Had you asked me six months ago what it was I enjoyed about road riding, I’d have replied with the full Kelvin, followed by a swift slap to the chops for your impertinence. And assuming I hadn’t flounced off in disgust or a proper fight had ensued, my response would have far outstripped your interest.
Still since you didn’t ask, it goes something like this; it’s is MTB’s boring brother, it has no vibe, no life, no thrill. The only activity that is actually considered less cool than Mountain Biking. An evil of necessity. A pale shadow of proper riding; just about good enough to be better than driving to work. A tedious alternative to being fat and grumpy, only slightly less horrid than a Gym.
I felt pretty strongly about that. Fat men smuggling their love spuds into tight lycra or food-weighing twiglets obsessed by power output and peak performance. Heart rates without any heart. Fat lads without any fun. Wheeled sheep line astern, grim faced and suffering. Two words. No Thanks. Two more. Fuck That.
Something has changed. More than one thing. First there was Wog. Cheap, stout and, well, honest. Equipped with mudguards and treaded tyres, we struck forth into winter with a frozen grin and a never-say-drive attitude. Then riding without a reason to go. Long loops out through the Cotswolds, striking out still deep in the chilly season. A different types of fitness, looser trousers* and riding on days when the chunky tyred ones would be grim.
And my Brother, surprisingly. Ever since he insisted on entering a proper road event, I felt some sibling obligation to join him. Especially once the forms were completed with my witticism bringing the organisers attention to his medical condition – namely “noticeably porky“. To be fair he was. To be fairer, it was a cheap shot.
Doubt began to creep in a couple of months ago. After never-seen-before early season fitness, one accident put me on my arse and apathy kept me there. However much I told myself otherwise, you cannot taper from eight weeks before an event. Especially if tapering is nothing more than lying on the sofa sprinkled in crisp remains.
Those doubts became proper worries on receiving ever more positive texts from evidently shrinking brother talking of 20, 30 then 40 mile rides. Six of those in one week. I was genuinely shocked on actually seeing the fella (in the pub tho, he’s not gone entirely mental) missing half of his gut, and all of his extra chins. He’s also invested in a bike weighing the same as two slices of tissue paper providing motivation enough to keep him training.
Not me tho. One 100k+ ride in May, bugger all since. A few desultory long commutes, one quick hilly pre-breakfast 50k that nearly put me in hospital, and mountain bikes of course. But my “A” game was merely displacing the “I” in fit. Inevitably the day dawned and we turned up to everything I hate about cycling – all enclosed in the standard god-forsaken field with the standard air of worry, testosterone and ego.
Let’s count the bad things out shall we; Road Riding. Middle Aged White Men*. Timings. Competitiveness. Pain, deferred but coming. Boredom, Same. Too much lycra, no baggies, no knobbly tyres, no mud. Christ it was Mountain Mayhem without any of the hard to find good bits. And I properly loathe Mayhem.
Good things. Easier to enumerate. Not hungover. Unheralded restraint made me amusingly proud. Bike is light and lovely. After hauling Wog over hill and more hill, the Boardman is a thing of race honed beauty. Bro, going to be slow even with his outstanding efforts this year. Slower than me anyway. So however rubbish my performance, I can hide behind worthiness and brotherly love. “Well I could have gone mad, but it’s not really on is it?“. 100 kilometres not 100 miles.
Get it done. Get a beer. Get over it. Don’t volunteer again. Having spent too much of my spare time being pointlessly herded by officiousness, the organisation here is superb. From the staggered start through the cheery marshals and fantastic food, it feels quite special. And that’s before random spectators clap you on. Could get used to that.
We start slowly climbing into grey, drizzly cloud that looks nothing like the forecasted horizon splitting sunshine. The pace winds up as I grab a random wheel to suck, risking disaster with quick over-the-shoulder glances to check on the state of my bro. He’s going well but it’s too fast too soon, so we back off a little more and enjoy a non speedy spin. Riders are passing left and right and my competitive twitch is suffering delusional suppression.
“I’m not bothered” says me to the bro. He grins back knowingly. We hit the first proper climb and suddenly my narrowly spaced rear sprocket is a problem. Not for me right now, but I cannot ride at the pace of the monster 12-29 spinning on bro’s wheel. Crikey I’ve run less on an MTB! We agree to meet at the summit so I stretch my anxious legs passing loads and internally ticking my roadie-pals assertion that “most guys here can’t climb, you’ll beast the lot of them“. I know I’m as shallow as a tea spoon and I don’t care.
I care a little more as those bested stream past my freewheeling wait. Soon enough Bro arrives and we crack on up and, occasionally, down merely killing time before the first of two proper climbs. This rises from the River Dart stretching 2500 riders up a thousand feet on gradients up past 1 in 4. 12-23 Al? Fine plan.
So it goes. Up, mainly. I leave the bro again and “go for the gurn”. I’m passing people everywhere, some walking, some looking deeply unimpressed, one on a carbon fibre monster decked out like a sponsors billboard. He’s really not happy. Especially since I’ve enough reserve breath for a quick needle, and he’s basically 30 seconds from an oxygen tent. I stick by his side until it’s clearly he’s gone, then give it a bit.
