The 17th May 2019 me the Bike Boss and 4 friends completed the Etape Du Dales. Branded one of the toughest Sportives in the UK it lived up to its name.
For the last 11 months if you had asked me who had won that day I would have said the Dales. We spent 9 hours 37 mins completing 111 miles with over 10,000ft of elevation. I had at least 3 major wobblers and got off to walk and cried more times than I care to recall. An utter failure of strength and personality were my summary at the time. The photograph at the end of me face down staring at the onion rings that the Bike Boss had presented me with sums it up. I can confirm among other things that Onion rings are not a great recovery food and even for someone who takes great delight in taking unflattering pictures of me he excelled himself.
The length of time something takes for me to process is often related to the level of trauma associated with it so it’s unsurprising that it has taken me 52 weeks to write about the event! I wouldn’t make a journalist would I! Reflection and subsequent incidents have made me reconsider my initial appraisal of the day.
The day: If you are on the start line and not put off by the blurb on the entry page where it mentions the requirement to be very fit and have very big gears, the fact there is no shops on route, no phone signal and as a positive, no traffic lights, then the first thing you realise is that the only flat bit of the route is the 500m of the Rugby Club drive in front of you. Gulp. The rest of the day is all going to be up or down. I can’t keep up with my friends on the ups (lack of power and belief) or the downs (lack of bravery and some steering issues) and the only way I average it out is my flat speed. So this is not going to be my kind of ride! The day was long and so to keep this blog from becoming a wholly depressing episode I will focus on a few highlights/lowlights so you get the jist of it. Ride a bit, walk a bit throw a wobbler, cry a bit, laugh, bit more cycling……Entries are open for next year peeps!
We set off and manage a decent pace along some pretty roads that remind us how beautiful the Dales are, lulled into a false sense of security by our little walk to the nearby village the previous evening. We had walked along the river and had a fun time skimming stones. It all feels like a lovely weekend away with friends, this is going to change when the brutality of the task in hand becomes clear. The first climb is long and exposed and I settle into my best friend gear, my 32, which I think is the only gear I use the rest of the day. I resolve that I shall deal with the pain of what is to come by thinking of the good deed I am doing supporting young athletes to live their dreams of being a Pro cyclist. I figure my huffing and puffing and snail like progress is a small price to pay. Although as the day goes on I get a bit more ranty and start shouting things like “they better do bloody well and I hope they win things” (Dave Rayner funded athlete 3rd in U23 Giro a few months later- Thank you Adam)
No turning back. The split for the short route and the long route appears and me and my friend (who is poorly) look at the arrow pointing to the shorter route knowing that would reduce our pain by 50 miles and knowing we have already burnt a lot of matches. For reasons best known to ourselves, mostly pride, we press on. I think if we had done better research of what was to come we would have followed that arrow!
As the ride progresses you start to realise how BIG the Dales are. Sounds a bit obvious but some of the climbs go on for absolutely miles and due to the nature of the landscape they also afford you the totally demoralising view of the poor folks ahead of you grinding it out. It also transpires that in the Dales most of the climbs have a very nasty sting in the tail in that just before the crest the gradient seems to double. I have never seen so many 25% gradient signs.
Our group is now split thanks to double punctures and the afore mentioned lack of phone signal and our realisation that if we did not keep moving (slowly) we would miss the feed stop cut offs. We aim to make it between the feed stops without breaks but the nature of the task in hand means that more than once I am found to be laying face down on the side of the road in sheep poop wailing about how my legs hurt. Another photo opportunity of course! At the feed stops I eat no where near enough and get increasingly tired.
Me and my poorly friend use our strong will and determination to show that middle aged women on bikes are not to be messed with whilst our young friend, fresh from a trip to Mallorca smashes it up every hill strong and determined. She seems oblivious to the admiring glances of all that see her efforts and completely unaware that women are very much a minority on this ride and young ones even more so. We could burst with pride!
I may have mentioned the ups but the downs were equally hard. The sort of steep technical decent that has an ambulance parked at the bottom just waiting for its customers. They are the sort that have the Bike Boss’s head swivelled round watching for the impending disaster that is sure to come from my poor bike handling. Only saving grace is the lack of traffic. This is the sort of ride where you see the air ambulance. My hands tire almost as much as my legs from pulling on my brakes and wrestling my bike round corners that make me wonder what any road builder was thinking whilst constructing these monsters.
