Corinthian /kəˈrɪnθɪən/ adj. involving the highest standards of amateur sportsmanship
"a club embodying the Corinthian spirit"
4am. Dawn just breaking over serrated peaks floating in mist. Firm-packed chip seal under tyre. Lambswool gloves under retro string mitts. Apprehension at what the next 300km and 4,150m of climbing will bring to bear.
The Mighty Corinthian is the latest event from Sportive Lakes, an Ulverston team running arguably the UK’s best vintage-themed non-competitive cycling events. Billed as the world’s longest single-day vintage bike ride, it’s no real surprise that this meme-upon-meme attracted a very discerning field: only two dozen souls took on the inaugural challenge. For Alan Brenton, Sportive Lakes director, that was fine. This one was always about test-and-adjust, but with a history of running great events it was a pretty safe bet all would go well.
© Steve Fleming
When I heard about the Mighty Corinthian it sparked something. I’d done the 100-mile Eroica Britannia the year previous, but this was something else. Just shy of 200 miles with a good deal more climbing, the Mighty Corinthian was going to take me to another place, literally and figuratively.
Once signed up and committed, I needed a ride. I’d purchased a 1984 Raleigh Corsa for Eroica, but it was a few inches too large for me so had to go. The Sportive Lakes team put me in touch with specialist vintage bike hire firm GloryDays Bikes of Bakewell, who sorted a lovely 1964 Ellis-Briggs tourer in the right size with (mercifully) a low gearing. Shimano 600 10-speed shifting with a 40-24 low range, 27in wheels with Continental Gatorskin tyres and a Brooks B17 saddle – just the ticket. I borrowed a small Carradice bag from an audaxing friend and popped on a Lionworks brass bell. The finishing touches were ARS pedals with Cristophe leather-clad toeclips and straps. All very retro, yet practical and comfortable.
© Steve Fleming
It took a few lengthy shakedown rides to get the setup right – saddle height, angle, tension – plus bending the toeclips into shape around my feet; 300km is not a ride you approach without everything feeling perfect from the start.
Going from a disc-braked tubeless carbon frame with Shimano Ultegra to the Ellis-Briggs was surprisingly easy – after a few hours your muscle memory resets itself and reaching down to change gear became second nature.
The previous longest day I’d ever done was 256km, over 14 hours, and much of that flattish. I knew from experience that eating enough would present a challenge – after 10 hours in the saddle I’d not want to see another bar, gel or sweet sports drink. Fortunately I caught a podcast by Sean Lally at Cycle Systems Academy on Keto Adaption and I was hooked.
The idea behind ‘going Keto’ is that you reset your body to use fat instead of carbohydrates. You have about 2,000 calories of carbs on tap as glycogen, but between 20,000 and 40,000 calories of fat. Which fuel tank would you rather use? Cue a month of buying weird low/no-carb ingredients, and basically switching to a diet consisting of 75% fat, 10% carbs and 15% protein (relax – dry wine and gin are OK. And yes, it’s impossible to eat too much cheese). I won’t say it was easy – the first week was like the worst hangover and flu combined, but after that you feel great.
My first big outing after three weeks becoming ‘Keto-Adapted’ was a fast, hilly 110k with nothing but water, and on arrival home I had no desire to eat immediately. The lunch my wife had prepared in anticipation of the usual husband-locust-strip-kitchen-bare went half eaten.
In addition to the diet change I purchased a 12-week training programme from Dig Deep Coaching, which I followed more-or-less to the letter: about 10 hours’ riding each week using heart rate zones to set the efforts. I did a fair bit of this training on the Ellis-Briggs, to really get myself used to it.
Still, I’m happy to admit that the night before the ride I laid out my kit in an Ulverston hotel room with a feeling of nervousness.
First off, 300km is no distance for unprepared men. Or women. You want to be 100 per cent certain that everything fits, is charged, is not worn out, is adjusted perfectly. My selection for the big day comprised (roughly):
© Steve Fleming
And on the bike:
Each item was chosen carefully for a balance of comfort (first), technical performance (second) and sartorial compliance (decreasingly relevant with distance). I’m a big fan of ‘train as you mean to race’, and had gone to such lengths as re-threading my shoes old-school track style to minimise the chance of a loose lace getting caught in a pedal.
The SiS GO electrolyte tablets (one per 500ml bidon) were new to me, so a few long rides were used to test how they suited my stomach.
A 4am start was based on my estimated speed of around 21.5km/h. In the pre-dawn outside Ulverston’s Roxy Theatre, home of the world-famous Laurel & Hardy Museum (you knew Stan Laurel was a son of Ulverston, right?), a 7pm finish might as well have been the next day, it seemed so far off. Final check of lights, Garmin, bottles, brevet card (for stamping at the food stops), then off. Little fanfare – and given the anticipation, I’d probably not have noticed anyway. Up out of Ulverston and over to the dawn above Coniston Water.
