Mountain Mayhem 2014

Mountain Mayhem 2014

Image: Alastair Johnstone

Image: Alastair Johnstone

Why do we test ourselves? Why must we do things we don’t need to do, push ourselves towards intangible limits for no gain or glory? It’s different for professional athletes, of course – for them, pushing yourself physically is their stock in trade, but for the mere mortals that make up the bulk of the population, it’s more ephemeral, George Mallory’s response to the question, “why do you want to climb Everest?” It’s hard to argue a need to do endurance events, because there’s little glory in it beyond your own band of brothers (and sisters). You’re not going to make the news, the bank balance isn’t going to swell, and, outside of your fellow competitors, no-one’s really going to care. So. Why do you get a four-man team together for the Wiggle Mountain Mayhem 24 hour endurance mountain bike race? Because it’s there. Mallory would approve.

Team NTG are newcomers to the whole Mayhem thing, which goes way back to 1998 as the oldest 24 hour mountain bike race in the country. We picked up the gauntlet for the first time last year, as the event moved from the legendary Eastnor Park to new premises at Gatcombe Park, and although Mayhem has a reputation for being unlucky with the weather, it was dispiriting last year to have to spend a whole day collectively slithering through mud and along the ground. Still, where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling right? Right – the entry for the 2014 event was being planned long before the clag had been washed off the bikes.

This time the weather was outstanding, bright sun and blue skies all day long. The rules for a 24 hour mountain bike race are pretty simple – at twelve midday on Saturday, there’s a mass running start to the bikes. You can then commence lapping the 7.3 mile course right up until midday on Sunday, and any complete lap started within that timespan will count. Accordingly, as the team member who so far hadn’t yet started a race, I found myself amongst the masses lined up as the clock ticked towards midday.

There was a great, carnival atmosphere on the line, and it was hard to resist the temptation to run like the wind when the klaxon, especially with a horde of lean athletic types bounding past me like gazelle. I’m not an athlete – no, really, I’m not – but running is way down my list of sports I’m less bad at, and the outstanding first few yards that saw me in the top fifty at turn one had dwindled to a position as Tail-End Charlie, barely ahead of the solo riders (yes, solo racers at a 24 hour race – it’s not right, it really isn’t) who, less bothered by a rapid start, were walking the kilometre to their bikes.

Mayhem’s course designers have learnt a thing or two about building a track, and the opening miles were fast and open, which meant very little in the way of tailbacks, even with many hundreds of cyclists setting off at roughly the same time, plenty of room for passing if you were quicker than the rider in front. Gatcombe Park is Princess Anne’s garden, and it is glorious, rolling wooded hills and meadows – under the summer solstice sun, what had been slick, rutted tracks last year now became great, fast-moving trails. Downhills were the order of the day for the first half, culminating in the fantastic Red Bull timed section, but the payoff was a climbing-dominated second half. Ah well – you’ve got to have the bad to appreciate the good.

After the fast and technical Kenda descent, clearing the last climb out of the valley was a challenge for overheated riders, a natural sun trap in the bright glare of midday, but that led you to the final mile of the circuit, which led through the campsite itself, addressing a criticism of the event from last year and giving riders a great atmosphere as they panted their way to the line. I peeled off after one lap and handed over to Steve after a hard sixty five minutes in the saddle. Still just under twenty three hours to go…

Steve was on it and was back for changeover after less than forty five minutes – team captain Jon was next up and even quicker, clocking a sub 43 before Luke dropped in a solid anchor leg, putting me back on the bike little more than two and a half hours after I’d last stepped off it. If ever you have any doubts as to the elasticity of time, endurance racing like this is a great experiment – time on the bike can seem very quick, on the good downhills, or very slow, on the tough climbs. And between stints, when you’re trying to rest and recover as best you can, it flies like an eagle.

Having been tonked by my team mates on lap one (and, err, being lapped by the leaders, into the bargain), I pulled the pin on my second lap and gave it my maximum sustainable pace – the end result was that I was still miles off the pace, but quite a bit more fatigued, having no problems throwing water down my neck but struggling to eat, going big on malt loaf and flapjack. By half eight I was back out again, the heat having gone out of the day and a simply amazing dusky light settling across the estate, racers flying through dappled patches in the woods. After handing over to Steve, I hit the caterers for a pasta bolognaise and a brew – a curious sensation, I felt desperately hungry, but had absolutely no desire to eat, even though it was very nice. I forced it down anyway, and was very glad I did.

