Mountains In My Mind
In her latest blog, Rebecca Richardson writes about the importance of goals.
“It is a grand thing, to get leave to live”
Nan Shepherd, Living Mountain
On March 14th 2020, or as soon as UK travel restrictions and covid rules allow, I will attempt to set a Roads Record Association (RRA) cycling record on the Brecon Beacons Circuit. The circuit is 104.5miles with 6,660ft of total elevation. The time to beat is a standard set by the RRA of 5 hours and 25min. The current men's record holder, Chris Gibbard, rode an outstanding time of 4 hours 24min in September 2020, and this sets a benchmark for this difficult hilly course.
I first heard of the Roads Record Association at the Cycling Time Trials Champions Night awards ceremony in January 2020, when a set of alternative awards were presented to winners of long-distance record holders. Bright red satin over-sized caps with ample luft, or flop or in some instances due to the slinky material, where duly donned on record-holders' heads. What were these records? I pricked my ears at an announcement of new “circuit records” to be added to the RRA list of courses, but after that I forgot as covid-19 reared its head only a month later in February 2020.
More recently Jonathan Shubert broke the 100mile RRA record in 2hr 57min 58sec, and it was well covered on social media and cycling media, including GCN (Global Cycling Network) and Strava. Amidst the scarcity of UK amateur racing and the lack of opportunities for elite level athletes outside of the “system” this ride really inspired a lot of people and offered a glimpse at alternative officiated rides. In the GCN YouTube video I loved seeing a very old school method of recording Schubert's time splits, with a pen and paper and a stop watch from a follower car. It also appeared that these time-keepers were well into their retirement years! As an enthusiast of cycling history I delved into the details of this ride a bit further and entered a whole fantasy inspiring world of the UK long-distance records.
My mind is fairly imaginative. Quite often I am lost in thought so that my son has to repeat my name “mum, mum, mum..” until I snap out of my day-dream, in his sweetness he mused on how “mum, I think you are dreaming, and when you do you can’t hear anything”. This is quite a handy tool for any parent! Actually, I have had a lot of people tell me I am quiet, which is odd because I wouldn’t tell someone they are loud! Normally I am floating in my dreamboat world, sometimes somewhere on a mountain climb battling with the forces of my body saying stop, yet energized by the poetic rhetoric the west has created for climbing mountains. From my living room sofa that I acquired from a charity shop, all my hard-work in the metal and carbon of an S-Works in the corner, I watch Tour de France, The Vuelta, The Giro. On the edge of my tattered seat as heroes of cycling battle the largest climbs in Europe, making me yearn to be there to feel that edge of physical effort against the best in the world.
The mind offers a wonderful escape, but I have learnt that emptiness of the mind is also a condition of the human race. As the virus changed my life and the opportunities to escape in my mind lessened due to the external anxieties and I found a deep burning sensation developing in my frontal cortex. As schools shut, my work stopped, and I felt prison doors shut on my mind. It took me several weeks of dragging myself onto the turbo with a vacuum of nothing in my brain. Although I did observe that after 30minutes on the indoor turbo my mind would gradually start to see cracks of light in that prison door. Endorphins are a wonderful thing. I know that many people are experiencing this emptiness and entrapment. Liam would ask how I was, and his empathy showed the human compassion in those around me. Equally, he made sure to set training that was achievable whilst my circumstances were changed.
As January 2021 arrived I made a simple pledge to achieve 1000 miles on my bike, which due to turbo miles being quicker than road miles, this gave me the mental edge to get on the device and a hope of escape from the dungeon of my mind! I remember listening to the story of a criminal who changed his life by becoming a world class rower. He did this all from behind actual prison doors. My mind-set shifted, whilst outdoor biking wasn't available, I had far more control over my destiny that I perceived in December, a month prior. Sure enough my mind started coming alive again and gave me the opportunity to look sideways to see how else I can test my body and mind on a bike. Could I find a challenge to help satisfy my imagination, be testing enough to make me doubt whether it is achievable, and offer a tangible result to my sponsors. I was keen to support a cycling organisation in these times too, especially with the UK cycling scene going through a big transition period, and this is when I started looking at the Roads Record Association.
The Roads Record Association (RRA.org.uk) was founded in 1888 when cycling was booming in Great Britain. The organisation set high standards for timing and authentication of road cycling records although initially it was only for male cyclists. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Women's Road Record Association was formed, but it had the same reputation for integrity, and naturally within a few years both bodies merged to form the RRA, and continued to ratify records.
