Cycling from London to Riga
In April 2019 I cycled from London to Berlin in just 6 days. After 1 day break, I resumed my ride from Poland and reached Riga (Latvia) in another 3 days covering total of 1700km on my road bike.
Although I didn't fully complete my challenge — to cycle all the way from London to Riga in 10 days (2100km), this was an exciting achievement for me regardless.
I've decided to write this blog post with a detailed description. If you want to simply look at the pictures, you can find those at the facebook page: http://facebook.com/LondonRiga2000.
There is a saying — if you wonder why people run marathons — they wonder why YOU don't. For me this ride was something I thought I could achieve and thanks to the support from my family, it encouraged to go through with it.
I thought about raising money for some charity, but I was too busy with training and work and didn't even have time for that. I also decided not to look for sponsors — once again — too much effort is needed.
Riga is my home town. I grew up in there and graduated. Currently I live in UK, so this ride was, in a way, me coming back home. And although I left on a plane, I thought it would be cool to come back on my own two legs. And a pair of wheels.
I started researching how much km per day it's possible to cycle. What kind of fitness is needed. How multi-day cycling is different from a single-day. After all — I wouldn't want to commit to something that I can't complete. I found multiple records of people who cycle 250+ on a daily basis. I also started to look for a coach.
The next question I have to answer was When? I suffer from grass polen alergies, which severely disrupt my cycling plans in May. So I wanted to cycle in April and ideally when kids don't have school.
I have made multiple attempts to cycle in cold temperature. I concluded that 7ºC and above is a good temperature for cycling. The temperature in April historically are around 10-15ºC.
Cycling in the dark is no fun, especially on a foreign roads. In April daylight spans from 6am to 8pm, giving 14 hours a day and enough time to rest.
I planned out route using http://komoot.de and it was surprisingly flat. If I don't have to push uphill, I should be going at the good average speeds of 30km/h. In my test rides, I was able to hold this speed for several hours on flat roads.
I've tested many different apps, and Komoot was the only one that had ability to plan routes with multiple waypoits, select cycling type (road / commute / offroad, etc) and display in great detail what type of roads (state road, cycle path) and a type of surface (paved, unpaved, etc) you will encounter. This comes with a turn-by-turn navigation and off-line maps.
To keep the route short, I would have to cross Kaliningrad (between Poland and Lithuania). Entry there requires Visa, so I decided to apply for it.
For the ride, I'd need a good sleep, so I wanted to pre-book places on AirBNB. I also reserved time for food and snack stops.
I decided to invest into Specialized Roubaix bike, as it comes with shock absorbers. Additionally I would equip tt steering bar and train to use those for long periods of time.
In 2018 I did multiple 100 - 150km rides and was confident that I would be able to increase my fitness while reducing my weight slightly (it was around 114 kg).
I told my family and relatives about my plans and set a preemptive date. Thankfully my brother (Dmitry) said he would be willing to drive along the way and help me in my ride, so no bags for me to carry, which is great.
On Semptember 2018, I announced my plans on facebook:
Dear friends! After many months of planning, I'm announcing that I'll be cycling 2,100km in June 2019 - all the way from London (Kings Cross) to Riga, Latvia (via France, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, Russia and Estonia). It amounts to 90+ hours of cycling and I'm planning to finish it in 10 days. I'll be going through some hellish training this winter to make this possible. (OK, now I can't back out of it anymore😂
Not only I mixed up Estonia and Latvia, the target month in the announcement was June and not April. Still - after announcing my trip I wouldn't be able to back out of it anymore. With the extra pressure I re-focused on my training.
A fear of Cycling Solo
I had a chat with a friend who initially wanted to cycle along with me and only backed out few weeks before departure. Aditionally due to some technical problems Dmitry told me sometime in January that he might not be able to make it. I had to think about the possibility of cycling solo, but I'm realy glad that those technical issues were resolved.
