It’s October and that means that the triathlon season is all over bar the shouting. The regular stream of emails that I receive from other Andover Tri Club members asking “Who is cycling tonight” or “Anyone doing a good Tri this weekend” has been replaced with emails about the AGM, Prize Giving and the Club Christmas Curry. The Ironmen have gathered on the Big Island and the ITU Elite crew are in Auckland for their end-of-season world championship show piece events and that’s it for another year.
With the clocks about to go back and the prospect of a long winter of training ahead of me, I was definitely in need of a lift. I found it in the Plain Cycle Challenge, a cycling sportive around Salisbury Plain in aid of Naomi House, a local hospice which does excellent work for our community. I got the call from my great friend Alex Porter who had been dragooned into a team organised by Spear Electrical, the areas leading provider of electrical contracting services. Their ever enthusiastic managing director, Brian Comley, had set a target of Team Spear collectively doing 1,000 miles on the day. What a great idea. I was delighted to help out.
Alex’s small sub-team consisted of me, Alex and Alex’s brother Mark – three 50-somethings whose athletic peak was some years ago but who are all determined to keep fit and keep pushing the boundaries that we can.
We were joined by Felix, Mark’s 18-year old son who looked every inch the touring cyclist with his tall wiry frame and Eddy Merckx cycling cap with its upturned peak. The final team member was Paul, Alex’s brother-in-law who was the eldest of our group. Paul was every inch the Corinthian, but the thing you notice first about Paul isn’t his cotton shorts, rugby shirt and hybrid bike, but the fact that he always has a smile on his face.
We gathered at the Wellington Academy in Tidworth at 8.30am on Sunday. There was the usual mixture of pre-race activity. Some were pumping up tyres, others discussing the finer points of deep rimmed wheels, one or two earnestly stretching, but most were eating the excellent bacon sandwiches on sale in the coffee shop. Most prominent amongst the gathered cyclists were the Andover Wheelers huddled together around a table studying the map looking like an explosion in a paint factory. Their garish team uniform made me grateful I was carrying my shades. In all there were about 100 cyclists.
There were three different courses; 20k, 60k or 100k. Discretion being the better part of valour, we had collectively opted for the 60km course – 38.5 miles – meaning that we would contribute 192 miles to Team Spear’s 1,000 mile challenge. By 9.30am we were fed, suited, booted, briefed and on our way.
I started about 30 seconds behind the others as I fiddled around setting various watches and timers to track our progress.
As I raced to catch up I came round the first corner to see Mark lying across the road with his bike on top of him. Someone in the crowded peloton had feathered their brakes in front of him and in the ensuing panic he had come off. Not an auspicious start! Mark was back on the bike quickly insisting everything was fine. It wasn’t until after the race that he let on that he had taken a battering when he fell – his thigh and shoulder were bloodied and bruised.
The 60k course was a tour of Salisbury Plain mainly on quiet roads. It was a beautiful chilly autumn morning with a light mist in the low lying areas. There was plenty of moisture in the air and little wind – great for cycling. Most important it looked as though the rain would hold off. The only drawback of the conditions was that the roads were wet and you had to take care cornering if you weren’t to feel your back wheel slide from under you.
Now you would be forgiven for thinking that with the word “Plain” in its name we would be dealing with an expanse of predominantly flat ground here. That’s what I had thought, but Salisbury Plain is surprising hilly and the first hills came almost straight away. The effect of the hills was to stretch the peloton out. The steeper the hill the more the gap between first and last rider extended. I was riding with Alex. Paul and Mark were somewhere behind us and Felix had disappeared over the horizon sometime ago.
As we set a steady pace of around 15 mph, Alex and I passed all kinds of riders – a man on a hybrid who was in much too high a gear making his legs look like a blur; two girls whose priority seemed to be a jolly good chat; a gnarly old tourist whose best years were behind him but who would finish ahead of many younger than him and a big strong cyclist who flew past us on the down hills but struggled on the up hills where we were able to make up the lost ground.
