Pre event Build up
Saturday evening, the big debate - winter bike or CX? The weather report suggested the weather wouldn’t be great but did I really need ice spikes and a heavy bike? Still, the CX has SPDs and I wouldn’t have to wear trainers to drive in and then change into cycling shoes when I got there; being quite indolent, that made up my mind.
I arrived in Musselburgh at 9.00, the weather was quite pleasant, John had gone for a road bike and I rather thought he’d made the right choice.
A staple on my annual calendar the Musselburgh RCC Audax is a fantastic event over some of the best roads in Scotland. On looking at the forecast beforehand I thought we would get over the Rigg and on our way to Dunbar before the rain hit but the weather had other ideas.
I did the Tour of East Lothian a couple of years back with my friend Brian in very pleasant conditions, so I was looking forward to another spin around the lumps and bumps of East Lothian. But with a forbidding weather forecast it wasn’t to be…
When I heard the Tour of East Lothian was open for registering I thought "I know that!" I recalled a bright sunny day in 2013, cold but lovely and featuring the now famous memory of Alasdair trying to do a Danny MacAskill style stunt with a fence.
The weather forecast had improved from reports earlier in the week, so it was with high hopes of a pleasurable ride through the lovely east Lothian countryside that I set off with Philip for a warm-up pedal to the start in Musselburgh.
Someone in the club mentioned the Tour os East Lothian on the Facebook group and it seemed like a good idea, a chance to get the legs turning for 2015. 106km, not bad, yes there's the Rigg but come on how hard could it be. I'd never been up it so this sounded like as good a time as any to fix that.
The weather hadn't looked good but the forecast improved all week. By the time I pedalled down to sign in I was convinced I was overdressed with a base layer, jersey and soft-shell with a light shell stuffed in my back pocket.
Checkpoint 1: Top of Redstone Rigg
Alasdair and Philip started in groups in advance of Derek, Ross and I. John, being speedier than the rest of us, set off in the group after. So 3 amigos set off and all was going well having settled into a nice wee group at a good but not exhausting pace. Unfortunately it wasn't to last and the light rain started not long after we left Musselburgh and Derek pulled up with a puncture before we got to Gifford. This gave John an opportunity to catch us up and we set off again to catch all those we'd passed earlier.
We were welcomed to Gifford by Alasdair waving to us from outside the café and shouting that Philip was waiting for us and having a coffee. We paused briefly before deciding to kick on and get up the Rigg.
What can I say... I've been up the Rigg before, and yes it's a lung killer but totally manageable. However, it had a little surprise for us. The snow and head wind made a gruesome twosome and pummelled all who dared the climb. John powered on ahead while Ross and I dragged ourselves along behind. The snow was slowly taking over the road and along with wind many resorted to walking up the 17% section. Ross and I battled on but it eventually became too much with spinning back wheels and just when the steepest section was nearing an end we both unclipped. I felt the shame was bearable as opposed to a broken clavicle and ran my bike (as much as I could in the conditions) past other 'walkers' to reach a point where I felt I could jump back on and finish the climb. I arrived at the top to John's applause, with Ross just behind but no sign of Derek (who had been carrying my Brevet card). Alasdair soon appeared on his trusty CX and Philip 'fresh' from his coffee and news of Derek that he'd decided not to continue and had given 'my' Brevet card to Phil to give to me ... which turned out in fact to be Derek's... Absolute chancer!
I have never been so cold on the bike - from the cattlegrid below Redstone Rigg to five minutes after getting back to the café in Gifford I couldn't feel my fingers and even got to do that weird thing you see the pros doing, shaking their hands to try to get the circulation going. It doesn't work.
I have never been so pleased to have ridden all the way up Redstone Rigg - a solid headwind and a snow-sliding back wheel made it a huge challenge. That's something to take away from the day.
I was the only Ronde rider in my group, but being a friendly chap I joined their chain-gang and we spun along quite the thing. We came across Philip near Pencaitland so I left the group and joined him. We had an espresso in Gifford while waiting for Suzie, John, Ross and Derek and that was probably the last time I was warm.
I wasn’t far out of Gifford when a rider on an MTB asked if we were on ‘THE’ hill.
‘Not yet,’ I was still quite cheery, ‘but you’ll see it soon enough.’
The weather had changed by now, heavy winds were driving snow from the west and the top of the Rigg looked fearsome. It would have been ‘quite nice’ if the wind had blown us up the slope rather than doing the opposite; it made what is a hard enough hill at the best of times almost impossible. I met the dwindling Ronde contingent at the top, Derek had already decided not to be foolhardy. I didn’t bother to get my Audax card stamped; it would have meant un-zipping my jacket and that was not going to happen!
As we hit Fordell Dean just South of Musselburgh the rain started. Light at this point but as we progressed to Gifford it became heavier and eventually turned into snow by the time we hit the Rigg.