Budget and Effort
I estimate that entire preparation and the ride cost me around €5,000 (bike, gear, fuel, hotels, training, gym, supplies etc). Additionally I have spent about 250 hours in training and many hours planning, shopping, discussing and packing.
I have produced map for all of 10 days - where and how I would be cycling. Along the route I thought to visit some cities and even spend some time in Berlin.
Starting from September, I was following a training plan prepared by Igor Siminaitis. He was recommended to me by a friend and is working with triathlon and iron man athletes in Russia and Latvia. For a reasonable monthly cost, Igors agreed to keep eye on me and make a plan for me in Training Peaks. I would need to record my workouts and provide feedback on how well I feel.
The training started with a test, and included cycling, swiming and running, however we substituted runing with walking and gradually would increase in volume.
Previously I would use automated training plans, but working with Igors have been more flexible — I asked to remove running, asked for ability to re-shuffle exercise days within same week.
Foundations and Drills
Early weeks included many drills. This is to make sure that I exercise correctly. I was also attending swimming lessons and was able to swim for 1100m in 1h.
Cycling drills were designed to teach me the right cadience and ability to control my heart rate. I have also asked to include a sunday Badminton and if I could keep the strength exercises, which I was doing in the gym previously.
We included weekly call to discuss any questions I had about the exercises.
Meeting Igor in Riga
I was traveling to Riga few times and had opportunity to sit down with Igors or attend his spin classes in the Gym and even have him coach my swimming. This helped me learn a lot about fitness and training in general.
Spin classes (David Lloyd)
In my previous blog post, I have talked about using in-door bike turbo. Improving cycling performance is very different from standard spin classes. If you have ever attended a spin class, it has many changes, has lots of climbs (cycling standing up) and generally features low cadence (50-70). Spin classes are focused on fitness, engagement and weight loss, but not on cycling endurance or performance.
In comparison — in-door cycle training will have 4 types of exercises:
- endurance - long, slow paced rides, typically teaching your body to use up fat reserves for energy. Also helps you to get used to cycling position for extended period of time.
- sst/tempo - keeping you un 3rd HR zone, seated with maximum average power output over extended time period, helping you build stronger muscles.
- intervals - focusing on exerting large amount of power for the period of several minutes, then reducing pace and giving cardio system to recover. This aims at increasing oxygen capacity and faster recovery. This also teaches you about your upper power limits.
- hills - when you are faced with a hill, instead of dropping down a gear, stand up and push yourself up the hill in lower cadence yet outputing more power and engaging shoulder/arm muscles for stability. Once climb is over, follow it up with high-cadence sprint while recovering.
For road cycling it's normal to keep 80-100 rotations per minute. Leg muscle memory gradually will allow you to spin faster. I was able to peak at 150rpm for a minute under a moderate resistance. David Lloyds is one of few gyms which have power meters on their spin bikes.
Sometimes I would be there spinning, then a coach and a group would join me for a spin class. This was fun, but also inconvenient sometimes — I was told off for keeping rotations too high, I got the looks for using my phone for HR control and interfering with the darkness. I also think that I was upsetting a cleaning lady who wanted to clean the spin bike room before ending her shift, yet I keep pouring more sweat on the floor over the periods of 2h workouts.
Yet Spin classes offered some varietty and fun. Exercising during winter is dull if you stay in-door all the time.
Giro de Spin
If you are ever in Riga — visit MyFitness gym in SkyAndMore shopping center and take part in this exciting and unusual spin session. First timers have to pay just a few euros fee, but don't forget your cycling shorts.
Be sure to mention me! I broke my calories/hour record every time.
As a foundation, swimming is important for a better cycling. It improves breathing and increases lung capacity, also helps build up shoulder muscles which play key part in absorbing shock and climbs.
