James Pellatt, Great Portland Estates, was one of four BCO members who organised the 2013 BCO Cycle Challenge. Here James shares his experience of three exceptionally gruelling days, 54 cyclists were stretched to the limit. All in aid of The Willow Foundation, BCO Conference Charity 2013.
Glancing out the window on the plane home back to London, I’ve managed to steal a glimpse through the clouds glance of the glorious Spanish countryside. It’s green lush rolling hills covered with Rioja vineyards, wheat fields, dairy farms and snow capped mountains spread out beneath me. I can’t quite believe we spent the first part of the week cycling through this beautiful terrain, a week which started with many riders as strangers but ended up as friends.
Two years ago in Geneva, Peter Williams and I were rueing the fact that the cycle ride around Lake Geneva had to be cancelled due to lack of interest. We felt it a shame that we hadn’t had the idea to cycle to Geneva from London, then it dawned on us like a flashbulb sparking off in our heads that we could cycle from London to Manchester. So last year we had a glorious few days cycling from London, exploring the English countryside and arriving a few days later in Manchester. Despite it being our first year we didn’t seem to do too badly, and buoyed with enough positive feedback we decided to repeat the experience.
The question was, how do we do it? Thoughts turned to travelling from London to Madrid following the precedent of the now famous Cycle to Cannes rides, it is apparently ‘only’ a thousand miles, which could be covered in six days. However it would also mean crossing the Pyrenees, which in May are likely to be covered in snow (cycling in snow what a crazy idea) and would take too long. Barcelona to Madrid had its obvious charm, however whilst not as long, would still take four days. Valencia to Madrid was closer, but heat started to be a concern. Finally the ride committee of myself, Mark Lacey (Alinea), Sean Hatcher (Orms) and Guy Bonser (Gleeds) all decided that we would cycle from Bilbao to Madrid. A princely distance of 290 miles, which could be covered in three days, provided we cycled together as a peleton.
This year we brought in the excellent ‘Cycle to…’ organisation, lead by Nick Hanmer, they are veterans of 9 MIPIM rides as well as other rides in South Africa and France. With their guidance and help a route was planned that took us through Northern Spain or ‘Green Spain’ as it is better known. This part of Spain is not hot, warm and barren as we know in the south, but more fertile, rolling green farmland more like Devon and Cornwall than dusty olive groves to the south. It is very rural with very few towns in between and even less with four star hotels in them. A key part of the brief was to make sure that we stayed in good accommodation on the way. There is nothing more dispiriting after spending 7-8 hours in the saddle getting to a sub-standard hotel with no hot running water.
So it came to pass that the route would be as follows:-
Day 1 - Bilbao to Burgos – (96.6 miles and 6,150 ft in climbing)
Day 2 – Burgos to Segovia – (125 miles and 5,500 ft in climbing)
Day 3 – Segovia to Madrid – (61.3 miles and 3,000 ft elevation)
Prologue – London to Bilbao
Following the popularity of last year’s ride I was confident that we would have enough riders to cover the cost of the ride (we need at least 35), but was overwhelmed to actually get almost double the entries. A note for people wanting to do next year’s ride, make sure you book early, we are limited to around 50 riders.
Unfortunately of those 54 riders, 3 had to pull out followed by two last minute replacements (credit to go to Tim Peperell of Standard Controls and Charlotte Roberge of Buro 4 for stepping in on the Friday before we left) we had 53 riders. Flights to Bilbao are limited to only a few early morning flights from Stansted or Heathrow. This meant that people had some time on their hands to explore the Guggenheim or local tapas bars.
As we came into land more than a few riders remarked on how lush and verdant the steep hills surrounding the City looked. This part of Spain is called Green Spain mostly due to the amount of rainfall. I was personally nervous about this, I didn’t really want riders to spend three days in the rain and had pushed hard to make sure that all bikes carried mudguards. Road bike users are very sensitive about this, they like to make sure that their bikes look as good as possible, a look not helped by a curved piece of plastic hanging off the back. My fear was driven more by what is described as ‘Belgian Milkshake’ where the spray on the road mixes with fresh fertilizer and then sprays up into riders mouths. A lot of professional riders get stomach upsets this way and I wanted to make sure we got to Madrid in one piece.
