Friday, 2 October 2015

This man can

I hate bicycles. I hate cycling. Cycling is a silly idea. A bloody daft pastime.

All of these phrases were to be heard coming from my lips last Sunday. Well, I may have edited out the profanities, somewhat. I was mining a whole, fresh new vein of swearing, if you want the truth. There is now an area of Worcester (just around Feckenham, ironically) where the air is permanently blue.

The reason? I was about two-thirds of the way through a 100km bike ride. And it was beginning to get a little uncomfortable.

Let's re-wind a little, shall we? In July I rode 70km (about 43 miles, you Imperial people) in support of the British Heart Foundation. It was about 50% more than I'd ever ridden before. But I was quite happy about the whole thing. Here I am, being quite happy:

Note the slight concern on the face of the gentleman behind me. To be honest, given his view at the time I'm not too surprised. But despite the rather damp weather, I made it around and beat my personal best for my longest ride.

But looming on the horizon was a large cloud called 'Personal Challenge'. And like most clouds, this one could have bought on stormy weather. Or it could have contained silver linings.

I feel the cloud metaphor is a bit overdone. Let's move on.

When you've done 70 of anything, the next target has to be 100, hasn't it? I knew that there was what cyclists call a sportive coming up in my area that covered 100km and was meant to be perfect for the first-timer. To the uninitiated, sportive simply means: "It's organised, there will be lots of people doing it, but it's on public roads and we definitely can't call it a race so we'll come up with a vaguely exotic-sounding name for our cycling event."

This particular non-race was the Tommy Godwin Challenge Sportive, remembering a local chap, one-time Olympic cyclist and famed Birmingham bike-shop owner. In his last days he'd been cared for by the Marie Curie Hospice in Solihull; the sportive is now run annually to raise funds for it. They advertised it as a great introduction to sportive riding. In a moment of weakness I signed up for it.

I did some training. I think the operative word here is 'some', however. I went out every weekend on my bike. Apart from those weekends when I didn't. I rode to work (about 22 miles) a couple of times. Then drove back home. The most I rode in one go was about 35 miles. So it's fair to say I was a little nervous when I lined up alongside several hundred racing snakes, all kitted out in Lycra and gore-tex, outside the Marie Curie Hospice last Sunday.

Luckily, I had Team Lard on my side. You'll remember them perhaps from last year, when I reached the giddy lengths of 18 miles with their assistance. And I was taking nutrition seriously, with my pockets stuffed with various energy bars, gels and such.

To nick a phrase from Hunter S. Thompson, we were somewhere around Barston, on the edge of the borough, when the adrenaline began to take hold. "Slow down," called out Leanne. "Don't get too excited." We pushed on through Warwickshire, heading for Stratford-upon-Avon. The weather was perfect, dry but not too warm. Leanne counted out the ride in five-mile intervals; at each one I'd take a bite of energy bar and some water. Richard realised there was a long way to the scheduled stop point, he needed the toilet, and he was wearing bib shorts.

A note about bib shorts. To you, they look ridiculous; cycling shorts attached to sort of overall-straps that you wear over your shoulders. But wearing them means you don't have a waist-band digging into you. They do make emergency exits somewhat tricky, though, as Richard was finding out to his peril. We made sympathetic references to dripping taps, waterfalls, etc, and carried on.

By now we'd been overtaken by most riders. They'd let us go in groups of 20 or so, at two minute intervals. We'd now been passed by people who had started some 20-odd minutes later than us. They'd come by, in a stupidly high gear, their tree-trunk legs barely seeming to spin. I think it was meant to be inspiring, but each one was like a dagger to my motivation.

But it was after the halfway stop when I faced my wall. Or in fact, my hills. The organisers of the ride clearly thought it would be nice to chuck in some challenges. But not at the start, when everyone was fresh. Oh dearie me, no. The inclines (for there were plenty) came in when my tank would have been past empty.

I'd thrown some Shot-Blok energy gels down my throat. The reviews said you needed to take these some ten minutes before you needed the boost. Unfortunately, my metabolism was clearly still working at a glacial pace, so I saw no benefit as I hit the hills. I'd grind up them, puffing and blowing (and swearing like a Welsh poet), then hit the top and receive a completely un-needed energy boost when gravity alone would have done the trick. Lesson learnt.

I think Rich and Leanne sensed I was struggling. Other then the swearing, my witty repartee was sadly lacking. They gathered around, keeping the chat going and telling me that my old, fat, wheezy body was doing wonderfully well. We even had time for a selfie:

Heading back into Warwickshire, I staggered my way through Studley, heaved past Henley-in-Arden and soldiered on to the Solihull badlands. As I began to recognise local roads - roads I'd trained on that summer - there was a barely-perceptible lift to my legs.

And then I saw another cyclist.

They were right on the edge of my vision, going along the same road. This was my chance. My chance to pass someone. I'd overtaken one rider beforehand, but as he'd just swallowed a wasp I don't think that counted.

I put my head down and clicked into a higher gear. My co-riders must have wondered what had come over me. But this was my chance. This was my opportunity to not be the last in, the makeweight, the Johnny-come-lately. I thought to myself: I've spent a lifetime being the last one picked for the sports team, the one who doesn't volunteer for anything physical, the one who doesn't compete. It's not going to happen now.

One thing I can rely on is physics. Especially the bits that talk about momentum. Once I'd begun to gain some speed I could see I was slowly closing the gap to the other cyclist. You are mine, I thought. I'm playing the long game, yes, but this is the day when Phil does not come in last.

I got closer, Leanne and Rich urging me on. We were in Solihull properly now. Well, we passed a Porsche garage. The other cyclist was still going, unaware of the shock-and-awe that Team Lard was about to unleash. This was it! This was my moment! This fat bloke can do it!

The effect of all of this of this was slightly undermined when we found out that the cyclist in question was a kindly-faced woman in her late fifties, riding a bike that probably carried a basket on it during weekdays.

But I'm still marking it down as a victory.

We swept into Solihull Town Centre, heading back to the Hospice. Rich and Leanne held back as I approached the finish line, oblivious, just wanting my burning legs to make one more rotation, two more rotations.

And then it was over. They gave me a medal. I had a bit of a moment.

And that's about it. That's the story of how an overweight, uncertain, inexperienced cyclist went and rode 100km in one go. Yes I was slow, no I was not pretty, and yes I probably was a hazard to traffic. But I only went and flippin' did it, didn't I?

I quite like bicycles. I'm pretty fond of cycling. Cycling is a great idea. What a worthwhile pastime!


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