Until the next corner. Where I back off otherwise it’s a tent for two. Bro makes it without getting off which is a bloody fine effort and we fall off the summit into dark, dank and wet woods. Twice I’ve considered a sneaky overtake on some mincers in front, both times I’ve reigned it back. Half way down it’s a decision vindicated by flashing blue lights, concerned expressions and the brief view of a bloodied rider strapped into a spinal board.
We’re chastised but glad it’s not us. Back onto the moor lit by patches of blue puncturing the gloom. It’s a hell of a view and a hell of a ride. Slightly uphill, significant tailwind, I wind it up, direct bro right onto my back wheel and slide past a few suffering already. This is always my favourite bit in any event, when I feel better than most of the others in our class. It doesn’t last long generally but it makes most of the future pain worthwhile. Almost.
We’ve settled into a group now. I pass most of them on the climbs, they come steaming past as I wait for my bro. A few proper riders blast through at a pace that looks illegal. Or drug assisted. I ignore those and concentrate on taking the wind***. Eventually he’s bored of my pace – so sends me on my way to the food stop. Released, I go a bit mental knowing it’s less than ten miles and I’m barely sweating.
Good job it’s not eleven miles. I arrive with a sore knee, an absence of spare breadth and a stiffening hamstring. Hot now, sun fully out, lots of racing snakes downing energy drinks. Lots of people like me pigging out on the cake stall. We set sail for the safe harbour of race end only once our faces are stuffed and bottles refilled. I’m on a heady cocktail of energy drink and anti-cramp potion. It tastes horrid but appears to be working so far.
A couple of nasty, sharp and un-shaded pulls us out of Princetown. My bro is now in uncharted territory having passed his furthest distance. We’re still 40ks from home and his pace has gone from steady to slow. I’m chaffing but trying not to show it. My elder Bro has always been the sensible one, made the right decisions, weighed up the options. I owe him unconditional help without being patronising. We started this together, that’s how we’ll finish.
But he is sensible and measured and understands the difference between personal and important. So he insists I fuck off and leave him to suffer alone. I protest a bit. He then really tells me to fuck off and – because I’m not any of those things – I do with a couple of guilty backward glances. One more big hill but it’s all into a head wind, and I’ve abandoned the bloke I promised to pull round.
Still no point worrying about that now, I’ve people to catch and scores to settle. A couple of times already I’ve been passed downhill. That’s going to stop right now. Quick yomp up the latest climb with slightly creaking knees and I’m on the wheel of a clubman decked out in socks to helmet livery. We swoop down some epic steep hairpins before blasting through the trees at speeds rarely attained on mountain bikes.
A right hander looms and I’m so deep into fuck-it mode, ego has displaced me in the pilot’s seat. He hits the brakes, I fly by on the outside – giggling insanely – grab the brakes myself, feel the oh-so-thin tyres squirm, wait, wait, wait, got to pitch it in, look up Landrover approaching tight to the white line. Hmmm this could be lively, push hard on the left hand side of the bar, and pray everything I’ve heard about slick tyres and tarmac is true.
It is. Fly out of the corner like berms for road bikes and never see the fella behind again. Spurred on, I push on up the final climb not so fast now but ensuring I’m presenting a heroic bent to the many photographers camped out on the steep bits. Still very few go past with my Malvern-Legs driving me on. Irritatingly while all is well in lungs and legs, my back and neck are now demanding some recompense for constant battering. I can offer nothing more than 20ks left to go, but first a final descent through dappled woods occasionally sprinkled with damp leaves.
It’s a lesson in road riding I get taught by a few whooshing past. I hang in there but it feels like I’ve pushed it a bit too far already. Finally we’re spat out into the valley and closer to home than I date think. Forgot my GPS so I’m asking riders how far we’ve got to go. Please don’t tell me it’s that far, because I’m suffering now.
12k a lovely man says. Then he sprints off. I sit on his wheel for a bit before being overcome by strange feelings of guilt. I take a turn, then a well honed lady with a toned arse does the same. We watch her for a bit before guilt trips back in. Three of us are now pushing bloody hard and it’s fantastic. Behind seven or eight show no interest in taking a turn. I’m blowing it out of my arse here and you’re basically freewheeling in the gas. That’ll not do at all.
Whispered conference up the front. Agreement in tight smiles. There’s one proper hill left and we sprint up it, calves screaming, respiratory system fully anaerobic, muscles demanding instant respite but still we steam on, hit the summit, glance back to see nothing but empty tarmac and broken men.
The last few k’s continue to hurt. I’m getting a count now, 4ks, 3ks, little hill..ow…ow..ow don’t back off, 2k, we’ve got to be there, round the next corner and we are. Slide to a stop, grin, shake hands, fall off bike. Even the freebies are great with a little bit of Dartmoor rock and a medal to add to the standard t-shirt.
My time isn’t brilliant, but it’s not too shabby. Bro comes in 30 minutes later which is fantastic and he’s properly – and rightly – impressed with his effort. We decamp to his house to drink beer gloating about those still out in the broiling heat. Half way though our second beer, we’re singing up for the “135k circuit of Kent” in September.
Road bikes you see. Rubbish. Really, terrible things. Entirely pointless. Can’t recommend them enough 😉
* Although this may have been my two month weekday prohibition of all things hop and grape. I’m back to normal now. And the trousers know it.
** I appreciate the hypocrisy. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
*** So much of road cycling is about getting out of the wind. It kills speeds and urks the soul.