Back in February I had an email from property company boss Dom Millar. “I’m planning a challenge,” he wrote. “I want to ride all the climbs in your book, 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs.”
A few people have done that; it’s a good challenge. It went on: “I, together with two friends, plan to ride them all in one continuous loop, point to point, over 29 days.” You plan to do what!?
To put that in perspective, Land’s End to John o’ Groats, is 1,407km; this year’s Tour de France was 3,349km; the Race Across America (RAAM) around 4,800km; the 100 Climbs challenge was set to be 5,300km. This was huge.
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A few days later I met Dom in a pub in south London. He was stood at the bar and he directed me to a table where in the shadows sat Graham Salisbury and James Findlater (who was still having second thoughts at this time) and with the nervous trio assembled I began to tell them of the horrors that lay ahead.
These weren’t three elite athletes or experienced long-distance cyclists, just three guys intent on taking on a giant challenge and raising a shed load of money for charity along the way.
Dom’s pacing proves he’s thought this through (Andy Jones)
Over the coming months they’d spend long weekends in hilly parts of the country to get used to smashing out several big days in a row. These often soul-destroying adventures did nothing to assure them they were capable, but the date was set for the start anyway.
Setting off on August 17 from Guildford, they headed west, full of enthusiasm. By day three reality had begun to bite and Dom had his first wobble, posting a video online simply of his feet rotating beneath him. “I was too knackered to work out how to rotate the camera,” he recalls.
They all suffered that day and the early signs were not good but they pressed on, made their way up through Wales where they were treated to reasonable weather and managed to bag all the big beasts including the dreaded Bwlch-y-Groes, then began to head east where I joined them in the Peak District.
We met at the bottom of the famous Cat and Fiddle in Macclesfield, and before I had time to properly shake their hands Graham and James were off up the road.
I turned to Dom. “Where are they going in such a hurry?” I enquired.
“Oh, they race every climb,” he said.
“THEY DO WHAT! Are they mad?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, I do believe they are.”
Up, up and er.. up some more (Andy Jones)
And he was right. We had 10 climbs to tick off that day and James and Graham hit the base of each one as if they were being chased by a pack of wild dogs. It was all or nothing full speed until they blew, then they would just battle on to each and every summit. There was no conservation of energy, no taking it easy because of what lay ahead, this was a marathon and a sprint; 100 sprints.
By the time we parted company 100 miles later, they had ticked off 42 of the 100 but faced so many more of the really big ones.
Looking at the map, the journey up to Bealach-na-Ba would certainly be epic and was peppered with terrors, but any doubts I’d had of them completing the task (and yes I would have betted against them at the start) were quickly fading.
The further north they travelled, the tougher the roads became, but this only fortified their resolve.
“Probably our best day of the whole trip was in the Lake District,” says James. “We ticked off Hardknott, both sides, Wrynose, and six others, and after conquering them, we began to believe we could pull it off.”
However, heading into Scotland, the weather took a predictable turn for the worst. “To be honest we reached a new low on day 18,” says Dom. “The 220 kilometres between Inveraray and Dornie were horrendous. We just had to bury ourselves, deal with the weather and hope we would make it through”.
“I knew we were doing something pretty massive, but that proved it and it damn near broke us. Thank heavens it was followed by a rest day,” James adds.
“Let’s all ride together for….damn… too late” (Andy Jones)
It was clear now that the mental struggle was going to be as tough as the physical one but the knowledge that they were raising much-neeeded funds that would help change the lives of many, helped to quieten the internal chatter.
Whenever their spirits dipped, the scenery would pick them back up, whenever a day’s riding exhausted them they would somehow wake rejuvenated and ready to fight once more. They battled on, reached the turn point in the Highlands, only to be greeted with low cloud on Bealach-na-Ba, then turned to head south. The North York Moors were ticked off. They even got up Rosedale Chimney without putting a foot down. However, they almost came unstuck on Boltby Bank, which Dom tells me “was never a 7/10, NEVER, Simon definitely got that one wrong, it was easily a NINE!”
I met them for the second time in Lincoln and, genuinely expecting to see three hollow-faced zombies riding at a snail’s pace, they flashed past our rendezvous point, forcing me to dig deep and chase on. Three weeks had transformed three pairs of pale legs into sculpted mahogany brown, with the definition of WorldTour pros.
Tough gradients were no concern by the end (Andy Jones)
We rode Terrace Hill together and they wound it up so fast at the bottom I though they would ride straight through it. On day 26 of this ludicrous challenge they were still giving it 100 per cent to the very top. All those tough days in the north, in the wind and rain were now a distant memory. They knew the prize was within their grasp.
The final day rolled round and together with the elation that they were going to make it, there was also a tinge of sadness that it was drawing to a close. “It’s been an absolute privilege to have seen everything we have seen,” says Graham. “To have passed through such amazing countryside and ridden with such amazing people.”
Stockbridge’s famous climb turns Graham’s legs to mush (Andy Jones)
Accompanied by a strong peloton, I joined them once more as we ticked off Mott Street and with 99 climbs in the bag, began the ceremonial journey into central London for the finale, Swain’s Lane.
With a welcome party at the top, the last climb was ridden at a stately pace to mark the moment, and although Dom was more than happy with this, James and Graham wanted one more hit out. They rolled back down and with one final effort smashed it with everything they had to post a seriously impressive time on Strava — amazing even after all they had been through.
“OK, that will do, now I am broken,” admitted Graham.
And then it was over. All the ups and the downs, the good days and the very bad, they had made it against all odds. Three guys who had taken on everything the weather and terrain could throw at them and come out on top to complete a truly monumental ride.
“Will you be doing volume two next summer?” I asked. “NO,” came the reply in unison. Let’s just wait and see.