The “Festive 500” was a cycling challenge cooked up by Rapha, the cycle-clothing company, in 2010 to promote more cycling across the Christmas and New Year period. Essentially the idea is that you cycle 500KM between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
With the advent of Covid, the “rules” allow to achieve this either out on the open roads, or inside on your turbo trainer using apps like Zwift. But cumulatively, your overall distance should add up to 500KM. (The idea of doing 500KM on a turbo trainer sounds hellish to me!)
I must admit that when asked whether I’d do it in the past, I always firmly said no. In part because it’s quite a lot of cycling to do, especially in the northern hemisphere winter, but also because it’s at a busy time of year that I usually try to spend with family. Indeed, I always felt that the Festive 500 was actually for those who actively didn’t like spending time with others – at least others who weren’t also cyclists.
But this year I thought it would be a good incentive to end the year on. My cumulative cycling distance had topped 10,000KM earlier in the month – a 2021 target that I gave myself once I’d realised that my previous target of 5,000KM in a year was being easily met. (I have done by far more cycling in 2021 than at any other time in my life.)
The real challenge for me was that doing the Festive 500 in a British winter meant that I’d need to plan my riding times very carefully to maximise the daylight hours we get. With the winter solstice taking place on 21 December, I would be looking at around seven a half hours of daylight between a sunrise that happened just after 8:00, and a sunset that took place at about 15:45.
I was going to spend a fair bit of Christmas with my parents in North Norfolk. It’s fine cycling country – even if it’s mostly flat – with lots of quiet village roads to cycle along. The downside is that at this time of year the roads are very muddy with agricultural vehicles leaving lots of dirt and mud on the roads as they work the fields.
The weather didn’t look like it would help either. While this has not been a cold winter, it has been a wet and grey one. It’s actually been a stupidly warm for late December – it was 13C on my final Festive 500 ride! But it also rained.
A few days ago on BBC Breakfast, the weather presenter noted that London Heathrow had seen a total of 0.2 hours of sunshine across the previous 16 days. While I’ve not been cycling around Heathrow, I have been cycling around south-eastern England, and that’s certainly what it has felt like. Low grey clouds, and none of those fine, if cold, winter days.
In terms of the challenge, I did do some preparation by signing up to a specific training programme offered by Team EF Training. For a fee, they gave you a tailored plan across six weeks, including a series of Zoom webinars and structured workouts offered via the Today’s Plan platform.
In truth, I didn’t get good value from this. I think I was overly ambitious about how many hours I could set aside for training – I’d said 6-8 a week. But the plan they gave meant that I’d need to be cycling nearly every day. The thing is that I don’t like to solely cycle during the week, as I like to set aside some days to go for runs. While I could find time to do a run and a ride on the same day, neither would be optimal, and I’m not training for triathlon or anything.
I also found that it was nigh on impossible for me to do the supplied structured workouts out on the open road. I confess that Iv’e never really gotten into that side of cycling and I think I was in the deep end far too quickly. I was able to do some of the workouts on my turbo trainer inside Zwift – where you have complete control of your environment, and don’t have to worry about cars, traffic signals and so on. Trying to do short bursts of exertion on the road would require some longer flatter roads to train on. Hertfordshire and Essex aren’t full of such roads.
I also found Today’s Plan quite a confusing platform. I’m not a racing cyclist, trying to get up the Category ladder. And there is a bit of a learning curve to understanding these kinds of plans. I strongly suspect that platforms like Today’s Plan are very much there to provide feedback to coaches from cyclists following their plan. Because the work I was doing was one-way – they gave us the plan, and we could follow (or not follow) the plans as we liked, there wasn’t that two-way interaction that you’d get if you really had a coach.
I probably should do more structured training – trying to improve my cadence would be useful. I tend to pedal slower but put through more power rather than faster less-powerful pedal strokes. My idea of getting up a hill is to get out of the saddle and attempt it all in the big ring rather than sitting down and spinning. Mind you, I don’t have many long climbs that mean I can’t do them entirely out of the saddle!
So the training was a little useful, but not massively. And I knew that because I am able to go for long rides now relatively easily, it was mostly going to be a question of finding the time to do the rides, and battling the rain. The distance shouldn’t be a problem.
Ride 1 – December 24 – 110KM – Norfolk Broads
Total: 110KM – 22% Complete
I thought that I’d try to get some kilometres under my belt nice and early. While 500KM over 8 days means 62.5KM a day which seems pretty manageable, I knew that I wouldn’t get a chance to cycle every day. So why not get ahead?
