Road Cycling

Ashton Lambie’s road goes on and on – VeloNews

This story appeared in the March/April issue of VeloNews Magazine. 

Photo: Marvin Lambie

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
— J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve never been a fan of the term “Olympic hopeful.” After winning my first track cycling national title in the fall of 2017 and joining the USA Cycling national team, I felt like the Olympics were more than a hope. I had a real shot to qualify as a member of USA Cycling’s team pursuit squad. At the same time, I was frustrated when people simply assumed I would go to the Olympics, since the qualification requirements were extremely tough.

So, when the qualification period for the 2020 Olympics ended, Team USA’s Men’s Pursuit team came up agonizingly short. After the UCI World Cups in Minsk and Glasgow, we did not earn the points totals needed for Tokyo.

It was a tough reality to stomach, as I had spent nearly every day for three years focusing on that goal. As I realized this setback after our results in Glasgow, I decided to go on a bikepacking trip across Scotland and Northern England, from Glasgow to Derby, the home of my Huub-Wattbike team.

I wanted to get back to my natural habitat: long, solitary hours on the bike. My father, Marv, decided to drive along with me to snap photos and keep me company. The terrain meant a more leisurely 15-17 mph instead of the screaming 40 mph we had ridden on the track for the previous three weeks.

The change of pace, I knew, would be welcome.

Day zero: Glasgow to Edinburgh

Photo: Marvin Lambie

I spent the evening planning a route and setting up my Lauf bike for a smaller adventure with my closest friend and teammate, Dr. Christina Birch. Our search for adventure quickly culminated in a crazy plan to ride across Scotland from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and then to take the train back after dark. After a hearty English breakfast, we set out from the hotel. It was a balmy 28F (-2C), so we wore nearly all the clothing we brought.

As we rode towards the outskirts of town, the trail was marked with occasional trash fires and hovering boatmen, interrupting the pleasant monotony of the frozen countryside. Miles ticked by until we succumbed to frozen hands with a much needed coffee and cake break. We then rode past the engineering marvel that is the Falkirk wheel, the world’s largest boat loch.

Photo: Marvin Lambie

It’s a behemoth that counterbalances tubs of water to raise a swimming pool amount of water over 100 feet with just the power required to run eight tea kettles at the same time. We had expected the Falkirk stop to be the wildest sight on our journey, but hadn’t expected the remainder of the route to be filled with equally awe-inspiring hand carved tunnels and bone-jarring cobbled bridges, all before plunging into the Edinburgh traffic that flows beneath the humbling spires and gothic architecture of the city.

Photo: Marvin Lambie

If you’ve never ridden a bike through a large European city with a friend, I’d strongly recommend it. As much as I love shutting my brain off during a good session on a stationary trainer, dancing around double decker busses and hopping train tracks was thrilling, stimulating, and breathtaking, all at the same time. Navigating the train system back to Glasgow was easier than trying to order drive-thru at McDonald’s. Enjoying hot chocolate, Indian food, and whisky from a cozy pub in deep leather chairs back in Glasgow was a perfect way to recharge in preparation for my epic commute to Derby.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

Day one: Glasgow to Carlisle

Photo: Marvin Lambie

I awoke with my kit all laid out. The hotel concierge noticed me getting ready to head out and cautioned me about the heavy winds. “Aye, it’s about 10 knots from the west, and should be 20-25 knots in a wee bit,” he said.

The route out of town was a familiar one, as it took me right past the velodrome. It seemed fitting to ride past the end of an adventure as I went off to start a new one. I remembered a quote from Marcel Proust, who said, “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” I still hadn’t processed the end of three years worth of working toward the Olympics, every single day. I was not-so-secretly hoping the 500-kilometer ride would give me some time to experience this suffering to the absolute fullest, and to heal.

I settled in quickly to the grim weather, as I started rolling across windmill-covered moors with stinging rain and whipping wind. The winding roads were a blessing, as the headwind came in bursts instead of the familiar slog into a headwind on a never-ending straight Nebraska road.

The route was fairly utilitarian, traversing open bike paths and frontage roads along the main highway. Even when the rain stopped, the roads were still wet enough to keep my feet damp, but thankfully there was enough neoprene and wool to keep the chill bearable. It was a tough game of passing pie shops and wanting to eat every sausage roll in sight, but it doesn’t take long to catch a chill when you stop riding in 33F and rain.

