The Hundred Days Of Hell

It usually kicks off around 3am with the wind going “woo…. woooo…. wooooooo….” and if the rain is smashing off the Velux window, then that just adds to the attraction. I wake, take a look at the time and think “hmm, it’s going exactly as forecast”. The rest of the night is usually a mix of broken sleep and thoughts of “which route”.

Everything is planned the night before: the kit’s laid out, right down to different combinations of gloves so that I can make a late call before I leave the house in the morning. Winter demands multiple layers of everything: two pairs of socks, shorts and leggings, and sometimes tights too. One, sometimes two base layers under a cycling top under a waterproof jacket. Two pairs of gloves; three if it’s -5C or lower. And a woolly hat under my crash helmet: plus a peaked cap if it’s raining, to keep the rain off my glasses. You can see feck all in the dark when yer glasses are covered in rain drops and a motor’s bearing down on ya.

The term “hundred days of hell” came about in 2014 when the clocks went back and the weather didn’t: wind and rain served on a bed of darkness in place of twilight. The first day of hell will be Monday and it runs through till the middle of March when we hand winter back to our pals in Australia. Those one hundred days, give or take a few holidays and some snow days, are the most challenging thing I know. I suspect that my friend Gordon McBeath could give it a square go because I see from Strava that he’s out just now at daft o’clock; and Mouldy too. But you should try it sometime: just the once, and when you don’t like it, just think of all those kids with cancer. That’s what I do. That’s what gets me through.

The whole point of doing LCFN is to make it difficult. Show me one family, apart from the one featured on Coronation St, who’ve had an easy time with neuroblastoma: correct, there aren’t any. I said at the outset that this was going to be as relatively hard for me as the neuroblastoma experience is for the families, so in a masochistic sort of a way, the winter time is my time: it’s when I really get the chance to say to the kids “guys, I’m in this with you”.

And let me say straight away, just in case you’re tempted to think otherwise, that the hundred days of hell are deeply unpleasant, both physically and mentally. Nothing that I’ve done in my whole sporting life comes close to what’s on offer in these next five months. Stephen Knox says that I don’t have to be doing this. Sorry, Stephen, but I do.

The two trips each day have to be viewed in isolation, because although they appear back to back, albeit twelve hours apart, they are invariably completely different animals. Top priority at 5am is “what’s the temperature” whereas the corresponding teatime question is “what’s the wind direction and speed“? It’s very, very rare to have to consider both temperature and wind in the same journey, and on the odd occasion that I do, I’m invariably in difficulty.

Let’s take the morning spin first.

There are two routes on offer, and both end up at the Malletsheugh at the top of Newton Mearns on the south side of Glasgow. The B769 Stewarton to Thornliebank road is pretty much deserted at half five/six am but what traffic is on that road is fast. So for that reason, on that or any other road, the back of the LCFN bike is visible, very visible.

The alternative route, and without doubt my route of choice, is the Cutstraw/Clunch road out of town up to the A77 north of Fenwick. One and half motors wide, rutted and potholed for well over half its entire length, it’s the official Sustrans cycle route north. The challenge in the dark is to spot the holes and stay onboard. Fortunately, the only motors you see at 5am are the ones you see every morning, and they know you’re out there somewhere: mutual respect rules okay.

The prevailing wind, which basically means it’s blowing most of the time, is south westerly: that’s in the Stewarton to Glasgow direction. At a stroke, that explains why I normally do three or four miles more into work than I do coming home. On the occasions when it veers southerly and it’s blowing a bit, extra care is required on the pothole slalom down to the 77 because a gust of wind can put you into the hedge in the blink of an eye. Remember it’s pitch black, no street lights, and the bike’s rattling down the hill at 25mph. Take a wider line in the road to mitigate the wind and you risk hitting a pothole. It’s a tough call…

The A77 is a safe haven because of the bike lane. The road used to be a four lane highway but when they built the new M77 motorway, one lane became a designated bike lane and they separated it off from the main carriageway by a kerb. It’s a biker’s delight, except it’s rarely cleaned. Indeed, along its entire length, the only time that I can recall the bike lane having been swept in the last tweleve months came about because I called out East Ayrshire Council and East Renfrewshire Council on Twitter. It shouldn’t have to be like that but I’ve discovered that bad publicity brings results: fast (because if they ignore me, I turn it up a notch…).

