Sunday hadn’t yet dawned when my alarm clock went off. I dragged myself out of bed, showered then brewed a strong black coffee. Preparing to leave, a thick, cold mist blocked out the sky, the dawn still felt a long way off.
Sportive HQ was at One Leisure, St Neots and I arrived just after 7am to find things were already in motion. Trestle tables were being laid out for signing on, Broken Spoke, TriSportsPlus and b-active sports massage were setting up their stalls. The first riders had already parked, and were milling around with steaming cups of tea and coffee, waiting to sign on.
My main role for the morning was first to brief and direct the parking and route marshals, then brief the riders before they set off. Erecting the gazebo at the start line, we could see the car park rapidly fill up. Watching the riders check tyres and brakes or adjust their clothing for the cold start, the event suddenly felt very real. Seeing all this activity and knowing the club had put it together, it was really very exciting.
Wayne, Adrian B (there are a lot of Adrians in the club) and I started sending the riders off at 8am. The sun was just visible as a feeble white disc through the fog. I gave the first riders a quick briefing while Wayne and Adrian checked off their times and then off they rode, soon swallowed by the thicker river mist along the Ouse. To begin with it was a slow trickle of riders, but soon they were queuing for the off. By 9am, except for a couple of late arrivals, the riders were all on the road.
After an hour on the start line our coffees were a distant memory, Wayne and I were frozen and keen to set-off and warm up. Together with Steve R (we also have quite a few Steves) we would follow behind the last group to spur on and help any straggling or suffering riders. We soon caught Craig, one of our club members, happily riding at a comfortable pace.
Just before we left St Neots a police car screamed by with lights flashing. It continued onto the Kimbolton road, the start of our route. Shortly after Hail Weston we saw more blue lights ahead, static on the road. I think for all of four of us, our worst fears were being imagined: had one of our riders been hit? Approaching the scene we could see a battered car stuck in a ditch, behind it a bike wheel was poking into the air. As we got closer and saw the bike was being carried on the back of the car, I think we all muttered a few words of thanks at that. Further on a second car was straddling the carriageway, one rear wheel horizontal with the chassis, another in a field. Fortunately none of the occupants appeared injured and to our great relief none of our riders were involved. It was a sobering start to the ride.
I think the police must have closed the roads shortly after we passed the crash as the run through Kimbolton to Covington was almost traffic free. Clearly an accident is not how we would like to find ourselves on closed roads, but it did make for pleasant cycling.
Leaving Raunds we met a group of horse riders. Having earlier briefed all the riders that they were likely to encounter horses here, I thought I should ask if they had had any problems with cyclists. They told us they had seen hundreds of cyclists, and I was pleased to hear them report all had been polite and friendly. If you are reading this and rode, thank you. They were interested to hear what we were up to, but despite his most charming efforts, I don’t think Wayne could persuade them to join us next year!
By Thrapston we had caught a couple more riders and having made sure they were OK, continued on our way. The morning mist had cleared and the day was shaping up to be sunny with hardly a breeze to be felt. We caught up with two more guys who, having missed the Covington turning, had made a 7 mile detour. Just before Grafton Underwood we met Steve B (like I said…) in the broom wagon. He had pulled up alongside four young local cyclists, 3 lads and a girl, riding the event. All was fine, they were just stopping for some food and Steve obliged us all with a full cake tin of delicious sausage rolls! After the scoff we set off together.
Along the way I got chatting with one of the lads, they had ridden London to Brighton a couple of times, but this would be their biggest ride. Riding mountain and hybrid bikes and wearing a mix of clothing from cycling/sport gear to jeans, my impression was they were out of their comfort zone, but enjoyed riding their bikes, and while they were perhaps a bit unsure what to expect, they were determined to cover the distance.
The two of us were quickly dropped by the rest of our group. Once he had satisfied me he would be fine, I rode after the rest of the group hoping to get them to ease up so we could regroup. Although I couldn’t see them I didn’t think it would take long to bridge the gap. From Grafton Underwood I set an increasingly fast pace averaging over 25mph, but it still took me a good 10 minutes to catch the first riders. I was surprised just how much time and distance I had lost, and crossed to the other two lads just before Brigstock. With promises to meet up at the feed station I chased down the rest of the group. Again I set a hard pace, but I didn’t make contact until the gated road after Lower Benefield. The girl from the group (Cherelle I think), Wayne and another cyclist were riding together, Steve had pressed on ahead. Of the 4 local riders, Cherelle was easily the strongest. It turned out she regularly commutes 10 miles each way for work and clearly had the miles in her legs that her friends did not.
Arriving at the feed station there was a bit of regrouping from split groups. I was able to catch up with Mark, who was manning the feed station with a couple of wives (not both his). It sounded like they had had a busy morning handing out tea and coffee, but they had left a few cakes, so we refuelled.
Wayne, Steve and I left the feed station together. On the road to Nassington we just managed to get our pictures snapped by the event’s official photographer, George Burgess before he packed up. We had a good leisurely ride through Nassington and picked up a tailwind for the climb out of the village. At the top of the climb we got chatting to a Peterborough cyclist heading in the opposite direction. I think we managed to convince him to sign up for our next event. We’ll see…
After Elton we caught up with 5 of the riders we had met at the feed station. Two were happy to plod along at their own pace, while another started to put distance into us; however, the other two riders were starting to suffer.
Turning on to the lumpy B660, the gradients really started to take their toll on one young lad, Guy. Steve rode with him making sure he kept his fuel up and keeping him motivated. Despite begging for Broom Wagon, Steve got him round the full circuit, so a hard ride for Guy, but as this was one of his first big rides, an achievement he should be proud of.
I continued on with Wayne and the other two other riders. By Catworth Hill both were starting to tire and the climb was a struggle. However, the flat then downhill sector to Kimbolton, or perhaps the thought of beans on toast back at HQ, must have revived them and they coped well with the final two climbs at Pertenhall and Spring Hill. Then it was onto Bushmead road and its long, gentle descent to St Neots, after 6 hours on the road, perfectly suited to tired legs.
We were among the last back, so I wasn’t surprised to see things quietening down at HQ. The scrambled egg had sold out, and the remaining baked beans were being hungrily devoured, bikes were being packed away and Lindsay, the masseuse was rubbing down the last aching legs with equally aching hands, it had been a busy day for her.
Catching up with Alistair and the rest of the volunteers it immediately became clear that the day had been a great success. Returning riders had praised both the organisation and the route, while we were grateful for the good weather. Checking the club email and twitter that evening several people had thanked us. It made for a very satisfying end to a rewarding day, but I think the best endorsement of all was the number of people who asked, “So, when is the next St Neots CC Sportive?”. Not at all bad for our first effort.
Finally, thanks to everyone who volunteered and the local companies who supported the event, and a special thanks to the wives and girlfriends who supplied the cakes. But most of all to the riders, who had forsaken their Sunday morning lie-ins to ride with us.
Now where did I leave my maps…?