A lovely training ride in the outskirts of Lancaster
A lovely training ride in the outskirts of Lancaster

Am I a cyclist now? Trials and tribulations of a trainee sportive cyclist

Hannah discovers the world of cycle touring on the Way of the Roses, whilst training for a Big Race: the London to Surrey 100 mile sportive.

It started with an email: ‘We’re sorry you didn’t get into the London Marathon but maybe you’d like to try the London marathon for bikes?’

I had entered the London marathon for four years running, so to speak, and had never managed to get a place. I assumed that it was fairly safe to enter another ballot. That many months in advance there is almost no difference between an impossible running challenge and an impossible cycling one. I barely read the details. I should have been concerned when I forwarded the email on to my friends and they all said no. In fairness, I should have worried when I saw the distance but, as I said, I didn’t read the details.

So, it was a shock to the system when I was successful – in fact, it hasn’t really stopped being a shock to the system. I had a 100-mile sportive to prepare for.

First things first, where's my bike?

I did at least have a bike. I mean, I'm not completely stupid. I dug it out of the shed and failed miserably to pump up the tyres. OK, maybe I am completely stupid. Luckily the bike shop didn’t laugh in my face at the prospect of quite a lot of easy money and fixed my bike for me.

The first bike ride went pretty well. I spent the first half-hour or so trying to remember how to change gear and learning, pretty quickly, which lever made everything easier. After a long break for some ice cream, I headed home, exhausted. It was the furthest I’d ever cycled: 25 miles. Gulp.

Over the next couple of months, I spent a little more time in the saddle. I mean that’s easy to say when your previous benchmark is one 10-mile ride a decade. I investigated the gym near work and signed up to class called Sufferfest – the clue is there, it’s not exactly relaxing. I suffered twice a week for a while, before deciding that anything has to be better than sweating in a tiny box during a heatwave.

A big test

At around this time I was working on promoting our new guidebook to the Way of the Roses cycle route, which conveniently happened to pass behind my house. An idea started to form. Three days of cycling from Morecambe to Bridlington, over some pretty lumpy hills, would provide the perfect test of my cycling ability. If I did it early enough I would either gain confidence from it or a massive kick up the backside to do more training!

The Way of the Roses

I went back to my friends and found one who, although sensible enough to not sign up for the Big Race, was keen on three days of cycle touring. He had accompanied me on most of my training rides and I knew we would get on, even when the hills pushed us past the point of good manners.

Setting off on the first morning felt really tough. My bike weighed an absolute ton – I had packed really lightly but the pannier rack and the panniers themselves seemed lead lined and I could feel the difference as soon as I wheeled my bike out of the front door. I also felt overwhelmed by the challenge ahead: I had never done a cycle tour, the furthest I had ever cycled was still a pretty pathetic 40 miles and I hadn’t slept properly all week. Each day of the Way of the Roses would beat my ’most miles ever cycled’ record on their own and I had no idea how I would manage with three epic (for me) days concurrently. I’ve mentioned before that I possess a strange, and often unhelpful, talent for enjoying things that I’m no good at. My main strength seems to be just carrying on in the face of a challenge! This ‘skill’ got me as far as the lunch spot on day 1, which was in Settle, just before the biggest and hardest hill of the entire way.

We stopped for lunch in a bike shop and wolfed down an enormous plate of cheesy beans on toast while watching an array of proficient cyclists set off confidently towards the huge hill. This was a huge error. We knew we needed to fuel ourselves but a massive plate of cheese and beans and doorstep slices of toast was definitely a mistake. A delicious mistake, but still. We continued to watch the proficient cyclists and psych ourselves out, for what seemed like hours while our lunches slowly settled. It seemed like hours because, actually, it was. The more we sat outside the café thinking about the hill the more convinced I was that it was going to be horrific. I had a huge fear of not doing it – for me, walking this hill would signify total failure and mean unequivocal doom for the Big Race.

A good lesson, or three

Finally, we set off up the big hill. The book wasn’t kidding when it said it was: ‘an exceptionally evil gradient’. I started strong and then began to slow down. Then I started to zigzag up the hill (I’ve never been able to stand in my saddle). Then, inexplicably, I fell off. I was going so slowly that I should have been able to stop myself, but I couldn’t and I toppled over, my leg catching the chain ring as I fell.

Here, I learned a couple of really valuable lessons:

  • It ain’t cheating if you’re bleeding

I had been psyching myself out about this hill for days and days but, when it came to it, I had to walk. I tried a couple of times to get started again on the 20% incline but couldn’t so the only option was to push my bike up the hill. It wasn’t cheating and it didn’t make me a complete loser. Especially as I had blood pouring down my leg in a very gnarly fashion.

  • Walking up the hill is still pretty hard

I’m not going to say that pushing my heavily laden bike up the hill was just as hard as riding it, mainly because I'd get slapped by my friend Andrew who successfully pedalled his way to the top, but it was blimmin’ tough. Bikes are, in general, much more user friendly when you are on them, instead of walking next to one getting your bruised legs caught in the pedals.

