Traditionally, my week between Christmas and New Year has been primarily reserved for quality family time. This has always clashed with the Rapha Festive 500, an annual event that takes place between December 24th to 31st. Cyclists from all over the globe are given these eight days to ride a total of 500km; in the past, those who completed this challenge would receive a cloth roundel from Rapha but this year, Rapha has moved to a digital badge, no doubt due to the uniqueness of 2020’s situation.
I’ve never participated in this event before due to my aforementioned family engagements, but I suppose this year’s pandemic could be seen as a silver lining among 2020’s storm clouds. I’ve also been inspired by people completing the challenge in one single ride in the past – the YouTuber Francis Cade being the chief inspiration for this particular instance of it.
I started researching possible routes as well as fishing for potential ride mates the week just before the event was scheduled to start. I also added an additional personal challenge to the ride – to complete the entire 500km route within 24 hours. My most recent 300km audax – a very hilly ride that went up and down Cameron Highlands – took me 14.5 hours to complete, and I reasoned that if I could replicate this level of performance, doing another 200km in 9.5 hours should be a very achievable goal, provided the route wasn’t too hilly afterwards.
There were numerous routes that I could think of, including 600km routes being cut short. However, I needed them to meet several conditions. First of all, I wanted somewhere safe to leave my car overnight, and I also preferred the start location to be relatively close to home so that I did not have to wake up too early for the ride. Next, I wanted familiar routes – roads that have been well-traversed by cyclists – so as to avoid surprises along the way. Finally, I favoured routes that went through relatively populated areas, especially during the night portion of the ride.
With those criteria in mind, I decided to start in Bukit Jelutong, Shah Alam. This is (was?) a very popular starting point for many weekend cyclists riding north towards Ijok, Batu Arang, Kuala Selangor, and other nearby places. It was also just a half-hour’s drive from home, fulfilling the close-to-home part of the requirements. The rest of the route borrowed segments from various audax rides that I’ve done in the past, so it was all familiar territory to me.
Back to the fishing part: no, I did not get any bites from fellow long-distance riders. I had planned to start the ride on a weekend, which was the day immediately after Christmas – Saturday, December 26 – but some of the people I asked already had plans. Others had already planned their own long rides later that week; the Open Audax BRM300/400 events were still ongoing this month, after all. Eventually, I decided that I’ll do this ride solo. I would just treat it like any other audax and ride using the same pacing strategies.
500km sits perfectly between 400km and 600km – either I plan this ride as a short 600km audax, or a long 400km one. Since one of my goals was to complete the ride within 24 hours, I opted for the latter. This meant no special provisions for overnight stays and the like; I would just carry what I’d normally carry on a day ride, or at least that’s the basic plan. I also factored the current monsoon season into this plan and opted bring an extra set of clothes. This meant leaving the small saddle bag behind and replacing it with the smallest of my large saddle bags – the 6l version of the Topeak Backloader.
Despite my best efforts, I ended up starting the ride late. It was Christmas day, the day before, after all. My family and I sat down for a game of Chinese Checkers, then moved on to the Exploding Kittens card game, then finally ended our gaming night with a lap of racing via the Formula Dé board game. To skip to the chase, I decided not to sacrifice sleep, and so I woke up later than originally planned, and then I started the ride at 6:54am.
The first 45km of the ride combines routes from the Audax Permanent 100 that I rode in April 2019, and the Easy Peasy 600 in September 2019, leading me into the town of Rawang. From here, I hopped onto Federal Route 1 which leads all the way up north to Simpang Pulai. The weather at the time was overcast and cool.
I made my first stop at Tanjong Malim, approximately 98km into the ride. At this point I had already spent around four out of my 24 allotted hours. A significant portion of this time was spent on one tyre puncture somewhere 24km into the ride, as well as various traffic stops trying to get out of the big city. It wasn’t that much of a setback at the time though; I would just need to be extra frugal with my stops.
After Tanjong Malim, the first of two planned detours came up near 118km, in the town of Slim River. I turned left towards the Felda Mountain Besout region and rode about 40km of rural roads before reconnecting to Federal Route 1 at Sungkai. This segment was taken from a part of the BRM300 Teluk Intan audax in May 2019.
These detours were necessary to add mileage to the route in order to hit the requisite 500km distance. They also added some extra elevation gain to the overall ride which was unfortunate, but a necessary evil. At the time, the weather had become somewhat sunny, and then as I reached the end of the detour, I could see dark clouds looming over at a distance.
Sure enough, rain followed soon afterwards. I stopped for shelter after a while, when the rain started becoming heavier, but eventually the worst of it was over and I put on my rain jacket to continue the ride in the wet. I made a brief stop at Tapah to gain my bearings; I had some distances mixed up in my head as I was doing time-distance estimates and discovered that I had overstated the distance to some places by as much as 40km. To the point, I thought that I would arrive at Parit at 230km, when in reality that town was at the 270km mark.
