Karly Millar is no stranger to challenging cycling conditions; an innate hardiness helping her ride year round in Scotland where she lives and works. That being so, she clearly remembers a certain sense of trepidation when signing up for the 2017 Rapha Manchester to London; an event that involved riding north to south on a demanding 220 mile route sandwiched between Peak District climbs and the rolling hills of the Chilterns.
Back for 2019 with a revamped format and registration now open, in her own words Karly reflects on that Sunday in September when she left the Manchester Velodrome at dawn and rode south to London in a single day. An honest account of a physical and emotional journey that tested her to breaking point.
I wanted a challenge. Something so big that I wasn’t absolutely sure I could do it. An 80 km club run would leave me totally empty and eating macaroni in the bath with a bottle of flat coke to recover; so I genuinely didn’t believe I would make it all the way to London.
I’d tentatively floated the idea quite early in the year; initially to myself before discussing it with friends until the more times you mention something the greater the social contract that says you should probably follow through on what you’ve been talking about.
In terms of preparation I just kept on riding. I think subconsciously pushing the distance but my biggest ride before M2L was still only 120 miles. Well short of the 220 mile total that I would be riding on the event. But I remember talking to a friend about long distance cycling and him suggesting that once you reach a certain point – as long as you’re putting fuel in the tank and you keep turning your legs – then it’s different. It’s all mental.
In the final few weeks running up to the start date I felt a little bit sick if I thought about it too much. But as the weeks turned to days I grew calmer. What would be, would be. I couldn’t change anything; couldn’t train any harder. My only concern was letting down everyone who’d sponsored me. They’d been so generous and I didn’t want to feel that I might fail them. But my partner pointed out that simply rolling up at the start line was big enough. And I kind of found my peace with that.
At the pre-ride party you could feel a real sense of nervous energy in the Manchester clubhouse. The magnitude of what we were taking on suddenly hitting me and that I was part of it. And then standing on the start line at the Velodrome; actually feeling very irritable with the degree of faffing around in my group but more likely because I’d been up since four in the morning after only a couple of hours sleep.
The ride itself I broke down into the feedstops. Manageable chunks of effort. And I felt really good when we rolled into the first at Carsington Water after completing a hilly 50 miles through the Peak District.
By the second – 90 miles in – my mood had definitely dipped. It was the first time during the day that I actually wondered whether we’d make the time cut-offs. It had started to rain and I was feeling the pressure of all those miles ahead. But we pushed on, into the headwind that had dogged us all day and it was a special moment when we reached the halfway point.
I can picture us pulling into the third feedstop at this grand stately home but the rest of that section was rather a blur. I knew I hadn’t eaten enough and what lay ahead would be tough. In hindsight we should have taken a little longer to eat the hot food on offer rather than grazing on snacks. That would have been a wise investment in time.
You’re physically tired but more so mentally. And as we set off once again I was steeling myself for the hard slog into the night. Running on absolute fumes, I knew we still had 77 miles to go and the thought of carrying on made me want to cry.
But we worked together – following Simon Mottram’s [Rapha CEO] advice to ‘just keep on keeping on’ – until we finally reached the last feedstop. Feeling absolutely broken but with a realisation that this might actually happen.
On that final 25 mile stretch I was bargaining with myself when I was allowed to press the backlight button on my Wahoo; trying to guess how far we’d gone from the last time I’d checked. Mind games to ease the passing of those last few miles until, almost without warning, we were out of the dark country lanes and riding under street lights. Crossing the line in tears; a mix of emotions that I’d never experienced before and I wonder whether I ever will again.
And although I felt such a huge sense of accomplishment, it took until the next day’s train ride home before it all sank in. When I sat down with my helmet on the table in front of me and the passenger opposite asked where I’d cycled from and I answered Manchester and the look in their eyes when I told them it was in one day. I’d spent the past 48 hours in my M2L bubble and this was the first proper acknowledgement from the outside world. That we’d finished. That all the doubts and soul searching were now behind me.
Experience has since taught me that if you put your mind to something you can do it. And I think, previously, I’d underestimated myself and I walked away from M2L with a far stronger ‘can do’ attitude. I don’t feel like I need to prove myself anymore. We did good.
As for highlights? Riding as a team; each looking out for the other. The guy who rode it in an Elvis costume. Those random acts of kindness from the helpers at each feedstop. And if I had to advise anyone contemplating signing up for this year’s L2M? I’d tell them to do it. 100% commit because you will never know unless you try.
And just remember to eat. Eat all the time.
Now in its sixth edition, following last year’s ‘win’ by the North the route will reverse and for the first time riders will set off from London; just one of the new changes introduced for the 2019 Rapha London to Manchester. More information and sign up can be found here.
Image of Karly arriving at the 2nd feed stop with kind permission of Jess Morgan