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Notes on a sportive

“Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits.”

With training, preparation and willpower everybody can ride further and faster than they think.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time” – that was the phrase going through my head on Sunday afternoon about 65 miles in to an 85-mile sportive ride. The question I’d just asked myself was “why am I doing this?”.

A sportive, the organisers are keen to point out, is NOT a race. It is an organised ride on a predetermined course. The course is usually signposted and your ride is timed (but it’s not a race!). There is other support offered such as feed stations and toilets on the route, goodies such as energy drinks and gels to entice you and support vehicles in case of emergencies.

The challenge

In a moment of madness I signed up for the Evans Ride-It MK Sportive. They offered three routes: short, medium and long at 35, 60 and 85 miles respectively. I needed a challenge and so I signed up for the 85-mile route. This was two months ago, which in theory gave me time to ride myself into fitness.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been riding through the winter and regularly covering 40-50 miles. All those wily (and wrinkly) old cyclists say that if you can ride 10 miles, you can ride 30 and if you can ride 30 miles you can ride 50. So, how hard could it be? If I can ride 50 miles I can ride 85, right?

There are a lot of cycling expressions that need taking with a pinch of salt; I know now that “if you can ride…” is up there with “there’s only one more hill” in the big-fat-whopper club of cycling fibs.

So I’ve got a target distance and I’ve got a target date. All I need to do is up my fitness, up my mileage and lose some weight. There’s another truism – every cyclist thinks they could be lighter. For me it’s a true truism. Having looked at last year’s route I realise that the 85 miles contains at least one big climb and in total almost 4,500ft of climbing. Not fun when you’re the wrong side of 100 kilograms.

The anticipation

My preparation went pretty well all in all. I got out to ride several times most weeks and I started to feel noticeably stronger. In fact it went so well that in the week before the sportive I managed to achieve a three year ambition of mine and complete a regular 17-mile ride in under an hour. I was happy, I was ready.

If this all seems a little easy, believe me there were moments of doubt. On those days when your legs have nothing and the whole ride feels like it’s uphill into the wind, you feel a lot of doubt. Can I really ride that far? Can I do it in a half respectable time and not embarrass myself? How will my old injuries and 50 year-old body cope?

In many ways the riding was the easy part for me. My inexperience was causing a lot of nerves – the fear of the unknown. What will the weather be like? And so what should I wear? Shorts or tights? Full gloves or mitts? How many layers and are they for warmth or to not be too warm? Skull cap, buff…. enough options to keep you up at night.

As well as the weather, there’s the food, drink and equipment. It’s not like you can pop back to the start if you get it wrong. I end up taking the following:

Wind jacket, 2 Energy Gels, 1 Energy gel + Isotonic, 1 Energy gel + caffeine, 2 cereal /energy bars, 600ml energy drink, 750ml water, Pump, CO2 canisters, Inner tube, Tyre Levers, Multi-tool, Cash, Phone, Map!

The event

The day of the sportive arrives so I pack up the car and drive to the start (the irony isn’t lost on me). Maybe it’s the nerves but despite being told several times you can’t register without your helmet I dutifully queue up and then, when I’m almost at the front, I remember that crucial piece of information. I collect my helmet and queue again, by now I’m probably already burning calories with nervous energy.

Did I eat the right breakfast? Did I do enough carb-loading yesterday? Have I drunk enough water? Shall I wear the jacket?

I register and get my timing chip (it’s not a race) – I’m good to go. I join the queue for the start and I’m joined by a friend, already I’m more relaxed. We shuffle forward for a while and then pass through the timing control point (it’s not a race). Finally we’re riding.

I’ve been telling myself for weeks not to go off too fast in the first couple of hours (and, it’s not a race). Despite that and even knowing that I’m doing it, I get caught up in the adrenaline rush and start quicker than planned.

We have a target of two hours to reach the first course split point (imposed by the organisers, not us). We reach it and the first feed station in about 1h 45mins. I’m happy with that, I’m feeling good and fairly fresh, but that’s only 28 miles. The thought of doing exactly double that distance again is a little daunting.

After a short stop we set off. I ride for a while musing over the types of bikes people ride at these events, their clothing choices and their riding style. You see all sorts; the knock-kneed and the pigeon-toed, the heel pushers and, my personal favourite, the ones whose knees have had a fight and are as far apart as possible.

