Just to be clear from the outset, this was the Tour of Cambridgeshire, not the Tour de France. It was a 'Gran Fondo', which is basically a Sportive. However, there were a few subtle differences with the ToC. 1) closed roads; 2) each rider given a finishing position; 3) the opportunity to qualify for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships. These 3 factors made this more than a sportive, and made it equally exciting, terrifying, and knackering for me! (As well as eye opening)
1) Lots of men shave their legs.
There are many hypotheses on what [cycling] advantages one attains from shaving ones legs. The most quantifiable being that it saves you about 8 seconds an hour in normal conditions with normal* leg hair, and every other variable being assumed constant. More qualitative measures suggest shaving your legs means there is less chance of wound infection and it is easier to heal when/if you take leave from your chariot in favour of eating tarmac (see point 5 below). Lastly shaving your legs is supposed to make pre/post ride massage both easier and less painful...because all the guys at the ride definitely have a group of soigneurs waiting for them at the end for a rub down...I had my fiancé, Ella, and my dog, Dexter – neither were going to give me a massage.
The elephant in the bathroom is that shaving makes your leg muscles, and your tan lines, more defined (case in point above ;) These two factors, alone (and the fact that they feel silky smooth to touch), are the reasons shaving makes you faster, and that's a fact. The only debate is where to stop? Should you also shave your arms? Almost definitely.
So having 100% proved above that it definitely makes you materially faster to shave your legs, arms, head and chest, I sat in the start gate staring at all the shaved legs around me feeling a little sorry for myself. Ella has stated categorically and unequivocally that she would not be marrying me next May if I shaved my legs. As I wondered whether 11 months would be enough time to grow the stubble out, the gates opened and we began to funnel to the start.
2) It's fast. It's full on.
So the gate opened and the race started. It began to feel like any other sportive, except for the lack of leg hair around. We guided ourselves through the road furniture at the start, waved to loved ones like we were going to war (who probably thought to themselves "what on earth does he think he's going to do? He's about to ride around the countryside on a bike, not pick up the Brits from Dunkirk) and settled into our cadence. Whilst I don't want to keep comparing this bike ride to Dunkirk, I soon realised that actually not coming back from this might genuinely be a possibility. Within the first 5km the pace was measurably fast, clocking and staying around 40-45kph. I frequently looked down at my numbers (because I'm basically Chris Froome) and saw my heart rate in excess of 180 (just like Froomey's at this stage in the race) - not a happy place for my heart with 4 hours to go. Groups went off down the road, and groups fell back; after about 30kms we finally began to settle down.
3) Echelons aren't just a choreographed performance by the pros
Sunday happened to be very windy, and just as we settled down into our rhythm I got my next taste of what it must be like to be a pro rider. We swung through a suburban Peterborough village and out across the flat Cambridgeshire countryside. It was in this environment where I realised the gravity of an echelon. We funnelled into a reasonably tight road and round a sharp bend, and as we accelerated out I lost the wheel in front. Whoosh -the wind hit me like a fly swat as I was left isolated. I'd been towards the front of my group so I thought I better catch back onto the 2 strong riders ahead. I put my foot down, and a rather worryingly long 2 or 3 minutes later, I was right back on, with my heart rate back up to 180. Thank god for that I thought, let's not lose that wheel again. I looked behind me to see that I wasn't the only one to have lost a wheel, and not everyone had made it back on, our group reducing from a huge peloton to a group of maybe 30.
As we wound through the course, and the wind went from headwind to a side wind, I moved out slightly to the side to stay in the draft of the rider in front (mainly just copying the bloke in front who looked like he had done it before (shaved legs)). As I tried to settle back into my groove I afforded myself a look down the road, and a new found thrill filled my muscles - heading over the rolling countryside I saw 5 or 6 echelons of between 5-20 riders up ahead - it literally could have been the heart of Flanders in a Belgium classic. It looked awesome, and as I looked behind and saw 10 or so riders flanked off my right shoulder, and everyone else that couldn't fit on the end falling away like shrapnel, I felt really pro! If it hadn’t been for how tightly I was gripping the handlebars and for how close I was to the rider in front and behind I’d have whipped out the phone and would have probably got at least 500 Insta likes for that photo.
I had made the split, and for the first time in the race I could hear Ned Boulting and David Millar commentating in my ear, discussing what a pivotal moment that was. There was to be more excitedly raised commentary to come, as we swung round corners there was an almost race deciding split in the group. I was about 3rd wheel in the second group of the split, and could see the two riders in front of me were flagging. In a split second a girl passed me on the outside and I checked behind, did one of those cool cycling gestures that I'd seen earlier from someone with shaved legs, and moved across onto her wheel. Together we worked for about 5 minutes, working very hard indeed to get back across onto the back of the group that had broken away, and with a final push I was very relieved to catch back on - HR was knocking around 185 and I was not feeling pretty. I checked over my shoulder and together with my new friend we had dragged about 5 others with us - thanks for getting involved you lazy free loaders!
