Everybody was assembled at the start, timing chips in place on the bikes. The organiser says he will let 50 or 60 go first and then another batch a minute or two later. You can imagine that unleashing about 400 riders on the public highway at once is not a good thing.
So we all proceed through the starting arch and over the sensor mat with our chips working as there is a continuous screech rather than individual bleeps as we crossed the line.
We are soon out of the field, a sharp right a 100 yards up a lane and then left out onto the A4074.
There was an orderly procession along the road for about a mile and then sharp left into a narrow lane and down and more down and then some sharp bends. The road was wet so riding right behind someone was not good as you got sprayed in the face with mud from the wet roads. A little to one side was the best policy.
This almost caused me a problem on one left hand bend as I guess we were going down at around 35 – 40 mph and one left hand bend had me thinking I am not going to make it. It gradually got sharper and sharper and I was running out of road and didn’t want to apply my brakes while cornering on the wet and I could feel my back wheel bouncing on the uneven surface. Fortunately I made it, just by the skin of my teeth and then frantic pedalling to latch onto the back again for the rest of the descent.
We wound away down into the Thames Valley eventually and then we were into the first big climb. Not knowing the route from previous experience, just from a map it’s not easy to know whats ahead.
The climb seemed to wind up through the trees endlessly and must have been about 12% (1 in 8). Eventually you see that last bend and riders ahead disappearing over the brow and you know the pain will stop soon. Then it was along the plateau a while and then another descent and onto the flat land, or relatively flat that is at the foot of the range of hills. But whenever these flats occurred and there should be an opportunity to make up time it seemed there was always a headwind.
Soon it was back up into the hills again and another steep, wooded climb, very similar to the first one and a ride along the top for a while to the feed station and timing checkpoint. I stopped here for a while to stretch my back and grab a bite to eat while stationary. It’s not so easy to eat and digest and breathe while riding hard but it has to be done sometimes. I took advantage of a free banana and one of my energy bars and it was off over the timing mat on the road again. I was later to regret spending so much time here.
Then it was back downhill again and more undulations. The details may not be too accurate from now on, or even previously as all the roads and route seemed to merge into one and I wasnt paying too much attention to scenic details but it’s what I remember and how I remember it. I was primarily concerned with the few metres of road in front of me and keeping a check on my average speed. I knew it had to be 15.3mph average to make my target time. It was up and down around that mark, I would lose time on the climbs and get it back on the easier ground and not touching the brakes on the descents.
Eventually I could see to my left a steep, open hill, standing up from the plain, on top was a small, isolated copse of trees and the road just going straight up and just as I was thinking at least we are giving that one a miss as the route appeared to take as at right angles to it, the road took an acute left and straight toward the hill, a dead straight road and this climb at the end of it. A couple of minor climbs and drops as we approached and then I was at the foot. Thinking to myself I am not going to make it all the way up here without getting off at some stage but I’ll see how far I get. It was made worse by being able to see what was coming for at least a mile ahead of me It was a killer hill and as I ploughed onward and upward I was soon in bottom gear, it must have been at least 15%. I kept saying to myself a bit more and I can get off and walk a bit, no shame in that..( but there would have been and a dent in my pride), a bit more.. a bit more.. keep the pedals turning and then eventually I saw it was levelling out and I had made it. I had kept my place among the string of riders I was riding with although we were pretty well spread out along the road.
I was caught up by one young guy at the top and we got into conversation for a bit. I told him it was my first sportive and that 67 was a maybe bit late in life for my first one. Well, I told him after a while, that is, when I could speak again without gasping. He said well done and he had been trying persuade his Dad to do one and his dad was 66! That made me feel a whole lot better! After a few hundred yards chatting and hearing about his sportive experiences his team mate or riding buddy had caught us up after the climb and then they were both off into the distance, having said our goodbyes and he wished me a happy sportive!
It was a bit undulating after that and then a long descent down towards Henley the first bit was really long and steep and twisting and exciting biking and then it joined a main road and carried on downwards still but not so steep but I was able to push on a bit with the gradient in my favour.
Before long however the outskirts of Henley were reached and a sharp left to take us away from the town again and up a gradual incline, past the next feed and timing station. I just rode through and over the timing mat and I didn’t stop. I was riding with another guy then for a while and he said I think we turn left just up here and I said I bet its more ‘up’. Sure enough it was and quite a nasty steep climb but not too long and there was only about 25k to go now.
More ups and downs some quite steep but not too bad. Coming towards the end though and my legs were feeling it by now and it was difficult to keep pushing on. I had my eye on the time and thought I could maybe just scrape in under the four hours and attain the gold standard. I was even thinking would I get away with dead on 4 hours or would have to do it in 3hrs 59min. I couldn’t work that out in my confusion so just kept doing the best I could.
I was thinking to myself at one stage in the last bit that there was supposed to be a photographer around on the course somewhere but I hadn’t noticed one. Thoughts of ‘well I hope I was looking good when I passed him’ were going through my mind as I had no idea where he might have been, or what sort of agonising expression I might have had at the time.
Then almost immediately after that, lo and behold I saw this camera pointing at me in the distance so I got into ‘posing’ mode as I passed him. We will see how that turns out later when I see the picture.
With about 10km to go I came upon another gentle rise in the road that just seemed to go on and on and on but I was doing OK and it kept on and then started getting steeper and that just about did me in. I think by the top I was going about 5 or 6mph and nothing left and no more gears to change down to.
I kept pushing on as much as I could after that toward the finish but there wasnt much left in my legs by now. I passed a few more riders here and more and couple more repairing punctures. I saw loads of people with punctures on my way round and at one stage, 3 people together all in mid repair.
Eventually I saw the turning onto the A4074 again and knew it was only about a mile to go and according to my computer my 4 hours was already up but I kept on as I thought maybe their timing was different to mine.
I crossed the line to a final and welcoming beep from the timing device by the big inflatable finishing arch. I had my number taken off and the timing chip removed from my bike and picked up my ticket for a free cup of tea. I sat and chatted with another couple of people and then went to check my finishing time but it was 4hrs 3mins so I didnt make the gold. That seven minute stop had cost me that but maybe if I hadn’t had it I would have been slower anyway. Who knows and anyway I shouldnt have expected that at my age I guess. Nothing wrong with ambition though. I was well satisfied with my ride, a feeling of achievement.
Overall though it was a good day and a very satisfying experience too and I will definitely do another one although its getting toward the end of the season for sportives now but I expect I’ll find one or two before the end of the yearand be better for this experience.
They say as you get older you get wiser, I’m not sure that is right in my case?
It’s for you dear reader to decide.. 🙂