Sportive Swansong

Earlier in the year, I decided that it was time to get more serious about cycling. In all honesty I’m still not quite sure why, being under no illusion that I am possessed of any natural talent or skill whatsoever. A power meter was soon ordered, races were entered and for the first time I began to consider nutrition etc with a degree of seriousness. I bade a tearful goodbye to chocolate cake, pizza and many more of my dearest friends.

In my newfound quest for performance (aka wild goose chase judging by the results so far) I vowed to get out of my comfort zone. If I was to become a truly ‘serious’ cyclist I would have to focus on racing, so far my only events have been sportives and as such I decided to bow out of that world in style.

So it was that I entered myself in the multi day Tour of Wessex┬« – by far the greatest endurance challenge I had ever attempted. Over the course of three days, 330 miles would be covered, venturing into Wiltshire, Dorset & the perilous (as it turned out) Exmoor. For next few months, up until last weekend, my training program was tailored to this event (never was there a better excuse for a bad performance in a circuit race than “I’m doing lots of endurance training, just decided to come along today for the fun of it”).

There was no shortage of trepidation on that first day, 100 miles lay ahead of me and I would have to ride it with the knowledge that two harder days were to follow. Of course my sensible pacing strategy was disposed of somewhere within the first forty kilometres. Caught up in the adrenaline rush and fresh legged feeling, I decided to try & beat my PB for the distance. Luckily I soon found myself in a rapidly travelling group, one of the few advantages of being a 60kg climber is that no-one wants you on the front on account of a lack of power & straight line speed.

The miles began to build up, a relative lack of climbing coupled with the presence of a pair of triathletes (despite an objection to the hairy legs I have to say they were machine like on the flat sections) meant a fast time was on the cards. There was little time to admire the scenery for fear of falling foul of a pothole or colliding with the rider in front of me. Yet, I found a great sense of enjoyment in being strong enough to hold my own, even doing the odd turn at the front (before one of the faster group members would take pity & come past me ). Miraculously I finished with a gold standard time – something I’ll admit to being very smug about.

The success of the first day had come at a cost, I foolishly ignored the warning signs that had surfaced in the last ten miles – my left knee was throbbing and cramps had manifested in the legs. This was such a concern that I resorted to a massage at the finish, I don’t envy the sports therapist who was presented with my pale and emaciated frame, complete with the characteristic tan lines that can be used to spot a cyclist from a mile away. Fortunately she was able to fix my legs so that I might continue the next day – on the morning of which I woke up with an unusual sense of optimism.

Psychologically the second day was tricky, longer (118 miles to be precise) and with more climbing than the previous stage, it presented a significant obstacle, to be completed with the knowledge that there was yet another long day to follow.

Once again I gave up on the idea of conservative riding soon after the start. This time I had made it into one of the leading groups and as such hoped for another quick ride. Slipping into a dozy state at the wrong moment (something anyone who knows me will not be surprised by), I was dropped with 75 miles still to go. The resulting effort to bridge the gap took something out of me and I found myself on the back foot for the remainder of the day – only just able to hold the wheel of the rider in front. Worse still, with 25 miles to go I succeeded in running out of water, having lost a bottle running over a bad pothole and not realising. With the last feed station a distant memory I had no option but to carry on and hope I didn’t succumb to the effects of dehydration.

Rather than elation, I felt only relief upon crossing the finish line, annoyingly missing the gold standard by 45 seconds. I was grateful to have survived, of course, as per usual it was my own fault that the stage had almost taken a turn for the worst. The following day was set to be character building to say the least.

Come the final morning, it felt as if my bed was crying out for my swift return – in all honesty I seriously considered giving in. Today my legs were protesting strongly, along with my back & just about every other part of my heavily fatigued body. Suffice to say it was a late, grumpy and reluctant arrival on the start line.

The stage itself started gently, out through Somerset and the smooth flat roads that characterise the levels. I realised an error had been made in setting off late, no group formed and soon I was out in no mans land, hoping I was going quickly enough to catch a fast wheel. Thankfully another couple of guys caught me up, together we were faster, picking up a few more along the way. By now the hills were starting to appear, the challenge of Exmoor rapidly approaching. Our group made it to the first feed station at the base of Porlock Toll road (yes, thats the famous climb), at this point I said farewell to my companions – no point in trying to keep a group together in undulating terrain.

Exmoor proved the straw that broke the camels back, the pattern went something like this: Hill, Headwind, (short) descent, and repeat. Thankfully it came to an end with around 30 miles still to go, on the map it looked like an easy run to the finish, in practice a very different matter.

By this point in the day the temperature had risen significantly, I’d foolishly set off wearing 3 layers and began to regret this somewhat. Once again I was on my own, occasionally passing others and once or twice being passed – the antics of the previous two days had rendered me half dead. Fortunately I was caught by a group, able to manage the pace with the incentive of getting home as soon as possible. I even found myself able to work on the front, albeit only for short stints at a considerably slower pace than that which the others could sustain.

Luckily this group stayed together all the way to the finish, I eventually crossed the line in a time of 6:30, ten minutes short of an overall gold time. Ultimately I was a little disappointed, however I still look back proudly on those three days at the end of May, after all I am a mere 19 years of age and as such find myself at the lower end of a competitive age category.

Almost 7 weeks later, I am just about recovered. Able to look back (almost) fondly on the last stage of my sportive career. What a glorious ending it was, encompassing some stunning scenery, camaraderie among strangers and most prominently a large amount of suffering. In effect, cycling itself.

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