The Roads Record Association is an inclusive organisation. It is evident to me that records held by men and women are celebrated equally. There is a cohort of male and female cyclists, enthusiasts and officials who help each other out to achieve record attempts. This is so refreshing to come across a long-standing organisation that is evidently open-minded
Within a week of researching the RRA I had already developed a web of contacts and it was apparent that there is a family feeling and positive vibes within the community, which I love! My mind was alight again with positivity as I once again was able to enter my dream world, where I have the ability to shut off the negativities. As I ticked off the January 2021 1000 miles, and made new connections with RRA enthusiasts my mind became rejuvenated. The community is made up of athletes attempting records, their supporters, volunteers and time-keepers and general cycling enthusiasts. Yes! Count me in!
The most well known records that are officiated and ratified by the RRA are the famous “Lands End to John O’Groats” (LEJOG); London to Edinburgh; York to Edinburgh; Side-to-side.
As a fan of cycling history, I was swept away with nostalgia hearing Elieen Sheridan, one of the world's greatest female cyclists, talk about her record breaking attempt of LEJOG on the RRA podcast.
Ok, so I am an avid listener of podcasts! I love all kinds! From Mitch Dockers “Talking Luft” shorts, to most recently a funny but wholesome journey into Buddhist monks debating key topics. I say funny because half of it is in Tibetan, until it is translated. So, I will sit there for minutes at a time listening to a language I do not understand!
For any cycling enthusiast and podcast listener, you will be delighted to know that there is a truly brilliant podcast series hidden away from the ‘usual’ channels. It is a real gem. You can find the “Roads Record Association'' podcast on “SoundCloud”. It is free and hosted by Mike Broadwidth and excellent interviewer and current mens LEJOG record holder. Within a week of discovering the podcast I had listened to all of the interviews with current and past record holders until Mike Broadwidth sent me a personal message with a screenshot of his podcast stats showing me as No 1. Listener of the week. I felt a little embarrassed to have revealed my new unrivalled enthusiasm for the RRA and the podcast!
In 2020 the RRA announced a new standard of records called Circuit Records, which would certainly appeal to athletes wishing to start/finish in the same place and thus removing a good deal of logistics. After all, not many would want to bike back from a LEJOG attempt, although I listened to one funny story on the podcast of a record holder who ended up stranded in John O’Groats with no means to get home! It took him several days to get back through a series of hilarious adventures. You will need to listen to the podcasts to find out more!
The circuits are therefore promoting accessibility and with a hope to increase popularity of RRA attempts. There are several circuits around the UK and to be honest I am inspired by them all! They are all in beautiful parts of the country and feature a lot of hills, and are attritional in nature of being shorter, punchier and mountainous. The shortest distance is 104miles and the longest the North Coast 500mile around the Scottish Highlands.
I pin-pointed Brecon Beacons as it lies within my home county of Powys in Wales and I have ridden and raced parts of the course so during lockdown when it isn’t possible to recce the course, I can at least conjure up some visions and memories of certain sections.
Liam and I discussed the record challenge and agreed that with road racing postponed this would offer the perfect opportunity to train towards something tangible whilst still aligning with the of demands of road-racing, so in training towards the record it would only strengthen my body towards the road-racing season when I will be able to race with my team Brother UK On Form. Liam’s support meant that I could leave the training plan to him, and he also formulated a schedule for the route and researched our preferred start / finish point on the course and a pacing schedule based on my physical historic data.
My record attempt for the Brecon Beacons circuit will start just outside the market town of Brecon. The River Usk and River Honddu meet in Brecon and before the building of the bridge, Brecon was one of the few places where the river could ford. Fortunately, I won’t need to cross a ford, and the well tarmacked and wide road will take me west to Llandovery, the first checkpoint I will need to pass to ensure compliance with the RRA record rules.
Brecon is situated within the Brecon Beacons National Park, formed in 1957, the UK’s 10th National Park. It features mountain and rolling hills and luscious valleys. Prehistoric people cleared land, built standing stones and stone circles. Romans felt forts and road engineering. Then more recently an indelible permanent mark left on the landscape in the Industrial Revolution with the South Wales Valleys mined for coal and iron. These mining scars lie to the southern boundary of the Park. The popular Pen Y Fan mountain lies in the Brecon Beacons, with scores of walkers traversing its sides daily. But, most delectable are the road climbs for cyclists, with the famous “Tumble” near Gilwern and some of my absolute favourites nearby on the “Rhigos” and “Bryn Du” true and pure climbs to make any cyclist weep in pain and whoop for joy at the same time.
