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Chase the Sun: Here's what it takes to ride coast-to-coast in the hours of daylight

In-depth
28 Sep 2021
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The annual Chase the Sun event requires riders to get from one side of Britain to the other between sunup and sundown. How hard can it be?

Words and photography Alex Turner 

It’s 3am on the Isle of Sheppey, a small adjunct off the northern coast of Kent. It has been a raucous night and a few remaining England fans are still celebrating last night’s emphatic 0-0 draw with Scotland. I’m heading to the start line of Chase the Sun. At 330km (or 205 miles in old money) it’s the longest one-day cycling event in the UK.

‘Riding from the first ray of sunrise to the last ray of sunset, coast to coast, on the longest day of the year,’ is the concept in a nutshell according to Olly Moore, the accidental founder of an event that this year has attracted more than 600 cyclists to this area of marshland some 70km from London.

Undeterred by the brutally early start – that ‘first ray’ comes at 4.41am – riders are beginning to assemble along the Sheppey beachfront. Nervous tension and excitement mixes with sea air. It almost feels like the start of a day from the ‘before times’, with riders stretched far along the coast. Now though, they are grouped into ‘bubbles’ and many are wearing masks as well as helmets.

Everybody is waiting for the first sign of the sun, which acts as the starter’s pistol. With so much ground to cover before the sun dips over the opposite horizon in around 17 hours’ time, everyone is willing it to hurry up and shine.

However, as the sky shifts from black to dark grey, it becomes obvious that the perfect orb of light shining onto calm seas isn’t going to happen. Somebody rudely awakened by us, and no doubt nursing a hangover, yells ‘Bugger off!’ from a window and it’s on.

For Chase the Sun founder Moore, this all started as a personal quest to test the limits of what an ordinary rider was capable of.

‘I was just curious, pondering how far I could go in a day if I just kept going. I developed that idea while cycling along into a premise, a challenge.

‘When is the longest day? Where could I watch the very first glimmer of sunrise over the horizon, and where could I get to see the last ray of sun fall below the horizon? I traced the route and it equates to around 200 miles. I thought jeez, that’s a long way in a day.’

Try, try and try again

It took Moore three years and two failed attempts to make it to England’s western coast before the sun did. On the first attempt he was caught on the Mendips, exhausted with no lights as night fell. With no choice but to press on, he arrived at the coast amidst an ‘apocalyptic’ thunderstorm.

‘We were completely unprepared because it had never occurred to me that we’d still be riding at sunset. I thought we would have given up or we would have failed or gone home long before that.’

Despite – or possibly because of – the two tantalising early failures, his endeavours had attracted the attentions of a growing circle of friends and cycling clubs eager to take part. To begin with, the message was spread by word of mouth, and soon an event was born.

‘There’s something poetic in the idea of riding not against anyone, but against the elements. The juxtaposition of tracing the movement of you at the minuscule scale of the human body in comparison to the movements of the celestial bodies on the grandest scale intrigued me. I loved the fact that you cannot move sunrise and sunset – they’re prescribed and are so forever. Trying to find your own little challenge within that is what interests people, I think.’

As the riders leave Sheppey for the mainland, they are retracing that planetary line Moore first began to draw in 2008. And they seem to be enjoying it. The early nerves are beginning to subside into the rhythm of pedal strokes and much-missed camaraderie, and heading inland through Rochester the riders swell onto and take over roads that will later be full with traffic.

The route continues striking west, heading straight for London, where coffee and bacon sandwiches await at the top of a sapping climb in Crystal Palace. I speak to a man who spent the previous night sleeping in a bus stop waiting for the sun to rise. Earlier in the week he parked his car at today’s final destination: Burnham-on-Sea. Riding the width of a country provides logistical and navigational challenges for participants and he seems happy to be making some miles in the right direction.

Unlike with many similar events, Chase the Sun attracts people of all shapes and sizes, ages and genders. Co-director Phil Webb tells me that often the people who don’t quite make it are actually the people who look the fittest physically, the ride being a mental challenge as much as a physical one.

‘It’s a ride, not a race,’ he says philosophically. ‘There are no medals or timings. You either arrive before or after sunset or you don’t arrive – those are the three categories. It’s a demonstration of what people are capable of if they set their minds to it, but they have to commit to it.’

Soggy sarnies

By midday the riders have already cycled 160km – a full century and an extraordinary feat for any cyclist – yet today is about to become about much more than mere distance.

Reaching lunchtime’s ham and cheese sandwiches provided by the Women’s Institute in Bramley should have coincided with the sun being at its highest in the sky, but it’s ominously cloudy and the growing tension of imminent rain is only matched by the tense clamour of conversations from riders who know they need to push on hard to have any chance of making it to the finish in time.

