British Cycling event reporter took a break from his race reporting day-job and journeyed north east to Middlesbrough to ride and report on the inaugural Tees Valley Riders Sportive.
The Tees Valley Riders (TVR) cycle club formed after the Middlesbrough Sky Ride two years ago when a group of local riders got together to organise bike rides for beginners and people who didn't have the inclination or time to ride with the area's 'serious' cycle racing clubs. TVR have been very successful in recruiting new riders and throughout the year they have a full programme of rides that suit the leisure cyclist.
The TVR Sportive is brand new on the 2012 calendar and organiser Gerry McBride put together a brilliant 51 mile route that was perfect for a wide range of abilities. On the start line at Middlesbrough Cycle Centre were a smattering of lean, keen racing men and young bucks all wanting to do fast times. But the majority of riders were just like me, nursing old injuries, or not very fit, beginners on brand new bikes riding clip-less pedals for the first time, and people training for big charity rides later in the season.
What struck me more than anything was the high percentage of women riders. The British Cycling Breeze initiative of women friendly bike rides has helped to get more women on bikes nationally and in the North East. The women were there in numbers at Middlesbrough. The TVRS organisers created a special 30 mile women's only route, but most of the participants chose to take on the men and ride the full 51 miler.
The HQ was buzzing when I arrived with riders signing on, taking on last minute hydration and fitting their timing chips. We were in the middle of the late May heat wave, but at 9am the sun was yet to poke its nose through the low cloud. I spoke to a few riders who were trying to work out what to wear and what to leave behind, I opted for shorts and short sleeved jersey with gilet and arm warmers. I suspected the riders who went for the full kit option would regret it later on, it was forecast for 25 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine and as we all know the BBC weather guys always get it right! Just in case I packed a rain cape into my back pocket.
The figure of eight route promised to take us through some beautiful scenic countryside, and I was hoping to have a leisurely ride and enjoy the view. From the start I rode in a small group of quick riders towards Great Ayton, after a few miles I realised these boys were all chasing fast times, it was good to ride in a group, but any time soon my level of fitness would be exposed for everyone to see. I needed an escape plan and at the top of a short climb I announced to my new found friends that I had to stop to get some photos. It worked and as I stretched out on the grass with my camera focused on a group of riders coming up the hill I realised I was more suited to photographing cyclists than trying to ride fast with them.
We were now deep in the countryside, the Sunday morning roads very quiet, a few villagers of Easby and Ingleby Greenhow were venturing out to get the milk and Sunday papers and shouting friendly hellos to the procession of cyclists passing through. At this point I jumped onto the back of a small group of riders who were riding at a perfect pace. I followed for a few miles enjoying the twists and turns of the undulating roads before noticing this group didn't have TVR event numbers or timing chips on their bikes. Realising I'd been relying on them to follow the direction signage it quickly became apparent they were in a completely different event and I'd gone about 6 miles off course. To the huge amusement of the Darlington cyclists I turned in the road and retraced my tracks back towards Stokesley.
Back on course I continued towards the only big climb on the TVRS route from the village of Swainby up Shepherds Lane to Cod Beck Reservoir. It was very steep in places and although I managed to ride all the way up I knew most of the riders would have to resort to walking up the steep sections. At the cattle grid near the top I stopped to speak to a group of riders who were taking a breather.
Above: Tony Morrel and James Murgatroyd refuel at the top of the climb to Cod Beck Reservoir.
Part of my brief for the day was to find out from other participants why they had entered the sportive, and leaning on the fence at the top of the climb eating energy bars and bananas were my first two potential victims. Riding their first Sportive event were Tony Morrel 36 yrs and James Murgatroyd 41 yrs both from Middlesbrough and members of Tees Valley Riders. They told me, "It's been a new experience for us to ride a sportive, doing the entry, turning up at a certain time, signing on, fixing a timing chip to the bike, then riding in a group, we've really enjoyed it."
James had bought a new Raleigh road bike for the event and I asked him if it was easier to ride than his usual MTB. "The gearing is not right for climbing hills, so If I'm going to do any more sportive road rides I need to change the sprockets and chain rings for something easier, but riding a road bike on the flat is much faster than my mountain bike".
