“I guess jumping in at the deep end is a bit of a running theme for me”. Vic Peel is sitting on her kitchen worktop, still in lycra and sipping on a hot mug of tea. “It’s just something I’ve always done.”
Which – in a nutshell – is why come 14 August Vic will be lining up at Lands End with a small group of racers to ride 2000km off-road to John O’Groats. First run in 2019, the GBDURO has quickly become an iconic event in the niche world of self-supported endurance bike racing. It is a world that is full of tales of hardship, sleep deprivation and pushing the human body to its very limits and beyond. So, before we carry on with the interview, it’s probably worth explaining a little more about what this race and others like it entail.
When Vic sets off, she will be carrying virtually everything that she will need to complete the journey on her bike. The clock will not stop until she reaches the first checkpoint, some 500km away from the tip of Cornwall in mid-Wales. It will be up to Vic and her fellow competitors when (or if) to rest, and for how long; always in the knowledge that whenever they do they will be losing ground to those who keep moving. That process will be repeated another three times before the riders who have managed to endure the distance roll into John O’Groats at the far northern edge of Scotland. The rider with the quickest elapsed time overall wins… absolutely nothing. There are no prizes, no big ceremony. Just a small party for the finishers before they begin their journeys home. If all that didn’t sound hard enough, the race is “self-supported”. That means no friends and family following in a car to help out or wait at strategic points to hand out food. No pre-booked hotels, no gear/food caches along the route. No drafting (sitting in another rider’s slipstream). No accepting help from other racers. No outside help at all. The only concession to this is riders are able to use shops, cafes and pubs en route to resupply food as and when they need to.
So for ten days or so, riders will be racing day and night along the entire length of the United Kingdom. It’s the kind of event that attracts a particular kind of person. Usually someone with a lot of experience; endurance specialists who thrive on the reserves built up over many years spent in the saddle. It is not the natural environment for a person who only started riding three years ago.
“I did my first bivvy a couple of weeks ago”. Vic tells me not long after I met her, fresh from her work as an electrical engineer. We meet at a bridleway a mile or so from her home in Barnoldswick, Lancashire. Running a few minutes late, she was out of breath after sprinting her local bike up the hill that marks the start of most of her rides. Did I mention this is a woman who likes jumping in at the deep end? She’s standing astride a brand new Juliana Quincy gravel bike, with a dusting of (Barnoldswick made) purple Hope components and frame bags from Restrap. Everything is pristine. It would be easy for a cynic to dismiss Vic’s chances, but it doesn’t take much time in her company to realise that doing so would be premature.
To start off with, this isn’t her first experience of Lands End to John O’Groats.
“I only started riding bikes seriously three years ago. One of my first rides was with a few friends from work. We covered the route on the road over nine days, staying in hotels each night. By the end, I was hooked”.
It wasn’t long before Vic was racing: on the road at first. Then she was lured in by cyclocross, partly fuelled by her love for fell running. Ticking another “jumping in at the deep end” box, her first race was Three Peaks Cyclocross… an event that sends a shudder (and tingle) down the spine of anyone in the know. 61km of riding (and carrying) a ‘cross bike over the Yorkshire Three Peaks of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent is never anything other than brutal. Vic narrowly missed out on the first-class time of sub-four hours after a mechanical just before the last hill.
She was quickly sponsored by Hope and more recently Paria Magic Rock Racing. “There was so much pressure turning up at my first ‘cross races in the Hope kit. That expectation that everyone has when they see it. You’ve got to be good!” Luckily, Vic is good… moving up to elite ranks in her first year of racing.
I’m intrigued to know what drives her. “I’m very competitive with myself. I always feel the need to push myself. I’m always afraid of failing”. Growing up on a farm only a few miles from her current home, Vic bombed around the yard on her first bike: learning without stabilisers, of course. As she grew a little older, Vic competed in motorcycle trials, then equestrian events; her parents supporting her and ferrying her around the country. Supportive, if not always completely understanding of their daughter’s insatiable drive. “Neither of my parents are that competitive at all really. They are really proud, but they are always asking me if I’m sure I want to do something. My dad is worried about me doing GBDURO.”
Eventually, Vic got tired of the elitism in her initial passions. “My horse and me were very much overlooked when it came to team selection because of his breeding, despite our results”.
“In trials, it all got very hard work as I did all of the mechanical work myself and travelled around the country to competitions mostly on my own.” It’s one of the reasons that Vic fell in love with fell running and cyclocross. The communities were always so welcoming and she was left competing on a level playing field.
The seed of Vic’s GBDURO ambitions was planted when Magic Rock sponsored the event for 2021. The more she thought about it, the more it appealed. “I just love the idea of it. I love that I’ll be replicating the route of my first big ride but off-road”. Talking to her, there is an air of confidence around the way that Vic articulates herself. But, scratch below the surface and there is still a fragility there. That fear of failure looms; fear of letting people down; fear of letting herself down. “Even though Magic Rock have made it clear that they have no expectations and are simply thrilled for me to be on the start line, it’s in my nature to want to repay the support”. For some this fear could be crippling, but Vic seems to thrive on it. Bundling the pressure up and using it as training motivation, riding big day after big day, crawling the last few miles to home. Each ride acts as insurance against failure.
What Vic isn’t afraid of is sleep deprivation or physical hardship. She’s under no illusions that those few days in August will be her most challenging ever on a bike. There will be highs and lows; problems to tackle that are completely out of her control and a million lessons to be learned. It’s part of the appeal though “There’s no one thing about the event that I’m looking forward to most. I just want to find out what my body is capable of. I love that I will have to be self-sufficient for the duration and I can’t wait to test myself… pushing to make each checkpoint cut off”. “Then there are the places that the race will take me. I love the rugged beauty of the Highlands, so there’s a real incentive for me to reach there. It’ll be weird passing so close to home (the route makes its way north a few miles from Barnoldswick), but I’m looking forward to riding in so many places that I’ve not yet visited. They say Wales never fails. I guess I’ll find out!”
Vic finishes her tea and slides off the kitchen worktop; it’s getting late. There’s still a couple of months between now and the start line. Vic intends to spend that time sleeping outdoors as much as possible and getting to know her kit inside out. There’s no doubt that despite her prep she’ll be one of the least experienced riders lining up, but if there’s one thing that Vic has already achieved in her short cycling career it’s that experience is far from everything. It’s time to take another running jump into the deep end.
The GBDURO 2021 takes place between 14 and 24 August. For more information and details of the route, visit their website: https://www.theracingcollective.com/gbduro.html
If you want to follow Vic’s build-up to the event, check out her Instagram
Interview & photos courtesy Tom Hill