Well, I did it. I entered, and completed my first cyclosportive event, a hilly (well, hilly for the South East) 150km route around Essex, advertised rather wistfully as the ‘autumn leaves’ sportive. While this brings to mind images of pottering through idyllic country lanes, with dappled sunlight shimmering through a riot of gloriously autumnal oak trees, what it actually turned out to be was a draining grind through high wind and heavy rain while trying to dodge the homicidal Essex tractor drivers.
My original target for this year, when I got my bike, was 75km in a day. This came and went pretty quickly, so I upped that target to 100km in a day. This took a bit more effort, but again, on the flat fen roads, it didn’t take a particularly strenuous effort to achive this. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve popped out just for a quick ride early on a Sunday, and done just this. I wanted to enter a 100km sportive before the end of the year, to see if I enjoyed the organised aspect of riding a preset course, that had been designed to test the riders. Only I couldn’t find a 100km ride near me before the end of the year, and so I entered, rather optimistically, the Autumn Leaves event. I was to be joined in this endeavour by Ironman, marathon runner, accomplished triathlete and semi-regular riding partner Andy. So, that was one place conceded before I even started…
The day of the race started, um, too early. It was still dark as I left the house at 05:30 to collect Andy. Which was just as well, as in the dark I couldn’t see the overbearing clouds and general gloom that was set to characterise the day. I could feel the high winds and heavy rain though, neither of which filled me with any particular optimism for a happy day ahead. We passed the time on the journey to the start by playing tunes on the rapidly failing gearbox of my moribund Fiat. Quite how it made the day without leaving us stranded at the side of the M11 I have no idea. Piece of Italian junk. Anyhow, the start was to be a mass start of somewhere around 200 riders, which proved to be quite daunting. i’ve never ridden in a pack on the road before, and there’s definitely an art to watching the movements of the riders about three ahead of you rather than the one directly in front. A few kilometres in, and the course was still flat, which meant that the pack was still largely together, and the pace was fast. Had I been riding through a sunflower field in the sunshine I would have felt pretty cool at that time, like my own little Tour de France peloton experience. Instead I was ploughing through a monsoon on the outskirts of Billericay. Soon, we left the town, and headed into the coutryside. This would have been pleasant, but it was filled with tasteless, huge, mock tudor houses with spiky gates, CCTV cameras, and German 4x4s with personal number plates parked outside, sometimes four to a house. Many of them had bored looking stone animals parked unhappily on plinths by the gates, and one particularly gaudy house had a pair of what looked very much like stone pit bull terriers. I was glad that I was cycling through at a pace, so I wouldn’t have to endure this for very long. It’s probably the most depressing part of England that I’ve ever seen. Every house seemed to be shouting “Look at me! Look at my wealth! Now **** off and don’t come any closer, peasant!”
After about 10kms or so, we hit the first big hill. And, surprisingly, I scampered up this, probably making up about 20 places or so. It looks like losing a few kilos has definitely helped me this year, as one of the hallmarks of a good climber is a strong power to weight ratio, rather than outright strength. I tagged onto the back of a small group of about eight riders with Andy, and we sat there, unsure of the etiquette of when to ride to the front to give everyone else a break. It didn’t matter very much, as a few kms later we hit the bottom of the next, even bigger hill. This strung the riders out a bit, with Andy a couple of riders ahead of me, but still riding as a group. At this point I made the cardinal sin of shifting gears on a hill, and my chain jumped off the chainwheel. Andy, not seeing this, played Contador to my Schleck, and happily pottered off into the distance. I reckon I spent maybe a minute, maybe less, refitting the chain, but the damage was done. I’d lost the group, and spent the next 10kms burying myself into the headwind trying to bridge the gap. Of course, it was a futile effort, and at about 25kms or so I gave up, acutely aware that I was using a lot of energy, and this was only the start of a long day. By 40kms, I was suffering a bit, with the interminable headwind and hilly nature of the course, and so set my goal as the food stop, at 50kms. I find the best way to deal with a large physical endeavour is to break it down, and give myself small goals to work towards, else I get overwhelmed and disheartened by the scale of what I’m attempting. As mentioned in an earlier post, I know my place, and rattling off 150kms without worrying about it is certainly not it. So, I got my head down, gritted my teeth, and kept going. I got to the food stop, and re-joined Andy, who had been there about two minutes before me. 50kms down, 100 to go…
