It was supposed to be straightforward: a 200km ride that I rode exactly four weeks ago, but this time in better weather with more companions on the road. However, it didn't turn out quite as hoped, with 150km of strong headwinds and a bonus 10km resulting in a hard-won first 200 miles of the season.
Note: the date of this post reflects the date of the ride; this post was written a couple of days later.
I suppose a bit of explanation: the actual Horsepower 200 is being run next weekend, but as I'm helping on the day then I get to ride it a week early; this was the helpers' ride. I had three aims from this ride:
- Finish the main ride properly, as this was to be my 200km qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris in August
- Better my time of 12h54m elapsed/9h48m moving from when I previously rode this route
- And take some decent footage of Steve Abrahams (a.k.a. ‘Teethgrinder’ of One Year Time Trial notoriety) and other riders using my new, cheap GoPro-alike camera, mounted rearwards-facing.
I figured, as I have done previously, that the 50-odd km from home to the start would make an ideal ECE+100 and made enquiries: nobody had extended a helpers' ride before, but it was okay and I just needed to do the usual submission. As Tom (the organiser) was due to set everyone off at 7.30am sharp then I had to be there on time, not late, oh no … unfortunately, the weather had different ideas: a very stiff southerly headwind all the way from Cambridge to the start at Great Dunmow near Stansted Airport.
I left home just before 4.50am, and the weather was a cool 4ºC or so. I picked the second shortest route to Dunmow: the shortest route formed part of the main event and so would be frowned upon to have ridden it twice with alternatives available. 55km in 2h40m — that doesn't sound so bad, but the headwind was strong, and the bike (with me on it) acts like an air brake, so it was tough-going.
There were times on the way down when I was twiddling along in bottom gear on the flat, the wind was up that much. However, I was trying to conserve my energy for the main event, so I was playing the longer game and maintaining an average 21kph. In the end I achieved just under 22kph and arrived at 7.20: some hurried greetings — Tom, Nik, Andy and Caroline, Steve — a quick change out of the night-time reflectives, grab a couple of pains au chocolats, start the camera rolling, take some still pictures, and we're off.
There aren't many exits from Dunmow, and typically Tom's routes use only two: this route takes the Dunwich Dynamo route north-westwards to Great Bardfield, Finchinfield, Sudbury, and carries on northwards to Lavenham, whereas the Dynamo turns east.
I made sure I was in with the lead few riders with Steve somewhere behind, so at some point he would pass me. I had installed a small mirror on the main tube of the bike so I could see roughly what the camera on the back could see and I kept a close eye on it expecting Steve to come by any moment — nope. What nobody had told me was that he was having a rest day and was taking it easy. It was a full 15 minutes or more before he caught me up: having turned with the wind at Dunmow, we were being pushed along at a fair old rate, wheeeee!
Not to put the filming time to waste, I set about moving up and down the group trying to capture shots of everyone: not many knew that I was filming and it must've seemed odd to see me freewheeling my way to the back and then sprinting back up to the front for another go! I didn't know what I would capture, and I just hoped all the effort would be worthile.
After a few miles I dropped off the back of the group and slowed right down to give Steve a chance to catch up. I could see him approaching from quite a way back and maintained a pace with him to a straight section, slowed slightly and let him pass.
Immediately I got back on it and matched his pace through a couple of corners as he latched back onto the back of the main group and then I blasted up the outside past everyone to the front for another go. I waited around at the front, having bemused quite a few riders by sprinting past — not a very audax thing to do.
Steve hung back in the group, enjoying the tow (I presume) and I didn't see him for a while, as I led the group (with a strong tailwind, this wasn't as selfless as it sounds). When Steve did eventually pass me again, it was unexpected: suddenly there was a light in my mirror from 30 metres back, then my mirror was full of Steve, and then he was in front of me, all over in 15 seconds or less.
I held a steady line and let him go — I thought that was that. But, no: on the next uphill section, Steve's pace dropped right off and I was able to re-pass him easily! What ‘easily’ here means is that I painted the road red with oxygen debt to pass him, while he kept his heart-rate nice and low to avoid tiring himself out — he's playing a year-long game, while mine's only as far as the first control.
As we passed through Finchingfield, Tom's eldest was parked up and taking photos. Having a video camera on the bike meant I was always taking photos:
We play leap-frog like this all the way to Sible Hedingham: I expend huge effort to get to front of the entire group and then drift slowly backwards, occasionally seeing Steve on my way back.
On the way down the hill into Sible, I have an odd feeling through the bike: the steering feels heavy, like the headset has seized. A few seconds later I have a squiffy moment in a sharp left-hander and have to correct the bike — it's clear on the video. I still don't know the cause, perhaps I got diesel on my tyres or something, but it didn't feel right. I am now cautious into every corner, just in case: I've come off a couple of times on greasy roads and it's never pleasant!
