I think I mentioned in a previous post that I'd been mildly nervous about the ride. 60 miles is a distance I'd ordinarily be quite happy about riding, but then ordinarily I'd choose sixty comparatively flat miles and do them at a gentle pace whilst stopping for cake and photos. The London-Oxford ride was to be done with people who exercise regularly, maintain high speeds over many hours, day after day, and generally make my own particular brand of cycling look like the enjoyable pottering around the parks that it is. Also, it was going through the Chilterns. Ok, that's not the Alps, but still, there's a good twelve mile stretch where you can always find a hill when you want one.
|Syon Park, 7AM, picking the breakfast flapjack from our beards.|
Knowing that it would likely be faster and less flat than I'm used to, I actually did the unthinkable and prepared for the ride. Not scientifically or anything, but I at least took all that stuff about training, equipment and nutrition that I'm aware of but usually ignore, and did my best to put it into practice. In the six weeks building up to the ride I made sure I rode pretty much every day (I'd take one day a week off to let my legs recharge, and I missed a few days for a wedding). It wasn't always for very long, between half an hour to an hour and a half usually, but always very hard. The mission every day was to warm up the legs, get myself out of breath as quickly as possible, then stay that way for as long as I had available. I also took to doing clockwise laps of Richmond Park, in order to have longer, draggier ascent rather than the short, steep, sprintable ones you get on the anti-clockwise path.
As everyone always says, having a goal in mind really helps focus you. My previous efforts at "training" (in the sense of riding with the intention becoming better at riding as opposed to simply riding for fun) had always petered out after a few weeks when I realised that I'd rather just go out for a casual spin than attempt to bury myself every day in the hope of making those casual spins longer or faster. This time round, there was a date on the calendar and sort-of goal: don't be a danger to yourself at the finish. Every previous fifty mile plus ride I'd done had ended with me spending the last five or ten miles slightly foggy headed and weaving with fatigue. Not a massive problem on quiet local roads close to home, but I was determined not to negotiate the junctions and roundabouts of in an unfamiliar town centre in such a state.
Having a date and a goal was every bit as motivating as they say. I rode every day, fast. Finding the time to ride, something that had always seemed difficult in the past, simply became a natural part of the day, and after about a fortnight the need to train actually became a desire to. Best of all, I could tell some of it was working. In the early stages I'd climb off the bike and reel around on insubstantial legs that would refuse to hold me up properly for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, during which time I would be gasping for breath. After a month, the same efforts would see me casually hop off the bike and stroll around getting on with my day, my breathing returning to normal within a minute.
For all the confidence that gave me, I still had a few nerves on the day. For starters, none of my efforts had made my climbing any better, and I knew we'd hit the Chilterns after about forty miles. On top of that, after weeks of rain and clouds, we were due 31 degree temperatures and no cloud cover. To make sure I stayed cool and rested, I'd resolved to make use of every rest stop along the way, but shortly after we rolled out of Syon Park it became apparent how impractical that would be - the first stop came in West Drayton after only nine miles. Trying to stick to the plan, I pulled in to the school car park that was supposed to be providing water, cakes and toilets, but I knew the idea was a non-starter. I was actually ashamed of myself for suggesting a stop so early, and for holding up Stu. I needn't have worried, as the rest stop itself, despite having a ride marshall outside directing people in, was empty. No loos, no drinks, no cake. No people. We'd set off just after eight, intending to get at least a few miles in before the sun was fully up, so perhaps the marshalls hadn't arrived yet.
We ran into her well before the five mile mark, and she marked herself out as a notable early on, when she began half-wheeling Oli and I in our attempt to catch up with Stu. It wasn't hard work or anything, but for several miles we had been naturally overtaking people, and people had been naturally overtaking us, as the 600 odd riders involved found their comfortable pace. This was the first point in the day when an overtaking move wasn't natural, when we had to decide to do it. She was grey haired, riding a sturdy Dutch bike with a basket, and us two on our road bikes, Oli wearing Dulwich Paragon kit, had to actively pass her. It wasn't the last we'd see of her, either.