The big climb

I know that soon we’ll be reaching the part of the course I’m least looking forward to, “Tom’s Hill” at Aldbury. It’s not an Alp, or a Col, but then I’m not a Froome or a Wiggins. It’s a long steep climb by local standards and it’s going to be hard.

It is hard, the first half is brutal and then you reach the sharp turn where the gradient comes back at you one last time. I drop to my lowest gear (or is it highest? I never get that right) trying just to spin the rest of the way up. We reach the top and I’m shattered, and worried – it shouldn’t have been that hard.

A little while later, while I’m still recovering I realise that we are at the halfway point. It’s another milestone. I’ve been mentally ticking them off while we’ve been riding; 10 miles, 20, quarter distance, a third and so on. Half of the battle on these rides is mental and for me this really helps.

Tom’s Hill was tough, but the halfway point is a boost. My next milestone is the second course split at 48 miles. We have a target of three and a half hours to reach it and we pass through at about three hours. Another confidence boost and although I’m tired, I’m still feeling reasonably ok. On to the next feed station at about 50 miles.

We have another brief stop and I indulge in both cakes and flapjacks from the selection provided. I’m not in the slightest bit hungry – I just know I need fuel. We top up with water and set out. For a while now we’ve been heading North or Northwest and straight into a cold wind. Now I’m getting a little cold as well as tired and my backside is starting to complain.

Wind is my nemesis. It drains my legs at an alarming rate – no matter how much I ride on the drops it pushes at me, hard. It isn’t especially windy, maybe 12mph, but that’s enough. The relief of the previous feed stop has worn off and now I’m truly getting tired. Even the fact that we pass the three-quarter mark doesn’t lift my spirits much.

The final push

Here we are then, 65 miles and I’m thinking “why am I doing this?”. I could’ve done the 60; that sounds impressive enough and I’d be finished by now. What possessed me to sign up for the 85? We make an impromptu extra stop and I have the last of my energy drink and a gel. I’m determined to see this thing through and so we set off. Only 20 miles, I can do 20 miles. Really it isn’t even 20, it’s two 10s with a feed stop in the middle. I can do 10.

The next 10 consists mainly of climbing and getting over Brickhill, at least that’s how it felt. I noticed the official photographer at one point and having seen the photo it’s definitely more grimace than smile. We plough on.

We make the feed station, I’m so happy to sit on more than two square inches of my backside for a while. Almost everything aches now. I’m spent; just shoot me. I eat everything I’ve got left; an isotonic gel, a caffeine gel and the last energy bar. I also have flapjacks from the feed station.

As we leave the feed station I’m thinking 10 miles, only 10 miles, I can do 10 miles. There’s a small climb out of the village and then we’re heading north. I tick off the first mile, and the second then three, four and five. There’s five to go and do you know what? – I’m actually feeling good; I’m aching less, there’s some juice in the legs and I’m enjoying myself.

Five mile fever

I’ve never had a caffeine gel before. Apparently it’s like three or four cups of coffee in one hit. I know that caffeine is a drug, but I’ve never thought of it as a performance drug. The effect was unbelievable; more energy, less tired, fewer aches, a bit of what I can only describe as euphoria. Caffeine; I’m hooked.

We are now entering MK and have about three miles to go. My friend wants to give it some welly on the main road in and asks how I’m feeling. In my usual glass is half empty manner I say I’m not too bad. We hit the main road and, barring an incident with a maniac Mercedes driver, we blitz along at 25mph. Not too shabby after 84 miles eh? My friend remarks with amusement that I was obviously feeling pretty good.

As we roll the last few yards to the finish I’m elated. What a ride. What a day. I shall remember this day for a long time, days like this are what life is about. I think to myself, that’s why you’re doing this, because you can’t buy this stuff, this only comes from within.

I go through the timing point (it’s not a race) and my time for 85 miles is 5 hours 28 minutes; under 6 was my target. I smile to myself and feel just a little self-satisfied. It won’t win me any trophies, even on Strava, but I beat my goal and that’s what matters.

While packing the car my friend says “so, 100 next then?”. I look for my gun…

About the author: David started riding again around 2013 having not ridden for most of his adult life. As with many new and returning cyclists, it started with a charity cycle challenge and continued from there with regular commuting and joining a local cycling group. As of April 2016, this is his longest ever ride.

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