Let us start with misery.
Let us start halfway through one of the great epic cycling adventures, the 1240km Paris-Brest-Paris. It’s halfway for most people who did the ride, but I am handing my card back into the controller and making hand signs to say ‘done, finished’.
I go outside and sit on the long grass in the late afternoon sun and, unexpectedly, sob my eyes out.
I had no idea how much I had wanted to do this ride until I couldn’t do any more of it. 620km might seem like a long enough way, and I had had some great moments, but it was only half the ride and I wouldn’t get to try it for four more years and by then I’d be over fifty. Fifty!
So what happened? I had simply run out of motivation. That, and food. The French controls were slow and had little or no Gluten free options other than yoghurt and rice. No grains, no carbs. I felt like I was metabolising my bones, getting slower and slower as my residual energy leaked away like air out of a bad sleeping mat.
The truth, which I could only admit months later, was crueler. I just wasn’t ready. I had qualified by doing rides I would normally do anyway and thought I would ‘have a go’ and ‘see how far I got’. That kind of attitude does not drag an aging body through 1200km and up 10,000m of climbing in 90 hours. I had never decided I wanted to do it, decided at a cellular level.
You can read the full misery later if you want.
There was one thing that wasn’t an illusion though, and that was the rock solid performance of the bike I was riding. I had no discomfort, my hands were tired but not destroyed, my bum wasn’t sore, my back was good. 600km done with barely an ache.
So it wasn’t the bikes fault.
In Audax circles a ‘long’ ride is 400kms or over, and a 200km ride is normal. A mate of mine calls that ‘Audax bonkers normal’, but the truth is you can ride just about any bike 200km: A race bike, a fixie, a tourer, a hybrid, whatever you’ve got. For a long ride though not just any setup will do.
At those kind of distances two things happen. The first is that any little niggle becomes properly epic and potentially ride ending. That saddle which is a little uncomfortable for 200km becomes a device of torture; slightly sore hands become dead nerves that make it difficult to change gear; a stiff back becomes the dreaded Schermer’s neck where you literally cannot hold your head up. The second is that, after two nights on the road without proper sleep, you will enter the strange world of sleep deprivation and hallucinations. And when you are in that alternative universe a twitchy racy bike is the opposite of safe.
There are plenty of people who ride unsuitable bikes too far. I have been overtaken in the first kilometer of a 600 by someone in a timetrial tuck and with deep carbon wheels, so the perfect bike for him (young, fast) was a fast road bike. For me the perfect bike for long distance is comfortable and steady. You want a bike that’s going to get you around a sketchy gravel corner on an unknown hill in Wales at 3am on no sleep without issue. You want a Range Rover not a Ferrari.
Enter the Tripster ATR. It’s made of Titanium, the queen of frame materials. Titanium is expensive, hard to work with and environmentally dirty but it is a great frame material for a properly comfortable bike. It’s also meant to last a lifetime. Nuclear subs are clad in titanium. 90% of titanium goes into aerospace, into places with operating lives of many decades and that are kinda important, places like wings. The retail price for the Tripster frame alone is £1800. Which is why I am still rather chuffed at having got one for £250.
Someone had had the misfortune of dropping his cycle-rack off the roof of his car with the Tripster attached. The clamp on the cycle-rack had left two largish indents on the down tube of the bike. Consequently he had ‘lost faith’ in the bike. He couldn’t imagine descending a Welsh mountain at 3am at 50mph on it in safety. He’d also already made an insurance claim and gone and bought something else, so he was open to offers for the brave. I offered him £250 no questions asked. I had ridden plenty of steel bikes with bumps and dings in tubes and thought it was worth a punt.
That was a couple of months before PBP. I was settling to ride the Salsa but after one ride around the block I knew this was ‘the one’ for long distance. Comfortable, yes, but also light and stable.
The Tripster was the first bike that started a small new-wave of bike designs. First on the market in 2014 it applies a hint of mountain bike thinking to the road format to create something that is comfortable without being too sluggish. It is designed around disc brakes and takes big tires that smooth the ride and grip like crazy around corners. It’s great for backroads and dirt lanes and epically shitty weather.
