The Big Ride May 02, 2015


I don’t remember exactly the idea hatched—it might have been as far back as when they first announced that Yorkshire would host the Grand Depart for the 2014 Tour de France, or possibly more recently, perhaps when they revealed the actual stage maps—but by the time we had big work lunch one day last spring I was committed enough to riding the full first stage that I started to look for riding partners. To my surprise, I found two willing companions, Wendy and Joey, sitting at the very same table as me. We agreed to do it on the Fourth of July, the day before the main event, and that was that—I knew I needed to start training for real.

The ride between home and work is a decent commute: about nine and a half miles, uphill on average but with only one really steep bit, which means the ride home is easier and quicker than the ride in. A good ride in would take me about 36 minutes, but I could make it home in under 30. I started riding it as often as I could manage, even though that was usually only two or three days a week. With Jenny’s support and encouragement, I added in some longer Saturday rides, first 20 miles, then 35 miles with a steep, steep hill, then 40, 50, and even 60 miles. It was very kind of her to let me go out on my own for hours on Saturday mornings, both when she was in the final weeks of pregnancy and when Kate was a newborn, but she supported my dream ride, and so she supported the preparations. I climbed some big hills on those long rides, steep enough that I had to get off my bike and walk at times, and always had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when I made it to the top, no matter how long it took. After my 60 mile ride, I was pretty sure that I would be able to complete the long ride, all 127 miles of it.

It seems to happen before many big adventures that a last-minute setback unexpectedly threatens the whole project, and this time was no different. On my commute one day, I had to unclip from my pedals suddenly and applied enough force to break the clip. I went to the bike shop for a replacement, but the order didn’t come through in time, so on the afternoon before the big ride, I found myself looking all over town for a replacement. I ended up with a new set of pedals and cleats, which were only partially compatible with my shoes; I had to make extensive modifications to get everything to work. With help from my father, I did sort everything out, took a brief test ride, and decided that the new pedals were fit for duty.

At six am the next morning, we gathered at the appointed spot, in front of the home of some friends, who woke up very early to send us off. Wendy was wearing a brand new polka dot jersey that she had picked up at the Tour de France team presentation ceremony in Leeds the previous night, while I wore green and Joey wore white. (I don’t recall what Lee had on.) Early on, we realized that riding as a group was not in the cards; after an hour or two, Lee decided to go at his own pace and take a shorter route home; although it was only half the distance, it still had some substantial climbs. I led the way for much of the early going, which in hindsight was not a good idea, but I felt strong at the time. For the most part, Wendy and I rode together, but Joey would come rolling through every time we stopped for even a moment; it felt like a real life hare and tortoise situation.

The roads were very well marked; at every intersection, a permanent marker pointed the way; I expect that they’ll still be there if I ever want to do the ride again someday. Even better than the official markers were the multitudes of decorations and tributes lining the course—a non-stop stream of hundreds of bikes, bunting, streamers, and nearly every other imaginable item that could be produced in or painted yellow, complemented by the other colors of the tour. Riding through Ilkley, Otley, and Skipton was glorious.

Riding up the smallish hill out of Skipton, I still felt pretty good; unfortunately, things only got harder from there. As we entered the dales, the road surface got worse and my lack of fitness began to show, but was nothing too worrisome, so we continued on. After stopping to fill our water bottles in Kettlewell, I began to see just how many other cyclists there were out there; not all of them were riding the full route, but we all had the same basic idea. We found ourselves riding out of the village with another group of riders and spent a few minutes in conversation. They asked if we were doing the whole ride, and then warned us that Buttertubs was not a small undertaking. Before long, I realized how right he was, when a route marker pointed us towards a narrow side street and onto the infamous climb.

I was almost immediately in difficulty. Wendy jumped ahead like the grade was nothing, while I struggled to pass an eight year old boy riding with her father. The hill just kept going and going, seeming steeper with each pedal stroke. I eventually stopped to walk a bit, and had a hard time even doing that. Meanwhile, dozens of other riders passed me on their effortless-seeming ascents. I was impressed by their grit, tenacity, and speed, although the inspiration didn’t seem to have any positive effect on my own performance once I resumed my place in the saddle. I pondered the thought htat most people who are outraged about doping in cycling have never ridden up even a single pro-tour categorized climb; if they had, they might understand how tempting it would be to seek out performance enhancing drugs, even if they are illegal.

At the top of buttertubs is a long flat across a particularly barren dales landscape, made even more dreary by the low-hanging clouds threatening rain. I experienced it at a rather slow speed, because that was all I could muster. It eventually turned into a harrowing descent, and finally leveled out in a valley. I had rejoined Wendy, and we pressed on until we found a food card and took a lunch break. I inhaled a sandwich, most of my remaining energy bars, a flapjack, and as much water as I could get my hands on. Despite my attempt to be well prepared, I don’t think I had taken on enough calories even after all that, but I was refreshed when we resumed the ride.

The next section of the ride didn’t go by quickly, but also wasn’t particularly memorable. Even with lots of riders on the road, there was still plenty of time when we were alone. Soon enough, we approached the second major climb. Even though it was obviously not as long or difficult as Buttertubs, my advancing fatigue made it sufficiently difficult that I again had to take some breaks, while Wendy continued in front of me. At the top of the hill, it was a triumphant feeling to know that we would be able to finish the ride that day, and not have to call for help.

We rode on, working to close the loop, drawing closer to home with each stroke of the pedal. At a stop in Masham we called home to give everyone an update on our expected arrival time. From there it was just a comparatively short hop to Ripon, then a straight shot back to Harrogate. Wendy was still in good shape, but I knew that things were not quite right with myself when she was distancing me on the flats without even trying; my legs just didn’t have any energy left. Somewhere after Ripon, the weather deteriorated into a sloppy, wet mess, and then I got a flat tire.

I changed it and continue on, but that short stop must have altered my momentum; even though it was just a small thing, there were consequences not long afterwards. I started seeing stars, and white clouds at the peripheral of my vision, which quickly closed in. I knew that I could either dismount of my own volition right away, or fall off very soon, so I unclipped and called up to Wendy. Luckily, there was a house right there; I saw a bench in front of the kitchen window and decided that would be a good place to wait for a minute. As I approached, the window opened and a kind man said “do you need anything?” I asked him to refill my water; he asked if I needed anything else, and then said “Are you doing the whole route today? It isn’t easy.” I agreed with him. I told Wendy and Joey to go on without me, but they wouldn’t leave me behind, and Wendy graciously set a pace slow enough that I could lock onto her wheel and ride in her slipstream without thinking too much for the remaining five miles.

There’s a last little kicker before entering the main part of town; it’s where Fabian Cancellara made his bid for glory the next day. Somehow, we found our way over it and coasted down the other side, where we found a small cheering section waiting for our arrival: Jenny and the kids, my parents, Dan and Liam, and Garret and Kate. It was great to see them, and to know that I was done. I felt so triumphant and so tired. I’m sure I was largely incomprehensible at our Independence Day barbecue that afternoon, and then I slept for more than twelve hours straight. It was wonderful to have an adventure that pushed me to my limits, but it’s not something that I would want to do very often; once a year (or less) is probably enough for things like that!

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