Cycling is all about preparation. Put in the hard miles, eat well, sleep lots, reap the benefits. So here I am at 6am on the 29th of December feeling a little tentative.
Why? The last time I cycled a distance of any note was 6 months ago (not one for doing things by half, I haven’t cycled over 70km since May, but that ride was over 200km!)
My recent eating has centred heavily around the kind of food your Nan would class as ‘a little of what you fancy never hurt anyone’. It’s a fantastic theory, but right now I’m at least 12% Quality Street. The one redeeming feature in the build up to this ride has been sleep. Since my previous company unceremoniously put me on gardening leave 4 weeks ago I’ve managed a solid 8 hours a night for the first time in 15 years.
That was until this morning. This morning it felt like a work day. Hello 6am, it’s been a while, now piss off. So what’s prompted all of this? Why not do the usual and meander around the lanes close to home? Boredom? Ambition? In actuality, I got convinced by a guy I’ve never met. And that guy is Dave Barter.
I don’t know a lot about Dave other than he writes really well and has far more guts on a bike than I will ever have. My family know me well enough by now to line up an assortment of cycling related gifts for Christmas. This year Dave has done as well as me, with two of his books carefully wrapped and ready to be absorbed.
He inspired me to push harder in Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder and then presented me with some options in Great British Bike Rides. And if I refer you back to the opening of this article you can see how this could be a dangerous combination.
After 5 glasses of port on Christmas Day this morning’s adventure made perfect sense. Dave’s ride around Rutland sounded ideal. About an hour from home, just over 100km, and even for the ‘hill o-phobic’. My renaissance was here. I would bounce back into cycling with a vengeance. Forget preparation – I would get through this on a combination of willpower and caffeine. That’s the way they would have done it in the old days, right!? Tuesday looked ideal too. With the wind low and sun shining, there was absolutely no way this could go wrong.
With kit packed, wife kissed (she appreciated it less than me), and bike firmly secured on top of the car I was on my way.
As I turned off the A14 I knew I’d made the right choice. I’m a dreamer, I lie awake at night thinking of days like these. The sun had finally burned off the early cloud, and suddenly the whole landscape was transformed. I’d never been away from the big roads in this part of the country and it was simply staggering. No signs of civilisation, hedgerows as long as Hadrian’s Walls, green as far as the eye can see. Only one problem with that. My eyes couldn’t see all that far. Bloody hills getting in the way.
Hang on a minute. Hills!? This ride was for the hill o-phobic. Clearly stated in bold text on page 111 of Mr Barter’s book. This guy has ridden all around the UK. Devon, Scotland, Yorkshire. Proper hills in those parts. I cycled up the Rosedale Chimney earlier in the year and, well, it took me more than a couple of goes. I’m from Bedfordshire. Our version of a hill is the false flat with headwind.
It was becoming clear that one man’s ride for the hill o-phobic was another man’s Mont Ventoux challenge. Nevertheless I was out, full of home made espresso (another Xmas gift that filled me with more bravado than sense) and ready to ride. I pulled up in the beautiful village of Medbourne. Now, this was the place to start a ride. Small bridges crossing a picturesque brook. A Church that wouldn’t be out of situ on the front of a Christmas card. This was the kind of place that was made for cycling. Two riders on horses coming by gave me the universal hands up hello signal. Time to get going.
Having picked through the mountain of kit strewn across the back seat of my car I was on my way.
Peak of the cap down I headed East through Drayton and Great Easton. Straight into a low sun, the early kms were feeling good. A bit of a twinge in the legs could easily be put down to a lack of recent bike time, and the new cleats I had fitted the day before seemed to be pushing a decent amount of power through the pedals. I was averaging 28km/h pace which wasn’t sustainable, but I needed to get some heat through my body on a deceptively cool day.
As I turned out of Great Easton I headed uphill for the first time. Nothing big. I’m a spinner, so always drop to the small cog early and keep the revs high. As the gradient tipped up I encountered a lady walking 8 dogs in the middle of the road. This was a good sign, they clearly didn’t experience a lot of traffic around here. What wasn’t a good sign was her lack of auditory range. My bike isn’t exactly quiet. This is in no small part due to my first big puffs of the day, but the bottom bracket bearings that have needed replacing for a while now also contribute to the symphony. She was having none of it. 4 dogs on each arm, from the air she must have looked like some kind of canine butterfly. Every inch of the road covered, I had to slow up (this is my excuse and I’m sticking firmly by it). The good news is dogs have always taken a general dislike to me, and for the first time in my life this proved to be a favourable feature. The Beagle on the right upset the roadblock, span round, gave me a wink, and was then quickly dragged to the gutter allowing me the space to continue the trundle upwards.