Riders spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other and making sure that their bikes which had travelled by van had arrived in one piece. Nerves were running quite high as people went to bed and most complained about having a poor night’s sleep.
Day 1 – Bilbao to Burgos (96.6 miles and 6,150 ft in climbing)
Chaos ensued in the breakfast bar as the hotel hadn’t quite anticipated 53 hungry heads turning up at once, people were making the most of everything in order to try and take on as many calories as possible. As the number of riders were over 50 it meant that we had free police escort from the Guardia Civil all the way from Bibao to the outskirts of Madrid.
After the photoshoot beneath the famous spider outside the Guggenheim, the well wrapped up riders all started to leave. The police escort was fantastic, it meant that we didn’t have to wait for a red light and weaved our way through the early morning rush hour. We passed Atelico Bilbao stadium and soon began to weave ourselves out of the City, slowly beginning to climb. As we left, the clouds soon passed and we enjoyed cold brisk conditions.
Whilst Cycle 2 provide all the support, guidance on the road is a voluntary job which was carried out by ride captains. For this ride the five captains were Mark Lacey, Matthew Thurston, Mark Tillett, Jamie Barlow and myself. We were connected by radio and it’s our jobs to make sure that the riders at the front don’t go too fast to drop the riders at the back.
For the first few hours it took a while to get organised, riders at the front became frustrated as some felt we were going too slow, others who had taken on too much liquid at breakfast were very keen on stopping for a comfort break. We stopped at 25k just before the first of the big climbs of the day, 7.7 miles of the Category 2 rated Pena Angulo climb of 1,677 ft. At this point, we decide to break up the peleton and allow people to ride as fast as they want, the quickest finished just after half an hour, the slowest in 55 minutes. Nick had organised a drinks break at the top which allowed riders to refuel, top up water bottles, eat bananas. Spirits were kept high by the PA blasting the hits from present and past (my favourite, Geno by Dexy’s Midnight Runners) and the sun taking temperatures increased to the early 20’s meant that sun cream, not mudguards were required.
After the first break we were half an hour behind schedule, and we needed to pick up the pace. We did this because helpfully most of the road was downhill and we started to rotate the peleton. This is a tricky task for those that hadn’t done it, basically what happens is that we ride two abreast in the peleton, at the front the rider closest to the edge of the road (on the right) passes over to the left, the next rider pulls up behind. This allows the effort on the front to be shared amongst all the riders equally. What I particularly like about it is that forces people to circulate. It’s like speed dating at 25 mph. You pull up alongside a new face for two minutes and then move on. This way, we avoid forming too many cliques and all people get to say hello to complete strangers. It also has the advantage of using up a lot of miles and soon lunch arrived.
A two course meal of pasta and what appeared to be a school dinner from 1977, mash, veg and sliced chicken, together with a glass or two of red wine. Suitably refreshed all riders got back on the pace until the second large climb of the day at 62 miles, the exotically named BU502 climb. Again another long climb of over 1,500 ft up the Rampa Pedrosa to Trespaderne. Again the mountain goats were let loose and the more stately riders took their time. Here the heat, age and experience meant that some riders found this quite a challenge. But this is where I saw the best in people, riders who normally would fly up these climbs, people like David Flynn of Harrison Jorge, who must be 10 stone wet through, held back and rode alongside other riders. Sometimes they pushed the small of someones back or just giving verbal encouragement.
At the top another stop for photos, chocolate, bananas, drinks, comfort and music (Sea Spray by Paul Weller – ‘Carry me home, carry me home you old soft spray’) allowed everyone to feel good about the last thirty miles back into Burgos. Burgos is a beautiful medieval walled City and we were lucky enough to stay in a converted monastery in four star comfort.
