Winter has arrived and with it the unique pleasures of riding to and from work in the dark, cold feet (less of an issue these days after giving in to ‘Toe Thingy’s’ and clown shoes) and a bike that routinely gets coated in filth even when it’s not raining. On top of all this my hitherto perfectly functioning road bike suffered its first glitch when the Di2 battery was unable to hold a charge much longer than 48 hours instead of the usual 6 months or so. I hesitate to even mention it because it’s ammunition for all the people that have balked at the cost of Di2 and claim that it’s just something else to go wrong and completely unnecessary and blah, blah, blah…. For what it’s worth, after 2 years of living with the gizmo of electronic shifting I can safely say that I would never go back (given a choice) to ‘normal’ shifting but that’s a conversation for another time.
I got in touch with BikeSwanky.com who had originally supplied me with the bike and was pleased to find out that everything was all covered under the Shimano warranty. No problem they said – we’ll get it sorted for you. So far, so great and this is where BikeSwanky earn their money because whereas getting it fixed under warranty would probably be a nightmare at my LBS they instead dispatched an impressively titled ‘cycling consultant’ to my door who collected the bike, took it away to his lair and promised to send me a full report once he’d found out what the problem was. The only problem was that it’s not that simple to find out what is draining a battery charge. You have to change something ….. and then wait to see if the battery drains over 24 hours or not. In the meantime, presumably because he needed to pass the time, my new cycling consultant friend completely dismantled my bike and then proceeded to send me a very detailed report (with no fewer than 29 pictures and diagrams) telling me exactly what he thought of it and how I’d looked after it …. or not!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering it’s a fairly high end bike that gets pressed into almost daily use, and in spite of my best efforts to keep everything clean and smooth … there were some ‘issues’. Most worryingly relating to the wheels where the rims had worn down beyond a safe limit on the braking surface. This was a shock to me since a) they are less than 2 years old (although I admit have done some mileage) but also because they’ve only gone through 2 sets of pads (front) and 3 (rear). With hindsight I think the problem was that at the last change they were fitted with SwissStop pads which although great at stopping in the wet do seem to inflict some heavy wear on the rims themselves as a result. My newly adopted cycling consultant was full of ideas, advice and recommendations …. most of which I wanted but couldn’t afford … and so I’ve ended up with a pair of Mavic Kysirium Elite S which are still a notable upgrade on the Equipe version I had before. Whilst waiting for these to turn up he also replaced my brake cables, completely disassembled and cleaned my brakes (and I mean COMPLETELY disassembled … I’ve seen the pictures) serviced and regreased the bottom bracket, the headset and coated the bike in Teflon to protect it from the winter in general. Replaced the chain and cassette, mounted new wheels, updated the firmware on the Di2 gears and remapped them so that when you press and hold the shifter it keeps on shifting until you take your finger off it again. Great for when you suddenly come round a corner to find a wall of tarmac suddenly rising up in front of you. And he even managed to find out what was causing the battery to drain – (faulty battery holder).
And the price of all this love, care and attention? Well thanks to the Shimano warranty and the efforts of Bike Swanky £0 plus parts. But on enquiring what it would be if I was picking up the bill myself I was quite surprised to learn it was in the region of £100-120 plus parts which isn’t a huge amount more than you’ll pay down at your local Evans. In fact if you throw in the bottom bracket and headset service … possibly even less? Consider also that he identified cheaper than specified brake cables had been fitted at the last service (galvanised not stainless steel), that the fitting of the brake pads accelerated the wear of the rims, that the bike was cleaned and polished top to bottom and that he picks up and delivers your bike (within reason) in the SW London area I would urge anyone with a bike that they think is worth a bit of extra care and attention to get in touch with him. He’s a small business that lives and dies on doing a good job and having people talk about it. This is my small contribution to that. His contact details are below and no, I haven’t received a discount for this unashamed plug … (although if I can ever afford that wheel upgrade …..)
