Tour de Dyson – 60 miles on the unicycle

This will eventually be in the Outdoor Journal 2018 but I thought it would be nice to post it here.

The Tour de Dyson is an annual cycling event that raises funds for Alzheimer’s Research UK. Riders can choose between a 60 mile or 100 mile route. I wanted to do it on my unicycle and since I’m not completely insane I went with the 60 mile option. In the weeks leading up I had been busy in the kitchen making cakes and traybakes to sweetly guilt trip colleagues into donating to the cause. Thanks to their generosity and that of my family and friends I raised £377.19.

I was one of the first riders to arrive so the breakfast that had been laid out for us was barely touched. This was soon remedied as I got stuck into the pastries, bread, orange juice and any other treats I could find. Gels and energy powders were also provided but since I don’t train using those  I didn’t want to risk upsetting my stomach on such a long ride. I did pocket two chocolate chip “Clif” bars which are glorified flapjacks with added protein. Normally I stick with the cheap supermarket bars but with a long day ahead I wasn’t going to say no to some extra energy.

The cafe continued to fill up with lycra cladded roadies and mountain bikers in baggy shorts until 8am when we were herded outside for a group photograph. After a safety briefing (to paraphrase the main point: “don’t be an idiot”) we were divided into our groups. Those groups doing the 100 mile loop set off, the fastest leaving first to minimise the need for overtaking.

Unicyclists don’t match the pace of cyclists well at all. I can keep up with gentle, leisure cyclists on the flat and inclines but even the slowest cyclist will speed past me on a descent because I can’t freewheel. I dutifully took up my back marker position behind the last 60 mile group to leave and followed them out of Malmesbury. Town riding is about as bad as it gets for a unicyclist that can’t idle (move back and forth on the spot) because there are traffic lights, roundabouts and other obstacle that force you to dismount. At that point any riders that were looking back must have thought I would never finish if this was how slow my progress was going to be! I just about kept up until we left town and then the group disappeared from view.

As I was settling into a comfortable rhythm on the country roads I got a bit of a surprise as one of the fast groups had stopped (presumably to fix a minor mechanical issue) and cheered me as I passed. Knowing they would overtake me shortly, I pushed to see how far I could go before that happened; a slightly pointless endeavour but I’m sure most people who do long distance, solo events play similar games to entertain themselves.

The bus and driver that I normally use to get to work passed me in the opposite direction but I don’t think he recognised me. I didn’t see anyone else I knew out on the road, however, I later found out a few people spotted me. Perhaps most amusingly, it transpired that the estate agent I have been talking to about buying a house saw me on her commute. As we talked about this on the phone I could hear other people in the office on her end of the line saying they had also seen me. I might have made short term, minor celebrity status in Malmesbury…

At Sherston, the Performance Cycles mechanic stopped to take a video of me. Slightly distracted by him and the lady who decided to stop her car in the middle of the road to smile and wave at me, I managed to miss the turning for the road to Sopworth. I spotted my mistake almost immediately and the road was clear for me to do an easy u-turn. I just had to suffer the embarrassment of amateurish navigation in front of a “team vehicle”!

The road through Badminton, Acton Turville and Castle Combe was one of my favourite parts of the route. There were some long straight sections through the countryside and the scenery was beautiful. My legs were still fresh and I had found my rhythm so the miles steadily ticked over. Riding past the Castle Combe Circuit was disconcerting because the cars on the track sounded like they were on the same road and about to overtake at 100mph. At Corsham there was a long section on a busier road that wasn’t something I would include in my own route plans but it was over soon enough. When I checked my phone to make sure I was still going the right way (something I’ve learned to do regularly) I noticed that it would be lunchtime soon. This knowledge, combined with the more physical assistance of the Clif bar I stuffed down my throat, spurred me on at Gastard.

It’s a good thing I took on the extra energy because lunch was located near the top of Bowden Hill. As I began the climb I had unfounded fears that everyone would have eaten and gone but in reality the slowest 60 mile group had arrived just in front of me and some of the 100 mile groups hadn’t passed yet (they had done an extra section towards Bath). However, at the time I didn’t know this and still had a nasty little climb to do.

Bowden Hill is not the steepest ascent I’ve done on the unicycle but it is longer than most climbs I’ve done so far and it came after a solid hour or so riding. My heart rate was certainly elevated but my legs felt like they would give up first. One extra challenge of the unicycle is that if you dismount on an ascent you’ll have to push until it levels off. Perhaps better riders can mount on steep climbs but I’m not able to so. This limitation provides incentive and pressure to keep going as far as you can. As I finished the steepest part of the climb a group of cyclists in ARUK jerseys were standing at the side of the road. Relief that it was lunchtime now battled with the fear of fluffing the final section and having to push to the layby near Griffin Farm. Additional pressure was added when I realised quite a few phones had come out to record me.  Thankfully instead of being filmed stacking it from multiple angles the videos should show a slightly fatigued, but nonetheless graceful, dismount as I rolled up to the crowd.

