Since 2010, the Festive 500 has challenged cyclists to ride a total of 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
I have completed the challenge annually since I started riding in 2012. It's a great boost of fitness going into the new year. And this time round (as I had some time off work) I decided to see if I could do 1000km in two weeks - on top of the 500km in eight days challenge from Strava and Rapha.
That meant going into the Festive 500 I already had 470km in my legs. And those weren't easy miles either. I continued my structured training of mostly Sweetspot and Threshold sessions but added on a few extra miles to my usual training loop.
The day before the Festive 500 started I did a short but painful ride in high winds with good friends Phill and Ian. During that ride I averaged 275w over ninety minutes. The first twenty of which at over 310w. That's not the best way to save the legs for not just a big the next day, but a big week to come!
Last year I kicked things off with a one hundred mile ride on Christmas Eve. Which I've now tried to make a new tradition.
I always make sure I prepare my kit the night before a big ride. The last thing you want as you're trying to leave the house is to be running around in a flap. I can't count the number of times I've been late because you of a lost arm-warmer, or glove, or leg warmer. I've slowly learned my lesson over the years. And daylight is precious at this time of year. It won't be light until 9am, and dark again by 3:30pm. Every minute counts!
The weather forecast for Christmas Eve wasn't fantastic. With high winds and rain showers all day. As I planned on being out for around six hours I decided to dress for the worst. You can remove layers, but being frozen to the bone hours from home. That's just not fun.
So I decided on my long-sleeve Castelli Gabba and Rapha deep winter tights. I stuffed the jersey pockets with food and tools. Mostly Flapjack. But also a banana, a jam and peanut butter wrap, and a spare tube wrapped inside a wind breaker jacket. I was ready to tackle the one hundred and three mile route I had mapped into my Garmin.
Setting out at first light I felt on the cusp of overdressed. It was mild, it wasn't raining, but the wind was gale-force. For the first part of my ride I was fortunate enough to have it behind me at least.
I soft pedaled North towards Lancaster. Where I turned off to make my way over Jubilee Tower - the toughest climb of the day, but nothing scary. Anyone familiar with it will know the first half is a bit of a grind. I just tapped away in my easiest gear until the road flattens out towards the top and I was able to pick up some speed again.
The descent towards the Trough of Bowland is fantastic. It's fast and flowing with great visibility. There was a fair crosswind at times making me more cautious than usual. As the bike twitched beneath me I couldn't help but think about the recent accident of local Pro Dillon. He came down hard not far from where I was because of high winds. Knocking himself unconscious and waking in a puddle of water with a few broken bones. Luckily he's okay now, and is already back on the bike. Hard as nails!
I was roughly fourty miles into my ride when I had to make a right turn into a wall of wind. The road from Marshaw to Oakencloguh was the first time I'd properly had my nose in the wind all day. This was the literal turning point of the ride. Things only got worse from then on.
For now though, there was nothing to do but get my head down and get on with it.
I slowly - but not without effort - made my way towards Bleasedale. Skirted around Chipping, before climbing up to Cow Ark. It's a steady climb, and on a good day it'll be quick too. I must go back and give it the beans soon.
Some time between Bleasedale and Cow Ark my Stages power meter decided to call it a day. I had a quick roadside faff but it was no good. I couldn't get the thing to work. I can feel a mini-rant coming on now.
I don't know a single person who has had a good experience with Stages power meters.
You definitely get what you pay for. They're cheap, and a good introduction to using power for training but you can't rely on them. As soon as they even hear the word 'water', you've had it. Even someone being a bit over-eager with the hosepipe when cleaning the bike will be in for a bad time. I have to remove my battery after ever ride otherwise it shorts out. And if I'm riding in the rain I'll tape up the battery door in an attempt to keep out the moisture but it rarely helps. I have to just accept the fact that it's going to cut out at some point during the ride, and hope that it isn't during a key part of my workout. It's also a pain when trying to keep track of your TSS and fatigue. I can't recommend a Stages to anyone unfortunately. And as soon as I can afford to I'll replace mine with something like a set of Garmin Vector pedals.
Coming off Cow Ark I noticed the bike felt a bit spongy. I carried on, as sometimes it's just a bad road surface playing tricks with your mind. This time it was a slow puncture. Annoying, but not the end of the World. I found a sheltered place to pull over and got to work replacing the inner tube.
New tube in, tyre pumped up to pressure I went to release the mini-pump from the valve aaanddd....
I've got a screw-on pump and it decided it was going to unscrew the valve too. I was already a bit wound up by the Stages being a dick, and after a few rounds of this I was on the edge.
For once I was carrying two tubes so I decided to take the wheel out again. Remove the inner tube again. Put a new tube in again. And pump, pump, pump everything up. Again.