The Cycling Consultant
Tel: 07840 582 810
The humble overshoe. It’s not really a piece of kit to get excited about in my opinion and I have resisted buying a pair for the last couple of winters now. My objections are entirely sartorial and probably reflect badly on my inner peacock but to be perfectly honest I’ve always thought they look a bit like clown shoes. When your own shoes are already size 11 to start with these things matter! Quite simply I don’t think they look good and, I will admit, I’d rather risk numb and wet feet for a 3 hour ride than spend £30-40 on some kit that makes me look like a clown on a bike… albeit a clown with cosy feet. So it’s ironic that when I finally give in to the inevitable, I buy a pair that couldn’t shout “LOOK AT MY FEET…WAHEY!!” any louder if they came with a siren and flashing lights. So what changed? Well, basically I succumbed to the sirens call from the financially ruinous rocks of Rapha. Rapha, as I read somewhere this week, is a marmite brand. You love it or you hate it. Or, as loyal devotees will tell you, ‘You either love it… or you can’t afford it’. And I think that, right there, is the nub of it when it comes to Rapha. I don’t think any other brand of cycle clothing is quite so aspirational. Serious cyclists love the functionality, the attention to detail and above all the styling because, let’s be clear here, style is very important in a sport that holds its heritage so dear. But the cost is a barrier to entry and envy can be an ugly thing when stoked by the sight “all the gear and no idea” types riding around Richmond Park on the latest piece of Di2 shod carbon (Ha! … ahem) covered head to toe in Rapha kit. Rapha have managed to pull off a masterstroke by making their clothes both understated and subtle and yet at the same time instantly recognisable to anyone that has ever lusted after them. So in summary, it looks good, it works well and it costs a bomb. You either love it, or you can’t afford it. But I digress – this is supposed to be about overshoes. Rapha make their overshoes in two colours – black like 95% of all other overshoes or ‘high viz pink’. I saw a pair of the pink ones when we were doing the Team Time Trial event in the Chilterns the other weekend and I must confess that for the first time in my life I saw some overshoes and thought that they actually looked pretty smart. The colour isn’t actually quite as repulsive as you might think and has a rather hypnotic effect when the feet are bobbing up and down tapping out a rhythm on the pedals – you can’t take your eyes of it! If you go to the website there is a reassuringly hard and manly cyclist sporting a pair of the items in question and apparently carrying the look off with a certain amount of nonchalance (despite apparently being dropped by 2 girls in the process) So the seeds were sown, maybe it was possible to have cosy feet and look stylish with the added benefit of genuine high visibility on the gloomy winter roads around the UK. The deal was sealed when I learned that Rapha were offering 30% off on all women’s clothing items. The website was too polite to enquire further about my gender even as I entered a size 11 into the appropriate box and so it was that a bright pink pair of neoprene overshoes found their way to me just a couple of days later. Even allowing for the sort of P&P charges that only a brand like Rapha can charge without blushing (£5?!) they were still broadly comparable in cost to their high street brethren… ish! So, since this is my first experience of the Rapha brand … what to make of it all? Packaging is pure class and anybody who tells you that packaging isn’t important hasn’t heard of Apple. Everything about it oozes quality from the printed receipt that looks and feels more like a formal invitation and which gets extra points for making no mention of the price. “Oh these? Just a tenner darling … “ There’s a pre-printed returns slip and even a nice tactile post card with an interesting quotation on it extolling the virtues of cycling in cold weather. As for the overshoes themselves … well, there’s not much you can’t tell from the picture but they are bright. Seriously bright. With a reflective Rapha logo on the outside edge just in case you hadn’t already noticed them. My 8 year old daughter could scarcely disguise her mirth at the thought of her unfathomably old man wearing pink slippers and the more I tried to explain that actually these were pretty cool, the sadder I sounded so I just gave in gracefully … or at least as gracefully as it’s possible to do whilst trying to argue the benefits of wearing pink slippers while cycling. Fast forward to the next morning and I was almost delighted to see that it had been raining hard overnight. Perfect overshoe weather since the temperature had clattered southwards over the last couple of days and was low single digits yesterday. So I pulled it all on – there was a base layer and bib shorts, leg warmers and a gore tex shell. Merino socks and of course pink overshoes. On opening the door I realised instantly that I’d overdone it because it must have been 12 or 13 degrees easily and I was dressed to (over)kill. No turning back now though as I escorted my still giggling offspring to the bus stop for their first test. Test #1. Private school mums. This really is the style test because they have no interest in form or function when it comes to footwear but will pass judgement mercilessly on pretty much anything that was designed to clothe ones feet. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that they passed. They certainly got attention and started conversation and I’m pretty sure that none of it was outright insulting but perhaps they’re just too polite! Bottom line I think they respected the neon pink-ness of them (very on trend I’m told) and the sheer spanking new-ness of them (“they look amazing … but they’ll be in a state by the time you get work!”) So I think that was a pass. Time for…. Test #2. How they make you feel. Now this was the surprising bit. I felt bloody fantastic in these clown shoes! I was riding up behind vans just to get a look at my own reflection! Deep down every MAMIL will privately acknowledge a poorly understood desire to look like a pro. You’re not of course, but you like to look the business and at some level in your mind lose yourself in the fantasy that you’re actually a serious athlete ready to dance your way up HC alpine passes. These overshoes can help you with that fantasy! I don’t know why. They’re pink bits of neoprene. They should have exactly the opposite effect but they don’t. From the moment I slipped them on I felt as though my cycling credentials had moved up a notch. It’s all utterly illogical. Test #3. Cut the crap – are they actually any good? Here I have to point out that I have zero point of reference when it comes to overshoes. They are the first that I’ve owned and so far I’ve not exactly had them out in sub zero conditions. But let’s take it as read that cloaking your feet in pretty much any neoprene overshoes is going to keep them warm. Durability is something I could only attest to after prolonged use but the Kevlar re-inforced bits on the base look hard wearing and the stitching also looks to be heavy duty. The zip, which I believe is the weak point in most of these things, doesn’t appear to be under any undue stress when doing them up even though the fit over your cycling shoe is very snug and streamlined – minimising the clown effect. Keep in mind though that they are neoprene. That’s a wetsuit to you and me. So they will keep the showers off but don’t expect water proof protection for your shoes and feet. When the rain gets heavier, what you will have is damp shoes/ socks. But crucially they will be WARM damp shoes/ socks and that really is the point. So there you have it – I’ve managed to write far more than I would have thought it was possible to write about a couple of pink bits of neoprene but as a first experience of Rapha goes, it’s a very positive one. Turns out that even if you can’t really afford a wardrobe full of Rapha… it’s still possible to fall in love with the brand.
A short post-script to this piece having put these through a winter of use. They are still remarkably bright and pink and clean up very easily after a ride. There was a small issue when I managed to tread on one of the zip pulls at the back. The piece of plastic that you hold on to in order to open/close the zip snapped off which made zipping up that particular overshoe a pain unless you had a pair of pliers to hand. As it happened towards the end of the winter I struggled on and then put them away for the summer. But heading into the Rapha store one day last week I remembered to bring them with me in the hope that they could get them fixed in time for winter. Rapha did a little better than that. They just exchanged them for a brand new pair on the spot! So yes, the stuff is expensive but what price do you put on after sales care like that?
“There’s no ‘I’ in team … but there is a ‘me’ if you look hard enough”. Words of wisdom from the sage of Slough (David Brent) that popped into my head recently as I found myself being introduced to the concept of teamwork on a bicycle for the first time.
Last Sunday saw the second running of The Cog Cafe (Tring) Gentleman’s Team Time Trial. On account of a tenuous connection via a work colleage SW Rouleurs wangled an invitation for a couple of strings and in one easy movement managed to bring a whole new category of internal bragging rights and competition to the club. Since most of us (myself included) hadn’t even done a Time Trial before the club round earlier this year, the idea of trying to do it over 4 times the distance, on public roads while riding a few inches off the wheel of the rider in front was probably asking for trouble but in the end it was an ultimately safe learning experience that ended up with smiles plastered all over the tired faces of the finishers.