By the bottom of the Rigg I had decided to call it a day knowing how bad the roads could be after the descent. Where it was cold riding up it was even colder (no pedalling required) riding down and then just as I was thinking of coffee and a bacon roll disaster struck. I tried to put in a big effort up the 17% climb at Danskine and as I stamped on the pedal my chain snapped.
As I had no chain link (not sure my fingers could have used one anyway) I had to resign myself to walking/freewheeling the 3 miles back to Gifford before I could call for a lift home. When I got to the cafe I found I was not alone in my decision. Two other riders where there and as time went by more riders either came in or rode past on there way home.
The bunch got off well and we were tapping out a nice rhythm on our way to East Saltoun when Derek's shout went out - puncture. While the fixing was under way John rode past and pulled up so we could all set off towards the Rigg as a foursome. Through Gifford is where we bumped into Alasdair and Philip who were stocking up on caffeine before the climb, it's also where we started to get really pummelled by the rain.
Carrying on upwards the rain turned to sleet and the wind picked up - this was not on the forecast I read over breakfast, thanks BBC. There was only one way to go, so on we went. Exposed as we left the trees behind, the wind really started to bite against our faces. I looked up to track the path ahead, scanning for blinking red lights in the distance...there was certainly more climbing to come. By the time I hit the final 17% the ground was slushy and back tyres were spinning across the surface rather than gripping. I didn't want to unclip, just keep the legs turning, but it wasn't to be and there I was within sight of the top but off the bike. Luckily it wasn't too far and I did manage to overtake quite a few other walkers - much credit to those who got up without getting off, impressive stuff.
The temperature started dropping at Gifford, where I caught up with Suzy, Derek, Ross, Philip and Alasdair who’d had a few minutes’ head start. They’d used their time buffer to tackle a puncture (Derek) and a nice wee coffee in Gifford (Phil).
As is often the way with these things, the big climb up the Rigg was physically taxing but mentally doable. It has to be said though, 17% ramp + howling blizzard + slushy road conditions made for a challenging cycling experience. Quite a few riders ended up walking, but I wobbled on up with a cadence of about 30-40RPM at points. There just wasn’t enough traction to get out of the saddle which was a bit unfair I think.
Once at the top, it was a quick fumble for the Brevet cards, then psyching ourselves up for descending in the slippery slush. The slush had turned to ice in my cleats which meant I could only clip one foot in. Once we turned the corner for Garvald the wind dropped a bit and I recovered some feeling in my hands in time for the technical bits of the descent. I met up with Suzy again at this point and we rolled on to Dunbar, helped out by the wind – most of the time. The cake legs kicked in near Belhaven and we even created a bit of a pace line.
Checkpoint 2: Dunbar
At this precise point on the route my decision to go for winter tyres paid off and although the roads were treacherous the spikes gave me some confidence and with the wind at my back I fairly zipped along to Garvald – pausing only to salute the fence I’d crashed into the last time. From there to Dunbar was brilliant and I probably pushed it more than I should. Satisfyingly no one over-took me and I rolled onto the High Street feeling pretty pleased with myself.
It was cold and wild at the top so keen to get warmed up I spied Alasdair heading off with what I thought was the red jacketed John beside him only to realise it was another 'red jacket'. With Alasdair confident in the conditions on his CX he shot off down the back of the Rigg. By comparison I found myself on my own and petrified by the slippy and windy conditions holding my breaks the whole way until the fork for Garvald when I stopped and realised I wasn't sure of the direction. It was then that my ride hero arrived ... Mr John F! He guided me safely down the treacherous descent to Garvald and onwards to Dunbar, by which time we were cold and damp through. It was a relief to see Alasdair in the café and get a hot chocolate and a biscuit but I didn't stop shivering the whole time. If it hadn't have been for John and Alasdair my tour may have stopped there but we got going again and we said goodbye to Alasdair who went off in search of a quicker route back to Musselburgh.
I have never experienced being part of a line of cyclists riding in the gutter on the windward side of the road. We did it on the descent to Whiteadder as, sheltered by the bank, that was the one bit of road not covered with snow.
I have never tasted a better bacon and egg roll and cup of coffee than the one I had at the café in Gifford after abandoning. There must be something about extreme conditions that heighten the senses because it seemed like I was tasting every molecule.
If I thought the climb was the interesting part, I hadn't considered the descent. I set off after maybe a little too long standing still and could feel the cold setting in. I thought I was tracking the red jacket of John up ahead, I was wrong. I don't think I was alone in thinking I was tracking John. Luckily after short while Philip joined me and together we descended, waving hands vigorously whenever possible to try to get circulation back in our extremities. That did not work. At Garvald we took the executive decision to return to Gifford to source coffee and warmth - that worked. I was disappointed not to continue, but boy did that feeling fade as I tucked into a bacon & egg roll and several mugs of warm coffee. We were not alone either, the cafe in Gifford was operating a life-support system for the ToEL and we managed to catch up with Derek and his travails.
