Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Central London CTC: Essex Edgelands

His father was a scaffold pole, his mother was an aubergine.
 Who’d have thought 42 miles on the flat would be harder than riding up a mountain? Ever since my half-baked assault on Mt Ventoux I’ve been planning to go back and climb it properly, a plan only slightly hampered by my lack of fitness, fear of cars and junctions, and descending abilities on a par with Jan Ullrich or Andy Schleck.

My plan for dealing with this was to learn from experienced riders by joining some CTC rides and picking up tips from the group. A few 12 mile practice runs and one 20 miler doesn’t sound like much preparation for a 40 odd mile ride, but a friend in the CTC had assured me that if I could do 20 miles I could skip the beginner’s rides and jump straight in with a two star, so I invested in a crash hat and a powdered energy drink and got myself ready for the Central London CTC’s Essex Edgelands ride.

As you’ll no doubt have expected if you’ve read any of my previous cycling posts, things didn’t get off to a perfect start.

Sunday morning, 6:50 AM, peaceful, dim and only a little chilly. My train wasn’t due until 7:02 so I was able to ride round to the station slowly and enjoy a quiet broken only by my own undignified grunting as I heaved my bike up the first set of stairs, over the tracks and down onto the platform. My train was on the board and my ticket was paid for when a rotund chap with an orotund voice and synthetic trousers threw a spanner in the works by yelling across from the other platform that my train had been replaced by his bus, and furthermore, he had:  “a letter signed by the general manager saying he wasn’t allowed to take cyclists as they complain about the pushchairs and start fights.” It being pre-dawn on a Sunday morning I couldn’t see any pushchairs to complain about, but I’ll concede that the obvious glee this florid jobsworth took in telling me, unprompted, that I couldn’t come on his bus did make me feel a little like starting a fight.

I actually climbed on my bike admitting defeat. If there’s no catching a train to Richmond then there’s no getting the District Line to Tower Hill and meeting the Central London CTC at Fenchurch Street. As I pedalled home, however, I felt slightly ashamed of myself for not trying to get to Richmond under my own steam. Admittedly, I didn’t know the way, but I knew it was off to my left somewhere. The train does the journey in 13 minutes, and to make the first District Line service I’d need to be not much slower. Impulsively I peeled off to the left and swooped down the hill, tires hissing in the pre-dawn, all speedy and impressive but for the bit of flapjack stuck in my beard and the enormous crash helmet perched on my bonce.

Despite the early hour I was soon being overtaken by both single-decker local buses and sneering jobsworths in rail replacement double-deckers, all whilst negotiating roundabouts and junctions on a dead-reckoning basis that I hoped was taking me to Richmond. So much for learning to deal with traffic from the experts, it looked like the traffic might deal with me before I even met the experts.

Dead reckoning turned out to be pretty effective and I was soon crossing Richmond Bridge, powering up the gentle slope in pursuit of another early morning cyclist, feeling limber and fast and ready for whatever the day had in store. The final dash downhill into Richmond might have been responsible for my excess of enthusiasm, as I charged into the station and bounced down the concrete steps onto the first tube of the day. It was probably here that I lost my bar end plug.

Still, the main thing was that the ride was still on and that I had made it all the way up the District Line without my bike inconveniencing anyone. That was mainly due to it not even being 8AM by this point. I had an hour and a half to kill and I needed a pee. The only place open in this entire part of London was a Pret that didn’t have customer toilets. The young woman behind the counter was so apologetic she gave me “the first coffee of the day” for free. I was both grateful and amused as I sipped more coffee,making the situation ever more dire while the streets East-ish London  failing to offer any sort of relief, until a Frenchman (rescued by a Frenchman, again!) saw my perplexed look and told me that there was another entrance to Fenchurch Street a few roads away. I rode round there and was pleased to find a proper station with proper conveniences.

The damage had been done however. No, not that sort of damage, I retained my self control. But after an hour spent feeling rather ‘on edge’ my optimistic mood had been replaced by nerves as I walked towards the CTC riders congregating on the concourse. They looked very lean and well equipped. Obviously none of the bikes on display could match the Purple Peril for looks (£200 from Maurice Burton’s De Ver cycles in 1996 if you’re after one) but they all looked lean, lightweight and free from rust. Not one of them was being desperately re-taped for want of a lost bar plug either.

Still, they were a welcoming gang and I managed to have a quick chat before my friend Kate arrived. Kate is the one who assured me that being able to do 20 miles around the local park meant I’d be able to handle a 2 Star. A short train ride to Upminster and it was time to test that theory.