Team selection was fairly straight forward since the first 4 finishers in the club time trial were all available and they went straight into the A string thereafter named Team Deep Dish on account of their deep section carbon wheels that they were all desperate to get out for the occasion. Everyone else (including your scribe) was bundled into the B string thereafter named Team Thin & Crispy on account of our unique high performance diet! We also extended temporary membership of SWR to ‘Rob the Ringer’ from my office who was looking for a ride and which happily co-incided with one of our team having to cry off. The route was circulated beforehand via the wonders of Strava and everyone was given strict instruction to make sure they downloaded it prior to the event since there was no signage on the route.
The format was simple – 4 riders per team setting off from The Cog cafe at 3 minute intervals to ride just over 40 miles in a circle around the Chilterns on a Sunday morning. The time of the third team member over the finish line being the one that sets the time for the whole team. For those even more unfamiliar with the concept of a team time trial (or TTT) than myself the basic idea is that you ride around in a tight group aiming to shelter each other from the wind and taking turns riding at the front to keep the overall pace as high as possible. Riding in the slip stream of other riders is supposed to require less than half the effort of riding on the front if done correctly and when done by professionals it’s quite a sight to behold as the lead man changes every thirty seconds or so and drifts to the back of the line for a couple of minutes of rest before finding himself back on the front. So that was the theory.
The reality of the matter was slightly less clinical. We were given the last two time slots of the morning with Deep Dish heading off first. The good news for those of us in Thin & Crispy was that we would therefore definitely be saved from any humiliation as another team came past us. But before we could even count our blessings on this front we had a rather more pressing issue to worry about …. like where the hell were we going? 4 riders in the team with 3 Garmin devices between us. But not one of these expensively educated and highly intelligent individuals had managed to get the route downloaded from the link provided. With no signage out on the course it was going to be impossible to find our way around. Fortunately (for us) our SWR brethren in Deep Dish had technology to spare and so we swapped one of our Garmins for one of theirs that had the route pre-loaded. So at least we now had a route to follow although it was going to mean a lot of shouting up and down the line as we relied exclusively on a single map. But hey, at least we were getting a ride! So with expectations suitably managed we set off into the wide open spaces of the Chilterns to hunt down any stragglers that might have set off before us.
The route was just over 60km/ 40 miles and we set off at a punchy pace – something that was billed as a ‘fast training ride’ seemed to be a bit more than that and it wasn’t long before the physiological differences in our quartet were starting to become apparent, particularly on the hillier sections where Fergus and I would wheeze our way up hauling our above average bulk before barreling our way down the other side having to dab the brakes in order to maintain some sort of formation. Suffice to say that if we ever find a 2 man 40 mile downhill time trial event we’ll be a serious threat! Looking back over the Strava stats though and we were very much on the pace among the better teams (excluding the semi-pro 1st cat teams that showed up).
Unfortunately, somewhere around the half way mark a couple of things started to go against us. The first of these was navigation. The problem with having only one satnav device is that there’s no back up to disagree if you wander off-route and so we ended up taking a rather scenic tour of the areas manor houses on one particular section that took us about 15 minutes rather than the 7 odd minutes that the others managed it in.
The second problem we faced was that the pace was beginning to tell and having taken a few weeks off the bike in the run up to the event, Fergus was finding himself somewhat ‘over tapered’ to use a technical phrase! Consequently our pace was now suffering as we tried to keep the string together. In theory we could have left him to his own devices since it was the third bike over the line that determined the overall team time – so you can afford to drop one team member. In practice, without any way of finding his way home he might still be there if we hadn’t stuck together. So we slowed up to a more social pace until, with about 10km to go, Fergus felt reasonably confident of finding his own way home and the rest of us wound things up for the final run in to the finish.
So without wishing to dwell on the actual detail of who came where (ahem!) suffice to say that Deep Dish beat Thin & Crispy quite soundly. But considering that there was only a few seconds between us at the half way point (as far as I can make out) there is definitely some unfinished business for next year if The Cog Cafe would be kind enough to host the event. They put on a very well organised and exceptionally friendly event that re-convened for coffee and cake at HQ with big smiles on the faces of everyone that took part.
SWR Thin & Crispy (from rear) Mamilontour, Rob Attreed, Fergus Graham, James Denholm
SWR Deep Dish (apparantly finding the art of riding nose to tail a little beyond them). Will Greig (left) and Rick Gradidge.