Photo: Marvin Lambie

At about the halfway point, the road turned upwards, and the trees disappeared. I fell into a rhythm as the elevation climbed and the temperature dropped. What exactly is it about suffering on the bike that soothes any other suffering? The pain of the numbing cold is easy to handle relative to the finality of not achieving the biggest goal imaginable. If I could find enjoyment in the scenery and isolation of four days on the road, surely there must be some positive in my new freedom of not being tied to a major goal.

Although the Olympics have been something I have wanted to do ever since I started cycling, it somehow seems even farther away after having been so close to achieving it. I could feel myself embracing the cold, relishing the fresh air on my face and the crisp snap of the air. Perhaps I could embrace a new goal, and fresh ideas and objectives. I came to my senses and stopped in the village of Annan for a hot pie before continuing on. I wanted to find a homely bed-and-breakfast to end the day.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Day two: Lake District

Photo: Marvin Lambie

One of the keys to travel that I’ve found is having a few delectable items to keep myself centered in a foreign place. For me, this is a portable coffee setup and my favorite meal: yogurt and granola with berries. After my first heavy day on the road, eating breakfast and drinking coffee was a nice way to start the day.

Instead of a leisurely warmup, I was greeted by 30 kilometers of climbing straight into the Lake District. This area is the largest national park in England, and an incredible mix of windy roads, sprawling landscapes, and quaint mountain towns with more mouthwatering pies.

Even though the weather for most of this ride was about as grim as I could imagine, I managed to dial in my clothing selections pretty well. I had three pairs of gloves, some mid-weight knit wool gloves, neoprene fly fishing gloves, and a heavy pair of leather chore gloves, affectionately known as the tractor mitts. The advancing rain proved a good reason for the first pie stop of the day in the village of Ambleside, in addition to a glove swap and a coffee.

After that pit stop, the miles ticked by smoothly: climb, descend, climb, descend, cobbled town streets, bike path, climb back out of town. After a few days on the bike, I had settled into a similar rhythm: Pack, kit up, get out on the bike, warm up, adventure, and relax at the end of the day. Knowing there was a warm meal and a shower made those cold hours in the saddle pass by a lot quicker.

There’s also the mental rhythm of the ride itself, the highs and lows that come along each ride, whether it’s four minutes or four hours. The only constant was the focus forward, and trusting that the highs were a good time for progress, but they only existed because of the equal lows on the bike. It’s pushing through those muddy slogs on the trail that make the descents fun.

Photo: Marvin Lambie

The last push of the day ended in the beachside town of Morcambe. The neon funhouse signs and kitschy shops remind me of Venice Beach, but the full English breakfast I ate for lunch was anything but Californian. I don’t know about the nutritional value of baked beans, toast, potatoes (tattys!), sausage, bacon (rashers!), mushrooms, tomatoes, and eggs all in one meal, but it definitely was something to look forward to on the ride. After a much needed bath, I fell asleep to the smell of British roads with my clothes drying out on the radiator in our tiny room, and seniors singing Christmas carols in the event room below us.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Day three: Bowland forest to Manchester

Photo: Marvin Lambie

I was stoked with my Morcambe hotel, but alas, the inn did not serve breakfast. I formulated a plan to roll into the Forest of Bowland and find a small cafe, which didn’t seem like a problem with all the cafes I saw the day before in the Lake District.

Also known as the Bowland Fells, the Forest of Bowland is marked by barren gritstone mountains, deep river valleys, and peaty moorlands. A note for potential visitors: the term ‘forest’ refers to the area’s past use as a royal hunting ground, and has nothing to do with the number of trees in this area. I counted zero trees, to be exact.

The beginning of the ride was marked by short steep climbs on the way up to a high point of 1,300 feet in the first 20 miles. This led to a sort of touring based panic, as I imagined a six to seven hour day unfolding in front of me; I was struggling to maintain a modest 10 mph average. There were gates every few miles as part of the fencing, which led to me losing my dad (Thanks, Marv!), who drove along with the course for proper sheep documentation.

Shortly after I consulted with a local farmer about a re-route, I found Marv in his vehicle stuck in the grass on the side of the road. As I panicked about getting him out, I recalled seeing a tractor in the farmers yard.

“His name is Aubrey, he has a tractor and probably a rope, I’ll catch up with you later,” I hollered as I darted off across the next moor. A habit from my days of randonneuring where the clock is always ticking, moving at any pace is faster than standing still. As I kept climbing into the Bowland “Forest,” the pace was still glacial, the clouds were rolling in, and the temps kept dropping. The only cars in sight were a solo land surveyor; otherwise, I was the only person I could see for miles. Fist-sized rocks, lonely hawks, mud, and sheep were the only company for a couple of hours, and I didn’t even miss the trees, or breakfast.

