Stephen Bates is more than just a bike rider. He is an adventurer, World Champion, Olympian and being a vision impaired rider an inspiration to what is possible. Coming off his win at the recent World Championships in Vancouver, Canada on the Velodrome, Stephen decided to take on a more endurance-focused challenge. Here is his story riding from Edinburgh to the North Sea.
We found this story had us want to set out and see just how far we can push the limits for 24hours. We aim to catch Stephen in the coming weeks for a full-length interview, but in the meantime here is his summary of what it's like to ride as far as you can in 24 hours.
It’s four o’clock in the morning, and I’m sitting in the toilets on a deck chair at the Glenshee Ski Centre car park. I’m having uncontrollable fits of shivering when Dan tells me “get back on the bike, you’ve been too long off it.” That’s easy for him to say, but I know he’s right.
I’ve been on the move for eight and a half hours and we are not even halfway into our journey. I have massive respect for Dan and Katie, who I’ve talked into coming to support me on this crazy adventure in the following car. Dan is my coach at British Cycling, and I believe he is the reason I’ve won what I have in cycling. A straight-talking, hardworking guy who has changed my perception of what I am capable of. Katie is a tiny powerhouse known as ‘daggers’ around the velodrome. Katie is the team’s physio at British Cycling and is well known for the sharpness of her elbows when pushed into overworked muscles. Only half an hour before, I had woken them up in the car at the top of Glenshee, having sent them on ahead earlier up the climb to get some sleep while I battled the wind and rain, slowly climbing up the side of this endless mountain.
I have six layers of clothing on and even my Alpkit down jacket does little to warm me. I’ve gone past the point where my core temperature has dropped too low, and I desperately need to warm up before hypothermia wraps her chilling hands around my body for good. I clip into my pedals and start rolling, my arms shaking uncontrollably in a spasm, and I just about come off the bike. I tell myself to pull my shit together as it happens again. I’ve been in this positions before, standing on winter belays while climbing. I know once I start moving I’ll be okay, but this time I’m rolling downhill. My only saving grace is the headwind which is so strong that it’s forcing me to pedal to get down this gradient which is slowly warming me up.
I’ve decided to ride the length of Scotland in twenty-four hours, to see if I can make a much bigger dream happen. This challenge, all be it crazy to some, is a mere stepping stone into a much greater journey. I’ve managed to fight off the demons and ride the length of Scotland, from Coldstream on the border to Tongue in the far north, in a time of twenty-two hours and twenty minutes. Spending nineteen hours and nine minutes of that in the saddle. Yes, it has been ridden faster, but that was never my goal, in-fact that was never going to happen as I chose to ride into a headwind all the way.
An hour later I’m rolling past Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish estate. Hidden from the wind in the trees, I’m cosy and warm, my down jacket now doing its job, but my eyelids are becoming heavy. Each time I blink, my eyes take a bit longer to open. As I wobble over the road, I pull funny faces, yell out to no one, and sing to myself. Nothing is helping in the fight with my heavy eyelids. I wonder if this is it, do I have to stop and sleep? I feel pathetic if that’s the case. Then I realise I’m too comfortable, too cozy in all these layers. I ride a few minutes more before taking a left, and I stop. The car pulls up as I’m de-layering, hoping the cold will wake me out of this sleepy trance. Katie takes my layers and offers me some caffeine chewing gum. As a start to climb the first of three big climbs back to back, the caffeine kicks in and I’m back in the moment.
It’s now almost daylight in the early hours. I look up and see the road disappear into the mist. I’ve been on this climb before. It’s well known in these parts, and due to a little book named 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: A Road Cyclist's Guide to Britain's Hills, most cyclists know about it. I focus on one pedal rev at a time, pushing my weight towards the ground, the wind trying to hold me back, and the rain driving into my eyes. Dan appears next to me, hanging out the window of the car. I say “this might be the top over the next rise”, he replies saying “it might not be!” I joke “it might be heaven up there”, and the reply comes back “it might be hell!” As I keep pushing, making slow progress I reply, “this is hell”, and with a smile, they speed off into the mist and out of sight. The Letch is the second ski centre I have ridden over in a matter of hours.
I’ve hit the wall. I’m destroyed. Run out of juice. I know what’s ahead, and I’m not sure I have it in me. I know I’m over the worst of the hills, but still, the geography wants more from my legs. The Bridge of Brown is an old friend. In a previous life, I use to take troubled youngsters there for ‘real life’ education, something you can’t get in a classroom and probably something I needed as a youth growing up. It’s a magical gorge, an adventure of swimming and tricky smooth slippery rock steps that gain you excess to the top pool, where you can swim behind a small waterfall. However, those fond memories fade as I climb the switch-backed road beyond the bridge. I love being in this place mentally. Trying to find out what I’m made of, is it blood and guts, or am I weak and feeble, allowing myself to be laughed at by the onlookers who are there in my mind. As a young boy this would have crushed me, but with a life of experiences you can’t buy, I now rise to the challenge. I know this feeling is temporary. I compose myself and climb the switchbacks, running on empty, knowing it will get easier and I will have the last laugh with those onlookers. Those demons in my mind drift away and before I know it, I’m back on easier terrain and making up for lost time.
I knew I would learn a great deal more battling the elements, rather than taking an easy option and I was right. The ride had its low points, and it wasn’t easy by any means, but it was also magical. The views, the team, the effort, and the learning experience was enriching, something money will never buy.
Sitting in front of the fire at the bar in the Borgie Lodge Hotel, myself, Dan and Katie laugh over each other’s stories of this adventure. I joked about riding down Glenshee, wrapped up like a mummy shaking myself around the corners while poor Katie sat in a warm car following on, unsure whether to step in and make me stop or let me carry on descending, hoping I would be okay. Dan tells me about the rabbit that ran between my wheels that could have very nearly ended my ride, to which I was blissfully unaware. Now back home, my mind stretches even further to just what might be possible having learned what I have during these past few hours.