Shortly after being half-wheeled by a pensioner, Oli decided it was time to do things properly, and with a promise of beers in Oxford, he clicked his Garmin and shot off up the road, leaving Stu and I to a more leisurely pace. Pace became an interesting indicator of who was riding. Every ten minutes or so, Stu and I would gently glide past groups of people who were obviously fundraisers rather than cycists - they'd presumably be running next week, abseiling the week after, hopping from event to event raising money for good causes. Then there were our own closest kin, cycling enthusiasts: padded pants, a well maintained bike, and an enjoyment of getting out and putting some miles in. Then there were the serious cyclists, the ones that overtook us the way we overtook the fundraisers. In ones or twos, in club kits, on very expensive bikes, they blew past us at speeds we couldn't have maintained for more than a few miles. At one point a gang of riders in De Ver cycles kits rocketed past us in the traditional double line, yelling instructions, and with enough combined drivetrain noise and displaced air to be a louder presence on the road than the flatbed lorry that had overtaken us earlier. Their kit was cooler though, and they didn't yell "Fucking cyclists", so their overtaking move was treat to watch, rather than a pain in the neck.
After about twenty miles, we turned into Burnham Beaches, a small forest in Buckinghamshire that seemed to mark the point of transition between a route that was occasionally pretty into a route that was unfailingly so. My fondness for Burnham Beeches might be down to its sunlit mixture of deep woods and open, grassy meadows, or the fact that the road through it tended to dip and swoop gently downwards, allowing us to descend in that sweet spot in which you move effortlessly fast, but fall short of the sort of descending that makes you rest a nervous finger on the brakes. On the other hand, I might just have loved Burnham Beeches for the cafe where we got coffees and bacon sandwiches. (Don't give me that look, I bet the salt helped see off cramps later.)
|A sandwich stop in a sunny forest. That's a good reason to ride a bike, isn't it?|
The day's first hint of drama came shortly after Burnham Beeches, when we rode past a string of marshalls atop and most of the way down a hill, warning us of a steep descent and a sharp left hand turn. None of them mentioned that the sharp left was halfway down the steep hill rather than at the bottom of it. As a timorous descender, I was already hanging on the brakes and was able to make the turn but Stu, with his more exuberant approach to hills, had no chance.He sailed straight past it, and had to stop, turn and climb back up the hill onto the side road, all in completely the wrong gear. No harm done, but it did plant the seed of an idea that maybe the route, advertised as being of only middling difficulty, might perhaps have a few sections that were too technical for middling riders.
A short climb later, and the seed began to sprout. As we crested a hill just short of the halfway point at Marlow and were warned by a marshall to go slowly down the other side as there had been an accident. What he didn't mention was the cause: an incredibly long, steep descent with a right hand bend halfway down that had enough trees shielding its exit to look like a tight but not alarming 90 degree bend. Until you went into it, of course, at which point we discovered that it was a genuine hairpin, bending right back on itself in almost no distance. The presence of an ambulance and several cars on the corner gave us a visual warning and took up enough space that we had to take the bend in the oncoming lane, very warily, but you had to wonder what must have been happening to riders who'd been descending into the bend all morning with no sense of where it ended.
As it turned out, the poor chap in the ambulance wasn't the only one to have come a cropper, as Stu and I arrived at the rest stop in Marlow to find Oli, caked in blood, looking only mildly flustered, and complaining that his Specialized Allez now looked like a clown's bike. As he would later describe it:
"Steep downhill, tight right hander turns out to be a proper hairpin, brake, brake off, brake, brake off, tyres skidding, now whole bike skidding, brake off, corner corner, brake on, slide slide, woah shit. Realise none of life's boundless possibilities involve me making it safely round this bend. "
Not only had he crashed into the bend, but while he'd been dusting himself down, someone else had done exactly the same thing, and neither of them were the chap in the ambulance, so we knew there had been at least three crashes on that corner in the space of fifteen minutes. I was suddenly much less ashamed of my timid descending.
The free mechanic service laid on by Bike Events soon had Oli's bike in good nick again, and he eyeballed my gears as well, for which he received a well deserved £15 in tips. He also reawakened my nerves about the Chilterns, pointing out that our next hill was steep at the bottom and very very long, while the one just after it was only a little shorter, would hit 20% gradients and was, as he put it, "relentless". I don't know if he was winding me up about the 20%, but I had a grumpy urge to demand my ten quid back from the grizzled Cassandra.
Oli's attempt at a good time had been scuppered in the crash, so we set off as a trio, planning to treat the rest of the journey as a relaxed, sociable spin. As it turns out, the first hill was...ok. Not comfortable, but I had a few gears to spare, overtook a fair few people who were off and pushing, never felt like climbing off and never lost contact with the guys, at least not while the road was going up. They left me trailing on the descent, and then slogging along through the wind on the false flat that led to the next stop, at a pretty country pub.
