The whole thing began on a visit to my sister's house a month or so ago. My brother in law Rick took a 'phone call.
"Hey John, d'you fancy doing a charity bike ride?"
"How long is it?"
"About 50 miles."
"Sure, why not."
His brother (Huw) had organised a work team to ride the event - a few people had dropped out, so he was trying to round up folk to get the team numbers back up. At this point, I'd not been out on the bike for a Sunday ride for a bit, so this seemed like a good way to remotivate myself.
As it was, I managed a short (30 mile) ride, and one around the Tour Ride distance (a 52 mile ride along the Cheshire Cycleway) before the event - I felt I had to ride the distance, just to prove to myself I was still capable of it. I still had a niggly feeling that I'd not done enough. Although I was still getting in 130 miles a week, these were short commuting rides, mostly on the Long Haul Trucker, not the bike I'd ride on the day of the Tour Ride.
In the week before, my ride pack arrived.
Luggage label, rider number and timing chip were all enclosed. Suddenly the day of the ride seemed very close.
THE DAY BEFORE
On the Saturday before, I cleaned the bike I'd be riding (my Giant SCR2.0), agonised over whether my brake blocks needed changing or not (no, they didn't) and whether to ride on my Aksiums, or Tiagra/DRC ST18 wheels (I chose Aksiums). I also found that my Specialized Airtool Road pump had, at some point, lost its valve assembly. I may have sworn about that, as Saturday evening is no time to find out that your bike pump is missing a small, hard to find and vital part. I bodged my Topeak Road Morph G pump into the bracket instead, with an extra velcro strap to stop the pump head coming loose as I rode. I wondered whether I had time to rewrap my handlebars for the next day (no, but I did clean the bar tape with some Cif).
My toptube bag got loaded up with a handful of jelly beans, and some chunks of Soreen for fuel on the ride. In retrospect, I could have left the Soreen, given the excellent feed stops on the ride (every one had flapjack, mule bars and bananas in good quantity, and the last one had Soreen too). I'd still pack jelly beans (or jelly babies) - as either are great for a quick sugar hit. (NOTE: if jelly babies/jelly beans unavailable, Co-Op wine gums have the monkey seal of approval also).
Rutland Cycling also came through, delivering the Specialized Echelon helmet I'd ordered the week before (and that they'd had to back order) on Saturday, making my kit slightly less of a riot of clashing colours than it would have been otherwise. Having said that, there aren't many pictures of me out on the route where I don't look like a yellow bin bag perched atop a racing bike - I regret not looking harder for my Cycle Chat gilet, with its racier cut.
Last thing on Saturday night, I fitted the timing chip to the bike. I spent a good while trying to figure out how to attach it to the downtube without fouling the derailleur cables (impossible). After that, and some more anxious examination of my brakes (they are FINE) and agonising over wheel choices (still the Aksiums) I succumbed and read the instructions for the timing chip.
"Oh, you can attach it to the front axle? Ah yes, that's actually very straightforward indeed."
I'll know for next time.
I had a fitful night's sleep, and wasn't exactly sure why - I knew I could ride the distance I needed to, and that the bike was in good shape. I put it down to having never ridden this sort of event before. How would I handle riding in a group? What if I wasn't as fit as I thought I was? Were those Aksiums (with their proprietary spokes) really the best choice? I could nip down and change them for my sensible 32 3x handbuilts... Sleep came eventually, and the morning alarm seemed to come too quick - I'd set it early to allow time for (more) kit and bike checks.
ON THE DAY
Fortunately for me, and my burgeoning obsessive compulsive complex, my brother in law arrived earlier than we'd anticipated the following morning, so the checking and rechecking ended, and it was time to get the kit in the car, and the bike on the carrier.
Finding the event was surprisingly easy (largely because my brother in law was driving and navigating, I don't think I'd have done so well). We were lucky to get into the "farmer's field" car park too, not long before it was closed up, so we weren't far from Queen's Park and the start/registration at all. Once we'd taken the bikes down from the carrier, we walked down to the park, and on the way I saw the Rapha-Condor-Sharp team car, driven by none other than John Herety himself! I gave him a thumbs up as we passed, and he waved and said hello, which made me briefly star struck.
