Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Shakespeare 100 mile Sportive 2011

The clouds on the day foretold the approach of strange weather...
Sunday 11th September 2011

Two days before the Shakespeare 100, the weather forecast had settled on torrential rain around the county of Warwickshire. On top of that, meteorologists were predicting Hurricane Katia would start sweeping across the UK on the same day. In a typically chipper text, my friend Mark advised me to bring along "arm warmers and base layer". I was thinking more along the lines of an extra duvet and a good sleep in. However, with my first proper competition on the horizon I had no choice but to endure 100 miles of whatever the Gods could throw at me.

Sunday morning arrived with little more than shafts of bright sunlight through the bedroom blinds. Looking out onto the world that morning, I felt sure that at least we would start the ride dry. The clouds were the only thing that looked out of place. Although distant and cheerfully white, they towered into the hemisphere as if squeezed and shaped by an enormous hand. Having flown into the UK a couple of weeks previously, these clouds looked so unlike the lazy gray blanket this country is so often covered in. These new formations wouldn't have looked out of place in a Cecil B. De Mille production.

I assembled my three gels, two bananas, a couple of Kendal mint cakes (a sugary gift from my wife) and a heady concoction of syrup, honey, yoghurt and coffee powder which I like to gulp down in the final twenty miles. I filled two large bottles, necked a couple of Ibuprofen, smeared some Baby Bottom Butter on my butt (pretty sure it's not made of babies bottoms) and triple checked my equipment. I then grabbed my bike and carefully squeezed it into the back of the car. My wife got ready without washing her hair, and even "flung some clothes on" as opposed to carefully selecting and composing what she would be wearing for some of the day. All of which meant we arrived on time. She drove me the 20 miles to the start/finish and left me to compose myself minutes before the start.
It's getting easier, the composing thing. I'm into my third year of cycling and the legs know what to expect. The start wasn't nerve-wracking any more, as I now know that the testing begins nearer the end, or in this case at the bottom of Saintbury Hill. We left in a fairly large pack at the front of a larger queue. Our pack seemed to consist of fairly fit riders and the pace gradually increased as we rolled out of Stratford into the lush greenery surrounding it.
For ten miles we kept together, two or three riders taking the hit at the front of the pack. Although we were beginning to nudge into a competitive pace the group held strong. I took some turns at the front, turning the screw slightly to see who would stay with me. The pack held nicely. My first hiccup was a tight bend into a steep climb which went on further than I expected. Sitting in the big ring and pushing a fairly high gear, I elected to try and power my way up the slope and found myself overtaken by riders on both sides. A miscalculation which proved to be rather inelegant if nothing else. We quickly reformed on the downhill except for one rider who had taken it upon himself to ride like the wind.
If you want to learn how efficient a pack of cyclists are compared to a lone wolf, simply try to out-ride a pack on your own. This cyclist expended a good deal more energy whilst the pack conferred and decided to steadily reel him back in. Over five miles the group trickled fresh riders to the front whilst the distant cyclist slowly bled energy onto the road, eventually succumbing to our slightly quicker pace. It was a fairly pointless exercise, unless exercise was his aim.
After about twenty miles the inevitable question fired around the group. "Are you doing the 100km or the 100 miles?" It transpired that most of the group were actually riding the 100km, which meant the few 100 mile riders had been given a handy pace-boost by the other riders. Having not spent time studying where the route actually split I found a rider doing the 100 miles and decided to ride with him when he turned off. My water supplies were good at thirty miles and I still had 2 gels and some Kendal mint cake. It transpired that I completely forgot about my special blend and it travelled the 100 miles slowly warming in my pocket.
When the first rest stop came at around 33 miles I decided to bypass it and pick up refreshments at the 66 mile stop. I peeled off with just one other rider, leaving the multitude to resupply. We rode on alone ahead of everyone else, which I have to say felt very good. The roads were fairly flat at this stage and we got chatting. In fact we got chatting so much that we must have missed an arrow because we ended up rejoining the route having ridden an extra 2 miles. Luckily my companion knew his way around and we rejoined the route just as three riders from our bunch pelted past us at a junction. We caught up with the trio at a set of traffic lights moments later.
These three riders we'd caught up with were formidable. Two big men and one hill climber, they pushed a pace that forced me into the red. After only 5 miles I realised that there was no way I could do my bit on the front of this chain gang and I let them go. However, I'd lost my companion by trying to keep up with these three, leaving me all alone.