The second planned detour came about shortly after leaving Tapah, turning right into the hilly region of Chendering and Lata Kinjang. This was a shorter 30km detour, but still long enough to ensure that the whole route covered the necessary 500km distance. This detour was also part of the same BRM300 Teluk Intan audax back in 2019.
By the time I completed the detour and rejoined Federal Route 1, the rain had mostly stopped and it was a pleasant, cool ride north to Gopeng. Here I had some food at the local petrol station, and then switched to a clean and dry set of clothes before continuing the journey.
At the Simpang Pulai junction, I turned left to head towards Parit.
I reached Parit in the dark. I had already ridden nearly 270km, and in just a touch over 13.5 hours. At this point, I was still making good progress by my estimates. However, I spent a good deal of time here stocking up on water and searching for food. The important thing to consider at this time was that shops were going to close eventually, and there wouldn’t be anything available between midnight until 6am the following morning, at a minimum. I needed to make sure that I had enough supplies to last the entire night, but unfortunately Parit wasn’t the best place for that.
I only managed to scrounge up some bread, a Snickers bar and some water before deciding to leave and head south, towards the much bigger town of Teluk Intan. Along the way I passed a small Malay restaurant that was still open and I took the opportunity to sit down and order a plate of fried rice, timeline be damned. I reckoned this was going to be my last “real” meal for the day, until after sunrise the following day.
It started raining – again – soon after that.
I reached Teluk Intan at the 343km mark. My stop was outside a cold, wet, and closed KFC just before 12:30am, or approximately 17.5 hours of moving time. It was at this point in time that I decided not to pursue my 24-hour completion time any longer. I still had about 6.5 hours to finish up the remaining 160-ish km, which admittedly is still quite doable under more favourable conditions, but it can be unsafe to attempt in wet and dark conditions. Puddles of water can easily hide loose gravel, potholes and other hazards even with a powerful front light to illuminate the way.
On the bright side, some petrol stations were (unexpectedly) still open throughout the night. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, after all, so I was prepared for a whole night of riding with no available food or refill stops. The petrol station in Teluk Intan, for example, had hot coffee to help deal with the cold and wet weather. I certainly took my time here before leaving.
The next major challenge was to ride through the night, with the greatest obstacle being sleep deprivation. This issue affects individuals differently; some people can seemingly keep going on and on, such as the winner of the 2020 edition of the Atlas Mountain Race, Sofiane Sehili. He won by going nearly 4 days with only 2 hours 15 minutes of sleep! And then there are others who simply have to stop and take long naps or they may doze off and fall off their bike. I happen to straddle somewhere in between the two extremes, depending on circumstances; for this particular ride, I could handle riding through the night, but had to clock in several 5- to 10-minute power naps (and sometimes a little longer) during the journey from Teluk Intan to Kuala Selangor.
The early morning sun was rising as I rode through Sekinchan towards Kuala Selangor. I found a restaurant open somewhere near the 441km mark, around 7:30am, in the town of Kuala Selangor itself. This place served an interesting combination of roti canai with sunny side up eggs; pretty interesting and quite good! I also took the opportunity to take a quick nap before moving on.
Afterwards, it was a relatively peaceful and uneventful ride to Bestari Jaya and Ijok.
I made a very questionable choice of route for the last 25km though. This was also based on the finishing bits of the Audax Permanent 100 ride in 2019, but instead of immediately turning into Persiaran Mokhtar Dahari, I instead plotted the route to go through Kampung Bukit Cherakah Jaya before joining up Persiaran Mokhtar Dahari. This little planned detour is significant, because the roads here feature the infamous Dragon’s Back of Shah Alam, aptly named due to the roads shaped like the wavy back of an eastern dragon. In other words, some serious rolling roads awaited me before I could finish the ride. Persiaran Mokhtar Dahari itself was no pushover too; that road itself had two significant climbs that I needed to overcome before finally arriving at Bukit Jelutong shortly after 10:30am.
So that was my first Rapha Festive 500 attempt, complete in a single, solo ride, and in 27 hours and 34 minutes of elapsed time.
I think it’s pretty clear that the main obstacles preventing me from completing this ride under 24 hours was the constant rain, especially at night, as well as the challenge of managing sleep during the night portion of the ride. While I’d like to also throw some blame at the early puncture as well as me charting such a hilly route to begin with, but in the grand scheme of things they did not really matter as much as the other issues.
I don’t know if I’ll do another Festive 500 next year. If everything goes back to normal in 2021, then I’ll be back to my usual, annual year-end family engagements. But if anytime in the future, conditions somehow provide new opportunities for me to ride another Festive 500, I’ll go right ahead and say it now: I’d do it again. Maybe not this route, or maybe the same route with some tweaks, but I’ll definitely be up for the challenge. And if I can rope in a few others to do the ride with me, even better; group riding (with a like-minded group, that is) will most certainly improve our chances of completing this under 24 hours.
Until then, Happy New Year 2021!