A right hand turn made the wolf taming worthwhile. My first view of Eyebrook Reservoir appeared over the crest of the hill. This is why I had travelled 50 miles for a ride. Narrow country lanes with amazing views. There is nothing like experiencing a ride like this for the first time. It can only happen once. The anticipation of not knowing what’s coming over the next hill, the nervousness on the brakes as you plunge down roads you’ve never touched before.
I pulled over to take a quick photo then headed on, massive smile plastered across my face. I was on the kind of ride that was going to live long in the memory, and realising this early on made me realise how lucky I was.
Cresting the hill I shot down towards the reservoir, a panorama of blue, part sky part water, opening up in front of me. I’m far from being great at descending, even on roads I know, and these roads were certainly not making it easy. This was more down to the view than the surface. It’s hard to keep your eye on the road when you’re presented with a scene such as this. That and a nagging at the back of my head that the recent heavy rain may have flooded the roads lower down. Either way my fingers tightened a little on the brake levers.
If I could bottle the ride around Eyebrook and keep it forever I would. The wind was behind me, birds were jumping in and out of the hedges, and I was starting to feel like a Tour De Britain winner. My average speed was shooting up and up whilst I entered the halls of the cycling greats. I had already done 10% of this ride. It felt easy. I backed off a little knowing I had a long way to go, but the bike and the roads kept pushing me forward. My legs felt good. I could do this all day.
I span round the Northern edge of the reservoir and headed back into the sun. Another unmissable photo opportunity presented itself. The sun barely looked like it had pushed itself out of its long overnight slumber, and the wet road surface was mirroring as much light as the water itself. I took the chance to chomp down half a banana before jumping on the bike again.
Any illusions I had of a dramatic resurrection of fitness were quickly shattered as I turned away from the reservoir. At 11.5km into the ride the road shot up sharply towards Stoke Dry. I dropped down to the low gears again, and spun my way through it. 4 mins of climbing, getting up to over 10%. I was certainly getting warmed up now, but still feeling good.
From the top of Stoke Dry, a long drop down averaged nearly 35km/h. Despite this I got easily overtaken by two Cervelo-wearing, cycle club types. I thought about hanging on to their wheels, but quickly had second thoughts. The Welland Viaduct had appeared out of the right corner of my eye, and I was easily distracted from my dubious pursuit.
A sight such as this makes cycling easy. I forgot about the road, and started looking for the perfect place to take a photo. I flew straight past the drive of a fancy house and thought better of it. I took a quick left away from the route, but quickly turned around having seen a telegraph pole centre shot. Carrying on down my original route I had just about given up on getting a decent photo, but after crossing under the arches and winding through some narrow lanes I had my frame. With the bike centre stage, I stood in the middle of the lane risking life and limb for bit of bike porn.
As I stood at the side of the road uploading to Instagram, I read through the comments of my previous shot. My cousin who lives on the East coast of Africa had commented “Sometimes going quickly can be over-rated, it is that you go at all that really matters”. If ever there was a subtitle for a ride, today’s deserved this one, the ride was just a sideshow to the scenery.
Once again my endorphin hallucinations were short lived, as I hit the climb coming out of Harringworth. 2km uphill peaking at 11% with an average around 7%. I got myself in a rhythm and kept going. It didn’t feel too tough, I even managed to have a quick bite to eat on the way up. Froome must be worried. My mind turned to spinning my way up one of the great Alpine climbs. They average around the 7% mark too, how hard could it be? Well Strava can solve that for me. Harringworth climb, 67m of climbing over 1.6km. AlpeD’Huez, 720m of climbing over 12km. Right. Time to move on swiftly…
Over the next 15km I lost all the height I had gained on the last climb. I much prefer it this way. Short sharp hills that really test the legs followed by long stretches down. Road designers should take this into account more. I want reward for defeating gravity, not to be brought to an abrupt halt by a crossroads just as I hit a decent speed. Momentum means a lot in cycling, stopping and starting really hurts. No such problems in Rutland, I was free to push my way on towards the next body of water, Blatherwycke Lake.