As darkness fell the woods became a moving cosmos, bright lights flitting between the trees, and NTG played what’s as close to a tactical ace card as we had – two lap stints overnight were planned in order to allow everyone to get as much rest as they could through the night. Having given ourselves a rough guideline of an hour a lap, we were way ahead of schedule, starting my night shift almost an hour and a half early, around half ten. Riding through the night is a different experience, each rider isolated in a little cone of bright white light, with little to be seen outside your own personal bubble. Modern night lights are astonishing, way too bright to be safely deployed on the road, but even they can do little to dispel the encompassing darkness of the woods at night, owls hooting and unseen creatures crashing through the undergrowth as you passed.

With the heat of the day gone, it was a really pleasant environment to be cycling in, but the fatigue load was making it very hard going – physically tired, hydrated but hungry, and desperate for some sleep. It was the thought of sleep that kept me going, trying to work out how much time I had, even planning strategies on my return to minimise the time taken to secure my kit before I could hit the sack. It’s at times like this that my respect for the solo riders is at it’s utmost – even now, just two days later, I know I can only get a sense of how bone-tired I was at that time, and how utterly incomprehensible to me it was that people had been riding non-stop since the race had started. The atmosphere and camaraderie on the course was fantastic throughout, riders chatting and encouraging each other all the way through, but to have a solo rider cheerfully tell me “ keep going, you’re doing well”, at nigh-on one o’clock in the morning as I slogged dispiritedly up a slope while he bounced past… I wish I knew who that person was, because in its own insignificant way, in that tiny moment, I caught a glimpse of what people are physically, mentally and spiritually capable of, and I knew how vast the gap was between those limits and my own. Even in the darkest depths of my own personal midnight, it was mightily inspiring.

It was just gone one’o’clock when I finally stumbled back to the changeover area, Steve handing me the transition jacket (© NTG VC), pedaling blindly back to the tent and jumping still fully clothed into bed, the alarm set for half five. But it was earlier than that when I awoke, still fatigued and wishing I could stay in bed for, ooo, another week or so. As I listened to the world slowly waking up in the earliest of the dawn light, I could hear Jon treading very carefully around, and gave him a quiet shout, see if he knew when Luke had set off so I could judge how long I had left in bed. But as we were chatting, disaster unfolded – Luke, unable to eat since before the race began, had been subsisting entirely on gels and energy bars, and the acidy fuel was playing havoc, giving ferocious acid reflux on top of the physical and mental fatigue. By six in the morning, he was through.

So it was an urgent jump out of bed, grab the bike, fill a bottle and time to head straight out on the circuit. Things were starting to hurt, but the air was lovely and cool and crisp, the campsite still asleep as the eedjits on bikes kept whizzing through. With the sun rising, the little damp that had developed overnight started to dry out and the return of visibility made the course fun again. But my concerns were purely selfish – I knew I had one more lap left to do before the end of the race, and I was becoming increasingly worried there might be two on offer. I knew from speaking to Jon that Steve had suffered cramps during his night stint, and there was an outside possibility we might end up down to two riders. I didn’t think I could face any more laps…

I was thus even more happy than normal to see Steve waiting for me in the transition area, and celebrated with a bacon and egg roll and a cup of tea before returning to camp – again, it was that curious sensation of feeling starving, but really feeling unable to eat. It was a struggle, but the food was delicious and I felt ten times better for having eaten something solid. Rejuvenated, I returned to camp and prepped myself for the endgame – which largely consisted of a change to dry clothes, some water, and a refill of my water bottle. Then all there was to do was wait.

As nine o’clock approached, the sun was well up and it was time to get back on the bike. I won’t lie, it hurt, but I knew that the backside pain would ease a few miles in – the leg pain, however, was going to be here to stay. Jon was in to hand over all too soon for my liking, and it was time to go.

It was a weird lap. I knew that, if nothing went wrong, I should be in time to hand over to Steve, then Jon, and they were still lapping plenty quick enough to finish before twelve, which left the possibility of another lap. Like a lot of blokes, I take a stubborn pride in never giving up in the face of adversity (see common perceptions of men reading instruction manuals, for example), but the realization was dawning that I didn’t want to do this anymore – could I still ride the bike? Physically, yes, I guess I could turn the pedals and still push up the hills, but… I just didn’t want to do it anymore. Mentally, I’d thrown in the towel and it was a hard realization to take.

