Big Mountain’s reggae classic ‘Baby I love your way’ rings through my mind and for a moment it’s 1994. I’m back in the Princes Risborough Youth Club’s disco wearing bell bottom jeans, ‘avec’ turn ups, have curtains for a fringe and there’s a crap smoke machine making everyone choke. As my bleary eyes open I see 4.29am blink onto the source of the music my phone screen. I really must change that playlist as I obviously never listen to reggae from 1994 anymore! I crawl my way out of bed as the reality strikes that I do actually have to get up at this hour for a fun 6hr cycle ride. Yes folks this the big one, the Etape Cymru, an 85 mile closed roads cycling sportive around the hills of north Wales.
I’d ridden the Manchester 100 mile a couple of weeks before, raising £100 for charity in the process, thanks to all who donated and shame on you to those who didn’t! The Manchester ride was longer but much flatter taking in only 3500 feet of climbing; the Etape ascends for 9500 feet in a slightly shorter distance. I’d been nervous about this upcoming ride, as I’d never really done a great deal of climbing and basically weigh about 2 stone more than I should have to drag up a hill! Eventually upright, I head into the bathroom for some cream application to my ‘sensitive’ areas. Followed by donning the lycra outfit, a quick breakfast, load up and I’m heading off the drive for Bangor-on-Dee racecourse in Wrexham before 5am, giving myself plenty of time to get there as some of the roads would be closing around the start area before my scheduled start time of 7.03am.
Parked up, before the sunrise, I headed off to find coffee in the startline ‘village’. The public address system DJ was doing nothing for anyone with an ounce of doubt in their mind. Continuously talking about the massive climbs of the Horseshoe Pass, the Shelf and the World’s End. I sat down with my coffee as one of the first arrivals of the 2000 others who would be taking part the place was fairly empty. Welsh rugby player Gareth Jones was sitting across from me, as the celebrity on the ride, he wasn’t having such a peaceful time as I. “Glad I’m not famous” I thought, as a producer type person fussed around telling him what and when all that was about to happen. I sloped around for a bit, noted from a rider list on the wall that I would be starting in the second wave. Which probably meant that I had over estimated my cycling ability when filling out my expected completion time on the entry form! Heading back to the van to get into my kit it was just about dawn and still pretty cold.
Despite a delay to the start, after getting chatting, I still managed to miss my wave and ended up going off with the third group away. In previous cycling events that I’ve ridden I’ve kept myself to a strict pace so that I don’t blow up too soon into the ride. Keeping my heart rate below 150bpm always appears to work well for me. As always this is a massive display of self control on my part, as riders steamed it past me on all sides, I appeared to get quickly ejected out of the back of my group. The temptation to go all out and get to the front was really difficult to subdue, having spent most of my adult life trying to get to the front of a racing pack! The competitive voices within were silenced as the broken record within chanted “Cycling is just for fun, it’s not a race for me, keep to the plan and get to the end!” So I stuck to the plan keeping a steady pace, basically the road was either going up or down there was no flat anywhere!
After 20 miles the ‘King of the mountain’ section started at the bottom of the Horseshoe pass. This was a timed sector and the fastest rider of the day to the summit received a Festina watch. This challenge was so far off my priority list that it wasn’t even a consideration for me. Despite the fact that the guy who won the prize did it faster than some motorcycles I’ve owned could manage! I settled myself into a pace and to be honest, with all of the fuss I’d heard about the Horseshoe pass, I expected it to be harder. It is just a long steady climb, the corners ramp up a little but only for a few hundred yards. I rode alongside another guy, who was breathing slightly heavier than I was, as we approached the summit finish line I quipped “I’ve just got to stop and pick up my new watch”! He replied “Sod off I’m having it” and with two big strokes of the pedals got his wheel in front over the line. We both had a laugh, pleased to have gotten to the top without any major incident.
