Sportives and mass-participation events are ubiquitous these days. Pick any weekend between April and October and you’ll have an innumerable choice of organised events at which to indulge your passion for turning pedals.
The ubiquity, and increasingly monetised nature of much of these events leave some looking for something a bit different, though.
It’s this search for something different that now has me pinging through deepest Midlothian, at 20mph……at 1 in the morning!
According to the source of all things that may or may not be true – Wikipedia! -the Dunwich Dynamo was first run in 1993. It’s this event that has inspired the organisers of the event we find ourselves on now, Ride To The Sun.
Ride To The Sun is a semi-organised, 101 mile ride, from Carlisle to Cramond, just outside Edinburgh, which is completely free – just turn up and ride. In a similar vein to the Dunwich Dynamo and Exmouth Exodus, it’s run completely at night, with the point being to arrive in Cramond in time to see the sun rise. Nyctophobics need fear not, though, as the event is always run on the weekend closest to the summer solstice, so the actual amount of time riding in the dark is short, particularly when the moon is bright.
Despite the lack of any money changing hands, the guys who organise this jaunt, Fraser and Gary, put a heck of a lot of work in to making this ride look and feel like any other sportive – free gels at the start, a late opening chip shop stop in Moffat (45 miles in) for those who require some carbs and protein (chips and kebabs!), bananas at the 60 mile mark, the option of coffee and a bacon roll at the finish (for a £5 charity donation), and the all-important .gpx file of the route so you don’t inadvertently end up in Kilmarnock.
It’s a staggering amount of effort to go when the only thing coming back is the hearty thanks of your fellow cyclists.
As this is a point to point ride, before starting out, early thoughts inevitably turn to logistics – How do we get ourselves and our bikes to Carlisle, and how do we get back from Cramond?
A week’s worth of Whats App chats with Mark and Big Chris – my two fellow “Ride To The Sunners” – have delivered three train tickets on the 17:55, from Edinburgh Waverley to Carlisle, which should get us in to Carlisle around 19:30. Perfect timing for our preferred start time of 20:00.
There is one problem, though, in that we do not have reserved bike spaces on the train, so we’d be counting on there being no one else with bikes on the same train. As RTTS usually has around 600 participants, that’s fairly unlikely. Mark resolves this problem via the medium of Facebook, and a message advertising the services of a man with a van transporting bikes to Carlisle, who has a few spaces left, for a small fee. Mark, fast becoming some kind of logistical superhero on this venture, also resolves how we get home from Cramond, by dropping his car off there earlier in the day.
As we patiently wait in Edinburgh’s Waverley Station for our train, I ruminate on what three men standing around in full lycra cycling gear, but strangely minus any kind of bike, must look like. Luckily though, it’s Gay Pride in Edinburgh today, and most of the participants are making their way home via train also, meaning not only that our look may now not appear all that out of place to the casual observer, but more importantly, we’re now way down the pecking order when it comes to being sartorially conspicuous.
This line of thinking is cut short by a more prescient matter: fuel.
Sport scientists would probably opine that if I hadn’t carbed up enough before now (which I believe I had), then there’s little I could do to correct that by this point, but what the heck…it’s dinner time and I’ve got to sit on a train for an hour and a half.
WH Smith provides a fine selection of sugary drinks, mouldy sandwiches and chocolate, so I get wired right in; stashing it all in a handy carrier bag, ready for consumption on the train. Mark and Big Chris follow suit. In pretty short order we’re pulling out of Edinburgh Waverley, bound for Carlisle and all points South-West.
After a somewhat uneventful and quiet train journey, punctuated sporadically with the sounds of screaming kids, the munching of comestibles and our own inane pre-ride banter, we pull in to Carlisle station.
Outside the station it’s a warm, balmy evening and the city’s pubs are overflowing with drinkers and those concerned with more “urban” sporting adventures.
A quick ride in a taxi, purely to save us destroying our pedal cleats on a walk through the city centre, has us in Bitts Park car park, which is on the north side of Carlisle’s castle, and the designated start of adventures.
The car park looks like some kind of cycle show, with all manner of bikes being prepped for their 101 mile jaunt tonight – lights being fitted, tyre pressure being checked, water bottles being filled – all being done to the soundtrack of the high-pitched beep of numerous Garmin buttons.
There also seems to be a wide spectrum of riders taking part – young (I believe the youngest finisher was 12), old, men, women, numerous club riders, those just up for a challenge etc.
After picking up our bikes (thank you, man with the van) Mark, Big Chris and myself also get to work ensuring that alles ist in ordnung. Jersey pockets are filled with gels, jelly babies and energy bars, and shoes are tightened, whilst the energy, excitement and anticipation builds.
