Over the course of this challenge, my intentions have almost always been honourable, though they have not always translated into actions in quite the way I may have initially hoped. For example, intention: don’t drink any wine with dinner on Saturday night, I’ve got a gymnastics class first thing in the morning = action: get legless arrive 30 minutes late for gymnastics class, nearly vomit on coach. In the case of this week’s sport, road cycling, intentions couldn’t really have been better: train really hard for exciting 100 mile sportive around the 2012 Olympics road cycling route that I’ve managed to get a ballot place for, smash it (not in a Richard Keys sense), be heroic. Regrettably, the corresponding action was: get a bike about 6 weeks before the race, discover I’m too scared to cycle around central London, don’t actually get much training done.
In my defence, I’ve been very busy lately. For a start, I’ve had the small matter of 37 other sports to deal with. Then I started shamelessly promoting myself to pretty much anyone that would listen, in the hope that someone might hear about all this and cannily think “what a great idea for a book!”. This was also time-consuming, but lead to some interesting experiences, the BBC for example, and even a teeny tiny mention in the Times (though technically, Simon Barnes called me a lunatic, so not entirely sure how to feel about this). Perhaps the most bizarre, however, was an invitation to attend a press event for the Prudential Ride London 100 at City Hall, with none other than the Mayor of London himself, Boris Johnson.
Bizarre indeed (as I believe the footage below, variously described as “Iannucci-esque”, “Awkward” and “Brilliant”, reveals) but it would be disingenuous if I said I didn’t pretty much bite City Hall’s proverbial hand off, for the invitation. I am not stupid enough to be drawn on the politics around, well, politics, but I will say I found BoJo to be, as you would probably expect, charming and quite funny.
Milling around at this press event, I felt a little fraudulent when I briefly considered the lack of training I’d ended up putting in. In fact, Ride London was only going to be my third long-distance bike ride. I’d cycled to Brighton the weekend before with Simon and Clare (the latter of whom was also going to be taking part in the event), who you will remember from other Inspire a Jen cycling events, and to say I found it hard going would be the understatement of the century. It took us about seven hours of slogging through rain, relentless hills and if I’m honest, a couple of tantrums from me, to make it to Brighton. Simon managed to coax me up one particularly unpleasant hill by wanging on about breathing, but there was nothing for it at the infamous Ditchling Beacon, where I threw a massive strop and struggled to push poor Beyonce over the top. I was going to have to do a lot better than this if I was going to make it round the Ride London100 mile route in the nine hour time limit.
The day itself arrived, and I’d prepared as well as someone who’s done bugger-all training can do. Ok, it’s not really fair to say I’d done no training – I’d done LOTS of interval training in the gym with Important OCJOG Lady, Ruth, and those other 37 sports have kept my fitness levels up, I just didn’t have the miles under my belt to go into this feeling prepared. I had no real point of reference for what 100 miles of cycling was going to feel like, and I was starting to worry that my assertion up until now, that cycling is easier than running, might have been misguided.
On the advice of Important OCJOG Lady Ruth (“Don’t be tight – it’s your under-carriage!” a combination of words I hope never to repeat), I invested more than £10 in a pair of padded shorts, I didn’t want a repeat of “Clacton-gate” after all. I’m not going to go into detail here, but suffice to say, 40 miles in a pair of denim shorts was a life-choice I’d lived to regret. I bought a puncture repair kit, an inner tube and a pump, with some futility really, given that should I have encountered a puncture, there was no way I was going to know how to deal with it. “You want to submerge the tyre in a bucket of water”, my Dad had told me, again quite pointlessly, given the anticipated lack of water-filled buckets along the route.
With my under-carriage armour, pointless knowledge of ideal circumstances for puncture repairs, some horrendous-tasting energy bars in my jersey pockets, and a sense of foreboding, I arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I was instantly horrified by the number of skinny, Lycra clad limbs, as I’d rather hoped my declared anticipated finish time would see me in the have-a-go heroes wave, also known, less generously, as the fat people’s wave. Unlike with the London marathon, there seemed to be far fewer “fun-runners”, and quite a lot of serious cyclists.
Off we went, at 6:50am, and though I never felt as if I were taking it easy, my entire wave sailed past me almost immediately. This would have been fairly depressing, if it weren’t for the truly beautiful scenes as the sun rose over London, which had been closed down for our race – a genuine privilege. The only noise was the sound of thousands of wheels turning.
As we continued, and it became pretty clear I was at the back of the J Wave, more and more Ks sailed past, until they thinned out as well. Before too long, I found myself among the Ms. I could only see one other person with a J on her race number, and we seemed to be taking it in turns to overtake each other, pretty much all the way to Richmond Park. 25 miles in, at the first hub, I bumped into my fellow J-waver in the queue for the loos. “Do you want a racing buddy?” she asked me, “we seem to be fairly closely matched, pace-wise”.