© Matthew Fleming
In the first two hours there were maybe 10 cars total. I picked up a few earlier departed riders but didn’t hang around for more than the briefest of chats. A ride like this you have to ride at your own pace, and it’s very easy to burn too many matches early on. I rode to heart rate, staying below 75% of maximum as much as possible, never above 85%. I knew from previous experience that every burst of speed, every muscled rise would be paid for later on.
© Matthew Fleming
My fuelling plan was simple: eat what I’d normally eat in a day. No bars, gels, sports drinks or any such nonsense. My one allowance was the SiS GO electrolyte tablets, one per 500ml bidon, which I’d drink every hour. Fortunately it was never that hot and running at 75% max HR meant no excess thirst either.
The first stop – breakfast – came after 60km at Thirlmere Hall, a bowl of scrambled eggs and a yoghurt. Reports of someone missing an early turnoff and adding a few good km to their day sent shivers down the spine. A ride like this you hoard and tease every kilometre, cursing even a street’s worth of backtracking. Fortunately the signage was excellent, the black-on-pink arrows standing out a long way distant. Even then you had to keep your navigational wits about you, though, and more than once I consulted the stored GPS track on my mobile using the excellent Viewranger app.
Then it was off for Keswick, and a change of scenery from steep fells to rolling hills and hedgerows. Cresting the northern edge of the route near Udale after four hours, the coast of Scotland was visible. Udale itself presented the first real challenge near the 100km point, gradients well over 10% forcing me out of the saddle and into the red just to keep turning over – a taster of the pre-lunch Hartside Pass.
The second food stop was at Millhouse, amidst frankly gorgeous country scenes, the envy of anywhere I’ve ridden in the UK. Then through the oddly named Mungrisdale and some common-or-garden ruralness, and north-east to the big challenge of the day: Hartside Pass and 600m of climbing to lunch.
The 150km halfway point ticked over just before the base of the Hartside climb, just as hordes of mountain bikers appeared. From everywhere they came – fit blokes on five grand’s worth of 1X full-sussers to mums on hybrids and everything between. Turns out Hartside is on the Coast to Coast route and there were a few charity rides on, so there were literally hundreds of folks on bikes of all abilities.
© Matthew Fleming
I met a 60-year-old woman on a one-of-a-kind Storck that no doubt cost a lot more than most cars, made for her small frame. People of all shapes and sizes, friends, families, the fit whippet and generously proportioned, all spinning up toward the promise of nourishment.
The lunch choice in exchange for the provided franc was a slice of cheesy quiche, scoffed quickly as I wasn’t wanting to hang around. Over lunch I met Alex from Lille, who had driven from France the night before with his 1920s fixie. Yes, 300km on a fixie weighing 13kg. I passed him later going down Hartside – but only just. The guy’s cadence was off the charts. Turned out he’s a prodigious penny-farthing racer too.
© Matthew Fleming
Down Hartside and the country changed again to remote back lanes skirting the western edge of the Dales, and the realisation that the next food stop was spaced further than the others. And the headwind picked up. And it started raining.
At the 210km point, loins were girded, teeth gritted and visions of warm, inviting taxi vans banished. Arriving at Brougham and the Eden Brewery inside a 14th-century castle was almost tear-inducing. A half-pint of the Locals-Only Porter (Seville orange peel!) and two mini-Melton Mowbrays later, things were looking up. Only ‘one more hill to go’. Yes – Kirkstone Pass. ‘Hill’.
The tourist crowds thronging Pooley Bridge just wouldn’t understand. I was Cyclist. I’d ridden 230km so far that day. I’d climbed Hartside without stopping, and up the steep lumpy way too. I’d seen starships on fire off the coast of… no, sorry: FOCUS. Don’t screw up now. Too easy to do. One pothole, one stormwater grate, and it’s all over.
The tarmac along the side of Ullswater was glorious, for a period reminiscent of the best EU-funded Belgian backroads in the Ardennes. Past the happy families splashing in the lake at Glenridding, young things sunning and wineing themselves on picnic benches outside pubs. There was business up the road…
The sign announcing ‘20% next mile’ didn’t quite register. The evil face someone had made out of pink marker arrows on the next sign did. I knew I could pedal a 7% grade sitting down, but I wouldn’t be using that bit of black cowskin for the next quarter-hour.
The first half of the climb proper was do-able. It was when the 15%-plus ramps kept coming with no respite that I began to question my ability to ride the whole thing. Looking up to see the strong Dutch bloke I’d been leapfrogging the last 50km, to see him faltering, was not good. Too much, after 13 hours, 250km and some 3,800m already.
