Note: I wrote this the day after the C2C but didn't publish it. Something in the original version didn't feel right and so I left it in drafts and then came back to it.
Big Brian looks happy with himself...and so he should be
These guys did an amazing job of getting each other around
It is sometimes very hard to set aside your own ego and needs and instead enjoy helping others achieve theirs. At least it is for me. Maybe not for you dear reader because you are a better person than I am. But after weeks of feeling sorry for myself (see previous posts) I had to fulfil my promise to play domestique to fellow Warwick Lanterne Rouge members taking part in the Coast to Coast in a day challenge. The ride is 240km long from Seascale in Cumbria to Whitby on the east coast. It involves a lot of climbing. Like, a hell of a lot of climbing.
More than 20 clubmates were doing the race which starts at 5 am in the morning. I travelled up with a group of 8 people who were riding together after months of training together. Their plan was to stay together as long as possible and help each other around. This was always going to be a tough task in my view. Not because people didn't want or intend to ride together, but because over such a long day there are bound to be lots of individual ups and downs (literal and metaphorical) and this would serve to emphasise any differences in fitness or ability. Plus you just never know how you will feel on the day. My own experiences of riding long days in the saddle is that I go through a constant ebb and flow of my own energy levels. On your own, you can choose to coast for a while or push when you feel good. In a group, you hope to level these things out, but over 10 hours of riding, staying together would be a big ask.
The opening couple of hours of the C2C sends riders over Hardknott and Wrynose passes in the Lake District, both of which contain gradients of over 30%. They are absolutely brutal. There's no way I could get over them with my current level of fitness and ongoing back issues. To be honest I am not sure I would get over them at my fittest and lightest. After these hills, the route takes riders to the Windermere ferry, where they wait to cross the lake around 100 people at a time. I waited at the far side and saw all of our different groups' exit before following 'my group' on the road to Kendal. This involved more climbing and I knew I had made the right choice not to ride the full route on the day.
My plan had been to join the group at the third feed station just before Catterick and ride the final 100km with them, sitting in front of whoever needed a wheel to follow. The group had ridden brilliantly together and from my viewpoint, were the only club on the road to do so. Consistently riding two abreast and rotating to share the effort on the front is a great way to support each other. The Club is almost fanatical about this road discipline, to the extent that Cycling Weekly called it some of the best group riding they had ever seen when they sent along a journalist last year. But by 140 km in, the inevitable cracks had started to appear. One Clubmate was having a very a tough day and two were absolutely flying (Trevor & Laura) and so they agreed to split with me making up a group of 7 on the road, including my old friend Brian. I think Brian will be the first to admit he is not a conventionally shaped cyclist, but the man has huge mental strength, having completed an Ironman a few years back and I was incredibly impressed with his efforts here. He was one of five riders feeling good at this stage along with Nick, Ieuan, Eugene and Monkey (he real name is Michael). All of these guys had trained together and it showed.
The one guy having a hard time was Richie. He was suffering from the golden combination of not enough preparation because of a knee injury, high temperatures on the day and an intermittent mechanical fault with his gears. At times he looked like a hamster spinning furiously and at others like he was doing an extended track stand. All of this combined to leave him in bad way mentally. I really felt for him. I've been there and I have written before about the need to put yourself 'in harm's way' in training so that you know how to deal with this on the day of your race or challenge.
On the flat, I rode at the front of the group setting whatever pace I was asked to do. On the hills, everyone had to ride their own pace and I rode in front of and alongside Richie offering occasional words of encouragement. But we mostly rode in silence, allowing him to deal with his inner turmoil. When we stopped at the tops of hills or feed stations all he could say was he was in a 'very dark place'. But he kept going. The pace didn't matter. The challenge was just to finish.
Towards the end, the route takes riders over the Yorkshire Moors and contains plenty of climbing right up to the finish. It included one more 25% climb which just seemed unnecessarily cruel. At the final feed station at 6 pm, Ieuan and Monkey pushed on because they didn't have lights on their bikes (there are rules about this regardless of the light). There was still about 35 km to cover and all of the guys were tired by this stage. But surprisingly they kept up a reasonable pace. Perhaps it was just the knowledge that it would all be over or just that they got a 5th, 6th or 7th wind. Once we reached the outskirts of Whitby the pace kept rising. With 200m to go, I pulled off the front and waved them all through to the finishing chute. I had no desire to be mistaken for someone that had completed. I rode around the marshalls to the back of the finishing point to congratulate them all. Completing the C2C is a huge achievement and overcoming the physical and mental challenges of such a long day in the saddle over such a testing route cannot be overstated. Chapeau to them all.
When you watch bike racing or read about it, you often hear comments on 'the nobility of domestiques' or something like that: essentially the people who suffer in the service of others. Sometimes it's hard to see how anyone could get any pleasure out of that. Surely you want to achieve things for yourself? But I can honestly say this was one of the most enjoyable days I have had on the bike in ages. I really enjoyed sitting on the front of the group, helping them along the way, coaxing them over the climbs. I was genuinely happy to have played a part in helping them achieve their goals and was more than happy to slip away before the finish line. I got a small taste of what it must be like to be part of a team and putting yourself at the service of others. Just a small taste mind you. They did the really hard work.
It is still unfinished business for me though, so I have deferred my entry until next year. There's no way I could finish this ride alone next year though, so I am hoping to press some of these guys into acting as my domestiques for the day. Most likely though they will all be injured/on holiday/washing their hair. I don't blame them for not wanting to do it twice. It's definitely something to tick off your list and move on.
Perhaps I will just send a link to this post on a monthly basis as a reminder...