London-Canterbury Sportif: fun and fast

Getting up at 3:30am is not something I make a habit of but, when the reason is the chance to ride the route of the first stage of this Tour De France 2007, it is sometimes worth the effort. A bowl of Frosties, half a mug of coffee and a last-minute flap about forgetting stuff set me up nicely for riding over to Greenwich collecting London Dynamo clubmates.

Glancing out of the window after my shower I thought “Well it’s not raining yet, bet it will be when I leave the house”. Sure enough by the time I’d got in the lift it was tilting it down in a solid silvery wall of water. It wasn’t that cold but mild paranoia about seizing up meant I’d stuck on my winter legwarmers, something which I didn’t particularly regret until later in the day.

Met up with Peta and Patrick at Hammersmith and headed onwards to the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner for our second rendez-vous before heading down to Greenwich. Wet weather means punctures and we’d already had two in the bunch before we got to the start line to join the big blue train.

The planned ride-out of 67 London Dynamo riders didn’t happen due to the slightly confused starting procedure. A bit of a shame but it was great to hear Emma Davies Jones name-checking us as the home club on the PA.

Got away fast and tried to suck on a few wheels until I found one that I liked. The marshalling of the big junctions on the way out of London wasn’t entirely convincing, nor was the obeyance of the Highway Code. A tip for event organisers: if you’re going to put marshalls on the course, make sure they stand where riders can see them and point in the right direction and make sure they actually marshall the junctions for the safety of both riders and other traffic on the roads.

Soon out into the small towns and rolling countryside over the motorways. Once again I found myself fidgeting and hopping from group to group, looking for one going at the right pace. Typically, the fast ones were too fast and the slow ones too slow. But with my speed averaging over 30km/h I was happy with the variations in pace so long as it kept me moving along nicely.

In no time I was through the first feed station and in quick succession the second, bearing down on the third before I’d really had time to start enjoying the scenery. Rolling and fast is the best way to describe the course with nasty little lumps rather than anything that could be called a proper climb. One for the rouleurs and one that will be run at a very high pace by the pros.

I found myself battling a bit when the road pitched up to anything above medium steep but the moment I could get out of the 34/26 and get the cadence going again I was flying at 35-40km/h in some nice groups that worked really well. The sizes fluctuated from half a dozen to 40 but the pace and good humour carried through them all.

I flew past the third stop on the basis that my bottles were still nearly full, I was feeling good and moving well. My thinking was that the fourth stop wouldn’t be too far and that it would give me a chance to work my way through the contents of my pockets and bento box (I was giving it a try but I didn’t get on with it so won’t use one again). Unfortunately the fourth stop was a little further on than I thought it would be.

Having got into a good group and flown along, despite a stop to pull on the rain jacket, I got to the point where I was starting to run low on water and was asking around to see if anyone knew how far it was to the next feed. By now it was starting to brighten up and I was still in legwarmers.

No one was quite sure and by the time I got a “six or so km to go” I was running with dry bottles and putting the hammer down in an attempt to get there as quickly as possible. Shame the food truck hadn’t turned up, due to being involved in an accident. Luckily there was water so I filled up and nipped to the shop I’d spotted next to the feed station.

Now there comes a point in every sportif where you’ve about had enough of shovelling cereal bars, energy gels and drink into your mush and fancy something savoury. For about an hour I had been jonesing for a sausage roll, so that was exactly what I bought: two of the half-size ones. It’s good to know they fit perfectly in a jersey pocket and are much easily to handle and eat on the move than fiddly-to-open cereal bars. I also grabbed a liquid treat in the form of a bottle of lucozade sport which is my preferred flavour of energy drink. Probably not the “best” in terms of a scientific approach to nutrition but certainly the one I can tolerate best.

Managed to get into another good group with Mark and Matt which had us hammering along nicely. Then the wheels came off a bit and my head went to pieces. I’ve never had that happen before. I didn’t want to follow wheels and more, not that I couldn’t, I just felt an urge not to do so. I fought it for a bit and then gave into my head.

Fortunately, it coincided with my bladder needing to be emptied (that doesn’t usually happen either) so I pulled into a layby for a wee and cracked open the jelly babies. I thought about taking off my legwarmers but that would have been tempting fate. A fistful of jelly goodness later I was back up and rolling quicker than before, working my way through a routine of getting on a wheel, recovering and then moving on to the next one up the road.

The fifth and final feed station was blessed in many ways. The locals had clearly got into the spirit when they heard the food wagon hadn’t turned up and laid on a fantastic spread. Then again they may have known that after 150km cyclists fancy something nice. So we were treated to a vast array of homemade sandwiches, fruit, sweets and sausage sandwiches. Fabulous, simply fabulous.

Bumped into the BBC Sport competition winner, Martin Page, at the stop. He had a huge grin on his face and seemed to be really enjoying the experience. I was dead chuffed for him as I saw him heading down the road and thought I’d hop in a group behind him to see how he was going. The blighter later admitted he’s been doing a lot of hill work, which would explain why he came belting past me up the final hill of the day, Farthing Common.

After that it was a straight cavalry charge to the finish. Fast, mostly downhill and wide enough to really wind up the big gears I was on a final charge the moment my mate Mark tried to give me a push to the front to take a pull. According to my computer my riding time was around 6:40 but with my stops to help with punctures and other stuff I came in at 7:21 which I am more than happy with. Bring on the French Etape on 16 July as I am bang up for that now.

Finally, let’s hope that the Tour De France isn’t the only reason events like this happen. Let’s hope there are more of them in future, across Britain and as well supported.

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