The Reckoning

Courier vs Triathlete

I was up at dawn this morning, and felt like I’d been semi-conscious all night. But I no longer really felt nervous – at least not about the foolish competition I’d so rashly entered into. Whether Lucy Fry beat me or I beat her, it would be fine – as long as I didn’t entirely disgrace myself. We both had adequate excuse for failure: she’s formidably fit in a a whole range of disciplines, but relatively inexperienced on a bike; I might well be sabotaging my own efforts by attempting the notorious gradients of Kent and Surrey on a fixed gear. All the roadie friends I’ve consulted this week have looked worried, and informed me that yes, it’ll be very  tough. Another triathlete I spoke to said “oh, well if you’re on fixed and she’s on gears, of course she’ll beat you”. Not encouraging.

But what I was really nervous about was the suffering – I’d forgotten what it’s like to grind a fixie up a 15% gradient, but I had a distinct suspicion that it was painful, and feared that my resistance to such pain might have been diminished by the relatively short distances and forgiving gradients I cover in the course of a day’s work. Why, even the Karakorum Highway was accomplished on a bike with 24 gears (admittedly I couldn’t get down into the granny ring by then, but still). And the sky was full of leaky grey clouds, with the forecast promising worse to come, and I was woefully underdressed (still following my ill-advised summer waterproofing strategy of ‘wearing as little as possible’).

I got to Dulwich Park far too early, and found Fry in the queue for the toilets, nervously rearranging her energy bars in her pockets and checking her emergency gel was securely taped to her top tube.

“This has got all sorts of important proteins and amino acids in it” she informed me, pointing at her bidon. I was pitifully under-equipped in comparison.

“Err, this is a banana”, I explained, fishing my own nutrition strategy out of my pocket. “I’m not sure what it has in it.”

We both peered at the skin – me  hopefully, her scathingly – but the ingredients weren’t listed, and nor was the nutritional information.

Fry was similarly dismissive of my pocketful of trail mix, so I went to join the queue for the track pump, marvelling at both the numbers and the uniformity of the other riders. There were about 3,000 of them, and almost all of them were men, in their 30s-50s, wearing expensive lycra, wheeling high-end road bikes. I didn’t see a single person I recognized (unusual for me, at a bike-based event) and I felt helplessly out of place; over-exposed in my unaccustomed lycra, and embarrassed by my BMX helmet and rattly home made bike.

Fortunately, Fry seemed as nervous as I was. In fact, neither of us had any idea how this was going to play out. As we fell into place among the hundreds of riders waiting to set off on the ‘medium’ distance of 104km we alternated between bravado and reassurance, each apologizing to the other in advance in case she was left waiting around in the rain at the end of the race.

And then we were off. A chorus of clipping in, and a wave of lycra swept out of the gate and off up College Road towards Crystal Palace. As the road began to rise, I picked up speed.

“Oh, there she goes!” grimaced Fry.

“I can’t help it!” I protested, “You can’t climb slowly on fixed.”

And that was the last I saw of her until the finish.

I’d worried that by riding fixed I’d be restricting myself to a much narrower range of speeds, since riding much faster or slower than my usual cruising speed requires unsustainable levels of effort (or is simply impossible  – I have never been able to relax my legs enough to descend at anything much over 20mph). Thankfully, cruising speed seemed to be more than adequate for this event, and I spent most of the ride overtaking people, particularly on the uphills. My lead might have suffered on the flat sections, but there weren’t really very many of them.

It was a beautifully designed route. We seemed to leave the city behind within twenty minutes or so, and the first half of the ride was all on quiet country lanes, winding up and down the rolling hills of Kent, their lush green hedgerows occasionally giving way to panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. None of the gradients gave me any trouble – except for one short sharp beast of a hill, narrow, impossibly steep, overshadowed by trees, and so choked with mud and leaves that I was worried I’d skid and lose control of the bike. As it was, I barely made it to the top. So much force was required to keep the pedals turning that standing up and using my body weight and forward momentum wasn’t enough – I had to sit back on the saddle and push forward with my legs, one by one, stroke by agonizing stroke, bracing each one against the opposing hand and using all the strength I could muster. Thank goodness the crowds were fairly thin at that point – if anyone had got in my way, I’d have stopped and failed to start again. I passed one man walking his (geared) bike to the top. I wondered how he’d feel being overtaken by a girl on fixed. He probably didn’t notice.

At the top of the hill was a wood full of bluebells. It was worth the struggle just for that.

I waited for Fry at the first feed stop, feeling vaguely guilty for having abandoned her within minutes of setting off, and thinking that it didn’t seem like a proper race if we never actually caught sight of each other. But after a while she still hadn’t turned up, and I set off again, wondering if perhaps she’d managed to slip past me without my noticing, like a riding buddy did on the Dunwich Dynamo one year (we worried the whole night that we’d left him behind, and he turned out to be waiting for us on the beach).

I should perhaps have been more concerned that she might catch me up, and storm past me and off into the distance at a speed I could never hope to match. But, as at the start of the race, I seemed to have moved beyond worry. I was enjoying myself too much, getting into my stride, making friends with other riders’ calves and jerseys for a few minutes before picking up the pace and overtaking them, remembering all of my happy cycling songs that I haven’t dug out since similar rides, to Brighton and Eastbourne and Cambridge, back in the days before I was a courier, and could get out with my cycling friends at the weekend, instead of sitting on the sofa trying to rest my legs and replenish my calorie deficit. It was glorious.

