp I gleefully fled down the A470, pushed east by 40mph gusts of wind – until I turned north-west at Caersws and found myself almost at a standstill, struggling into one of the worst headwinds I’d ever experienced.
I don’t know about you, but I take headwinds very personally. And because I can’t really take my resentment out on the air itself, I perform all sorts of mental gymnastics to blame my suffering on my undeserving family, anyone who’s ever done anything to annoy me, or, failing all else, myself. By the time I turned south at Llanbrynmair I was seething with irritation and self-loathing, and the only thing for it was to attack the Pennant climb as if the hill itself were the source of all my woes.
Thankfully, this proved to be the turnaround point in more ways than one. There are few better things to do when you’re angry than race your bike up a hill, and as I puffed and panted up towards the Dylife turn-off I found I was enjoying myself more and more – even as I neared the top and was almost buffeted off my bike by an unexpected sidewind.
An hour later I arrived home, covered in mud and sweat, with a warm happy glow and a brace of QOMs to gloat over – including the Pennant Climb. And my family enjoyed a better, happier version of me than they’d seen all week.
Km completed: 65.2
Km to go: 438.4
Today's lesson: Battling a headwind is a great way of exorcising demons.
Day 2 – Christmas Day
Was I really going to abandon my family on Christmas morning? And, more to the point, were they going to let me? Luckily I had the perfect excuse.
Rickie Cotter is one of the fastest people I’ve ever cycled with – and she’s also the most likeable. I’ve never known anyone not to be instantly charmed by her broad Welsh accent and irrepressible energy, and my parents are no exception.
So when I told them I was going to join Rickie for part of the massive ride she was doing from her home in Wiltshire to the cottage in North Wales where she was spending Christmas, they not only agreed that I could go, but hastily made up a Christmas stocking for her, handed me a thermos of coffee, and insisted I bring her back for mince pies.
Rickie had a tailwind, so was making shockingly good progress – whereas I was still being blown backwards so forcefully that as I crossed the Severn watershed I found I had to pedal downhill into the Wye Valley.
We met, with great celebration, a few miles south of Llangurig, and stopped in a windswept layby for coffee and stockings before battling onwards, back up the Severn Valley into the Hafren Forest, against a wind that seemed determined to push us back the way we’d come. Rickie’s incessant conversation added another level of difficulty, I reflected, as we sprinted uphill and I carefully arranged my heavy breathing in order to reply to her questions in full sentences.
We spent 20 minutes sitting on the damp concrete outside the Hafren Forest toilet block, bikepacker style, sharing a bag of chocolate coins and planning out our rides and races and adventures for the next year, then she pushed on uphill into the wind, another 50 miles to go, and I turned round and let the wind blow me back home, ticking off another couple of QOMs in the process.
Km completed: 64.2
Km to go: 370.6
Today's lesson: Ride into a headwind with a talkative friend, for an extra workout on the hills.
Stay tuned for more updates as Emily tackles Bwlch y Groes pass, and tries to keep her mileage under 501km!