At this point Boulting and Millar are getting pretty excited - something about the gutsy performance of debutant Crosby. The blood pounding in my ears was drowning them out. There were several splits, and it was 50km of pure pain and utter concentration to try and stay with the strong riders. I could see echelons in front getting closer together and further apart, and Boulting and Millar were praising every move. I was on fire closing down gaps and getting into groups. That was until I found myself 3rd wheel at the front behind two guys who, to be honest, had been pulling our group along for about 30km by now. One of the particularly smoothed leg chaps turned to me and said "are you going to come through". At this point I had a clash of Boulting and Millar, at the same time as rerunning countless stories of bullying in the peloton from various cycling books - "alright Lance, keep your hair on" I thought, but just as my dog does when being called inside from the back garden, I came through - slowly, head down. Feeling a little hard done by, began to take my turn at the front.
I spent about 2 mins at the front. Utter pain. Exactly how much time is enough time to have proved yourself with the big boys?? I needn't have wondered for long, as soon as my pace dropped sufficiently the two strong men came back through to take up the reigns, along with 5 or 6 others, and another couple, then no one else. I looked back - there was no one else! My whole group had come through. I dug deep to catch onto the back of the last rider but it was in vain, and they were gone. Shut up Miller, I know that was a mistake. The next group weren't far behind and they swallowed me up and I caught on, caught breath, and went into the pantry for some food....
4) Eating is tough again.
I have become very used to eating and drinking on the bike, but I remember all to well the nervous feeling of trying to open a flapjack with both hands while staying steady. That feeling returned as I tried to open my cliff bar while flying along in a tight peloton, enclosed on all sides. Every time I sat up the wheel in front went away just a little bit, and someone else filled the 3/4 bike gap with a whole bike - not a confident feeling when you have one or two hands off the handlebars! So my first struggle was keeping up with the group while fumbling around in my pantry. The next struggle I didn't think I'd experience again, being a fully formed adult and everything, was swallowing. My lungs were doing all they could to help my faltering heart out, and as I shovelled small amounts of bar into my mouth and chewed and chewed all I got was dry mush that when swallowed didn't know whether to go into my lungs or stomach. More than once it ended up all over the rider in front's back tire. Sorry about that.
5) The juxtaposition of carbon and bodies hitting the road
It's interesting how things become harder when you're tired. Your brain loses focus, and you can switch off a bit to tasks your brain doesn't deem of paramount importance...this brings me onto my next learning topic - the hideous juxtaposition of a crystal clear twang of carbon on carbon and carbon on road, rattling its beat alongside the muffled scratchy thud of bone/skin/flesh/human on tarmac. Very closely followed by lots of shouting - both general expletives and actual cycling etiquette warnings of "slowing"; lots of squeaking breaks, and skidding tires. Thankfully I'd either finished in the pantry or given up on food so had two hands on the bars during any "squeaky bum" moments. On two occasions I can't believe I didn't end up on the floor, testing the difference between cliff bar and tarmac (not much, I'll wager). Once riding over a fallen victim's front wheel (sorry) and once locking both my wheels to try and avoid a perfect 10 cartwheel. Safe to say, people crashed. A lot.
Those weren't the only crashes we saw, with tarmac sunbathers and ambulances littering the road all the way along the ride - it's no wonder really, when you put all these amateurs in a race like environment and tell them they could qualify for something. A sobering part of the ride for certain. Not something that would stop me coming back, but something that certainly took the shine off an otherwise amazing day out.
I finished in a bittersweet way. With 1km to go I ‘lit it up’ - Wattage bazooka time, I thought. In retrospect I can now see Boulting and Millar slapping their foreheads - thankfully I didn't have the embarrassment of a power metre reading. With 750m to go I sat up, as I'd put everything into that sprint and I was spent, eventually rolling over the line at the back of a broken group; a broken but happy man. The below sprint isn't actually me, FYI, but in my head, that's what I looked like!
Such a great day out. 3h37m was my official time, placing me 232nd out of 509 that achieved a placing in my age bracket (19-34), and averaging 35.2kph. Not bad for my talent, but a good 12 mins and 98 riders outside the top 134 that qualified for the World Championships in Albi, France in August. Work to do before I get on that Team Sky bus. And lets be honest... If I'd shaved my legs... who knows!
Entries for next year's ToC are now open, so if my experience above hasn't put you off (I really did love it) then sign up on this link - Click Here