Can you feel like a pro and an amateur?* – VCSE’s take on the Velothon

Velothon Wales 2015

Two years of failure to get a lottery place for Ride London obviously left me susceptible to Mrs VCSE’s invitation to join her on the previously unheard of Velothon Wales. I didn’t even bother with an entry to Ride London this year as it seems that anyone who vaguely fits the profile of MAMIL plodder living near London is pretty much guaranteed not to get a place (don’t they realise that they could easily substitute the ‘middle aged’ for ‘old’ with VCSE?)

Mr and Mrs VCSE
Mr and Mrs VCSE

Mrs VCSE is known for going for a swim before getting on her bike and then (inexplicably) deciding that the best way to relax after riding is to go for a run. In a flagrant disregard of rule #42 my wife’s chosen recreational pastime is Triathlon and we would be joining a whole bunch of rule breakers from her club in Cardiff.

I can’t remember when exactly I assented to coming along for the ride but i’m pretty certain it was in the off season when i’m generally less concerned with where i’m riding and for how long than with; “Exactly how many base layers will I need under my rain jacket today?”. I recall mention of 15,000 riders and closed roads but other than the occasional reminder to ‘save the date’ for the 14th June the Velothon didn’t figure that largely in my thoughts. Things started to get serious after a route change was announced increasing the distance to 140km. My recollections of what came first is pretty hazy but it may also have been around this time that I became aware that our route would also take in climbs of the Tumble and Caerphilly Mountain. Both climbs have featured in the Tour of Britain; the Tumble most recently in 2014 where it was categorized as a Cat 1 summit finish. Having seen World Tour riders get dropped and popped on both climbs on the ToB I was in no doubt that getting the decidedly non World Tour VCSE carcass over the top would be quite a challenge.

We warmed up for the main event with ten days with our friends Paul and Jan Simpson in the ancient volcanic landscape between Murcia and Alicante. Paul and Jan are Great Britain Ironman age groupers and we hooked up with them again in May after staying at their rental villa last September. A little less than 500km and no ride with less than 1800′ of climbing was the best possible preparation when the most challenging climb in North West Flanders (Essex) is just over 300′ high. We took in this particular ‘bump’ North Hill a few times the week before the Velothon and I did a couple of shorter rides in the days leading up to weekend (Mrs VCSE would probably describe this as ‘tapering’).

On the run in to the event I wasn’t too sure what to expect. There was quite a lot of ‘noise’ about the road closures from the locals accompanied by suggestions that the organisers had not done a great job of communicating said closures to said locals. The visions I had of angry Welsh folk ignoring closed road signs and hurling abuse at me were soon dispelled when we got in to Cardiff city centre to sign on. The expo had some decent stalls and anyone needing a last minute addition to their kit was being catered for. They say that a fool and his (or her) money is easily parted so needless to say Mrs VCSE and I came away with a new jersey (me) and gilet (her) despite bringing kit with us that would have satisfied every possible climatic condition.

We had figured out that the ride from our hotel to the start pens would add another 10km to our total and perhaps a little ambitiously pledged to keep our pedals turning when we finished to ensure we clocked 100 miles for the day. With an early start time we were on the road at 7.00am which ensured traffic free roads even where they hadn’t officially been closed. Pretty much the only people we saw were other riders; the numbers swelling as the roads converged on Cardiff Castle.

I can claim at least 15 seconds of fame thanks to my Photobomb of former Welsh rugby international Colin Charvis as he set off at the same time as our group. The route quickly left the city centre and we found ourselves riding on the kind of roads that are the general preserve of articulated lorries and white vans through a series of industrial estates. The smoothest lines followed the trucks wide wheel tracks the curb sides providing a home for debris that was already claiming plenty of puncture victims. The back roads that carried us between Cardiff and Newport weren’t all that dissimilar to those along the Thames ‘delta’ near VCSE’s home town, our progress witnessed by a few bored looking ponies (there must be some kind of bylaw that insists on the presence of a collection of some tired out old nags to keep the grass down). At this point our speed was pretty good around 18-20mph and we didn’t have any kind of incline to tackle until we had left Newport and started to head inland.

For all the talk of protests from locals outraged that roads should be closed to ensure the safety of 15,000 cyclists I didn’t see any examples on the ride. I mention this now purely because the only reported incident was some tacks left on the road near the Celtic Manor golf course. Perhaps the irony was lost on the person doing it; didn’t they know that cycling is the new golf? While hundreds of us waited for the road to clear someone commented that we had probably been stopped to ensure we didn’t put the golfers on the nearby green off their putts. This interlude had been preceded by a sharp little climb that was easily in double digit grades and some riders had already been forced to walk; a prediction of what was ahead perhaps?

We regrouped at the first food stop and then set off again with the prospect of tackling the Tumble getting ever closer. I can only blame myself for not quite taking on the right kind of fuel (as opposed to the quantity) but if I was to offer the organisers one bit of feedback it would be to provide a ‘countdown’ of distance towards the big climb of the day. I lost count of the amount of times I told myself that I was about to hit the start of climb to the point that it came as a bit of a surprise when I actually did. The funny thing is I can’t really describe what I saw on the climb as carnage. I didn’t see anyone really suffering; people were either riding up (albeit at very different speeds) or walking. Surely it can only be in the UK that 15,000 riders naturally follow an unwritten rule that says ‘keep left’ and looking up the road the riders and walkers neatly split into their respective sides of the road. Okay, the suffering bit was true, but I did see one or two people suffer an immediate demise when they ran out of gears, legs, forward momentum or a combination of the three and topple over. I wasn’t sure how far I had got up the climb when I decided a breather might be in order (certainly well past the two hairpins but still under the tree canopy). I hopped back on at the Pub and while I was disappointed to have walked part of the climb I certainly wasn’t alone in doing so.

