13th May 2017
Well that was by far the most physically challenging thing I've ever done, although not so overwhelming I didn't enjoy it. The sense of achievement was pretty damn good too. Day one started early with the alarm going off just after 4:30am in a Travelodge in Cheshunt. First order of business was to get breakfast sorted so one kettle boil later I was enjoying a cranberry & raisin MOMA porridge pot, with added banana, yummy, and a mug of your typical hotel instant coffee, bleugh.
After a bit of procrastinating over what to wear, the forecast for the morning wasn't great and once the overnight bags were handed over you couldn't add layers, and anything you did wear would still have to be carried for the day. Such are the problems of a cyclist. Fortunately it wasn't particularly cold so arm warmers and windstopper gillet were my only concessions over and above early summer cycling gear. The nod towards zebra patterning because of my using the event to raise a bit of cash for Ehlers-Danlos. Thinking I'd look a bit of a tit walking the the car in MAMIL get up, I found the car park full of similarly dressed tits. Like staying nearby overnight was going to be a unique idea on my part.
I met up with Gary at the check in at 6am for our 7am start and it became clear immediately that this was a well organised event. Bags dropped off and rider pack collected we readied for the off. My first cock up being that I stuck the adhesive tracker on the wrong side of my lid, even though it clearly said attach it to the left side of your helmet. A quick attempt of trying to remove it was aborted in lieu of some lateral thinking.
Lined up ready for the off, we listened to, and promptly forgot, the start briefing. As it started to rain we set off and I wrecked everyone in our start group's official start photo as they have me holding my cycling helmet up in the air, backwards. See what I mean about the lateral thinking with the timing chip.
So we were on our way, heading south through London, along the A10, in the rain. Nasty. For reasons I don't fully understand, wet roads greatly increase the risk of punctures and sure enough we were already passing people changing tubes after suffering air haemorrhaging.
Ten miles in we had our first highlight, riding over Tower Bridge. Not sure why, but it was pretty cool, which was good because you can keep the rest of riding in London. I'm not a fan of cities in general, finding them oppressive, and riding through our capital did little to change that. Fortunately, the worst of it was behind and once we got to the one mile 4% incline up to Crystal Palace things looked less built up and confined. There were even glimpses of open spaces and countryside.
At 23 miles we hit Layhams Road, West Wickham, which was the first notable climb of the day. It's hardly mountainous but it is a 2.5 mile drag with the promise of 75 miles of trickier topography beyond. It certainly seemed to wake the legs up. The reward of the increased elevation is views far across the Garden of England, or it would have been if we hadn't just ridden into the clouds, which offered tangible proof that clouds are not much more than water. These conditions certainly made the descent of Titsey Hill interesting, with the bike having a squirrelly moment more than once and made me appreciate disc brakes all the more. This bought us to the first pit stop of the day and with it a welcome toilet break. Gary's back teeth had been floating for a good few miles at this point.
The weather was starting to break as we arrived at this first stop and by the time we'd had a snack, emptied bladders and refilled bidons it had turned into a nice day, although a south westerly wind had picked up a bit. Had it not have been for this wind, the middle segment of the day's riding would have been a nice cruise along rolling countryside. As it was though, it will be best remembered for it's relentless headwind. It would have been very easy to have pushed too hard here to keep the speed up, not that we were going that slowly, but we were mindful of the hillier stuff in the last segment and kept a comfortable pace. A couple of slow drags signalled the start of the Surrey Hills and on more than one occasion the optical illusion of a false flat, a climb that looks like it is flat or even a descent, made you question why the bike wasn't rolling properly.
The food at pit stop 2 was more substantial compared to the snack based cuisine at the first. I picked up a falafel and mango wrap by mistake from a pile of wraps I actually liked to look of but was pleasantly surprised, it was very nice and really hit the spot. Further ablutions completed and a quick trip the onsite mechanics as Gary's bottom bracket had developed a creak. Given the all clear we set off for the days end at Windsor. I actually felt pretty good and felt we'd managed the pace into the wind pretty well. This basically meant Gary cycling at my comfortable flat pace, rather than me pushing slightly to keep to his.