To be honest I don’t actually like the way it looks and the head tube is too long for me but once I am on it that slight aesthetic distaste melts away. The ride quality of this bike is unbelievable. Somehow it manages to completely smooth those crappy UK roads back to silk. It’s not a racy bike and you don’t feel like attacking hills on it but that’s not the Audax remit. The longer you ride it the more comfort negates the very slight speed advantage of a race bike. For a long ride you need to be able to get back on a bike day after day. That’s the basic requirement - a bike that you can keep riding no matter how dreadful you feel, that looks after you a bit.
So the PBP build was a bit rubbish and I didn’t have everything quite as well sorted as I do now but it certainly wasn’t the bikes fault that I hadn’t made the finish.
Two years later and I was literally descending a Welsh mountain at 3am at 50pmh and feeling very safe indeed. I was on the infamous Bryan Chapman - 600km with 7,500m of climbing Welsh hills. I had one hours sleep. I had some bad moments. I finished. I absolutely trusted my bike.
After PBP I had some time to sort out the bike properly and get it ready to ride the London-Edinburgh-London. Yes, that abbreviates to LEL; cyclists are an imaginative lot. LEL is a ride which does what it says on the tin; 1450km with a 116 hour limit. A big adventure, but very well organised - there were dorms and hot meals laid on every 60 to 80 miles.
Still, 1450km - how did I think I was going to manage that? My longest ride to date was ‘just’ 600km. What would make the difference this time?
All my riding since I gave up racing was casual. I was just someone who rode a bike. Sometimes to make some money, sometimes to go exploring, sometimes to relax, mostly to get to work. I had never really trained for anything, I had never built up to any rides over six months. Even as a boy racer back in the 80s I didn’t do much other than ride around Wellington as fast as I could. There were no real training plans back then, no forums to obsess over FTP, no heart rate monitors, no power monitors, no strava, no zwift. No supporting infrastructure.
This time I chose it. I decided I wanted to finish and I put in training hours and smaller challenge rides on the way. I targeted the event and prepared properly.
And having decided that I would finish LEL that’s exactly what I did.
It was an adventure and it had it’s ups and downs that’s for sure. Physically it’s demanding (obviously) and the weather can be hard; there was an epic and now legendary headwind all the way back from Edinburgh and climbing and then descending Yad Moss in a horrible storm was challenging. Food and hygenie is an issue too - fatigue and exertion make digestion more delicate and one of my riding buddies picked up a ride-ending stomach bug. But it’s the sleep that is the most challenging, or rather the lack of it. I had nine and half hours sleep over 112 hours.
On PBP back in 2015, having not slept for 53 hours, things got a little wonky. The road seemed to lurch every now and then and the night took on an alien strangeness, like everything had it’s skin removed. The hedges and grass seemed lethally pointed. Around me riders sleeping beside the road in tinfoil blankets looked like pupae dropped in from Area 51. At an intersection a woman unclipped from her bike, put her foot down and promptly fell over. You couldn’t trust what your body was telling you. I knew I really needed sleep when I saw a twelve foot high white rabbit beside the road. It was a collection of signs reflecting my headlight back at me.
But LEL was worse, much worse. Even after a two hour sleep on night two I was beginning to blank out. In the early dawn, before sunlight hits your body, you want to sleep. Even if you are riding a bike up a hill. There are couple of moments I can’t account for, half-conscious hazes where I am pedaling but only looking at the inside of my eyelids. Then snapping back and finding myself in Scotland riding up a hill at 4am. There is no traffic at 4am in Scotland on the Eskdalemuir road, so there was a reasonable safety margin, but I now understood how people could ride to the point of falling asleep on the bike - and waking up in a ditch.
The next night was stranger. Now back in Yorkshire, I remember looking up at the stars and seeing that they were connected with each other and, somehow, with me. A classic hyper-real moment of almost religious significance. Then a quiet back-road that lazily threaded though fields became a warm ribbon that started to lift and sway beneath me, like I was riding on a mobius strip. It was magical if somewhat strange. I did take the warning this time though and fell over in a patch of long wet grass for a ten minute nap while someone fixed a puncture, which did the trick.
But all that paled next to the epic weirdness of night four. Extreme fatigue, bought on by the never ending headwind and a total of three and half hours sleep in the last two days, tipped me into a very odd place indeed.
