Report and photos by Paul Jones.
The End to End is hard. In fact, it’s so hard that there have only been 11 successful attempts on the men’s record in 132 years. It has been considered unbeatable since Gethin Butler clocked 44 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds in 2001. On Friday at 8am Michael Broadwith of Arctic Tacx RT began his attempt to join this elite club.
An uneventful start saw Broadwith 30 minutes up on schedule by Bridgwater, only for heavy traffic to leave him isolated from his support. Roadside supporters helped navigate through Bristol and the convoy eventually came back together north of Bristol. Broadwith looked strong, holding position and chalking off 259 miles in the first twelve hours. As the evening drew the meandering of drunken weekenders presented a new challenge.
A promised tailwind from 7am raised hopes throughout the night. Broadwith held a metronomic 21mph, gaining time throughout. Minor issues with a grumpy GPS and gears were solved. All the while interest in the ride was growing; legions of dotwatchers were glued to Ivan Cornell’s tracker page, following Broadwith’s nocturnal progress through Stafford, Warrington, Wigan and Preston. The support team were led by wife Helen Simpson, who brought along their 8 month old daughter.
Broadwith later said: “Helen is incredible. She ran the support crew, updated twitter and looked after a baby. Helen and the team deserve a huge amount of the praise.”
Signs of the promised early morning breeze drew a fist pump from the rider. Another thumbs up appeared on reaching Cumbria, the pace oscillating between 35 and 40 minutes up. The Lakeland hills loomed beyond Kendal with Shap Fell a silent shadow. The flat and slate grey sky grew heavy with rain clouds. Broadwith rolled through untroubled towards the summit, greeted by a huddle of well-wishers. A 20 second pause allowed time for layers and a bottle grab.
Gethin Butler stood out amongst the supporters, and Broadwith added: “It was amazing to see Gethin. Early on he was marshalling me through Preston and Lancaster, then on Shap. He’s a legend, it makes me tingle to see my name in the same list. It was his record, but he was enthusiastic to see it being challenged.”
The descent of Shap was fast; but Broadwith was anxious. “It was starting to rain and I didn't want to lose it on a tight corner into a dry wall.” He was chasing Butler’s 24 hour record of 502 miles: 6 miles were required in 14 minutes. Outside Lockerbie a mark was painted on the road, coordinates taken. Provisionally, a staggering 507+ miles.
The arrival of heavy rain in Scotland flooded the roads and left torrents of water to contend with. Progress became harder, and expectations dampened with anxiety. The climbs loomed ahead and beneath the wheels like whales under the waves of tarmac, pushing up to the surface and raising the incline into enormous humpbacks of hardship. It was cold and wet, but somehow by Abington he was 45 minutes up.
Every End to End attempt includes a ‘dark’ section. For Broadwith it was when the cold began to seep through. Time slipped away and ominously, his neck was hurting. Broadwith’s body language betrayed him, his rhythm and willpower ebbing away.
“I had some really weak moments,” he admitted. “I didn’t think I could do it because of my neck. Helen asked, ‘can you ride for 20 minutes?’ I thought I could, but didn’t know if I could for 11 hours. The numbers were mind-boggling, I had to do 220 miles and I couldn’t even look up.”
The super long Drumochter Pass didn’t help and the attempt hung in the balance. With his neck muscles giving up, Broadwith resorted to an unconventional technique.
“I managed to figure out some cock-eyed method where I was propping my head up with my arm on the aerobar rest like Rodin’s The Thinker. At least it meant I could descend under control and fairly fast.
“I had a stern talk to myself; ‘for God’s sake, chances like this come across once in a lifetime. If you don't carry on you'll think through this moment forever and wonder why you didn’t ride for another 20 minutes.’ Yet again, the incredible support team came to the fore.
“Helen remembered that we had been on holiday to Inverness. She was very clever. She said, ‘you like Inverness, and it’s cycling distance to the finish. She managed to sell it as a fresh start. It stopped raining. I had a complete kit change, warm soup, porridge, everyone was really positive. That was the first moment I thought 'bloody hell it's still on' and within 20 minutes I thought ‘I can tap this out’. As soon as you've got the belief your morale comes back and that’s the difference. The one thing I know I can do is tap out that constant metronome for eight hours.”
With morale up, aerobar support bodges working and a support team creating miracles, it left only the relentless coast road and climbs of Helmsdale and Berridale to crest.
“It was brutal. You’d climb up just so you could go back down again, I was questioning how many there were. I have thought about this for fifteen years and I have always imagined how amazing it must be to climb Berridale, the last brutal climb, knowing that you've got the record in the bag.
“Then I was actually doing it in the early hours of this morning and thinking 'bloody hell, this is me, in this moment, and I’m climbing up Berridale and I’m going to nail this record, my friend Des running alongside. I have to remember it because it is a perfect moment in life where I’m actually living the moment that I wanted to live in incredible intensity.
“It’s quite hard to comprehend. I’m delighted, but at the moment it doesn't seem real. I'm sitting in this pub in Inverness and I haven't integrated back into real life yet, I'm going to go back tomorrow and back to work on Tuesday and it's going to be weird.”
Broadwith's time of 43 hours, 25 minutes and 13 seconds is a transcendent effort and Michael Broadwith has written his name into the legend of the End to End, alongside Eileen Sheridan, Lynne Taylor, Gethin Butler, John Woodburn and many others. In the process he has reignited interest in this longstanding feat of distance cycling.
Next stop, the National 24hr championship.