As my training menu became more formidable (10h) I decided to seek out bi-weekly massage. During the exercise muscles repeatedly contract. After the exercise finishes, muscles sometimes keep doing the same - stay stiff and contracted. This can be remedied with stretches and ocassional rest day with deep massage should help muscles releax and prepare for more punishment.
I would like to say big thanks to Sue Gibson (based in Langford) for some incredible work on my muscle relaxation. Doing intensive workouts without letting muscles rest can lead to some nasty injuries.
After taking my time to find a perfect bike for my ride, I started working on the gear.
Pedals and Cleats
This is a mechanism that connect cycling shoe to a pedal, making sure you don't slip off and are able to make use of wide range of muscles — lifting pedal up not only pushing it.
Two years ago I got myself a three-bolt "road" clip-ins (SPD-SL), yet for the ride I wanted to replace them with a two-bolt mountan-bike pedal and a comfortable walking shoes.
I wish I have done the switch sooner, here is why:
- clipping is two-sided. Much easier.
- shoes are comfortable for walking.
- more durable, walking in SPD-SL shoes wears off the cleat.
- mechanism seemed more robust
It was really important for me to have just a single pair of shoes all the way.
A most basic steering only allow for a single hand position. When cycling for hours, you'll need to move your hands around, which is why road bikes have those handlebars. Yet for the ultra-long cycle ride a more comfortable position is needed.
TT Bars allow you to rest your elbows on a soft pad. Typically this requires you to bend forward more, but with training that is easy.
Added benefit is a better wind profile — less wind resistance means you can maintain greater speed with less effort. The downside is lower control over bike and in order to shift gears or break, you need to move your hands back on the regular bars — so cruising in TT position while on a busy cycleway is quite difficult.
I got an expensive folding lock so that I can leave my bike without worries. Locks are heavy and good locks are even heavier and only left space for a single water bottle. I also had a portable pump on a side.
I had two bags on my bike. One, located under the seat, contained spare tubes, emergency contact details and bike tool (screwdriver and more). The other bag, located next to the wheel contained power bank (for my phone), gels and bars if I need recharging myself and paracetamol (just in case).
Three pockets I had on my back were used for rain/wind jacket, knee warmers, debit cards, camera repair tools, headphones (although I didn't use them) and emergency money.
iPhone as a phone computer
I used iPhone for navigating and recording my ride. Usually I track my ride on the watch, but I forgot watch charger, so no HR tracked. With display off and voice navigation, phone could run on a full baterry for up to 5 hours. With display on it was about 2-3 hours, but with power bank I could use it all day.
I was also able to see and communicate with my support team without getting off the bike.
I used USB-powered bright front/back lights and cell battery powered backup front/back lights.
In the car
We bought few extra things which I left in the car, such as — chain cleaner and lubricant, replacement chain, chain replacement tool. Also extra gels and flapjack bars, electrolytes/water.
While staying in the AirBNB Dmitry would drop off 3 bags:
- food bag - including microwaweable sets, 6-pack of long-life milk, oatmeals, strawberies, bananas and pastries or slice of cake.
- cycling clothes bag - extra shorts, pants for cycling, socks, jerseys, gloves (for cold/warm weather), etc
- evening bag - toothbrush and toiletries, compression tights, two chargers (one for dual USB for charging lights and another using USB-C with fast charging for power bank)
On February 9th after 4 hour 100km cycle I started feeling pain in my left knee. After few days of taking it easy, putting more effort brought the pain back. I asked Sue to refer me to a physo and she introduced me Donna.
Knee issues and treatment
After many guesses, I got expert assesment from Donna. She said that I haven't done enough stretches on my hamstrings and tight muscles have slightly dislocated my leg and knee. Tibial plateau is where femur (upper bone of your leg) joins with tibia (lower bone of your leg). In my case femur was slightly rotated and bending knee especially under pressure caused pain.
Treatment involved relaxing hamstring, cleaning ligament endings and pulling on the leg so that joint would go back properly (i'm oversimplifying). After another week of rest some of the pain returned so I went to see Donna again. If muscles are not sufficiently relaxed, they can dislocate join again.