We'd broken the back of the mileage but still had some troublesome hills in the way and first up was Pitch Hill, Ewhurst. 1.6 miles long and hitting 17% in places it presents mere mortal social riders like myself a challenge. This sort of stuff is out of my comfort zone, if there is such a thing on a bicycle. It's time to grit ones teeth and ignore the little voices asking why? and pointing out the nice shady spot where you could take a pleasant nap. To be honest, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I'd analysed the route in the build up to the event and had freaked out a little. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy, and I haven't missed my calling to be a pro cyclist, but I found my rhythm and actually felt pretty pumped at the summit.
The problem with cycling is that feeling is short lived, there's always another hill and in the case of it being the last climb of the ride, you get that nagging feeling that you could have done it faster. And as if to prove the point, no sooner had we descended back down to the village of Shere, we were climbing back up Combe Lane. This troublesome lump in the countryside features in the sequel to '100 greatest UK climbs', unsurprisingly titled 'Another 100 greatest climbs', and it seems, for good reason. I offer no apology for the language, it was a bitch. Maybe it was the the effort of the previous 70 miles or maybe it was my new found 'over'confidence but more than likely, it was the 20% gradient as you negotiated the hairpin. Probably a combination of all but suffice to say, it was tough.
The official photographers obviously know that not only will this spot slow the riders to an easy to capture speed but also present much photo enhancing gurning from people trying to keep their falafel and mango wraps where the body needs them, as there they were, like the worst paparazzi. That said, I was thankful of their presence at that point as being the self conscious, or maybe just vain, person I am, I reconstructed my game face and did my best to look good for the camera. By the time I was out of shot, I was around the worst bit with the summit in sight and able to revert back to wheezing mess.
76 miles in and the notable climbs done with for the day it was time to settle into a comfortable pace again as the tents at base camp were allocated on arrival and thoughts of being stuck miles away from the facilities gave a little focus. After a few miles a small group of maybe 15 formed and it was nice cycling at a decent pace. We seemed to clock up the next 12 miles pretty efficiently and I was looking forward to seeing my cycle computer clock up my very first century ride. At this point though, the guy at the front of the group missed a turn sign, as we all did to be fair to him, so we then continued to clock up distance, only in the wrong direction. It took 2 miles for it feel wrong, even though my GPS had tried to alert me pretty much instantly but such is the pull of following a group of cyclists. It really is lemming like at times. Gary, myself and the guy who had been brave enough to question our route to Gary stopped and discussed. Once we'd removed our group riding blinkers, it was clear we'd gone wrong, what was less clear was where we were and how to get back on course.
Luckily, an event support car passed in the opposite direction and, again luckily, was observant enough to see us flag them down. When questioned where we were and where we should be, it became apparent that they were just as lost as we were. Not so lucky after all then. In the end we set off back the way we'd come in the hope of seeing where we'd gone wrong before we ended up back at Lea Valley. Fortunately, the GPS units that had tried in vain to alert us to our human error do not hold grudges and dutifully alerted once again as we approached the missed turn.
Now I'm not sure why but, with just 14 miles to go, I had a bit of a dark period where I just wanted off. I suspect the 4 mile mistake on a particularly nasty bit of road, both busy and horrible surface, was the trigger but i spent about 5 miles feeling every single ache and pain and just felt fatigued. I guess it was a similar thing that runners refer to as the wall. It wasn't until I saw the GPS clock up the century that I snapped out it. A little further and we arrived at basecamp, Windsor racecourse, with the GPS reading 106.8 miles and 5184ft of going up. I wandered back to the finish line and waved my cycle helmet in front of the timing reader to once again compensate for my earlier stupidity.
The already impressively efficient organisation continued and in no time we had collected our overnight bags, found our pre-erected tents, had beer in hand and were discussing the days ride like the other hadn't been there.
Next stop was the shower block, which considering they were porta-shower units, I thought were very impressive. I was surprised by the lack of queue but that turned out to be a matter of timing, as did many things, we just seemed stumble into things at just the right time. The evening meal was included but the food was not really up to the high standards of the event in general. I think in part that was due to a change in venue for the basecamp, it was originally Ascot, and there was some politics in play over the catering. It wasn't bad, it was just, for want of a better word, bland. And, to resurrect an old punchline, such small portions.
A post dinner Guinness and a brief meet up with someone Gary knew of, rather than actually knew, and I was starting flag so forgoing the entertainment that had been laid on at the site, again all very nicely done, we opted to turn in for the night. It was almost 8:30pm after all.
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