Back on a chain gang
The group was about twenty strong on an assortment of racers, tourers, MTBs, hybrids and one recumbent, and ranged from youthful to gently matured. And they were fast. Not in an aggressive, competitive way, but in a bizarrely unknowing fashion. No sooner had we set off than I discovered that people were able to open gaps on me by freewheeling.  I honestly can’t tell you how that works, but it was undeniable, people who weren’t pedalling were gently easing away from me, who was. I responded in the typically unsophisticated fashion that I have on the bike: I stuck it in a higher gear and pushed a bit harder.

Soon enough we were cruising along country lanes, flat fields on either side of us, and I was feeling faster. The group of twenty had split in two, riding about 60 yards apart. At Kate’s suggestion we moved up from the second group to the first. I kept it in a high gear, just shy of what I’d use on a downhill, and after 30 seconds of pushing just fractionally harder we’d bridged across the gap. My nerves about riding in a more experienced group had vanished. They were friendly, they weren’t hooning it, and I felt great as we turned off the tarmac for the first of the day’s several off road sections.

Perhaps if I hadn’t been feeling great, I might have paid more attention to Kate’s suggestion that I stick it in a lower gear and spin for a while. I’ve said before, I have an irrational dislike for that sort of high cadence, minimal movement riding. It might be because my Dad always told me that you’re wearing yourself out doing all that leg movement for so little bike movement, but I suspect it’s more because my flailing knees look silly. I popped the chain onto the second largest sprocket, the one I usually save for small hills, and left it at that. If I’d gone up one more, or even down one chainring then perhaps I wouldn’t have spent this week Pinocchio like, with legs of badly carved wood, only able to feel like a ‘real boy’ for brief spells after a warm bath. At the time, however, I just got on with it.

The route was an interesting mix of country lanes, cinder paths and out-and-out woodland, albeit with the sort of packed down dirt paths that are solid enough not to be genuinely called off-road. Nevertheless, there was some good natured griping from riders on leaner tyred road bikes. I wasn’t griping, however. I was warming to the experience and by the time we were about five miles into the ride I was actually wondering what the etiquette was for moving up the line. I felt good, and while I was aware that there was a long way to go, I actually felt like I might be wearing myself out by holding back rather than pedalling smoothly and consistently at the speed I wanted. Still, I didn’t want to be the guy who turns a club run into a race, so I kept my place in the line and stuck with everyone else. By the end of the day, I’d be very, very glad I did.

Off the back
Towards the end of the morning I found myself near the back, with only an experienced club rider politely riding behind me, making sure that no one got left behind. Ironically, at this point I was still feeling good and resilient. I was at the back primarily because my awareness of my newbie status had made me give ground and let others go first at every junction and stile. That was about to change.

As we approached Rainham Marshes a brief sidewind actually pushed me into the middle of the road. I thought nothing of it, until we began to angle round to the left and it slowly became a headwind. By this point I was starting to slow down anyway. I wasn’t feeling bad, but we’d passed the twenty mile mark that had previously been my longest ride distance, and I was aware that while I didn’t feel tired, I didn’t seem to be getting much speed from my efforts either. As we rode through the marshes the stronger legs in the group, which was pretty much all of them, began to pull away from me, while another newbie began to fall back to where the back marker and I were. Over the next ten minutes the group clearly reshuffled itself, as the regular riders pulled past me and headed off into the distance, while I set myself the personal goal of not being the slower of the two newbies, a goal in which was aided by the fact that I’d already spent a long time riding gently at the back. Soon I was in a no man’s land, with the main group of riders almost at the limit of my vision in front, and my fellow newbie and the group’s newbie-sitter about as far away again behind. For all my obvious lack of pace, it was really only in the final few minutes of the run when my legs genuinely started to feel tired, which I mistakenly put down to the fact that I’d tried to up the pace when the end came into sight.

In those final few hundred yards I hit a lump in the path and my saddle gave sudden skyward lurch. I was too tired to be really bothered, but I was disturbed-this had happened before on gentle local rides, and I’d fixed it via the enthusiastic application of a monkey wrench. Now, however, it was clear that it wasn’t a just a loose bolt: it was a worn out one. It was as tight as could be, yet still my saddle was making nut-smacking bid for freedom, and this time I still had 25 miles to ride.

The end in this case was the RSPB Cafe, where cyclists and twitchers mingled over carrot and coriander soup and cake wedges so thick you could have launched a BMX off them. 50p pieces were handed in to pay for the admin costs of the ride, and the group again proved how welcoming it was, with plenty of mingling and nattering. My inexperience was revealed by a brief, uninterrupted string of questions “You’ve ridden with this lot before?” “Oh, but you’ve ridden with other groups?” “But you do a lot of miles on your own?” “Ah, but you commute, at least?”