Also, the weather on Christmas Eve looked OK-ish – at least for a bit. So I set out at 8:00 to get as much of the cycling done as early as possible. I was moving for about 4 hours, but the last hour turned out to be very wet. An early Christmas present to myself had been a Castelli Perfetto RoS cycling jacket. RoS stands for Rain or Shine, and the jacket is said to offer some level of rain protection making it a good winter all-rounder. It’s an evolution of Castelli’s famous Gabba jerseys.
It stood up well, although my feet were soaking. I was wearing Endura Windchill overshoes. In truth, they don’t claim to be waterproof, more windproof. But they were all I had with me. That evening saw me stuffing newspaper into my cycling shoes, and shoving them into the airing cupboard. Closer inspection to my shoes later on revealed that the air-vents in the soles of my shoes weren’t helping matters. At the start of January, I took my hot-glue gun to those holes and filled them in!
In the meantime, I was out doing something else that would become very frequent over the week – washing my bike. My 2014 Giant Defy 0 remains my main bike, and it comes in that most helpful of winter colours – white. So it was out with sponges, water, degreaser and lubricant as I gave it clean ahead of the next ride.
Ride 2 – December 26 – 52KM – North Norfolk Coastal Ride
Total: 162KM – 32% Complete
I couldn’t find time to get a ride in on Christmas day. I was cooking the meal, and while it wasn’t anything too extravagant, I only got time to get a short run in between putting the turkey breast in the oven and getting the vegetables on.
Boxing Day was the next available day, and the weather in Norfolk was awful. It was raining hard all morning, and the only let-up looked to be in the middle of the day. I got an early lunch in and headed out at 13:00 for what would turn out to be a two hour or so ride.
Inevitably the rain returned, and by the time I got back from my ride, having headed out along an inland route, and returning via coastal towns and villages like Blakeney and Cley, I had wet feet again.
I’d already ordered a pair of waterproof overshoes, but next day deliveries aren’t easily available around Christmas time, quite understandably. There is a great local bike shop near my parents’ house which I believe is owned by former British cyclocross rider Helen Wyman’s parents. But it was closed for the Christmas break, so I had to deal with the internet for emergency waterproof overshoes.
Ride 3 – December 27 – 134KM – Dereham and Wells-next-the-Sea
Total: 296KM – 59% Complete
My birthday, and I was up and out before 8:00 to do the longest ride I’d done so far. While it wasn’t raining at the start, I inevitably encountered rain along the way. It was yet another grey day. That is to say, there was no sign of the sun at all. I did at least encounter a few other cyclists along the route today, even managing to ride with one for a few kilometres.
It’s definitely harder doing something like the Festive 500 by yourself rather than going out with other riders. Today was a good example of that with the wind broadly behind me on the way out, but very much against me on the way back. I would also later discover that I had a slow puncture on my front tyre. While it didn’t stop me – I only noticed the next morning – it would have certainly made those sticky British roads even stickier than usual.
By the time I hit the coast around Holkham, there were many people out for their delayed Boxing Day walks, and car parks were full. In Wells-next-the-Sea I came across a parade of vintage tractors being driven in convoy by local farmers through the town centre. Clearly the place to be if you had an old Ferguson in your barn.
I rounded off the day by giving my bike another clean.
Ride 4 – December 28 – 57KM – Bacton and North Walsham
Total: 353KM – 71% Complete
Today was another horrible day for the weather. I didn’t especially want to head straight out into the rain if I could possibly help it. On the other hand, I wanted to get at least some distance under my belt today.
The good news was that my new waterproof Gripgrab overshoes arrived at lunchtime. Unusually, you put these on before you put on your cycling shoes. At least these very much promised to be waterproof!
Eventually, at around 14:30 there was a bit of a break in the rain, and I decided to head out into the period of dry. Inevitably it started raining again within about 30 minutes, and the rest of my ride was in the rain. But the new overshoes kept my feet much dryer than before (I had yet to spot the really obvious air-vent holes in my shoes’ sole!).
I headed down the coast towards Bacton, where vast amounts of gas are brought ashore to keep British energy needs met. I’d never actually seen the gasworks down there and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a daytrip it was educational. When all our energy bills spike upwards later this spring, I shall think about that place.
My late departure meant that I was inevitably riding as the sun set, and the last few kilometres were in darkness, mostly along tiny village roads. I had lights, but that kind of riding keeps you on your toes as you never know what the road surface will be like from moment to moment. I didn’t want to be slipping on leaves or mud, or riding into flooded sections of lanes.
Inevitably I had to do both those things.
One thing that became apparent from this riding – there are a lot of drivers in Norfolk hitting a lot of animals. I saw multiple dead deer by the roadside, as well as smaller animals like pheasants. You always seem roadkill like that along British roads when you’re out on your bike, but this was especially plentiful.
