A record April ends with a bang

Yesterday was the Katharine House Hospice cycling challenge, which they do every year to raise money for the Hospice, which is a stone’s throw from where I live. This year I got kinda talked into it by my fiancée and some of her many uncles and aunts, as they do it every year. There’s four routes, two of 8 & 20 miles mainly on cycle paths, and two of 45 and 65 miles on roads. 45 miles was the bowl of porridge that was just right for me, longer than I’ve ridden before (previous PB was a little over 30 miles) and I didn’t feel the 65 mile one was a reliable possibility. It cost £7.50 to enter which covers their costs, and you’re encouraged to raise a bit of money for the Hospice on top. I got £50 in, which seemed a bit inadequate but I suppose it all helps. (Anyone who wants to donate a bit more can do so here)

With my week off over Easter I’d done a lot of miles on the bike, so I was fairly confident of having the legs for it. None of those rides were over 25 miles, so there was still the possibility of some unknown creeping in. The only thing I did to the bike was to oil the chain and check the tyre pressures the night before, I’ve settled on the 40-52 chainring set-up as my front derailleur doesn’t seem to cope as well with the 53, it takes ages to find a tooth changing up whereas with the 52 it just slots right in. Mine wasn’t the only old lugged steel bike on show but as you might expect more modern bikes proliferated. Most were using clip-in pedals, and there were a few who probably would have been better off with simple flats – I saw at least two fall off and a significant number struggling to clip in at times.

Here you go, you finally get to see what I look like! I’d bought some new bib shorts the day before, and I did a short 10 mile ride to check I got on with them. They’re a little better made than my other pair, and seemed to do the job OK. I was a little concerned that my kit wasn’t going to be warm enough, as the forecast was for fairly consistent 20mph winds, but in the event I was fine. I had a rain jacket in the back pocket just in case, but there wasn’t any rain. When I did the 25 mile sportive last July I wore everyday clothes (I was on the three-speed of course) so at least this time I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. It’s curious how there’s a critical mass of cyclists beyond which Lycra ceases to feel quite so embarrassing. Sadly this photo reveals to me that the reality doesn’t quite match what I imagine I look like in the full regalia!

I made sure to have some pasta the night before, and some granola in the morning. I also had Kendal Mint Cake in my back pocket, which is essentially a solid block of minty sugar. I had a couple of blocks before I set off, and more as I stopped along the way. It’s a good little old-school energy bar, and does the trick for me – it might be a bit of a placebo effect, but I definitely get a boost. As well as the bottle in the cage I had a second bottle in my back pocket, as I didn’t really know what to expect, didn’t know whether or where I’d be able to refill, and didn’t want to risk running out and getting dehydrated. As it turned out I still had a drop left when I got back. 

I reinforced the corners of my number with cellotape and pinned it very neatly to the back of my shirt:

This was taken after the ride, so it held in place pretty well! On the reverse of the number I had to write down next of kin contacts, known health problems etc, which was a bit grim but obviously necessary. It was nice having a ‘race’ number, sort of made me feel part of something. As I got round the course I also took a selfish delight in seeing numbers that weren’t fixed on as neatly and robustly as mine…

The ride started by heading down Weston Road, on to Beaconside and the back into town on the Sandon Road. I’m familiar with these roads, though there were stretches of the roads through town I would have avoided given the choice. It’s different riding on you own though, there were lots of cyclists on the roads and drivers tend to be a bit more on the ball than when it’s just me. Through town there was a couple of nasty roundabouts to deal with, the main challenge being to keep tabs on traffic while simultaneously watching out for poor surfaces – particularly where two sections of tarmac meet. Then it was out through Doxey, and on to the lanes. (this is last year’s event, just after departing)

The lanes to the west of Stafford are quite a useful discovery for me, there’s millions of them and one could devise a route to incorporate all manner of distances and difficulties, the only limitation being that there aren’t any genuinely mountainous areas. I’m on the east side of town, and here the lanes are much more limited, which is rather curious how two parts of essentially the same area could be so different. It’s safe to say future training will probably incorporate a lot more riding on the far side of town. I notice they’ve improved the rail-to-trail route out to Derrington, so that gives a good shortcut to the main business, without all the traffic lights and roundabouts.

I was familiar with the first part of the lanes, and I’ve found on my two sportives that it does help to be familiar with the beginning for building confidence and not going off too quickly, and the end so you are in a familiar place and don’t need to think too much when you’re at your most tired. We turned right towards Ranton, and from here I was relying entirely on the signs marking out the route. At Ranton the Village Hall had been opened up for us to use the loo, replenish bottles, have a sit down and they also had some cakes for sale.  A couple of miles before Ranton someone had dropped their map, so I picked it up and gave it back to them at the stop. I resisted the cake but did use the loo, as I wasn’t sure where the next one would be available. I drank half a bottle and set off again.

Up until this point I’d been making pretty good time, as the wind was mostly behind us. Now we started to face into the wind a little, and I was conscious of needing to save a little for the final 10 miles which would be straight into the wind. There’d been a story on the front page of the local papers about a series of potholes that had injured a string of cyclists, so my eyes were a bit on storks when I reached that section. They were very bad on one particular corner, but I managed to see them coming and navigate around them. I did hit one pothole quite hard with the front tyre and immediately resigned myself to fixing a pinch flat, but was relived to find myself a couple of miles further down the road with the tyre still full.

