Saturday, 18 August 2012

Great Shakespeare Century

I'm not talking about literature, although there is some drama here. The Great Shakespeare Ride involves more than 100 miles of grinning and grimacing along steep, Cotswold lanes. Starting in Stratford Upon Avon, the cycle sportive runs South to Stow and returns via the Cotswold towns of Winchcombe, Broadway and Chipping Campden. 800 riders turned out for the 100km and 100 mile event on Sunday, raising money for The Shakespeare Hospice. Now into it's third year, the GSR is becoming a Midlands favourite - well-organised and challenging even for veterans of the lycra brigade.

Distance: 105 miles (113 for us)
Ascent: 1400m of climbing
Final time: 8 hours 4 mins
Click here for the route

Adam and Sam came to visit for the weekend, choking down lasagne and pasta on Saturday night and making pre-race bike adjustments in the garage. Adam hydrated with milk and Sam drank chilled beer to give him the edge.

Ad, Ben and Sam

We got to the start line at 9am the next morning having already cycled several miles from the house, warming our muscle fibres. It was humid already. After nine the mass start sprang forward and we rolled past wheel after wheel, snaking in between riders to push forward with the faster guys. A river of aluminium and lycra flowed down Warwickshire lanes. The presence of a Citroen pushing its way through the pack in the opposite direction caused a pile up around us as riders pulled their brakes, with nasty results.

The first 20 miles were fast, racing through my local patch. Tyres hummed and there was a regular 'click' of gears shifting. Adam and I would sit with a group of four or five riders for a few minutes before pacing in front and pushing onto the next. Sam was not far behind. There was a cheery atmosphere; people were happy to be out riding in warm August air. Passers by gave us a friendly wave and we signalled back.

At the first feed stop by Hook Norton we re-grouped, as the three of us had separated - Adam had pushed forward with eager legs while I eased off the pace, the dorsiflexor muscles in my legs were tight and painful. We had a few minutes at the feed station for bike chat, tea and fruit cake before hitting the road. The 100km and 100 mile routes then split, separating the boys from the men ! Immediately thrust into Oxfordshire backcountry, the roads seemed longer and there were fewer riders to overtake since we were pedalling alongside committed roadies now.

On the approach to the first major climb, signposted 'Col du Broadwell', I could feel myself being overstretched, struggling to maintain pace with Ad and Sam. I had to stop and stretch off, the two of them pedalling out of sight. Once you lose the slipstream and 'pull' of your riding buddies, it's a hard slog trying to catch up again, left behind in a wasteland of slow spinning.

After the 50 mile mark I settled into a rhythm and I enjoyed rolling through Cotswold hamlets, my mind wandering beyond the grassy, stone-wall landscapes. Later on I could feel a fight returning in my legs and I began pushing past my contemporaries towards Winchcombe. I took the downhills with blinding speed and left other riders behind. The tight, twisting descent through a wood-shaded road into Winchcombe kept me alert, finger-tips poised on the brakes.

I saw Adam and Sam again at the second feed stop in Winchcombe. My legs were feeling fresh after the earlier pain and I wanted to keep up the momentum, so I left them both there to chase down the next 'Col', rising above the market town on a steep gradient, arse-out-of-saddle. The roads had flooded due to a thrashing of rain, spraying dirt and grit onto my face. There was no time to relax. Going fast on a narrow bend, a metallic stripe flashed in my eye and I swerved in tight to avoid the car rumbling towards me head on. These sort of near misses make your heart jump.

The sunshine re-emerged outside Stanway House. The gatehouse there is made from a golden Cotswold stone, known as Guiting Yellow, giving the place a warm and grand look. Ad caught up with me and we span on towards Broadway along peaceful, quiet lanes.

At the Ebrington food stop, 25 miles from the finish, the volunteer women had put on an awesome display of homemade cake: chocolate cream cake, banana muffins, victoria-sponge, fruit cake and more. It was like a WI baking competition, except I couldn't distinguish between the best cake because every one was sublime. Morale was running high at this point so we had a photo with the baking heroes.

Next in our sights was the Ilmington climb (3km in length with a 5% gradient; Cat 4). After this it would be straightforward rolling home for the last 10 miles. On the approach to Ilmington the three of us were spinning close together, sweeping around corners at speed. Signs by the edge of the road read, 'The final climb' and 'This is going to hurt!' I thought, just watch me... Roadies dotted the hillside and the climb snaked off into the distance. I put some fire in the engines and was bursting past other riders, riders whom I'd been leapfrogging all day. Halfway along the lane one guy between breaths said 'well done' as I rolled past. The three of us were separated again after Ilmington but it was no issue, bombing along roads I knew well with a sniff of victory in the air, hunting down the finish line.

The disappointment comes as the last 10 miles of undulating road can be slow, having to fight the smallest uphill gradient. My bike was feeling it also, making clanging and creaking sounds under the strain; our chains chewing grit, in need of some oil. I waited for half a minute on Loxley hill and Sam popped into view. We agreed to get our heads down and ravage our legs for the last 20 minutes. Taking it in turns, we gave a short blast at the front for several minutes before recovering on each other's wheel. My legs were hollow on the last set of bends and you can be happy if you've given it everything.

Crossing the line, I was grinning as someone handed me a medal. It had been a team effort. It hadn't been a perfect ride for me, but the earlier frustration about my burning leg pain I left out on the roads. We caught up with Ad who'd come in a few minutes before, having ridden well all day. There was enough time to chill outside, get a chicken burger from the BBQ and let satisfaction sink in. Inside Stratford Manor I was keen to get a post-ride massage from one of the volunteer masseurs, and she did a great job easing up my achey muscles. It's the most relaxed you'll ever be - a deep, soothing warmth in your legs, revitalised, after cycling a century.

Post ride salad face

Olympic Mo-Bot

With endurance cycling, you feel the highs and lows like the undulations of the road. But the road is always worth riding! I would sit down to watch the Olympic closing ceremony later, with a beer, content at the fact that they weren't the only ones to finish with a medal.

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