Having spent the first Sportive of 2011 dragging myself up the daunting slopes on the Dragon Ride in Wales, I decided to iron out the bumps for my next big event. To this end I searched for route profiles that didn't look like a cardiogram of a twenty stone smoker running for the chippy before it closes. Eventually I found what I was looking for. Flat out in the Fens looks refreshingly uniform on the profile. In fact, short of riding on a frozen lake, this route is about as flat as you can get in the UK.
Having gained a bit of a belly over the last 12 months, I couldn't wait to level the playing field (so to speak) and ride a route that my frame is suited to. I have never been able to ride over 20mph for a 100miles, and this would be my goal. I chose the 112mile route and on Sunday 26th June I woke at 0400hrs and set off to Peterborough with my friend Neil. The plan was simple; I would share the pain with Neil until his body disintegrated, then I would tow his shattered husk to the finish. It's a plan we have used on a number of occasions.
We arrived at Peterborough Regional College just after 0700hours, the official start time, and made our way to the line for around 0720hours. Although several hundred cyclists had already departed there was still a large bunch waiting with us whilst the official read out the rules of the day. Soon we were waved off down the road and Neil pushed the pace to the front of the group.
After a few minutes of travelling through Peterborough we found ourselves entering the Fens. With fresh legs and a generous breeze, I upped the pace and we zipped along beside the picturesque waterways at around 23-24mph. Our group soon thinned and we were left with a guy who had ridden "The Long One" the day before (129 miles out of Goodwood) and was attempting the 154 mile Fens route. Hats off to him! Also we had a portly fifty year old man who looked like he should have been watching TV with a beer.
After another ten miles we had picked up some other riders as we trickled past and our train had grown to about ten riders in length. Of the ten riders, mostly men in their twenties and thirties, it was the fifty year old with the belly who kept taking turns from me and Neil at the front.
I would be tempted to say that the Fens are beautiful, as we were riding on a cloudy and warm summer morning. The roads are fringed with untamed wilderness, grasses and flowers bursting with life. But mentioning this to Neil, he noted that commuting during the winter on these roads would be hellish. He has a point. Whilst they are stunning, the roads are almost completely lacking any shelter. Hedgerows are few and far between. Houses look lonely and slightly out of place in the Fens (for a Midlander anyway), exposed as they are from all angles. I thought about this place in the winter, with the colours drained away from the land and the elements attacking relentlessly, and realised I probably wouldn't be able commute through the colder months out here.
As the miles ticked by, our pace slowly began to fall. Our initial burst of speed for the first twenty miles was settling down to 21-22mph until we hit the first rest stop. After a very short and functional conversation with the fifty year old ("Come with us, you take turns on the front!"), the three of us left together for the next stage of the journey, after replenishing drinks and gels.
For the next thirty miles we stayed together, steadily accumulating another string of stragglers as we pushed slowly onwards. Sadly, it was at this point we lost contact with the older companion. At about 70miles there is a "hill" which climbs for a total of thirty metres (hardly the Bwlch). The slope is long and the gradient barely more than 4%. But after so many miles at such a pace, it was enough to fracture our group into pieces leaving Neil and me to push on alone.
After the second and final feed station, we had around 42 miles remaining. This final leg of the journey was beginning to concern me. I was starting to worry that my legs wouldn't be able to keep this pace going much longer. I desperately wanted to break the 20mph barrier and with the feed stops added on, our margin for error was dropping by the mile.
If the first two stages of the journey had been hard, this final leg was triple the pain of both combined. Looking at Neil it was clear that he was close to complete melt-down. His eyes were beginning to lose focus and salt was drying over his face. He looked listless and pained, at the same time. In fact, he looked exactly like he looks every time we get to around 80 or 90 miles. He locked onto my back wheel and we trundled onwards, keeping the pace just over 20mph.
In order to build some energy reserves up (and to keep Neil pushing onwards), we started to piggy-back the groups we overtook; Rather than riding straight past them, we would bridge the gap between groups and then rest at the back for a few minutes. This proved to be a very good way of regaining some strength. For twenty miles we hopped from pack to pack, steadily making headway.
Eventually, at around the 90 mile mark we reached a group of three riders who took some catching. We nestled in at the back and when I looked at Neil to see if he was ready to go, he shook his head and smiled grimly. "That's it for me, I'm staying with this lot." Fair enough. Little did I know I would be seeing him again in less than thirty minutes.
I bade him farewell and rode off, pushing my pace slightly higher in order to make some headway on them. I charged forwards a couple of hundred metres down the road before swinging over a bridge and 90 degrees to the right. At that point I found myself on a long straight road. Now, I've been on long straight roads before, but they have never been this hellishly flat. This road was like a line on a snooker table. The natural curve of the horizon meant the road had no visible ending. The sun had come out and the Fens was blasted by the hottest temperatures of the year. To compound this, a gentle but persistent headwind pushed against me.
No hedgerows, hardly any houses, few cars and very little wild-life. Just small dots that turned into exhausted cyclists as I struggled onwards, passing them with almost geological slowness. After five miles on this road, I looked over my shoulder. Down the arrow-straight tarmac, just two hundred metres behind me was Neil and his group.
Another couple of miles later, still fighting the wind and the heat, my right calf muscle started to cramp up. Like the breakaway groups on the Tour de France, caught at the end of the race, I gave up and let the group catch me. I had almost exhausted myself for no gain whatsoever. I hid at the back, sheltering from the wind and let my imaginary power-bar build itself back up.
Shortly afterwards Neil was hit by cramp, and then another rider in the group pulled over to the side of the road, clutching a leg. I stuck with the remaining two riders. With ten miles to go until the finish I overtook them, telling them I would probably see them again in ten minutes. Fortunately the road finally forked and our direction changed.
The last 10 miles were essentially a race against the clock. I performed some very basic maths (which took a long time) and came to the conclusion that if I turned myself inside-out, I might still break even. The headwind had dropped my pace down to 19-20mph and my strength was all but gone. By getting out of my saddle and stamping the pedals I found I could raise my pace temporarily, by pedalling normally after this effort I could keep the speed from falling too quickly. By doing this I bled the last of my reserves from my legs.
I completed the 112 miles in 5:30:52, which worked out as 20.3mph. Neil finished 5:40:21, just ten minutes behind and averaging a fraction under 20mph. Later that day I nearly puked out of the car window on our way home. Neil felt pains all over his body for the rest of the week. I can only put this down to the effort we put into this event. We both agreed that neither could have given any more than we put into that Sportive. We literally finished on empty. After riding the Fens, I have learnt a valuable lesson; I genuinely believed "flat" meant "easy". I stand corrected.