As there’s only three of us, our pre-ride plan is to wait for a reasonable sized group to leave, and then jump in with them until we reach Moffat, and our first planned stop, after 45 miles.
We don’t have to wait long until about 10 riders set off, so we jump right on, raring to get going.
The first part of our ride takes us out on to the A7, heading North, which may be the busiest road we’re on all night from a point of view of the number of non-cycle traffic, but our group remains together despite this, and a few early bumps and rises.
The road is then almost pan-flat for the next 10 miles until Longtown, and then it’s a left turn for Gretna.
There will be no tying of knots at Gretna Green tonight, though, as a sharp right-turn and kick up a small rise has splits appearing in our group, and by the time we’ve made the left turn on the B7076 and settled in to our rhythm again, there’s only 6 of us left, but luckily Mark, Big Chris and myself have all kept it together.
The B7076 will take us all the way in to Moffatt, as it circles, ivy-like, over and under its larger sister road in the Annan Valley, the A74M.
It’s the constant crossing and re-crossing of its larger sibling that gives our carriageway of the moment its undulating profile; as overpass follows underpass, so a short burst of a climb follows a short, speedy descent; the road acting like its own mini interval session.
The road surface here is stubbly and draggy, and you can feel plenty of vibration coming up through thin tyres and even the best of carbon forks.
This road is definitely one for the bigger, rouleur-types, whose kinetic energy and power can carry them onwards, whilst every bump in the surface tries to slow you down. Unfortunately, I am not the rouleur-type, so I’m having to work extra hard to keep up with the rest and my turns at the front have become shorter and less frequent.
A little climb on the other side of Ecclefechan has Big Chris out the back of our small group, and with the pace on the high side, and myself and Mark not really contributing with the others in the group as much as convention would have us do, it’s time for us to sit up, re-group and select a better pace for the last 20-odd miles in to Moffatt.
After Lockerbie, though, another group comes down the road, and with rested legs and heart rates, myself and Mark are keen to get on the back. Big Chris gives us his permission to go and we’re away.
This new group is a good one; friendly and chatty, but also with a good road-sense and a willingness for everyone to take a turn in the wind. It also contains one of the races organisers, so it’s good to get an idea of what the ride is all about straight from the horse’s mouth.
It’s within the confines of this group that we head steadily in to Moffatt as dusk starts to settle and lights start to be switched on.
Moffatt itself is heaving with riders and bikes, all surrounded by surprised, on-looking locals and pub-goers alike, wondering why their small town has become some twilight Mecca for cyclists.
The chip shop has a queue that would put Disneyworld to shame, so once Big Chris, Mark and myself all meet up again at the top of the town, we decide to stick to our supply of energy bars, Soreen and jelly babies. Although, the smell of chips and kebab was tempting.
The stop in Moffatt is soon cut short by the scourge of open-air Scotland – the midgey.
It’s a warm night, and with the air pressure being relatively steady all day, there’s very little wind. Add to these conditions a three figure amount of cyclists all standing around, breathing out lung-fulls of midge-attracting carbon dioxide, and you have ideal conditions for Scotland’s national insect to do its worst. The best method to put paid to this itching, stinging, biting menace is to get going, so we’re back on the road.
It’s as we leave Moffatt that we hit our only real major obstacle on our ride to Cramond, the Devil’s Beef Tub.
This interestingly named climb, so-called because the bowl shape at the end of the valley supposedly looks like a beef tub (whatever that is…), is 7 miles long, with an average gradient of 4%, and tops out at just over 400 metres in elevation.
It’s long, but steady, and not very steep, so can be climbed in bigger gears for those who can push power.
It’s now around 11p.m. and dark as we all ride out of Moffatt. Ahead of us fireworks pierce the night sky; green, red, blue and gold flashes lighting up the night as we leave the streetlights of Moffatt behind and start ascending. I’m not sure of the reason for the bangs and sparkles that accompany us up to the start of the beef tub, but they’re a welcome distraction from the task ahead.
As the climb continues and opens out in front of us, we all get a view that sums up why this ride is somewhat different from other sportives; the pay-off, if you will.
Ahead of us, dotted all the way up the climb, ant-like, are hundreds of flickering red, rear bike lights, each one signifying another rider grinding their way upwards. A bright, white moon sitting high in the summer night’s sky is the only other light source, giving the whole scene a kind of ethereal quality.
A quick glance back down the hill sees the whole spectacle repeated, this time with thousands of lumens-worth of pearly front lights, ever blinking forwards.
