Long weekend, so what better to do than a few miles on the bike?
Friday. I’d checked the weather, and unusually there was to be a NE wind on the Friday, so a trip to Castle Douglas on the bike would see me getting the wind on my back most of the way, a nice 88 mile ‘warm-up’ for the Drumlanrig Challenge (62 miler) the following day and a chance to spend a few days at my Mum’s. I set out around 10.30, as little weight in my rucksack as I could get away with, and with an easy pace in mind. First target, Eaglesham, and the moor road – a bit of a hill, but it looked to be nice tarmac and low on traffic on Google streetview, so a fair compromise. And of course, the pay off from going up hill, is the descent. When I actually arrived in Eaglesham, which was uphill all the way, found that the initial ascent to the moor road was a bit nastier than I expected, but dug in, stood up and got up without any problem, except for a bloke in a camper van messing around slowing/ speeding up then trying to park right in front of me. The road passes a nice wind farm and has a few boy racers, but the single track road has a cycle lane most of the way, so there was plenty of room for me. The descent soon began, and hitting 30+mph was easy, slightly regretting still having my winter Gatorskin tyres on, their higher resistance slowing me a bit. The B-road ended at the A77, now quiet due to the nearby M77, and downhill most of the section I was taking, allowing me to easily maintain 20+ speeds.
I turned off towards Waterside and Moscow (yup, there’s a Moscow in Ayrshire) then on to Galston, where my el cheapo B-twin bottle holder rattled loose, the metal prongs working free of their plastic mounts – no chance of a fix, so I tossed it and put the water bottle in my ruckack. Not ideal.
I coninued along the 716 until it reached the A76 and my big mistake. I’d not checked this part of the route out, and it turned out to be a very busy road, with a disproportionate amount of bad drivers towing caravans intent on wiping me out. The closest near-miss I was virtually brushing up against the guys caravan! Still, the fear of being splattered kept my average up. Just beyond Cumnock I escaped the 76 onto more bike friendly B-road, low on traffic, but big on hills.
Throw in a bit of ‘road closed’ fun (duly ignored by pedalling me, gate across the road easily climbed and bike dragged over) and poor tarmac on some of the descents (bone shaking) and I was soon at Dalmellington and decided to take a short break for some eats.
The local shop didn’t have much choice, so a chicken wrap it had to be, a Twix for a bit of a calorie boost, washed down with the juice from my bottle and then I was on my way again. The climb out of this small town lead on to the A713, a road I’ve driven in the car a few times without realising how much of it was uphill nor how bad some of the surface is for cycling. Still, there was a welcome distraction from these issues from a load of Dutch rally drivers – all in Minis, some classic, some the modern version, all zipping by me, many appearing to be lost or taking circular routes and passing by me several times. It wasn’t long before I’d passed Carsphairn and the end of any significant uphill sections, but still 20 miles or so to go. The wind wasn’t being as helpful as I hoped, not that strong, but at least it wasn’t in my face for any significant time.
I could see Loch Ken ahead, so knew I hadn’t far to go, but took a quick break to refuel and stretch my back – carrying a rucksack messes with your stance on the bike a bit, so I was getting some stiffness which I kneaded out with my knuckles. Refreshed, I carried on, noticing my average was still over 16mph, so determined to keep it there and to get to Mum’s for 5pm, dug in for the last few miles. I was soon on the familiar roads of Castle Douglas, then on to the back roads to Gelston, the end in sight and pulled up bang on 5pm. 88 miles in the bag, not feeling too worn out and looking forward to the Drumlanrig the next day.
Saturday. I’d knocked the idea of cycling to Drumlanrig on the head – 34 extra miles each way was going to push things a bit far, particularly if the sportive was going to be ‘speedy’, and I didn’t really fancy a 5am start. So, I borrowd me Ma’s car and drove it. Just as I was approaching the Castle turn off, my phone buzzed away in my pocket – the others wondering where I was. I was nearly there, so left it until I was parked. A quick phone to David established they were in the queue for their numbers, so I headed over to the tent to meet them, watching the earlier starters head off. I spotted David and Bryan, our team kit easily picked out from the crowd, just getting the numbers as I approached. A few quick hellos and we returned to cars, attached our numbers, swithered about gloves and overshoes, then moved to the start via the ‘facilities’.
