Chalk lines and village halls

It was all very British. Sat in a village hall car park at an hour when most folk were still in bed sleeping off the excesses of a good Saturday night, two bikes wrapped in blankets on the folded seats behind us as we watched other competitors arrive. Outside the hall stood two men, one with a clipboard the other measuring the distance of a complete crank rotation between two chalked lines. Any bike travelling more than 18 feet 8 1/4 inches was instantly disqualified. We had entered the world of medium geared time trialling. It felt like a mysterious closed society - the stuff of secret handshakes and whispered conversations.

This is the underbelly of British club cycling - an honest down-to-earth, grass roots event that sits a million light years from the glamour of televised Grand Tours. The fundamental principles might have been the same but the execution was very different.

Having passed the measurement requirement we signed on. Now we had passed the point of no return. We were committed. Our countdown with destiny (and the stopwatch) had begun.

However well you prepare, there's always those unknown factors, those niggly little things that float around in your head before the off. We lined up in a narrow lane leading to a farmer's field, everyone in sequence with the numbers pinned to our backs. No digital LED countdown, no start ramp just a line chalked on the road and man with a clipboard and stopwatch. A 25 mile TT had seemed a good idea at the time of entering. It didn't anymore. Having refused the starter's push in favour of a self-propelled start, the race of truth had begun.

You soon reach top speed on a single speed bike; the secret, as in any time trial, is maintaining it. It took eight painful miles to regulate breathing, settle down and find a rhythm. As soon as the halfway roundabout came into view we knew we were homeward bound. This elation was immediately soured by a sequence of repeated mechanical failures - on three separate occasions the chain jumped the rear sprocket. Without a team car in sight (dream on punter!) it was time to get our hands dirty. The ignoble sight of a cyclist, bike upturned by the side of the road wrestling a jammed chain signified us kissing goodbye to any semblance of a decent finishing time.

Needless to say we completed the event way down the field but we weren't last and our appetite to give it another go is keen. We have unfinished business.

A purely accidental Festive 500

Everything is different at Christmas. Town centres are transformed into disco balls, mince pies become a food group, hangovers become socially acceptable on Wednesday afternoons.

Even Strava takes on a festive hue as, for ten days, the drudging, crows-flight commutes and predictable club runs are replaced by sweeping countryside loops. A casual scroll through my feed this week offers up, amongst other enviable settings, the lowlands of Belgium, the highlands of Scotland and the (take my word for it) breathtakingly picturesque inbetweenlands of the Somerset levels.

Unlike last Christmas, when I briefly escaped to the country and treated myself to the ride of the year through the Mendip Hills, this is not one when I will be straying far from the smoke.

As much as I covet the scenery I find myself equally jealous of the quite reasonable lengths my friends are riding. Thirties, forties and fifties seem to be the order of the day. A quick spin then home to a calorific reward far outweighing that which has been expended. This is the season to indulge, not suffer.

At least it should be. But faced with the choice, as Christmas presents, between riding more, or riding less, I will almost always opt for the former. At 11am on Boxing Day, riding south into a headwind with 100k already on the clock and a good (i.e. awful awful) twenty-five from home, I feel especially acutely that, on this occasion, I may have got that one wrong.

It begins when Nic mentions he would be up at 7am on Christmas Eve for a few laps of Regent’s Park. It doesn’t feel like such a terrible idea the night before - the opportunity to get a march on the day, finish the shopping, make it home before lunch. Then when another invitation arrives, to join clubmates for a Richmond spin, I find myself accepting that as well, tacking it on to the same trip. Despite having decided to eschew Rapha’s Festive 500, by noon on day one I’m already a fifth of the way there (and my family’s gifts are wrapped in newspaper).

Even I don’t feel compelled to train on Christmas Day. As Dr Hutch’s scathingly tweets: “[it] was highly effective when you thought it was just you. Since Twitter, you just feel part of a very sad cult.”

Still, with no public transport and the price of an Uber comparable to the RRP of a Colnago C60, the only way I’m getting to dinner on the other side of the river is by bike. I deliberately choose a route through central London, expecting scenes akin to the zombie film 28 Days Later, only to find a thin layer of tourists with nowhere to go. On my ride home later that night I find Edgware Road as open and alive as ever. With nary a bus in sight, sound or smell, it’s just 2000m of sweetly scented shisha smoke: liquorice, vanilla, cardamom, pomegranate, rose. I love London.

Apart from making me cry, the brutal boxing day shlep out to the Chilterns brings up 300k for the week and I’m still not doing the Festive 500. My recovery meal at the football features half a bottle of port and a bag of chocolate coins.

On Monday I am due to visit friends in Canterbury. Waking up in the morning to beautiful blue skies the first mistake I make (that day at least) is looking to see where it is on the map. The second is judging it as not that much further into Kent than I normally ride - just the next section along Pilgrim’s Way, really - and anyway, I can come home by train. I have long romanticised the one-way, solo venture into the unknown but let me assure you, there is nothing ~ nothing ~ romantic about hugging the embankment of the A20 into Maidstone, realising you’ve misjudged the distance by a third. Two hours late for lunch, I bail out at Ashford.