Mark, Big Chris and myself continue on at our own pace, the agreement being, as most group rides conform to, that we’ll meet at the top.
Mark has pushed on furthest, sitting 20 metres or so up the road from me, distinguishable from the other 5 riders between us only by the placement and number of his rear lights. Big Chris is somewhere behind me, but I’m not for turning round and looking. By now, about 20 minutes in to the climb and just over half-way through, thoughts are only of the top. Accompanied only by the sound of my own breathing, its head down time for a final kick for the crest of the beef tub.
We arrive at the top in the same order we climbed it, Mark arriving a minute or so before me, followed by Big Chris bringing up the rear.
There is no single point you could call the summit on the beef tub, it just levels out for a couple of hundred metres, so riders are stopped at various points along the side of the road taking a drink from a bottle or guzzling down some more fuel.
I take the opportunity to stop and put on a jacket. The day was warm enough for bib shorts and a jersey, dusk saw me slip on a pair of arm warmers, the effort on the beef tub kept the heat in my legs, but ahead of us now lies a 12 mile descent where speeds will be over 30mph, through a night air which has gradually cooled.
After a quick drink and energy bar, it’s onward and downwards towards our next stop, the now derelict Crook Inn, just past Tweedsmuir.
The gradient on the way down is gentler than that which brought us up, but high speed and the exhilaration that accompanies it can still be achieved by turning a big gear.
With speeds being high and bright bike lights shining in an environment devoid of any other light source, with the exception of the moon, there’s now a kind of “car windscreen effect” between the front profile of my bike and me, and what seems like every flying insect in the Scottish Borders.
If protein was an issue before, it’s certainly not now.
After a 25 minute, leisurely descent down off the beef tub, and shortly after the hamlet of Tweedsmuir, the Crook Inn comes in to view. Rather than just the expected water and banana stop, though, the sight which greets us can only be described as a rave – a cyclo-rave as the organisers call it.
Disco lights are beaming out from the façade of the Crook Inn, that flashback-inducing “dumf dumf” of a house beat pumps out from a massive set of speakers, and a DJ stands behind a set of decks lining up the next tune. With the time being just past midnight, this is just what’s needed for slowing legs and body clocks.
We’re now accosted by kids TV favourite Bananaman (not the real one, I think…), offering us as many of nature’s little, yellow energy bombs as we can handle, so we duly oblige.
There’s plenty of water available to re-fill bottles also, so I fill up both of mine and stick a Nuun electrolyte tablet in one, just for good measure.
Due to the late (or early…) hour we now we find ourselves in, I reckon a little perk up is needed, so reach for an SiS Double Espresso gel. With 150mg of caffeine, this is just what I reckon I need to keep me going.
We’re at the 60 mile mark now, which is the point in any 100 mile ride that I feel a slight dip. A lot of energy has been expended, and we’re still an hour away from the point where you can really let go as you know the end is in sight.
After hanging around for a while, Mark and myself decide it’s time to get going. The midges are starting to bite here also, and when the Crook Inn stopped doing business I’m not sure they emptied the sceptic tank, because the place is a bit of an olfactory onslaught.
Big Chris gives us permission just to go again, he’ll see us in Cramond anyway.
What’s left of this ride can be split in to two segments (always a good way to break down any long ride in to manageable parts…), a 20 mile section of grippy roads through Midlothian, which undulate to a certain extent but have an overall elevation rise, covered mostly within 3 bursts of leg-sapping, long rises of 500m to 1.5km, and then a long and gradual descent down to Penicuik, Edinburgh, and then Cramond itself.
As we start off into this first section, I’m feeling good. So good in fact that, on a flat section, I’m pinging along at 20mph with Mark tucked in on my back wheel. “Do we have a tail wind?” I shout to him, thinking that I can’t be going this well purely under my own strength.
Every up has it’s down, though, and the draggy rises on bad roads (along with the caffeine buzz fading possibly…) have me back at the pace I’d have expected at this point, and the late hour has body and mind tiring, as well as legs.
Both myself and Mark spend the next 5-10 miles hanging on to others group of riders, being towed through the Midlothian night. A bit of a metal low point in the night.
After cresting the last draggy rise at La Mancha (a real place in Scotland, Don Quixote fans), which is the second highest point on our route, we begin the rather enjoyable descent down to Penicuik. Mark is still looking strong at this point and I’m jst trying to hang on, head down.
Penicuik means the first set of streetlights since we left Moffatt, almost 45 miles ago, and the point at which thoughts start turning towards the finish.