But with that realization came release, and it was both a sad and enjoyable last half of a lap, knowing that I wouldn’t be riding this course again, at least for this year. One last attack down the Kenda descent (and how much more fun was that in the dry, compared to the slithery slide it was last year!), then out into the field for the last climb up the valley. Already crowds had started gathering as the final hours of the race drew nearer, and I was absolutely determined to ride that last climb out. I won’t lie, it felt a bit emotional riding the final mile through the campsite one last time, throwing a (very basic) shape over the plastic Jump Of Doom ramp before handing the baton to Steve. And I don’t mind admitting I had a little tear in my eye as I returned to camp for the last time.

We did ok, by our standards – 25 laps in 24 hours, 55th in Open Men out of 80. The post race celebrations were satisfied but pretty muted, and as I write this, two days later, I’m tired and it still hurts to walk up the stairs. Genuine consideration was given to not returning again next year, on the basis that it’s never going to get any better than that – that’s how good it was. But whether we do it or not (and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion we will…), there’s no doubt there’ll be thousands ready to take up the challenge for 2015. Why ride Mountain Mayhem? Because it’s there.

 

 

 

Review – One Man And His Bike by Mike Carter

Review – One Man And His Bike by Mike Carter

 

One Man And His Bike

A life-changing journey all the way around the coast of Britain
by Mike Carter

 

One Man & His Bike

I must confess, I didn’t pick up this book with a great degree of enthusiasm – I’ve read motorcycle-based travel books before and found some can go on long after they run out of interesting things to say. So imagine my surprise when I picked up One Man And His Bike and was almost instantly drawn in – the tagline is simple enough (“what would happen if you were cycling to the office and just kept on pedalling”?), but it’s the execution that makes it fantastic. You can almost see it – a man desperate for escape, for change; he’s cycling to work and reaches a junction. One way – towards work is; traffic jams, road works, blowing horns and exhaust fumes – the other runs alongside the Thames, and onwards out to the sea. Who wouldn’t be intrigued at the possibility, the promise? It’s almost poetic.

Well, Mike Carter was, for one. Instead of heading to Argentina, he decided to load up the bike and follow that road to the sea, and the result is an amazing, epic travelogue, 5000 miles around the coast. It’s not written as a travel guide, or a “how to do your own epic ride”, it’s purely Mike’s story – as a consequence, he doesn’t get bogged down in detail and the narrative fair dances across the page. If you’re looking for his in-depth thoughts on your coastal town, or want a useful guide to an interesting seaside destination, you won’t find it here. But what you WILL find are 350 pages of the most wonderful snapshots, of places, landscapes, history, cycling, beer, cakes, camping, and most of all, people –  Mike will clearly speak to anyone, and it’s his encounters with the broadest variety of the populace that really bring the book to life. On almost every page, it seems, there’s an artful vignette of a meeting between any kind of random person you can think of, and some bloke on a bike.

What makes this a stand out book is that Mike is first and foremost a writer, rather than a cycling enthusiast. His prose is wonderfully measured and efficient, a deftly-wielded artist’s brush picking out beautiful detail rather than a housepainter’s roller covering everything in stodge, so it races along, but it still leaves you with strong impressions of the many things he saw and did, so you get a wonderful sense of the country and its people in a nutshell. And it’s funny, too – proper laugh-out-loud-in-public funny, as well as wistful, insightful and informative.

If you’re a hardcore racer who’s only interested on the inside story from the peloton, this may not be the book for you.  But if you’ve a love of cycling in general and you’re looking for a good read, whether it’s to pass the time whilst winter rages outside, in a hammock on your summer holidays, or even (dare I suggest) on a cycle tour round the country, I highly recommend it. This is a book that has the power to inspire.

