Wow, what a day! Alarm was set to 6.15 and by 7.00, we were on our way with both bikes and a lot of kit in my little Yaris! My scribbled checklist had been adhered to and breakfast was porridge, sultanas and honey and a banana shake,so I felt that my blood sugar should be high!
A lot of research had gone into the right nutrition in the previous week – I really didn’t want to ‘bonk’ on an 84-mile ride, especially as there were some challenging climbs in the first couple of hours. All of this research culminated in a sudden mass production of ginger and apricot flapjack to take with us on the road. The logic was that I like them and that oats would provide slow release energy, and dried fruit for quick sugar absorption. This way less blood would be diverted to the stomach, leaving more for my greedy legs. I would need this especially for the final climb, affectionately known as ‘The Lactivator’. In case of emergency, my dad would be carrying a jumbo pack of jelly babies too.
I didn't really think about the ride too much on the way there, as I was driving, but I was shocked to read that the temperature was -3°C when we set off. Before long, we were marshalled into the impressive grounds of Boundary Oak School, where the car park was already buzzing with activity. My dad and I got our chipped numbers from the organisers and some more delicious (free) porridge with honey from a little stall outside. By now, it was 8.30 and the first riders were setting off. Our bikes had to be remarried with their appropriate front wheels, and with one more toilet stop and a hurried banana, my dad and I were on the road by 9.00.
I was ready for this. My preparation for my first sportive had been carefully thought out with the legs the top priority. The Easter weekend before saw me out in the slippery conditions pounding up and down hills and drafting my long-suffering father along exposed roads, trying to avoid dirty spray in the face. On Tuesday, my legs just needed loosening, so I had a very short spin. It was trying to snow on Wednesday, so I was glad that I had pre-planned a turbo session. Then I had it easy until Sunday, so that I could not possibly be fatigued!
The first 20 miles passed quickly - the timing of our departure meant that I was distracted from cycling by passing other people, and I enjoyed the first climb, Butser Hill, famed for it’s archaeological remnants of the Iron ages. Meon is situated in the western Weald of the South Downs National Park, which made for beautiful scenery, and there was much evidence of the clay hills that our Celtic ancestors would have used to cast their swords. The organisers had made use of this countryside and the quiet country roads to make a great route – there were barely any busy roads to trouble us, giving us riders a nice flowing ride. We were now at the second highest point in the South Downs, and the temperature had soared (to a whole 8°C), as had my spirits.
The first feed station came very quickly. It was apparently halfway for the 46-mile ride though. We stopped briefly to liberate some of the food from their sandwich bags, fumbling around with our gloves, but we ate on the road because I wanted to set my best time. My dad was being kind and selfless, letting me draft him all the way and occasionally waiting for me with flapjack at the top of hills and really encouraging me, but this was a one-off because it was my first sportive (and my mum made him promise to stay with me!). As a result, I saw this as my chance to set an average speed that would be unattainable by me working alone. I had roughly calculated 15 mph as my target. Its worth mentioning here that I know that sportives are not races, and I wasn’t racing anyone, but me and my dad wanted to work as a team – to stick together and I wanted to push myself so that my dad would not have to wait around for me too much!
So we sailed through the first feed station and onto a long, slow hill. According to Strava, it’s category three. This was probably the worst climb for me, since we had left behind a lot of people drinking tea and eating mini muffins, meaning now we had less people to overtake. Furthermore, I was now being overtaken by a lot of men, one of whom commented that it wasn't far to the top. Stupidly, I trusted him and upped the gear - to find that he was clearly misinformed; we were about halfway through. Beetroot faced, I really tried to keep some speed, but the magical 15.0 mph slipped through my fingers. Finally, it got flatter. Not downhill though. I worked hard to bring my average speed back to where it should be, but it was starting to hurt!
I knew I needed to eat something again after that climb but I was feeling really sick. I kept drinking the neon carbohydrate drink that looked and tasted like Sunny D, but didn't think I'd keep anything else down. So it wasn't until about 50 miles in that I felt I could stomach anything, and so then my dad and I stopped off so that I could retrieve the banana malt loaf without the added danger of me falling off my bike with one hand behind my back. I consider myself a good multi-tasker, but cycling, eating the stickiest cake known to man, and breathing really tested this! Then it was a long flattish ride for about 20 miles, if you hadn’t picked up enough food on the last station, woe betides you. Out on a potholed lane, to my surprise, two little girls had turned out in their animal onesies, ringing a proper cowbell! I’m sure they made a lot of riders smile, they certainly made my dad and I feel pretty good!
Before long, we were back with a little group of guys that we had been cycling with since the long slow hill. There was one subject on everybody's mind. Old Winchester Hill. Nobody knew when it was coming. We needed some inside knowledge. Luckily for my dad and me, it was about to come in the form of a jovial man in red leggings that had passed me on long slow hill (he stopped at the second food station for a cuppa and presumably a banana). He helpfully gave us some tips, pointed out the top to me so I could better pace myself, and then he and my dad zipped off upwards, leaving me with a posh bloke who expressed his wonderment with "well done lady!”. I couldn't keep him company though because my speed had slipped to 15.3 mph and I had recalculated that I would need 15.5 mph to get a gold time. This target kept my heavy legs milling on.
Now I was properly shattered, and when my timer said 5:00 hours, I had just over 5 miles to do in 20 minutes; so riding at 15 mph could be just enough. Sadly for my legs, I had forgotten about ‘The Lactivator’... It lived up to its name, but it wasn't long enough to dent my average too much. My face had gone far beyond beetroot to a dark puce, which a photographer was kind enough to capture. I hope the look of daggers that I shot his way didn't cause any lasting harm. We were so close, pulling into the school at 5:21 hours. Cruelly, the timer was then up a small hill (it wasn't really a hill but I was super tired so it felt like one), but my dad let me beat him across the line and then I found a nice patch of grass where I could dismount/collapse. We did it!! Admittedly there just is no way I could have done it without him, but I was and still am unbelievably happy! After a few moments of basking in pride, we collected our certificates of completion, where I was side tracked by a massage stand. What a great idea. Perfect end to a great day.
First impressions from a newbie?
Well firstly, I thank my lucky stars that I'm a girl because frankly, the men's toilets smelt AWFUL (I didn't go in there; you could smell it from the organisers office...). Also I was nervous before setting off, but the women serving food were not short of reassuring smiles and friendly words that eased the knots in my tummy. They made sure my dad got his jacket potato and beans at the end of our ride – they even came to find him with it! I learnt a great deal from Stefan Saunders, the sports masseur. Whilst nursing the life back into my fatigued legs, we discussed nutrition, and he also told me ways that I could possibly make my bike more comfortable for my back. I came today wanting to learn a lot, and I certainly achieved it! One thing that I will take from this experience to the next sportive is to look at the course profile more attentively so that I can see where the bigger efforts are on the course and then I could probably see where I needed to make up time elsewhere on the course, avoiding a massive panic when my average speed inevitably falls on a hill.