Never again, again.

Hey folks, welcome to the latest installment of my two wheeled adventures. Truth be told nothing much has happened since I wrote the last post. After a long winter I’m very much enjoying the gradual improvement in the weather and quality of the roads. In other words I can start taking my road bike out on a regular basis again. Don’t get me wrong, I love riding my gravel and mountain bikes but nothing quite compares to the thrill of flying along on a carbon fibre thoroughbred.

I decided to mark the end of my Winter training with a new challenge. The century is one of those rights of passage for every cyclist, the idea of riding 100 miles seems completely absurd to most people and honestly I think they have a point. Why on earth would you want to sit on a bike for about 5-8 hours, gradually getting more and more fatigued and hoping you can make it home where a hot shower and massive amount of food awaits? I’ve spent years coming trying to come up with an intelligent and logical sounding answer to that question. It won’t surprise you to learn that I haven’t managed it yet, I come to the same conclusion every time – you want to do it simply because you can. Well, that and it makes for good bragging material.

I’ve done several of these rides throughout my Cycling career. My first one was an experience I won’t ever forget; I was 16 and still carrying a lot of extra weight having only been riding for about six months. Fortunately it was a flat route and we were well supported with feed stations. As century rides go it was probably about as easy as it gets. Of course I didn’t think that at the time – in fact the strongest memory I have of that day is that of an overriding desire never to to do it again.

Of course, after a while I forgot how much it hurt and decided to do another one. Before I started racing I’d usually have a long sportive as my season goal. This culminated in riding the three day Tour of Wessex a few years back, 330 miles covered in three days. Without a doubt I can say that the last stage was one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. 108 miles on an uncharacteristically hot day, featuring 8,000 feet of climbing and a bike equipped with a 53-39 chainset making it much better suited for flat terrain. That’s one event I won’t be doing again for a long while yet.

Anyway, back to the present. One thing I hadn’t yet attempted before last Saturday was a solo century ride. I’ve always had at least one another person with me. It’s a long time to be alone with your own thoughts, as much of a challenge for the mind as it is for the body. It was with that in mind that the idea popped into my head. It’s an uncertain time at the moment for various reasons and truth be told it’s taken a toll on my mental health. This ride was about proving something to myself. Few things will challenge your resolve as much as 100 solo miles in the hilly Devon terrain.

Inevitably my bike was in need of some attention beforehand. Cutting short a long story which I’ll discuss in another post it’s needed a new BB and rear brake. Bearing in mind my trusty Specialized is now 5 years old I can’t really complain. I toyed with the idea of going home and getting my race bike to tackle the ride but decided against it. For all its good points that machine is not ideal for long rides, the position is too aggressive and I’m deeply afraid of it getting damaged. My old faithful on the other hand is perfect for the job.

As per usual there was a mad dash to get everything ready the night before. With rides of this length you need to be well prepared. I made sure my light was charged, loaded the course onto my GPS, packed my saddlebag with the essentials, checked my tyres for flints and finally stocked up on gels and bars. After a surprisingly good nights sleep I awoke to the sound of my alarm at 7AM signalling that it was time for it to begin.

After wolfing down the mother of all bowls of porridge I set off. The first 15 miles were on familiar and fairly straightforward roads. My legs felt okay but far from their best, having only recently finished a three week training block this wasn’t unexpected. Unsurprisingly the weather was a bit of a concern, for the first half hour or so it looked as if some serious rain was on the horizon. It’s tricky to describe the magnitude of  the feeling of relief I experienced when the clouds finally cleared.

Soon it was time to turn off, having plotted the route using some fairly rudimentary software I had no way of knowing what the roads ahead might hold. As it turns out, potholes. Between miles 15 and 30 I longed for my comfortable gravel bike with it’s 35mm tyres and disc brakes. A particularly nasty surprise came in the form of a long, steep climb which turned out to be much worse than it had looked on the route elevation profile. Heavily exerting yourself too early on in a long ride can spell disaster but when you’re presented with a 25% gradient you don’t have much choice.

I’ve always found miles 25 to 75 the hardest from a psychological standpoint. You’ve gone far already and can feel the tiredness gradually creeping in but don’t yet have the consolation that there’s not far to go. My favourite strategy is breaking it down into five mile segments, thinking only about those next five to as greater extent as possible. This is also where the boredom tends to set in. You can never tell quite what’s going to pop into your head. This time round it was a variety of thoughts and feelings; everything from surprisingly intense anger about something that happened a few weeks back to trying to come up with the ultimate takeaway pizza order (texas BBQ with extra jalapeños and a stuffed crust if you’re interested). Focusing on these thoughts rather than the ride in question sometimes helps, making you forget the pain in your legs.

At mile 60 I hit a spot of bother. It had been a while since I’d covered any decent distance on a Road Bike and my back was seriously protesting. It was a slightly surreal experience, stopping in a lay by and spending five minutes doing stretches to try and get everything back on track. That, alongside taking on some extra food seemed to do the trick. The next ten miles were some of the most challenging of the whole route, more narrow and poorly maintained lanes. Progress felt agonisingly slow at times, every time I crested one hill the next one came into view. It’s the small, sharp rises rather than the long climbs that really take it out of you.

Mentally, the real test came along at mile 72. At this point I could have very easily cut the ride short by 15 miles and taken the straight, flat road home. Somehow I managed to avoid the turning, I’d made a point of telling a few friends about this ride in order to give me a degree of accountability. I didn’t want to have to explain that I’d given in. What came next was a serious physical challenge for my tired legs, two long climbs that I hadn’t quite fully anticipated when planning the route. It was the perfect storm, a strong headwind coupled with what would have otherwise been a very manageable gradient made it much harder going. Fortunately, having cycled up a fair few european mountains I knew how to pace these kind of efforts. In my head I broke the climb down into kilometre long segments. Rather than using power or heart rate I rode on feel alone, the only fields I kept an eye on were distance and cadence – trying not to let the latter drop below 80 rpm so as to spare my knees.

Once I crested the top of the last big climb things got a bit easier. The weather brightened up at precisely the right moment which did wonders for my mood. Being a Saturday afternoon the roads were relatively quiet by this stage and mercifully they’d flattened out. I ended up taking a wrong turn and riding on a busy main road for a few miles, fortunately it had a decent hard shoulder and disaster was averted. Miles 85-98 were relatively painless, returning to familiar surroundings. Unfortunately there was a sting in the tail, a steep hill that was completely unavoidable aside from the option of a long detour to get back into Exeter. Going up the other side of it at mile two was very easy, at mile 99 it was a different story. It took an age to summit and I had to tap into the very last reserves of strength remaining in my legs. Nonetheless I just about managed. Never has getting home felt so good.

Having had a while to recover and take stock I’m feeling quite proud of myself. It’s taken a lot of work to get myself to the stage of being physically and mentally capable of taking on such a task. Having a ride like that in my legs will certainly help when it comes to racing season which at the time of writing is just around the corner. As per usual I’ve promised myself I won’t ever attempt a century again, I give it about three months before I forget how much it hurts and start thinking about the next one.

Thanks for reading.

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