Chase The Sun – Support Driver’s Perspective
Having looked on in admiration at the Cranks that have taken part in this event in previous years, I was keen to have a go myself. Having ridden several 100 mile rides since my first in 2014, I am ‘comfortable’ with long distance rides but Chase The Sun (CtS) is on another level. Before taking the plunge and giving it a go myself, I thought I would take the cautious approach and offer to be support driver for this year’s Cranks’ riders in order to conduct a close up recce of the event.
For those unfamiliar with this event, it was started in 2008 by a couple of friends who wanted to see how far they could ride in a single day. They decided on an annual attempt to ride coast to coast across the UK on the longest day of the year. After 3 attempts, they succeeded and the event has now grown into what is probably the UK’s largest free cycling event with over 550 riders taking part this year. The ride starts at sunrise (4.42 a.m.) in Minster on Sea on the East coast with the idea being to ride to Burnham on Sea on the West coast before the sun sets (9.21 p.m. this year). A distance of 205 miles (assuming no wrong turns) in a little over 16.5 hrs. If you were able to complete this without a stop (you can’t), your average speed would need to be around 12.5 mph. Given that a number of stops are required to rest and refuel, an average of around 14.5-15 mph (or around the speed of a regular Steadies ride but 4 times as far) is needed to complete the event in the time allowed.
The team of David Rouget (a CtS veteran), Graham Warren, Julian Mitchell, Darren Webb, Ian Walton, Mike Thatcher, Gary Salter and myself first assembled in late Spring to discuss logistics and form a plan. The agreed plan was fairly simple; drive to the start on Friday afternoon. Check into the hotel. Eat. Receive the rider & support drivers’ briefs. Go to bed early ready to wake up at 4 a.m. and start. Mostly, things went to plan with the exception of the ‘unplanned’ consumption of several beers (apprently, an acceptable form of carb loading).
As Ian’s van could not fit all of the riders, bikes, food, drink, spares, clothing etc. a second vehicle was needed to get everyone to and from the event. That unenviable task fell to Denise (Mrs Webb) who had to travel to the start line on a Friday afternoon to drop half of the team and their kit off and then immediately drive back home via the M25 & M40 on a Friday afternoon. She also drove to and from Burnham on Sea on Saturday to bring half the team home after the event. A no doubt boring chore of a job but essential to the team and very much appreciated.
Perhaps doubting his own abilities a bit too much, Ian initially decided to drop out of the ride and help on the support side but was eventually convinced to give it a go. This put a little more pressure on me as he was trusting me to drive his shiny new VW T5 van. Thankfully, a few dodgy fuses aside, I managed to return the van in one piece and with no damage sustained.
Following a 4 a.m. alarm, the briefest of ‘comfort breaks’ and not much breakfast, the riders set off. Once they had departed, I checked the GPS tracker was working and went back to the room to wait for a clear road. I had the luxury of another hour or so sitting around in the room, having a bit of breakfast and a shower before my day really began. We had agreed that the first meet up would be after 48 miles at Cadence Cycles in Crystal Palace (one of a number of cycle shops that offered mechanical assistance to riders for free and some even threw in cakes and drinks). It was only when the team arrived around 20 minutes down on the schedule that I discovered they had been held up, almost immediately, by the bridge out of Sheppey which had raised to allow a ship to pass. When the schedule is already tight, delays like this can have a significant effect on the overall average speed.
The most stressful part of my day was trying to decide when to set off from a meeting point. Too early and I would have to double back if assistance was required, too late and I would be in danger of missing the guys at the next stop. Although the van obviously had the advantage of speed, when travelling through built up areas, it is difficult to use the speed due to traffic. Thanks to the early start, London wasn’t too bad and I managed to be where I was supposed to be for the first few stops. The only time I had to think on my feet was at the half way stage in Bramley.
