Yesterday I completed what is probably my toughest personal challenge to date: Velothon Wales. This event gave cyclists the chance to take on routes that professional cyclists take on and indeed yesterday there were pro teams competing. It was a 140km course taking in several South Wales counties: Newport, Gwent, Monmouthshire, Torfaen and Cardiff.
This is my take on how it went yesterday. It’s a bit long and I wouldn’t say it’s a race report because I certainly didn’t race it. Instead it is a collection of my thoughts and feelings about the day.
A dodgy start
The first part of the route took us through a fairly industrial part of Cardiff and out through some pretty countryside towards Newport. It was flat and not very challenging. But for some reason my legs felt like they were on a permanent incline. I wondered if I had eaten enough breakfast. I wondered if nearly three weeks without a bike had effected me. Were my legs too heavy with running? Teams of incredibly fast cyclists went past me over on the right and my confidence took a nose dive. I started to feel like an imposter. Who did I think I was taking on this challenge? People were flying past me and I started to feel more and more intimidated. I kept telling myself that I was going to be out for hours and hours so there was no point in pushing the pace early on, I needed to save myself for the later stages.
Then as we cycled through Newport and the bland dual carriage ways I started to feel very bored and lonely. Most of the long rides I have been on before have been with groups of people. It’s always been social and friendly. There was nothing social or friendly about this. And everything was grey. My mind was swirling the drain into negativity and was on the verge of falling into the plug hole of ‘drop out’. I have never had negative thoughts strike me so early in anything else I’ve done before.
‘You’re a runner. Why are you even here? You’re not a cyclist. You’r going to come last. You’re going to get pulled over by the marshalls for being too slow. Pull over and wait for the sweeper van’.
The negative thoughts were relentless. The scenery and my mind were murky grey. But then the landscape started to become greener and the route started to undulate. Turns out hills wake my legs up and I started to feel slightly better. Everything became far more interesting and I started to focus on the inclines and the Monmouthshire back drop rather than other cyclists. My mind filled back up with positivity and I started to enjoy myself a little bit.
As we cycled up another steep incline in Monmouthshire I could see that people were walking. It was a narrow road and I assumed there had been an accident. As I unclipped the call rippled back like a wave along the tide of cyclists.
Before the event there had been rumours that a lot of the course would be sabotaged with tacks and drawing pins. I really didn’t believe people would do such a thing until I saw the evidence on the tarmac yesterday. As soon as the call came back through the crowd and echoed back down the hill hundreds of cyclists dismounted, lifted their bikes and walked the rest of the way up the hill. Unfortunately I think some of the cyclists in front had been affected and there were men and women off to the side trying to repair the damage done.
I don’t understand why someone would go to the bother of driving the course and chucking drawing pins out their car windows. And for what? To damage the tyres of cyclists doing something rather amazing. Well, these individuals failed if they were hoping they would hurt the 15,000 cyclists on the course. The solidarity of cyclists shined through and fortunately that hill was the only evidence of sabotage on the course that I experienced.
I didn’t take the short cut
When the competitor information came through it advised cyclists that if any of the competitors on the 140km course were struggling, then they had the option to divert at 67km at a place called Little Mill. There was also a cut off point, that if you weren’t at Little Mill by 12.30 you would automatically be diverted off to take the 67km route. This had weighed heavily on my mind and I was terrified that I wouldn’t make it. In fact I think this effected my sleep quite badly the night before and it was on my mind throughout the first half of my ride.
As I rode through Monmouthshire I started ticking off the distance markers: 40km, 55km, 60km. I was going to make it before the cut off!
When we turned right at Little Mill I noticed a van and a marshall surrounded by cyclists. The marshall was giving directions for the shorter route. I noticed that some of those about to take the shorter route had gone past me many miles before. I let myself have a little cheer. For the first time in the race I actually felt good about things and I had no intention of turning off. I was nearly half way. I wanted to do the 140km. I wanted to get to The Tumble.
Unfortunately my hill training had been virtually non-existent. The loss of my bike for nearly three weeks meant my intended hill cycles didn’t happen. I was in no way ready for anything long and steep. But at the bottom of infamous Tumble I put my stubborn pants on and decided to have a go.
For miles and miles through Monmouthshire I had been wondering to myself ‘Where is this bloody Tumble then?’. I had never seen it but plenty of friends and cyclists had an opinion on it. I even heard cyclists talking about it among themselves as we cycled along. Local cyclists were regaling visiting cyclists with tales about the climb ahead of us.
‘I’ve done it a few times but never when I’ve had nearly 80km of riding in my legs’, I heard one guy say. ‘You’ve never done the Tumble?’ another said with disbelief as he then made a sucking in noise through his teeth followed by a sinister chuckle.
To give you an idea about what I’m fussing about the Tumble in the Brecon Beacons National Park is a 6km climb over a 10% gradient. The Tour of Britain web site even refers to it as one of the UK’s most feared climbs. I did know this before I attempted it yesterday and yet actually doing it is something else all together.
As I said I started it. I was so determined to have a good crack at it. I had come this far and I wanted to give it my best effort. I made the first corner and although my thighs were on fire I didn’t feel too bad. I found myself cycling past people which boosted my confidence. I would come out of the seat for a while, pumping my legs and then sit down to try and get some semblance of recovery (ha!). I turned the next corner and kept going. But then it all started to go wrong. Sweat was pouring into my eyes. My base layer which I had been so glad of earlier felt like it was melting me from the inside out. More and more cyclists were stopping in front of me and dismounting which meant some of my effort meant slowing, changing direction and then moving back in for the more competent cyclists. The narrow road started to feel even narrower and I started to feel dizzy and wobbly. My head felt like it was on fire and my chest felt like it was about to explode. I tried to change down a again and realised there was no where left to go. So rather than fall into the hedge or another cyclist and hold everyone up, I unclipped and got off my bike.
