Posted by: Ian | March 13, 2010

The Puncheur

The only thing I did right at this sportive was come to it with a decent level of fitness. I haven’t  yet used my power meter enough to know what a good output Wattage is, but on the way back from our last bike maintenance on the Thursday night before the event I recorded a max of 774W on the short ride to our end of course celebration pizza. Having been shown how to adjust the derailleurs, I could once more shift across all the sprockets on the cassette and the Felt felt fantastic on the flat London roads.

On Saturday I stayed overnight in London and on Sunday morning Emily drove us down to Ditchling, which isn’t too far from Brighton. Emily advised me that the trip time was 1 hour 40, and despite this I proposed a schedule that allowed us about an hour to make the journey. En route, we discovered that the web timings assumed that there were no cars or hold-ups anywhere in South London – incredibly, there weren’t. We arrived in time without a panic but I think we were probably the last cyclists to start.

Clothing choices were difficult to make – or, at least, difficult for me. Shaun had warned that the temperature would feel like -7 but the sun was out, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I chose my gear based on how I guessed I’d feel after 30 miles of riding rather than how I felt standing behind the car before we set off. Thus I picked light gloves rather than winter ones and nothing that gave a second layer (other than my winter jersey) over my arms, and hoped that I’d warm up.

Being last to set off, the sweeping views across the South Downs were enhanced by the tranquility of riding in a pair rather than a pack. The only other Puncheur participant I can recall seeing was at the roadside fixing a puncture. For seven miles we zipped smoothly along quiet gently rolling roads. Occasionally, there were stubborn patches of icy slurry on the tarmac, and there were enough of them to moderate our speed on the descents. The reason the ice hadn’t shifted was that it was indeed very cold, but apart from this we moved along nicely and without incident. I noticed that Emily, whose last sportive had ended with a cracked rib, was taking the downhills very smartly. Although fit, I didn’t feel especially healthy, having a spell of the late winter malaise that’s afflicting everyone. Much as I usually enjoy the hills, it was good to be able to cycle steadily and develop a rhythm without any killer gradients.

Presently, the landscape, which began with sweeping distant views, became more enclosed. I saw a man with a few dogs in a field ahead of me to the right. One of the dogs was a small terrier with a plastic cone around his neck, presumably to stop him biting at a wound or some stitches. As I came to the field  another dog dashed out and ran right across in front of me. I thought I’d steered round him but in his uncertainty he doubled back and went right under my front wheel. Fortunately, as my Garmin recorded, I was only going at 20 mph and my head didn’t take a knock when I came off. Lying on the road, I realised that I wasn’t going to be getting a Gold time. Catarrh from my stuffed up nose and throat had been knocked out of me and I had pain in my right leg, hip and hand and down my back. I knew, though, that nothing was broken or seriously damaged and I wasn’t at all worried. Emily helped me to my feet and I took some trial steps. Walking was painful but the Felt was fine. The dog owner was very apologetic, and, unlike the idiot rider whose horse kicked me off my bike a couple of years ago, didn’t suggest that the accident was my own fault. His dog was amazingly unaffected by the impact.

After a few minutes rest we started off again. Much of my body was sore and, because of my poor clothing choices, those parts of me that ached were also cold. As we rode on Emily stayed close to my back wheel and I had the frustration of finding that even though I was trying as hard as usual I just wasn’t managing to move the bike along as quickly as I normally do. I used lower gears to avoid over-straining my legs but the bike simply wasn’t moving as well as it ought to for the effort I was applying. Psychologically, the experience wasn’t fantastic. After a few miles of grunting along I stopped to take some Neurofen, pulling up next to a car whose day in the Ashdown Forest looked like my own:

The mapbook flung out to the side is particularly poignant.

To the other side of the road there was an ice cream van. It was tempting, and probably would have been wise, to chuck it in and sit in the sun with a 99. Somehow, though, the day was so perfect for riding that even though the feed station at 33 miles seemed unattainably distant I was reluctant to stop.

We carried on and although there were no steep hills I had the continuing sense that we were going up a lot more than we were going down. I later discovered, when I saw the elevation profile from the Garmin, that we were. Soon, I became resolved to get to the feed station, if only because I knew that from there I could get a lift back to the car.

With a few miles to go, the contact lens slipped out of my right eye and slid onto my sunglasses. Exactly the same thing had happened to me at the Hell of the Ashdown so this time I had prepared for the possibility and stashed a couple of spares in my wedgie bag. I stopped to get one and then found that in our haste to get to the start before the ride closed I’d forgotten to strap the wedgie bag under my saddle and had left it behind in the car. So for my second consecutive sportive I passed several miles in a one-eyed blur.

At the feed station I was in two minds. 33 miles was less than half way round, and I was much too sore and far too slow to contemplate cycling more than the same distance again, especially for a race that we’d entered as a warmer-upper. On the other hand, it had been 26 miles since my spill and I was still capable of turning the wheels round – and it was a beautiful day. Taking the middle way, we borrowed a map from one of the organisers and plotted out a more direct route back – and that’s what we took. Of course, we could have sneakily still qualified for Golds by taking our short cut – but, being honest citizens, we handed in our timing chips to avoid the need to do so at the end.

Having eaten a little and rested a little and finding ourselves on a course that was now predominantly downhill, the return was much easier and we did the remaining miles at a faster clip. In fact, the end came upon us more quickly than we expected and when I saw the sign for Ditchling in 1.5 miles my first instinct was to try to finish our journey with a ride up the beacon. No sooner had I thought it, and, I think, even suggested it to Emily, than my legs rebelled and I settled for making it back to the car on two wheels.

By the time we finished, we had cycled 50 miles in 3.5 hrs at an average speed of 14 mph. My maximum power over the entire 50 miles was down to 517W, a third below what I’d managed on an easy three mile run on Thursday night. By the next morning it dropped another 10% on my commute into work. And I had caused us to register another DNF: over four sportives, Emily and I have each fallen off twice and pulled out once. Emily’s record is more impressive than mine (two falls from three races, as opposed to my two from four) but I have the momentum, coming off in both of my last two events.

I have no resentment at all towards the dog (who I hope was not traumatised) or its owner, let alone dogs (or dog owners) in general. I do, though, still nurse a grudge towards horses. Horse riding is quite probably the most dangerous activity that’s still lawful in the UK. I won’t forget being fifth or sixth in a line of horse victims at Yeovil’s casuality ward. Usually when I pass riders in the country lanes here in Somerset they look nervous, uncertain what the huge beasts they sit atop, unable to control, will do. (Paradoxically, when I cycle past the royal or military town horses on the busy roads close to Buckingham Palace I know I’m safe.) The day after the Puncheur I flew to Zurich in time for dinner. I returned to a restaurant where I knew I could get a horse steak. It was delicious.



  1. […] up for in the case of the sportives, and any unusual occurrences (notably coming off my bike on The Puncheur and taking an entirely different route back to the start/finish […]

  2. […] over 5,000 miles, including the ascent up Haleakala (and the ride down), the Hell of the Ashdown, the Puncheur (kind of), the Cornwall Tor, the Blenheim, the Beast of Exmoor, the Tour of Britain ride, and (my […]

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