From the archive: "Cheshire Cat" Sportive

The alarm went off at 4:45am BST but as it was GMT when I went to bed I had effectively lost an hours sleep and my body was certain the clock should have read 3:45am. I’d checked over the Trek and pre-packed my nutrition and clothing the night before, so everything was in the car and all I had to do was pop my jeans and a t-shirt on. Thankfully I managed to do this without waking the clan and was on the road quickly and quietly.

Crewe Alexander Football Stadium was a long way, I had only realised this on Saturday when I was considering how long it would take. It was good that at this hour there were no delays on the A1, M62, M56 or M6. Crewe Alexander Stadium is where the Cheshire Cat Cyclosportive starts and finishes (I hadn’t suddenly developed a taste for football).

There was plenty of parking around the stadium and I had room to get the bike out and make my final choices on clothing. The forecast was for occasional light showers but I figured that there would be a fair breeze and plumped for my fingerless gloves, gilet and arm-warmers rather than waterproof and full finger gloves. I also left the overshoes. My reasoning was that I’d warm up soon enough and I’d just have to cope if the heavens opened. My nutrition was also decided; three Tracker bars and 750ml of blue powerade. It was cool enough to not need two bottles and from both the end-to-end ride and from the Staithes run I knew that this should be fine. I didn’t want to stop at the feedstations and planned to eat a bar at each and drink regularly but not heavily throughout.

A slow ride round to the stadium to register, queuing up I noticed that there were lots of very sporty looking types, lots of club colours and very few chubsters like myself. The timing chip was a good design, it hung from the skewer on the front wheel – just back off the QR lever a bit, slide the plastic hanger underneath and re-tighten. So no need to “dip” a chip on your wrist, instead you cycle over an electronic mat and the chip automatically records your time.

I was now lined up in the melee for the start/finish line. I now noticed that most people were wearing coats and full finger gloves. It was chilly and I was starting to doubt I’d made the right choice. The first groups headed off, we shuffled forward and I was in either the 4th or 5th group to depart.

Immediately we settled into a 16mph pace, not particularly fast for a group and nobody seemed to want to drive the pace. It was 20 miles to the first hill and I don’t think anyone want to burn out. There were a couple of teams which went past, all in matching shirts and shorts but no more than 10 people in total. I stayed towards the front 3rd of my group of which there were about 20. Although there were quite a few potholes we kept each other informed with shouts and points and nobody had any major problems. I made sure I shouted out junctions and before long everyone was shouting lefts, rights and whether cars were approaching. The level of communication was great and nobody seemed embarrassed to join in. The group stayed together well and we’d soon covered 20 miles of generally flat riding – the warm up was now over.

The first hill of the day was the so-called killer climb of Mow Cop. And killer it seemed to be! About a mile long, straight up the side of the valley. 25% for long stretches had most people out of the saddle and a fair number walking from the bottom. With people from all over the country I guess not everyone gets to practice the hills we have in North Yorkshire. After a while we crested another brow or step and could clearly see the final stretch reaching to the sky. Many who had managed to ride this far despaired and dismounted, because in front of us the road looked like a wall. This was the 25% unrelenting section which goes past the front of the Mow Cop pub. Crowds had lined the road to cheer us on and photographers were everywhere. Others were taking the numbers of those who had ridden the whole hill. I wanted to give up because it was really hard work, but then I did a reality check and recognised that my legs actually felt fine and that I wasn’t breathing heavily. In fact I was fine. I smiled for the cameras and pushed on to the top. Cresting the final brow of the hill and the road was littered with people standing by their bikes gasping for air, or trying to clear the burning sensation of heartburn from their throats by swilling water and spitting it out. I was fine, and just as well because the brow of the hill is never the brow of the hill... sure enough the road continued up at about 12% and took another minute to really get to the point where everything finally levelled out. Unlike Carlton Bank, Mow Cop has no flat spots.

Credit: Cycling Weekly. I took no photos on the ride, but this photo published by Cycling Weekly gives a sense of the Mow Cop climb.

This hill had caused havoc to the group. There were just three of us spread out downhill and then my chain snagged and I had to pull over. It took a moment to clear the chain and set off again, but for the next few miles I was alone. However the 1st feedstation was around the corner and I was able to stop and eat my first Tracker bar. I also had a drink having forgotten to sip my drink until then.

Straight back out onto the road while many were heading inside for food and drink, I think they were unprepared because we’d only done about 22 miles. So why stop now? Only a 14mph average to this point though, we’d really taken it carefully.

Heading out alone I was able to view the scenery from the top of the hills, and it was fantastic. You could clearly make out the lumpy scenery ahead and the flat lands behind us. But again, I’d planned ahead and knew that there were about 4 big climbs and they’d all be over by the time I’d done 35 miles. The first couple of climbs I managed alone, and was starting to wonder what had happened to the 2,700 other riders. Looking behind me I saw a bunch catching, so I sat up and coasted. They started to come past and were moving comparatively fast. I had to accelerate hard to catch the back of the bunch. There were about a dozen of them and they were bowling along at a good 18-20mph, the last big climb really stretched the group out but I recognised I was stronger than some and managed to stay in the main body of the bunch. We now moved into truly rolling countryside. There were plenty of hills, but nothing more than a couple of hundred feet. Some of them sharp, but mainly good rolling types. It was beginning to become clear that I could recover on the flats and downhill sections if I stayed in the bunch, but this made it really important to increase the power on each climb. I felt good and stayed up with the front 1/3rd of the bunch all the way to the second feedstation.

