Updated on the 25th of April, 2013 to include some more ride reports and videos.
This past weekend was the Tour O’the Borders, a 70 mile sportive race that started and ended in the town of Peebles, Scotland. This was my first ever endurance athletic event, and was quite the experience.
Preparation started in January with the delivery of my Canyon Roadlite AL bike, direct from Germany. My first ever spin on a road bike was a few laps of Arthur’s Seat on the 12th, and our team trained regularly during the week and on weekends since the third weekend of the year. Most weekends we’d be out on the bikes and during the week I’d hit the stationary bike at least twice and sometimes do a spin class. While we weren’t quite as far along as we wanted to be, I found myself comfortably managing 30 mile rides with a couple thousand feet of elevation changes. One week prior to the event, we decided to ride the main loop the route would take in order to get our bearings and make sure we had one last good ride in prior to a week of tapering before the event.
We rode the practice route during a spectacular day and learned an important lesson about nutrition – we had underestimated how critical eating was to our success. All three of us on the ride crashed pretty hard prior to the last major hill and found it and the ensuing flat ride back to the car to be gruelling. We wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Diet and Carb Loading
A few weeks prior to the event I stopped drinking all alcohol except for red wine, and didn’t drink any at all the week prior to the race. We drew a start time of 8AM in Peebles, and decided to spend the night prior to the event in town as our group had a tendency to, shall we say, struggle with leaving on time. We had been watching the weather all week while enjoying the second straight week of perfect Scottish weather and were excited to see that the temperature, which had been averaging in the 40s for most of the month, looked like it was going to be in the upper 50s for the weekend. Rain was also predicted, but we’d been training in snow and rain plenty and were prepared for the elements. The only concern we had was wind. Wind, more than any other element, is a killer on the bike. Even a slight breeze can really make life difficult, and without a doubt the most difficult training ride of the entire preparation period had been on a day which had seen us battling 15mph gusts of wind for roughly 20 miles. The event is scheduled rain or shine, like everything in Scotland, so there wasn’t much to be done other than to hope.
Three of the “BMX Bandits”, our Cycling Team.
On Saturday we loaded up our gear and drove down to Peebles, where we checked into the Crown public house, and headed over to register. Because the starting times had been published previously, I knew I was the only rider in the event with the last name Peebles, and as I checked in I informed the attendant that I’d been promised a statue of my likeness to be delivered upon registration. She looked down at her notes and said, “Ah yes, it’s right here in my notes that we’ll have your statue at the end…that is…if you finish.” It was a bit ominous if you asked me.
After asking if I’d come all the way from America for this race they did admit that there was one person who lived in town with the last name Peebles. He was an American. A school teacher. Quite a strange man. I assured them I was at least as strange, admonished them to get my statue ready, and then it was off for supper.
We’d booked a table at the only Italian restaurant in the village. According to the internet, the average male can load over a thousand calories into muscles, stored as glycogen, by eating a high level of carbs prior to an event, and we were on a mission. The race would take over four thousand calories and I was convinced it could be my last meal on earth, so we ordered appropriately. I had two mains: gnocchi and lasagne, and shared a banana split with fellow teammate Eugene. We also ate two peanut butter sandwiches each prior to bed. That evening we spent a couple of hours making PBJs for the ride (two each) and checking our equipment, bikes, and food supplies for the race.
Here’s the gear I had with me:
- Clothing: 2 merino (3 if wet) Icebreaker base layers, cycling jersey, bike shorts, bib tights, lightweight cycling rain jacket, 2 pair (3 if cold) wool socks, cycling shoes, neoprene waterproof overshoes, merino skullcap, glasses, helmet, and waterproof winter rated gloves.
- Bike: cycling computer (odometer and speed), saddle bag, bike hex wrenches, spare tube, puncture repair kit, compact pump, bottle, wallet, waterproof bag with phone, route card, and camelbak with 2.5L reservoir and low calorie cycling specific energy drink.
- Food: 15 Torq isotonic energy gels with guarana (caffeine), 2 granola bars, 1 energy bar, 2 PBJ sandwiches, 1 Snickers bar, and 1 banana.
Most people are surprised at the food. The race was expected to take roughly 6 hours and about 4,000 calories, which means that while riding we’re spending almost two times the normal recommended dietary intake in energy, and missing a meal, and keeping your energy levels up is critical. I planned to supplement the food above with bananas and carb-heavy foods available at the two feed stations set up along the route.