Back on my bike I rode past the day-trippers paddling and picnicking at Cod Beck Reservoir, and enjoyed a fast descent to Osmotherley. Because of my slow pace and route malfunction I was behind schedule, so the cafe stop I'd planned for the scenic town had to be shelved. Osmotherley marked the furthest south point of the route and as I turned north to ride back towards Middlesbrough I felt the headwind that had obviously been assisting me so far. It was a slog into the headwind tracking through the country lanes, and with some relief I spotted a rider at the side of the road fixing a puncture.
Above: Dainius Narsutis completes a quick roadside repair to his bike.
21 year old Dainius Narsutis from Newcastle had started the ride with his Dad and some other mates but had lost them after the big climb to Cod Beck Reservoir. I asked the young student how he got into cycling?, "My Dad's from Lithuania and he's always been a cyclist, I started doing rides with him and we've completed the Coast to Coast and Great North East bike ride events. I'm building up my endurance to compete in more events with my Dad who's much fitter than me".
Puncture repaired Dainius and me set off towards the final feed station, he was a good riding companion and we shared the work into the headwind.
Above: Alistair and Susan Wolf at the finish
At the final feed I spoke to husband and wife team Alistair and Susan Wolf, both in their early 50's they had a full season of leisure cycling planned, Susan told me, "I challenged myself to do 2000 miles this year and since the 1st Jan I've completed 1000. In fact I clocked the 1000 walking up that big climb today, I hope it counts".
Alistair said, "We are combining some big organised rides like the Virgin Money Cyclone with visiting family and friends across the country, it's a great way to spend the weekend and we are really enjoying ourselves".
On the final run in to the finish I bumped into my mates from the top of Shepherds Lane Tony and James. I got tucked onto their wheels and took advantage of powerhouse James pushing a big gear on the flat section into the headwind.
The roads back to the start/finish were now quite busy with Sunday afternoon traffic, and the well used Middlesbrough cycle lanes network reminded me of riding in Holland, but with a few more hills.
Above: Michelle and Alan Ball at the finish.
At the finish area I spoke to another husband and wife team Michelle and Alan Ball, this early 40's couple had started riding together two years ago after MTB rider Alan encouraged Michelle to ride the Middlesbrough SKY ride. From then Michelle was hooked on cycling and did a few women only Breeze rides. Breeze introduced her to Tees Valley Riders and they now regularly go out with other TVR members on group rides. I asked Michelle what she got out of cycling? "Fitness, enjoyment, meeting some very nice people, being out in the countryside and discovering new places on the bike. There is nothing better than riding your bike around these country lanes on a beautiful Sunday in the sunshine".
What an endorsement that is, but surely it can't be all sunshine and roses? "As a cyclist you do notice the poor condition of the roads, I think something needs to be done about improving the rural roads, that would make it safer and more enjoyable".
The finish area was full of riders tucking into the welcome afternoon teas provided by the organisers, having grabbed some sandwiches and a drink I plonked myself down next to a very bubbly young women who had just completed the 51 miles ride. Joanne Clough 34 yrs from Newcastle upon Tyne was in training to do a six day charity ride in Ireland. She'd ridden with her friend Susan and was delighted to have finished. Joanne was typical of a lot of the women riders at the Tees Valley Sportive in that she was fairly new to cycling, she was enjoying the challenge of riding, sharing the experience with her friends, and using the event to build up her fitness and endurance to take on a bigger challenge later in the summer.
As the riders were beginning to drift away I caught up with organiser Gerry McBride to ask him how the day had gone for him. "This has been our first sportive and we are very happy with how it's panned out, we do need to get more entries to make it viable but we have learned a lot and we will use that experience to improve for next year. We have a great little club and our members have enjoyed organising and participating in today's event".
From a riders perspective the Tees Valley Sportive had everything I was looking for, a challenging ride in beautiful countryside, nice group of fellow riders, good organisation by a friendly team, and Gerry those special chocolate cakes you produced at the final feed zone were truly amazing, thanks for a great day.