The warm up
On Saturday 18 August - as the eyes of the world were on the start of La Vuelta - I was travelling up from the beautiful south to the badlands of the North, where the Red Rose of Lancashire meets the White Rose of Yorkshire. Hotly disputed territory, rugged territory, territory where the inaugural Ride with Brad sportive was set to launch the Bradley Wiggins Foundation.
Having booked in and unpacked at the B&B the landlady recommended a gentle cycle ride. The 230 mile journey had left me feeling lethargic, I felt I could use a warm up. I followed her directions starting off gently and stretching the long journey out of my car weary legs.
Some twenty miles and 500 metres of vertical elevation later I returned - a sweating, quivering heap, mind numbed by breakneck descents from windswept moorlands, legs numbed from the lactic sapping ascents and stomach full from the best Bakewell this side of the Peaks! This ‘small’ circuit - was a mere starter for what was to come. I slept that night - dreaming of never ending stonewall lined climbs and haunted by the faces of the sheep grazing freely in the roads.
The Ride with Brad
Barnoldswick (Barny) was packed with sportive enthusiasts, Civil War re-enactment enthusiasts and gentlemen celebrating their wedding anniversaries (hmm - which anniversary year is gel?).
The weather - locals informed me - was set for a scorcher, the southerners among us donned their pullovers, arm warmers and thermo-merino base layers. My ride partners were Chris (who later followed the 100 mile split) and Ian - and it was great at last to speak to people hitherto known only through the blogo-sphere of British Cycling.!
And as the riders lightly wheeled out of Barny - the scale of what this ride meant, beyond the sportive fraternity, quickly hit home. The bright, sunny streets were lined with people cheering and wishing us well - interrupting their Sunday morning breakfasts and services for a glimpse of their local hero, generously giving encouragement to the rest of us, hiding their disappointment that the dishevelled panting masses were not the cool yellow lidded Wiggins.
It was at around 14 miles - in the climb up Waddington Fell - I had a moment of divine levity. The air went calm, the birds stopped chirping, there was a sound of angels singing and the champion of the Tour de France passed me by, as if gliding on air.
I marked the spot for posterity - for as he rolled by, I grabbed for my camera from a rear pocket and also clumsily pulled out my mobile and it clashed against the ground. No photo, no phone, but (like my unfortunate phone) I can say I was dropped on the Fell. Dropped by Brad and climbing the Fell, the reward was well worth it. The spectacular views from that first climb would have been breathtaking (had I had any breath left to take), alas I did not.
And so that was the story for the rest of the day, the scenery was beautiful and the sun was shining and I didn't care who dropped me, though I did feel sorry for Ian for whom and I surely ruined the KOM statistics.
The crowds were out many donning comedy sideburns and waving union flags cheering, jovially and offering kind words of advice about climbs to come.
Make no mistake despite the hospitality of the locals - this ride was hard. The pain was dished out on a regular basis in the rolling, hostile, rugged terrain. The landmark KOM climbs on the 100km route (Waddington Fell and Nick O'Pendle) were not necessarily the toughest climbs, some of the smaller ascents had vicious gradients, spitting the road upwards, and one particular climb, Jeffrey Hill, must have had at least a 20% gradient.
The suffering was framed with typically tough Lancastrian stonewalls, and at times contrasted with gentle streams and brooks and shaded woodlands to compensate for the agony in the legs. I felt for my comrades on the 100 mile ride (they also had the tough Trough of Bowland to negotiate), but I knew with a 230 mile drive back home ahead of me I had made a sage, if cowardly decision, to opt for the shorter ride.
The downhills were fun - very fast and the inevitable cattle grids made the express descents even more interesting, unfortunately though, in the sportive world - what comes down - generally does have to get back up, and it wasn't long before the stone wall surrounds led the road back towards the skies, now looking a little greyer.
The last section of the Sportive continued to dish out the pain - and as the clouds closed in, the drizzle settling on the narrow, gravelly farm roads started to claim those a bit too eager to get to the end of the route and a plate of finishers pasta. The farm roads led to the finishing line and the PA become audible, it was with a sense of disappointment that I had skipped the 100 mile route - but I knew that this had been a tough enough test for me.
I was thrilled to get back in to Barnoldswick and despite the drizzle getting a little more persistent, there was a huge crowd offering a great, welcoming reception. People were friendly - asking me questions about my jersey and there was a carnival mood.
I was even more happier a few days later when I saw that I came in 171st (out of 730) certainly higher up the field than my legs were telling me during the ride.
More than that - this day was a great celebration of cycling and a great reflection on the efforts put in by the Sky Team - their leader and the Team GB over the previous six weeks. This must surely become a fixture in the Sportive calendar.