We both stocked up on energy drinks and gels, and after about six or seven minutes got going again. I think it was obvious that given the conditions, today was going to be about survival and completing the course, rather than looking for a good time, so taking the time to rest and rehydrate properly was time well spent. I was still feeling good, and Andy and I set off as a pair, and worked well together, swapping the lead every 5kms or so. I was therefore rather disappointed to pull up at a junction after about 80 kms only to have about fifteen people pull up next to us. They had been using us as a windbreak for the past 30kms. I fully understand that this is the easiest way to survive the distance on a day like this was, but I still found it bloody annoying that not one of them offered to give Andy or I a break for a while. And even when we left the junction, the majority of them just pulled in behind again. At about 85kms my legs, which had taken a real pounding on this section started to cramp and complain. I backed off, and just span easily for a few ks behind the group to give them a bit of a breather. Well, I think that’s fair. At just after 100kms, we hit the next food stop, and as well as refilling my water bottles and stash of energy gels, I also wanged down a banana to try and stave off the worst of the cramps that I could feel starting in my thighs.
I always knew this last 50kms was going to be hard. I’d agreed with Andy that at any time if I was holding him up that he should just go, and I had a feeling that we’d be using this clause at some point in the final 50kms. We’d just turned the corner at the Northermost point of the circuit, so the prevailing wind for the next leg would be behind us, but still climbing back onto my bike with cramping legs, knowing that there was probably another two hours to go was pretty disheartening. So, instead of counting down in 10km chunks, I started counting every five as my personal goal. 105, 110… I was still with Andy, but really starting to suffer now. At 125, my legs just failed. I could keep them spinning, but couldn’t generate any power with them. I gulped down another energy gel, but the sticky sweet gloop just made me feel a bit nauseous, and didn’t stop my legs hurting. So, instead I resorted to mental arithmetic to keep my mind focussed elsewhere, and just let my body look after itself. At the same time, I started counting my personal goals down in single kilometres. 23, 22, 21, all the time doing stupid stuff in my head like working out prime factors of the distance left. (This was pretty easy at 21km, it has to be said…) The one thing I didn’t do was calculate how long it would take me at my current miserable average speed. I didn’t want to know how much longer this would take.
And then the hill came. I knew it was there, at 140kms, like the upturned sting in a scorpion’s tail. At 138kms I emptied two more sachets of gel into my complaining stomach, just to give me a chance of getting to the top. I put my bike in the lowest gear possible, and just tried to blank it all out. The rain, wind and road just didn’t matter any more. There was just Me and The Hill. And bloody hell, I was going to get to the top or literally fall over trying. And it was a close run thing, as a couple of times I came close to stopping and toppling over. My personal goals had now come down from kilometres to metres, and nearing the crest of the hill, pedalstrokes. Finally, there it was. The road levelled off. Six kms to go, with the first three or so downhill. I could stop counting the pedalstrokes, as I just coasted, slowly, and easily. I was passed by a good ten or twelve riders here, but really, didn’t care. I’d made it. I knew now that barring an unexpected event, I was going t make the finish. And, eight kilometres later, the finish gate made a beautiful noise like a 1980s Casio calculator as I rode over it. I barely had the strength left to unclip from my pedals. I checked in. Elapsed time was 6:19, putting me in provisional 81st place.
Andy, however, had different ideas, and decided that 150kms wasn’t hard enough. He ended up taking the scenic route when he put his head down to grind out a few fast kms, and missed a signpost at 135kms, and eventually finished in 7:25, after completing over 170kms. A victory of route-finding over pure power I think.
Despite the pain of the last 25kms, I really enjoyed the day. Will I do it again? Yes, I think I will. But next time I’ll try and pick a sunny day and avoid South Essex.