Normally when a car comes at you at night you make a split second unconscious rationalisation and convince yourself that this noisy machine coming at you with lights blazing, with nothing but a white line as a marker of convention between you and certain death, is going to stay on the other side of the road. You know that the tin box with a motor contains something like a semi-conscious being who doesn’t want to be bothered with killing you because not having a driving license would make their lives a little more difficult.
I’d lost that. It wasn’t that I was fearful of approaching cars it was simply that I failed to register them as cars. I’d also lost the ability to scale things correctly and was hyper-sensitive to sensory inputs.
Each approaching vehicle seemed like a tear in the veil of night, the road noise of the approach like a knife cutting into a heavy piece of canvas being held right next to my ear by a taunting metaphysical psychopath - first the fabric of the universe, then I’m coming for you. And the light came at me like massive sheets of thick white glass. Only at the very last moment did an Allen-sized hole materialise and I was able to slip inside the alien spaceship for a moment, glimpse at the multiple other dimensions held there, and then slide back out into the Lincolnshire night.
There’s an hour and half there where all I inhabited was a series of abstractions like this; the feeling of light brushing against tired brain cells, the weight of sound. My only other mental activity was the application of will to the pedals. By then I couldn’t really tell if I had a body or not, it seemed as if I was sending my mental resolve straight to the back wheel without any bodily intersession. I would have been hard-pressed to define where the boundaries between the bike and road and me and night were.
Being someone who is prone to making things up even well rested, I also made some startling situational jumps. There’s a little place in the middle of the Fens called Crowland which always makes me giggle. The highest point in Crowland is an ancient three-cornered bridge which stands, useless, 10 foot above the surrounding flatness. Just out of Crowland there is a sign proclaming ‘Peak hill’ on the side of the road. It must be 15 feet above sea level. But that night it became more sinister, it became Crowland, land of crows.
Suddenly the darkness has wings and they are vast. A stand of mechanical crows steps towards the road. Twenty yards high, made of dark iron with balustrades and flying buttresses they are a fantasy Brunel might have had on one of his bi-polar highs. The wings and heads and eyes are articulated by rods and as they bow their heads towards the road I can hear the suction of heavy oil, the slosh of cooling water running over hinges and levers.
One crow drops its head and lands its beak on me. A sharp metallic peck right on the thigh. Then another comes, folds out of the dark and arcs down. The beak, filed smooth to a razor point, looks like it’s going to cut me in half, but the mechanism is exquisitely measured and again it just nips my leg.
Yes, it’s The Birds. But it’s even more ingenious and cruel than Hitchcock. I see how the whole thing is powered. The road is a long conveyor belt and as I ride it I am also driving the links and machinery that makes the crows work.
I can stop and be free of the pecking - but then I can’t finish the ride on time.
I push on and the elaborate fantasy vanishes. I can see it now as a variation of that state of riding where you’ve been doing it so long you feel like you are pulling the world under you rather than traversing it. You are wading deep in the texture of the world, not gliding over the surface.
There is pretty much no way to avoid these epic tricks of the mind. Some people - a very few - are able to ride a lot faster and have more sleep. The rest of us deduct sleep from the riding time required to make the end in time, that’s why my sleep pattern for LEL was no sleep on night one, then 4hrs, then 2 and 2 again and then a horrible 90 minutes on the last night.
For someone like me, who has a body that is stronger than my mind, it’s the mental game that is interesting and rewarding. Over my years of Audaxing I feel like my mental resilience has gone up more than my physical abilities have gone down with age. It’s hard to say how much that resilience comes from cycling and my post gluten-free state or from getting older and being a parent. Wherever it comes from I am certainly proud of my long distance riding but not because of the distances; it’s the playing and winning of the mental game that counts.
And that’s not a battle with the mind, it’s working with the mind and ‘winning’ in that context is understanding. It’s kinda like some badass meditation boot camp with added fatigue, rain and hills. As I have said elsewhere:
We know riding LEL is a bit mad but it’s also keeping us sane. Long distance cycling is arbitrary and constructed – there is nothing natural about it. But we use the artifice to place ourselves back in the world and the weather. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts - we plan in the mind and execute in the body in order to revive the spirit.
