Competitiveness, an urge to do your best, is within human nature, a part of all of us. But in the drive to further yourself, there are steps that you need to take – only the very few are born with a natural ability at any sport, and even for them there’s time to be spent and effort expended in order to hone skills and enhance physical attributes. Cycling is not immune; indeed, there are not many sports where the amount of time you put in so clearly has an impact in the amount you get out. So it behoves you to spend time in the saddle if you want to improve, and part and parcel of that is that there are boundaries to cross in your long personal voyage of self-improvement. I’ve just crossed two of them – my first sportive, and my first half-century.
The event was a new one – the Rawlinson Bracket commemorates the untimely passing of Nick Rawlinson, who passed away in his sleep at the shockingly unfair age of thirty. A keen cyclist, Nick was training for the Maratona dles Dolomites and his first season of racing – accordingly, his friends and family put together the Rawlinson Bracket to allow riders to experience some of the roads Nick knew well and loved to train on, but also to raise funds and awareness for Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. Whilst not a county particularly noted for verticality, Warwickshire nevertheless boasts some fairly beastly climbs along the Edgehill escarpment, and although the more leisurely 24 mile Bottom Bracket would give them a swerve, the 50 mile Top Bracket would utilize these and other climbs to the full.
Registered with British Cycling, online registration and entry was simplicity itself, and a couple of weeks before the event, my event number and on-the-day instructions hurled themselves through the letterbox. The day itself dawned grey and distinctly chilly, but at least it looked dry with no precipitation – parking at the Heritage Motor Centre, however, there were undeniable flakes of snow tumbling from the slate-coloured sky, although we were blessed to have nothing heavier fall during the event. Signing on was just a matter of turning up and signing your name in the appropriate place before heading out into the cold to get kitted up, and one thing was becoming very in-your-face apparent; although nothing was falling from above and the roads were dry, it was painfully, blisteringly cold. I was pretty well prepped, but in a moment of jaw-dropping stupidity, I’d left the winter gloves at home in favour of some slightly cooler* handware, cooler in both senses of the word. With Team NTG pedalling nervously to the startline, my fingers first started to protest, then yell angrily, then finally start to fall silent – and numb.
The briefing was cheerily delivered, useful and to the point, and before we knew it, we’d been set free and were off and running. From the start, the key note of interest was our fellow participants zipping past us at great pace and then disappearing into the distance – Team NTG’s scratch squad were a fairly fit bunch but they were carrying a hybrid-mounted great pudding in the form of your correspondent, and although I had been prepared for Vince, Jon and Steve to similarly make themselves very small on the horizon in no short order, I was very grateful to them for riding at my gentle pace. For the first mile or two, we followed the B4451 towards the amusingly-monitored Bishop’s Itchington and although traffic was by no means heavy, there were a few cars about – once we turned onto Knightcote Road, however, we were into the lanes and the remainder of the ride was blissfully quiet.
It was still flat, though, and digits were definitely on the chilly side. Riding two by two, we pedaled along in amiable fashion, honking about the cold and hoping for a hill to warm us up – Vince was on a box-fresh spanking new Specialized Allez bought only the day before, settling in and reveling in the step up from his Apollo hybrid.
It wasn’t long before we were passing Northend Manor, which meant Burton Dassett and the first serious climb of the day wasn’t far off. Burton Dassett is a lovely piece of parkland that normally calls on you to be shoo’ing sheep out of the way between heavily-gasped breaths – this time there were no sheep in the road as we passed, although my companions made like mountain goats and quickly dropped me. I wasn’t bothered; although tactics hadn’t been discussed, I’d half had it in mind that they might scoot off and ride at their own pace, which wouldn’t have bothered me – I knew that 50 miles would be quite a test for me, and that I couldn’t afford to try and match an unachievable pace, but if they wanted to test themselves, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them. I also knew from riding with Jon that my modest climbing pace was uncomfortable on his steeper-geared Genesis Croix De Fer, so I was unsurprised that the others would ride away from me when it got steep. What was pleasing, however, was that the others took it steady on the ride away from the top, and it wasn’t long before I was back amongst them.