We got going, turning easily down a gentle hill away from the start line with our group stringing out as we went. It wasn’t long before a few words between Bryan and myself resulted in us pushing forward to the lead cyclists of our group, as they appeared to be a bit more organised and taking advantage of slip-streaming. We tagged on the back as we started to climb upwards, and the first serious hill appeared ahead of us. Clunking down to the small chain and standing up, we were packed a bit too close for comfort and it was a nervous ascent. One unfortunate rider just ahead of me skidded his back wheel, hit a pothole coming to a dead stop, ending with him toppling sideways with a groan as he was unable to do anything to stay upright. A quick ‘are you ok?’ from David and myself (Bryan had avoided the melee by surging ahead) with a resigned ‘yeah’ (poor guy would have to walk it up due to the gradient preventing restarting) and we forged on. The top reached, the descent was as bad – potholes, gravel and narrow, twisting roadway to contend with saw me sitting on the brakes all the way down, though one rider (fearless or stupid?) zoomed by us, less concerned with the road condition than us.
We continued, climbing through Craigdarroch with Lynne (I think) from Ayr CC making our group into a four, swapping conversation and our places in the road as we went. The route became a long sweeping descent, I tucked in behind our Ayr buddy to follow her lines round the bends, guessing she’d know what she was at (she did), helping me to keep a solid pace down in to Glenhoul.
We were passing a few folk, rarely were we overtaken until a shout of ‘on your right’ from behind and a swarm of Johnstone Wheelers overhauled us – the cry to tag on the back went up and we dug in to maintain their pace, with a dozen or more other riders who had taken the same initiative.
Our average began to shoot up, the train making it easy to keep the cranks turning, but forcing extra effort after any sharp bends – the slow in, fast out of the train requiring a burn each time – or on anything but a short incline to keep up with the trains momentum. I missed the ‘bump’ behind between David and another rider, so escaped any incident of note in the train, but once we turned off the A702 and hit a proper hill, the train began to out-pace my “done 88 miles yesterday” legs and I, along with many other of the ‘carried’ riders dropped off. David seemed to waver between digging in to keep up, or holding back to wait on me, in the end choosing the latter, giving me a target to work toward as he slowed and chatted to a fellow rider as the climb levelled off. I soon caught up, and the route headed downhill, offering some respite from the recent climb. This was short lived, another hill to tackle before a longer descent and levelling off. It wasn’t long before a cake stop came into sight, and Bryan had stopped to wait on us, about 15 miles from the end. I dove in to the jam and cream scones, a few egg sandwiches and grabbed a flapjack and a banana as Bryan had spotted a group approaching to tag on to. By the time I’d got back on board, David and I were playing catch up, each time we seemed to be nearly about to make contact, a hill or junction foiled us. A final hill (or so it seemed) with 4 miles to go and the group had out-paced us, so we settled in to the climb, over taking some tired riders as we went along. A bit of 2 man train saw us pass a few more folk, before the end was in sight – a slightly mean of them uphill section to the line, where a beaming Bryan snapped us as we crossed the line, happy with his 18mph average, and we too pleased to have completed the route without too much trouble in a solid 16.4mph average.
And then on to cake! Well, sandwiches then cake. I stowed my bike, swapped my shoes, said “Hi” to Lynne (parked directly behind me, refilling her bottles) and wished her luck with the extra 38 miles she was off to complete, then met the others at the food tent. A variety of stuff was on offer, with a friendly ‘take as many as you want’ from the volunteers pulling out extra tubs of grub to replace any getting low. We chatted to the Wheelers and thanked them for the tow, and to a few other folk we’d met on the route. Cake was consumed (millionaire shortbread, marble cake, flapjacks, and various other goodies of unknown name), then we parted ways, 3 happy LEJOGers having completed a fine event, vowing to return next year.
Oh, and my plan to cycle home on Sunday? It went a bit awry – my phone was out of battery, and a solo run with no way of calling in help if anything were to happen on some of the back roads resulted in me sat on train. Not quite the memory of Largs, as this time the carriage with the bike store was full of stag party drunks, so I and a few fellow sober passengers ended up dodging their shoe slinging antics and tutting quietly to ourselves at their general misbehaviour until they had the good grace to get off the train, to the reflief of all. Made up for this non-cycle by doing a 45 miler (16.8 avg) on Monday morning, avoiding the worst of the rain to give me a nice tally of 195 miles for the long weekend.