Buttertubs is a famous climb as it was used in the 2014 Tour De France. By the time we reach the bottom with 80 miles in our legs the sight of another 25% sign accompanied by the words “for a quarter of a mile” means we have to have a WW stop (wee and and weep) I can see the Bike Boss up ahead and even he looks to be finding this hard going. Me and my friend set off and decide the only way to get up this first section is to scream as many rude words as we know whilst giving it all we have left. On the decent I get dropped and now I am very tired and very wobbly and very angry! I pull up at the feed stop where the Bike Boss is having a cup of tea (makes everything better) scream in his face using my best selection of swear words whilst using up more precious energy before declaring I am not stopping at the feed station (stupid) and I am going on alone.
As I set of determined just to keep moving at my pace whilst the others catch me I meet a very kind man who offers me some Soreen cake. His friend then explains that the guy has eaten 8 of them and it has had a disastrous effect on his bowels. The glamour. As we head towards a corner the guy leans over and quietly says to me “ when we go round the corner look at me – keep looking at me and don’t look up” at 90 miles you have to climb Fleet Moss. It is long and tops out at 20% gradient that looks like a vertical wall as you approach. It is just evil. I keep my eyes on the road and chat and just think I will get as far as I can. Every pedal stroke is now a small victory of mind over matter.
As I grind my pedals (pedalling softly “en beurre”went out the window hours ago) I hear a familiar “squeak squeak squeak” of the Bike Bosss bike. Not a word is said and the slow grind continues until again I get off and start to push my bike. At the top I can see back down to our young friend, up out of the saddle right over the bars pushing as hard as she can – she makes it ! Every climb conquered.
Turns out the last 10 miles are back along the river and relatively flat in comparison to what we have tackled. By now poorly friend is feeling really bad, I have a slow puncture and time is a ticking so Bike Boss implements the usual 10 mile Time trial home approach. Head down, arse up its time to go. Trying not to put weight on my back wheel and checking to see my friend is not delirious we push on to the flat 500m of the Rugby club drive and the finish. Reunited with our friends we are all shell shocked for the evening. What just happened!? Having completed all my other events with a feeling of success and achievement this was odd, most odd.
November – The annual Dave Rayner fund raising dinner. My friends message me to tell me that on the video loop being shown of the event there is a clip of me looking happy on my bike. What!? To be clear 30 seconds before the clip was taken I was off the bike at the side of the road explaining to the videographer that if he took my picture I would punch him. The fact it looks like I am spinning up a 20% gradient happily would definitely class as misrepresentation! But hey, time fades the pain and it seemed a good idea to maybe do it again in 2020. Before we know it we have all signed up again. Note to self if you do the hard bit you should also go to the fancy dinner to eat and drink lots!
My training started well. In January, I was battling hills and tackling them with increased confidence. I am sure my ride buddies would challenge this due to the amount of time they spent freezing waiting at the top of climbs for me, but there was progress! Then I caught a mystery virus* in January and spent 10 weeks trying to regain my fitness. By the start of April I was feeling fit again and due to the COVID-19 lockdown now had an extended training window of another 12 months.
April 16th 2020. 6pm I am laying in the road with a broken collarbone and a hole in my side after a car has hit me on my bike. I am very angry that this has happened. All those rides and all those miles and I am in a stupid lane 3 miles from home looking up at the sky waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Plot twist!
If there is any silver lining to the the current lockdown and my recovery it has been the chance to reflect and review. Enforced immobility has you longing for big hills and open spaces and even some of those dreaded gradient signs!
Success now takes on a different perspective. We did an epic ride. We completed it in the time allowed. I learnt some more lessons about the tough sport of cycling. Train harder, eat more on the bike, go to the Dales the lightest you can be with the strongest legs and biggest gears you have! What I would give to be able to ride with my friends up bloody great big hills now. Not doing the Etape feels like a loss. We will return!
Working on my recovery has given me a perspective on how much we did achieve. When sitting on a Watt bike and not being able to hold the bars is your current level of ability the Etape du Dales looks an epic triumph!
So in summary in 2019 my head lost meaning the Dales won. Not next time. My head will win Dales you will lose in 2021 I will appreciate every mile and every bit of elevation.
May 16th 2021. No walking. No crying. No wobblers. Maybe less swearing……..but I still think Buttertubs will make me drop the C bomb. See you there?
If you do not know much about the Dave Rayner fund check them out at daveraynerfund.co.uk/
David John Rayner was an English Professional cyclist who died aged 27 in 1994. The Dave Rayner fund creates opportunities for cyclists by providing a young cyclist with the means to travel and live abroad set up home and function on a day to day basis as they start their racing career which is often brutal and stark. The advice goes beyond financial and covers mentoring advice and mental health support. Not all that it supports go on to race professionally and it helps them to find other paths and fulfilling careers. The Dave Rayner fund is a true example of the strength of a community that supports each other.
With great thanks to my cycling friends so made it a day to remember x
Photos by @somerset_cyclist aka the Bike Boss