Great day out on Pedal for Scotland 110-mile sportive
Cycle sportives aren’t meant to be competitive. That is what I – and most other people – like about them. They offer the fun of cycling among lots of people but without the pressure of making it to the finish line in lung and leg-busting times. But, of course, if you hand out timing chips, and you invite a bunch of experienced cyclists to participate, such an event will often turn into a bit of a race. Just a tiny bit of a race, you understand. But, still, a cycling event with a frisson of a push for the line.
On Sunday I joined one of these sportives, the 110-mile Freshnlo Pedal for Scotland Sportive. Along for the chat, and the “easy-going pace” came my top cycling buddy Whippet-on-a-Bike-Graeme. A couple of years ago we tackled the famously tough Bealach Mor event together and I knew that he would be the ideal partner for great chat, proper fuelling and morale-boosting.
Of course, we could have chosen to polish off the 47-mile Pedal for Scotland classic route, along with some 8,000 other riders, but Whippet on a Bike and I couldn’t resist the longer sportive.
The route looked hilly and challenging but the weather reports seemed fair. The wind forecast was for minimal and mostly favourable south-westerlies.
I reminded myself that I’d cycled more than 100 miles several times in the last few years, and as recently as the Alps in the summer when the 100 miles also included 4000m of ascent.
I knew it would be a tough event but I have learned how to pace myself (easy at the start) and eat enough food (eat something every 40 mins) to prevent the horrible “hitting the wall” feeling.
Whippet-on-a-Bike and I also had almost two years of chat to catch up on – and I knew this would help to see me through tens of miles on a bike.
Starting out on the Pedal for Scotland sportive
And so, at 7.45am, we set off from Glasgow Green towards the southern suburb of Newton Mearns. There was a “warm up” eight miles (we had actually already cycled seven miles to reach the registration centre at Glasgow Green), before the timer chip was initiated by a start line clock. This would measure 100 miles of the 110-mile total route.
Heading south for the first section wasn’t easy because the minimal wind was now more of a noticeable wind. But fresh legs and good chat saw Whippet and I cycling along nicely. I had no desire to race in the early stages and so we watched as dozens of gloriously dressed MAMILs overtook us. (In many cases we cycled past these MAMILs later in the sportive but to begin with they had their racing legs on.)
I admit we giggled at some of the outfits – all matching Lycra shorts, tops, socks and arm warmers – and the mega-expensive bikes but, honestly, it was great to see so many guys out on their bikes and enjoying the event.
There were far fewer women taking part – but certainly more than I saw in the Bealach Mor and I know from being on my bike in general that increasing numbers of women are taking up cycling.
I was stunned to see a number of riders attempting 110 miles on hybrids and mountain bikes and some lugging along panniers and rucksacks but I guess that the event is for all kinds of people. I just prefer to keep things as light as possible so the riding is easier.
After the first food station – lots of cereal bars, gels, bananas, water and freshnlo milk – we turned towards the east and could take advantage of the seemingly stronger wind.
This section, through lovely Ayrshire countryside, was hilly but we seemed to race along pretty well. (I’d fallen off my bike in the first few miles when someone suddenly stopped in front of me. The fall had broken my GPS from my wrist so I had no idea of speed or distance.)
Whippet and I still had lots of talk (we were only up to October 2011…) and we were joined for some of the way by Legs Eleven (a friend from Glasgow Triathlon Club).
I made sure I wasn’t busting my muscles and I stayed nicely within my comfort zone knowing that there was still a very long way to go.
Pedal for Scotland food station two
Food station two was at Douglas in South Lanarkshire, where Whippet and I met with Legs Eleven (he’d gone off ahead) for much-needed savoury food. Eating gels and cereal bars for a day’s event always makes me feel a bit sick. I quickly scoffed two cheese and ham sandwiches and a Tunnock’s caramel bar, refilled my water bottles, messed about with putting more gels etc into my cycling jersey pockets and headed off again.
The next stage was straight into the head wind and up a very long hill indeed. This riding was also on bone shakingly bad tarmac. This wasn’t potholes but very poor tarmac. With tyres inflated to a speedy 100psi, I could feel my skeleton shaking around inside my weedy muscles.
By now, many cyclists were slowing and Whippet and I passed rider after rider. Being light on a bike is helpful for ascending and with easy gears on my bike (I haven’t changed them since the Alps) I rode uphill without too much muscle pain.
And then, when we turned again, we felt the benefit of the wind. This section of the ride, however, was very twisty and at times on exposed moorland so just as we relaxed with a tailwind, we’d turn again to face a side wind or headwind. It was tiring but few people were overtaking us at this point.
A very steep hill caught out a lot of riders. It was so steep that many got off to walk. Whippet and I pushed determinedly upwards although my cycling partner did admit to muscle cramp towards the top. I could now feel some muscle pain in my thighs and an on-going hamstring niggle began to tighten up. My biggest complaint, however, was the pain that began to unfold in my shoulders. It felt as though screwdrivers were stabbing either side of the back of my neck.
