I’ve never done a standalone bike race before; cycling has always been the bit you do before the run. However, at the turn of the year I’d made a decision that I needed to start concentrating on improving my bike fitness, and stumbled across the first holding of this event – the Wales Velothon.
I handed over my cash and, as always, promptly forgot about it as it faded into the background with events closer to the time taking priority. Sometime in the last 4 weeks I decided that cycling 140km (86 miles for you old timers) was quite a long way, and I should probably do a few ‘training rides’. This consisted of cycling to work twice and spending a couple of hours on the exercise bike in the gym.
My Mum and Dave the Lion very kindly lent me their car for the weekend so after a quick spin around Hatfield Forest parkrun on the Saturday morning (19.03 – with my good friend James Bosher well and truly taking me down and nicking the last spot on the podium), I packed up my belongings I began the solo journey to Cardiff.
Like most of the larger events, I had to register and pick up my race number and various other bits the day before, so I parked up in Cardiff and made my way over to the ‘expo’. Everything was easy enough, and I was in and out in 45 minutes, heading back to Bristol as my good friend Charlie had let me stay in her flat for the evening to save a bit of money on accommodation costs. However, it was spaghetti bolognese for 1 as she was racing herself as part of a relay team over at the Blenheim triathlon.
A very uneventful night passed before an early alarm call (5am) saw me up and eating some porridge before the short drive back over to Cardiff. I parked up in one of the official car parks, made sure the bike was in one piece and the tires were fully inflated before cycling the mile or so back into the city centre and the start line.
I can imagine trying to get 15,000 cyclists into the right starting pens is quite a challenge, so fair play to the organisers as the start of the day ran really smoothly. I was helpfully directed to my zone and before long we were being set on our way, out under the inflatable starting arch with the Welsh national anthem playing over the tannoy. Stirring stuff indeed. The only thing was missing was a man dressed in a dragon suit, but for some reason that escaped me, there was an elephant instead.
Once we’d left the city centre everyone spread out pretty quickly and it was easy to find some space. Throughout the day a lot of people were riding in groups, which enabled them to ‘draft’ off one another. This basically involves the rider at the front being exposed to the wind while the others get a bit of an easier ride as they can shelter behind.
There’s nothing wrong with this, and in fact it’s very common in bike races. However, in most triathlons drafting isn’t allowed, and I wanted to give myself a fair training day, so whenever I found myself in this situation I’d just swing out to the side to make sure I was riding on my own. On a few occasions I found a train had formed behind me, but I didn’t really mind this as it wasn’t making my day any easier (or more difficult for that matter).
The first 40km passed without incident and I was just getting my head down and riding fairly hard. However, just as we made the turn towards the Celtic Manor golf resort, disaster struck.
I started to notice that I seemed to be going much slower despite maintaining the same effort levels, and some of my gears didn’t seem to be working. Then, without warning, my entire pedal (including the arm that attaches it to the chain) came right off and rolled back down the road behind me. It all happened so quickly, and having no time to react I completely lost balance and hit the ground fairly hard.
I dragged myself up and limped back to pick up the pedal arm and various other little bits that had fallen off before throwing my bike onto the grass at the side of the road. With 100km to go, I was a long way from home. Something like a puncture could have been easily fixed, however, this looked a lot more serious.
I attempted to call the official number we were given in case of problems – no answer. I tried again – nothing. That was my only idea, so I sat myself down on the grass. I stood up again. I’d sat on multiple stinging nettles. Brilliant.
Every good story needs a hero. This one is based around Andy from ‘in between Guildford and Petersfield’. This knight in shining armour was on his holidays with his wife and ran past me on his morning jog about 90 seconds after I’d given up all hope. Not only was he an expert with bikes, he just happened to have 3 separate tool boxes in his van parked in the hotel he was staying at approximately 3 minutes up the road.
Within 10 minutes, he’d fixed the bike, and I was good to go. I couldn’t believe it – what are the chances? After I’d thanked him numerous times, embarrassed about being able to offer him nothing more than an energy gel or slice of malt loaf, he told me to make sure I passed on the favour one day. Don’t worry Andy; I’ll be doing just that.
Ecstatic to just be back on the bike, I started trying to make up for lost time, flying past people and straight through the first feed station without stopping. Just after half-way the hills started to loom in the distance as we made our way towards the biggest climb of the day – ‘The Tumble’.
Some people definitely take themselves too seriously. Before we got onto the climb I saw one rider empty the contents of their one third full water bottle onto the floor to make sure their bike was as light as possible before the ascent. I then saw them off the bike and walking after about 2 minutes. There was also a number of people thinking they were serious pros and lobbing all sorts of litter into the bushes either side of the road. No one was going to come round and collect this and it’s just a horrible way to treat the area you’re cycling through. Shocking behaviour.
The climb was seriously hard and lasted a good few miles as we climbed to 1200m above sea level. Loads of people were walking before the end and it was a real struggle to keep the bike moving forwards on the road, but eventually I hit the summit and stopped briefly at the second aid station.
The reward for all this climbing was a hair-raising descent down the other side which was loads of fun, and I racked up some serious speed (I think I covered 5km in about 8 minutes). The event had completely closed roads, with most being closed to traffic coming in the opposite direction so you really could spread out and use all of the road. There were some great views as we were cycling through the Brecon Beacons – in fact the whole route was pretty scenic.
By now I’d gone through 100km and was well on the way home. I spent the next 20km or so to Caerphilly dragging riders along behind me as they took the option to have a bit of a ‘draft’. We’d been told there was a climb in Caerphilly, but nothing as bad as the Tumble, and I think this lulled me into a false sense of security.
We hit the bottom of this climb, and although not being as long in distance, it was incredibly steep at points. There were more people off their bikes and walking than any point during the bigger climb as they struggled with the steep gradient. I was determined to stay in the saddle, and very slowly and painfully made my way to the top. Eventually there was a sign stating ‘150m to go’, and about 500m later we reached the summit. Someone needs to buy a new tape measure.
I bypassed the final feed station and it was all downhill from here into Cardiff. The last 15km or so passed by really quickly, and as much as I had enjoyed the ride, I was looking forward to get out of the saddle. Coming into the city the crowds started to build up out on the roads as we rode past Roath Park before making the final turn into the finishing straight. A few of the serious lot went for a sprint finish, I settled with looking like a knob going for the no-hands, arms raised in the air celebration as if I’d just won stage 10 of the Tour de France.
My finishing time was 4 hours and 47 minutes, although this includes a long stop with a broken bike – probably for around about 20 minutes. Incidentally, if anyone does know the hero of the day Andy (highly unlikely I know), please put me in touch with him. I’d love to buy him a beer.
We were given our medal and a rubbish bag of dried cranberries (the food at the end was the only real disappointment of the day), before being herded out towards the car parks. Being on my tod, I decided to just jump straight back in the car and make the long trip back to London. To say I was stiff when I arrived back home is probably an understatement.