2014-04-16 17.03.11

 

My first ‘sportive’ ride happened this April, just after I turned 32. Did I oficially become a MAMIL?

 

I didn’t know what exactly to expect from this sportive event that I decided to join this Spring. I hardly did any in-depth research about the advertised ride in the New Forest on the 12th of April 2014. All I knew was that it’s not a competition per se and that there will be around 2.000 cyclists around. Mark, who works with the New Forest National Park, told me about it when we met a couple of months ago in Brockenhurst. ‘You should join it because there will be a couple of thousand participants and you could learn more about the cycling in the Park’, he told me. New Forest National Park is going to be one of my sites of investigation for this PhD and Wiggle’s New Forest Spring Sportive is one of the main cycling events in the area.

 

It’s more of a ‘personal battle’ for every participant ‘against the distance and the clock’, says Wikipedia about these sportives, as there isn’t such a thing as a mass start. I’ve never ridden with so many people around me, except maybe in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. But those rides weren’t challenges is any respect, I simply used the bicycle then to get from A to B. This 62 mile sportive (there are, in fact, two routes: this ‘Standard’ one and an ‘Epic’ one, that covers 84 miles; both of them can be ridden either on Saturday, the 12th or Sunday, the 13th) in the national park close to Southampton was a full-lycra event, where most attendants would be MAMILs riding pretty expensive carbon road bikes.

 

Getting ready, but not lighter

 

I knew for sure that I needed to be pretty fit to have a decent performance in the forest. By ‘decent’ I mean not just being able to finish the ride, but, I don’t know, I guess passing more cyclists than passed me would count as general success. I really looked at all this event as a genuine competition, my first ever competition, in fact. In the last couple of weeks before the ride I’ve been running constantly almost every day, for 2 miles, partly to prepare for this. I also quit smoking recently, for completely other reasons, but that should help as well.

 

I knew I had a weakness though. My bicycle is a steel frame road racing machine from the early 1990s (photo below), which is sensibly heavier than most of more modern versions. I never weighted it (precisely because I am not doing much sport cycling and also because I am not that much of a geek), but it has around 15 kilos, whereas a carbon or even an aluminium road bike can weight even less than 10 kilos. For regular use in the city, it doesn’t make much difference, but once you start thinking in terms of performance things change dramatically. One other minor aspect that I know it can also make the difference is the toe clip pedals, which I don’t have on my bike. I use regular shoes and regular pedals, which are less efficient in transmitting the kinetic energy to the chain and then wheels, simply because they are not fixed the whole time to the platform of the pedals and tend to slip. But this much minor disadvantage was of less concern for me.

 

2014-04-13 09.29.49

 

Volunteering and becoming the insider

 

The entry fee for such an event is £30, but I saved the money by volunteering for a couple of hours in the early morning (7 to 9.15). I thought in was a good opportunity to get to see the event as an insider than just a simple participant. I would volunteer first, than I would ride. Just before 7 AM I arrived at the venue where the start but also the finish would happen: a kart circuit in a leisure park at less than 10 miles from the hotel in Bournemouth where I booked a room. I went straight to the big white tent on the edge of the circuit where all the cyclists had to show up to confirm their sign up for the ride and get the participants’ kit.

 

A long table, measuring around 30 metres, was entirely covered with paper sheets featuring the complete list all the participants’ names, from A to Z. Together with other two dozens of volunteers, I was supposed to assist them with the registration: ask their surname, find them on the list, have them sign the terms and conditions, stick an electronic chip to their helmets (for the automatic calculation of riding times – see photo below), hand them their assigned number that must be attached to the bicycle (previous photo), and finally hand them some giveaways such as coffee/tea vouchers, grease tubes for the chain and a plastic bottle with different energy supplements.

 

2014-04-12 07.04.49

 

One of them. But most likely not yet

 

As expected, most of the participants fit into the general description of the MAMILs: middle-aged men in lycra, not totally different from what I was myself that morning. I could hardly engage in any conversation with any of them as the queues started to form, so I tried to guess different scenarios just by observing what was happening around. Some cyclists would come in pairs: father and son(s), sometimes husband and wife or just partners. Most often 3 to 4 or even 5 friends, who would ride together for 62 or 84 miles that Saturday morning, showed up to take their riding kits together. Others would be concerned to express their loyality to a certain bicycle club by wearing a distinctive jersey, while others would show through same method that they ride for a certain charity to raise money (as in the photo below where Kids Company is advertised on the jerseys).

 

2014-04-12 09.07.16

 

On my left and on my right, two other volunteers were ready to do the same as myself once they finished their assignment: join the big ride. Rachel is about my age, living not very far from New Forest, and wants to ride both that day and on Sunday, the Epic routes, which makes me feel uncomfortable with my humble mission. She has already ridden three other sportives this year and seems very confident that she can finish these two as well. She’s a bit dissapointed though, as none of her friends wants to join her in this effort, she’s going to ride surrounded by a bunch of strangers. She’s used to it, she tells me, and she’s happy to see that more and more women are showing up to ride such events. Jim is from London and he’s going for the 84 miles as well. I don’t have the time to speak with him very much, but we exchange phone numbers and agree to have an interview after the ride. I think he gave me the wrong number as afterwards I phoned somebody who wasn’t called Jim. Unfortunatelly I didn’t meet Jim again that afternoon.

