Through his two-year career, Nebraskan Ashton Lambie has held the individual pursuit world record, set the record for fastest ride across Kansas, and blazed a trail across the gravel scene.
In 2019, the 29-year-old rode on the track with British team HUUB-Wattbike, and was part of the American team pursuit squad as they chased qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Olympic dream all came to a close in the Glasgow World Cup last month where the national team failed to better Switzerland in the Olympic points ranking, meaning they failed to qualify for the 2020 Games.
To search his soul and process the disappointment, Lambie does what he knows best and got back on the bike, riding from the World Cup in Glasgow through Scotland and northern England to the HUUB-Wattbike team base in Derby – or as they have fondly named it, ‘Derbedos.’
What follows is the second of a two-part diary that Lambie wrote to document the adventure. The first part can be found here [ADD LINK WHEN PART ONE PUBLISHED].
Day three: Bowland Forest to Manchester
I was stoked about this hotel, but the worst news was no breakfast. This seemed a survivable blow; there were little cafes all over Morecambe, so I figured I would head out early and snag a sandwich (‘butty’!) on the way out of town. The first cafe I saw open is only a few blocks from the start, and it’s a Costa Coffee (basically a Starbucks). I was certain I could find something better than that.
As I rolled through the nearby town of Lancaster, I still didn’t see any open cafes; most open around 10:00 or so, and it was not yet 8:00. 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 around the Lake District yesterday…
Also known as the Bowland Fells, this area is marked by barren gritstone mountains, deep river valleys, and peaty moorlands (unfarmed grasslands) in north-east Lancashire. I feel like it’s not noted enough that forest in this traditional sense refers to a royal hunting ground, and has nothing to do with the number of trees in this area…of which there were none.
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 6-7 hour day unfolding in front of me; I was struggling to maintain a modest 10mph 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 farmer’s 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 temperatures kept dropping. The only car in sight was 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!).
As the landscape unfolded in front of me, I finally began to feel like I had enough mental space to plan what I want to do next. 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 was about two percent sure it was possible. It was sort of a ‘shoot your shot and see what happens.’ 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.
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 four 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 kcals) in the jersey and rolled the last way into Manchester. After a good rip through traffic, more butties, Guinness, and a pie, I was ready to call it on the slowest day of the trip. Next up, sunny Derbados!
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: Derbados-bound
I wouldn’t say I was fully cracked, but my motivation for another 5-6 hour day was rapidly waning. 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” or “I’ll wait a bit to see if the rain dies down.”
Today was the shortest day of the route, coming in a just over 60 miles, and I wasn’t keen to make it any longer. After a ‘Full English’ breakfast (if you haven’t tried black pudding, go find some!) I set out southeast through the Peak District on another blustery, but dry day.
I had learned from the previous few days: I had appropriate kit, multiple gloves, better snacks, a planned coffee stop, and no clue what the weather was going to do. From my previous experience riding around the Peak District (last year in Derby), the weather and wind could change dramatically. To make matters worse, I was fighting a slow but steady leak in the rear tire as I rolled into Bakewell, one of the biggest towns in the well-traveled district.
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!
The rain had escalated from a dreary mist to a full downpour (this was generally determined by how soaked my shoes were, ranging from just toes, full footbed, or entire shoe) for the last 30 miles. With the 32 degree F temperatures, 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 that would fit on a bumper sticker?
Honestly: nothing. If you were hoping for some deep, profound takeaway from what it means to dedicate your life to a goal and come up short, I don’t have it. Sometimes it just sucks, and that’s ok. I turned myself inside-out every single day and came up short. I suffered five-hour trainer sessions, blackout gym workouts, training through a broken foot, months on the road, to get within inches of one of the biggest goals in existence.
And knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I’ve eaten a churro on a beach in Peru, visited ancient castles in Poland, watched fireflies in rural Pennsylvania, and enjoyed every minute of the process. For me, the way it gets better is to continue suffering in a different way, because the suffering to earn the good things make 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 (thanks Marv!) and a good pint of ale. I’m lucky enough to be able to keep riding my bike across some amazing countryside, meeting amazing people, and to have the opportunity to ride some more tomorrow.
People have constantly told me after coming up short in Glasgow, “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 the UK 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.