The Tour of Cambridgshire (ToC) was the first competitive bike race I had entered. Although I completed the London-Brighton charity ride last summer, this was the first time I had taken part in something at this scale and level of organisation. In fact to be honest as a relative newbie to cycling I hadn’t even tried a local time trial or sportive.
However I was really looking forward to the experience; over the last 12 months I’ve become a real convert to cycling on the TV and I enjoy getting out on my own modest road bike. I was a bit nervous by the 83 mile distance as the the furthest I’d gone in training was 40 miles, but I figured I’d get round – numb bum or not!
The ToC is the first european-style “gran fondo” to be held in the UK, with closed roads and and UCI amateurs / masters championships qualifying up for grabs. Think mass participation running with an elite race at the front like the London Marathon and you are close. The race started at midday and I arrived early (0815) as I was suckered in by the traffic warnings from the organisers, plus I had not been able to get there to register in advance and I hate nothing more than being rushed at the start of an event.
The event was based out of the Peterborough showground / arena, a perfect venue as it had loads of parking and plenty of space for the riders to congregate beforehand in the expo and open outside area. I knew my friends that were also competing were not going to arrive for a good hour so I had a wander round and got myself registered. The expo didn’t have lots of stands, but there were easily enough to result in me parting with a bit of cash! And I do like my shiny new overshoes 🙂
Eventually I started bumping into people I knew from Bedford Harriers, Beds Road Racing Club and iCycle – it was great to realise I knew so many people there! After a lot of chatting and hanging around it started to get towards the time to get ready so we all went back off to our respective cars and arranged to meet up back at the Shimano technician area.
One thing that becomes very obvious with cycling is there is a lot more to “get ready” than running! Not only do you have to worry about what you are wearing and carrying as food / drink but you have to get the bike ready too! Anyway after much faffage, last minute lubing (don’t ask) and my 100th wee, I was ready to go at the appointed time and place for meeting. 25 minutes later we finally had our little group ready to go into the pens – I’ll say no more about timekeeping!
This part of the event is the only area I would say the ToC really needs to improve on for next year. We spent ages discussing how we were going to try and all meet up after the start, or even see if we could try and move to the rearmost pen in our group so we could start together. We needn’t have worried as it was so packed on the approach we never even made it to the pens! We could see the race starting and we were still a good 200 metres from the entrance to the pen area. It took about 20 mins from the gun before we even got rolling on our bikes, I believe it took nearly 50 minutes to get everyone through the start.
Anyway, my only goal was to finish the race so I really wasn’t too bothered about losing time at the start and after what seemed like ages we were off! We started with a group of about 10 Harriers/BRCC and for about 2 miles we did stick together, but some of the guys were much stronger and experienced so they went off ahead and that was the last we saw of them. But a small core of 4/5 of us stayed together and started to get into our rhythm.
It was so good being able to ride on closed roads, without having to worry about traffic. Although it was amusing to notice that everyone still naturally stayed on the left with a big empty space on the right! Also we still could not help ourselves and we always looked right for traffic on a left turn. The first section of the course was probably the lumpiest, but as it was Cambridgshire there was nothing to really test your climbing skills. What was interesting for me the rookie was learning to ride with other people – I nearly always train on my own. Some of my main observations were:
- There are a lot of funny hand gestures to get used to
- Corners are an interesting moment of heart in mouth
- I may be fast on the downhill and flat, and I may think I climb well on my own, but I needed to be more tactical about using others to tug me up a hill
- I need to get used to using two bottles better and not weave when reaching for the back one (scaring the person behind me)
Anyway I started to get in my stride and into better positions to make it up a hill behind a big person 🙂
As we came into the first feed station on Alconbury arifield I also learned how much more dangerous cycling can be than running. There was a run of speed humps on a fast flat road and nearly every one of them had a rider lying on the ground next to them. One person in particular was in a bad way with a motorcycle paramedic holding his head up as an ambulance was audibly arriving behind us. This was a bit of a scary section and only one of many crashes throughout the day. There were thousands of people on the road, many of whom would be very new to “peleton” riding. I saw a lot of punctures, bloody heads, twisted limbs and mangled bikes that day. I was very lucky not to have any issues myself.
After the feed station we were out in the fens for a long time and this was a nice fast, flat section. I tucked in with a small group and after a while I realised the little team I had started with had not kept up with me. But we’d made an unwritten agreement to stick together so I waited for them at feed station two. After much eating and comfort breaking we set off again as a group. This was just over half way and the next 20 miles were quite tough as fatigue set in. But what was great was our little group of four really started to work as a team, riding in a line and taking turns on the front. Some (the women – Bev and Sam ) probably did longer on the front as they were stronger / more experienced, but Andrew and I held on as best we could!
This was my low point (I always have one) and I really just had to grit my teeth and plough on to the next feed station. Cambridgeshire may be beautiful, but I didn’t have much energy to look up and enjoy it to be honest. However with 15 miles left we reached the last feed station and we all took the chance to eat and drink as much as we could to replenish those energy stores.
After that feed point I was a different rider – I had a serious second wind and was flying! We were sticking to our plan of working as a group of four and as one of those I took my turn on the front. At one point a group of riders from a Liverpool cycling club came past on our right and I tucked in to draft behind them, assuming the other three would sit behind me. This is where I realised why sometimes the professional team time triallers can lose their rear riders. It’s not safe to keep looking round as you weave and although you rely on sound it can be difficult to hear with the wind whistling past. Anyway I turned around after a couple of miles and noticed that my little group was nowhere to be seen behind me. I eased off a bit and waited for them to catch up, which is tough when you have spectators shouting at you to carry on!
I saw Bev coming up behind me and I picked up the pace so they could rejoin me. But unfortunately Bev said that Andrew was struggling a bit with the pace (to be fair he’d been awesome to just get round as he’d not been able to train as much as he would have liked in advance). So Sam had stayed back to come in with him and Bev was on her own.
Bev and I carried on, by this point we only had about seven miles left and we were both looking forward to completing the challenge and getting off the bike. Relatively uneventful (apart from one more crash site and a dead badger – unrelated), we came through the final kilometre marker together. I told Bev we had to channel our inner Cav and sprint to the finish, but I have to say that was probably more in our heads than our legs!
We finally came across the finish line 5hrs 15mins after we left – 83 miles later and 4hrs 44mins actual moving time on the bike (we definitely used those aid stations). There were Harriers/BRCC there to greet us and celebrate a great achievement by all.
All in all, I really enjoyed my first bike event, although I was probably spoilt by the highly professional organisation and the closed roads. As an inaugural event I am sure they will iron out the wrinkles and this will become a regular entry in the calendar for many. For me, I definitely think I’ll be back and hopefully fitter, more ready and with a lot more race smarts under my belt.