Seasoned cyclists will observe that it’s fairly non-traditional to use a large camelbak, as it adds quite a bit of weight, but I don’t care. I find that it’s much easier to drink from a camelbak than from a cycling bottle, which takes quite a bit of concentration to get out of the cage and use, and when training without a camelback I noticed I drink substantially less. On courses here in Scotland, the hills are steep enough that you can’t drink on the climbs, and they’re frequent enough that you have to manage your drinking on the descents, which is problematic when you’re going down steep hills and need to be braking with both hands.
Seasoned cyclists will also note that I made a critical mistake on the equipment – I didn’t bring a chain tool, tire levers, or a second inner tube. A broken chain could end the ride, the absence of tire levers would make changing a puncture much more difficult, and on long rides two punctures can happen.
We went to bed early and I woke up twice to hear the wind had picked up. It was howling and rattling our windows, and come morning we were greeted with a weather situation that seemed fairly grim. The winds were at an estimated 12mpg (20kph) blowing northeast, and it was drizzling rain. It wasn’t raining especially hard and the temperature was in the 50s. The weather was predicted to improve over the course of the morning.
We had our meal of porridge, then suited up, ate a banana and rode over to the starting line, making it with about 10 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, the weather had worsened considerably. It was now blowing steadily and raining heavily. Scotland normally doesn’t get very much heavy rain, it tends to drizzle, but it was raining hard and getting worse by the minute. The organisers were starting us in groups of 50 but as the first group got ready to depart, the wind gusted so hard a rider was knocked off his bike. In case that’s not clear, I’ll reiterate: he went from standing with his bike to laying on the ground due to the wind. After that, the starting groups were pared down to 25 riders. We were slotted into the second group and then we were off.
20 Miles of Horror
As headed out we turned to follow the River Tweed and I noticed for the first time how high the water level was. We’d visited Peebles a year prior and the river had been 10 feet below the banks at that time. It was now level and moving very swiftly. It began to rain very hard now, but I was concentrating on riding with the growing peloton of riders, many of whom were intent on passing and moving up in position. The first leg of the course was mainly flat, but we soon turned off and headed for the hills, and began a brutal category four, six hundred feet climb that lasts for roughly 4 miles. We were in extreme rain at this point, and the wind was blowing at least twenty miles an hour in the exact opposite direction. The conditions were what could only be described as apocalyptic – it was very dark, I saw two riders blown off of their bikes due to gusts of wind, the rain was horizontal and pelting us very hard. The surrounding hills which had been covered with snow just seven days earlier were now bare and the rain was washing down rock and debris that was causing a lot of punctures. I counted at least six punctures on riders’ bikes in the first twenty minutes. Experienced riders would later comment to teammates that they’d never seen this many flats.
I had stupidly left behind my clear cycling glasses as they tend to fog up in rain, particularly on climbs, and I didn’t think the wind would be a problem. Now we were out in horrible wind and the rain was pelting us so hard that it was hurting exposed skin, particularly the eyes. I was riding with my head down, the eye towards the wind closed, head turned away from the wind, one eye barely open, and switching eyes when the one would starting stinging too badly. The racket from the rain hitting our helmets was so loud it made me think at one point there could be some hail involved. The wind was so loud it made it impossible to talk to other riders.
The pace was gruelling – I was struggling up the hill at roughly six miles per hour, which is less than what you’d expect to achieve walking a mile, and exerting a huge amount of energy. Halfway up the hill I stopped to catch my breath, and I realised that finishing the race at all was in jeopardy as I was burning valuable energy fighting the wind, and unable to eat or drink due to the heavy exertion required. As I restarted my ascent, I heard a word of encouragement shouted by another approaching rider. He was a white haired, overweight Scot in his mid-fifties, riding a decrepit bike with fenders, sporting cargo shorts and sneakers with no clipons.
“Cmon lad, we’ll do it together!” he roared.
I tucked in behind him and we settled into a routine where he’d shield me from the wind for a few minutes, and then I’d get in front and repay the favor. As we neared the halfway point of the first climb, I was confused to see four riders speeding down the hill in the opposite direction. They were bailing out, giving up. My new partner turned and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “THAT’S FOUR SCALPS FOR US, MATE!” and began laughing hysterically, “WE’LL SEE THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS AT THE FINISH LINE! YEAAAAAAAH!” As we reached the summit he peddled off into the maelstrom ahead and I never saw him again.
More and more riders were quitting. I counted twenty, and then stopped counting. Many were clearly experienced, sporting Rapha jerseys, three thousand pound bikes, and lean physiques. I didn’t really know what to do, so I pressed on.
Tour o’ the Borders 2013 – the extreme sportive? from Tour o’ the Borders on Vimeo.
