Five Minutes With... James Craven and Brad Shenton
May 16th 2021
With the slimming-down of the 2021 race calendar, cyclists from all disciplines - be it the weekend crit scene or the ultra-long distance community - are finding creative ways to push themselves under COVID restrictions. Bradley Shenton and James Craven are two such racers. Childhood friends who delved into polar opposites of cycling’s racing spectrum, both desperate to escape Watopia for muddy lanes and the chance to settle a friendly rivalry around a ragged 350km circular route of flowing bridleways and gravel tracks.
Setting out from Winchester in the early hours of a Saturday morning in April, the weather was clear, the ground unusually dry thanks to unseasonably warm weather in the weeks prior. James would tackle the King Alfred's Way route clockwise, with Brad riding anti-clockwise. And it would be close. Really close. Find out below just how many seconds - yes, seconds - would separate the pair whilst also securing the course record in both directions.
From the outset, was this purely a race, a record attempt, or both?
From the outset, was this purely a race, a record attempt, or both?
Bradley: This is actually such a great question to start with because it adds to the whole story. Initially, I think James just mentioned the route and said he was keen to do it, and I said I'd be up for it. That quickly turned into 'Shall we aim for the quickest one-day time?'. That's when it got interesting. We knew the rules - riding together was kind of out of the equation. So, in my head, it made sense for one of us to tackle it clockwise, one of us tackle it anti-clockwise. It was only the night before the ride that James understood that was the plan! He quickly realised this was the best way to do it and that if we go different ways, we can both get a record.
That doesn't really answer the question though, does it? I'd say we both wanted to set a good time for doing it in a day, and then, of course, a little bit of friendly competition between the two of us!
James: At the start it stemmed from wanting a big bike challenge to look forward to and train for during lockdowns. We had no idea if/when events would be back on so we made our own! We also briefly considered trying to ride it as fast as we could as a pair together, but we both have different strengths (Brad maybe quicker at climbing and I probably stop less) so we both agreed it would be much quicker to race against each other. Plus, as Brad said, if we raced it would make it eligible for a solo ITT. We're also both quite competitive and thought that setting up a race would spur us on to get a faster time. As Brad mentioned, I was clueless about his idea of racing different directions until the evening before. I think he posted it on instagram but I must have missed it. I totally agree it was a cool way to do it as it would have been awkward for us to both race off and not draft each other from the start. I think Brad would have been quick off the line and would never let me past him! I’m really glad we did it that way.
Having known each other for such a long time, you know each other’s riding styles very well - did that play a part in your pre-race plan?
James: I have to admit I thought I didn't have a chance. I'd seen Brad's power numbers on Zwift and I know how hard he trains and the hours he puts in. On paper he is a much faster rider. We've also talked a fair amount about kit and how much I stop etc so I felt like I didn't have much of an advantage there. I figured he would be minimising stops as much as me. I guess the only advantage I had was having confidence I could ride that distance. My strategy was to just put in a consistent ride and not make many mistakes and ride at an intensity I could sustain and just maybe Brad would not be quite so fast over the distance. Like I said before, I actually thought we would be racing in the same direction so my strategy was to let Brad ride off at the start and slowly try to catch him. Then maybe go for a sprint finish, haha! I did a bit of prep on kit and route planning etc as I thought I might have a slight advantage if I was a bit more prepared going in.
Bradley: James is an absolute diesel engine that just goes, and goes, and goes. I knew he'd hardly stop at all, and that's what worried me because I was about to tackle the furthest distance I'd ever ridden in one go, on or off-road! I knew I'd have to set a good pace and push where I could because I knew I'd be stopping more than him, which I did. I knew I had the legs to push, I started the year with a pretty dedicated training plan - but that training plan was tailored for racing crits and at the track, not ultra-endurance. So there was certainly an element of uncertainty heading out on this one from my side.
Thanks to a UK heatwave in the week leading up to the race, you were blessed with sun-scorched hard pack instead of the typical muddy British conditions. Did this effect your bike/kit choice?
