British Cycling road racing correspondent Andrew Kennedy continued with his summer of sportive riding by signing up for the Virgin Money Cyclone Challenge.
The Virgin Money Cyclone Challenge over the first weekend in July was sold to me as the chance to ride the same roads Bradley Wiggins won the National Championships on last year. What wasn't mentioned was the route goes up the tortuous double ramped climb of the Ryals, even the Cyclone event photographer doesn't bother shooting there because pictures of cyclists pushing their bikes don't sell. It was certainly going to be a challenge and I must admit I was a little concerned how the day would end.
Based in Newcastle and the beautiful cycling-friendly Northumberland countryside the Virgin Money Cyclone Festival is now firmly established on the calendar. The weekend kicks off with short leisure rides from Baltic Square following the local Sustrans cycle tracks on the Thursday evening. The thrills and spills of criterium racing in Leazes Park, Newcastle for all categories and ages on the Friday evening. The big mass participation challenge rides on the Saturday. With Sunday morning featuring the Curlew Cup Women's Road Race at Stamfordham, and the blue riband Beaumont Trophy Road Race for the Elite men riders on Sunday afternoon.
The Saturday Cyclone Challenge is a big bold event, as I rode towards the HQ at Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club I was amazed how many cyclists were doing the same, in fact 3556 riders signed on for the three different rides, 681 for the short 33 miler, 1450 for the 67 miler and 1425 for the 104 mile event.
Above: The Cyclone organisation was professional and well organised, plenty of good signage and friendly efficient young people to direct you to the signing on and start areas.
The sun was shining and as I lined up in a grid; it promised to be a good day for getting out into the lanes for a ride. My 9.00am start meant I would be at the front of the ride but was expecting to get swamped later on especially at the feed stations.
From the rugby club I rode along familiar roads through Ponteland. Every shape, size and age of cyclist was out and enjoying the day. I got into conversation with a young guy who warned me not to chase after a group of older riders who flew past us at speed. "Don't take any notice of their age, those guys are seriously fit, they do this all the time". Great advice and I was content to sit in a small group of riders from Whitley Bay who were riding at my pace.
My first stop of the day was at Walton, one of the many un-official feed stations that have popped up on the routes of the big sportive rides. Usually manned by church groups they offer a great service providing teas and snacks to the hungry cyclists.
The 67 mile route I'd taken was a direct ride north of about 30 miles to Forestburn Gate, then tracking narrow country lanes southwest past Hallington Reservoirs, turning east to Stamfordham, and the final kick of about 15 miles to the finish in Newcastle.
At the official feed zone just above Nunnykirk I got chatting to a few groups of riders, and was interested to hear where they were from and why they were riding the Cyclone.
Sophie Reid-McGlinn (pictured above) from Wallsend was riding with family friend Mark Nelson from Newcastle. Sophie's husband was up the road on the 104 mile ride. Sophie had supported him last year but didn't ride, so she decided rather than sitting in the car waiting for a call from her husband to collect him from the finish, she would get on her bike and do the ride. For training she'd done shorter rides over the last few weeks but was really enjoying the challenge of doing the 67 mile route with her friend Mark and planning to use her bike during the summer months for her commute to work.
Sophie and Mark were riding leisure bikes with no intention of trying to do fast times. Mark told me, "I usually ride my bike to work, so for me this is a big ride, but Sophie and me have had a great day, we are taking it steady and just hoping to get back in one piece".
Enjoying the feed-zone drinks and snacks were 17 year old Jack from Aberdeen and Sarah Smit from The Hague, Netherlands (above). Sarah and her husband had travelled from The Hague to meet up with Jacks parents and family to do the ride. Altogether they had a group of nine riders, some doing the 104 mile event. Sarah told me, "We are riding this for a social, fun, family and friends get together, we were all in the same sporting group in Aberdeen before we moved to the Netherlands, and saw this event as a perfect way to meet up and do something sporty and challenging".
After my stop and chat at Nunnykirk it was back on the bike and a few miles further north before the turn at Forestburn Gate and the long ride south to Stamfordham.
The temperature was just right for cycling, and miraculously given that Northumberland had just had the wettest June on record there was no rain on the route I'd taken. Although later in the day I was told the 104 milers had experienced a hailstorm!
Even though there were over 3500 other cyclists on the roads, the long ride towards the Ryals climb was pretty lonely. On my next ride I'm definitely going to press-gang a cycling partner to accompany me, also he can carry my camera, which was getting heavier the further I travelled.
Which brings me to the foot of the Ryals and my 15 minutes of shame. I did this ride two years ago and flew up the climb, surely today wouldn't be a problem. But as I started the bottom part of the ramp my gears began to crunch and my legs began to crumble. Eventually I found the right gear and got into a rhythm but things just weren't right. Riders were passing me and I knew I was going to have to get off and walk. I battled on but at the steepest part of the 1st ramp I gave in and climbed off, the first time I've had to do that on a bike since I was 12 years old. The shame of it.
All of a sudden I was a different category of rider, I was trying to smile as I walked up but knew I'd reached an uncomfortable point in my cycling life when the big climbs would always defeat me. A friendly spectator asked if I wanted my photo taken and snapped me with my own camera as I stood at the side of the road. I walked to the top of the ramp, jumped back on my bike and easily rode to the top. That was it, the Ryals climb was behind me and to celebrate I stopped at the next unofficial feed zone at Ryals village.
Back on my bike I swooped off the high ground down through Matfen and along the route to the final official feed-zone at Stamfordham Village Hall. Without doubt the women of Stamfordham had the best cakes of the whole day, I sat and enjoyed tea in a china cup with fruit cake, looking around for someone to chat to.
Zoe Eke from Morpeth was out on the 33 mile ride with her two sons, Lewis 10 years and Matthew 13 years. The Eke family usually stick to forest tracks and off road routes to do their cycling, but Zoe was comfortable for them all to ride the Cyclone Challenge on the quiet country roads with the support of the marshals and ride organisation. The family has ridden the event for the past two years with Matthew doing the 67 mile route last year. Zoe explained, "We enjoy this event because it gives us the opportunity to ride together as a family, although Matthew is a lot quicker than me and Lewis; he waits for us at the top of the hills". Well done Matthew, but I suspect he does that because Mum has the money. Matthew told me he had eaten nine cakes at the Walton un-official feed zone.
From Stamfordham it was a flat fast ride back to the HQ at Newcastle Falcons Rugby ground. Fuelled by cake and a desire to get back before the cut-off I slipped onto my big-ring and put a final effort in. I crossed the line feeling that I'd truly achieved something by finishing. I collected my goody bag amongst the hundreds of other jubilant riders and enjoyed the chat and camaraderie of the people who had all achieved something together.
The Virgin Money Cyclone Challenge had certainly given me a challenge. The organisers have an event which gives riders of all ages and abilities the chance to experience the joys of mass participation cycling. It was a great day out for me even though I discovered that my days of thinking I can climb the mountains like Bradley Wiggins are well and truly over. Maybe if I didn’t stop at all the cake stalls I might ride a bit easier, but where would the fun be in that?