They ploughed on into a rather aggressive headwind and I set about recouping my energy. Because of the headwind and the long roads I watched the trio split again as one of the big riders fell off the back. Tantalisingly, he was only a couple of hundred metres away and I knew that combining forces would ultimately assist the both of us. I increased my output marginally and pushed towards him through the gusts of wind.
I could see the rider in black slowly getting bigger and bigger as I pushed the big gears. Eventually, thanks to a poorly placed arrow, he almost missed a turn and had to almost stop before turning down the correct road. I caught up with him and said hello. He had big calves, that was my first impression. Cyclists are a bit like dogs in this respect. The first thing I do when I come across another cyclist is check their legs out. This guy's calves were disproportionately big. Normally I see big legs and assume that I will dump them on a climb, but this guy had just ridden into the wind better than me and was clearly in good shape. I concluded that when Saintbury hill arrived, we would be best served to stick together. He seemed to have come to the same conclusion. We chatted as best we could before deciding to chain gang it in an attempt to catch the other two.
At the next junction the routes split and the two riders in front peeled off down the 100km route leaving the two of us in joint 1st for the 100 mile ride (both of us rather surprised to be in this position). But the worst was just ahead. At the 50 mile mark we hit Saintbury Hill. This hill features regularly in the UK national hill climb championship and is respected for its uneven gradients, winding route and false summits. Saintbury may not be a mountain, but it is not to be taken lightly by even the lightest and fittest of cyclists. The only positive observation we could make was that we were in front and could afford to lose time on the climb, which was just as well. We both exposed our Achilles heels as the gradient swept upwards. Steadily, with grit and determination I struggled upwards keeping the other guy just within reach. As we crested the true summit I looked behind and was relieved to see no-one else yet in sight. Little did I know, but down the hill just behind one bend, a single cyclist was tapping his way towards us.
Slurping our bottles and sucking gels we headed towards Chipping Campden, a picturesque Cotswold town situated a stones-throw from Saintbury. We didn't stop to sight-see and I was also glad that this year no-one had switched the arrows around (leading to riders looping around the village before coming back to the same spot). We pushed onwards, taking equal turns at the front.
At the 66 mile rest stop we dismounted. I filled my bottles and bought a roll and a cake from the shop. As I worked my way through my Ham roll, standing near to the road, I caught my first glimpse of the 3rd position cyclist as he bobbed past into first place, shouting out his rider number to a marshal. The marshal trotted past us to the desk and said, "Looks like you two are now second and third!" Rather amazed that the rider hadn't stopped to resupply we got back on our bikes and set off a few minutes behind him. After a couple of miles we caught sight of him and settled ourselves down. We started to notice that his slight build meant he was pulling away from us on the inclines, but we were catching him on the flats and the down hills. It took us about 5 more miles, but we eventually caught up with him.
There is an uneasy alliance between cyclists, based purely on the advantages of working as a team. Although a Sportive is not a race, and at no point that day did any of us actually "race", it was gratifying to note that where I finished around 14th last year, I was doing even better this year. The alliance began as an informal interview as we started testing the new guy. Gently picking up the pace on flats and then dropping off the front in order to make it clear we wanted him to work, we soon realised this rider was both equal in ability and keen to help our micro-collective. He was clearly doing the same to us and eventually, once satisfied, we formed an unspoken pact and started to pull as one. We had formed a proper trio at around 75 miles, which is also when the towering cloud formations parked themselves overhead.
I can't remember exactly when it happened, but all of a sudden we found ourselves subjected to ferocious winds. Instead of riding the flats at approximately 20mph, we were down to 13mph with the front rider only doing a minute of solo effort before being swapped out. The headwind was ferocious, requiring just as much effort as a steep hill. But when we changed direction the situation became hazardous; being sheltered in the main by hedgerows, whenever we rode past an opening into a field we were hit by a side-blast of wind. Very similar in effect (I should imagine) to riding behind a jumbo jet preparing for take-off, the force would cause our bikes to slew across the road. We trundled grimly onwards as I started to consider leaving the two other riders and dropping off the back.
Fortunately, in the final ten miles we were rewarded with a change of wind direction and our journey to the start/finish became relatively pain-free. The three of us pushed the pace towards the end with a magnificent tail-wind, but worked together instead of ruining a good spot of teamwork with a sprint finish. We rolled over the finish line in around 5 hours 45 minutes, all of us exhausted. As far as I know, our third man had ridden the entire distance on just two bottles (I know he didn't stop at 66 miles!) which almost defies belief. I had drunk around 5 bottles worth of fluids by the end of the ride and even then I was urinating off the dehydration chart later in the day. How he kept going I shall never know.
Unfortunately, the final 3 miles is a haphazard mish-mash of industrial estates and busy roads leading us back to the start at the Park and Ride. Strangely, although we were cycling through the scenic town of Stratford Upon Avon, the return journey is much removed from the historic tourist trail. It small dampener on an otherwise perfect day.  The Shakespeare 100 is a showcase to the beauty of Central England. We had ridden out of Warwickshire into the borders of Gloucestershire, up Saintbury Hill and back again via Oxfordshire. The ride had passed through sleepy Cotswold villages and coasted across some stunning panoramic views as we pushed ourselves onwards. A great day and a rewarding time across the finish. Just don't mention the wind!

No comments:

Post a Comment