Saturday saw the introduction of Ian and David to the sportive world. John and then Mark were meant to join us but were unable to do so for various reasons. A sportive (French) is an organised event where a marked/ signed route has been put in place and cyclists are timed round the course. There are normally different distances of routes (commonly 100 miles and 100km) put in place to suit differing levels of ability. Also, food stops are normally provided, and this is part of the fun for some but for others the thought of stopping would send them into a cold sweat.
For Ian and David, this was a placeholder in the diary as a mid term aim before LeJog. For me and originally John it was to be a tune up for the Etape Caledonia (a closed road sportive in Pitlochry with 5000 others) the following week.
This particular sportive was the ‘Drumlanrig Challenge’, so named as it started/ ended at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Country. This is a beautifully maintained castle set within a country park with adventure playground, forest walks and mountain biking trails. I was so taken with place after last year’s event that I came down the next day with the family for a picnic.
The sportive had been organized by the Dumfries section of a charity called Tearfund who ‘work globally to end poverty and injustice, and to restore dignity and hope in some of the world’s poorest communities’. One of the reasons for wanting to do this sportive again was the superb organization and friendliness of the volunteers helping out. With the entry form I had sent a note about why we taking part in the event and about our LeJog expedition and received a very nice reply back when we were given our entry acceptance. Some of the big sportives can seem very corporate but this one you genuinely feel that they care more than just about your donation. The other reason I wanted to return you will see evidence of at the end.
Ian in his wisdom had decided to cycle down and stay with his mother who lived relatively nearby (90 miles from Glasgow) on the Friday. I had suggested I would give him a lift down and he could cycle back, but he was adamant and who could blame him, the extra miles would do him good in the long run. For me, my offer of a lift was part selfish to ensure his legs were fresh for the sportive.
For David and I, the journey began early on Saturday morning. I picked David up shortly after 7am from Uddingston and hit the motorway. Google maps duly printed out and an estimated journey time of 1hr 20min. The motorway was quiet for a holiday weekend and we took it easy with 2 bikes on top of the car not exactly helping the aerodynamics. Google maps had us turning off at junction 13 which I thought was a junction earlier from the last time I was here but we took it any way and headed towards Leadhills. There was not a cloud in the sky and since the temperature outside was nearing zero there was a remarkable clarity of light as we travelled through the hills. As we went down past Wanlockhead and the extremely long hill that featured in one of today’s sportive routes, David recalled having camped down this way before. He also recalled having invented a new Olympic sport which was like skiing without skis down the scree off the side of the hill. There also had been a name attached to this sport which I cant quite recall at the moment. But then earlier than expected, we had arrived, met with the sight of the castle in the distance up the long drive way.
We were efficiently directed towards a space in the grass car park, there was already plenty of cars there and a nice atmosphere starting to build. It was cold, but the sun was shining and all the signs were good for the day ahead. First job to was to register and get the numbers for the front of the bike. On the way we phoned Ian, no answer. He had threatened to cycle from his mum’s (30 miles) and that was possibly why he was not answering but at that point we were in the dark. Numbers duly received, we spot Ian driving in and wander back to the car to get kitted out and get the bikes ready.
Just before 9 we joined the queue of riders to be let loose on the road. To avoid disruption out on the road, you are normally let out in groups of approx. 15 a time. We took time out for a quick photocall and then after a few instructions on road conditions(a bit like the roll call from Hill Street Blues ‘ Be careful out there’) we were off.
We set out last in our group, and initially kept rolling with the same people we started with. It was a chance to get the legs warmed up and get a feel for group riding. After a couple of miles, we decided to start moving up, it has been a while since I had seen the guys but it looked like the Majorca trip had worked wonders. We upped the pace and joined another group further up, things were going well. Soon enough though, we had a short, really steep hill. It was terribly potholed and very thin. There were bodies everywhere, some riders were still riding two abreast, not giving much room for maneuver. On a hill like this you really want to go at your own pace, and I had to jink through a couple of riders to break free and I pushed on up to the top of the hill and waited on David and Ian. They had got stuck behind a couple of guys and also watched the as a rider got a backwheel stuck in a pothole and had fallen over.