In terms of the terrain, the second half is significantly more bucolic, trading urban sprawl for rolling hills and village greens. Riders pass under the watchful eye of King Alfred in the Vale of Pewsey, an area Alfie once ruled over as King of Wessex.

The tarmac begins to contort, pulling riders up and down roads that wind and dip. On Milk Hill, the tallest hill in Wiltshire, a 55m-high chalk horse gallops alongside a steady stream of cyclists. Some of the riders, however, are visibly beginning to slump.

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The course takes in over 3,000m of elevation, much of it yet to come in the form of the brutal hills of the Mendips and the ascent up Cheddar Gorge. Many of the riders are beginning to lean heavily on family and friends, stopping in lay-bys to ply their charges with cookies, water and words of encouragement.

As the gradients begin to bite, the riders dig in and dig deep. Then the clouds finally burst and the rain is torrential, but those on two wheels don’t stop.

Spirit in the sky

For Moore and many of the riders, Cheddar Gorge – an epic limestone cleft of vertical cliff faces – is Chase the Sun’s spiritual heart. Fully 300km in, it’s a punishing climb and the point riders are at their most vulnerable, yet also at their most euphoric. They know it’s (almost) all downhill once they reach the top and tip over into the pass.

‘If you’re coming down Cheddar Gorge with an hour left to go, you just don’t know if you’re going to make it or not before sunset. It’s on a knife edge,’ says Moore.

As nightfall approaches, the term ‘biblical’ takes on new meaning. Fat raindrops are battering the seafront and bouncing off of the tarmac. Yet astonishingly, crowds of onlookers and well-wishers have lined the street.

With supporters clinging to the cover offered by an amusement arcade, applause, whistles, cowbells and horns greets every rider as they roll gratefully across the finish line.

Of the 640 riders who started, 474 have made it to the finish before sunset, with 80 more arriving later on.

‘It’s absolutely an exploration and a tribute to the power of the human mind, body and bicycle in terms of what you can achieve in one day,’ says Moore, before the champagne is popped and the shovelling of fish and chips begins.

Catch me if you can

Follow the sun from east to west – or try to get ahead

You can find out more about all of the various events at chasethesun.org. This route – Chase the Sun UK South – starts from the beach at Sheppey in the Thames Estuary and heads east.

Pass through Rochester and wave at the castle before crossing the Medway and making your way across Kent, passing through Bromley along the way. The route bisects south London, passing Richmond Park, and takes in Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 Olympic time-trial route before continuing through Chertsey towards the West Country.

Skirt south of Newbury, passing through the Vale of Pewsey and tackling the Mendip Hills to warm up for the biggest challenge of the day: the climb up Cheddar Gorge. From there you’re racing southwest to Blackford and then west again to the finish in Burnham-on-Sea.

The details

What: Chase The Sun UK South
Where: Minster, Isle of Sheppey to Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset
How far: 330km
Total ascent: 3,000m
Next one: 18th June 2022
Price: From £28
Contact: chasethesun.org

Keep chasing

Because one is never enough

Chase the Sun now departs from multiple locations on the same sunrise, giving riders a choice of geographies to explore. Chase the Sun North is a double-century, which takes in the best of the English/Scottish borders from Tynemouth to Prestwick. The ride passes through stunning vistas of wilderness, heath, rivers, lochs, castles and beaches, aggregating a total elevation of 3,200m.

But if foreign – and warmer – climes are you thing, Chase the Sun Italia is described as ‘the most romantic long distance cycling challenge in the world’ and departs from the Adriatic Sea on its way to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Leaving from Cesenatico, the ride meanders across Tuscan hills and vineyards, through Florence and even skirts the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and covers a total distance of 270km with 3,300m total elevation.

Next year there may also be a new route to explore… although for now the organisers are keeping their cards close to their chests.

Registration opens in late October when more info on all routes and rides will be available.

Do it yourself

Getting there

A Chase the Sun bus service runs from Wandsworth Common and provides passenger, bike and bag transfer in any combination from London to ride HQ at Minster on the Isle of Sheppey. It also offers transport back to Minster the day after the ride, via a stop-off in London for those wishing to depart there.

Alternatively, trains leave from London St Pancras to Sittingbourne approximately every 30 minutes. Change at Sittingbourne and continue to Sheerness station on Sheppey. Or you can cycle the remaining distance from Sittingbourne to race registration, which should take around an hour.

Accommodation

We stayed in the Shurland Hotel about 6km from the start, but for maximum convenience stay at ride HQ itself, the Abbey Hotel. Both are around £60 per night. Chase the Sun offers packages including evening meals and accommodation. See chasethesun.org.

Thanks

A very big thank you to Chase the Sun directors Olly Moore and Phil Webb, and to the many volunteers along the route who ensured each rider was able to enjoy as smooth a journey as possible. A big thanks also to European Cycle Events for the lift to the start line (see europeancycleevents.com).