Despite answering “no”   to every question, I’d started feeling good again as soon as we sat down, and great as soon as I’d necked my soup, roll, fruit juice and flapjack.  I felt like those last arduous four or five miles hadn’t happened. In fact, I felt like the 20 miles before that hadn’t happened either. I was fresh, fuelled and ready to get started.

Unsurprisingly, I began to struggle soon after we left the marshes.
Good soup and comfy chairs.

We rode a long, twisting cinder path, liberally scattered with acorns that pinged out from beneath our tires, narrowly missing dog walkers and pedestrians. I used this comparatively gentle stretch to move up the line of riders, reasoning that if I struggled I’d only fall to the back of the group, rather than falling off it.

 A stretch of dual carriageways and roundabouts put the idea to the test, and soon I was among the final few riders on the road, along with my fellow newbie and a couple of old hands who’d been delayed by an inexplicable and unnerving decision to ride the wrong way up a slip road and been forced to clamber over a set of motorway barriers to rejoin the path.

This “gruppetto” soon rejoined the main bunch for another spin through the woods, after which I began falling off the back again as we climbed a very short but unexpectedly steep hill. The gorgeous multi-part clacking of expensive shifters rattled down the line and a few of the old hands even got out of the saddle. My own, significantly more inexpensive shifters plonked the chain onto the top sprocket with their usual  zzzzz-ka-clung, and  I got out of the saddle and began pushing the pedals with all my weight, weaving around bumps and potholes, mindful of my loose saddle, desperately twisting my ever loosening handlebar tape, cursing the lost bar end plug and starting to feel like I didn’t have the strength to lift my weight off one pedal and deposit it on the other. A wobbling glance over my shoulder revealed that my fellow newbie, who’d ridden the morning far harder than I, had climbed off and started walking. Using my upper body as much as my legs, I heaved out another few pedal strokes to bring myself over the brow of the not-that-steep hill, then set off in pursuit of the gang.

I was worried now. Had that hill required just one or two more pedal strokes to reach the top, I’d have been unable to provide them. If I’d tried to shift to the granny ring the loss of rhythm would have stalled me. Pulling on the bars had caused my unsecured handlebar tape to turn into a decorative streamer, and now I had to sit back on the loose saddle.

Maths and morons
The group was now strung out over a very long stretch of road, and as I approached a large roundabout where four motorway slip roads met our country lane. I reflected slightly sourly on the fact that I was going to have to do this alone. Learning to handle big, scary junctions was one of the reasons why I’d wanted to ride with a group, but despite pushing as hard as I could I could only get to within a few metres of the next rider on the road. An immense extra push had me only about two and a half feet behind him by the time we were halfway round the roundabout. I might not be picking up any tips, but at that speed and with that narrow a gap and with our speeds matched, we were for all intents and purposes a single unit:as long as I did what he did, I’d be fine.

Except I wasn’t. Three cars had stopped side-by-side at the top of the slip road, and no sooner had my companion gone past each in turn than all three began to pull out. Apparently they al thought they could move a stationary car through a 30 inch gap when the back end of that gap is travelling at 15MPH (or, to put it into context 950400 inches per hour, or 17.6 inches per second). Put another way, they had under two seconds to take a three or four metre long car through a 30inch gap from a stationary start. That one driver would have such a worryingly poor grasp of speed and geometry is disturbing, but three? Seriously?

I’m never sure whether I think such things are a sign of incredibly widespread stupidity, or incredibly widespread callousness, or which answer I’d find more terrifying. This is not one of those problems wherein everyone’s moving at pace and is unfamiliar with each other’s respective speeds, this is motorists trying to do something that the simple act of driving their car every day should tell them is impossible. Does magic suddenly start happening when you need to save yourself an entire second and a bit (17.6inches per second, remember)? Oh, and aside from anything else, on a roundabout you’re supposed to give way to the right! Even I know that.

Nerves jangling,  I carried on along a sweeping, gently rising curve that saw the rest of the group easing away from me again until I resumed my accustomed position, about 45 seconds ahead of the last two, an unknown distance behind the front group. Fortunately, we regrouped at each major junction, but things were starting to get tough as we turned once again into the wind.