Downhill and Decisions
As we ended the first serious climb, I was really looking forward to the first major downhill which would lead to the pub that we’d started our loop from the week earlier. Except the wind was blowing against us so hard that we had to pedal to go downhill. Riders were standing up to pedal downhill into the wind on what should have been a 20mph freewheeling descent.
It was quite a miserable bunch that huddled in the lee side of the pub when I finally arrived. Many riders were turning back and several commented it was the worst weather they’d ever experienced. I ate a granola bar, got back on the bike, and headed for the second major climb – five hundred feet of elevation over four miles. The wind and rain had picked up from before, and again I could barely average six miles per hour. Finally, I reached the summit and began heading down, and that was when I saw the decision point. I could head left and ride the shorter route, which would lop off two climbs and roughly twenty miles, or I could head for the longer course and do the full 70 miles. I’m still not sure why I headed right, but I think it had a to do with the fact that I genuinely believed I wouldn’t be able to finish the short course, let alone the longer one. In my mind, it would be better to fail attempting the long course than not make it on the short course.
As I descended the hill towards the first feed station, I was still fighting the wind – I trying to get as close to a full race position as possible with my hands on the bottom bars, head down, and in a full racing tuck. When riding like this it’s not very comfortable, and it can be hard to see far in front of you. I looked up for a minute and was astonished to see the wide valley that I’d ridden through just seven days prior completely flooded. The road disappeared for about a quarter mile underneath a swift moving body of water that seemed to be a couple feet deep.
Some cyclists had dismounted and were walking through the river. Tree branches, grass, and other debris were in the very muddy water. If I turned back, I’d have to ride back up the hill, so I forged ahead and rode through. You had to aim about 45 degrees to the right in order to get pushed back towards the centre and not be washed away and the water was over the crank shaft of my bike, maybe two feet deep. Emerging from the river on the other side I picked off branches, grass, and quite a bit of miscellaneous plant matter, and headed into another climb.
Picture taken by stranded cyclist rescued by a tractor.
Finally I made it to the first rest stop. A teammate later commented that it looked like a campsite after a drone attack. There were two caravans parked in a flooded lot, and the remaining skeleton of a tent which had been torn to pieces. Furniture was overturned, and the camper doors were open and banging loudly in the wind. Bikes were strewn all over the grass, and I headed in to see what there was to eat. There wasn’t much room in the camper so I scarfed down a piece of cake with butter, then it was back to work.
My hope was that as we navigated around the course counter-clockwise, we’d have the aid of the wind at our backs at some point, and the last major climb situated between 3 and 12 o’clock on the course would hopefully be sheltered from the wind. A couple more miles of really hard work into the wind, and then all of a sudden, the wind was at my back.
The Wind and a Puncture
I remember laughing in giddy fashion as the wind and I worked together to get over the mountain and push me along a sixteen mile segment that took us across the spine of a range of hills. Compared to earlier I was rocketing across the course, and just before the descent towards the second feed station, I pulled over to take a bathroom break. The wind was blowing extremely hard at this point, and as I started to pee, it was an odd experience watching it rocket up and away at a forty-five degree angle. To any readers that live in France, I apologise for watering your lawn. I was hungry too, so I started eating a banana, solving two problems at once. So there I was, peeing into the stratosphere while eating a banana, and up pulled a female rider behind me. Everyone knew what was going on, but nobody cared, we were that tired, wet and cold. And she had a problem.
“Do you think my tire is punctured?” she asked, squeezing the inner tube until her fingers were touching. Road bikes run their tires between 100psi and 120psi and are rock hard. They don’t flex when squeezed.
“You definitely have a puncture”, I answered.
“Oh,” she said, “I think I’m going to cry.”
If you do that, I explained, the tears will just rocket up and away from you. After all, I had experience.
We set to work, even though I’d never changed a tire before, and neither had she. Two other riders stopped to assist, and together we formed a collection of the four most clueless cyclists ever assembled, as nobody knew what they were doing. It was really, really cold, but twenty minutes later we had the tire changed and pumped up, and I jumped on the bike and headed off.
Down I came into the second feed station, which was located in some kind of Scottish version of a VFW hall. Walking in I was barraged by volunteers asking me what I needed. “Hot soup! Two kinds! Take as much as you want!” I pointed at a few things, then walked over and sat down. I felt like hell. There were three or four other riders across from me at another table. A volunteer walked up to me and stuck his head in my face. “Are you OK?” he asked, as if I was in shock. I probably was. I nodded yes.
While I chewed my sandwich and drank my soup I listened to the organisers talk about the race. Riders were being picked up all across the course, and many were reaching this feed station then leaving their bikes and being bussed back to the finish line. There was a truck leaving outside with a bike trailer that could hold at least twenty bikes, and it was without an empty spot.