Just after the steep hill a small group of spectators cheered us on and one lady shouted that I was the sixth lady to pass. I knew there were few women on the course but being in sixth place felt exciting.
Note about the start: Because riders could set off for the event from Glasgow Green anywhere between 7am and 7.45am it was impossible to know how far ahead the other ladies would be. However, we had been some of the last to ride off and there hadn’t been a single woman overtake me through the challenge. This meant that I only had five women ahead of me.
The sportive was not a race…but…
But, as I said, this wasn’t a race. Except Whippet started suggesting that a top five place would be good. Still I wasn’t drawn into being competitive and we cycled happily onwards hoping for a good re-fuel at the third food station. That station seemed to take a very long time to arrive and in the meantime Whippet’s bike had a mechanical failure, which meant he had access to only two gears. If this had happened to my bike the sportive would have been over. Fortunately, Whippet is a strong rider and he bravely faced up to the challenge of riding some 25 miles more with a hard gear and a slightly harder gear!
At the final food station I spotted a girl! I mentioned this to the Whippet and suddenly he was egging me on to jump back on my bike and take chase. It was a bit of fun but it did give us the incentive to push ourselves through the last difficult stage of event.
The final 20 miles
We had been convinced that there would be 20 miles of descent to the finish line, only this just didn’t happen. The hills went up and up and loomed far more frequently that seemed possible. We were stuck between 900ft and 1000ft and we kept questioning why we were still so high, so close to the capital, which was surely at sea level.
By this point, too, my shoulders were utter agony. (I am booking myself in for a bike fit in the next couple of weeks.) I was forced to whirl my arms around my head and dig my fingers into each shoulder muscle while riding just to get some muscle pain relief.
It is always the same in a long distance event. The last 10 or so miles seem by far the longest and the finish line never comes quickly enough. But then we passed the girl I’d seen at the food station, and another lady quickly after that, and from that point onwards the Whippet and I seemed joined in a effort not to be overtaken by anyone at all for the rest of the sportive!
We powered onwards and upwards and then, finally, gloriously downwards. Frustratingly, I was forced to stop twice to re-affix my old and dodgy saddlebag. (Note to self: I will buy a new saddlebag when I go to a bike shop for a bike fit.) But still the finish clock didn’t arrive.
At one point, most likely in a bid to boost my morale, the Whippet mentioned watching a programme about the current record breaker for the round-the-world cycle. “Can you imagine?” said the Whippet. “That guy did 200 miles a day. So at this point he was only half way through his day – and that went on for weeks.”
I just couldn’t get my head around what he was saying and just kept praying for the end of the event. My shoulders hurt and I was starting to think that the finish clock had been removed by jokers.
And then, on the side of a busy Edinburgh street, I spotted the clock. At last. Awesome. Brilliant. We had done it! Well, almost… There was still another three miles to reach the bike entrance to Murrayfield where we could catch a bus back to Glasgow.
I couldn’t have been happier to get off my bike, although my brain was still buzzing with the excitement of having completed my longest ever bike event and without utterly breaking myself in the process.
After event refreshments
Whippet and I had been talking and dreaming of a hot drink for about 30 miles. Although the day had been dry and fairly warm, by mid-afternoon there was a chill in the air and we were still in sweaty bike kit.
Whippet spotted a stall serving tea, which happened to also be a stall serving the most amazing takeaway food. Set amid the usual Scottish food vans and burger bars was Wild Rover Food selling takeaway dishes such as cullen skink with a twist, chick pea stew and pigeon breast and bacon in a wrap. They only sell fresh and seasonal produce, apparently, and I don’t think I have tasted a finer thing after bike ride dish than their cullen skink.
The journey home
On the bus back to Glasgow I was too tired to talk much. The Whippet and I were up to date with each other’s lives and we were both happy to listen to those around us. The chat was of compliments for the Pedal for Scotland rides. Although many people looked exhausted, they were smiling and talked excitedly about taking part in another cycling event. The age range was from young children to grandparents and there was a good mix of males and females. It felt great to be part of such a huge event.
I confess that Whippet, Legs Eleven and I caught a train from Glasgow Green back home. We couldn’t face more hills and the rain was heavy. We weren’t the only ones to have made this choice on Sunday as the train was filled with tired cyclists and mucky bikes!
It turns out, having looked at the results, that I was third fastest lady. I hadn’t set out to compete and I hardly glanced at the times. But knowing that I can cycle 110 miles without falling apart – and doing well against hundreds of other people feels great. Our total mileage for the day was 122 miles – the furthest I have ever ridden in one day.
What next?: Yesterday, the Whippet and I pledged to cycle the Tour o’ the Borders in April. It’s only 70 miles, but then again we’ll only have seven months of chat to keep us entertained!