  • Toe cages can be dangerous

Your mileage may vary on this, but I fell off my bike because of the toe cages I had just had fitted to my pedals. Not wanting to go for the fancy clip-in pedals, I had got the local bike shop to put some toe cages on my bike so that I could cycle more efficiently. I needed all the help I could get and I didn’t want to waste any of my precious energy! However, I had not realised that the toe cage would catch the front wheel if I zigzagged up the hills. It dawned on me that this was why I had fallen off earlier in the day, too – into a nettle-filled hedge – but never before. After removing my toe cages I didn’t fall off again, so any efficiency I might have saved was not worth the blood, stained shorts and nettle stings.

The rest of the day passed without incident and we cycled into Cracoe ready to find our accommodation. Andrew paused to take a photo of the sign and tried to halt me but I was on a mission:
‘Do you want a photo?’
‘Do I heck, I want a shower!’

Here’s another learning point from the novice: book your accommodation well in advance. This seems obvious but maybe there are people like me who didn’t realise that accommodation would get booked up pretty quickly over summer weekends… In any case, that’s why we stopped at Cracoe rather than the suggested overnight in Burnsall. I’d recommend Cracoe though as the inn we stayed at was wonderful, managed by a chap who was absolutely ideal in his roles as pub landlord/hotel owner/nutritionist/counsellor. We arrived at the Devonshire Arms feeling tired and slightly broken. We left the next day in high spirits, feeling like we’d have to find a reason to return to the otherwise unenticing Cracoe (any suggestions gratefully received!).

The second day was marvellous. Long and hilly, but the hills were manageable and I got my confidence back a little. I enjoyed myself so much that I squealed in delight when we dropped into the picturesque Pateley Bridge. The climb up to Brimham Rocks was, as promised by author Rachel, the ‘last major climb’ and I repeated this like a mantra all the way to the top. For a rock geek like me, Brimham Rocks is like a pilgrimage and I am always humbled by the history there. It puts a small thing like a bike ride, even a big bike ride, into perspective.

The long descent, passing through Fountains Abbey, was just sublime and we were grinning broadly all the way to Ripon. We had been able to see Ripon Cathedral from Brimham Rocks so there was a great deal of satisfaction in finally pedalling up to it. Although there was a slight dip in mood as we realised we still had 30 miles to go and couldn’t celebrate just yet…

We arrived into York seemingly through the back door – a quiet and peaceful cycle along the river Ouse got us right into the busy centre where we battled past hen parties and revellers to find our accommodation. We agreed that Saturday night did not show off York to its full potential and after a quick tea we were keen to get some rest, ready for our last day.

The final day was more of a struggle. My knee was complaining at yet another day on the bike (it may not seem much to you but I was breaking personal records with every wheel revolution!) and I felt quite ill in the morning. There was also less to distract us, with miles and miles of beautiful, but inevitably a little dull, wheat fields and not much else. We appreciated the easy cycling for a while before actually wishing for a few hills to break up the day. The final hill of the entire Way of the Roses felt a little laughable after the bigger ones of the previous days but it also served as a pleasant reminder of how far, literally and figuratively, we had come.

And then we were done!

Here is where I have to plug the book a little. It was brilliant. Although Rachel cannot take credit for the excellent signage, the route or even the views, she can, along with the rest of Cicerone, enjoy the quiet satisfaction of a job *very* well done. The book was excellent and, although we probably could have navigated without it, added masses to our journey including my motivational mantra of ‘the last major climb’. In fact, the only time we got slightly confused was when we got to Bridlington! The dreaded ‘they’ (the council, we assume) had taken the Way of the Roses sign away for a spot of cleaning, meaning that Andrew and I cycled up and down the prom a couple of times before being put right by a bemused family. We got a celebration photograph next to where the sign should have been, essentially just a metal pole, and cycled off towards dinner feeling bruised but jubilant.

One challenge down, two to go

Mindful that cycling the Way of the Roses in June was good but not complete preparation for the Big Race at the end of July, I signed up for another crazy challenge. Once again, this would be the furthest I would have ever cycled in a day and this time over some very bumpy hills in the Yorkshire Dales. The timing of this sportive was good – it gave me a couple of weeks to recover either side as it was exactly two weeks before Ride London. Again, this ride would either instil confidence or scare me witless. I was hoping that it would add to the boost I'd got from completing the Way of the Roses, but it wasn’t guaranteed. Actually, this ride passed without incident. Apart from a few moments where I let my fuel levels (and consequently my mood) dip, it was a wonderful day out.

So, am I a cyclist now?

My bike is just a normal one but it looks pretty cool now I have bright yellow bar tape. I am just a normal rider but I look pretty cool in my shiny bib shorts… ok, cool is pushing it. And I still definitely feel like a ‘normal’ rider rather than one of these super-fast whizzy types. And haven’t learnt my lesson as I have entered the ballot for the London Marathon again… But I feel ready for my Big Race and am looking forward to giving it my best shot. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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