From advice given by previous riders (Derek Mackenzie and David Rouget) we decided to avoid the pub where the half way check point (101 miles) was based as parking would be an issue. The agreed meeting point was to be in a ‘field’ around a mile past the pub. Unfortunately, said ‘field’ had become a housing estate since last year’s event and no parking was to be had. Coupled with the fact there was a busy level crossing just before the pub which regularly held up traffic, I was starting to get a bit worried about not being able to be find a suitable parking place where I could both set up to cook and be found by the team. I was rapidly running out of time to prepare the planned hot meal (bacon butties). Luckily enough, I eventually found the last space in a car park full of support drivers situated just opposite the last junction before the check point. If I missed the team coming through the corner, they would have no idea where I was and potentially missing an important rest and feed stop. I just about had enough time to set up the camping stove and get the food on before I caught side of the first Cranks jersey and shouted them over. As has already been mentioned, when you have a tight timescale, any unduly long stops can really put pressure on the average speed. We had planned 40 mins for the lunch stop and the team left on time but it was a close run thing. There is a saying “there’s no substitue for experience” and a top tip from a seasoned support driver will definitely come in handy for next year. Cook the hot meal the night before and just warm it up at the stop. This would have saved around 10 minutes cooking time and kept the rest stop to a minimum. One of many valuable lessons learned.
After the first half of the ride, it was decided to reduce the gap between stops to 30 miles in case of fatigue and, as it was a very warm day, to ensure that every one remained fed and watered. As anyone that has ridden on a hot day, warm water, although essential to hydration, tastes foul. Although some of the water was frozen at the start which kept the water cool for the early stages, around mid-afternoon it was becoming an issue. A quick trip to a supermarket to buy a couple of bags of ice sorted this. Placing it around the bottles in a cool box helped and chucking a couple of cubes into a bidon also kept the liquids palatable. As the second half of the route pretty much matched the van’s Sat Nav plotted route, I was able to leap frog the guys a couple of times and get some decent photos and offer words of encouragement (and some awesome Heavy Metal tunes on Ian’s van’s radio).
The final stop was in Cheddar Gorge approx 10 miles from the end. With the sun rapidly heading towards the horizon, this was a quick final stop to re-group after the descent through the gorge, surely one of the highlights of the ride? If the team could maintain the average speed they had set so far, they would make the deadline but with not much time to spare. After a bit of a false start from me (driving off with the tailgate raised is not advisable) I was off to the finish to cheer the team onto the jetty and the finish.
The finish was full of support drivers, riders who had already completed their ride, their family and friends. There was also a Town Cryer welcoming in every rider with a booming voice and his (frankly annoying) bell. To say the last few minutes waiting for their arrival was tense is an understatement. If they failed to make the deadline, how much of that was down to me and the near disaster at the lunch stop? How awkward would the ride home be if they missed the deadline by mere minutes? Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. With 20 minutes to spare, the team approached the finish line as one. They rolled down the jetty to celebrate the end of a remarkable feat of endurance.
I was in awe of these guys who I have ridden with on many occasions without realising just how strong they all were. I am sure they all had their own dark moments along the way but not one of them looked anywhere near as exhausted as you might expect. Following the ride, we retired to the local pub for a well deserved pint (cup of tea for me as I still had to drive home). The only downer on the day was the reluctance of the local chip shops to remain open beyond 10 p.m. Half the team decided to leave and stop at the nearest services but the half I was responsible for delivering home decided to stay and make the most of the Wetherspoons late kitchen which stayed open to feed the hundreds of ravenous riders at the finish. Thankfully, a cup of tea at Wetherspoons has free top ups so I was able to remain ‘hydrated’.
The eventual drive home ended around 1 a.m. (for me) which meant a 21hr day from the alarm call, over 10 hours of which was driving. A long day? Yes. A stressful day? Yes. A worthwhile and rewarding day? Definitely. I now have a clear idea of what is required to succeed in this challenge and will definitely be taking part next year. The diet has already started. The winter will not be spent getting fat and lazy “because its cold out”. It will be spent on the turbo (god, I hate the turbo) trying to prepare for what will surely be the biggest cycling challenge I ever undertake.
Although, to a man, the team were exceedingly kind in their praise and thanks for my role in their success, I feel sure I had the easiest job of the day and that they could have completed it without my help however, having that support certainly makes the task a little easier. Hopefully I have not put anyone off as we will be looking for someone to take up the driving role next year. Any volunteers?