David predicted monsoon conditions for Sunday’s SWRC sportif. Well, we got that and a whole lot more: mud, rain and wind as well as a 149km (92 mile) route that seemingly never let up with nearly 2,400m of ascent.
For me it was my first proper British sportif. By contrast with the big events I’ve done before (L’Etape, Tour of Flanders) this was a very local affair. The signing on point was a car park at our usual gateway to the Surrey Hills in Cobham and riders set off in small bunches of no more than 20. The route would take us out into Surrey and Sussex, as far as Kirdford, where one of my best friends used to live.
But first, the weather. We said it was going to rain, and rain it did. From about 20 minutes into the ride, progressively getting harder, until about 20 minutes before I got home. Not just showers but the sort of very British downpour that hits you like a bag of nails and leaves no inch of you dry. Putting on your rainjacket is futile because it still gets in somehow and you get drenched with sweat anyway. So it was a good thing I had come armed with full winter gear: overshoes, legwarmers, full-fingered gloves and cap.
Setting out together, the five of us (Paul, Sam, David, Steve, me) soon split up into our relative speeds. David kicked on down the road, Paul and Sam pushed on after the first hill and Steve and I settled down to our task of meeting our target time of six hours. We managed to catch Paul and Sam in between hills but they went away again over the next one. We paid for that effort later on.
As it was a small field event we were very much left to working as a pair due to the lack of similar paced groups to pick off. We got through to the first checkpoint in good time and got the rainjackets on before hoping that the second section would be a little less uphill. It wasn’t, neither was the third, nor was the fourth.
Had it been a warm, sunny day it would have been a pittoresque blast through some lovely countryside but for us it was a case of keeping going to keep warm. The checkpoints were not chances for a rest but a brief respite while trying to avoid seizing up from cold. Bottles were filled quickly, timing cards marked and a slice of cake scoffed.
I stuck into the task with force, putting in some big efforts to keep things moving along, as did Steve. We had to endure two blokes who joined us and did no work for a stretch out in the depths of Sussex. I know this because the only way we could get them to come through was to slow and swing wide at the Half Moon pub in Kirdford, a place I know fairly well. Their pull on the front was slow and desultory and eventually they ducked out by making some vague excuse of needing a toilet stop. That’s a bit rude in my book, given the conditions and nature of the ride.
We pushed on until the final section where we knew we’d face Combe Bottom. A regular feature of Sunday rides, we’d already descended its 25% gradient on the way out. Now we faced the long slog back up it after 130km of hard riding. It was a whole new world of hurt for me. Steve and I were zigzagging the whole width of the road just to get up it. I had to get off halfway up because I thought I was going to fall off.
Steve kicked on after it and I tried to conserve a bit in the final kilometres, knowing I still had to get back home, another hour and a half of riding. We both made it to the finish at Ripley in around our target time, a few minutes over more but not much.
Refulled with a cup of coffee and a ham roll we set of back to Cobham for Steve to pick up his car and me to work my way back to London. Out of nowhere my right knee started to give me trouble meaning that the journey back was gentle in pace, in fact almost a very long warm down at well below what I would usually ride at.
Checking the computer when I got in it gives me 204.61km from door to door, done in 8:42 on the bike and at an average of 23.4km or so. I left the house at 7am and got home at 5pm, a long day in the saddle for pretty much all of that.
One thing it does tell me is that I can ride at a reasonable pace over a distance equivalent to the two big events I’m targetting, the UK and French Etape rides. Allowing for riding in bigger bunches and better weather I would have gone under the 6 hour marker comfortably I reckon. Now the challenge is to keep on building on this effort.