Once in the park, we waited for the other members of the team to arrive. I helped a few fit their timing chips, including one that we bodged to a bottle cage bolt (for some reason the non lever end of his quick release wouldn't unscrew at all). My brother in law went to register (he'd not had his rider pack and timing chip before the ride) and we left our kit bags at the bag drop. Mrs Monkey phoned to say that they'd not been able to park yet, (they were mistakenly sent to the rider car park, on Stanley Matthews Way) and ask after our start time - we didn't have one by then, so I told her I'd have to set off when the team did.
Eventually, 9am rolled 'round, and we headed for the start. I'd expected to be waiting for a while here, but a group rolled out just as we came up to the line, and once our group had reached 40 ish riders, the lady marshalling the start counted down (I joined in, I was raring to go at this point) and off we went. Unfortunately, Mrs Monkey didn't make it to the start, and spent a bit of time watching people who weren't me set off before we were able to get in touch with each other and realise what had happened. I did end up in one of Cycle Stoke's pictures of the start though (facebook link).
THE RIDE: 0km - 35km
We'd not gone 5km before Huw had a puncture - we think his rear tyre picked up some glass somewhere in the park. After a quick tube change (and the first, and only use of my Topeak Road Morph on the ride) we set off again. Rick and I rode to the first climb (up to Swynnerton, I think), and realised we'd lost the rest of the team. We pulled over into a driveway to wait, and chatted to a couple of riders walking the first hill, who stopped to rest where we'd stopped. Once the team caught up, we discovered that Huw had had another puncture. Despite checking the inside of his tyre at the last tube change, a piece of glass lodged in the outer casing of the tyre, only going through to the tube as he rode. Taking another of the team's spare tubes, he changed the punctured tube and caught up with us again.
After Swynnerton, there's a nice descent and a couple of lumps before the next biggish hill, which leads up to the first feed stop at Milwich (35km). I think this was one of the first "Aha!" hills on the route - by which I mean the steepest part is hidden initially by a corner. I loved this aspect of the route, and surprised myself by spinning up the hills fairly easily - beforehand I wasn't sure how I'd cope with a 50 mile ride lumpier than my usual route. The Milwich feed stop set the tone for the others - well staffed and marshalled, with ample supplies of water, energy drink, Mule Bars (I do regret not picking up one of the "Summer Pudding" flavour ones) flapjacks and bananas, as well as toilets for those who needed them. We picked up some of the rest of the team at Milwich too - the folk on MTBs and hybrids were going a little slower than us for most of the route.
We spent a bit of time chatting to a chap doing the route with his wife - he knew the area, and flagged up a couple of upcoming climbs, as well as singing the praises of the descent into Upper Tean.
After filling up our bottles, and popping a "Zero" hydration tablet into the water (helps keep away cramp, although I'm not sure how much we were sweating given the cold) we set off again.
THE RIDE: 35km - 50km
Most of the route from here fit the "gently rolling" description of the course in the rider pack, although the hill into Bramshall (I think) was fairly steep, followed by a nice descent and then pretty much a steady rise after. Rick and I stuck together for most of this part of the route (I think Huw dropped back to check on the rest of the team). On the way into the lunch stop at Church Leigh, we passed a couple of ladies in Shutt Vr "Continental" jerseys. As the tops were matching, I wondered if they were something to do with the company. It turned out that these were the Tour of Britain podium girls, and Shutt Vr had supplied their kit for the ride, although I only found this out afterwards.
The lunch stop was a short way off the route, so a marshall was there to point riders in the right direction.
"Racng this way, Food that way" he shouted as we rode up. "Food", we agreed.
At the lunch stop (50km), as well as the flapjack, mule bars and water, there were energy gels (didn't fancy those, to be honest) and M&S sandwiches. Rick opted for a BLT (something he said later *may* have been a mistake). I went for Wensleydale and carrot chutney in my sandwich, perhaps subconsciously remembering my joke about doing the ride on my tourer, with a saddlebag filled with cheese and pickle sandwiches and a thermos. That's my CTC roots showing.