Around this point a cyclist rode up alongside me and started chatting. “I seem to have stumbled into a sportive” he said. I explained to him what we were all riding for, and also about my ride in June that I was preparing for. He said the Peak Districk did indeed have some pretty challenging climbs. He also said it was his first ride of the year, which I didn’t quite believe as he seemed very fit and fresh, but I suppose he might have a trainer at home. Anyway, he gave me a cheery “good luck” as our paths diverged, possibly quite relieved I couldn’t bore the pants off him any further, or maybe he knew what was ahead of me…

As usually happens after about 25 miles, I started to notice a bit of discomfort in my feet. I’ve noticed I tend to not place too much weight on the saddle when I’m riding the racing bike, I’m usually pressing on the pedals so much my bottom sort of ‘hovers’ just in contact with the saddle. This is very comfortable for my behind, but not so much for my feet. This brings me on to shoes:

These are the shoes I wear on the bike, and they’re really not ideal. They’re pretty standard trainers, not particularly firm, but they fit ok and from a distance look a lot like old-school cycling shoes. I looked into getting some proper Vittoria cycling shoes, but the bike shop don’t stock them, they could get a pair in but couldn’t accept a return if they don’t fit, and given how unpredictable Italian sizes can be it’s just as much of a lottery if I seek them out online myself. I like these Onitsuka Tiger trainers a lot, so my ideal would be these exact shoes but with a firmed up sole. I can’t really afford any proper cycling shoes at the moment, so these will have to do for now. However, the flex in the sole does mean a degree of foot discomfort, which gets worse when strapped in because they’re fixed in a single place. This is partly why I rode without the straps yesterday.

Back to the ride, I started to consciously take the weight off my feet. Every now and then I’d lift each foot off the pedals in turn to get the circulation back, it’s not ideal but it is manageable. A few miles more and the road ticked up a little. Then I was confronted with, quite simply, the steepest, longest hill I’ve ever seen from a bicycle, which having looked to route over a few times took me completely by surprise. Immediately I bailed into the smaller chainring, then down a gear, then down again to my very lowest gear. I could just about keep going but it was very tough. I saw a few who’d stopped on a little false flat half way up, and someone else walking their bike up, and to be honest I don’t blame them. Anyway, I made it, dammit! I was quite pleased with myself, but it was definitely about time for a little break. Shortly after we reached Norbury Junction, and there was a canalside place with seating and ice cream where a few cyclists were resting. This was at about mile 29, so I pulled over. 

I had a nice 20 minute break, popped to the loo, had a cigarette and a few more blocks of Mint Cake, and finished off my first bottle. I was slightly nervous that I might encounter an even worse hill later on, but thankfully I didn’t. As I got past 32 miles I was into uncharted territory, and I had to change modes on my computer as the mileage was distracting me. My bottom did start to ache a little, probably just from not having ridden for so long before, and it wasn’t too bad really. The wind was increasingly in my face, and my legs were feeling the miles, but I kept going at a slightly diminished speed and just ground out the miles until I got through Church Eaton and back onto familiar roads. I stopped, very briefly, at Red Lion Farm for some more Mint Cake and a bit of a drink, then I set off on the final stretch.

I knew all along this last stretch was going to involve a 20mph headwind, but that didn’t make it any easier! At this point I knew I had enough in the tank but I was still nursing myself to the finish a little, dropping down a gear or two when the wind was really fierce. I got to Doxey and started to encounter more traffic again. On the lanes there’d been a few cars, and a few trains of cars, but only sporadically. For much of the ride we had the lanes utterly to ourselves. I knew there were traffic-free ways of getting back but I wanted to respect the route, which took me on to a couple of busy roundabouts. By now though I had a bit of ‘Road confidence’ built up (I’d been on the roads for nearly three hours by this point) so I was ok, and the traffic fell nicely thankfully. As I got onto the Sandon Road again I caught up with a couple of reasonably experienced looking riders, obviously riding as a pair, so I decided to just stick with them to the end. I was surprised when they opted for the path rather than the road down Beaconside but followed them anyway. I got back to the Hospice where rather pleasingly a family was camped out to clap everyone in. 

There were a lot of cyclists about in various states of disrepair. I turned Strava off, 45.1 miles at an average of 14.4mph, over 1,000ft of elevation gain. Not bad! I reported myself as having returned, and they gave me a little enamel badge as a memento. I sat about for a couple of minutes, then realised there’d be nowhere on the hospital site where I’d be allowed to smoke, so I finished the last of what what’s in my second bottle and headed the half mile home. Then I drank another bottle of electrolyte, did a few stretches, lied down on my bed and watched Bottas take his first win in the Russian Grand Prix. I was quite knackered but not totally finished, and in truth I possibly could have just about managed the 65 mile route, but that would have finished me off.

Here’s my badge (actually about 2cm wide!), a nice little tangible reminder that me and my bike can do some impressive things. More importantly, it means a few precious hours of care for someone who really needs it. I think I’ll be doing it again next year.

So here’s a few learning points to take forward:

  1. Remember to actually ENJOY the ride. As nice as it was to find myself in a complete bubble at times where it was just me, the bike and the road, I don’t think I spent enough time soaking up the countryside. It’s beautiful out there, but most of it passed me by.
  2. Knowing the first and last sections of the ride helps me a lot. If possible I should probably try to ride these parts of the Eroica course on the day before.
  3. My night before and morning preparation, and my immediate recovery, was pretty good I think, it worked. I need to do the same again in future.
  4. I can get up some pretty nasty hills. Just take my time, trust that I’ll get there and be a really stubborn bastard (HTFU).
  5. Mint Cake and electrolytes. Take plenty.
  6. For the love of God, remember to take some damn photos next time!!!