However, on my record attempt I will travel west from Brecon to the small Welsh village of LLandovery and there I will pass a small motte and bailey castle which sits upon a rock outcrop, built in 1116 by the Normans after their invasion of Great Britain. It was famously targeted by Owain Glyndwr during his “war of liberation” in the early 1400’s, but fell into disuse after Cromwells victory in the English Civil War. There is also a statue in LLandovery in honour of LLywelyn Ap Gruffudd who was hung, drawn and quartered by King Henry IV. A sacrifice Llywelyn made to protect the whereabouts of Owain Glyndwr and his comrades. There will be no rebels waiting for me on the day, although that would be quite exciting if I had to dodge my way around them! But it is a beacon and first checkpoint to pass on the course.
As I head out of LLandovery I will start to turn south, and head directly towards a key feature and crux to the ride, the “Black Mountain” climb. This is an “official 100 climb” on Strava and defined in Simon Warrens “100 Greatest Cycling Climbs” book, a firm favourite amongst UK hill climbers, showcasing the best climbs in Britain. Professional cyclist Hannah Barnes holds the current QOM on Strava up the climb when the OVO Womens Tour raced over it in June 2019. Her stats are impressive as she crested the mountain pass in 20 minutes and 50seconds over 4.49miles with an elevation gain of 1246ft and an average gradient of 5.3%. In the men’s, Ed Laverack (National Hill Climb Champion 2019) holds the KOM at 15.58.
Minutes could be lost on this climb, especially with prevailing southerly winds. Naturally I have nervous anticipation for this section. However, the ‘true’ climb up to Black Mountain really starts 3miles prior to the ‘Official Black Mountain’ Strava segment. The “Dragon TT Series” a popular south wales summer time trial series hosts a TT up Black Mountain, and their Strava segment records a total of 7.79miles of climbing with an average gradient of 3.2% to the top of the climb. All I know is that this is going to hurt! Fortunately, Liam has set a training plan that will help me overcome these climbs along the way.
After black mountain I will shoot down towards Neath, and the second checkpoint. Here I will navigate down a hard shoulder onto the famous (in south wales maybe) Heads of Valley road, the A465. It links the northern heads of the south wales valleys and approximately follows the Southern boundary of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Ordnance Survey Pathfinder map describes the road as the “unofficial border between rural and industrial South Wales''. To cyclist it is more well known for hosting one of the fastest 25mile time trial courses in the UK, with the intrepid “ski-slope” a terrifyingly fast straight two-lane descent down the by-pass where the mere turbulence of a car or lorry, or worst the cross-winds has legs shaking in fear! I have done this time trial twice at the Welsh Championship 25-mile event, and podiumed once in 2018, so know this bit of road quite well. Famously, pro cyclist Hayley Simmonds, set a sub-50 minute on this course * The slowest leg of the TT is the return heading north-east, and it is in this direction that I will be riding on the record attempt.
Finally, there will be a surprise climb nearer the end of the ride as I head back North to Brecon, a nasty kicker up to the village of Bwlch. It is 1mile and 5.5% and 418ft of elevation gain. Having raced the Brecon Mountain Time Trial and descended this climb in anger I can really visualise how steep it would be to go back up it! I will need to push on the pedals here to avoid losing precious minutes and I can almost feel the lactate burning in my legs at the thought!
So, here is a rather long-winded intro to my record attempt. I will be posting more on social media, including a very exciting bike (not a TT bike) which I will be riding! Plus, some details for tracking my ride on the day!
Wish me luck with my training, as you can tell this has really given me a motivational goal to work towards and Liam has been fully supportive. Goals are something that Liam has always emphasised to me, and in these uncertain times, having an intrinsic goal within my control has elevated my mental health. Having a coach is brilliant because it is someone to be accountable for in my training. Telling everyone about my attempt is also part of the accountability. The success of the attempt will be in the preparation and if I fail to set the record that won’t mean I have failed my goal. My goal is to do the training, do the preparation and turn up with fresh legs, to pace the ride and tick off the markers along the way. This, ‘control what you can control’ approach, is something that Liam has instilled in me.
This is a completely new kind of challenge for me as I am not a known ‘tester’ time trialist or long-distance cyclist, actually my preferred time on a bike is about 8minutes going uphill! So, the challenge and ‘what if’ has really excited me. After all the challenge encompasses an essence of the Grand Tour mountain stages (on a far more moderate scale) and perhaps I can pretend to be a world tour rider for one day, battling up the Black Mountain. There is a scarcity in climbing, it creates a hunger which is paradoxically fulfilling whilst empty. It captures my imagination for one.