At first I felt ashamed and disappointed. I was cross with myself that I hadn’t got further up. But as I looked up ahead and down below I knew that I wasn’t the only one suffering. I started to push my bike, staying well over to the left, watching in awe as many other riders continued pedalling their legs off up this ‘mountain’. My calves burned as I pushed up the incline and I wondered if it would actually be just as easy to get back on. I pulled over to the side by the gate of a house where a farmer was watching us all with great amusement.
‘I’ll get the trailer out and give some of you a lift up there’ he shouted and I wondered how many of us would have taken him on. I drank some water, stripped off my base layer and wiped the sweat and salt out of my eyes which were stinging. As I carried on, pushing my bike I took a chance to take in the surroundings. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful views I have ever set eyes on. A small scattering of supporters appeared at the side and I realised they had made the effort to hike up the Tumble to cheer on the cyclists.
When we reached the summit I don’t think I have been as happy to see a feed station in my life. Welsh cakes, bananas and water were all taken on board. I put my base layer back on as it was windy and I was now cold again.
Many cyclists seemed to be on their phones talking to loved ones or trying to track down team members. Many sat round Keeper’s Pond having a well deserved rest. I popped my husband a quick text ‘think I’ll be done in about three hours or so‘, hopped back on my bike and made my way down the other side of the Tumble. I may have walked most of it but in hindsight it was probably for the best or I would have needed to be scraped off the floor by the sweeper van.
I never get bored when I’m running. I know lots of people say running bores them but it’s never bored me. I do get bored when I cycle though. And I got especially bored on one section of the course through Torfaen and Gwent yesterday. The boredom seems to happen on long flat roads that are surrounded by lots of concrete. One road on the way to Caerphilly seemed never ending. Was this cycling purgatory?
The numbers of cyclists had thinned out a bit and I started to wish more people were around me. It also didn’t help that support was sparse or non-existent on some parts and that I was on my own. I had no one to banter with. No one to cheer on and equally to boost me when I got low. But after digging in a bit again I knew we were nearing Caerphilly Mountain which was the last tough climb before the end.
In my favour can I say that I did attempt this climb in the same way that I tried to attempt the Tumble. I had watched a video of Dani King ascend this climb on a London Boris Bike. The fact that she managed that on a heavy bike with no gears is nothing short of incredible. However in my defence, she didn’t have 70 miles of riding in her legs before doing it.
It is no surprise that I pushed my bike up it. In fact I think most people around me were doing the same. There was some giggling and chatter among the cyclists as we all commiserated with each other and then reassured each other that we were near the end. At the top of the climb there was a feed station. I could have stopped and refuelled but I was roughly 8 miles off finishing. I did some maths in my head about how long it would take, threw my leg over, clipped in and descended the Mountain.
Coming back through Lisvane and Llanishen in Cardiff was wonderful. Amazingly my legs seemed to zoom over the roads and I felt a much needed second wind. People were out on the pavements with barbeques, drinks, massive banners and signs. Cow bells rang everywhere and cries of ‘you’re nearly there’ came at me from either side. I think the sound of cow bells is now one of my favourite things, especially when you know you’re near the finish of the hardest 80 plus miles of your life.
The last 500m were suddenly upon us. The crowds seemed sparse again along the finish but with the staggered nature of finish times and the road closures it’s not surprising. I could have felt underwhelmed at the lack of fanfare at the finish but I don’t think I cared. I had finished, I had picked up the medal. I just wanted to see my family. It had been a long day.
I’m not a natural cyclist and I’m still very much a novice. I am I think a natural runner so this challenge took me way out of my comfort zone. To have completed it, to have at least tried the two tough climbs and to have made the whole distance makes me very proud of myself and what I have achieved. It was tougher than any running event I have done and it was mentally very draining. The fact that I didn’t stop other than at feed stations has actually revealed to me how tough I can be if I just believe in myself.
I think I underestimated the ‘take the pro-road’ element. There were some very serious riders out there yesterday. I was concerned that cyclists like me were an annoyance to the teams that were flying through and almost clipping me at speed ALL THE WAY OVER ON THE LEFT. But I was incredibly lucky in that I had no real incidents: no punctures, no chain issues, no falls. I am relatively unscathed other than a pair of stiff hips and a creaky shoulder from sitting hunched over for 7 hours 17 minutes.
I am never in the habit of checking the routes of running races, if there are hills I am confident in my ability to run up them. If I did an event like this again I would scrutinise the route a bit more and do way more hill training.
Finally, I did it. I cycled 140 km of brutal but mostly beautiful roads. It was a mixture of agony and ecstasy the entire time I was out there. 7 hours of nearly every emotion I could muster on what was literally at times a rollercoaster. If you love cycling and you love a huge challenge, physical and mental, then this event could be for you. I have never said never again after a marathon. I did yesterday. But last night an email popped into my message box:
Pre-registration for Velothon Wales 2016 is now live…..
Thank you to everyone from Velothon Wales for making it a great day.
P.S If you like my cycling jersey it’s from Chapeau!
P.P.S Thank you to the guys at Ride Bike Wales for getting my replacement bike ready in time for yesterday’s antics.