After Sible Hedingham it's a series of short climbs to Castle Hedingham and then a stiff climb out the other side. At this point I drop to my lowest gear (which isn't very low) and start winching up the hill. I weighed the bike recently and it's 22kg laden, which is a bit of a beast, as that's nearly 10kg — over 1.5 stone — heavier than a typical full-size bike! Downhills are a blast, but uphills not so much … The group ahead of me winches quicker and I can see I am being caught by another group from behind — perhaps Tom, who stopped to lock up the hall at the start, is finally catching me, as he's much stronger?
I don't wait to find out: at the top, as the road levels, my cadence rises and I find myself re-catching the group in front and dropping the group behind. However, this is only transient, as I never managed to hook back onto the front group and the group behind gets themselves organised and does catch up with me. Tom's not amongst them, but there is a fixie rider who is resolutely stuck behind me for some way: he's not quite got enough grunt to pass me on the ups, and the downs are sharp enough that I can freewheel quicker than he can hop.
He does pass me in the end and I am on my own: I reach down and stop the camera, there's nobody behind me to film at the moment.
I hit Vmax on the long drop down into Sudbury: I spin out at a mere 60.4kph. The disadvantage of this custom-built, close-range hub I am running means the lowest gear isn't really a climbing gear, and the highest gear isn't really good on long, fast descents. It's good at the speeds in between, though.
From Sudbury it's a short 10km to the control at Lavenham. I know Tom's still behind me somewhere, so I keep an eye on my mirrors. Eventually, about 5km from the control, I spot the tell-tale fluoro, a few hundred metres behind — I pick up my pace a bit, let's see how quickly Tom can close the gap I can see he has company and I keep them at bay for a short while and then drop my cadence a little to let them catch up, bringing the pace back up again to keep them in-shot. They do catch me and pass me, but slowly enough that I get some footage.
They ease up: I had been their target for the past few miles, working together to reel me in. We chat on our way into Lavenham, where we control at the Chili and Chives café — a nice and small café on the high street: it's going to be interesting to see how they cope next weekend with 50-70 riders coming through!
Inside I opt for a couple of slices of cake, since everyone else's cheese-and-ham toasties are queued up in the kitchen: I figure that if I go contrary to everyone else then I may make back some time. This turns out to be a good plan, and I'm back out before some have even been served.
Outside, I realise that I left the camera rolling for the past 20 minutes and have possibly the best shot of the day:
With a strong tail wind there's little advantage to being in a group, and I just want to keep moving: at the turn when we face the wind full-on, I know exactly how hard I am going to have to work, and I don't want to dilly-dally now just to create time problems later. The others will catch me; they always do.
I set off just after Nik, but I am in solo mode now: I stuff some choonz into my left ear and pedal on. I miss four turns on this section, as I am trying to use the route sheet for its intended purpose (and didn't do very well!). At one of my double-backs, Steve passes me, but I have no intention of trying to catch him now — I am too beaten up from the 50km into the wind and bouncing around the group like a loon taking video.
This early part of the Suffolk section has a peculiar feature, which I made a mental note of: squat water towers loom on distant hill tops like a string of overlord watchtowers! These dilapidated structures appear to be used more as mobile communications masts than creating head these days:
I like this Suffolk section: it's more laney and quiet than the first, Essex section; it's also not quite as hilly. Not that the Essex hills are that big: they're mostly small lumps that can be attacked out of the saddle as good interval training, but you don't get any “upside on the downside” for a bit of recovery. Suffolk just rolls gently, never really stressing you. And with this tailwind, it just flies by! I share the road with Kieron for a bit, but we don't chat: we just happen to be in the same place at the same time. Perhaps he can tell I have been on the bike a bit longer, I have a bit of a gritty face on … perhaps.
I maintain a decent pace on my own and keep an eye on behind me — expecting a bunch of riders to pass. But apart from Steve and Kieron, and the orange tandem, I don't recall being passed by anyone else, which I think is remarkable given that I am knackered. The wind pushes me relentlessly onwards, but I know that all too soon we will be coming back this way and it's going to be hell.
At Snetterton, I park the bike up and find my way into the café. Last time we were here there were five of us and it took them an age to serve us. This time there are 14 — I look for the sandwiches and cake; they don't have any sandwiches, so I opt for the cake and an early getaway, as I'm going to need all the time I can get.
Back outside I take a few shots — there really is an old Russian tank in the car park!
Back on the bike, I can feel the bite of the wind as I turn into it. Dave and Caroline set off just ahead of me on their tandem, but I intend to tough this out solo — it's good character-building weather! I winch slowly away from Snetterton, as this is some of the more exposed sections of the route. I need to make good progress while I can and take it easy when I can't. I give the rest of the group 15 minutes before they catch me.
Last time out I was intrigued by this old mansion on the horizon: I looked it up, it turns out it's a prepatory school:
I winch my way slowly back across the landscape, the flatness now providing meagre protection from the incessant headwind. My average speed falls lower and lower, I am now doing sub-20s, having gotten to the turn in better than 25s. I keep expecting to be overtaken and so I keep nudging goals: 20km, 25km, 30km — I just manage 30.1km of the stage before Nik overtakes me. I am pleased with that: it looks like everyone's suffering a bit. Steve inevitably overtakes me — he just appeared suddenly in my mirrors and then was in front, and then was gone, no hanging about and no time for photos.