SW Rouleurs held an inaugural/ annual (I’m not sure which but a first for me in any case) 10 mile time trial in July but which I’m only writing about now because I’ve just seen some photographs.
From my vantage point slap in the middle of the results table I can safely say that sport was the winner in the magnificent surroundings of the Olympic Park as we took over the Lee Valley Velopark road race circuit that is quite literally in the shadow of the awe inspiring Olympic Velodrome – a venue that I’m riding later this month as I attempt to wobble around in circles on a bike with no brakes.
On a beautiful, sunny, but disturbingly windy, evening the cream of the SW Rouleurs (or at least those that weren’t on holiday) gathered after work to slug it out over 10 miles of velvety smooth tarmac. Smooth it may be but the road racing circuit here is anything but flat and round and much to my surprise undulates and swoops all over the place and even contains a short section where you most definitely need to get out of the saddle (only to be met by a strong headwind as you round the corner at the top). A couple of sighting laps revealed that this was anything but a ‘ride in the park’. Any pre-conceptions I had about a long flat steady state sort of ride were immediately banished – scarcely any of the course was either flat or straight!
Military style logistics then took over as walkie talkies, stop watches, loud hailers, pens and paper all appeared from the bottomless rucksack of our fearless leader and captain. Splitting into two groups was required in order to be able to staff all the jobs required that included lap counter, stop watch readers, scribes, photographer, starter …. seat holder (!) an endless list of jobs that meant the actual cheerleading squad was non-existent.
I found myself in group 1 and had limited my strategy and planning to the compilation of a playlist that would enable me to ignore the rasping sound coming from my lungs and the bite of lactic acid building in my legs. With some thumping house beats I would be transported onto a higher plane and smash the field with a well timed build in the second half. That was the theory. Unfortunately headphones of any description were outlawed ‘for your own safety’ which seemed highly improbable … it’s not like I was expecting anyone to be overtaking me after all! And so I had to go in cold as it were, no music to transport me and nothing to distract me from the disheartening thought that my heart and lungs are about to explode and I’ve only done 3 laps?!
As for kit … (this is a cycling blog after all) yours truly went into this in standard road trim but I fear a few of my fellow SWR’s were taking this quite a bit more seriously. There was more deep dish action than you’d find in Pizza Hut on a Friday night and more aero bars than your local corner shop. What do you mean you don’t remember aero bars? The chocolate with the bubble? Adorabubble? (A word created by Salman Rushdie back in his day as an advertising copywriter – ‘tis true!) Anyway, I digress … point being there were some kitchen sinks (probably teardrop shaped) being thrown in to the search for speed although in fairness I don’t think any of the top 3 were on TT bikes so this ‘kit’ section has really added little except to enlighten you about the early career of Salman Rushdie in his pre fatwa days.
So what can I tell you about riding a time trial for the first time? It’s harder than it looks and this is definitely the case if a couple of riders just ahead of you get a bit overexcited and set off as fast as they can. Worried that you’re going to be lapped before the start of the second lap you have no choice but to give chase and pretty soon you’re seeing spots and breathing razor blades! So then it’s a case of trying to settle down and walk the tightrope between aerobic effort and the red zone. Something that would have been a lot easier with the help of a Garmin unit and a heart rate monitor but since I’d taken a rather naively purist, old skool, approach my handlebars remained unadorned with any electronic gadgetry and so I really didn’t have a clue as to how fast I was lapping or if I was speeding up or slowing down. I was doing it by feel alone – or using The Force as I like to think of it – but if I’m honest The Force is probably overrated in these sorts of situations.
On the positive side I managed to lap a couple of people and I didn’t get lapped by anyone behind me so was feeling reasonably satisfied with my efforts. Unfortunately my efforts were put into context by the time the final list of results had been pieced together and despite my own mid table mediocrity it was actually a pretty competitive field with 2nd to 7th place separated by less than 35 seconds. Full results below for the record – I need to find 1.1 mph from somewhere in time for next year! A teardrop helmet and some deep dish wheels should do it (because training is the last resort of the MAMIL with an internet connection!)
