Four intrepid NRC riders recently took on the challenge of Land’s End to John O’ Groats over nine days. There are lots of write ups about the route and everyone’s days, but RAB is far more of an experience than ‘just’ cycling getting on for 1,000 miles in nine days. Gideon Rabinowitz gives us his take...
Where did this all start?
I have a hazy memory of sometime in late 2019, well before Covid19 had raised its ugly head, when Chris, Steve, Peter and myself were debating doing RAB. I’d already completed it twice and was thinking about what to do in my 60th year. So, on a Whatsapp chat as I recall, one by one we started saying that we’d signed up. Soon after we had a meal where, to the best of my ability, I gave a debrief of what was entailed, not in the riding, but what you had to do in the morning, before you got on your bike and at the end of the day to make sure you didn’t have faff time the following day. It feels like there are 100’s of tasks all needed to be carried out in a cramped 2 man pop up tent, that’s just basic organisation multiplied!
It’s hard to summarise the days, but these are my one liners:
Day 1 - Land’s End to Okehampton - 8,000 feet plus climbing and pure lumpy, no flats just grind! There was a nasty accident that took a rider out and diverted the back end of the field for an additional 1,000 feet of climbing, including Peter.
Day 2 - Okehampton to Bath - Hot again, two big hills into the Quantocks and up Cheddar Gorge, plus an extra on the other side of Bath to make it 114 miles, (118 for me as I got lost once!) - too hot!
Day 3 - Bath to Ludlow - Over the iconic Severn Bridge with a wonderful view shrouded in mist, the beautiful Wye Valley followed by more bloody hills!
Day 4 - Ludlow to Haydock – Flat, fast and furious, hot too!
Day 5 - Haydock to Carlisle - A tough, long day, making it to half-way after which sadly Peter had to go back and look after Liz. We went off to Shap Fell and met Ian Sharp to add to the Newbury riders.
Day 6 - Carlisle to Edinburgh – A tough, cooler day with the first stop at 40 miles (Perth), next stop at 80 miles at the top of Glen Shee, then lots more climbing before making it to just outside Edinburgh.
Day 7 - Edinburgh to Strathdon - Lumpy and wet, another iconic bridge covered in mist
Day 8 - Strathdon to Bonar Bridge - Where we tackled the infamous ‘Lecht’ that appears from around a corner and straight into an immediate 20% climb - brutal! A wet and soggy day with some amazing climbs yet again, and a tour of the distillery area of the Highlands. Unfortunately, the pit stops did not include any Single Malts for consumption!
Day 9 - Bonar Bridge to John O’ Groats - An early 6am start in the dark and some of the best riding from all nine days to land at the finish … a short 104 miles!
Road surfaces could be anything from velvet smooth, to bone jarringly lumpy and some really treacherous stretches that saw at least three riders get taken off to hospital. In Cheshire, even the speed bumps had bumps on them!
The amazing thing about RAB which makes it truly unique is the way they feed, wash and cover 1,000 riders every night. We all had our own numbered tent which every morning was packed up and shipped to the stop after next, while tent number two was always at the next base camp. We had the ‘posh wash’ showers, which were great, especially when they installed the cold showers after the first day … as we came out wetter than we went in. Proper flushing loos, that with the build up in lactic acid in all our bodies, were frequented several times a night!
As anyone who has been on RAB will tell you, it is certainly possible to put on weight. The logistics company ‘Threshold’ use a field kitchen run by a lady (or an army!) called Lulu. Mornings of full English, afternoon tea and supper - where there is a choice of at least three mains, plus salad and of course cake. I have to confess to having more than one main on a number of evenings, not inspired by the effort from the day’s cycling, but it was just too hard to resist!
The pit stops had a familiar rhythm - really nice pork pies at pit stop one, around a third of the way in, and for pit stop two Muller Strawberry Rice, which for me on previous years had been a bit like rocket fuel. Unfortunately for me, the rocket fuel only ignited on the last day when I caught Chris and Steve up to cross the finish line together.
The pit stops were equipped with copious amounts of bottom cream (no double dipping allowed!), and more importantly suntan lotion as all the days in England were blazing hot, the ones in Scotland to put it mildly were not!
The People and the Bubble
RAB is above all about the people experience and the community that you join when you come through the gates at Land’s End until you leave on Sunday at John O’ Groats. We were by no means the only people from Newbury. We had the speedy Karl Jones from Newbury Velo who seemed to ride it faster than anyone could drive every day, Ruth Tolchard and Rob Alderman from the Banjo rides, it was Ruth’s second go having braved 2018 RAB and returned with a bike that I can only describe as requiring weights to hold it down!, Huw Jenkins and Alison Ballard also from Newbury Velo joined the ride on day 7 for the Scottish leg. On top of that there was Julie Dalton who I rode with in Vodafone in 2017, who got her gold jersey in 2019 and was the loudest cheerleader in the Bath and Somerset sections.
Getting Newbury Noticed
Chris was great at making sure we wore our Newbury kit, (he nags well), and the distinctive design got us highly noticed, in many of the independent photos of us, the kit really stands out. When I was on one start, Andy Cook, the route director commented on our new kit, it’s really well liked and given the speed Chris and Steve went associated with being the ‘Newbury Fast Boys’.
Do it Again?!
Coming to the end of RAB, for many riders is a ’never again’ moment except for the unhinged like myself, where it was the third time. With that experience it has been great to pass on all my learnings to Chris, Steve and Peter and for me, some really good reminders of the route, but like finishing a second marathon the emotion is not the same as that of the first time across the line. It does take a few weeks to decompress from nine incredible days and I think I signed up for my second RAB in that period of post-completion euphoria. So, for me, been there, done that and have the Gold Jersey. It’s an incredible experience!
There are many more things to RAB than what I tell here, it almost needs a mini series to fit it all in, covering the heat, the rain, the hills, the more hills, the sore bottoms, the poor jokes and evening motivation briefings, and on and on…
If you are thinking of having a go - do! It’s a unique experience, don’t be intimidated by the faster riders as the field is really broad. There was even one guy with a loaded shopping bike who was regularly first out in the morning and last back in the evening. You do need to put the miles in and train for it, but it’s not impossible, you just have to take it at your own pace.
Dedicated to Liz Jenkins who passed away recently, and to Peter Jenkins who braved RAB at this incredibly hard time.