CyclingShortsOneManAndHisBikeReviewRating
Title:
One Man And His Bike 

Author: Mike Carter    

Published by Ebury Press

Available in Paperback & eBook

Price:
RRP £7.99 (Paperback), RRP £7.99 (eBook)

Review – The Hour: Sporting Immortality The Hard Way

Review – The Hour: Sporting Immortality The Hard Way

 

The Hour

Sporting Immortality The Hard Way
by Michael Hutchinson

 

TheHour-MichaelHutchinsonCyclingShortsReviewThere’s an attractive simplicity to the hour record – one man, one bike, sixty minutes, away you go. As tests of human endeavour go, it couldn’t be simpler, but Michael Hutchinson’s account of his attempt is a long, long way from being an anodyne account of a simple record bid. Part autobiography, part history, part non-fiction drama, it wears a great many hats and (not unlike the author) covers a lot of ground in a very short space of time – it covers his own life story, of course, but also hosts a vast array of anecdotes concerning cycling past and present, road racing, time trialling, training, drugs (inevitably) and the hour record itself. So it’s for anyone with an interest in cycling, because it casts the net far and wide.

But I suspect that it might also be a good book for anyone not that interested in cycling, because Hutchinson is a great writer. Self-deprecating and wonderfully dry of humour, he wanders seemingly aimless across the landscape of cycling, touching on a historic fact here, a biographical note there but always linking the narrative together seamlessly and at an easy pace. As the book continues, the spotlight focuses more and more upon his own attempt at the record, and the result is a fantastic portrayal of the almost claustrophobic build-up of stress and intensity.

I won’t spoil the ending, but Hutchinson is well qualified to have a tilt at it – with over fifty national time trial titles to his credit, not to mention three British Time Trial Championships, a brace of Irish Time Trial Championships, a British pursuit crown, and let’s not forget his victories in the Brompton World Championships (a title which the UCI seem strangely to have yet to award a rainbow jersey for), he’s as successful as any domestic male cyclist has been. But he’s also a PhD, and a successful writer, Cycling Weekly columnist Dr Hutch and author of a book on sailing – this is a man with many strings to his bow. However, there’s no ego out of control here – his ability at time trials is, he freely admits, a simple quirk of genetics, and even discovering cycling was an accident; otherwise he’d likely be a frustrated academic to this very day. Moreover, sometimes cringingly self-aware, he has no problem with – indeed, almost rejoices in – poking fun at himself.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that it’s too short; not in terms of value for money, because at a retail price of nine quid in paperback it’s pretty good on that score – I just wish there was more to it than the 288 pages, because he’s never dull, never lingers long on any one topic. As a result it’s an easy-going page-turner that takes you on a compelling journey that’ll have you laughing out loud and gnashing your teeth, sometimes at the same time. In turns both very funny and painfully honest, The Hour just might be the most entertaining book on cycling I’ve ever read.

CyclingShortsRating-TheHour

 

Title:
The Hour – Sporting Immortality The Hard Way  

Author: Michael Hutchinson    

Published by Yellow Jersey Press

Available in Paperback & eBook

Price:
RRP £8.99 (Paperback), RRP £8.99 (eBook)

 

Inside the Death Star…

Inside the Death Star…

Have you ever wanted to have a mooch around the much-vaunted Team Sky bus? I know I did, and thanks to Jaguar, along with some lucky competition winners, we got that very chance whilst the Death Star sat awaiting its star charges during the final stage of the Tour of Britain.

Team Sky Service Truck - Image ©PaulHarris/CyclingShorts

For a race like the Tour of Britain, Team Sky send the team bus and a big service truck – the service truck has a kitchen and laundry at the front, and bike storage and a workshop at the back. The workshop is empty because the team are out on stage, safely shepherding Sir Brad’s run to the gold jersey.

Bernie Eisel’s spare helmet waits patiently for the call to arms - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

 Visiting the team bus while the riders were away was the cycling equivalent to stepping aboard the deserted Marie Celeste where the coffee pot on the stove was still hot. Bernie Eisel’s spare helmet waits patiently for the call to arms.

 

Inside the Death Star - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

The bus was designed and built solely to transport nine riders from the hotel to the start line in as comfortable a fashion as possible. The first vehicle to be built so uncompromisingly, other teams have since followed suit.

 

Chris Froome favoured during his Tour de France triumph - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

Team Sky advise that their riders become attached to particular seats – this seat, the second row on the right hand side, is the one that Chris Froome favoured during his Tour de France triumph.

 

David Lopez occupied this seat during the Tour of Britain, and his newspaper, recovery bar and phones await his return -Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

The seat behind the Froome chair is the one that David Lopez occupied during the Tour of Britain, and his newspaper, recovery bar and phones await his return. Team Sky were fantastically open-handed about allowing us access.