From here we had our next misadventure. As the day wore on, marshalls and route signs had become steadily scarcer, until we found ourselves at a crossroads, not twenty yards on from the last rest stop, with no idea which way to go. One road went up, the other down. We chose down. Everybody else chose down. For the next three miles we whizzed along between sunlit cornfields, through little rustic hamlets, effortlessly picking up the speed on the mild incline, accompanied almost continuously by the unstructured carping of a gang of cockney cyclists who thought we were going the wrong way. They were right of course, but they didn't half make a meal of it. Eventually, after a brief roadside confab, we turned back. Every two minutes or so we'd encounter another pack of riders and go through the same palaver of coss-referencing the tiny cardboard maps with the rusting road signs to convince them that we'd all gone wrong. Most accepted the idea, a few forged on regardless, but it was striking how many people had chosen the downhill fork and had to be persuaded to turn back. Clearly, people weren't in the mood for hills.
The next thing we came to was a hill. A big one. With an awful, gravel-flecked crown and crumbling, mud covered gutters, leaving just a narrow strip of worn, twig strewn tarmac as the best path up a hill that was steep and long. One might almost say relentless.
Greeting the uphills with the same glee as the downhills, Stu was quickly out of sight. Bless him, Oli stayed nearby and offered climbing tips and encouragement as I attempted to drag myself up the climb to Christmas Common with an in-the-saddle effort. I had the momentary satisfaction of overtaking a couple pushing their bikes, until I saw that they were riding fixies, and was forced to marvel at how strong they must have been to ride their shirt-button sprockets as far up the hill as they'd managed. Passing them, I found myself not so much settling into a rhythm as maintaining a desperate scrabbling at the pedals. The trees on either side provided lots of shade, and the view between them across fields and grasslands was a delight, but within a few hundred yards I was missing it all, staring at the stem and trying my utmost to keep it going. I'm surprised I made it as far as I did.
Eventually I was overtaken by a big Mercedes, and as is often the case when I'm too tired on a bike, the presence of a car brought home to me the fact that I was onboard, pedalling, but definitely not in control. If I started to weave or wobble, I wouldn't have the strength to right myself. That's fine on an empty road, but with traffic around...? I stopped. I got off and did the push of shame. Oli disappeared up the road and I clacked my way up the hill, consoling myself now and again by looking back at the two other groups of walkers in the distance behind me. Had the car not encouraged me to climb off, I could perhaps have kept turning the pedals for another minute or so, and I was strangely pleased to see that the remainder of the hill would have taken a lot longer to climb than that. Regardless of the car, I wouldn't have made it, so instead of feeling cheated, I got to make a mental note to practice hill repeats, then pushed on.
Over the top of the hill I rejoined Stu, Oli and a whittled down contingent of the unhappy Cockneys, who had obviously cheered up a little for seeing other people suffer. We had mostly rolling roads for a few miles, which occasionally feigned a steep upward turn to put the fear into our still tired legs, but never maintained a proper incline for more than a dozen yards or so, luckily.
Coming downhill, on the other hand, was another time when the word relentless could have been applied. I'd been warned that the descent into Watlington could be a bit of a rascal, and so it was. Only a few turns, tight but not quite full-on hairpins, and all strung along a road that had only two gradients: steep and precipice. Ok, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but I span out my littlest gear with a few dozen yards of the descent, which canted forward steeply just long enough to get you up to an unnerving speed before alternating between long straight ramps and short steep turns that seemed to go on forever.
I was travelling far, far faster than I was comfortable with, and soon found myself braking regularly. Sadly, this was the sort of long, long hill where bringing your speed under control takes just two or three seconds, but another two or three seconds off the brakes is all it takes to have it go out of control again. Soon I took to just hanging on the brakes permanently, until a few more minutes into the descent, when I realised that it wasn't going to level off anytime soon. The old saw about constant braking on descents overheating the air in your tires and causing a blowout suddenly became the only thought in my head, and I began alternating my braking patterns between feathering the front, feathering the rear, squeezing the front, squeezing the rear and frequent, terrifying bursts of just letting gravity do what it wanted. At no point could I ever stay off the brakes long enough to convince myself that they would have cooled down from the last grim deceleration into a corner, but at the same time I could never get comfortable enough with the speed of the descent to just lay off them entirely. Finally, after another unnerving right hander the road straightened, and I could see one final steep ramp followed by a long, straight, flat road. I let go of the brakes, hit a ludicrous speed on the final incline, and must have freewheeled along the flat for the best part of a minute before my speed returned to anything resembling a sensible velocity.
