The “UK’s first Gran Fondo” took place on Sunday under the guise of the Tour of Cambridgeshire which started and finished at the Peterborough Arena.
As soon as you think about the description and location of the event you’ll know some key facts about it:
- There’s loads of riders – around 6000 people entered and they had capacity for 4000 more!
- Closed roads would offer a completely different riding experience
- It’s flat – Cambridgeshire isn’t exactly known for it’s climbing
- So, it’s fast. Very, very, fast
- There’s a fair few crashes
As soon as I saw it advertised as the first of its kind in the UK, I knew I wanted to have a go and I really enjoyed the event.
At a modest 85 miles, it’s not as intimidating as some rides so you can go in to the event any condition you want, knowing that you’ll get around. As it turns out, I was feeling pretty good after a week of hard training rides so was looking forward to cranking up the pace around the flat fenlands of Cambridgeshire.
The weather was good to us with clear skies all day and the wind didn’t seem too bad until you faced it head on as it whipped across the pan-flat countryside, but most of the time you were surrounded by riders right across the road so getting some shelter was usually possible.
The course took in a few moderate lumps and bumps in the first third and the final 10 miles, but other than that it was flat all the way around. The only rises in the road that caused any concern was the odd speed hump that was difficult to spot whilst snuggled in with another 50 lycra clad companions flying along the road! As we thundered along, the first feed stop came and went at the exit of some airfield-cum-enterprise centre in Alconbury. I’d picked up a good little group being marshalled by some handy club riders so stuck with them on the exit of the airfield and cruised along together for another 30 miles.
The sensation of cycling in a big group is both petrifying and exhilarating. Watching riders two or three places in front of you makes your brain ache after a while, but the benefits in the drag they create is awesome. I was gently turning the pedals and maintaining an average of 22mph before thinking that I had plenty left in the tank. As I zoomed to (and then off) the front of the group I soon appreciated the benefits of being in a pack and after 10 minutes of battling the wind on my own, the same group eased past me so I jumped back on the tail and stayed put!
The group was so good that I stayed involved as we passed the second feed station and just about managed on my 2 bottles until the final stop at about 68 miles. It got harder work for a bit as I cycled solo with my nose in to the wind for a few miles but, sure enough a little group was formed with a few others at about 72 miles. We worked well together for a few miles, passing a miserable and bloodied (but kind of OK) guy sitting in a bus stop as we enjoyed the freedom of a main road all to ourselves.
I’d seen the remnants of a few crashes along the way but had been surprised at how few there’d been. The etiquette of passing on the right had been observed throughout and that discipline had preserved the order of cyclists while it was most fraught in the first 30 miles. By the time my little “elite” group rolled in to the last 10 miles, the roads felt safe and my focus had changed to how I’d approach the last 5 miles in order to preserve the 22mph average I’d built up.
And then the girl in my elite group clipped the wheel in front of her and she went in to the kind of extreme speed wobble that usually results in a kid coming off down a grassy hill. But this was more serious and we were doing about 25mph at the time. She parted company with her bike and landed face down on to the curb, suffering what I’ve since heard described as “facial injuries and a broken collar bone”. At the time those injuries looked awful and there was a lot of blood, a lot of panic about her condition and a fair degree of confusion – mostly on my behalf when one of the nurses (who’d been riding in a group behind us) shouted at me to clear her airways …. how do you do that????
I’d hit her bike, gone over the handlebars and laid in the road screaming before the initial all-over body pain became more focussed on the impact areas. Once I saw the state of the girl any concern over my own injuries disappeared and adrenaline took over. It as only when there was an ambulance on the way and a few medically qualified people were tending to her that I felt people were crowding her, so I hopped back on my bike to finish the ride. The next 3 miles were OK but when the adrenaline wore off, the pain in my back and ribs slowed me down and the final 5 miles were miserable.
As I half climbed, half fell of my bike at the end, St Johns volunteers in attendance sorted out the bloody bits and led me to an ambulance for a few checks on my breathing. I cannot speak highly enough of these guys – calm, friendly and professional despite an endless stream of sweaty lycra clad fools like me keeping them busy all day long!!
It was the first event of it kind so there were a few things to improve upon. The car park closed at 10 so that meant you had to hang around for 2 hours before starting. The start was inevitably congested so the when the race began at 12, it was 30 minutes before we started pedalling and longer for thousands of others behind us. I’ve already mentioned the speed humps but the main issues with the course was that the long-route was closed earlier than planned. This was justified by the need for emergency services to gain access but received with some disdain by the riders affected by the changes. At the end there was a little confusion about queuing up for goody bags back in the expo hall but no ham done there.
But, putting those little gripes to one side, it was a terrific event. After 75 miles I was so exhilarated that I started laughing to myself and even the crash can’t quell the excitement I felt at cycling so fast for so long…. I guess the best testament is that I’ve signed up to next years event already.