The view from the top of the climb (in fact the view as soon as you leave the tree line) is pretty spectacular although I was in no position to enjoy it until I reached the summit and could refuel. 48 hours later I’m almost convinced (I know.. but humour me) that I could have made it up the whole way if I had consumed the event sponsors free caffeine gels at the base of the climb. Back as a group we headed off again before the cold further solidified our legs after the climb. Of course it wouldn’t be Wales without sheep but seeing a couple munching grass at the roadside as I set off, I remembered the cattle grid on the climb and hoped I wouldn’t encounter the rest of the flock making an impromptu crossing on the descent.

I didn’t have to worry about anything four legged but I did have a bit of a surprise when I rounded a corner to come across a wiry old grimpeur making his way up the Tumble the opposite way. Thanking my personal God that I hadn’t taken too tight a line around the bend I reflected on my good luck not realising that one of our riders who had been further up the road had been taken out on the descent and was currently making painful progress towards the finish.

Off the mountain there were a series of 90 degree left and right handers and there followed a cessation of hostilities as the route followed wide flowing A roads towards Caerphilly. The pace dropped as Mrs VCSE and I rode together for a while. She had got up the Tumble without needing a foot down but somehow manages to struggle on the long drags around the 5% mark that I can ride on all day. Go figure. The drop in speed was compounded by her ruthless obsession with leaving the chain in the small ring. I learned some time ago that offering any ‘coaching’ as far as Mrs VCSE’s riding choices go was futile but after sucking down a few more gels we had lifted our average in anticipation of the second big test of the day.

As we came in to Caerphilly and past the castle I took a spectator up on her offer of some jelly babies. The sugar hit was going to be of psychological assistance only as we were almost on the climb by now. I caught up Mrs VCSE in time to hear her say “They must be joking!” as the road reared up in front of us. Whether or not Caerphilly Mountain would qualify for ‘Mur’ status if it was on the banks of the Meuse rather than South Wales seems like a moot point when it feels like you’re laying over your bars due to the steepness of the climb. We had talked about riding the Velothon together but like so many of our riding plans the reality of our preferred riding styles and speeds means that the Mrs and I are rarely joined at the hip on our bikes. I was in no position to look back and see where she was once I had passed her; everything was focused on keeping the bike moving forwards and upwards. Where the split between riders and walkers on the Tumble had been around 40/60 here it was more like 10/90. As the day had gone on more and more spectators were watching, waiting for the pros who would be tackling the climbs twice in their race. I wanted to ask “Is that a promise?” as people shouted out “Not far now!” or “You’re nearly there” but it was taking everything I had to keep the bike moving and my heart rate below 170bpm. I was determined to conquer the climb; stopping on the Tumble will nag at me until I go back and do it again properly. I passed a couple of other riders from our group and then finally the end was in sight. I don’t think I could have unclipped any faster when I crested the summit.

My rendezvous with the group was short lived as Mrs VCSE, assuming we had carried on went through the final feed zone and onto the descent towards Cardiff. My pre-event perusal of a local riders ‘road book’ of the route had described the descent off the mountain as potentially the most risky part of the entire event with 20% plus gradients and an off camber turn at the bottom. I can testify to the accuracy of the prediction by the racket my discs made as I struggled to scrub off speed to thread the bike through the 90 degree left hander into a road that was half the width that we had been on.

I eventually caught the Mrs (she’s a fearsome or should that be no fear descender) and we road together for a while through a fairly technical downhill (with the occasional up) stretch into the city centre. Groups of riders were fairly well spaced and it really countered the negative comments that I had seen on social media before the event to hear the shouts of encouragement and applause from the spectators who had gathered at the end of their driveways or around cross roads. Along with riding on closed roads the reaction of riding past appreciative crowds was something most of us will rarely experience. The Velothon’s event Twitter hashtag of #ridetheproroad seemed pretty much spot on to me on the last 10 miles.

Knowing that the finish line was approaching I was really enjoying myself at this point. With the last of the descending pretty much done with you could make the most of the wide roads and I was maintaining a steady 40-50kph and counting down to the 1km to go banner. Quite a few riders were just coasting by now but I was in my element. Just ahead of the last corner before the finish straight a Pinarello rider gave me a look that said ‘challenge accepted’ and got a couple of bike lengths on me as we got onto the straight. I didn’t start in the right gear but I had a clear road ahead of me and saw my power meter rise; 300, 400, 500, 600 watts as I crossed the line somewhere around 9000th (perhaps even lower) in reality but 1st in my skirmish with Mr Pinarello.

The bulk of our group came over the line in the next 5 or 10 minutes. We probably hadn’t been more than that margin apart for the entire event, although some had most likely lingered longer at the food stops than others to ensure that no one got left behind. As we sat on the curb to replenish our energy supplies with cans of Coke near our hotel locals who might even have been among those who had taken to Facebook to complain about closed roads asked; “Did you have a good ride?”. Sooner or later everyone realises; cyclists; not such a bad bunch really.

* OK, so it was a rhetorical question but for me I have to contrast taking to shanks pony on the Tumble with the 50kph dash through the appreciative crowds towards the finish. I’ll never be a professional road rider (too old, too big, too slow etc.); witness my ‘result’ on the Tumble but it felt pretty good soaking up the good will shown towards every rider on the ride. 

** The featured image at the top of this post is one I took at the top of the Tumble. I make no excuses for poor composition and anything else that’s wrong with the photo; I was hanging at the time! 

2 thoughts on “Can you feel like a pro and an amateur?* – VCSE’s take on the Velothon”

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