By this point, Stu had long since disappeared, and Oli had set off to catch him not long after. In the flat roads leading out of Watlington towards Chalgrove, there were probably half a dozen of us, strangers, all within sight of each other, close enough to follow, but far enough apart that we could each be said to be riding alone.
I took stock of my legs and felt extremely positive. Back at the forty mile mark, I could honestly say that I didn't feel like I'd done anything more strenuous than riding 500 yards to Tesco. Now, with a five mile diversion, another few miles of the intended route and one ghastly hill climb in my legs, I still wasn't doing too badly. I didn't want to hit anymore hills, obviously, but I've felt worse after shorter, flatter rides. I put this down to a combination of training and eating-I'd been sure to eat something, a sandwich, a gel, a clif bar, every twenty minutes or so. Naturally, it was at this point that I realised that the last time I'd eaten had been back at the pub.
Now, I can ride no-handed for a few seconds if I need to, and one-handed for as long as you like, so eating on the ride is rarely a problem for me. At this point however, all I've got are Clif jelly sweets in my jersey pocket, squidged together and unopened. Extracting, unwrapping, separating and eating them requires more dexterity than I have one-handed, and will take longer than I can manage no-handed, especially as we're back on a main road. I chug along for a mile or so, wrestling with the dilemma. I'm alone, but I have riders in sight. If I stop to eat, I'll lose sight of them and have to ride completely alone. If I don't stop, is there the possibility that I'm going to start suffering? I did an exploratory test, upping my cadence, and was pleased to find that I still had some speed in my legs, and it didn't wear me out to use it. I could easily stop, unwrap a few sweets, then turn on the afterburners and catch up with the little string of riders I was in.
Twenty minutes later I arrived alone at Chalgrove School, having lost sight of the other riders within seconds of stopping and never seen them again despite slogging my guts out. And all to make sure I kept my calorie intake up, despite being less than twenty minutes from a school playground where friendly cycling fans were serving homemade burgers and cakes. I stood in the playground for a few minutes, not getting off the bike. I hadn't seen Stu or Oli for a long time, and didn't want them to have to wait too long for me further down the road, but at the same time, I really wanted to stop here, where there were other people, for a little while. Fortunately, my dilemma resolved itself when Stu appeared round the corner, clutching a fistful of cakes and nodding at the sports hall: "They've got the Andy Murray game on in there." he said casually, as if he hadn't been absent for the last hour, tormenting mamils.
We skipped the tennis, filled up on junk food, and set off on the final ten miles or so.
After a day in which the organisers had excelled themselves by consistently finding traffic free, picturesque roads to ride on, the final run into and through Oxford was a shock. You don't think of Oxford as having industrial estates, or dual carriageways, or big ugly roundabouts, but it turns out to have a few, and we saw them as we made our way into the town centre. You know Oxford town centre, right? Nice wide road, narrow pavements, and a tourist count in the trillions? As you'd expect, the final few miles were a mess of bus dodging and kamikaze pedestrians stepping blithely out into the road without looking. I was tired enough to find it mildly unnerving, but if I'd been as tired as I have been at the finish of some rides, it would have been terrifying, I wouldn't have had the reactions to keep dodging my way down the assault course of the final run through town to Oxpen meadow, where we were greeted, delightfully, with IG Markets London Nocturne cowbells and big, cold beaker full of Prosecco.
Oli, having beaten us to the finish by a reasonable margin and been to the medical tent to have his wounds dressed, managed to join us just as Granny in a Sports Bra came chugging across the finish line, moving at the same speed and looking as unflustered as she had 60 miles previously, although she'd lost the shopping bag from her bike basket along the way.
Now, I won't pretend I wasn't tired, as I definitely was. I might have been able to get back on the bike and ride a little further, but I certainly didn't want to, so while Stu and Oli climbed back in the saddle to head over to the pub, I hung my bike from the carrier and got a lift to the boozer. Nevertheless, I was pretty enthused. Oli had proved that you can body surf on tarmac. I disproved the theory that your tires will explode if you brake for ten whole minutes of descending. Stu proved that you can look like a Nam veteran and ride like a pro on a bike that predates the Boer war. It was lovely day out, and I couldn't wait to do another one. Which is probably why I agreed to do London to Cambridge this coming Sunday. This time, of course, I haven't been training at all. Oh dear...