I rattle off the last couple of k of the Festive 500 over the next couple of days.

On the first morning (ahem, afternoon) of 2016 I emerge from my cocoon, head and legs throbbing, resolving that this year will be one of restraint. A reminder on my phone immediately pops up: Next weekend, 150k ‘winter warmer’. I crawl back under the covers.

Happy New Year!

Come on, dive in!

Just over two years has passed since I popped along to Look Mum No Hands! for the Simpson Magazine launch. That night was a mix of friends, family and excited publishers – evidently a dream come true for a few pals with a vision of putting out a well made, delightfully designed and lovingly written magazine. Was there room for one more? Certainly. It’s still going strong with the same charm and care the initial arrival heralded. Dig the new breed indeed.

The same care and attention now extends to Simpson’s kit. With a day’s notice I was tempted by one of my riding pals to jump in a van and scarper off to France, trading laptop watching for some in-the-flesh TDF. “Damn, I wished I’d grabbed a Simpson CC top” I thought, as I threw assorted items into a bag. Via the power of Twitter I asked if there was any hope of grabbing a jersey before leaving. Writing this now I don’t really know just what I was expecting as an answer - “yeah mate, we will bike one over”? Two hours later I was trading money I probably needed for food for a new top and matching socks at a clandestine hook-up at the nearest Northern Line tube station. That is some service (the jersey and the tube network).

Despite my best efforts I don’t entirely look pro. I’m certainly a few pints of real ale the wrong side of Chris Froome’s shape. A quick glance at Strava confirms I don’t ride very much like a pro either. But in the right clobber and with the right shoes and a carefully procured sun tan, it’s possible with a splash of escapism to feel pro. In a similarly dramatic and fascinated-with-sport way that I’d scream “Neeskens!” when kicking one of those cheap plastic newsagent-supplied footballs back in the 70s past a set of rolled up parkas, I did have the odd moment climbing in the Alps when I allowed myself to have my pain and suffering described by the commentator’s voice in my head. I’m sure there’s a Dutch corner joke there too but I’m too worn out to make it.

So what of the “Simpson CC”? Does it actually exist? Is this another of those gangs of earnest-looking Sunday riders who grind past solo riders without a perfunctory nod, let alone a smile? Well no, it’s more a statement of intent, a show of support and, from what I can tell, a commitment to that famous Eddy quote about just riding your bike. It seems to be a cycling gang whose members are far less likely to spend their time bragging about who has the fastest segment or who got dropped. The only award you’re likely to get with this lot is nicest bloke you met that day. Fancy that!

By the way, the jersey is as good as anything I’ve got in terms of quality and that design…well, you can see for yourselves that it’s got the same panache as the mag. Hurry up and dive in.

A tale of the unexpected

However hard you train for that event you've targeted, on the day there are so many variables that nothing can be certain. You can (and should) prepare as meticulously as possible but you should also prepare for the unexpected.

Having identified last weekend's Suffolk-based Crafted Classique 100-miler as 'something to aim for', we spent several months building training frequency and mileage until we finally felt reasonably confident of achieving a respectable time.

That's the thing with time chip technology - a sportive becomes, on one level, a mission to propel a digital chip across the line in the shortest possible time. With these chips now automatically associated with the rider numbers securely attached to your bike, there's no escaping that all-important finishing time.

Part of the fun of these events is in the planning and anticipation of the build-up. Piece by piece, you put in place all the essentials. How are you going to get to the start? Are you travelling there on your own or with a fellow rider? Have you got a kit checklist ready? On the day you must ensure that you get yourself to the sign on in good time and equip yourself with a route map. And then you must plan where to meet with friends after the ride and get yourselves home again.

During this obsessional planning period, you become an avid devotee of the long term weather forecast. There's nothing you can really do about it, of course, apart from taking along the appropriate kit. For some, these events present an opportunity (or excuse) to refresh their cycling wardrobe - 'go on...treat yourself!'

We rode last year's event as an informal team but this year saw us ride as Simpson CC. We actively encouraged our readers to join us for the ride and ended up with a good mix of natural rouleurs, confident clubmen and racing veterans, all eager to devour 100 miles of beautiful Suffolk countryside. These guys could set a good pace and maintain it for the duration.

In the end, we split into two groups from the very start, mainly due to varying arrival times. The faster guys were already on the start line as the others arrived to sign on. The weather was good - maybe too good, with baking heat becoming a hydration factor. With high average speeds being clocked up everything looked set for a quick finishing time until one of our riders was taken ill.

When this happens, you must prioritise. Targets and training clearly take second place to a fellow rider's wellbeing. The race against the clock ended there and the final 40 miles became more of a survival challenge. We eased back on the pedals and started to chat on subjects far removed from our present situation. Reaching the finish line now had a different meaning.

We're pleased to say that everyone did make it back in one piece and the ride was still an amazing experience. But it means that we now have a 2016 ride target already in place - not that any excuse was really necessary.