THE RIDE: 50km - 72km
Heading out of the lunch stop, we had a bit more up hill before the descent into Upper Tean, which was indeed a lot of fun. I dropped into as aerodynamic a position as I could on the bike, and hit 36mph here, before the road began to climb again heading for Barlaston. As I recall, this was where we began to ride into a headwind as well. I figured I'd try and help by setting some of the pace/spoiling the wind by riding on the front - something that didn't work very well as I kept turning around to find I'd ridden the others off my wheel! I think more group riding should be on my training agenda to properly get the hang of this, as it's not something I have to think about when most of my training is solo Sunday rides. Another nice descent brought us down to Barlaston.
The feed stop at Barlaston isn't far from the end of the ride (at 72km) but I was keen to stop to say hello to Twitter's @kathrynebrown and @00moore, race administrators for the Tour of Britain and Tour Series, who were staffing the Barlaston stop. It was a pleasure to meet them both, and we had a quick chat about the tour ride route and this year's Tour of Britain (I also took the opportunity to eat a banana), before I rejoined Huw and Rick outside. I delayed our start still further by chatting to a couple riding the Family Ride with a baby in a bike seat, and a child on a tag-a-long bike - they were enjoying their day, although the father had hoped to ride the Challenge ride we were doing, apparently! I also gave Mrs Monkey a quick ring to revise our finish time. I'd been alternately over and under optimistic all the way 'round, creating a bit of a logistical nightmare for her in terms of her gettng the brood to the finish on time!
THE RIDE: 72km - 80km
The road starts to rise a little way out of Barlaston again, and eventually comes to another "Aha" hill, and I think I actually laughed out loud on reaching that one, as the steep part was so close to the end. Although plenty of folk were walking, Rick (whose longest training ride had been 21 miles, and was on a borrowed bike - he's a runner, not a cyclist) stayed in the saddle for every climb on the route, including this one. Again, I surprised myself by just spinning up the hill. For the first time on the ride, I began to feel a bit too warm as well, so I took the opportunity to get rid of my gilet while waiting for Huw and Rick. The final stretch of the ride was along a road by the Wedgewood visitor centre, and was really enjoyable (the profile of the route shows it all downhill to the finish after the last hill, so we could enjoy the scenery too).
Coming into the park, we agreed that we'd cross the finish in a line, having ridden the course together. The finish itself was an amazing experience - the Tour of Britain crash barriers and boards are out, the finish gantry is up, the Tour's mc (Joe Fisher) announces you as you approach, and people are cheering and banging the boards as you ride up to the line. Mrs Monkey and the Monklets had made it to the finish too, and they banged the boards and waved their flags like everyone else - it was a really fantastic end to a brilliant ride. After crossing the line, Joe Fisher was stood by the medal presenter and welcomed us over the finish while we received our tour ride medals.
We stayed to welcome the other riders over the line for a while (and to pose for a team picture, above). As well as seeing the rest of the Gordon's Honda Bolton team, we saw the family I'd chatted to at Barlaston, and several other riders we'd met along the way. Eventually we left, grabbing our kit bags from the bag drop, and picking up our goody bags and free pasta meal.
Rick at the finish line.
Our riding time (i.e. excluding feed stops, puncture stops) came in at 3hrs 23 minutes for 50.28 miles.
It was a brilliant day. The ride was supremely well organised, with a terrific, interesting course that had been very well thought out (we went through the busiest roads early on in the day, for example). The route also showed off the county's beauty to great effect - I suspect we'll see a few of the riders returning to see it in a less pressured way after the event!
Also hugely worthy of praise were the friendly and helpful marshalls, volunteers and well stocked and organised feeds. Riding to the finish through the cheers and applause was an unforgettable experience, as was being cheered on by the small groups of people we'd see from time to time on the course watching the ride. I'd have no hesitation at all in recommending the Tour Rides very highly.
The ride was in aid of the Prostate Cancer Charity (more details here) - you're very welcome to sponsor me if you'd like to, my fundraising page is here (there is no pressure, I've no target to reach as I was only riding as a stand in!).