 

Wiggo’s seat, predictably enough, is in the front row, right behind the driver - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

Wiggo’s seat, predictably enough, is in the front row, right behind the driver – some goon who really doesn’t like having his picture taken poses with the jersey that Sir Bradley picked up at the end of the Guildford stage the day before. The helmet weighs nothing.

 

Sir Bradley’s shades and his Guildford trophy - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

Sir Bradley’s shades and his Guildford trophy. The seats are exquisitely comfortable.

 

The rules according to Team Sky - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

The rules according to Team Sky.

 

Meeting room where the world’s supply of energy bars, gels and powders are stored - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

At the back of the bus, past the showers, is a little meeting room where the world’s supply of energy bars, gels and powders are stored. We were invited to go and have a look around, but I felt too guilty intruding on someone’s workspace to go any further.

 

How much do you want to try a bottle of this? - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

How much do you want to try a bottle of this?

 

Team Sky Bus Exterior - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts.

Even from the outside, I’ve always been appreciative of what Team Sky have done for the sport in the UK, purely in terms of results and the associated boosting of the profile of racing. But it was a privilege to have a chance to have a look on the inside – even in the closing stages of a fairly important stage race in which they had a vested interest, they took the time to offer the chance to have a mosey around to four randoms that they didn’t know from Adam. And not just a faceless guided whizz around – we had a guide, of course, but Rob could not have been more open and friendly. It was remarkable – all their riders’ personal kit was there, any questions could be asked, photos were encouraged and nothing was off limits. British Cycling Head Coach Shane Sutton was on and off the bus doing his thing whilst we were there, and he was perfectly happy to answer questions as he worked.

It was a fantastic treat, for any cycling fan, and a real privilege to have had the chance – massive “thank you thank you thank you!” thanks to Fran Millar of Team Sky and Claire Boakes of Jaguar for allowing Cycling Shorts this window into such a fascinating world. #ToB2013 #ridelikeapro @TeamSky @JaguarUK @Sportbrake

Wiggo & Cav’s Triumphant Homecoming – ToB Stage 8

Did you go? Were you there? In case you left the country for a couple of weeks, you would have struggled to avoid seeing that the Tour of Britain hit the streets of this great cycling nation, and even with the inevitable inclemency of the weather, it appeared to be a great success. Cycling Shorts were lucky enough to be invited to London by Jaguar to see how the final stage all panned out, and did we ever pick a good day to go…

The first thought that occurred, when we arrived for the Johnson Health Tech Westminster Grand Prix was how busy the circuit was, even at half ten on a Sunday morning. The sizeable crowd was treated to the spectacle of the pack trying to attack Hannah Barnes for the best part of an hour, but their efforts were fruitless, the national crit champion relentlessly driving the bunch to cover chase after chase, with a final, full-blooded effort by Lydia Boylan and Nicola Juniper failing to stick after putting a big chunk of time on the peloton. The pack was all together for the finale and there was only going to be one winner in the sprint to the line, Barnes taking the win to popular delight. Two observations occurred – firstly, even when you have a standout favourite like Barnes, the racing can still be fantastic. And secondly, if you have any questions over the popularity of women’s racing, put them to one side – this race was massively popular.

The next event was the IG Gentleman’s TT, over one lap of the full 8.8km course, where pairs consisting of a pro “pacer” and a celebrity “gentleman” teamed together with the gentleman’s time over the line being the one that counted. Honours went to Andrew Griffiths and Francis Jackson with a respectable 11:47, tonking second placed Olly Stephens and Alex Stephenson by 47 seconds, with Gavin Morton and Steve Carter Smith another 7 seconds further back in third. I’ll be honest with you – I thought it was a really cool concept, but with very few exceptions (Lee Dixon, Dermot Murnaghen, Ned Boulting), I didn’t know who the celebrities were, although that may say more about me than anything else…  A good idea, though – maybe next year get Boris and Ken to get involved, add a bit of local colour and create a budding sporting rivalry.