Riding back in the snow was made a lot easier with warm digits and the sustenance taken on in Gifford, but having Philip for company was the real bonus.
Checkpoint 3: HAddington
A speedy cafe stop in Dunbar with Alasdair, who seemed determined to find a ‘short cut’ home. It turned out he’d found a long cut. Back on the bike before we got too cosy in the warmth of the cafe. The last 30-odd kilometres home were fairly flat, but much of the way was into a fairly solid headwind. The roads were so muddy that I had to devise a new drinking technique - squirting water out of the bottle in the general direction of my mouth so I didn’t take on board too much mud.
Navigating proved a wee bit of a faff with a route map crumpled up and under a rain jacket but we didn’t get lost. Finally reaching Haddington, desperate measures were called for - one caramel square wolfed on the spot, one in the pocket for later. Familiar roads (The Yak, Ballancrieff, the Coast Road) meant the last dozen kms ticked over easily enough. Very glad to see the finish line in Musselburgh though.
John and Suzie joined me in the café and we refuelled. At this point I realised if I tagged on with them I’d hold them back, the bike was too heavy for me to keep their pace so I decided to take a more direct route home. Just outside Dunbar four riders passed me, curiously one had a Ronde top on but I’m not sure he is a club member. I tagged on the back, battling into the headwind on my own was not something I’d been looking forward to. Up Pencraig Brae I thought the jig was up, but I got a second wind and with one of the guys, who had also dropped off, battled on, we got into a good rhythm and before we knew it we were at Haddington.
I struck out on my own from there, frustratingly missing the correct turn-off for Tranent but finding a long off-road stretch, sheltered from the wind and flattish, made up for it. At Longniddry station I was tempted to catch the train but didn’t succumb and continued under my own power to Musselburgh. I was so cold and wet I didn’t hang around to welcome anyone back, but jumped in the car, ramped up the heating and headed home.
I gave myself to Haddington to reassess if I'd complete or not but I was determined once John and I got going. So off we went in search of our last checkpoint before the finish. John did a great job navigating and we got some help from other knowledgable riders who seemed to be very sparse now. We saw some lovely scenery despite the headwind including a beautiful spread of snowdrops - I wish I could remember where it was!
At last we reached Haddington and I sent my distress signal to rescue hero and better half, Leo, to ask him to meet me in Musselburgh to save me the slog from the finish to home in central Edinburgh. And so the final push for John and I began and we were amazed that the sun came out but the wind remained relentless. John was my morale booster and my wind shield and I was do glad he was there. A kind fellow tourer offered us his wheel but neither John or I had enough speed to stick on; we were spent! John pointed out that he'd seen Leo drive past and this lifted my spirits. Right enough, further along the road Leo had pulled up before Longniddry to capture our pained but nearly home bodies on camera.
As we neared Musselburgh John must have smelt the cake and picked up the speed. I could just hold on to pull into the car park behind him to see the wonderful sight of Leo waiting with warm clothes and a smile.
I can’t say it was all fun, but it was satisfying to achieve what I’d set out to do despite the conditions, and it was fantastic to have the support and camaraderie of other riders from the club when I was out there.
A total of 107.6km, a total tour time of 5 hours 47 minutes, 4 hours 33 minutes actual moving time, 1,597 metres of ascent and one cold, damp, exhausted but delighted to finish Suzy! With c.240 registered entrants, only 129 sign-ons and an unknown number of finishers, I was glad to have made it with the support of my fellow Northern Ireland accomplice John. We duly tucked into the cakes! Thanks must go to all who accompanied me along the way... another great cycling epic!
Really glad to have Suzy pedalling with me from the top of the Rigg - useful second head on the navigation, moral support and some extra Norn Iron grit!
On getting home, Mrs F was sympathetic and impressed. I capitalised on this by getting special permission to take the bike into the bath. Not at the same time as me, I hasten to add.
Despite not making it around, I get to say that I made it up (and down) the Rigg in what was truly awful conditions - the next time should be easier. Door to door I ended up over 100km so not too bad for a retirement. And wow, what a bacon roll.
Although not the best of days, I wouldn’t let this put you off for future years. I’ve probably ridden this 10 times and in the main it’s been in February sunshine so I would highly recommend this for everyone.
I have never seen a Strava heatmap of an event that looks quite as much like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow (credit Tom Orr, a fellow victim). Kudos to Suzy and John.
Words & photos by Alasdair Anderson, John Fitzgerald, Suzy Johnston, Philip Stout, Derek Timmins, Ross Wood & Leo Friel.