Again everyone jumped off their bikes and headed indoors. I just grabbed another Tracker from my back pocket and ate it while pootling back out onto the route. I had a few words with another lone rider and we were just discussing whether we could ride together when a group of 8 super-speedies shot past. I shouted we should join them and accelerated to the back of this bunch. These guys were fast, along the flats we were doing 22-25mph. At first I was hanging on, unsure if I could keep this up. But after a few climbs and I had managed to stay with them I grew in confidence and took a turn on the front. I was immediately chastised by one of the guys – I’d ridden too hard and spread everyone out. He said we needed to stay together or wouldn’t get home. I explained I was new to this and he gave me some good natured tips. We then settled into two pace lines, rotating as the guy on the front pulled left and the next guy took a turn. We rotated well, only getting out of rhythm at junctions or when other cyclists combined with cars and potholes to slow us down. Hills weren’t the only place that required intense effort. Every junction got us spread out and a short sprint to stay together. I now noticed that we’d lost some riders and were down to 5 of us. We’d also got sight of a large bunch ahead. I took the front for a reasonable period and pull us to the back of this bigger group. We started to filter through them but then chaos came in the form of a steeper climb, narrow road and a car trying to overtake and getting caught between slower and faster riders. I overtook the car and pushed hard to get past a couple of strugglers. After that hill the big bunch had shattered but our group had gain at least 6 extra riders from the front. I was following a ninja-cyclist all in black and with 1km to go to the next feedstation found myself on the front with another climb ahead. I crumbled, suddenly I wondered if I could make it to the feedstation let alone the end. The group started to flow past me as I dropped back. But just as I fell off the group we crested the hill and spread out down to the last feedstation.

The 4 riders I’d been with continued without stopping – I pulled into the feedstation and grabbed a banana. I wanted to eat and recover simultaneously. Two of the group we’d caught were there and I had a quick word about tagging on with them. Happily we three set off, for a few seconds until I realised these guys alone were pushing out 25mph. One looked back at me to see if I was going to contribute. I pushed up alongside and told him it was all I could manage to hang on, I asked if that was okay and he agreed. Within a few miles we came across a dropped member of the small group I’d been with. A little guy in QuickStep shorts, he very quickly hooked onto my back wheel and now there were 4 of us. But he was obviously knackered because he stayed on my wheel for ages. The further we rode, still keeping a good 25mph where possible I started to recover and returned to the front to contribute. We picked up 2 more riders who worked hard to join the back and now there were 6 of us. Then we saw another rider discarded from my earlier group but he just couldn’t hook up and dropped out of sight quite fast. He looked completely knackered. Then we were starting to get strung out ourselves, our 2 late joiners fell back and we were down to 4 again. Then we got split. I don’t know how it happened but I was on the wheel of one guy and the front rider rode off alone. He looked back but the guy I was with couldn’t catch him, I took the front and we began to close the gap but then he went through a green light which immediately turned red. Darn – he’d escaped. We waited an eternity (it’s not a race) and then started out again. With only 5 miles to go I was feeling very strong and upped the pace along the flats to 26/27mph. I wasn’t expecting anyone to take the front anymore and kept checking to see they were behind me. At one point I dropped them and slowed down to let them back on. But when I picked the pace again they fell off properly and I was alone for the final mile into the finish.

5hours and 57minutes was my total time for the 100 miles. I was over the moon. What a fantastic ride. The signposts had been easy to read and we hadn’t got lost. The camaraderie among strangers was delightful, I had been in groups where nobody knew each other but we’d worked together to keep the pace up and communicated well. The scenery was beautiful, you might think the pace stopped me enjoying where I was riding, but it was the focus on potholes and other riders which needed my attention. On many sections I was able to ride on the hoods and enjoy the deep dark green fields and myriad of small stone walls. We rode over moorland and through woods. Through small country villages and over the well kept canal and bridges, we were spinning along and none of the ride was a slog. I found that if I considered the hills to be sprints rather than hills I could summon the additional energy to crest the brow and keep in the shelter of the bunch. I particularly enjoyed my turns on the front. I wasn’t there too often, there were stronger riders than me and I wasn’t sure if I was going to push too hard or ride too slow. We had to be wary on the hills because many of the riders were using compact chainsets and had to get out of the saddle to climb, so I was watchful of my position behind them. I spent most of my time in the middle chainring (39) and wasn’t afraid to grab a granny (30/25) when the road got steep on Mow Cop. I only used the 52/12 when I was pushing along on the front.

It was a long drive down there and a long drive back. But the event was brilliant and for an early season opener with very little training it was ideal. I particularly like the big hills being early rather than late, allowing you the confidence to push hard for the bulk of the ride. It has built my confidence right up knowing that hill after hill I can ramp up the power to keep the speed up and stay with some really flying bunches. And as I look back, I don’t think I was passed by more than a dozen riders.

I would recommend this ride to anyone. There is a reasonably flat 45 mile route. The 65 mile medium route gives you a shot at Mow Cop before undulating gently back home. The 100 miler was perfect – but be prepared to ride with some really serious cyclists.

[I found this write up in a file on my old PC, I can't believe I ever managed to ride 100 miles in less than 6 hours. I suspect that the time was moving time only, not total time. Which will equate with a ride to York and back once I managed in 5hrs 59mins; but again moving time only - I do remember this being a fast ride though, and all the hills were over early. One of the last Sportives I rode though. GH 27/04/15]

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