There is a certain type of rider who embrace this ethos even more than the Audax set. They are typified by the Transcontinental crew - riders who do the solo and unsupported ride from northern Europe to Greece every year; somewhere in the region of 4000km. There are similar rides in American, Australia, NZ, all over Europe. If I were a younger man with more time and less mental health worries I would probably have jumped at those. You often see these riders at the start of Audaxes but then they shoot up the road and just keep going without the cups of tea and beans on toast that keep Audax civilised and a bit safe. Part of me wonders how good I would have been at long distance riding as a younger person; equally I know I didn’t really have the patience back then. So I live with the physical capability I have, the one I can keep to with a full time job and a family, and Audax with it’s very long rides every couple of years as a lighthouse adventure seems like a good fit.
Which brings me back to the Tripster. It’s not a bike that I look at and aspire to ride, it’s a bike that absolutely suits the kind of riding that I do. Even if I want to look more ‘pro’ and racy and have a hand-made beautifully painted distance machine there is nothing other than aesthetics and slightly lower top tube in it because I have a bike that is about as close to perfection for the riding I do as I will get without getting a custom frame.
Through all the mental nonsense on PBP and LEL the Tripster was solid as a rock, totally ridable, utterly reliable. I kept pedaling, stayed upright and on the road, was very comfortable and just about quick enough. I could have managed LEL on a classic road bike, something like the Salsa, but the extra margin that a bike like the Tripster gives you in circumstances like that is very welcome. The disc brakes, that slightly longer wheel base, that slightly lower bottom bracket, the slightly slacker head tube - all mms here and there to make the perfect very long distance bike.
This is the only mass-produced bike where I have wondered what the designer was like, who he was. And it turns out the designer, Dom Mason, has left Knesis and set out on his own and makes rather expensive but extremely well reviewed bikes - all of which have shorter head tubes and none of which I can really afford. Also turns out he designed my previous favourite bike, the Kinesis 4t.
Well thanks Dom, that’s a great ride. Maybe one day I’ll give you a call for a new frame. In the UK there are a few dozen frame designers and makers like Dom who love cycling and bikes and provide a whole range of options for us enthusiasts. We are spoilt for choice now and it is just as well I am not a weathly man or I might have a garage or two filled with bikes.
All going well I will be on PBP again next year. I will have to plan it properly this time and that involves either being followed by willing family members or parking the Volvo a strategic distance along the route and stuffing it with a ton of gluten-free food and a sleeping bag. Now I know I can ride that far I know it’s possible - all I need to do is decide to do it and train and prepare accordingly. Actually I have to start thinking about that training now, 15 months out. Which means doing a few long rides on the way, and a few more hours at the gym this winter.
And it will be done on the The Tripster. It’s not the bike I grab when I want to bash around the Essex lanes at speed. But it is the bike to grab if it’s winter and there might be snow, or there are many hills to be had, or I want to ride over a thousand kilometres without enough sleep and need the reliability of an old friend.
Bike for life? Well providing those dents in down tube don’t turn into cracks, I imagine it probably will be. And that should mean I never need another bike. That should end all desire for a bike that is perfect for the riding that I do. But there is another moment, one amid the general misery of deflation on PBP, that fuelled the acquisition of the next bike…
Just as I was prepping this post last weekend I went for a ride on the Tripster, as above. A lovely easy meander up the Lea Valley and then across the canals towards Stanstead before coming back on the road. When I started the ride there was a funny creaking, which I assumed came from my creaky old campag crankset. It disappeared pretty soon, but during the week, as I was prepping the bike for a 400km ‘gravel’ adventure in Wales I took a look at the dents in the frame…
You know where this is going don’t you?
To be very clear this is nothing to do with the company and the construction, it’s all to do with it falling off the other guys car.
Am I gutted? Well no, it’s just a bike, and I knew there was a chance this would happen. And yes, mainly because I had just spent time and bit of money tweaking it to get into perfect Range Rover mode for the summer. And now…. now I only have four bikes built up! The tragedy!
The Tripster was better than good enough, it was fabulous and the bike I have had my biggest ride ever on. And i might have been the nicest bike I ever own. It’s a little unlikely I will be finding £2k for a new frame anytime soon and if I was going to spend that money full retail I would consider other options, like something custom.
And so the magical mystery tripster must end, and all my distance riding must be done on…
Next chapter: Hot Datum