Having crossed over the A43 and through lanes that seemed to combine the best of British potholes and Belgian pavé into one handy wheel squaring package, I reached the lake. This was England at it’s very best. I raced through a small settlement of farm buildings and headed on with the lake on my right. The sun was shining, the roads empty, I had this whole place to myself. A 2ft high stone wall was the only thing separating me from the shores where a large flock of sheep was tucking into lunch. You’ve got to count yourself lucky when you get on roads like these. Live for the moment, take it all in and enjoy.
The next 20km or so were fairly uneventful. Not bad by any stretch. On a normal ride they would have been highlights, but it was hard to follow what I had seen so far. I covered about half of it on some relatively busy ‘A’ roads, which allowed me to get down in the drops and push on.
There was one big thought I was struggling to suppress. Despite the sunshine, it was cold. I had slightly naively decided today was a day for shorts and fingerless gloves. I had left my wind jacket in the car along with my overshoes. When you’re out on a ride that’s going to take over 4 hours planning for every eventuality is always a good idea. I had planned for just one. That I would be warm enough. My left foot was becoming noticeably colder than the rest of me. The only solution to problems like this is coffee and somewhere warm to sit.
My instinct is to blend in with the crowd. I’m a bit of an introvert by nature. This always presents a problem when out cycling. I am yet to get round to fitting mud guards to the bike and, despite a dry day there had been a lot of rain in the past few weeks. All this has left me looking like an accident at a paintball factory. Well, that is if they’d run out of all colours other than brown. I’m not really brave enough to wander into a lovely village cafe in this state. I was fearing a Luke Skywalker/Mos Eisley Cantina scenario and my overactive imagination needed reigning in again. I doubt the old ladies of Rutland would be out to get me in force.
My problems were quickly resolved as I found the Rutland Water visitors centre. It had views over the reservoir, and even a picture of a bike on the sign. I think I’d fit in okay here. I pulled into the little cafe, ordered a coffee and a Cornish pasty and sat quietly in the corner warming up. It’s amazing the soap operas that pan out when you are by yourself. I find myself getting drawn into other people’s worlds.
“Mummy, Mummy I want an Ice Cream”.
“*shivering* Mummy I’m really cold”
“You just said you wanted an ice cream”
“But an ice cream is colder than me so will make me feel warmer”
There’s logic in there somewhere….
The added bonus of this stop off was a large bike store right by the cafe. With about 50km still to go I felt I needed something to keep my feet a bit warmer.
Thankfully I’d slotted my bank card in my waterproof phone pouch as this wasn’t going to be a cheap experience. All I needed was a pair of socks. So, £10 “HIGHER”, £20 “HIGHER”, £30 “HIGHER”. What!? I wanted a pair of socks not a three course dinner for one.
This right here was a microcosm of every cyclist’s battle with the price of cycling kit. It’s hard to justify but sometimes entirely necessary. And in this case I didn’t have a bloody choice. It was either £31 socks or cold feet. I reluctantly handed over the money, and sat down on the stairs to try and force my now oversized feet back in my shoes.
The financial dilemma behind me it was time to head off again, but not before snapping my lunchtime view across Rutland water. This reservoir is the largest by surface area in the UK, and provides drinking water for the most densely populated and driest corner of England. In this weather it was a breathtaking view. There were hundreds of people out making use of the cycling and watersports facilities on offer. And for those brave souls who had decided to sit outside to have their lunch, a bit of light entertainment was about to head their way. Having completed the standard road cyclist waddle through the wooden tables, navigating my bike with balance and poise by it’s saddle alone, I stopped in full view of the majority of diners to pass my memories on to the digital realm. With my bike propped up against my right leg, I brought my phone up to eye level. The photo was framed perfectly, the people of Insta would go wild for this one. But something was feeling not right, the pressure on my leg was reducing, and then it went. The bike toppled like a drunken doe, twisting itself around my ankle. Brilliant. Whilst trying to maintain my balance and not slip further on my cleats I retrieved the bike. After a quick check to make sure I hadn’t done any lasting damage to me or the bike I beat a hasty retreat across the car park trying desperately not to make eye contact with any of the sniggering masses.