It was now just few weeks before my departure, so I took it easy and did only easy exercises.
Although I felt comfortable on the bike, knee problems prompted me to rethink my seat hight and position. Injuries can be caused by seat being too high or too low.
A whole bike fitting process takes multiple hours, but it measures everything down to the smallest detail. At this point my confidence has also crumbled and knowing that the bike is fitted perfectly was very important for the peace of my mind.
Few hours after I departed London on my first day, the pain in my knee came back, but it was somehow caused by a ligament. Ligament is a tissue that connects bones together and it gets stretched when I forcefully lift my leg up.
Only after my 3rd stop I figured that "pushing" but not "pulling" should help me minimize the pain and I used this technique for the rest of my ride to a great success.
Knee reacton to cold
I had more knee problems due to cold weather. The forecast for 3rd day looked like it would get warm, but was cold in the morning. I got my shorts but due to cold winds I started feeling pain in my left knee once again. After warming up and with the pants on, I was able to continue normally.
After experiencing a very rough roads in Lithuania and Latvia (day 9 and 10) I started feeling numbness in my left hand. Reading up on this later, numbness in pinky and ring fingers are common for cyclist and caused by too much pressure on the palm. In my case numbness was in other 3 thingers. 10 days after finishing I still have the numb feeling.
When body runs of carbs (sugars) which are the primary muscle fuel during the exercise, a slight dizziness act as a reminder to eat a bar or gel. I started with 2 packs of SiS gels, but along the way stocked on some nasty cheap gells in Dechatlon. Last day was quite hard — I had to finish my ride by 6pm, out of gels and with barely any time for a food stop. Also I felt that my body is not as powerful in general. Well — that was last day. Extending the ride for few more days would have been really hard.
Constant wind has adveres effect on lips and after few days even with lip balm, lips are getting dry. Not a major issue and recovers in a few days after finishing.
First day hitting some minor rain in UK wasn't much of a problem. Used the rain paints and was slightly late for the Ferry. After arriving in Calais, it was dark, so didn't get enough sleep.
Day 2 — got wet, socks and all, but rain subsided. After a while with a new socks was able to continue comfortably and into Belgium.
When cycling there are two possible issues — rain and wet road. Rain itself is OK, but due to wet road shoes (I didn't had covers) get wet and with wet socks body looses heat making cycling much more difficult. Only once I had to stop and wait until thunderstorm passes by. Due to lack of time, I had to cycle in the rain where possible.
I encountered rain several times in the first 4 days, but then weather turned extremely cold and dry. For the rest of the ride I was up against a 3ºC headwind (up to 18km/h wind). Luckily it was mostly sunny but a constant wind in the face drains energy like crazy.
Cold days followed one after another. I planned to depart 7am every day, but until sun gets up it is extremely cold. I didn't expect to cycle in less than 5ºC, but on some occassions it was around 0ºC.
I had to wear double pants and warm jacket, which was not ideal for cycling causing me to sweat and slowing me down by catching more wind with the hoodie.
Crossing Poland-Russian border 7am in the morning, waiting outside for them to check my visa cooled me down and I had to crawl slowly to a nearest shop. This was day 8 and I had to complete 210km before last ferry connecting Curonian Spit and Klaipeda leaves. Luckily I had no issues and arrived 50 minutes before the departure of last Ferry. During day 8 it was not possible for Dmitry to reach me (he had no Russian visa). I'm glad I made it.
Running out of Time
Lack of time was the major issue throughout the ride:
Day 1 - Missed ferry departure. Had to wait 1.5h. As a result didn't have enough time to sleep.
Day 2 - Started 8am. Lost 20minutes due to storm. Inefficient food stops. When arrived in Antwerp I couldn't find a tunnel at first and then the lift was broken. So finished around 21:50. Moving time 10h and average speed 20km/h. That means almost 4h I was not cycling. Another hour lost due to timezone change btw.