It was a bit of race between the endurance of the battery of my front light and the finish line, but I made it back safely.
I put off bike cleaning for another day.
Ride 5 – December 29 – 11KM – Supermarket run
Total: 364KM – 73% Complete
Most of today was spent travelling back to London by train. So I didn’t really have time to get a proper ride in. But I returned to a flat devoid of food, so an early evening trip to the supermarket was called for, and I did that by bike.
Only a few kilometres, but every KM counts right now!
I did manage to clean my bike fairly thoroughly. I also replaced an inner tube on my front wheel. I’d winged it the previous day with my slow puncture, just putting some more air into the tube rather than replacing it.
Ride 6 – December 30 – 145KM – Essex and Herts Loop
Total: 509KM – 100% Complete
I woke to find that my puncture “repair” was no such thing. I’d changed the tube but I’d used a tube I’d previously “repaired” and it turned out that my repair was no good. A fresh tube sorted that out (Note to self – order more inner tubes).
I had thought about whether I’d knock off the final kilometres in one or two rides. In the end, the weather looked OK-ish, so one ride would do it. I planned a route that took in bits of Essex and Hertfordshire near me, encompassing much more climbing than I’d done in Norfolk.
The weather was a positively balmy 13C, and I probably went out wearing slightly too much clothing. I saw a few of cyclists out in shorts and that was a completely fair choice.
Needless to say that while it was warmer, there was no sign of the sun. Low clouds were to accompany me all day. And inevitably, it also rained again. My weather app had predicted just an 11% chance of rain. Well, those odds aren’t low enough to avoid it altogether, and I got wet. Fortunately, it wasn’t sustained enough to give me damp shoes. No more need to stuff newspaper in my shoes and put them in the airing cupboard as I’d done after basically every ride in the Festive 500 thus far.
The wind was coming from the south today (the warm air coming up from the southern Atlantic) and that meant that I’d face a fairly unavoidable headwind on my route back. But it wasn’t too bad, and I gave it a lot of welly on the home stretch to finish off the ride.
Overall, I was pretty pleased with my results. It certainly wasn’t an easy thing to do – not in a British winter. While it wasn’t cold, and I didn’t have to face snow or ice which could have been really problematic, I did get very wet. My clothing was generally good, with the exception of my footwear and also my gloves. I need to look out a proper pair of waterproof gloves now, since it’s no fun trying to do up a zip with cold wet fingers that won’t even hold the zipper properly.
The thing I didn’t use as much as I’d expected was my tea flask. I’d bough a nice Elite flask that fits in a standard bike bottle cage and lets you carry hot drinks with you. I think perhaps I didn’t want to stop too much in the wet and it really wasn’t that cold that I needed tea out on the road.
My tyres held up pretty well and I only had that one slow puncture. I was using 28mm Continental Four Seasons tyres which have been pretty puncture free all autumn and winter this year. I keep the pressure fairly low – 70 PSI or so – which I think helps me avoid puncturing, but doesn’t do anything for my speed. I’d love to go 32mm tyres, but even those 28mm ones only just fit my Giant which was designed before everyone worked out that fatter tyres were fine.
I’ve just ordered some new brake pads because if there’s one thing I did get through during the course of the Festive 500 it was rubber on my rim brakes. The pads were actually pretty new, having come with some new brake assemblies back in July. I don’t think I’ve ever had to replace brake pads within four months of getting new ones before. But I’ve worn them right down in a short amount of time – certainly in part a consequence of doing so many KMs this year. I guess that grit from the road gets into the pads and wears them down faster. My rims were filthy from this wear.
I’m also really getting through my cleaning supplies. As I type now, the bike needs yet another top to bottom clean as it’s filthy again. I have a back mudguard, but again my Giant doesn’t really take a front mudguard aside from Giant’s own ones, no longer easily available to buy. In any case, the bike would still need that clean even with full mudguards. That’s a job for tomorrow. But Muc Off are going to be doing well out of me as well.
Otherwise, I had no real mechanical problems. My penultimate ride saw me get stuck in the small ring, but in the dry I was able to change the tension of the front derailleur cable and sort that out. I probably should check the chain for wear as well. But most components handled themselves well.
And I finished early enough to give me New Year’s Eve off!
(I actually went for a run on New Year’s Day, and then got in a 60ish KM ride on the 2nd and a nice long 150KM ride on the 3rd)
I couldn’t say with certainty that I’ll do this again next year. Circumstances will determine whether I really can fit in all that riding again, but there definitely is a sense of achievement in completing it. And if you over-indulge in the eating and drinking over the Christmas period, then you can certainly burn off some of those calories by going out and doing that riding.
NB. I’m over here on Strava if that sort of thing is interesting to you.