My cycling ambition has always been pretty limited. I never wanted to win a race, I never wanted to be a great sprinter or team leader – the role of domestique, serving and helping others in their quest for victory has always held more appeal as an honourable, selfless sacrifice. The truth of it is that I only ever wanted to be good enough to ride with other cyclists on the road – to be part of the peloton as it purred its way around a corner and snaked through a small village on its route to a hillside cafe.
But when I was at my fittest, well over a decade ago, the only way to experience that thrill was to join a club or enter a race. And I did try to join a club – I went out on a ride and they welcomed the new boy by taking him over the Bwlch and the Rhigos on a 72-mile marathon intended to show him who was boss. Well that worked, and I never went back.
But recent years has seen the emergence of a new type of cycling event – the cyclo-sportive, where riders of all abilities complete a course just for the joy of it. There is no race, no competitiveness and enthusiastic new riders have a chance to experience the unique and inspiring feeling of riding your bike in a large group. So as the next step of training on my route to the Alpe D’Huez, I took the opportunity to enter an event organise by Pattiserie Cyclisme and Polocini, around the lanes of Cheshire on a pan-flat 66 mile loop, with a cake stop at the famous Eureka Cafe.
That event took place this morning, and I left for Nantwich at about 6.30am with no real idea of what awaited me. I was surprised to see a full car park at Nantwich Town Football Club when I arrrived at 8am, and there was already a queue for registration and porridge.
The atmosphere was a bit hushed as riders worked on their bikes, greeted old acquaintances, and wondered whether to wear overshoes and yellow specs on a day which promised changeable weather. There was a little nervous tension in the air as there always is at the start of any event.
I had a quick look round and assessed the other riders. Good news – I definitely wasn’t the fattest or the oldest. There were a few young lads in their early teens, and at least a dozen female riders among the very bloody fit looking beanpoles already making their way to the front for a quick start. Best of all was a family who had turned up with both kids on their bikes, and Mum and Dad on a tandem pulling the family’s pet labrador in a bike trailer, complete with his cycling jersey. Even I fancied my chances of not coming last to a labrador.
The first few miles were a little chaotic as people jostled for position and it took about five miles until a natural order was established. I found myself in the middle riding alongside a group of cyclists from Severn Valley Velo club in the Midlands. It was bloody great.
Until you’ve ridden in a large group, it’s difficult to appreciate the difference it make to somebody who normally rides alone. It’s so important to make an effort to catch a group of riders ahead, because once you caught them you can sit at the back in a vacuum. It’s a weird but exhilarating feeling to freewheel at 18mph. But if you drop off the group, you need to work really hard to maintain the pace that they set.
There were several punctures. I realised quickly that a puncture was the last thing I wanted, and was glad of my Gatorskin tyres. Yes they’re big and heavy, but the sight of an upturned bike and a miserable cyclist working to change his tyre while a gaggle of clubmates wait impatiently is enough to make you appreciate the solid pin-proof walls of the Gators. And without a companion it would have been worse for me – if I’d lost ten minutes changing a tyre, I don’t think I’d have got back on the group which was now travelling at about 17mph. That was a big speed for me. When I started training in February it wasn’t uncommon for me to average 9mph on my 10k circuit, and only recently have I worked my way up to 13mph on a long run. So you can see the effect that the protection of a large group had on my pace.
I used the word ‘protection’ carefully. There is a feeling on a ride like this of community, of togetherness and mentoring, with more experienced riders often sitting on the outside, guiding their mates, girlfriends, children, and even complete strangers along the route. There are regular calls and traditional, established cyclists warnings about oncoming cars (CAR!), traffic at junctions (CAREFUL!) potholes (point to the side) and advice on the crossability of an approaching crossroads (CLEAR!). It can be a lonely and intimidating environment for a cyclist on busy roads, but in our group of 30 we had equal billing for once, and it felt good.
I hadn’t been sure how to approach the ride. I’d ridden 50 miles a week earlier, but this was 66, and I hadn’t ridden that far for a decade. I wore a heart rate monitor and checked it regularly to make sure that I left something in reserve for the return leg. It was going much better than I’d hoped for as we approached the cafe stop at 35 miles. I even took a few turns on the front of the group, and felt better about doing my bit.
I learnt a few things about my riding too. As a big bloke, I lose a lot of time at corners, as we slow down and start up again. Once we’re rolling, I’m OK, but it’s the climbs where my extra weight makes a real difference. To compensate for the extra load that I carry up hills, I usually bomb down descents and sprint half way up the oncoming climb before staggering over the top. It works well on a solo ride, but I may have caused a few problems as I hurtled down past more careful descenders.
The feed station was arranged at the renowned Eureka Cafe, claimed as Britain’s oldest cycling cafe, and regular haunt of Chris Boardman. The cake stop was promoted as an important part of this very social ride, with the warning that ‘if you’re averaging over 15mph, you haven’t eaten enough cake’. But as our group arrived some 30 minutes after the quickest riders, there was already a long queue, and I decided to forego the cake for an early start back.
It soon became apparent that I’d received some assistance from the elements to reach my average speed of 17mph at the half-way stage, and I decided to wait for company as I rode into a blustery headwind. I was soon joined by a couple of my new friends from Severn Valley Velo, and we worked together along the now-busier dual carriageways.
As we reached the lanes we had some occasional protection, but strong cross-winds soon split us up, and I latched onto the wheel of a fit looking rider who was driving pretty well. After taking a breather, I shared some of the work for about 10 miles, and felt good about that until he forced a pace that I just couldn’t manage.
We were about 15 miles from home when I was passed by a couple of ladies wearing pink ‘Chester FAB’ shirts. My masculinity was affronted and I bridged the gap back to them. And from there I sat on the back of their small group all the way home. The growing collection was led by a heroic green-shirted mountain bike devotee, who passed and picked up riders at his impressive speed, and drove a long train of about ten of us into the wind for the remaining fifteen miles. Never mind burying yourself at the Tour de France, his was an epic ride. I was just glad to be able to tag along with my heart rate at about 165 for the last hour.
And the with the finish in sight, the speed picked up even more, and I rolled in feeling surprisingly fresh, mainly thanks to the handfulls of ‘biofreeze’ that I slapped on my shoulders, back, and knees at the cafe. I’ve searched for months for an alternative anti-inflammatory to brufen, as my medication won’t allow me to use the usual ipobrufen-based sprays, rubs and tablets. ‘Biofreeze’ did the job well.
So that was it, and as I put my bike on the rack before collecting my food, I became a bit choked up. I’m not sure why that was – it wasn’t an iron-man tough challenge, or even one of my recovery targets. I think that I’d just been able to live out that dream of many years ago, and felt instinctively proud of my small achievement. And when I thanked the organiser, Louise from Patisserie Cyclisme , I could tell she was wondering why I was making such a big deal of things. And that fellow rider who sat at my table as we munched our corned beef hash must have thought I was a bit of a weirdo when I filled up as I bored him with my story.
But when I was lying on that hospital bed last March, one of the main things I regretted was that I’d never been able to experience the thrill of riding in a peloton. Serious racing cyclists might not understand such low ambition, but the pure joy of taking part in something like this is very real and shouldn’t be taken for granted. It took a serious illness for me to get here, and I’m genuinely grateful to those two blood clots that went on tour to my lungs. I only hope that as my training continues, that other sportive events will feel this special.