The descent was great; after we passed the Ponderosa café the completely closed road pointed down and went around some great bends. Head down I hit somewhere around 40mph which is a bit of a thrill and slightly scary on a bicycle if I’m honest. Jo met me at the bottom and we swapped drinks bottles. I was still feeling pretty good, safe in the knowledge that the worst of the climbs was over, or so I thought. “The Shelf” followed a bit further into the ride I didn’t realise until I was half way up and the incline wasn’t relenting that I was on it. Once again set my pace to make sure that I got over the top. Some of the descents were a bit dodgy with broken up road surfaces and potholes but the dangerous bits had been marked by the organisers. I took my time when the going got rough, I’m not exactly a stranger to the odd two wheeled crash but falling off a bicycle at 30mph whilst wearing what is essentially a leotard is not something that was on my agenda. I did come across one fellow rider and his mates dragging his bike out of the hedge on a tight downhill turn so I guess others weren’t as cautious.
I met Jo for the last time of the ride at the 60 mile point, just outside of Coed Poeth the highest village in Wales apparently. By this point I was starting to feel the effects of the climb and my thighs were beginning to stiffen up. As, for the first time in the ride, I knew geographically where I was I guessed that I’d done the ‘World’s End” climb without realising. I said to Jo “Please tell me that the worst of the climbing is over, I don’t care if it isn’t just tell me that it is”. A nearby spectator chuckled. “I guess that means that the World’s End is still to come?” I directed to him and he nodded in reply! Apparently as I rode away the same spectator said to Jo “I didn’t want to say anything but you see up there” gesturing to the top of a nearby mountain, “that’s where he’s going!”
The road turned sharply around a hairpin right as I noted the sign for the World’s End. It wasn’t wrong, the incline hit something like 20% instantly. I went to stand up on the pedals to keep some sort of momentum going but a muscle in the tops of both of my thighs almost locked my legs solid. Now there’s probably some long winded latin name for whatever muscle this was but bugger me, it was hurting. I just sat down in the saddle and kept turning the pedals through some sort of cramp in both legs. At an amazing 3.5mph I kept putting less and less pressure on knowing that if I stopped I’d not be able to get moving again. I was also conscious that, if one of my legs did seize up, I’d need to twist my foot out of the pedal clips pretty quickly or I’d end up face down on the tarmac looking like a right tit. Eventually whatever was burning/tearing/breaking in my thighs calmed down and the incline tailed off slightly. The climb kept going for another mile or so but I was settled into a pace making it to the summit and to a great view, what an amazing place to go cycling. The descent was pretty gravel rashed and potholed, I took it easy and everyone walked through a slippery ford near the bottom of the hill.
The final 10 miles were pretty much downhill all the way. I picked up the pace for the last few miles and clung onto the back of a group who were pushing about 23mph for a decent spell until my calves started cramping up forcing me to slow down and stretch them out! Crossing the finish line in a time of 6hrs and 4 minutes, this was my slowest ever sportive at an average speed of 14.1mph. Almost instantly a text message pinged onto my phone giving me my finishing time. Looking later at the results I had finished 654th so was in the top 1/3rd which I was happy enough with considering the Cheshire plains aren’t exactly a climbing cyclist’s training ground.
Jo, Ted and Ann met me at the finish, the organisers dished out some free coconut water, which incidently is gross so it was no wonder that they were giving it away. I still drank it though as it was something different than the energy drinks I’d been having for the last 6 hours! I ate most of the food from Jo’s packed lunch on the journey home and had a very gentle walk around the local park before becoming comatosed on the sofa in the early evening. All in all a great event, the weather was perfect and the scenery spectacular. I’ll definitely ride it again next year, with some more hill climbing training I could even do it slightly faster!
On the racing front things have been fairly static as I’ve not ridden since the last Wirral 100 meeting in June. Having taken the engine out of the bike, to get it refreshed, it’s been a nice looking ornament in the workshop for two months. With a huge workload and Manx GP tyre support to attend, getting it to RLR Motorsport hasn’t been top of the list. Eventually we got it down there and once it’s back I’ll get it back in the frame and prepped ready for my last meeting of the year at the Anglesey Grand.
As always I’ll keep you posted.