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Riding the Trafalgar Way: 312 historic British miles

Tim Wiggins
19 Jul 2018

Setting a new record for cycling from the far South West all the way to the heart of the capital

Dawn breaks on Pendennis Point, Falmouth. This far western town was the starting point of an iconic British journey on the 4th November 1805; from here Lieutenant Lapenotiere travelled non-stop to the Admiralty in London, to take news of British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and the tragic death of Admiral Lord Nelson.

It took the lieutenant 37 hours to cover the 312-mile route, with 42 horses exhausted to pull his post-chaise carriage. Under bicycle power, my hope is to ride the historic path in under 20 hours.

This is the 'Ride The Trafalgar Way' event; a sportive like no other. It is a point-to-point ride through eight British counties; one side of the country to the other, with over 6,300 metres of vertical elevation gain to scale along its path.

Cannon at dawn

At 06:00 the metaphorical cannon fires, and our select group of riders descend down from the fort, through the sleeping town of Falmouth, and out into the Cornish hills.

It has been a desert dry summer for the UK, and today looks set to follow the theme, with 30 degrees Celsius and a light easterly breeze in the forecast.

Given the pending hot conditions, I am grateful that the first few hours are relatively cool. We form a small group of front-runners, and set the pace over Bodmin Moor and onto Dartmoor.

At the 100-kilometre mark we make the collective call to stop at the second available feed station. A bowl of porridge and a freshly brewed coffee help to re-ignite the engines, ready for further moors and tors.

Going alone

Our small group breaks up after the feed station, and I soon find myself alone on the road - a front-runner in a race still long to run.

I settle into a rhythm though, and shortly after noon have reached the 1/3rd marker - the City of Exeter.

Those first 200 kilometres passed without too much drama or toil. The moors had provided over 2000 metres of challenging climbing, but they had also offered spectacular views, and quiet back-roads through exciting new territory.

On leaving Exeter the sun is beating down. Despite having been drinking as frequently as possible, and stopping at the well-equipped feed stations, I can feel the heat sapping the strength from my legs.

It isn't long before I have hit the Dorset Coast Road. This infamous band of asphalt is beautiful in backdrop, but brutal in profile.

Unrelenting 17 percent gradients, which sometimes drag on for two kilometres or more, leave me toiling in the afternoon sun.

I resist the urge to stop for ice cream, and instead work my way through a Veloforte bar and a handful of Honey Stinger Chews.

At least those hadn't turned to mush in my jersey pocket, unlike the chocolate raisins…

Craving dinner

By 18:00 my body is craving salt; it isn't surprising given my orange jersey is almost tie-dyed from the perspiration.

Thankfully the route takes me over the last major climb past Hardy's Monument, and then I pedal down to the town of Blandford Forum for the 'Hot Meal Pit Stop'.

Having eaten a portion of spaghetti bolognese large enough to feed a cycling team, and also over enthusiastically downed several pints of ice-cold water, the following hour after the feed station is a slow and delicate affair.

Eventually my stomach settles, and in the fading light I reach the Salisbury checkpoint. The cathedral city signals that the last of the major hills are behind me.

After grabbing a bottle refill and a homemade flapjack, I switch on my lights and head out into the dusk for the final 150-kilometre leg.

By 21:00 I know that I have almost a 15-mile lead on the following riders, and I am on course for a sub-20 hour finish. Darkness is fast closing in, but the roads have emptied and I am enjoying rolling through the lanes of Wiltshire and Hampshire.

London calling

Basingstoke is an early indication that I am fast approaching London; the dual carriageway sections and blazing streetlights aren't too fazing, but they are a real contrast to the peaceful lanes of the preceding counties.

The heat of the day may have dissipated, but the after-effects are clear; I am working my way through bottles at an alarming rate.

The two I had filled at Salisbury have long been dry, and I unfortunately missed the penultimate feed station because of over-zealous staring at the GPS on my stem.

By the time I enter Surrey I realise that I have also missed the final water stop. I still have 50 kilometres left to ride, and my throat feels like it has been sandblasted.

I pull into a petrol station and grab a can of drink and a chocolate milkshake.

The sugar and caffeine provide enough of a hit to push on for the final hour. Past Heathrow, through Hounslow, Chiswick High Street, and bands of merry folk falling out of Hammersmith bars.

My legs are fading fast in these final miles, and my mind is struggling with the constant focus required to navigate the nation's capital.

It is relief that I feel then when I spot Wellington Arch, take a left down The Mall, and pull up outside the gates of The Admiralty.

New record

501 kilometres. 6346 metres of climbing. 19 hours and 40 minutes since leaving Falmouth. A new course record for the Trafalgar Way route.

I stand propped up by my bike in The Admiralty courtyard, as the compulsory photo shot is taken. Then, I am escorted to the parliamentary showers to rinse away the day's sweat and dust.

Before collapsing into an exhausted sleep, I sit on the carpeted floor of the prestigious and historic building, eating a Cornish pasty; it seems appropriate recovery food, given the cross-country journey that we have both taken.

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