SW Rouleurs 10M TT Championships, 17 July 2014
Rank Name Time
1 Simon Osborn 25.17 (23.81 mph or 38.10 kmh)
2 Will Greig 25.35
3 Rick Gradidge 25.40
4 Quentin Baker 25.46
5= Angus Henderson 25.49
5= Fergus Graham 25.49
7 Jake Phipps 26.09
8 Jules Stow 26.35 (22.73 mph or 36.37 kmh)
9 Sandy Case 26.48
10 Chris Jelf 27.10
11 Ross Elder 27.34
12 Nils Wieboldt 28.05
13 Adam Green 28.10
14 Will Fenton 29.00
1 Clare Gradidge 31.58
2 Alice Gilbert 32.26
3 Belinda Beckmann 35.
Or more accurately, the final failure to make good on any of the goals I set myself for 2014. Ride London – an event I confidently predicted would be a slow amble through the Surrey Hills – has become the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket of sportive cycling. I’ve tried both blind luck (ballot system) and, when that failed, blatant nepotism with people that I thought were well placed to find a spare slot but to no avail. Plans A, B and even C have come to nought. I appreciate that I could have joined a charity place but at the risk of sounding ‘Bah, humbug’ I have drunk fairly deeply from the well of charitable friends after the Tour de Force last year and whilst the idea of me riding a bike for charity was amusing the first time round it’s now transparently obvious that I enjoy the pain and discomfort of riding 100 miles!
So on the off chance that anyone reading this knows of a spare place on account of unexpected commitments I am happy to ride under a false name and even blog about the experience. Who would have thought a spin with Boris would turn out to be this popular!?
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the Tour de France paid a visit to England earlier this month and yet this blog of all things pedal powered hasn’t so much as mentioned it. I feel I ought to right that particular wrong and so, for the sake of posterity, here are my own memories of the ‘Grandest Grand Départ ever’.
Some time ago one of my fellow SW Rouleur’s suggested that the visit by Le Tour to these shores would be an excellent opportunity to spend some time riding around the dales and taking in the atmosphere of the worlds greatest cycle race. It is, after all, not often that you get a chance to stand within touching distance of your sporting heroes as they race past you and so a plan was hatched.
The weekend started on Friday where an advance bunch of Rouleurs had already made their way up north and set about reconnoitring the opportunities for viewing the race on Saturday. Unfortunately for them this was done in classic Yorkshire weather of howling wind and driving rain and by all accounts it doesn’t sound as though it was a great deal of fun. ‘Challenging’ is probably how you’d describe it if you wanted to put a positive spin on it but they were some tired legs that eventually settled on a plan for the following day. Fortunately for me, at the same time as this was going on I was catching up with old friends at Henley Royal Regatta. The sun was shining, the Pimms was flowing and the tales were getting taller by the minute. Sadly I still had a long drive ahead of me so it was a strange experience of remaining sober while those around me steadily descended into an alcoholic haze. No, I don’t think we did see a race – but I did at least extend my theory about ex-oarsmen which is that when they give up the river, sooner or later they all end up on a bike. Partly because you’ve spent your formative years clad in lycra to the point that it feels like perfectly normal apparel but also because if you’re good at rowing you clearly take some masochistic pleasure in punishing your legs and lungs in whatever weather the gods feel like throwing at you. But I digress ….
After collecting fellow SW Rouleur Conny, from Slough we sallied forth into the M1’s finest rolling road block bound for Yorkshire. The amount of traffic heading north should probably have given us some early indication of what to expect the next day and it was around midnight that we finally stumbled upon the cottage kindly organised by our host Jake Phipps on the banks (literally) of the river Tees.
And so to Saturday morning where we set off after a slap up breakfast and interminable conversation about what kit to wear. The weather was looking ‘cool’ but significantly better than what had been on offer 24 hours earlier. Nobody wants to lug kit around and so in the end it was a case of MTFU and go short sleeved plus gilet whilst stuffing various sandwiches into an assortment of back pockets. The whole ‘getting ready’ thing also highlighted what hadn’t made it into the kit bag – most significantly any bidon’s (that’s water bottles to you if you’re not someone who spends the weekend in lycra), hydration tabs or energy bars/ gels. Energy was provided in the more traditional shape of sandwiches and cash while my thirst issues were covered by the timely offer of a spare from Tom Gilby. So finally, we got going as a gang of 5 – myself, Conny, Will Greig, Tom Gilby and Tom’s son Billy.