 

The ride without history

 

2014-04-12 09.53.11

 

The moment I got up on the saddle I knew that’s not going to be a leisure ride. I wouldn’t be sparing any minute socializing or admiring the landscape. Partly because once you’re in traffic (which didn’t close during the ride) you behave like traffic, and that is one rule I tend to obey. Second, because I was there to race, not to make friendships. Being on my own I had to set my own riding pace, one that wouldn’t exhaust me after only a couple of dozens kilometers. I tried for a while to ride with several groups of two to four cyclists, but either they or I weren’t consistent enough to keep the group together for too much long.

 

2014-04-12 11.15.27

 

For much of the ride I was cycling on my own, trying to stay focused on the signs on the road, especially designed for the cyclists participating in the sportive. I would pass some riders, often women or older cyclists, other times I would be passed by faster cyclists and I would’t be able to keep the pace with them. In many cases I could notice those who passed me slowing down afterwards so I could double them again. Quite often, other riders stopped to take pictures or simply fix a puncture. Each time I left some cyclists behind it felt nice, each time I was passed by others I was a bit dissappointed.

 

‘There will be a feed station in a couple of miles’, I could hear somebody saying. I had no idea that such a thing even existed and realized that this might well mean that I haven’t yet covered not even half of the entire distance. I was hopeful and hopeless at the same time. I entered the race without taking a proper breakfast and my legs craved for some energizers. I had no idea how many more kilometers were to the finish line. Then the feed point arrived and I had the impression that I was the last to show up at the party. I haven’t seen so many cyclists in lycra together in my whole life (well, except for Tour de France and other races where I was a spectator). They were swarming around some tents offering fruits, biscuits and different energizers (photo below). Some yellow plastic barrels with energy drinks lured cyclists to refill their bottles. I had a recharge as well, swallowed then some nutritious gel from the kit I was given at the start. I grabbed some more jellys from a bowl and hopped again on the saddle, there was no more time there to waste.

 

2014-04-12 12.20.27

 

For the rest of the remaning 25 miles I felt much more stronger despite the wind that was blowing more and more fiercefully. I finally changed the gear to the biggest chain ring on the crankset and lowest cog on the back. That was full speed ahead. When I saw the last 10k sign I felt the relief. I knew I could make it, no matter what.

 

Don’t be a wheel sucker!

 

There is an important lesson I learned from watching professional cycling races such as Tour de France when it comes to organizing a long ride such as this one. Cycling is all about team work, and this is the case even when you don’t have an actual team to support you. In professional cycling you generally have eight team mates, but it often happens that you are in a breakaway and none of them is there with you, they are all left behind. So, instead of waiting for them, which wouldn’t make sense if you want to win a stage, you start building strategies with your adversaries. That means that a group of two to ten or even fifteen ‘strangers’ work together to keep the breakaway’s advantage by constantly switching positions at the front of the group. This allows the energy of each rider to be equally distributed during the common effort. The front man usually spends more of his energy because he’s the one who has the most direct contact with the wind. It’s a question of aerodynamics, indeed, and if these adversaries fail to cooperate (sometimes they simply don’t want to) they are ultimately caught up by the main peloton before making it together to the finish line.

Well, I knew I needed to find this ‘groupetto’ that rides fast enough but not too fast so that I could stick to them. The only problem is that I found it towards the end of the race (at around 15 miles before the finish line), when the wind I confronted on my own had already done some important damage to my overall rhythm. I seized the opportunity once I felt these three guys were what I needed to keep me at a constant speed. There wasn’t any agreement I made with them to ride together, I simply followed them as they were making their way to the front of the ride, silently taking advantage of the corridor they left behind. I didn’t feel we were a provisional team as the one I described in the case of professional cyclists. On the contrary, I felt I was rather a wheel sucker, the common term used to describe amongst the professionals those riders who don’t contribute to the team effort, but often take the credit at the end. I ingenously apologized myself to them when I took the lead and left them behind as they couldn’t keep the rhythm with me anymore. They said it’s ok, I think I over analysed the whole situation.

 

The exhausted body

 

I passed the finish line without much glory, but at least nobody passed me on the final few hundreds of meters. I received a medal shaped in the form of a cog that I put imediately around the neck. I walked the bike to the big white tent to get my bag and started looking for possible interviewees. In the tent people were queuing for sandwiches, drinks, a refill is needed. Others were laying on tables half naked getting a recovery massage for £10.

 

2014-04-12 14.19.13

 

I got a couple of promissed interviews, recorded only one, the day was pretty much over, I had to get back to the hotel. I took the dinner in Bournemouth, at a Turkish restaurant and then went straight to bed.

 

I had a long sleep on the single bed for around 12 hours, but I had pretty agitated dreams that kept waking me up the whole night. I felt pain in the ankles and started to crack the joints. Nothing to worry, I got used to that in the last few years. In the coming days the back of the neck still hurted me, it’s always the case when you ride for so long on a bicycle with such an aggressive geometry.

 

This must be repeated

 

I just downloaded the certificate with my name from Wiggle’s website (see cover photo), I feel mildly proud with the ‘Silver Award’, but given the circumstances I should be totally happy. I found some pictures with me as well on the internet and paid £19 for bigger resolution. Some company, Sportive Photo, is providing this service and they really charge a lot for some other than that very nice pictures. You only have to enter your racing number and all the shots taken of you are there. I had around ten, I picked two (one is just below).

 

WNFS44

 

Official proof:

 

New Forest Sportive Certificate

 

I enjoyed this first sportive. I will definetely ride some more!