In companionable fashion, therefore, we proceeded along the way chatting as we went, the next challenge being a climb up through the village of Shotteswell. This led us to the B4100 which runs from Banbury to Gaydon and forms a part of my regular commute, so I was overjoyed to launch myself down the familiar Warmington Hill in spite of the biting wind – by this time, even my trendily-attired fingers were adequately warm…
Turning west before the military camp, I gulped down a gel before we hit the B4086, turning south to aim at Knowle Hill. Knowle Hill is a proper climb, not too long (little more than half a mile), and the guys again worked their way ahead of me as we hit 14% – I’d done a recce a couple of weeks before, as I knew it to be an awesome piece of downhill tarmac, so I knew I was capable of riding up it in the middle ring, but it was still a bit of a shock to see dismounted riders pushing up the hill. My sense of inferiority born of taking a lowly hybrid to the start line against a sea of proper road kit diminished with every revolution of the granny ring.
Our ascent of Edgehill marked an approach on the halfway mark, and the rest stop at the top of the hill gave me time to assess – I felt ok, pretty good after a banana, and in my head there was only one more serious climb left. I’d had a bit of a play along Edgehill prior to the event, and thought I had things covered, but although I felt strong on the restart, once we’d descended into the picturesque village of Tysoe (there’s a great downhill on the way in – I unclipped the inside foot into a hairpin left just to be on the safe side, and my team members were asking if I was worried about impacting the scenery on the outside of the turn. Pff – bunch of old women). Tysoe led us onto Lady Elizabeth Hill which was a comparative long grind, at the top of which I struggled to make the time back up to the rest of the squad – I was definitely starting to lose strength. Just to make things more tricky, I managed to pull out an energy bar on a flat section shortly afterwards, but struggled to open the beast – as a result, I ended up trying to chomp on chocolate and orange as the road swooped up and down, turning the simple act of eating into a tricky prospect.
As we got to Compton Winyates Hill, passing the 35 mile mark, my legs had definitely got it into their collective head that they’d more or less had enough of this pedaling lark. Vince had to stop right at the foot of the climb to locate an errant gel, but came past me at a blistering pace on his way back to joining Jon and Steve – I was indifferent; by now it was all about trying to make the finish, and my legs felt like mush. Trying to generate extra power was like pushing water uphill.
The route then rejoined at the top of Lady Elizabeth Hill, and I sped gleefully down back into Tysoe before rejoining the lads just a couple of miles before Sunrising. I knew Sunrising of old – as a family we’d been driving up it on the way to Silverstone since the Seventies, and since I’d worked in Banbury, Sunrising had been a frequent part of the commute if I couldn’t face the motorway. I’d only cycled up it once, but it was and is the steepest hill I’ve cycled up so far. That was the end of January, and I’d managed to hold the middle ring, but on the day, little more than three weeks later, I had to drop to the granny ring almost as soon as the climb started; it seemed almost endless, but my bloody-minded spinning eventually had me round the top corner and at the apogee of the hill. From there I knew the route home – we’d cleared all the serious climbs. It was an overwhelming experience.
Once atop the escarpment, I put in some effort in aero mode to try and catch the rest of Team NTG, but we were through Edgehill before I rejoined with them. By then we were poised over Edgehill, a hill I’d ridden down a couple of times before and with my gravitational potential energy advantage, I managed to open a small gap on the rest of the team before we started to span the plain to Kineton. Putting in a turn to try and catch a couple of riders ahead of us, I gave it a dig before Vince took over, dragging us past them but also separating the team, the new Allez giving free expression to his prodigious ability. Steve gave vain chase as Jon and I worked our way more steadily home, but there was no doubting who finished with the most ammo in their legs.
Still, 50 miles, done; my first half century, and first sportive. It was a brilliant feeling just to finish the event, and it ranks high amongst my thus far meager athletic achievements. But complete it we did; cheerily run, the event was fun from start to finish and with over £4000 raised for SADS, there was a clear correlation between the fun had and the funds raised. No-one I spoke to had anything but praise for the event, and there was a pleasing finale when Steve and Jon looked to donate. When they went unsatisfied in their hunt for charity buckets, they asked a SADS-t shirted lady who advised them that there were no buckets, but they could leave contributions with her. In jest, Steve asked if they could be sure that contributions left with her would be safe and she smiled as she said that yes, they would be safe, as she is Nick’s mum. I thought it symbolic of the quality of the event that Nick’s family were there to pitch in, a year to the day after his untimely passing.
Nothing that I saw or heard leads me to conclude that the event was anything other than a complete success. I’ve no idea if there are plans to make it an annual event, but if there are, sign me up now!
*Coolness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but for me, the gloves I wore were as cool a pair as I own.
For more information SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome) visit: www.sadsuk.org.uk
To learn more about Nick and details on The Rawlinson Bracket event visit: www.the-rawlinson-bracket.co.uk