We then headed down a equally steep and potholed hill, it was a very dangerous descent and I went down not exactly slow but not exactly fast, however I was still passed by someone I thought was going dangerously fast. Maybe he was a local..
Soon enough, we were back together and had picked up a rider from Ayr Cycling Club, she was down herself and was in training for a time trial the following week. We continued as a group for a while, passing others and not being passed, it was going well. At some points, I pushed my heart rate up and went ahead, testing myself to see what the legs would take and then drawing back together. Then quickly we were getting swarmed by yellow jerseys, I indicated to Ian and David that it would be a good idea to get on the back of this group and let them do the work. We duly joined the group and so it seemed did a few others, there was at least 40 riders together. The yellow jerseys belonged to the Johnstone Wheelers and they seemed to have the group in control, moving their riders around at the front to take the wind and giving instructions to the group of the dangers ahead. Within a tightly bunched group, you cant see the what’s ahead and rely upon shouts or hand signals. We were flying along, upper twenties mph but with about half the effort, one of the reasons why you do these events. David and Ian were loving it and so was I, sometimes you had to push to keep on the back if you let your mind wander but it was worth it. The other side of this coin was the danger in riding in close proximity to others. As were cruising along, I heard the sound of bikes colliding and shouting, and looked round to see David wavering from side to side. I dont know how many sits up he has been doing because it took a lot of core stability to pull it back from the brink and not go over. Apologies given from the guy behind and we kept on rolling.
We soon then hit a big long hill and the group starting to string out, I pushed on hard to keep up with the Johnstone Wheelers, I knew it’s what I would need to do in the following event to get a good time. In my concerted effort I had lost touch with David and Ian but I had decided to stay with the Wheelers for a further bit and give myself a test. I rolled along for another few miles and then stopped at the last feed station to wait for David and Ian. I indulged in a bit of fruit loaf while I waited and chatted with the volunteers and it was difficult not overindulge, given the quality of baked goods on show. However, there was still around 16 miles to go and I didn’t want to be weighed down. The cakes could wait.
David and Ian arrived shortly after and for Ian it was like being given a free pass to Greggs (the nations favourite baker) and he worked the table like a pro, sampling everything and anything. David and I eventually pulled him out and reminded him that they also did food at the end of the race. After a quick chat with the guys I decided to push home alone, I needed to dig deep to see what I had, and off I went. I passed a few more cyclist and the average was sitting at 18.2 mph and I wanted to keep it above 18mph. After failing to do so in a group ride a few weeks previous, I was looking for redemption. I was feeling good and then I hit a hill that I had forgotten about 18.2, 18.1, 18.0, 17.9, 17.8. The average goes down a lot quicker than it goes up. Hill over, the fun began. 3 miles to find 0.2mph. I tried to watch the road, keeping the body still, not wasting energy, pushing hard, ‘breath and push’ ‘ breath and push’. I hit 18.0 average and am on the road back to the end, I can relax now. Not really, there is a hill ahead, my speed drops to 16, is that going to blow the average, I push again, legs sore. The finish line comes into view, I hit the line, slam on the brakes and stop the clock. An 18mph average achieved.
I sit down at the side of the road, still high with the adrenaline. David and Ian then appear and I catch them coming over the line, all smiles.
We roll back through the castle grounds to the cars and stand and chat about the day. It’s been a great success and everybody has enjoyed it. Recovery drinks taken, we wander over to the food tent, firstly stopping to chat to the Johnstone Wheelers and thank them for their effort. We joke with them about not taking a short of the front because we dont know their system but they are not daft but not exactly worried either. They are soon off to Italy for a sportive in the Dolomites and it sounds a little bit hard. Gran Fondo Nove Colli – translated 9 hills.
We hit the food tent, first the sandwiches, tuna, ham, cheese, cheese and pickle, cheese and jam. I go tuna and then ham, one eye on the cake stand. The second reason that I wanted to come back to this sportive, many sportives promise home baking but few deliver like this. It was time our efforts were rewarded. First the tablet, then the caramel shortbread and to finish some chocolate shortbread combo. Volunteers thanked, it was back to the cars and off home.
David and I hit the road, leisurely wandering back up and shooting the breeze. A nice end to a good day.