I don’t have good memories of post lunch stop riding. I normally feel lethargic and take a fair few miles to warm up again. Today seemed to be an exception to the norm. I was racing around the Eastern shores of Rutland. The socks were really helping my feet and it was good to get going again.
Shortly after lunch I passed the amazing St Matthew’s Church which juts out into the expanse of water. The reservoir itself was only created in the 1970s, which meant flooding the entire valley and removing a number of settlements along the way. St Matthew’s was one of the buildings originally down to be demolished as part of the construction with the bottom of the building under the water line. After a public outcry the lower part was filled with rubble, and a concrete cap constructed just below the line of the windows. An outcrop was built around the building, so it is now unmissable on the shores. I didn’t get a chance to stop, so the photo is not one of mine, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to show you what a beautiful sight it is.
My fast pace was short lived. After a 5km blast I came to the abrupt realisation that my speed had not in fact been down to a carefully balanced lunchtime re fuelling stop, and more down to, well, gravity. As I hit the A606, and started to turn into a headwind, my mind turned to the 50km still ahead of me. I always think this part of a long ride is crucial. When you get to half way it feels like a massive success, but then somewhere between 55% and 80% in is where the real mental work is done. Anything after that feels like the homeward stretch, but this 25% just after halfway can take it’s toll.
I take to breaking it down as much as I can. Ticking off 10km after 10km, working my way back from the finish point, and using any kind of spin tactics to make the maths work in my favour. “In 10km I’ll be 3/4 of the way there”. “In 10 minutes I’ll have less than 20km to go”. My brain is a fickle thing and can be distracted quite easily.
Thankfully the stretch towards Oakham had a number of distractions. Having read the route description in the book before leaving I knew what was in store for me the other side of the market town, so the less I thought about it the better.
The first distraction came in the shape of a cyclist heading towards me on the horizon. All dressed in black he looked like he wasn’t cycling for pleasure today. And by the speed his pedals were going his chain had either slipped or he was moving at real pace. I left it as long as possible before jumping out of the saddle and pushing hard myself. Show no weakness, I thought. Chances are we’d never meet again, but it was important this stranger knew I took this cycling lark seriously. I shot past him, giving a quick nod, and then eased up again. “Definitely worth it” I said to myself, “that showed him”. What it hadn’t showed me was the right direction. In all the bravado I’d managed to take a miss a turning. A small price to pay.
Distraction number two was yet more cyclists. A flock of them were congregating on the opposite corner of the junction to hop back on the A606. It was a busy road, so I’d have to stop before turning right and heading across in their direction. They had stopped and were chatting, but I knew they were watching. I could feel it. This was an important time. Play it cool, Ben, play it cool. I was an intruder in their world. My chance came, I pushed off across the oncoming traffic and got into the left hand lane. Now my pièce de résistance. Get out of the saddle, give a quick 20 second burst and shoot past them. They’d have me down as a pro. Now, I’ve watched a fair bit of pro cycling in my time, and one thing I’ve never seen is a guy miss clipping his pedal in, not realise, jump out of the saddle, slip, come within inches of catching his knackers on the top tube and then limp slowly off into the distance. Needless to say if the pros did this, I’d be in the yellow jersey by now.
I was lucky my less than festive baubles weren’t bruised by now. But my pride certainly was. No time for reflection though, my next challenge awaited. A couple on a tandem were riding swiftly along the cycle path adjacent to the road. Cyclists have gauntlets thrown down like this on every ride. They were ahead of me, and in the distance I could see the 30mph sign signalling the outskirts of Oakham. Only one thing to do. I had to beat them there. Anything less would be failure. Seeing this as a chance to redeem myself, I pushed on. They had the edge. The cycle path had dropped down from a hill and the road hadn’t, so momentum was on their side. I wasn’t going to be defeated this easily. I flicked up through the gears, putting more and more power through the cranks. It’s hard to say where energy like this comes from when you’ve been on the road for 3 1/2 hours, but it always does. I was closing in. This was my race. As I pulled up beside them I eased off and uttered a pleasant, “Afternoon”. The less talking the better. Important not to show how much effort I had put in to reach them, this would be weak. They may not have known it, but they had been crushed. Victory was mine. Now thoughts started to turn to the more real tests ahead.
