It’s winter and in the Netherlands it finally starts to show. The mercury has dropped sub-zero. The Christmas break is in full swing and surprisingly so, is the cycling scene. Traditionally from end of October until beginning of March cyclists take a well deserved break from going on two wheels, or adopt a variety of other physical activities to compensate for the lack of miles out on the road. Running, swimming, strength training just to name a few. Yet nowadays increasingly the trend is to ride on during the winter months. If you live in the southern hemisphere this won’t be much of a challenge, but with us, up north, decreased amount of daylight, sub zero temperatures and the accumulation of fatigue from a long season, all conspire against zipping up against the cold and ‘going out there’. Yet humans are a crafty bunch and for the spirited a challenge always presents an opportunity.
Step in the boys and girls at Rapha..
Rapha is a relatively young company based in the UK that produces arguably the best performance and stylish cycling garments on the market. Albeit not cheap, none of the quality gear really ever is. It’s a challenge to take on established brands, but Rapha succeeded and then some.. Yet succeeding at this level is not all. Rapha challenge themselves to be innovative on all frontiers of the cycling experience. You can travel with Rapha specific training camps, weeklong or one day events, they promote a community of like minded riders by rolling out chapters in major cities, ther are social gatherings, clinics, workshops. And then there is the annual Rapha Festive 500 challenge.
The Rapha Festive 500, or short Festive500, is a challenge created a few years ago by Graeme Raeburn, Rapha’s lead designer. Graeme decided he wasn’t going to sit around during the days between Christmas and New Year. Instead he thought it ought to be interesting to try his hand at emulating the winter training on the level of what he thought would be ‘what professional riders’ do. Turns out he aimed way too high.. Graeme laid down the gauntlet for the next year. On the inaugural Festive 500 in 2010, which was also a white Christmas, just like the year he had started out, 94 riders took up the challenge. The idea caught on and last year, 72,283 riders signed up. Only 13,311 completed the full distance. You can read more about his story here: Rapha Festive 500 origins
So in short the Festive 500 is all about riding your bike during the few days between Christmas and New Year and setting yourself a minimum target of completing 500 km in 8 days and occasionally taking on the extremer winter conditions.
I decided to take part in this years challenge again. I had already completed it once, but conditions were very favourable and weather wise not so much of a test. The story below is the account of this years ‘highlight’ of the challenge. Which occurred, as it often does, more by happenstance than premeditation.
Part 1. ‘Why I am so mindless sometimes??’
On the Saturday prior to Christmas eve, me and some of our local Rapha team members decided to kick off the Festive500 challenge with a lovely ride along the western coastline of the Netherlands. I couldn’t join from the beginning as I had some business to attend to in the morning and the guys had decided to take an early train to The Hague and ride northward. The winds were strong that day and it would allow them to be pushed along nicely while clocking up the miles needed. I joined them halfway at Wijk aan Zee, 30 km or so from Amsterdam after battling through the strong westerly gusts. We had a coffee and some apple pie in a deserted local cafe where Christmas songs were quietly wailing in the background before setting off further north.
Gert Jan our experienced tour guide, navigated us along all the beautiful coastal and dune roads of the ‘Noord Holland’ province. The wind was strong that day and not always dead center from behind which, at times, made us have to lean into the wind or be blown off the road. It was fun though and we were gunning up and over gravel dune paths, forest roads and motoring along the stretch of newly laid ‘dune-highway’ from Schoorl to Petten. Our destination was Den Helder, a city on the farthest point of mainland with it’s tall lighthouse and other landmarks typical for a fishermen’s town. Here, after enjoying some lunch, we would board the train back to Amsterdam and be back to our families in time for Christmas eve dinner. The last stretch of tarmac between the sea and the northern dike of Den Helder is wide like a small landing strip. Due to the arctic gale blowing, we were able to ride ‘full pedal to the metal’ for the last kilometers. We were sprinting until our lungs burst and reached speeds close to 70 km/h.
The lunch that followed was uneventful and before long the landscape was zipping by from our train windows. The bikes were stacked neatly against one another when a slow but steady feeling of dread came over me. ‘Where is my bicycle computer’?….
Part 2. An Epic ride
It’s 08:30 AM on a Thursday morning and I am on my bike riding the very same roads I had less than a week prior. I’m heading back again to Den Helder to collect my bike computer. I seized the opportunity to carve out another long bike ride. Sure I could’ve had the owner of the seafood joint send me the computer by mail, but that would be way less exciting. Besides, the wind was favourable with a steady southerly and I needed to log more miles so it all seemed to make sense. I had tried to get a few others to come along, but all attempts failed. I like the solitude sometimes, so it wasn’t for the worse that I was heading out on my own. Yet before long I am flat on my face in front of a pedestrian heading for work. The man looks at me with a mix of pity and restraint amusement and after pausing for a second assessing my silly predicament, walks on. I lost control of my bike on a slippery patch of ice on the bike path while turning a corner. I carried hardly any speed when the front wheel just went and I crashed on my side. Straight back onto my feet I check if all is still okay with my limbs, clothes and bike and decide to continue, albeit a bit jittery. It’s an odd sensation but for the first half an hour after a crash you’re faith in yourself, the bike and the road is at an all time minimum, often causing you to have another crash.