The initial gusts soon had me at the back with my fellow straggler and a pair of friendly riders who carried on an effortless conversation while we puffed and heaved at the pedals. I couldn’t tell you how much of it was aerodynamics and how much was wishful thinking, but after a few minutes of labouring in the wind I got as low as I could over the bars and began a comedically slow attempt  to close the gap between myself and the out-of-sight front group. I pulled away from the final three seemingly millimetre by millimetre. By now I was no longer just slow and a little tired, I was slow and starting to feel genuine discomfort, my leg muscles burning one moment and feeling smokey and insubstantial the next. I must have kept that inching effort up for a good ten minutes before I’d eked out anything resembling a reasonable gap, but when I was easily overtaken by one of the other riders moving to the front it became clear that I didn’t have anything like the pace needed to get me back up to the rest of the group, so I settled into no man’s land again.

The road was rising ever so gently, a gradient that my admittedly inexperienced eye would have put at no more than 2%, but it seemed to go on forever. Gentle curves and high, lush hedges prevented me from seeing what was ahead or behind, and that tiny but constant slope soon began to sap more strength than any steep climb could. It was ridiculous. Six weeks ago I’d been playing on Mt Ventoux. Now I was being beaten witless by a stretch of Essex lane. My saddle soreness had gone well past the usual dull ache and become a raw, burning sensation. So much sharper and fiercer was the pain that I started to wonder if my expectation of saddle soreness in the area was deceiving me, and that I might be rubbed raw and bleeding by the insert in my shorts. I resolved to check at the next stop, if the next stop ever came.

The gradient seemed incessant whilst continuing to be annoyingly all but invisible. Over my shoulder my fellow newbie was drawing closer. I was starting to weave, my thigh muscles felt like they were being pulled apart. I rounded a gentle bend and found that the slope had finally developed into something you could actually eyeball. I had mixed feelings about that. I was perversely relieved that if I had to struggle like this, there should at least be some clearly visible reason for it, but on the other hand a visible incline was obviously steeper than the one that had spent the last twenty minutes ruining my thighs.

On Mt Ventoux, my legs had been fatigued, but never painful. It had been breathing that was difficult. Here, my breathing was fine, but my legs were hurting and enfeebled all at once. It took several hours of Ventoux to force me onto the granny ring, but this final, shallow ramp was enough to make me reach for my left shifter and clunk down to the inner ring. I was deeply upset to discover that I’d left it too late. I couldn’t feel the difference. My legs were fucked beyond the little ring’s ability to rescue them.

Weaving again, I looked over my shoulder and saw my fellow sufferer walking. With great relief I hopped off and with a juddering gait I walked the last ten yards over the crest of the hill.

On the other side there was flat road again. I was well past the ability to “hop back on”, but after heaving my quavering legs back over the bar the going was mercifully easier. Shortly after remounting, I rejoined the rest of the riders at a junction. A minute later the back markers rejoined as well, and we set off on the final, short leg. A few gentle miles to a much needed cup of coffee, a few more to return us to the station. I never got up to anything resembling a decent speed again, but my legs felt better and I wasn’t riding alone anymore. That last hill had been as bad as it got, and final highly caffeinated run in was done gently.

I had an hour on the tube to get home, from one end of the line to the other. In the final few minutes of the journey I thought back to when I set out in the morning, twelve hours before. It had been a long, satisfying day despite the initial discovery that the...trains...weren’t..........running. Sod it.

Saddle loose and wobbling, bar tape flapping, arse burning, legs seized up, brain now too baggy to really be dealing with even suburban traffic, I had another four miles to ride, starting with an uphill stretch. I’d done it that morning in about 15 minutes. It took nearly an hour on the way home.

I knew my legs were feeling weak when an old man with his Tesco bag hanging from his handlebars proved to be an uncatchable minute man. I realised how utterly feeble they had become when I found myself rattling along between a set of double yellows, the thickness of the paint on the road surface was too much for my low torque riding to surmount, leaving me bouncing between them until I finally pulled myself together and pushed a bit harder.

Thirteen hours after leaving, I arrived home. 48 hours after arriving home I stopped limping. The main ride had been 42 miles. I’d done an extra 8 getting to and from the start, making for a neat, round 50. Admittedly I grovelled for half of it, while more experienced riders breezed it, but still, 50 miles feels like a hell of a start.

Once again, I loved every second of it, even the bits I hated.

The Central London CTC were friendly, the route was fun, and again I was left wondering what I could achieve if I replaced half-baked optimism with regular training. So, if goal one was to start riding regularly, goal two was to start riding lengthy group rides and goal fifty six is to have another crack at Mt Ventoux, what’s goal four? I think it’s to try to attain a basic level of fitness and bike maintenance to make my next two star ride just as much fun but a smidgen less gruelling. That gives me three weeks. Watch this space...

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