But the main event was always going to be the final stage of the Tour of Britain. On a pan-flat stage, no-one was likely to make a race-winning break big enough to take the gold jersey, but that didn’t mean it was a dull affair, Pete Williams and Angel Madrazo joining a six man break in a frenzied battle to take the points jersey, the Spaniard taking it to add to his mountains jersey when Williams was DQ’d from a sprint for some overly lively riding. Inevitably however, the pack hunted them down and despite a late and valiant dash for glory from Alex Dowsett, it was all about the sprint, and there was only ever going to be one winner there, Mark Cavendish rocketing to his third stage victory. With Sir Bradley following him safely home to seal the overall, Whitehall went nuts in celebration – which is not a phrase you’ll hear often!

It’s hard to see the tour in general and stage 8 in particular as anything other than an unparalleled success. Certainly, all day long the crowds were both full and vocally happy, whilst the results were what everyone wanted. But more than just being a showcase for the extraordinary talents of two of Britain’s brightest stars, riders who fly comparatively lower on the radar than Cav and Sir Brad also received rapturous welcomes, riders like Alex Dowsett, Dan Martin and Nairo Quintana. It was great to see that, not only were they recognised and their names known, people were genuinely happy to see them, regardless of nationality. A year on from the Olympics, it’s clear that cycling has as firm a place in the heart of the sporting nation as it has had for many years, and all the signs show that it’s here to stay. Happy days…

Huge thanks to Claire and all at Jaguar UK for their hospitality on a fantastic day #ToB2013 #ridelikeapro @JaguarUK

 

 

My first Audax – the Hoarwithy 100

My first Audax – the Hoarwithy 100

Hoarwithy Toll House

Hoarwithy Toll House

Simple pleasures. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on a bit now, but some of the things I most enjoy about cycling are the simple pleasures – sunshine on your face, birds in the air, rolling green vistas, chatting on the wheel with your cycling buddies. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy, say, a thundering downhill headlong charge, setting a PB on my steepest Strava segment (KoM is just never going to happen, unless I create one that goes through our house) or getting that tricky rock garden just right on the mountain bike – I do, I love them and all the myriad experiences a cyclist goes through on a good day just as much as I ever have. It’s just that, over time, I’ve gained an appreciation of the less-adrenalin-filled aspects of the sport. Maybe it’s not about getting old, as such – more a matter of growing up.

Whatever it is, I think I may have found the perfect outlet, if Sunday’s adventure in the Hoarwithy 100 was anything to go by. As part of our continuing exploration of the world of cycling, three members of the nondescript, half-baked, semi-imaginary cycling outfit that is NTG RCC dipped a first, timid toe into the welcoming  waters of the Audax over the bank holiday weekend, with Jon, Luke and I assembling at a very reasonable 9:00am to get signed in. A small event, we never saw more than about twenty or so riders even for the depart (although there were more doing the 200km event), so signing on was simplicity itself, just a matter of finding the village hall and getting our brevet cards. After a pleasingly brief briefing, the keener types rolled merrily on their way, whilst NTG collectively thought they’d better ask if they needed to get their cards stamped at the start (a pointless question, in hindsight – we had arrived and collected the cards, why would they need to be stamped?). Thus, by the time we saddled up, everyone else was long gone.

Which meant that we only went about three hundred yards before the first navigational mishap, Jon and Luke’s Garmins unable to indicate “left a bit” when the road split. Somewhat worse, as we made our way over the Severn vie picturesque Hawbridge was the awareness that three had become two just a couple of miles in – Jon had gone missing, and as we got to him, the back wheel was coming out of his Genesis. A flat – that same tyre had been flat and a new tube fitted when they’d arrived barely half an hour before. This was not good.

Although the tube had gone in the same place as the one he’d changed earlier, there was absolutely no sign of the cause of the puncture – fortunately, there was a spare tyre back in the car, so I took a gentle spin back with the dead one over my shoulder, and within a couple of minutes of my return, we were on our way. It might not have been the brightest start, but we were thankfully untroubled by the puncture pixies for the remainder of the day.

And what a day. The sun was out, but there was just a smidge of cloud and the merest hint of a breeze to take the temperature out of the air, really perfect cycling conditions. As if that wasn’t enough, the route rolled us through the loveliest Gloucestershire countryside, all quiet lanes and green fields and coppices and villages – there was the occasional transit section on busier roads between lanes, but they were brief, rare and far between.