The worst part of the 77, and by far the most exposed, is at the high point between Kingswells, where the Eaglesham Moor Road branches off, and the Red House. The Red House is a landmark not just because it used to be a tea room (thanks for tipping me off on that one, Eleanor) but because a mile up the road is J5 of the M77 and Newton Mearns. Once you’re in the Mearns, you’ve got the shelter of the houses, the temperature goes up a degree or two and it’s all downhill into work. I use those suburban roads in Newton Mearns to bag extra miles on my way in. The killer is that five mile stretch from Kingswells. The road meanders a fair bit so a cross tailwind at Galston road end is guaranteed to be a full on raging crosswind at Floak and that means picking a line in the dark that gives you time to adjust and catch the bike if you get caught by an unexpected crosswind blast. It’s important to remember at this point that the road is unlit so it’s just you and your bike lights: I keep them on the lowest setting (100 lumens) because they have to make do for two hours before I can recharge them in the office. Experience has taught me that doubling the output, whilst it makes it easier to see where you’re going, risks running out of charge: not advisable on both safety and total distance grounds.

So much for getting into work across the Muir: what about the home run?

Let’s forget about the first few suburban miles, save for the heavy traffic, the fumes and the 800ft climb up the Ayr Road: it’s a bit of a skoosh, relatively speaking. The home run is all about the scary miles from J5 of the M77 to the Clunch road north of Fenwick. It’s the flying morning run in reverse, except in the winter it’s never fast and it’s never enjoyable: unless you like pain that is.

So let’s pick up the story as you approach the Malletsheugh Inn, now an Indian restaurant, just before the road hangs a right over the motorway. That’s really where the fun starts. The wind speed basically doubles as you cross the motorway, then as the road continues to climb the half mile to J5, you get the full blast of the wind in your face. In the summer, you can gaze across to your right and pick up the wind direction from the turbines. However in the winter you don’t have that luxury: you just feel it. Sometimes, when it’s really blowing, you might only be doing about 7mph when you go over the top of the climb: it’s not because yer knackered, it’s because the wind is trying to blow you backwards. Today for example, when the wind was doing about 35mph, I was averaging 9.7mph at Floak: that was after 12 miles and a thousand feet of climbing. On Monday, when it was calm, that 9.7 was 12.5.

Then there’s a wee descent down past the community dump before the road swings right under the motorway and past the Red House. Now it’s for real. We’re not playing any more. This is a really grim place. Next Monday, it will be dark, unlit, uphill, into the wind and 6C max. The wind chill makes that 6C feel more like 2C, and that’s if yer lucky. The wind really whips into yer face: it’s the reason I wear a cap when it’s raining.

That same stretch of flat road that delivered twenty five miles an hour twelve hours earlier now turns in eight if yer lucky. And even that is such hard work. Anyone reading this who lives on the south side of Glasgow should take a drive up to Floak, park up at the side of the road, get out and stand for five minutes facing the wind: and for even greater effect, do it on a day when it’s raining. Feel the full force of nature. It’s brutal.

By comparison, the climb up the Clunch road off the 77, the same potholed relic that shook the bones to pieces in the morning, offers relative relief once you hang a right and get out of the wind. Then those big climbs out of Stewarton become a flying finale to the finish. But make no mistake, the home run is all about the miles from J5 to Fenwick: they are GRIM in capital letters.

And so, as ever, to the numbers: my stubbornness refuses to acknowledge that kids’ cancer awareness is just a September thing. I’ve decided that October is #LCFN Neuroblastoma Awareness Month so I’m staying Gold. Remember Gold means a thousand miles in a calendar month: it’s feckin’ difficult. I didn’t want to make a big song and dance about it in case my wee leggies went on strike after September’s epic mileage. But rest assured that something very special is stirring deep down in the nerve centre of LCFN: watch this space…

The weather may have turned but the LifeCycle Man is right up for this…

The Hundred Days Of Hell.