James: I think a gravel bike would have been fine for the route and conditions, but I love my hardtail. I think it's way more fun on the descents, more comfortable, and I really don't think the penalty for riding a hardtail with suspension is that significant on a route like this.
Bradley: So, James and I recce’d part of the route over Christmas (it was wet, very wet) and at that point, I was running a Trek Checkpoint with 40mm Hutchinson Toureg tyres and it was safe to say, I struggled HARD. James was on his hardtail MTB and was loving life, so after that day I knew I'd have to hunt down a second-hand hardtail from somewhere as there was no way I was taking on the route with a gravel bike.
Even with the drier conditions, I still believe a hardtail MTB is the right choice. The route is pretty gnarly in sections, the Ridgeway particularly rattled me even on the hardtail - not sure I'd want 3 hours of that without a suspension fork.
Were you in contact during the race? Presumably you crossed paths at some point - was there time for a cuppa and a catch-up or was it a swift hello and good luck?
Bradley: We literally met on a path bang on halfway, we must've stopped for about 30 seconds to ask how it's going, and then cracked on. That's pretty much the only time we were in contact until we finished. I may have looked at his Instagram every now and again to see what he was up to, but apart from that, we just rode our own race. Well, I did anyway.
James: Yeah not much contact apart from a quick chat and photo halfway. It was a race after all. I did check the tracker a few times to see where he was.
When did it first dawn on you that this was coming down to the wire?
Bradley: We're still in the same friendship group from school and all the lads were asking for a link to dot watch us - I honestly thought they'd just look at the link once and then be done with it. Some of them are kind of into cycling, some of them really not. What I loved though, was seeing all the messages pop up in the 'lads' group. It was non-stop all day and it honestly filled me with joy to see them getting excited about it. It was watching the messages pop up and getting glimpses of “James is ahead but he's still got South Downs Way to go” or “Brad has pulled some time back, this is going to be so close” that kept me going. I paid more attention to the messages towards the end as we all knew it was close.
The route starts and ends in different locations, so even when I finished I had no idea how close it actually was. After I'd posted the obligatory 'finished the route' post, I rode down towards where James would be finishing and saw him riding up, so I knew it was close. Then when we looked at our ride time and saw forty-something seconds in it, we were amazed. We couldn’t believe it. Still can't.
James: As Brad said, it's good fun when mates get involved in the dot watching and I did get some hints from that and from the tracker. It was very hard to tell because of the difference in courses, I think I was actually slightly ahead for a lot of it but as Brad said my last 50km was on the hilly and rough South Downs Way, which slowed me down quite a bit. I knew it was going to be close as I rode into Winchester. My heart was racing when we met in the middle to check times on the Wahoo. I never would have thought we would get in on the same minute!
What events have you got lined up? And Brad, following on from a very successful foray into long distance racing - any temptations to give James a run for his money in the ultra-endurance race calendar?
James: I'll convince him to sign up to an ultra-event soon enough, and expect he'll be fast so look forward to dot watching it. I have a few races planned abroad but fully expecting I won't be able to go with travel restrictions. So I guess I'll stick to riding my bike in the UK. I raced Dales Divide last weekend which went well, and I’m very tempted to race Highland Trail 550 in a couple of weeks if I feel up to it by then. I'll have to see what else I can do but my fall back option is to have a go at some more UK ITTs this summer.
(Editor's update: James is on the start list for the Highland Trail 550 starting 22nd May.)
Bradley: So I stupidly went and started racing at the track and at crits three days after this and didn't give my legs enough time to recover so I'm having to take a bit of time off at the moment as I've been pushing through some niggles. The plan is to get back to fitness, race throughout the summer at Herne Hill both on the track and the Friday night crits and then also any other crits I can get myself into.
As for endurance racing - I am tempted, but maybe not anything more than a one-day'er for now. I’m not sure how I feel about sleeping in a bush or bus stop - that will probably change the more I ride with James though, he loves it.
Photo of Brad in header image: 📸 Honor Elliott