Last summer I bought my first road bike. I’ve been a mountain biker for years and always swore I’d never be caught wearing Lycra, clipped into one of those skinny-tyred, drop-barred bicycles. But having a family, and living in an area that offers no trail riding, means I only get out on my big, full-sus enduro bike every other weekend. A road-orientated alternative seemed like a sensible way of getting some extra miles in mid-week, straight from my front door. After all, surely any time spent on two wheels is time well spent! Roadie order placed, along with cleated shoes, bib-tights, leg warmers, arm warmers, jersey etc….
And unless you had been living under a very damp rock last year, British summer 2018 turned out to be one of the longest, driest and warmest summers since records began. (may not be factually correct. But it was a scorcher!) This meant long summer evenings exploring the country lanes of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, generally taking in a pub en route. Turns out I like road bikes!
So after my first summer on tarmac, I signed up for the Velo Birmingham and Midlands 100 mile bike ride, taking place in May 2019. I didn’t execute a perfect training plan, as I forgot I should’ve been training through the winter, and subsequently remembered 2 months before the Velo that I really ought to get my road bike out. That said, a winter of regular mountain bike trails kept my legs spinning and I felt in good shape as May rolled around.
With the big day trundling closer, dropping my ride casually into conversations – “I’m so sorry, I can’t make your organic house-warming bring-and-share lunch that day. I’m in a 100 mile bike race.” – more and more people asked for a reason why I was doing it.
“What charity are you raising money for?”
“Oh, I’m not doing it for charity.”
“So you’re going for a new PB? What time are you hoping to put in?”
“I have literally no idea how long it’s going to take me.”
The only answer I could give was, I was just curious. I’d like to think that my body would be resilient enough to endure epic multi-day adventures on two wheels. Tales of round the world quests, Alpine traverses, end to end escapades – they always seem to require the rider to eat up around 100 miles of road a day, every day until the mission is completed. Therefore, if I ever aspire to similar endeavors, I’d need to be capable of not only completing 100 miles, but to do it comfortably. The Velo would be my litmus test.
The starting pen was freezing! Loading in at 6.50am ready for a 7.20am start, it was 4 degrees Celsius but would later rise to 16 degrees by early afternoon. Having doubts about my layering system, I shivered and tried to convince myself I’d warm up once moving. No one else seemed to be shivering.
My pen – Red 5 – was released at 7.24am, followed by a slow scoot until our chunk of the 17,000 participants had created enough space between each other to warrant clipping in. I had never ridden with more than one other person before, so the shear amount of eager cyclists fighting for space was somewhat daunting. Ridding east into the early morning sun, I struggled to relax into a rhythm, my focus darting from being mindful of my pace, wary of other riders, and worrying whether I’d ever warm up!
But, upon leaving the outskirts of Birmingham at mile 10 and crossing into the north Warwickshire country-side, my pace settled, and I started to enjoy guessing what riders would dart in which direction. It seemed I’d found my flow and was moving along naturally between the hundreds of cyclists accompanying me and my patch of asphalt at any given time. Although conscious not to out-pace myself, overtaking slower riders became addictive, providing a sense of progress as I grinded out the miles. By the time I entered the City of Coventry, I was actually enjoying the madness of this two-wheeled stampede through tight turns and narrow cobbled streets. The sun was out, I’d stripped of my arm and leg warmers, and the halfway point was in sight.
More miles, more pit stops, more energy gels and flapjacks, saw more and more people lining the streets to cheer us around the course. I was amazed to see how many people had set up camp on their front driveways to shout encouragement and wave banners at the unknown passing cyclists, cups of tea and pork-pies in hand. The route would go straight passed my Mother and Father-in-laws house at around mile 80, so my wife, two girls and the in-laws were out with banners to cheers me on. I pulled in to use their toilet and get rid of my winter kit, jealous of their poached egg and asparagus picnic. (I’d not long earlier polished off my lunch – a peanut butter and jam sandwich!) Their encouragement gave me an energy boost, and with 20 miles to go I set off at a faster pace towards the hilliest section of the Velo – miles 80 to 90 featured more climbing than any other part of the route, but with every mile gained, my grin grew broader. I felt good and ready to finish.
If miles 80 to 90 forced you uphill, miles 90 to 100 offered the yin to the formers yang – 10 miles of mostly downhill coasting towards the finish line! I upped my cadence as I gripped the drop bars, no longer concerned about out-pacing myself. I continued to zoom through the suburbs of west Birmingham, over-taking victorious but respectfully knackered riders as onlookers shouted praise and encouragement. For a brief moment in time on a spring Sunday afternoon, I felt like a pro! I passed a guy at mile 97 fixing a puncture. Poor sod. I hoped it wouldn’t happen to me!
And then, it was done. 100 miles traveled on two thin loops of rubber, powered only by my own legs! (And a heck of a lot of energy gels!) Truth be told, the end was a slight anti-climax. No praise. No photo moment. No hugs or hand shakes. Just a load of volunteers handing out Weetabix milk shakes and medals as they hurried you along, eager to get everyone through to avoid congestion. I’d finished in 7 hours 43 minutes, which I think is entirely average. Nothing to write home about (or a blog about!), but not appallingly slow either. I never doubted my ability to cross the line – I’m a very stubborn bastard who wouldn’t dream of finishing anywhere short of what I’d told people I would do. But I had wondered what state I would be in at the end of a long day in the saddle. Perhaps I’d collapse of exhaustion as I free-wheeled over the finish line, ploughing into a photographer, sending me arse-over-tit into a crowd of spectators? But to my delight, I felt great. I wondered whether it was adrenaline and it would soon wear off. But as I edged my way towards my car and prepared to do battle with post-Velo city-centre traffic, the spring in my step was still present.
Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not boasting of my superior fitness. As already mentioned, my finishing time was so drearily average that it could be likened to a chocolate digestive in a world of superior biscuits. Some were crossing the line in a super-human 5 hours. And I absolutely felt like I’d just cycled 100 miles. The cramping in my left leg and numbness of my under-carriage was testament to that! The cause of my smugness stemmed simply from the fact that there was still a bit of ‘chirpy’ left in me. I wasn’t passed out on the floor! And if I needed to put in the same mileage again the next day, then I think… think… I could probably pull on my bib-shorts with a smile and crack on. Perhaps I could tackle a multi-day adventure?