I recently took part in the Tour of the South East, which forms part of the Tour of England series. These rides are organised by Ride2Raise and all in aid of the NSPCC. I chose this particular event after completing the London Duathlon last year in aid of the NSPCC. For me it is important to have something to aim for when it comes to my cycling. I struggle with heading out on the Sunday club run with no specific aim in mind.
This was something I could really get my teeth into in terms of something to aim for. The ride consisted of two days cycling through some of the South East’s greatest countryside. I was going to cover 168 miles (270km for the more European minded) and almost 9000ft (2800m) of climbing.
I knew this was going to be a challenge. I have previously cycled to Berlin from the Hook of Holland, which was 10 days worth of cycling, but on a much more relaxed scale to what I was expecting from this event. I was nervous in the week leading up to the departure since I’d only once this year managed a ride over 100km, previously giving up at about 95km and getting a train home.
My training was not as intense as I had hoped for, I didn’t think I had it in my legs to complete the two days and I certainly did not feel I had conquered enough hills during my Sunday club runs.
I took a train to Guildford on Friday evening after work and checked in to a local Premier Inn. Dinner was provided by the wonderful chef at my school. Massive thanks to him actually since he cooked me my own lunch on Friday (carbo loading pasta) and gave me enough to have dinner that night and a post stage snack on Saturday.
I arrived to the start venue earlier than most. I had signed up to what was apparently the slowest group and therefore had the earliest start time. My training had told me this was the sensible decision, according to Strava my average speeds were down significantly on last years form. Being in the slowest group did not faze me though, I was happy to ride comfortably and within myself. After all, this was about raising money for charity not about me.
Once I’d got myself changed, wearing my club colours for the opening stage, I made my way to the start line. I checked over the bike one last time and began to mingle amongst the other riders. I also said hello to one of the girls who works for the NSPCC who I had met the previous year at the Duathlon – she was excellent again as well as the other members of her team.
We would be accompanied over the two stages by 6 domestiques, a support car with soigneur a motorcycle outrider and a dedicated mechanic. The entire team were connected via radios to keep us, the riders, as informed as possible. This was the first realisation of what a professional set up we were in for over the two days.
On rolling out of Guildford we were soon separated into two smaller groups. We had a great domestique leading our group and we were soon all chatting away, moving up and down the order talking to one another.
The ride was perfect; the roads well picked, the scenery enough but not quite distracting, and enough tough climbs thrown in to make it a challenge. I must admit I rode a lot of the first day on the front of the group. I was probably trying to show off a bit, but it was also a bit about positioning on the climbs – I did not want to get caught behind people as they started to move backwards on any gradient. I don’t mean any offence by this but simply that I like to climb at my own pace and that happened to be quicker than other members of the group. This became especially noticeable on the stages first real climb which was Devil’s Dyke, the turning point on the stage. Things became quite spread out, but everyone soon came back together and we descended quickly as a group.
Feed stations on the stage were placed very well. My only issue would be that we often stopped for periods which I felt were too long. Maybe I should have been pushing myself more in terms of my group selection, but by the time I had finished lunch I was itching to get back on the bike.
Our last challenge of Stage 1 came in the form of the timed hill climb on Leith Hill. This was an ascent from the Broomehall Road, something I wasn’t familiar with. Having been at the front of the group on all the climbs throughout the day, I felt it my duty to push myself for the King of the Mountains jersey I knew was up for grabs. The climb was a deceptive one and I was never quite sure if I was in the right gear. I did quickly pass some of the slower climbers though and was soon alone on the road – that was until I came across the guys from the NSPCC. Their cheering really pushed me on to the end of the climb at a time when I was beginning to suffer. Although we didn’t see them very much during the stage, when we did see them their cheering was very welcome and it also makes you remember why you are out there riding.
My aim was to raise £350 for the NSPCC. As a teacher working with vulnerable children every day, it is a cause which I fully support and think is excellent in the work it does and the support it provides.
Stage 1 finished by rolling back in to the hotel that we departed from around 7 hours earlier. We were tired, smelly and almost broken but we were all extremely proud of our achievement.
That evening we were invited to the Yellow Jersey Dinner, which took place in the hotel. Another well organised part of the tour with a speech from Mark Colbourne MBE. It was an inspiring and funny speech about his battle back from a disastrous paragliding accident which took him all the way to a gold medal in the London 2012 Paralympics. It was an excellent end to a fitting first day and also something which we could all keep in mind for the next day’s cycling.
Not only did Mark Colbourne give an excellent talk to everyone but he also presented the jerseys to the winners of the hill climb. I was lucky enough to receive one and it’s something that I will always wear with pride. I have to admit at this point that had I been in any of the other groups I wouldn’t have got close to jersey but you can only beat what is put in front of you.
The morning of Stage 2 was slightly harder in terms of getting up and out of bed, but I was soon excited to get back out on the road with some friends I had made from the day before. We set off and were soon laughing about one of the guys in our group falling asleep in his hotel with a box of chicken from the KFC across the road. The perfect recovery food.
The highlight for me of Stage 2 was the climb through Denbies vineyards. The climb began covered by the shade of the trees, this soon turned to a much more dappled light and I was soon pulling down the zipper on my freshly presented polka dot jersey. The sun was making the day’s cycling that bit harder for everyone but the riders were soon rewarded with the view over the Surrey countryside as the trees fell away to the left as we continued the ascent. The view directly below us was of the vineyard and as you looked further out you could see the ridge which forms Leith Hill and a view of the county which seemed to stretch on forever. We were given this reward relatively early on in the stage and it was a view which I won’t quickly forget.
The rest of the stage passed off without incident. The flat TT section was a great break and a chance for some of the faster guys on the flat to show what they could do and it was another good 6 hours in the saddle, moving up and down the group and talking to as many people as I could.
Everyone I met was clearly passionate about their cycling and about the cause which the event was supporting. The guys supporting us on the ride were excellent and clearly very experienced group riders and the experience of riding with a support car and a motorcycle out in front is something which I doubt I will get again. I couldn’t have possibly asked for a better group of people to have ridden with and I am hoping it won’t be the last I see of some of them.
I want to say a massive thanks again to everyone who helped to organise such a great event which has given me as an amateur a real taste of what it might be like to ride as a pro, even with a massively reduced peleton, and without the racing, and minus the alpine climbs (which I’m grateful for), and the jostling for position coming into the sprint finish.
I am definitely considering returning next year and hopefully being in a position to push myself up a group in terms of the speed.