By now, it’s just myself and Mark. The previous regularity with which we passed, or were passed by other riders and groups has now slowed down significantly.
With the exception of a couple of rises close to Edinburgh itself, we’re on roads which are only heading downwards now, and again it’s just a case of getting the head down and pushing on to Cramond.
On one of the last bumps we have to crest on our road in to Edinburgh itself, a 500metre, 6% average protuberance at Fairmilehead, my neck and shoulders start to ache and the first signs of a cramp appear. Holding myself up on the bike isn’t normally a probem, but it’s now well past 2a.m., and physical excercise at this time of the morning is not something I’m used to. A 60 second stop, a quick stretch and another gel, and everything’s sorted, though.
With the final rise on our route, another 500metre long effort in leafy Morningside, covered not long after, it’s a long descent in to the city, slowed only by the changing of green to red, to amber.
Once we arrive in the middle of Edinburgh we have to negotiate two of it’s main thoroughfares, Lothian Road and Princes Street, a point in the ride which I’ve been quite looking forward to.
It’s about 02:30 in the morning. Every pub and club in Auld Reekie is in the process of chucking out.
Previously empty roads now fill with black hack taxis; deserted pavements now teem with miniskirts teetering on 3 inch heels; Skinny jeans, no socks and loafers balance half-empty bottles in one hand and a bag of bread, meat and grease, freshly acquired from iridescent take-aways in the other. It’s a Saturday night/Sunday morning scene played out in almost every town and city in Scotland. This time, though, we get the benefit of the unique perspective of cycling right through the middle of it all.
There are many puzzled looks coming our way. “Real men ride women, not bikes!” comes one shout, my hands immediately moving to the brakes to steady myself from a fit of giggles. The late night inhabitants of this locality do not disappoint.
Once we cross the junction of Lothian Road and Princes Street, taking care not to get stuck in the tram tracks, we leave the rabble behind and there’s only 4 miles of sleepy streets left to cover and then we’re done.
It’s at this point Mark and myself decide to put in a dig for the finish. There’s nothing left to save our legs for now, so might as well go for it.
We take a nice kick on a downhill section just before crossing the Water of Leith and then get in to a fast rhythm as we bomb along Queensferry Road, Mark doing most of the work on the front, pushing a big gear, with me tucked in on his wheel. We pass a few fellow riders along this wide stretch of road, all looking pretty pleased at being near the finish. Some of those who have already finished earlier now start to trickle back in to the centre of Edinburgh on the other side of the road.
On the way up the other side of a dip in Blackhall the elastic snaps, and Mark is away. By the time we take the right-hander after the library he’s out of sight. A powerful finish from the big man.
I keep the cadence steady, and after two or three minutes, and three more right turns, the entrance to Cramond Kirk is right in front of me.
Finished. 101 miles, through the middle of a June night, complete.
I catch up with Mark inside the little church hall, where a large queue of my fellow riders are waiting for a coffee and a bacon roll, all kindly supplied for the reasonable sum of £5 by the organisers and a local charity.
Cooking aromas fill the small hall as riders sit round small tables discussing their night’s adventures, as sauce bottles are squeezed, sugar spilt and tea stirred.
We wait around for 5 minutes, but with no sign of Big Chris as yet, we head 200 metres down the hill to the seafront, where everyone has gathered to watch dawn break over the Firth of Forth.
Rather kindly, and again very much in the spirit of proceedings, a couple of crates of free beer have been left in a wheelbarrow should anyone wish for something more celebratory than coffee. Everyone is in very convivial spirits.
The sea air on energy-sapped, lycra clad bodies make it all feel a bit on the chilly side after a while, though, so it’s back up to church hall to see if Chris has arrived.
We duly find him, like everyone else, with roll and drink in hand.
Missing a left-hand turn with around 12 miles to go meant he had ended up on the wrong side of Edinburgh, adding another 10 miles or so to his ride. Did I mention GPS route maps were provided?
With everyone happy, though, it was time to pack up the bikes for the short car journey home, and to bed…
Ride to the Sun is a well (semi-)organised ride, which stands out due to the time at which it takes place and the spirit it’s ridden in. There’s no ridiculous fee to ride on public roads, participants are universally friendly and motivating, and the route is a good one.
It’s by no means the hardest ton ride you’ll do in your life, with the Devil’s Beef Tub as your only real obstacle, but that makes it accesible to a wider range of riders.
For those looking for something different from a normal sportive, or for riders looking for a first three-digit distance challenge, this is an ideal place to start.
You can sign up for further information at Ride To The Sun.