Post ride massages are offered, some took advantage to stretch, take recovery drinks and get ready for the next day. Others took to the bar to celebrate, but all in all it was a great day, 96 miles covered, no punctures, injury other than sunburn. Some even managed to find indie Karaoke in the evening and have enough energy to perform.
Day 2 Burgos to Segovia – 124.4 miles, 5,183 ft of climbing
This day had me worried all through the winter, it drove me on those long cold mornings (-4 degrees riding around Regents Park with Glyn Emrys, Rupert Shaw, Danny Hall among others) and throughout the winter. I was determined that I would have enough stamina to complete the ride. The longest I’ve ever ridden was 108 miles on last year’s BCO ride, but this was different.
The weather forecast warned of thunderstorms but started brisk and sunny. A photocall outside the City gates and a quick burst of Happy Birthday to Matthew Thurston of hurleypalmerflatt and away we went. Spirits were high, by this time all riders understood the protocol, the strong riders were at the back and weaker at the front. This allowed more time to chat in the peleton. I had an interesting discussion on the use of BIM in design with Sadie Morgan of dRMM (as well as the merits of Paul Smith as a clothes designer – as someone who spends way too much money on both Paul Smith and Rapha I was in my element).
After 10 miles, however disaster struck, the BCO President, James Wates pulled a muscle in his left leg. For any rider this would be problematic, but for a man born with one arm it is almost game over. Sam the physio taped up his back leg and we moved off gently. I know that James doesn’t like to draw attention to himself in this regard, but take a moment to consider his effort, most riders have the ability to lift themselves off the saddle when going uphill. This transfers the power directly into the pedals and allows you to take the harder parts of the hill. James can’t do this so he climbs sitting down, this is hard on his backside and legs. What’s worse is that when he is descending he can’t use both hands to go onto the drops (or the bottom part of the curved handlebars) and use gravity to descend quicker. This is amazing.
James is a very proud man and fought several demons of his own wanting to pull out. At this point the other riders pulled around him, special mention must go to Neil Miller of Dome at this point. Neil has thrown himself into training with gusto, going from 18 to 13 stone as a result and has been very focussed in his effort. For Neil he thought that he would be able to prove this on the ride with speed, instead he did it by dropping back and helping another man in his moment of difficulty.
At one point about 110 miles in I too was feeling tired and saw a group of riders who had broken away up front, I couldn’t hold my frustration in any longer – ‘oh for f***s sake who is that…’ I then realised that looking up it was the silhouette of Neil gently pushing James to the top of the hill ahead of everyone else. It was at this point that I realised all my dreams and aspirations for the ride had come true. It was the perfect metaphor for life, what happens when people pull together and work as a team means that you can often achieve more than you had ever hoped.
As we came closer to Segovia the weather was getting worse, the snow capped mountains that stood between us and Madrid were going to be tomorrow’s problem, for now we were all tired, hungry and in need of a rest. The magnificent cathedral that dominates the skyline along with the massive aquaduct let us know that we were nearly at the end. Unfortunately the hotel was at the top of the last steep hill, people were being shelled at the back, the Badger himself, Mark Lacey kept a grip on the front and slowed the pace down. We caused chaos with the evening rush hour, but didn’t care, as we pulled into the car park, 200 km were passed on the Garmin and once again all of us had finished.
Sam from Tri Touch advised us all to take a cold bath for two minutes, a top tip if you do this, add ice cubes from the mini bar by all means, but for goodness sake go for a pee first, the cold takes its toll very quickly and holding on is agony. At least it takes your mind off the cold.
At supper riders were entertained by an interview from Eurosport’s chief summariser and cycling legend Sean Kelly himself, bottles of Cava were sunk for Matt’s birthday and we all went to bed, tired but elated.
Day 3 Segovia to Madrid (64.7 miles and 4,547 ft)
Today we awoke to find grey skies and reports of snow above 1500m on the Cat 1 Puerto de Navacerrada climb that stood between us and Madrid. Alain the Directeur Sportif assured us this was just a local myth, and despite the rain we ploughed on.