All, however, was not well. As Jon and I span merrily along, Luke was not feeling well – acid indigestion was bad, but worse he couldn’t eat and this was going to be a long day for us. Long before we hit Littledean, we were looking for shops as a source of Gaviscon but we’d clocked 26 miles before we found anywhere. After a brief respite to neck some tablets, we were all set for the off – however, if I’d known what was awaiting, I might have rested a little longer…

Right from the off, there was a stiff climb out of the village, and it sneakily went on further than you thought, straight runs to corners that hint at a flattened section for some respite, that then raise themselves to another long, straight drag with an evil laugh. What goes up, however…. The descent the other side down St White’s Road was adequate recompense, and served as a kind of gateway to the Forest of Dean. It had been all about the green and pleasant fields – now it was all about the trees.

But we needed more drama before we really got stuck into the woods. An ambulance had already come blaring past shortly before we reached Speech House, and as we crested the climb our hearts sank – a police car had evidently just pulled up, and diversion signs were in evidence. Trying not to think about what might have happened, and hoping it hadn’t happened to another cyclist, Captain Jon took out his map, but the omens weren’t good – already behind schedule, none of the obvious diversions were anything short of lengthy, but when Jon sought advice from the police officer deploying signs, she very kindly advised us to go through the section that had been closed; there was debris on the roads, so we were to take care, but we would be able to get through. It was very good of her – it would have been just as easy (easier, maybe) to tell us we had to go around, but she didn’t. Thank you ma’am!

Rolling steadily down the deserted road, you did wonder what we were going to find – a sharp, downhill right-hand bend, was the immediate answer, with the verge torn up on the outside, and a small hatchback upside down on the other side of the road. Fortunately, judging by the lack of urgency in the movements of the emergency services in attendance, and the slightly-shocked looking group of people who we presumed were giving statements, it didn’t seem likely that any serious injury had occurred, but it must have been a very lively few moments while it was all in progress.

It wasn’t long after that before we reached Symond’s Yat and the halfway mark checkpoint, signing in with minutes to spare before we ran out of time. Taking a break in the sun and getting some proper food down our necks (Luke still couldn’t eat, so I did my best to make up for him), our options were fairly limited – Luke felt ok to carry on, although understandably lacking zip, but the shortest way back was pretty much on the course, there were no train stations to hand so the only other bailout plan was to get someone to drive down and pick him up. Pluckily, Luke decided to just crack on, so after a very nice chat with the gentleman on the checkpoint, we re-kitted and headed on. Let me tell you, the vertiginous descent from Yat Rock down through Riddings Wood is quite the perfect post-lunch warm up, raising your heart rate without stressing your legs.

Once north of the A40, we were back into rolling fields territory, where even the most testing inclines ran out of steam before too long, the sun beaming down as the afternoon drew on, bouncing diamonds of light off the surface of the Wye. The second and final checkpoint was at Much Marcle, where we paused for a final brew and a chocolate biscuit at a control in front of an immaculate, curved-roof garage straight out of the Fifites and wonderfully still showing signs of everyday use – recent trophies sparkled in the front windows, whilst on the walls hung prints of Graham Hill and Jack Brabham, and the maestro, Fangio, four-wheel-drifting his Maserati through Rouen’s high-speed curves.

With Luke still unable to eat, we made our way steadily over the last fifteen miles or so into a sneaky little headwind that started off gently then began to build – taking turns on the front, by the time we drew close to Apperly the novelty of the breeze had started to wear off, so it was with an element of glee that we turned off into the village itself, another drag up a hill but sheltered, and all the better for knowing there wasn’t far to go. Rolling up to the final checkpoint invoked the sense of accomplishment that makes it all worthwhile, and we got to have a nice chat with both organisers and fellow participants. You don’t always get that at a sportive.

It had been a really good day, although I was glad I wasn’t Luke – I can’t imagine how tired he must have been feeling. The pace had necessarily been gentle given how under the weather he had been feeling, so we must have been pretty much the last back, but the whole ethos of the Audax seemed entirely non-competitive – if ever there was an event that stressed that the spirit of competition is with yourself, rather than externally, with any other person, this seemed to be it. Everyone we met had been very friendly, open and chatty, and probably the biggest surprise to me was how small the attendance was – there are just 27 finishers listed for the 100km, and 40 for the 200km. On the one hand, I’m staggered that such a well-organised, well-routed event should attract such little interest. On the other, I suspect that’s part of why they’re so great…

 

For more information on the Hoarwithy 100 and other Audax events visit: www.aukweb.net

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