Day 3 - Departed 8am. Hot weather culminated in a thunderstorm. When I crossed into Germany, got wet. Pit stop, replaced chain. Lost another hour. Arrived once again 21:45, 220 km.
Day 4 - Planned 230 km. Started 7am. Got really cold. Knee problems. Reduced speed. Lost a lot of time. Warmed up in caffee. Dmitry delivered pants. 3 hours behind. Resumed normal ride at 11pm. Had to look for a place to eat. Couldn't make it to Hanover, and diverted to a emergency hotel near Porta Westfalica. Arrived 21:16 but only completed 180 km instead of 230. This was first day when I couldn't complete distance. Also lack of sleep started to affect me. Before going to sleep, we re-planned next day route to avoid cities and make stops more efficient.
Day 5 - Planned 250 km which I was able to complete. Started 8am. Managed to squeeze out almost 12h of cycling with a good average of 21km/h. Road was good, no highways, no cycleways but hills. Finished 22:15 after cycling 1h in complete darkness.
Day 6 - woke up at 6 but went back to sleep. Originally planned 170km (easy day), but being 70km beind now and started 10am, had to set a new realistic target — reach Berlin. After 185km I have finished at 22:53 on the fuel station. Dmitry picked me up and we continued to drive through Poland.
Day 7 - Original plan for day 7 was to reach Bydgoszcz (267km) and day 8 was to reach Braniewo (226km). Instead we completed those + 60km in a car, booked hotel for 2 days and went straight to sleep. In the evening of Day 7 woke up to eat and went to sleep again.
Day 8 - I planned originally to complete Russia, Lithuania and Latvia in 2 days. Now I had 3 days instead, so the goal for Day 8 was to reach Klaipeda. That's 210 km instead of 257, but considering that there would be no support on the way and also two border crossing — It wolud take me lot of time. I departed 6am, but once again timezones eat up another hour. 21:15 Ferry (had to wait 50 minutes) and then 10km to reach accomodation, so went to sleep around midnight again.
Day 9 - I thought I can leave 9am, since we have an extra day, however after 50km simply following a highway against a strongest wind yet, I made a stop to replan route. The original route was going through Siauliai, then north through Jelgava into Riga, all following high-ways. However I decided to seek a more direct route. This caused new challenges — lot of off-road. Here is a modified route for Day 9:
Total for Day 9 was 125km and for the first time I finished while it was still daylight. We celebrated last day with pizza and went to sleep. Next day I planned 123km, but that was a mistake.
Day 10 - The optimistic plan had a missplaced point A. I was actually 40km West, in Mazeikai. I started 8:50 in the morning, expecting to have plenty of time. Things went relatively well until I crossed border into Latvia:
While the road in Latvia is shorter, It's an unpaved road. More importantly the gravel is extremely unsuitable for road bike, no control and very slow pace.
I had to change the route again and go back into Lithuania in hopes for a better road. The diversion paid off and I even decided to make a loop into Auce then follow a state road to Jelgava:
The road here was somewhat better, but still looked like a swiss cheese:
10km before Jelgava I ran out of food and got really hungry. Slowly I proceeded trying not to get dizzy and wobble on a highway. In Jelgava I had a quick food break and from Jelgava to Riga it was a straigth line. Highway once again — two lines in each direction, but had extra lane for turns, emergency stops and .. cyclists. For the last day I covered 165km of distance in 8h (and 1.30h in total breaks) and arrived to the cheers of friends and relatives.
"Brivibas piemineklis" - monument to honour independence of Latvia is where the welcome party - friends and family welcomed me with a round of applause. They have made a tshirt, brought champaign and even gave me a trophy. Thank you all who encouraged me and helped me get through this. I'm glad if my 10-day ride encouraged or inspired anyone.