Oakham marked a landmark in the ride. At 76km it was bang on 3/4 the way through. It was also the start of the longest climb. At just under 3km and around 100m of elevation this wasn’t the worst hill in the UK, but at this stage of the ride it sapped a fair bit of energy away from my legs. It’s a lovely climb, starting in the outskirts of Oakham, and quickly ending up on tree lined lanes. The taller trees to the left were hiding some beautiful views off to the South, occasionally breaking to give a glimpse of a reassuringly distant valley confirming that you have indeed been battling a sizeable slope.
The road through to Knossington and on past Owston is a cyclist’s dream. Empty lanes cutting through classic British countryside with barely a car in sight. The hills were rolling with every uphill seemingly preceded by a downhill. Momentum and the odd 10 second push out of the saddle was taking me over the crest comfortably. Your mind can really wander when riding out in the country like this which helps the miles fly by. Every glance down at the Garmin seemed to mark another couple gone. But this ride had one last set of surprises in store for me.
From 90km the hills started coming again. They weren’t as long as before, but seemed steeper. There were at least three in the last 20 mins that tipped the Garmin over 10% gradient, forcing me out of the saddle and sending my heart rate through the roof. This certainly wasn’t a simple gravity aided run in to home.
The first of these in towards Tugby presented an even bigger problem. Into the distance appeared a vision in high vis. Another cyclist ahead. I was a bit short of energy for racing at this point, but was catching him pretty fast. As I pulled along side him it was clear he wasn’t one for chatting as he barely made eye contact, so I was going to have to carry on. I got to the top of the first of the climbs comfortably ahead, but he was clearly a determined chap as a couple of kms on he reappeared close behind me. Once again the gauntlet had been thrown down. There is a real embarrassment that comes from having someone you have overtaken catch you up. I’d have to dig myself out of this.
Whilst he was clearly an astute descender, I had the edge on the climbs. When the next one came I put in a shift and dragged myself to the top with everything I had. This clearly caused some damage as he’d fallen a long way behind. The key this time was not to ease off over the top, so I quickly pushed onto the big ring, and kept my legs working hard. The lanes had got narrower, and were covered in muck left by the local farmers but this didn’t put me off my plan. I dodged the worst of it, hopped across a couple of cattle grids, and dropped down fast towards the A47. The road was clear meaning I could get across quickly, but then disaster struck. Coming down the hill in front of me was a tanker. Why on earth it was on a back road like this I could not work out. After quickly giving in to my better judgement, I pulled over into a small passing place to let him by. It felt like an age waiting for him to pass, and my canary-clothed competitor had shut the gap right down. The second the coast was clear I shot off again. This was clearly the final straw as that was the last time we were together. I had visions in my head of him crawling up the last hills, spirit broken cursing my astonishing power and poise on the bike. More likely he probably took a different route and spent the rest of his ride trying to wonder why the prat with the daft looking socks wouldn’t stop for a chat.
The last few kms were largely uneventful. A few more short jagged climbs meant there was little energy to be conserved, and the muddy lanes meant focus was maintained until the end. The head wind was presenting one last extra variable to contend with especially on the tops of the ridges, but this close to the end of the ride it’s easy to stay positive. I navigated through the final couple of small settlements and before I knew it was back where I started in Medbourne. I stopped for a quick bike and rider selfie in front of the church and headed for the car.
With an hour drive home I had time to reflect on my 5 hours in Rutland.
This had to rank up with the most beautiful rides I had ever completed. It had all the components to be called classically English; narrow lanes, rolling countryside and open stretches of water.
My legs were certainly tired from the climbing. Only a couple of years into my road biking adventures, 1,500m of climbing in a day is more than I’m used to in the ironed landscape of Bedfordshire.
My overriding feeling was real pride. I was far from well conditioned for this ride, and there were points where it became pure mind over body. Despite this I had won every battle on the way, no matter how trivial they seemed! I never reverted to damage limitation and just getting the ride done, I kept pushing to the end.
This was likely to be my last ride of 2015. After an up and down year of cycling broken up by periods of illness and draining times at work I was hoping today would revive my interest in longer rides and set me up for a great start to 2016.
This truly had been a Renaissance in Rutland.