My first sportive! As ever, I was pacing around the house twitching, so decided to get on my bike and head over to the Herne Hill Velodrome.
It was a bit nippy and, in my fingerless gloves, my finger tips got a bit cold. Good that the generous people of the Dulwich Paragon cycling club had very thoughtfully included tea/coffee/croissants and muffins the size of your head in the £20 entrance fee then.
It was clear straight away that the start of a cycle race is a very different place to the start of a running race (apart from the fact that it was most definitely as lycratastic as any running race I’ve attended). It was all very laid back, with riders rolling up, meeting friends, registering, grabbing some refreshments and heading out at their allotted times (I had been given the 9.40 slot but, as I was there stupidly early, I was pleased to find they were a bit more relaxed about this, and I was able to go at 9.10). I had my timing chip attached to my helmet and soon took to the velodrome for a quick once round before hitting the roads of south east London.
When I registered, I had the option of picking up a map, but it looked quite big and I felt reassured that there would be plenty of arrows (and riders) en route. As I rode along the road by myself, I momentarily regretted this decision, and hoped that I wouldn’t be adding extra miles to my course by meandering the wrong way, but I soon found myself riding alongside a Dulwich Paragon member, pedalling at a similar pace to me, and we chatted as we headed out of London and into Kent. I knew some of these roads from previous rides with friends, but was relieved every time I saw a blue arrow, and enjoyed riding with a few people every so often. There were whole stretches though where I was on my own, and I would occasionally wonder if I was going the right way, but would then be overtaken at speed by some whizzy rider and I would heave a little sigh of relief.
I knew from experience that this part of the world might throw some pretty serious hills at me, but I like a hill, and was in no way daunted, but some of those hills really did turn out to be *evil*! As is usual for me, I would grind steadily on the up and be swiftly overtaken on the down (I really must sort out that down thing), and soon enough, I was at the spot where you make your choice: 80k or 110k? I had already decided beforehand that it was 110 for me, no question about it, but it still made me smile to reach the fork in the road.
We really were spoilt with the most glorious weather, it couldn’t have been a nicer, more autumnal day. I wasn’t here to enjoy the views though, and really got my head down and pushed hard. It was interesting to see how it felt to ride – mostly – by myself over this distance, without friends stopping to take pictures, enjoy the view or even pause for delicious refreshments – it was good to push on, but sometimes a little break gives you something extra to tackle those hills. And my, the hills took some tackling. There were hills that I hadn’t met before, hills that have names that are known amongst the cycling community and hills that very politely announced themselves with a sign at the bottom: ‘Toys Hill’. Now, I have encountered this one before, but I think I went at it from the opposite direction, because this time it seemed all the more, erm, tremendous. Head down, I pushed on, looking up every so often to see how much more there was and how much steeper it was getting. Head back down. Look up. Head down. Brief flirt with an out-of-the-saddle moment. Bad move. Look up. And so on. And on. Oh, it went on. And on. But I got to the top, out of breath, heart pounding. It felt good.
Eventually, I saw signs for Westerham and felt a sense of relief at the thought of a fuel station and a chance to top up my water bottle. After the horror of feeling like I was dying after my duathlon the other week, I was absolutely determined to fuel this ride properly, with my jersey pockets stuffed with extra drinks mix, gels and a Jackoatbar (cut neatly into little bite-size chunks and wrapped in foil – I told you I was taking this seriously!). As I reached Westerham, I got distracted and overshot the turning, luckily realising I was on my own quite quickly, turning back and tracking down the arrow. Quite soon I found a gathering in the grounds of a church, huddled around a table full of water jugs, bananas and the most buttery and tasty flapjacks for that extra push up the last few hills towards London.
This next stretch offered some of the most stunning views, but also the roughest road surfaces and, of course, some equally rough hills. Even though my energy was flagging and my legs hurt (I actually did the ‘shut up legs’ thing), the thought of heading back to town gave me the boost I needed and I flew back with a smile on my face. I must say my smile faded slightly when I found myself unable to overtake some horse riders on a particularly stiff hill. One rider tried to chat to me, but all I could manage was a sharp ‘Can’t talk!’…
Some flat roads now, filled with traffic, and I met again with my co-rider from the early stages, to take on Anerley Hill, the last hill of our ride, towards Crystal Palace and our final stop in Dulwich. I got dropped at the traffic lights and took the last few residential roads and the odd little track to the finish line by myself. Here, I hopped off, handed in my chip and was given some little tags to claim my drink and pasta at the sports club.
If I had wanted, I could have had a pint of beer but, as always after a big effort, I craved a coke. How lovely to kick off my shoes and sit on the grass in the sun to enjoy a bit of refuelling.
Twenty-four hours on and I’m still buzzing, I totally loved it. I will be signing up again next year and aiming to beat my time of 5 hours 11 minutes. The organisation was excellent and I felt very well looked after. I think I might have found my new favourite sport – shhhh, don’t tell my running friends! 😉