I was facing the hardest climb of the day, and after the descent, I’d be heading back into the wind as I closed off the circle at the pub. I decided to just go for it.
Heading out, I couldn’t see any riders ahead or behind me which was much as the race had been all day. I started into the grade and saw a massive Scottish hare about twenty feet in front of me. Bigger than a cat, it was watching me. As I’d pedal closer, it would run ahead for about twenty feet, then turn around and watch me struggle to catch up to it. It was a truly bizarre experience, possibly a hallucination, that lasted halfway up the hill. I had taken three gels throughout the ascent, but I was completely out of gas as I rounded a corner two thirds of the way up. Just as the climb doubled back on itself, I caught the wind and it literally pushed me over the last two hundred feet of the climb and into a very long, very fast descent. With the runoff from the rain and snow covering the road, braking was harder than usual and my hands began cramping up as I struggled to maintain control down the hill, but I had made it. There was a glimmer of hope.
Last Man Standing
However, I turned onto a mostly flat section back towards the pub and the wind hit me full force again. This was a grim stretch. About halfway through, a motorcycle pulled up next to me, and asked me how I was doing. It was a race marshall checking up on riders.
“OK”, I lied, “Am I the last one?”
“Well…” he said, not really answering.
“I’m really the last one?” I asked, quite surprised.
“Yeah…..you’re the last one,” he answered, and then because the truth had been spoken he immediately radioed in.
“Control, I’ve got the last rider out here now.”
I was debating how to ask if I could hang onto the motorcycle and get a pull when he shouted that he’d pull ahead and try to block some of the wind. I nodded in compliance. The trouble was, I was going so slow he was having trouble riding his motorcycle, and the exhaust from the bike was blowing directly back into my face. I wanted to puke.
Finally, we pulled into the pub. We’re going to pause our narrative briefly and leave out a few bits, but lets just say that that if I were you, I would never use the bathroom in the Guilford Arms pub ever again.
Emerging from the pub I saw two race marshals hanging out. Did they think I could make it? I was prepared to give up if they provided any hint of negativity. “You can do it!” they replied enthusiastically, and tossed me a red bull. I hated those guys. Back onto the bike and into the last climb, which was a 2.7 mile 430 foot climb. I’m not really sure how I made it, but once over, the wind was at my back as I sped down the stretch which I’d fought up for the first ten miles, and I realised I was going to finish.
As I joined back up with the River Tweed, the sun was out and I ate a Snickers bar (lovingly sneaked into my bag by my beloved wife), which provided quite the jolt to my system. A car approached from the rear and I waved to signal it to go around. The driver pulled up instead and asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing OK.
“Which course are you coming from?” he asked.
“The long one.” I said
“Brilliant! Well done! Quite a day isn’t it? You’re the last one!”
I agreed, and then he told me he was the event organiser. I told him my last name was Peebles, and I just couldn’t let the town down. Then he told me the best news I’d had all day.
“There’s no more hills from here on in!”
So it was with an escort that I pedalled along the River Tweed, heading towards the village of my namesake, and I fantasized about the welcome I’d receive. My team would be there, and hundreds of other cyclists and their families, enjoying their post-race meals. They would clap for me and cheer, and I would think of something funny to say. It was going to be great.
I headed up the short driveway to Peebles High School and the car behind me began honking as I surveyed the deserted parking lot. The organiser was honking in order to let the timing official know he should record my finish. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I rode past the imaginary line, got off the bike, and collapsed on the ground. I texted Sara that I’d made it, and called my teammates.
“Come on back to the hotel, take a shower, and come to the pub!”
And so I got back on the bike and cycled a quarter mile back to the hotel, and showed up where our team was assembled. It had been a rough day. One teammate’s knee was messed up from the ride. Another had been blown off his bike twice and had a punctured tire, then decided to ride the short course instead.
“On a scale of 1-10, how much did you enjoy that?” I was asked.
It had been the hardest thing I’ve ever physically done in my life. My elapsed time was 7:26, over an hour and a half longer than we’d planned. Only 233 riders finished the long course. 430 completed the short, and the remaining 337 dropped out. Still, the sense of accomplishment was incredible, and now we’re focused for the Caledonian Etape in three weeks.
Just a reminder that I’m still raising money for the Caledonian Etape, and we’re over halfway there. If you can donate, it would mean a lot for a great cause!
Strava Report from the Ride
Other Rider’s Reports from the Tour o’the Borders
Media Coverage of the Tour o’the Borders