Argh! Are you fucking kidding me!! Now what do I do? I'm still a good thirty miles from home at this point and time isn't on my side. As luck would have it by the time I'd finished swearing two nice chaps turned the corner with a proper pump. They were kind enough to stop and get me going again. I can't thank them enough. Before that I was considering calling it a day and sitting in the pub until my wife could come and pick me up.
Setting off again I only had to get through Longridge, before I was on the home stretch. Ish. I'd head to Elswick first, before turning back on myself to avoid Kirkham and finally arrive home in Lytham.
The rest of the ride was uneventful until just before I got to Lytham. I was getting tired by this point but keeping a nice cadence and steady speed even into the wind. A trio of lads came by me in a chaingang and we exchanged pleasentries. I hopped on and got a free ride for a bit.
The road dipped and because one of them was on a single speed I was able to overtake comfortably without any extra effort.
At this point it began to hail. And we're talking proper, big, nasty, spiky balls of ice falling from the sky. It was painful to look up.
"Lovely this, isn't it?!", I said to the guys as I made my way past them. Which is when one of them decided to comment on the fact I didn't have mud guards on my bike.
"He doesn't even have mud guards on!"
Why should I though? I'm riding on my own. It's mostly been a dry day, and I'm on a nice fast aero bike. Why the sodding hell would I want to put mud guards on it?
This kind of grinds my gears a bit. There are so many aggressive mud guard users on the roads. And most seem to be as short-tempered as the drivers they no doubt love to moan about (closely followed by moaning about people who don't have mud guards).
I've done the mud guard thing in the past. It's near pointless. I've had SKS Raceblade (long and normal versions) and they are just a pain in the arse. They don't keep THAT much muck off you, and they sure as hell don't keep spray off anyone behind. That's absolute bollocks.
Bikes are not fucking scared of weather. They don't give a fuck if it's raining (Stages, you're the exception here you dick). The only time I generally use the 'winter' bike is if it's icy and there's grit everywhere.
I ride my bike to have fun.
And in my experience the mud guard lot begrudge anyone else on the road who have decided they don't actually need to put up with endless faffing, rubbing, knocking, and not to mention the shocking aesthetics that come with sticking mud guards on your bike.
I didn't say anything at the time though. Passive aggressiveness is the best thing of aggressiveness. Right?
And so ended my first ride of the Festive 500. It's a shame really but it was one I'll soon forget, and not the most enjoyable day I've ever had on the bike.
I think my parents must live in the most beautiful part of Great Britain. A tiny village opposit Fort William called Ardgour.
Standing on their front porch, you look out over Loch Linnie down the Great Glenn, with unobstructed views of Ben Nevis. It's simply stunning.
The first thing I did after our eight hour drive was grab my camera, sit on the lochside, and watch the sun set. The weather was appauling during the entire drive North, where heavy rain made driving difficult at best, and on occasion dangerous. As I sat the wind continued to pound at my chest, the rain lashed at my face, but I couldn't care less. We'd arrived, the forecast for tomorrow was greatly improved, and the view was as glorious as ever despite the conditions.
I was running on tired legs, but I had a good first ride in Scotland.
Comfortably tapping out about 250w average for two hours on day one. Probably mid-tempo these days. I did attack a couple of hills though and bagged a Strava KOM or two on a climb I've had a crack at in the past.
Weather conditions were great. It was mild, overcast, very little wind. Perfect for just cracking on. I did about 65km that day.
The climbs on this loop are brilliant. The one I decided to have a pop at this time is about 5 minutes long. A perfect v02 Max effort with a nice road sufrance, on a decent gradient of about 6%. I kept it in the big ring the entire time (something I haven't been able to do in the past) and tried my best to stay on top of the gear. About half way there's a kick where this became a bit of a grind but it made powering over the top easy once the road began to level off.
The narrow stretch of tarmac dropping sharply in front of me is the best part about this loop. And that's coming from a climber!
It's both steeper and longer than the way I just went up, but smooth and flowing, with great visibility. As you gather speed - at an alarming rate - you have the most gorgeous views of Loch Sunart. Which seems to race to upwards as you power towards a sharp right hand turn. After which the road runs parallel to the water for the next few miles. You're largely sheltered from any wind and this undulating stretch of road is just a joy to ride.
I was now on the main road back to my parents house. A smile on my face, I got settled in to a good position, and rode tempo all the way back to a big plate of Christmas Dinner leftovers!
We were due to set off home in the afternoon so I was limited on the miles I could do today. I decided to keep things familiar, but to keep things interested I'd do the loop from yesterday in reverse.
By now I had accumulated a Training Stress Score of over a thousand in the past week. I've had the biggest seven days of the entire year, with plenty of miles still to do. The legs were certainly feeling it. What's more, the wind had picked up, and in this part of the World it's nothing short of a hurricane.
I battled through 30+ mph gusts and a perpetual headwind. It was a fun ride, albeit a slow one. I bagged another Strava KOM just from ticking along on my way back to the house, which was a nice but unexpected bonus.