I am soon caught by another two riders, but one stops for a bit of relief. On the final run into Newmarket, I can see a rider in my mirrors and I keep him at bay until the final climb: I just don't have enough in the tank to keep away, and he beats the lights ahead of me just as they turn red. I wave at him and Nik as they sit in the BP garage window and head off to the Shell at the other end of town, as they have nicer toilets …
I know that we are now heading back into Essex, and Essex has hills, and hills offer a barrier from the wind. Hills are also hills, so with one hand they give, and with the other they taketh away. Never mind, I just have to turn the cranks over and over and winch myself back to Dunmow — then I can have something to eat, as I haven't had any proper food at all, unless you count the Shell Deli sandwich. And after that I have to jump back on the bike for a dark, solo 50km back to Cambridge … I'd rather not think about that last bit just yet.
I am caught fairly soon by a group of several riders, who pass me far too quickly, but let me know that Tom's behind with a visitee — who'd had four visits! I thank my lucky stars for Marathons — I get about one visitation per year …
The distance between me and dinner slowly dwindles and hills actually get easier. The roads around these parts still bear the marks of Le Tour fans: "Go Sky", "Froome", "Shut Up Legs".
Thaxted comes and goes — it seems like all Essex rides pass through Thaxted. It's now the B184 to Dunmow, familiar to anyone who rode LEL last time around. Many riders bemoan this stretch of road, but its lumpiness is beguiling, none of it is terribly difficult, and the scenery is, when you can see it, picturesque. I like it. In Great Easton I am passed by another group, but still no Tom. I push on, relentlessly wearing myself out.
All too soon I drop down to the roundabout before the climb back up into Dunmow — this is one climb I find depressing, as there's a false-ish flat halfway up. The temporary lights at the top are on red, I have to wait. Soon enough I'm through and heading downhill to arrivée, which is at the Angel & Harp pub — Tom likes his pubs
As I'm locking my bike up outside, Tom and Jethro arrive: so in the time it took me to ride that 100km into the wind, they had time to finish lunch, fix four punctures, including a visit to a bike shop, and just about catch me up!! It turned out Tom had done one of his infamous “Tomsk The Tank Engine” impressions and towed Jethro back across Essex. Lanterne rouge arrived shortly after, so I had cut it very fine indeed.
204k in 11h35m elapsed — that's about 1h20m quicker than last time; and 9h44m moving, which is only about five minutes quicker than last time — that wind really took it out of me in the second half. Still, the average speed was better than 20s moving, which is fine for early season, I'm okay with that.
Inside Steve was still there, along with Dave and Caroline, Nik and a few others. I grabbed a risotto with chicken (I thought risotto was a fish dish?), handed over my signed brevet and PoP to Tom and headed back outside …
… where it had started raining, yugh! I chatted to Brian while getting the 'proofs on: he'd got permission to stay in the camper for the night and head home in the morning.
It's a steady climb out of Dunmow on the road back to Cambridge. Nothing particularly huge, but it's got to be climbed. There are actually three climbs, one after the other, before arriving in Henham and then it's mostly downhill all the way to Cambridge. And with that strong tailwind too — on one exposed section I was being pushed along at nearly 40kph!
During the ride I had worked out that my ECE was going to be about 109km, and the ride 204km, so if I could find a bonus 7km then I would total 320km for the day — an Imperial double-century! Club riders often think of a single Imperial century as a long ride, so to lay down a double this early in the season would feel good. Not only that, but Steve's been riding 180-200 mile days so far on his record-breaking attempt, so there was a chance I may out-distance him for one day and one day only
I put my brave face on and started to work out what dog-legs I could ride to bring my distance up. I opted to go the Ickleton route, which adds a bit, then cut back to Sawston, for a bit more, then turn right in Great Shelford towards Cherry Hinton and go as far in that direction as I thought I'd need to make up the distance before turning for home. In the end I didn't think it was quite enough, so I started zig-zagging through housing estates and rat runs through Cambridge itself.
And then, just as I was getting near home, it happened: 320km, 200 miles! Just for luck, I managed to add on another 2, so 322km for the day, big grin
All in all not a bad day on the bike. I completed my first PBP qualifier in a half-decent time, a few minutes quicker than last time; I suffered horrible abuse from the weather and it didn't break me; I rode well over 300km — over 200 miles — in a single day; nothing broke (except my poor body), nothing releasing air back into the wild; nothing lost or stolen; and hopefully some decent footage of Steve and the other riders from the video camera.
Back at home I started with the recovery routine, but to be honest I just felt sick and went to bed. Two days later and I can still feel the effects: I think I may have overdone it a bit on the bike … but it's days like these that build stamina and resilience. And even if it wasn't always fun, it was fun
If I can maintain my current cycling momentum, I think PBP should be not just achievable, but actually quite enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to it.
As for filming from the bike: I think that deserves its own write-up another time, as there were many things I learnt by doing it, and a few observations from watching the footage back …