It’s very misty and the minuscule droplets of rain freeze onto my clothes, making me look like a modern frosty the snowman on two wheels. Arrived in Wijk aan Zee it’s time for a snack. I am feeling good and park the bike against a bench to stretch the legs a little. While I am eating my cereal bar a couple of elderly people with kids walk by. ‘A well deserved snack, ey?’ she says while I politely smile back at them. ‘And continue straight onto London from here’ she jokes and walks on. ‘To London? How far would that be?’ I find myself thinking while I swallow the last piece of the cereal bar. I shrug off the thought. ‘Ridiculous idea!’ I think to myself. ‘How are you going to pull that off?’ While being amazed at my adventure junky mind I set out for the next leg of my ride. When taking a few sips from my water I notice small shards of ice among it. When I look down on the bike, slivers of ice have materialised on the forks and the metal parts exposed to the wind. ‘Wow, it’s cold alright’ I think, increasing the pace to keep on top of staying warm. But somehow the ladies comment seems to stick and it comes back to me a few times while I continue my trek up north. ‘Obviously I can’t go to London, but how can I make an equally big ride out of this one?’ I am thinking this partly because I still need to complete at least 200 km of the Festive500 ‘and it’s always nice to log one ‘epic’ ride’ as part of the challenge, and partly because I like to ‘just go crazy’ a bit once in a while. Last year, during a day with a near southwest storm forecast, I had conjured up the idea to ride from Vlissingen in the very south west of the Netherlands to Amsterdam in one go, covering over 200 km and averaging 34,5km/h… So while I am pedalling over dune tops and past natural lake formations a thought starts developing in my mind: ‘What if I just ride back home instead of taking the train?’
At the cafe on my next stop a nice fire crackles away in front of me while I have some coffee and cake. The waitress for some reason unbeknownst to me has added a small shotglas of brandy with whipped cream to my order. ‘Probably, she felt pity when she saw my frozen state’ I think while I gratefully down it in one go. The warmth spreading through my abdomen is soothing and I start to smile with mischievousness. ‘It’s not even noon and here I am resorting to alcohol’. The waitress asks if all is to my liking. ‘Yes, very much so, thank you’, I croak. ‘what happened to my voice’ I think? Seems like the chill factor has affected my vocal cords and I now sound like I have been letting my hair down the previous night. She laughs and inquires where I am headed. Her eyes widen when she hears what my plans are..
Turning out of Den Helder I am full of confidence. I am thinking this will not be too taxing on my body so long as I keep the pace steady and my heart rate far away from the red zone. ‘It’s only 90 km more, you’ve passed the halfway point already’ I think full of confidence’. On Google maps the roads seemed uncomplicated and straight forward. Nothing difficult just long straight roads. But the wind pushes hard and an hour in I start to feel the toll of the constant effort I have to make. Obviously I am at a point of no return. In fact I had been at the point of no return the moment I forged the idea in my mind of ‘just riding back home’. I am also constantly getting lost because for some reason this far up north they don’t seem to bother about the otherwise always so well placed road signs at the junctions of the bicycle paths. And since I only picked up my bike computer an hour ago I had had no opportunity to plot a route and let the navigation do it’s magic. To make matters worse extensive road repairs are in full swing and existing bicycle lanes have just.. well.. vanished! I have to switch back numerous times to forge new routes. It’s getting frustrating and I get pissed off. ‘Fuck Bram, you’ve been in this spot numerous times and still you haven’t learned’ ‘Why the hell did you not just get on the train’ I think while I try and read my google maps for where to go now. The now arctic wind blowes down my neck and my mood takes a turn for the worse. It’s still at least 70 km to go and it’s 2:30 PM. In 2 hours it’s sundown.. I only have a back light, I didn’t bother about a front one. ‘Get to Hoorn’ I think. ‘That’s all there is to it now’. ‘From there I know my way even in the dark’. I could also take a train from there. Although in the back of my mind I already know that once I get to Hoorn there’s no way I will board a train so close to home. So I get on with it and just put my head down and go. Steady pace, smooth cadence.
Onto the beautiful ‘Zeedijk’ I ride homeward. Hoorn has come and gone and as I look back it’s skyline is now growing smaller. It’s 4 PM and in everything you can sense that the day is drawing to a close. The temperature is slowly but surely decreasing. It had been -1 to -2 most of the day, but now my computer reads -2,8. Ooof.. I am feeling the fatigue and cold accumulating. It’s approximately another hour to go, but it feels like all strength has now left me. I fixate my gaze out in front of the road and focus internally on my pedalling, trying to maintain a steady rhythm. My fingertips are frozen from lack of circulation and constant exposure to the cold winds in spite of the gloves I am wearing. I flick on my back light so as to not get hit from behind by a car.
The last half an hour is a mix of painful cold and fatigue and at times, apart from the occasional lonely street light here and there, complete darkness. It’s also blissful joy and a sense of pride knowing you are on the verge of completing a memorable ride. You against the elements. I love that stuff. Even the tough aspects of the ride become an ornament and embellishment as it makes the impending accomplishment all the more savoury. It’s interesting to see where your mind goes in those moments. Switching back and forth between exhaustion and exhilaration.
At last at home! I am trembling all over while I sit on the couch with a cup of tea clasped between my hands and with a huge grin on my face. ‘That was all worth it!’ I think while the first words for this blog post already rise up to the surface of my mind..
Length: 214 km
Duration: 7 hrs 45 min
Speed avg: 27,6 km/h
Temperature avg: -2,5 degrees C