So I set off from Hampton Court with Jane, who seemed quite worried about making it round in time and being swept up by the lorries that clear you off the road to let the elite race through if you’re not going to make it within a certain time. Despite being aware that we were getting into the hillier parts of the route, I was feeling more confident now, though, as I’d made pretty good time for those first 25 miles – could I finish in 8 hours even?
After a while, Clare found us, and we traveled in a happy little convoy for some time, but there were bottle-necks in the route as large groups of cyclists struggled to get over the hills, and more than a little aggro. What surprised me about the race was the latent aggression in some of the participants, the kind of which I’d not encountered in other competitive situations. Sure, it’s annoying if someone slows down in front of you and you’re not prepared for it, but you probably don’t need to shout “Yeah, nice one!” at them, sarcastically, and at times it all felt a little unwelcoming to a cycling novice, such as myself. Admittedly, I saw a couple of fairly nasty pile-ups that I was pleased not to have been the cause of, because frankly, it easily could have been me.
Having lost them somewhere in the hilly mess, I found Clare and Jane at the second hub just shy of the halfway point, and formed a strategy. There were a couple of drinks stations before we hit the big one, Leith Hill. We would stop at the station before Leith Hill, where I would knock back one of my emergency caffeine gels. I tried not to be intimidated by a hill that Boris Johnson had told me he’d had no problem ascending. No disrespect to Boris, who I know cycles a lot, but I figured I was in considerably better nick, even if I was starting to feel a little wrong of stomach.
Having lost Jane during some confusion about the water stations, I had my gel and went on to tackle Leith Hill on my own. I made a valiant effort and cycled past many people who’d long ago given up, but ultimately, I dismounted for the final push.
The problem with endurance sports is that they can do slightly horrible things to the human body, as Paula Ratcliffe found to her detriment, in Athens. I guess it was a combination of my lack of training, the disgusting, sugary nonsense that I was fueling my body with and not being used to being hunched over for hours on end, but by the time I’d reached the top of Leith Hill, the stomach cramps I was experiencing were torturously painful.
I kept going, but I lost a lot of time stopping to stand up and straighten myself out for a bit, which seemed to be the only thing that helped ease the pain. Whilst I did cycle the full distance of Box Hill, I’m not ashamed to say that I actually cried a couple of times during this section. Looking at my watch at the drinks station on the other side of Box Hill, I realised I was in real danger of getting swept up with the slowcoaches and at this point, for the first time, I seriously thought about giving up.
But, as I have probably demonstrated over the course of this project, I can be doggedly single-minded and possibly slightly on the masochistic side. Not only this, but after the sadness of missing out on the marathon this year, the supremely generous donations made to my charity of choice, the Samaritans, and the frankly overwhelming support that so many people have shown me and this silly project, I knew I had to get round somehow, even if it wasn’t in the nine hour limit. Pretty much the rest of the course was downhill, so like the lunatic Simon Barnes described, I cranked up my gears, hoping to capitalise on the remaining declines.
Then disaster struck in Leatherhead, as Beyonce’s chain came loose and after a feeble attempt to fix it, I wheeled her to the side of the road, aghast. A woman spectator, wearing a lot of beige, approached me and asked if I was ok. “Her chain’s come off and I don’t have a f*cking clue what to do!” I practically sobbed, realising this was possibly going to cost me my nine hours. Before I knew what was going on, the beige-clad woman had flipped Beyonce over and was rummaging around with the oily chain. “But you’ve got muck all over your hands!” I cried. Random spectator lady of Leatherhead, I really can’t thank you enough, I hope you didn’t get oil on your beige trousers and I will actually cry again thinking about your act of kindness.
With the chain repaired, we were on the road again, but we had the best part of 30 miles remaining and very little time, so I took the executive decision not to stop again for the remainder of the route, and I basically lost my shit. Not literally, you understand, though I don’t think there’s any getting around the subtext here, that I rather felt I might at some point.
By the time I made it to Esher, I was very pleased to see Katherine, armed with the Surbiton Fox, and her parents Christine and Richard, cheering me on and I felt a little guilty that they’d have been waiting for over an hour to watch me tearfully screech past them, but screech past I must for I had just over an hour and 18 miles remaining.
And so I pedalled, constantly fearing the clock, through Surbiton, Wimbledon, Putney and eventually Chelsea. For those last 10 miles, I just kept bursting into tears, partly out of gratitude to be so near the end, partly from the agony of my stomach cramps and partly because of, in spite of everything, the loveliness of it all – the support, the race, the sense of achievement.
As I pegged it past the Houses of Parliament, I looked up at Big Ben and noted that I had roughly five minutes left, at least I wouldn’t be far off nine hours. I tore down Whitehall and spotting the familiar face of my friend Julie at Admiralty Arch, I burst into tears again and pedalled my sinking heart out in a glorious sprint finish on the Mall, crossing the finish line in eight hours, 58 minutes and 28 seconds. The reward of being met by my very proud mum, flatmate John and a bottle of champagne was almost as great as being congratulated on my sprint finish by a fellow racer, who commented that he’d tried and failed to catch up with me. I probably won’t dwell on his age, I’m sure it isn’t relevant.
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