Photo: Marvin Lambie

As the landscape unfolded in front of me, I finally began to feel like I had enough space to plan what I want to do next in my cycling career. I’ve been trying every day for the last three years to make it to the Olympics for team pursuit. I’d roughly thought about doing gravel next because it’s the most fun I have riding, but any other longer format events are on the table. When I started down this path of riding team pursuit in the Olympics, I gave myself a two percent change of qualifying. It was sort of a “shoot your shot and see what happens” type scenario.

The risk of failure was always a chance; any major goal worth achieving comes with some risk of failure. In my case, if you enjoy the process, it isn’t really a big failure. So next for me will be finding a goal worth achieving, enjoy the process of getting there, and shoot my shot. I waited to see what would happen after breakfast.

Photo: Marvin Lambie

It was a risk leaving Lancaster without a cafe, but the risk paid off when I found myself in the first civilization I’d seen in a bit, the riverside town of Whalley, home to CJ’s sandwich (butty!) shop. It was nearly noon, and after for hours on beef jerky and chocolate, I smashed two sausage rolls, a breakfast butty, and threw a flapjack—not a pancake, a real tasty oat treat with some serious calories—in the jersey and rolled the last way into Manchester. After a good rip through traffic, more butties, Guiness, and a pie, I was ready to call it on the slowest day of the trip.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Day four: Derby Bound

Photo: Marvin Lambie

I wouldn’t say I was fully cracked, but my motivation for another five to six hour day had waned. I always know when I’m tired because I make deals with myself. “I’ll take a shorter route if I keep my power up a bit,” I told myself. “I’ll wait a bit to see if the rain dies down.” My final day was the shortest route, coming in just under 100 kilometers. I wasn’t keen to make it any longer. After a full English breakfast that included black pudding, I set out southeast through the Peak District on another blustery, but dry day. I had learned valuable lessons from the previous few days. Thus, I had an appropriate kit, multiple gloves, better snacks, a planned coffee stop, and no clue what the weather was going to do.

After doing a few bounces on the saddle to gauge if I could roll with the low pressure, I decided to duck out of the thickening mist into a bike shop in the town of Whaley Bridge for some air before an unknown 20-minute climb. I knew I was close to Derby when the head mechanic of the shop recognized me; he was actually the mechanic for Ribble-Weldtite, a local road team that my teammates raced for during the summer.

With fresh tires, the climb (oddly named “Sausage Meister”) blew by, and I found myself at the coffee shop just through the major town of Buxton, nestled in the center of the peak district. Only 30 miles to go, and a coffee and pastry to fuel the mad dash to the finish!

Photo: Marvin Lambie

The rain escalated from a dreary mist to a full downpour for the last 30 miles. With the 32-degree temps, pouring rain, and howling winds, I was really putting my kit to the test. I rounded the corner of Carsington water, a familiar lake a few miles out of Derby, and knew I was nearly there. With the end in sight, I pondered on what the takeaway was from the journey. What have I learned? Did my knowledge fit onto a bumper sticker?

In all honesty, no. If you were hoping for some some deep, profound takeaway from what it means to dedicate your life to a goal and come up short, I did not find it out there on the soggy roads. I suppose I learned that sometimes, a situation just sucks, and that’s OK.

I had turned myself inside out every single day in training, for three solid years, and I came up short. I suffered five-hour trainer sessions, blackout gym workouts, training through a broken foot, and months on the road, to get within inches of one of the biggest goals in elite sports.

As I pedaled on in the rain, I concluded that I wouldn’t give my Olympic pursuit up for anything in the world. I’ve eaten a churro on a beach in Peru, visited ancient castles in Poland, watched fireflies in rural Pennsylvania. I enjoyed every minute of the process. I determined that my pathway to healing is to continue suffering in a different way, because the suffering to earn the good things makes them really good.

There wasn’t anything major in Derby waiting for me, except a warm meal next to an open fire in a pub, with my biggest fan Marv, and a good pint of ale. I’m lucky enough to be able to keep riding my bike across amazing countrysides and to keep meeting amazing people. Ever since I came up short in Glasgow, people have told me, “Just try to focus on the positives!” I disagree.

Sometimes you just have to find a darker, colder place to really appreciate the opportunity of a new journey. I would strongly recommend riding across the U.K in November; it doesn’t get any more cold and wet. Thanks to everyone who has supported me on this Olympic journey, and here’s a pint to many more adventures, open fires, and shared journeys.