I feel that I should introduce Billy at this point because he’s certainly worthy of his own introduction. Billy is 11 years old. Normally I would have reservations about riding with an 11 year old, fearing that they might not have the stamina to stay with the group on a long day in the saddle up hill and down dale. But Billy is not your average 11 year old (I soon found out). He spends every weekend racing bikes around a velodrome or road circuit, weighs less than helium and when he stands up in the pedals wiggles around in a snake like way that is very reminiscent of Alberto Contador … reminiscent because it proceeds a burst of speed up the hill that leaves me open mouthed in amazement! So you can see, it wasn’t me that should have been worried about Billy keeping up but more like the other way around. Tom would often ride behind him offering words of encouragement but mostly words of caution about conserving his energy but I soon came to realise this was just Tom’s way of stopping his son from dropping him on the climbs whilst he struggled manfully to stay on his wheel! We rode 100km on Saturday with about 1800m of vertical and Billy never flagged for a second whilst we literally had to drag him off the front. He also talks the whole way around asking questions and offering up cycling trivia like a rolling Wikipedia.
So off we set in search of our host who was waiting for us in a somewhat dark mood because a) we were by now late on account of dithering over whether or not to take arm warmers etc and b) he’d managed to slam his Garmin satnav in the boot of his car so that the carefully planned route was now hidden behind a black veil of shattered glass. Fortunately we were on our way to meet up with SWR captain Rick Gradidge and his sister Claire who were staying with other friends nearby and who also had a copy of the route after joining the recce ride the day before. It was here that we suffered our first casualty as Claire decided that after the welcome she’d received from the local weather on Friday, an offer of a lie in and 4 wheeled transport was more appealing.
And so off we set in cool and cloudy conditions but thankfully dry and almost immediately you can see why the Tour organisers were persuaded to come to Yorkshire because the first box that any stage of the Tour has to tick (financial inducements aside) is scenery and we had it in spades as we climbed up and over The Stang into the Yorkshire Dales National Park and down the other side towards Grinton. Awesome, big skies, moorland, woods, rivers and dry stone walls and then to cap it all …. the sun came out! As we rolled into Grinton and on to the race route itself so the number of people started to swell, Cars were diverted into fields to park and people took to the lanes on foot to find themselves a vantage point as we rolled past camp site after camp site. By the time we reached Reeth and the base of the climb up over Grinton moor (or Col de Grinton as it was now Christened) we were moving at a pretty sedate pace as the crowds started to line the hillside to view the race make it’s way up the road. The atmosphere was quite something to witness – an uplifting feeling of anticipation, excitement and overwhelmingly happiness that the eyes of the cycling world were on Yorkshire. The local people had embraced the Tour in a way that you could not have imagined would be possible. They can’t all enjoy cycling surely? But almost every house you passed had an old bike painted yellow propped outside – some with a (hopefully fake) sheep wearing a race jersey sitting on top. Polka dot, yellow and green bunting hung over doorways and the whole of the dales had turned out to welcome millions of #bloodycyclists. Riding up Col de Grinton (categorised as a category 3 climb for the day) any child on a bike was cheered on with applause and cow bells and if you were anywhere near Billy at this point it was easy to get a little carried away!
Onwards we rode towards Aysgarth via Leyburn where the plan was to watch the peloton come past around a tight corner just before a feed zone (so hopefully not too much of a blur) before getting back on the bikes to ride back to Leyburn while the riders looped around before they came through Leyburn from a different direction. We could then watch the finish on the big screen in the market square and cheer Cav to victory because obviously that was the script right? On reaching our designated vantage point it became apparent that we weren’t the only people to have this cunning plan but a short detour over a fence, across a field and a dry stone wall soon had us just a bit further up the road but instead of being behind several rows of spectators we were now standing in the road… literally! The race was still a good 30 minutes away and so it was a chance to sit down on the verge with my back against a hedge and the sun on my face listening to the sound of distant choppers as the race made its way towards our position. Looking back, I think part of the excitement from being there comes from the fact that nobody around you really has a clue as to what is going on. As the race approaches a seemingly endless stream of outriders, official cars and team cars come hurtling past sounding their oh-so-French claxons that you only ever hear on TV when watching the Tour. Police motorcycle riders come past grinning from ear to ear as they’ve been sent off ‘officially’ to ride fast on closed roads around the Yorkshire moors whilst being cheered and waved at. We weren’t the only ones imagining we were someone else that day! Soigneurs were being dropped off at the feed station around the corner to hand out musettes while the Yorkshire police were by now joined by Gendarmes on French police bikes …. no, I’m not sure why either!