After discarding my unicycle on the grass I wasted no time in selecting a sandwich and demolishing it. One of the small energy bars from the pocket in the back of my jersey didn’t stand a chance either. I had a good drink of water and refilled both my bottles. I knew this was about the distance I normally ended my ride so I didn’t want to hang around the lunch stop too long in case my body decided to go into relaxation mode. Perhaps unwisely I decided to have one final flapjack before leaving. I say unwisely because this was no ordinary flapjack. It was huge. And covered in chocolate. It sat rather uncomfortably in my stomach for the rest of the ride and I think I would have preferred to have been slightly hungry instead (a sentiment you’ll seldom hear me express)!

My departure was slightly delayed by the the chaotic arrival of a 100 mile group. Half of them continued up the hill to get a good Strava segment time before coming back down to join the rest of their group for lunch. I managed a clean mount first time and was on my way up the final part of Bowden Hill. Freshly fuelled and hydrated the last section was no problem at all and I passed by the appropriately named Wheelers Wood. A fair number of Tour de Dyson riders were on the road trying to regroup with the rest of their team.

The psychological benefit of knowing I was heading in a homewards direction helped me keep a good pace. But I was aware there were still many more miles to go so I was careful not to push too hard. As I descended Black Dog Hill towards Calne I was overtaken by one of the 60 mile groups who had stayed a little longer at the lunch stop. A few minutes later as I cycled the country roads towards Lowbridge I caught a glimpse of the same group going round a corner in the distance. We ended up alternately passing each other about 4 or 5 times over the next few miles until they eventually zoomed past on a descent for the last time.

Just before the route crossed over the M4, near Tokenham Bridge, I noticed my wheel wasn’t turning as freely as it should. After looking at it for a minute or so the final 60 mile group caught up. Someone was kind enough to give me a second opinion and we agreed it didn’t seem too serious so I just left everything alone. When I checked the problem out properly a few days later it turned out that somehow the bearing mounts were not evenly attached on both sides. A few minutes with an Allen key was enough to get everything back to good working order. My bearings are not quite as smooth as they once were but they are certainly not due to be replaced yet.

At Somerford Common the route turned 90° from a northerly direction to the west. From there it was practically a straight line back to Malmesbury. I didn’t feel stiff or sore but I could feel the fatigue setting in. I had been on the road for about 6 hours and pedalling almost constantly except for lunch. If I do attempt the 100 mile ride next year then I’ll need to do a lot more 50+ mile rides because currently my stamina is just not enough for such a distance. Fortunately this year I chose the achievable 60 mile option and I knew there was not much further to go!

The end of a long event is often a bit of an anti-climax and this one wasn’t really an exception. Before I knew it I was back in Malmesbury on familiar roads. I got my security badge ready and cycled through the security gates at Dyson. When I got to the pedestrian area I hopped off and stopped the track recording on my phone. It was finally over! Especially during the second half of the ride after lunch I hadn’t been checking my time so I was pleasantly surprised to find it had taken me a little over 6.5 hours. My original estimate had been about 8 hours so I had kept a pace up that was similar to what I normally do on rides of half the distance. A secret goal of the day had been to not be the last 60 mile rider out on the road. In the end I was about 10 or 15 minutes after the last group so it wasn’t to be!

As I walked to the building where I had stored my car key and left the unicycle outside  I chatted to a few colleagues. When I came back a minute or so later Mr Dyson himself was outside doing some filming for what I assume will be promotional material. A giant unicycle is probably not what the filmmakers had in mind for background props so I hastily removed it. As I did so, James Dyson spotted the unicycle and came over to ask a few questions. He has a well earned reputation for curiosity in all things mechanical so I was happy to give a quick run through of the basics.

I deposited the unicycle in the car and went for a shower. Feeling a bit fresher, I chatted to a few people in the office before going on the hunt for the free post-ride pizza. I nearly managed to finish the whole thing but had to leave a slice for later in the evening. After chatting to a few other riders and representatives from ARUK I eventually made my way back to a friend’s house in Malmesbury. Driving back to Bristol was an option but I decided to allow myself a lie in on Friday morning, which was just as well because I could feel my body slowly going to sleep after the day’s effort!