Alex and I were separated after about 8 miles and I rode with the big guy almost to the halfway station, swapping places depending on whether we were going up or down. This showed me very clearly how much hill climbing is affected by weight. This guy was 3-4 stones heavier than me and whilst that gave him more power on the flat, he had to drag that mass up every hill.
The good thing about a lot of climbing is that you eventually get to the top and if you are lucky there is a good view. We were very lucky. As we rode along the ridge at the top of the valley, a road known locally as the Chute Causeway, the view was stunning. We were treated to a carpet of mist punctuated by a string of small Wiltshire villages along the valley floor below us. This view went on for several miles before it was back to business.
A few miles before halfway we climbed the hardest hill of the ride – it was the only time I had to get out of the saddle all day. I was up on the pedals for a couple of minutes which really hurt and when I got to the top my companion was nowhere to be seen. It hadn’t been my intention to drop him – we weren’t racing, but as he didn’t appear immediately and as I wasn’t sure how long he would be, I didn’t wait.
A few minutes later I reached the half way feeding station at Collingbourne Ducis village hall.
My watch said 1.15hrs. Time to refuel. As I rode in to the car park there was Felix as cool as a cucumber sitting on a bench eating a muffin watching the local village football team. He had cycled away from us early on and had been at the feeding station for 10 minutes and looked no worse for wear from his effort. After a delicious muffin, some jelly babies and chat with the other riders, including my companion who I had lost on the last hill, I filled up my water bottle and got ready to set off again. Before I left I saw Paul, Mark and Alex arrive so there wasn’t much between us. I offered my apologies for not waiting for them but I was starting to cool down and if I waited much longer I feared everything would stiffen up. I was the only one to leave when I did so for the second half of the course I was going to be on my own – a time trial!
When I had entered a cycling sportive in aid of a local charity I had glossed over the word “Challenge” in the title. But the second half of the course lived up to the name well. There were fewer of the brutal quad-burning hills of the first half but in their place a headwind had picked up which got stronger as the ride progressed and at times threatened to blow you to a standstill. There was no alternative but to grin and bear it.
Cycling alone into a chilly headwind is not good for morale. I cheered myself up with a steady stream of flapjacks, energy gels and drink all of which kept my energy levels up as the clock ticked on past the two hour mark.
My morale was lifted further by the road sign telling me that Tidworth was just 4 miles away.
Twenty more minutes and I’m done. But these things are never that straightforward. The finish at the Wellington Academy was the other side of Tidworth from where I was and as I was to find out the road out of town was a long slow climb. It wasn’t steep and it wasn’t going to break anybody, but it seemed to go on and on. And in one final ignominious twist I saw the only cyclist that I had seen for the last 20 miles as he zipped past me on the final hill with a cheery “Good Morning”.
Finally the hill came to an end and the finish was in sight. If I am honest the finish was the only disappointment of the day. There, where I thought the finish line was, were four people and a dog! Two of those people were Cate and Matilda, my wife and daughter. I don’t think I was expecting the finish of the London Marathon – but I had envisaged more than this. Nevertheless I had finished and in a time of 2.36 hrs – an average speed of 14.9 mph.
I changed into some warm dry clothes, grabbed my free Mars Bar and a drink and went back with Matilda to swell the numbers at the finish. Does six constitute a crowd? Soon enough Mark appeared, quickly followed by Felix and Paul. There was then some confusion about Alex’s whereabouts. Felix had punctured with Alex in front of him and had not overtaken him since. We quickly concluded that he had gone the wrong way. He didn’t keep us in suspense long. Over the crest of the hill in front of us appeared his blue helmet bobbing up and down in a steady rhythm making its way to the finish. All five of us home safely and all in good time.
I would like to think it was an admin cock up but I am sure it was one last sadistic addition to the “Challenge” that we had to climb a long flight of stairs to check in at the end of the ride. But on the plus side the de-registration desk was right next to the bar which was serving coffee and flapjacks.
So five of us all present and correct had done our bit for the 1,000 mile challenge and most important we had raised some money for Naomi House. After a well earned coffee and a rest we headed home basking in a glow of satisfaction for a well earned Sunday lunch sparing only a brief thought for Brian and the other members of Team Spear on the 100k course who still had a couple of hours left until they could do the same.