And then as not one but 4 choppers hovered overhead an official car sped through announcing to ‘ze crowd’ in heavily accented ‘Eeengleesh’ who was leading and the gap to the peloton. Most of it was incomprehensible as I had flash backs to those ‘real life conversational’ exercises in the school language lab (“the train is where?!”) but there was no mistaking the name … Jens Voigt! Oh Jens you legend, fighting a rear guard action for over the hill sportsmen everywhere, refusing to bow to the passage of time as you shout “Shut up legs!” one last time and give us all hope for another year that there’s still time, that we could still compete … if we could just somehow do a bit more training! Jens in a breakaway at the Tour de France! Really, this day couldn’t get any better and when Cav wins in Harrowgate it will just be the icing on the cake.
A couple of minutes pass and then we literally have to step back onto the tiny grass verge for fear of being mown down by the peloton which passes in a blur of carbon, lycra, claxons and team cars soaked in sunshine.
With the action over, I put my shoes back on and clamber back over the dry stone wall to get back to the pile of bikes propped up against the fence at our original vantage point. Everyone has the same idea and it’s like some sort of massed Le Mans start as we all set off in the direction of Leyburn on closed roads. It was about 8 miles back to Leyburn and I must admit to childish fantasies having just watched Jens weaving his way down the road. Fantasies there were lent a further whiff of credibility as dozens of team cars took advantage of the closed roads to cut out the loop in the race and sped past us with claxons blaring. I rode back at a frankly absurd pace charging past rider after rider fuelled on adrenaline and excitement and those 8 miles passed in what seemed like moments. Back at Leyburn there was even time for a pint of carbohydrate based rehydration fluids at Le Chien et Canard before we repeated the whole process all over again – although I think Jens was no longer out front on his own by this point. No matter he’d done enough by then to go home with the King of the Mountains jersey at the grand age of 42. The next hour or so was spent sitting on our backsides on the cobbled square (luxury padding in the shorts suddenly feeling like a very wise purchase) watching the closing stages on the big screen whilst emptying the local bakery of sausage rolls and jam tarts.
Having watched the Stage 1 script being well and truely torn up as the Manx Missile ended his tour in spectacular fashion we then set off for the route back via Marske and up and over Helwith Moor. Yet more stunning scenery as we passed sheep, grouse butts and not a lot else before a glorious unending descent into Newsham and onwards to home. An epic day that we had time to reflect on whilst sitting on the banks of the Tees with a cold beer watching the sun slowly set and the trout rise. I’ve long maintained that riding from Lyon to the top of Ventoux was my best ever day on a bike and I think it probably still is for sheer scale, effort and the pleasure of riding through the South of France in summer but this was a very close second.
Many will say that cycling is not a spectator sport and that the idea of driving to Yorkshire to watch a peloton pass you in a blur before driving all the way home again holds no appeal. I can understand that point of view but nobody who has been there would put that view forward because to say that is to miss what the whole experience is about. It’s about the anticipation more than anything else and the sharing of that excitement with others around you in amazing surroundings. It’s about being part of the Tour de France because the crowds and fans are as much part of the Tour as the riders. It’s about riding along the same course as the pro’s and being close enough to touch them when they come past you. But mostly it’s about being on your bike and sharing that experience with your friends and marvelling at the way pro riders cover the same ground you struggled over as if it were a mere pimple on the landscape. It’s like Vietnam really because unless you were there ‘you don’t know man, you don’t know!’