This was the first time for many to go up a Cat 1 climb, 2,222 ft of climbing at an average of 8% is a hard climb, so hard in fact that this road was used in last year’s Vuelta y Espana (Tour of Spain). The wet weather kicked in and all riders stopped at the bottom to put on whatever wet weather gear we had. Again the mountain goats left off at the beginning, the race was won by the bearded lizard – Tony McMahon of Morrow and Lorraine (don't worry he calls himself that) followed by the amazingly fit David Morris of PRUPIM. David has to climb 10,000m before the end of August before he enters the Haute Route later in the year.
For big lumps like me this is a different challenge, often taken in silence, it’s hard to talk when your heart rate is over 150 bpm. Traffic was held back behind us, and slowly a group of Mark Tillett, Rob Horne, Steve Bradley, Sadie Morgan, Jamie Barlow, Bertie Brooks and myself worked our way up the mountain. The fresh air and smell of pine took us upwards and as I gazed up I saw what I had been dreading the most – snow capped trees. I hate cycling in snow, I hate the idea of falling over and breaking bones, when I realised I had dragged 52 others up here as well I had a really bad feeling about it all. I couldn’t let it show and had to keep going. I felt I had enough in the tank to do it but was anxious.
Reports of riders stopping at the top in the café were all encouragement we needed though, Sadie upon hearing that there was 250m to go, mistook this for rowing and sprinted to the line. That was 250 vertical meters to go, another 2 km at least! She however did not give up and away we went. Special mention must go to Tim Pepperell who came back down the mountain to help us go up once more – that was amazing.
We soon crested the top and dropped into the café for Hot Chocolate, Brandy and some people even put their socks in the café’s microwave. I chose not to eat anything at this point!
The hardest bit was still to come.
Descending is an art form at the best of times, pro riders can reach speeds of 70 kph going down mountains, that’s fine when it’s dry, but in the cold and snow it’s insane. Temperatures of -4 were recorded and like an idiot I had forgotten my long fingered gloves and only had my summer mitts. My fingers froze in the snow, to this point where five days later, typing this I still can’t feel the ends of my fingers. Tim came up with a top tip which was to whack your hands against the handlebars until the blood flows again.
As we went further down the hill, the sun broke through the clouds and we started to slowly warm up. For once the long descent is not what you need, despite people shoving newspapers up their jerseys we were all cold. This meant that we had to break and then pedal against the locked wheels to keep blood pumping.
Fortunately we all managed to make it to the lunch break where gammon and chips and pasta were consumed with gusto and we all finally started to warm up.
All that was left was riding through towns and villages with the rolling road block. It’s the closest I will ever come to being a pro-rider as local’s cheered us on. It was an amazing feeling and as the sights of Madrid’s tower district arrived in the distance I knew that we would make it.
Reaching Madrid appeared a little like an anti-climax it was over so quickly. What lasted however was wearing our medals in the drinks reception and spotting the nods of recognition between all riders throughout the conference. The band of brothers and sisters all knew that we had taken part in something unique that wouldn’t be repeated over the same route and would live with us for a long time.
For me it summed up the spirit of the BCO. It’s what happens when all groups come together and try and improve on something to make it better. It is sometimes hard, difficult, but ultimately rewarding. I am so proud of the support team, ride captains, riders and finally all of the people that have helped us raise £43k and rising for the Willow Foundation, thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
View the full set of photos on Flickr
The BCO would like to take this opportunity to thank the team behind this year's Cycle Challenge. Special mention goes to Guy Bonser, Gleeds; Sean Hatcher, ORMS Architecture; Mark Lacey, Alinea Consulting; James Pellatt, Great Portland Estates and the team at Cycle to...
Additional thanks goes to the our sponsors; EC Harris, Brookfield Multiplex, Dome, Hilson Moran, ISG and Jones Lang LaSalle.