And as I mounted Box Hill, I found myself breaking into Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’. Contrary to its reputation, the hill was no trouble at all – in fact, it was a joy and a pleasure. Some of the finest tarmac I’ve ever ridden on, beautiful woodlands and wildflower meadows on either side, and the perfect gradient – just enough to get you out of the saddle on the bends, and huffing and puffing nicely towards the summit, but not so steep that you feel like you’re lifting weights (like the earlier hill, and like Ditchling Beacon, which is an absolute bugger to ride on fixed).

And after that it was a relatively easy 20 miles back to the Herne Hill velodrome for a lap of honour and a medal.

Shortly afterwards Fry rocked up, dishevelled and disgruntled after what had been (for her) an extremely difficult ride. I felt less guilty about the fact than I’d beaten her than I did for bouncing around enjoying my post-ride glow when she was clearly so glad to have the whole ordeal over and done with. She still liked me enough to drag me back to Tooting for bacon butties though, and a few chin-ups in the garden soon restored her self-respect (since I can’t do a single one). Perhaps next time we’ll try a half marathon instead – or I’ll let her convince me to have a go at triathlon. I think I might have found a worthy opponent.

_______________________________________________________________________

A big thank you to Human Race Events, for organizing the sportive, and to Lucy Fry, for laying down the challenge and for tolerating my insufferable smugness in the aftermath. You can read her version of events over on her blog, sometime very soon.

Leave a Comment

15 Comments

  1. Posted May 12, 2014 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on winning :).
    Loved so many things in this post: Having destroyed a pair of quill stems powering up Kent hills (buy cheap an that will happen, I guess); and having had to explain over and over on roadie group rides that it isn’t show boasting when pulling away on a hill and speeding off when the pace has been too slow for too long (or even dropping back when its been to high for too long :( ) . Its really refreshing to hear the same thoughts and opinions coming from someone else , there really is a sweet spot in the gearing of a fixed that is easier to maintain than all other speeds.

    I agree with the nutrition stuff too, yesterday I completed my first fixed century, and it was home made oat biscuits and fruit and nut all the way.

    Congrats again
    Mule

  2. Hannah
    Posted May 12, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Hahaha! I never doubted you! Glad you really enjoyed it. x

  3. Lee Buckley
    Posted May 12, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Well done . Proper cyclist.

  4. Jan
    Posted May 12, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Emily, sincere congratulations! I’m really happy you won – not because I wouldn’t have been happy for Lucy to win, but because you proved that it is not about the gear and never was. I come from a photography background where GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is widespread and your tale shows beautifully that it doesn’t matter what bike, pants, gels, camera, lens or flash you own. Ultimately, the gear is a tool and if you don’t know how to use it, it is useless.

    Also, your posts always really inspire me to get out on my bike more often – and this post reminded me of the fun I had riding the Northern Rock Cyclone a few years back. For this I want to thank you!

  5. Brian
    Posted May 12, 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Suitably impressed Emily…… I’ve been getting nervous about my first foray into a “more than commuter length” fixed ride at the end of the month….. only 65km but enough to be worried that my 11 year old son might just beat me…. I shall have a grit sandwich and pour myself a pint of grit with added grit and just HTFU…..

    Congratulations…..

    • Posted May 13, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      You might find you don’t need to HTFU at all – I think fixed is easier in many respects, because once you’re moving, the bike does half the work for you. The only problems are really steep hills, or keeping pace with riding companions on differently geared bikes. Hope your son doesn’t leave you too far behind! B-)

      • Brian
        Posted May 27, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        Well…… I should have guessed – you were right… it was far easier than I expected and I loved it….. it poured down for about 15 -20 of the 40 miles but I had a grin plastered to my face the whole ride. There was only one real hill and I managed to ride up that at about 4-5 mph so I didn’t leave Elliot behind and never felt in danger of having to stop. If I’d been on my road bike, I would have just kept dropping the gears down and spinning up the hill and that would have been boring. However, the 32mph decent had my bum twitching a little!

        What was your average speed by the way?

  6. Raquel
    Posted May 13, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Girl, you are so strong in all aspects I want to cry. Thank you for being you!

  7. Mark Sellers
    Posted May 13, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic effort – You passed me and my mate Steve, we were impressed!

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      We did have a chuckle at the time. Along the lines of “is she really planning on doing this whole ride on a fixie?” But we never caught up.

      However, I did spot a fella coming into the velodrome on one of those weird Elliptigo things, so right at the last minute, you were knocked into second place in my rankings of most impressive efforts I saw on the day. :)

  8. Notak
    Posted May 16, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    “At the top of the hill was a wood full of bluebells. It was worth the struggle just for that.”

    ^^^:)^^^

  9. Val
    Posted May 16, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Great story very entertainingly captured in your writing. Thanks so much for sharing. I am happy that you feal that you put in respectable performance (I think it was an awesome performance) and that you enjoyed the event. I also hope that you are enjoying writing your blog because it I really enjoy reading it. I wish you all the best.
    Regards – V

  10. qudsia
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Loved reading this. I’m getting myself a bike next week. I was wondering if I could ask you for some advice. And yes, you are an inspiration. And more than cycling , I want to learn to fix punctured tires. Stay blessed:)

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