© Steve Fleming
A snatched recollection of conversation hours before: “Kirkstone has a false finish – you think you’re done, then, wham – another ramp.” Keep turning over. Dark place. Dark. Shift hands. Nope, no better. FOCUS MAN! A single pebble could be your undoing, so tenuous was the wheel’s grip on damp 20% tarmac. Round the hairpin. Passing Lane. Cars. Sweat. Keep going. Was that the last? Was it? Yes… YES. And over.
The relief having crested Kirkstone without putting a foot down washed over like a wave. That was it. If I could do that on a 52-year-old bike in silly shoes I could ride anything. There was no point in pulling over for cars following on the descent, because I was on fire. No one was passing me now. The 20% short rise on the back lane leading into Troutbeck felt like a hand was in the small of my back after Kirkstone.
The on-vintage-brand welcoming committee were out in full force for the last foodstop – resplendent cakes, coffee, tea and padded seats. Sticking to the low-carb mantra, I opted for a few yoghurts instead and a black coffee, as riders came and went in a shuffle of laden plates and relieved multilingual banter.
The descent into Ambleside and climb back out over Hawkshead Hill through Beatrix Potter’s backyard showcased once more the exquisite route planning put into this event – every back lane had been handpicked and tested to minimise traffic and enhance enjoyment of the environment.
© Steve Fleming
Coniston Water once again, but the eastern shore this time, the sun slanting through leaves and raindrops alike as the road snaked and undulated for 9km with nary a car in sight. Thanks to the Keto diet I was able to put the pedal down, fair flying along, safe in the knowledge that it was mostly flat from hereon.
One last rise, then it simultaneously stopped raining, turned downhill and a rainbow appeared over distant Ulverston. Maybe a slight tailwind too. Doesn’t matter. It was done. The Garmin read 297… 298… 299… Ulverston proper, through the cobbled streets, and on the last corner, there it was: 300km in grey old-school LED glory.
Outside the Roxy Theatre, the welcoming team: clapping, cheers, whistles, cowbells. Inside, the final brevet card stamp, a salad with cheese and salami, and a local ale. Others were going for the heartier bowls of pasta. People swapped stories, recalling sections good and bad. Consistent amazement at anyone riding it on a fixie.
Feeling much refreshed, I popped back to the hotel (courtesy of a lift from the lovely Glorydays Bikes folk), showered, changed, then went back down to the Roxy to welcome more riders home – and another ale. They kept coming in as the light failed and the youth of Ulverston came out to play, the last riders home around 10:30pm – that’s 19 hours in the saddle. A few DNFs. But not many.
I was very pleased with my fuelling strategy – aka ‘eat normal food’. In fact, I ate the same calories that I’d normally do in the breakfast-lunch-snacks period – about 1500 calories’ worth. So where did the other 8,500+ calories of energy come from? Why wasn’t I a glycemic-coma-riddled corpse halfway up Kirkstone? How come I finished strong, hopped off the bike, had a salad and a beer, then hung around for another three hours cheering and chatting without a hint of tiredness or cramp?
Six weeks before, I’d finished a 100km ride around flattish Hampshire, hit the wall hard and spent the next three hours lying on a bed sipping orange juice and eating white bread. I can only put it down to Keto Adaption and burning fat. If you’re interested, the go-to source of wisdom on Keto for sporty types is The Art and Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance – it’s a fiver on Amazon.
Having weighed the pros and cons (cost, faff, missing old favourite foods), made the decision to change my diet permanently, and seen the benefit first-hand, I’ll never go back to the days of funding the carb-loaded sports food military-industrial complex.
The Mighty Corinthian is perfect. It’s arguably the most you can fit into a single day of cohesive cycling-related meaning – a continuous route without repeat, a nice fat round number distance-wise, two big climbs, more scenery than you can shake a bidon at, and throughout, great food and consistently excellent, thoughtful organisation.
This is a Mighty event. It’s certainly not for everyone. It will test you like you’ve probably never been tested before. It’s not an audax on busy, flattish main roads. It’s not a hyperbolically monikered sportive in the South Downs with a silly logo aimed at attracting Sunday Warriors on five-grand sub-7kg racers. It celebrates what I now consider to be the most gorgeous corner of This Scepter'd Isle, using an immaculately chosen route with challenges to test the strongest, yet within reach of anyone willing to prepare and persevere.
If you put one ride on your bucket list for 2017, make it this one. It will hurt you, but you’ll love it.
• Huge thanks to Alan, Ali and the Sportive Lakes team for the opportunity to ride and write about the Mighty Corinthian. And to Carol and William at Glorydays Bikes of Bakewell for the Ellis-Briggs – the friendliest folks, passionate about vintage steel here and across Europe
• Professional photographer Steve Fleming of steveflemingphoto.com followed the ride all day, taking fabulous shots for riders to purchase as mementos of their achievement. Photos in this article are used courtesy of Steve and may not be re-used without permission