This ride was a combination of Festive-foodfest-guilt-driven-fasting paired with too much on tired legs. Basically; a fifty mile bonk.
I churned this one out on just a banana and a Jordan's Frusli bar. Normally that wouldn't be much of a problem but I was knackered. The legs went from just being tired to actually hurting with each pedal stroke. My quads especially were taking a big hit. I'm sure I must've been pedalling squares most of the time, and I'm sure it wasn't pretty to look at.
I had a little dig up Gallows Lane from Ribchester. Not a great performance but still 305w for ten minutes. That was probably my biggest mistake of my Festive 500 though. The legs never really recovered in the days to follow. I should've just done the entire ride at a steady pace and enjoyed the act of propulsion using my own two legs.
Still, they were some good miles to deposit in the Festive 500 bank. Allowing me to take it easy over the remaining days.
Shitty weather yet again. The Stages on my Atleta was still giving me trouble so I decided to take the Canyon out for an incredibly easy spin around my favourite training loop.
The legs felt better for it although not much. I thanked them for their service over the past two weeks with a long soak in a hot bath with a good book.
At the end of the ride the sun was breaking through the clouds so I stopped to snap a quick Bike Against A Wall shot at Lytham Windmill.
I had arranged to ride out the remaining kilometers of the Festive 500 with my good mates Phill and Ian.
The problem is they're both strong lads who never shy away from a little banter. My legs were still in pieces from the efforts of the previous two weeks. I had ridden almost one thousand kilometers by this point. In past years that would be fairly typical, but 2015 was different. My target of the National Hill climb had meant reduced miles.
I haven't ridden this kind of volume in a long time. I was loving it; the legs weren't so sure.
"Hmmm I think I might have the beginnings of a cold and I still don't have any legs... What's the weather like? Am I soft if I cry off?"
I didn't have a cold. I'd just come down with a touch of SOFT.
This was a day I'd been looking forward to. Finishing the Festive 500 with good mates. So I was a bit surprised to find myself texting Phill and 7am trying to weasel out of the ride. In the nicest way possible I was told the weather's not going to be too bad. Man up, get on with it, finish the 500 properly. So that's what I did.
Although I begged and pleaded and might've mentioned occasionally my legs were actually painfully sore. And to please, please go easy on me.
"I don't know what makes you think I want to push on either! I don't ride like that 90% of the time" -- Phill Sharpe
Phill wasn't wrong about the weather. It was cold. The coldest it had been all December, but at least it was dry when I pulled up to his house a couple of hours later.
We got dressed and headed to Morecambe prom to meet Ian, who arrived just after us. So there was no waiting around catching cold. A bonus!
There was no real plan for a route. We set out with the wind behind us. Cruising along at 25mph at 200w. This was perfect. Thanks lads!
That is until the first rise out of Morecambe. Ian on the front, I look down and those 200w have doubled to 400w. My quads feel as though they're being ripped from my legs. The effort is only a handful of seconds. It should be easy. It isn't. I back off to save the legs and allow Ian and Phill to pull away slightly. Thanks lads!
You can't ride steady all the time though. And we're all at different stages of training. Ian and Phill rode great all ride. I did very little. I sat on when the road was flat. I dropped off the back on every climb (when normally I'd be out front giving it the beans!). The legs were greatful, and half way around I was feeling better than I did when we set off.
Not surprisingly with all the rain we've had there were a few closed roads. A kind gentleman informed us as we rode past a Road Ahead Closed sign "You'll not get through lads!", but we knew best. So on we went. Steadily climbing until we crested the hill and saw just why the road was closed. I say road... I mean lake. The flood had made it impassable. So, we turned around to seek out an alternate route.
"You were right!", we shouted. He laughed. We all got on with our day. That's cycling for you. It makes everyone who comes into contact with you's day better.
Unless you're either;
- A) A motorist
- B) Have mud guards on your bike.
The rain didn't start until we were almost back to Phills. I had worn my Castelli Tempesta jacket and gloves the whole time. Which I'm pleased to report on their second outing kept me both warm and dry. Even my feable hands!
So having missed the worst of the weather, getting to ride with my good mates, and with legs that felt slightly the better for it I had finished the Festive 500 for another year.
An extra special treat was the lesson in bike maintenance I received from Phill when we get back to his. He insisted on giving it a full wash. In the stand, wheels off, the works! He's an absolute legend.
A coffee and a few Celebrations! later, I was on my way home. Ready to put the bike away for a day or two. A thousand kilometers over my Christmas break in the legs, and 560km of those during the Rapha Festive 500.
In total I rode 1,044km during my two week break. 13,436km in total this year. Not the most I've ever ridden in a year but better than last year at least. I'm hoping to get a lot more riding done in 2016. Even with a new baby in the house!