Yesterday was the Highclere sportif, one of the events I had set myself as a fitness test before the Etape Du Tour. Yesterday was also about as much pain as I have endured on a bike since the last Etape.
It all started well with a gentle ride out from Newbury where I had stayed to Highclere. I passed my friend’s old home on the road and sang along to my ipod in the slightly misty dawn on the 40 minute ride up to Highclere Castle where there were already plenty of riders preparing themselves for the start. The sun was up and the conditions were as near to ideal as I could ask for. I even managed to persuade a lovely lady from the organisers to look after my bag for me and offloaded that and a few other bits I wouldn’t need.
Brendan, Peter and Richard from my club, London Dynamo were also riding and we managed to find ourselv es in the first wave off the start. The first section went well, with a good average speed getting us well down the road. I took a bit much wind and was breathing hard at the first climb but didn’t think I was too near my limit. We’d already lost Brendan to a puncture but I was pretty sure he would catch up.
Then up the first hill I came unstuck and started going backwards out of the group. It was a hill I should have got up reasonably comfortably given my training and fitness levels but there was nothing there in my legs. This annoyed my and left me floating between groups when I needed to be in one. Rich managed to stay in with that group before picking up another two groups later and it was reflected in his excellent time of under 7 hours for the event. I guess I should know by now: stay in the group, let the stronger riders do the work.
I made it through the first time control point in good time and still averaging about 30kmh. I did my calculations and reckoned I was on for a decent enough time, under 8 hours at least. Then my right knee started hurting. No reason for it to do so other than it just fancied annoying me. I’ve had it a couple of times but it’s so intermittent I can’t really nail down the cause. It comes and goes and I’ve put it down as “one of those things”. This meant I couldn’t get any real power down on that side. Coupled with not having anything in my legs this meant it was time for one of those grim sections of sufferance.
For the next two hours it was a case of gritting my teeth, taking stops when it got too much and riding every energy spurt as best I could. It was also the two hours in which I overdid the High5 energy drink and ate too much with inevitable results: I threw up down the front of my bike. Luckily it was on the relative flat and I managed to pull into a fortuitously positioned bus stop.
I eventually passed a local shop and loaded up on Ibuprofen to dull the pain from my knee until the next feed and the medics. I also took the opportunity to fill up one bottle with plain water as my stomach was having trouble keeping down the energy drink and I needed to stay hydrated.
My pace was pretty average to the next water stop where the medics gave the knee a good going over with the magic “hot spray” which eased the pain off and allowed me to get back on track. I found a nice groove and a few groups to work in which pulled my pace back up on the hillier sections. I was feeling much better. There was even a nice descent where I managed to push my top speed out to over 70kmh which is one to tick off in the achievements list. Somewhere in there I broke the midpoint and the 100km markers.
By the time we passed the 150km mark I was starting to consider am 8 hour time still achievable. After all, it was only about the same distance as three laps of Richmond Park to go. Only Richmond Park isn’t quite as hilly. Much of it passed in a blur of pain, some of it was quite enjoyable, such as finally finding a bit of a rhythm on the last climbs and being able to ride in relative comfort and a decent pace.
The final insult of pain came in the final few kilometres back up to Highclere Castle. My feet got that sensation of being nailed to a plank slowly by a not-particularly-talented carpenter, various muscle groups started to cramp and my body screamed at me to stop, go, eat and drink all at the same time.
When I crossed the line my only thought (uttered rather too loudly) was “Thank fuck that’s over”. But you know what? Within 30 minutes, a burger, a can of 7up and an ice cream I felt fine and could actually consider having had not too bad a day on the bike.
My computer timed me as having got round the 191km or so in around 7:45 at an average of 25kmh. My calculated time according to the official timing was for nearly 8:20. Allowing for injury, agony and stops I’m relatively happy with that. I would have liked to have gone faster but some days you just have to accept it’s not happening and get round.