Sunshine provides icing on the cake

As sportives are all the rage in organised group rides these days, it seemed strange (yet fitting) to turn the clock back and join a club Reliability Ride for my first organised event in about 15 years.

On the surface, it may look like something of a step backwards, but it served its purpose and it was good to just be on the road with other bikies for a change.

Organisers offered a choice of two distances, starting in the same place but heading in opposite directions, and with the same tea and cake on offer at the finish.

The sun shone, spirits beforehand were good, the course was well organised and passed off without incident. There were two testing climbs, including one which was heavily gravelled (when a horse-rider wishes you “good luck on the hill” you know you’re in for a test) and all in all it was a decent morning.

The racers jogged, the joggers raced, the mortals pedalled. I finished.

The only real downside was riding alone for 30-plus miles, not being fast enough to get on a front group or selfless enough to wait for the followers. The upside was a finish in a decent time and in a decent physical state. Plus the cake, obviously.

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Hard, harder, hardest


Every sport claims to have its so-called hardmen; even football, even a sport populated mainly by middle-aged men with shaved legs and clad in Lycra.

Rugby has the chiropractors who hit so hard they move sinew and bone out of place with one hard hit, then put it back again with a second attempt; in cricket the hardmen used to be the pace bowlers who sprinted in over after over with no help from the pitch or the weather; in athletics they are defined as the old school road runners pounding out the miles no matter what the weather; and there are the swimmers who break the ice on Christmas morning to get some wild-water miles in.

Even football has its legendary hardmen (not the ones without self-tanning moisturiser or an eponymous perfume range but the men who take no prisoners in the battle for the ball, defy authority and tend to take man and ball in one over-zealous challenge). They, by the way, are becoming more rare in the modern non-contact version of the sport.

But cycling is a class apart when it comes to hard. This is a sport, remember, where many of its top-level protagonists weigh about the same as your average commuter bike.

For one, it is a sport where learning to suffer is actually a technique. And two, riders at all levels take pride in their medical-defying methods.

The photo here was posted on Twitter by @taylorphinney It tells tales of hardship and heroism.

There are fabled riders throughout the sport who leave us mere mortals gasping at their sheer toughness and determination.

Broken collarbone? Crack on, even if it means grinding teeth down to the stubs, just so long as you finish today. Then see how it goes tomorrow. And for the next three weeks.

Broken vertebrae? Find a position on the bike where you can alleviate the pain, stay there for five hours or so today. And tomorrow. And the next day. By then you’ll be used to the new position so you can crack on again.

Broken nose? Breath through your mouth, get to the finish today, see how it goes tomorrow, and the next day, and so on.

Vicious boil on the backside? Cut a hole in the saddle to rest it in, then get to the finish today, see how it goes tomorrow, then crack on.

Broken wrist and hand? You’ll probably have to skip today and tomorrow, but get back on the turbo trainer so you don’t lose condition, then back to racing as soon as the plaster comes off.

One of the sport’s famous tragedies brought us the words “Get me back on the bike”.

Cyclists resemble those Central American lightweight boxers who just cannot be put down, no matter how hard they are hit, no matter the odds against them or the hype surrounding their challenge. They go toe to toe and they stay there.

It is exactly how cyclists, and not just the elite ones, face the opposition, whether that comes from other riders, the weather or the road. Heroes.

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Sock it to them

What’s happened to white cycle socks, the epitome of one-size-fits-all sporting apparel?

The humble cycling sock served us well, all in white, just touching the ankle bone, just enough to show off a tanned leg if you were lucky. All the same and living quite happily in colonies in kit bags.

And now look what’s happening. They’ve gone the same way as the poor old casquette cloth cap, and cycling is much the worse for it.

From plain white socks, trade teams started to brand their kit. Fair enough, sponsorship pays the bills. But socks were still white, still ankle-bone length, with plain branding added. Replicas became a badge of honour and a show of support for your favourites. We could live with that.

Then Lance landed. In American sporting parlance, Lance “went long” and ‘ankle’ socks were now mid-calf length.

Anyone who wears calf-length white socks usually pairs them with checked-pattern shorts in rather large sizes. And they we were watching the peloton whizz past in long socks. Bad enough on professionals, absolutely vile on amateurs.

Designers gained encouragement and eyed an opportunity to add more branding as socks got longer and colours became bolder. Brands, messages, stripes, stars, logos, novelties, personalisation, neon colours, where would it all stop?

From the ‘1980s Madness reunion gig’ vibe of long whites socks, cycling even survived the quirky Argyle socks of the Garmin team. They were different, they had their fans, they provided a talking point. And they were generally patterned on white socks.

But then we came to a new low as (proper) cycling embraced the ‘back to school’ look and black socks arrived. Blame mountain bikers, they’d been doing it for years.

Grudgingly tolerated on a pro (you can always ignore the feet and concentrate on the bike, the gearing or the scenery), black socks did not do justice to the light-blue legs of amateurs.

What next, knee-highs? Then over-the-knee like a la-di-da European footballer? Let’s get back to basics, ankle-bone only, in any colour you like so long as it’s white.

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The only way is up

There’s no beating Cornwall in the summer. Sun, sand, surf and Sharp’s Doom Bar in equal measure. But next year I’ll have to think about timing a trip in the weeks leading up to a club hill climb.

Five months into a riding comeback after 14 years of climbing over bikes in the shed, I gamely decided to keep up the good work and take a bike on holiday for the first time in many-a-moon.

This was not a training camp, just a way of ticking over with an hour or two out on four or five mornings a week, making the most of the sun and the impetus of trying out some new roads.

From our coastal holiday, there are three roads inland: a savage ‘S’ bend upwards which narrows and twists further up; a gruelling ‘Z’ bend upwards which narrows and twists and then twists again further up; and a narrow road upwards which allows you to pop up and down out of the saddle for around 20 minutes.

Taking the third option on my opening trek, I added some loops, a brief break on to a main road, then back through the lanes. Every one of them narrow and every one of them uphill. It seemed my 25-mile loop featured around 20 minutes of ‘up’.

On my normal routes, I take on a hill, take a deep breath at the top, then enjoy breaking the summit and easing off on the way down. In Cornwall, there is no down. It seemed every time I crested a hill there was another standing in front, then another after that, in every direction, all sharp but not necessarily short.

It was a shock, and it hurt, though it is gratifying to take them on and win. Or at least take them on and not lose badly.

The stonking great ‘S’ bend, I tackled the following day and the only consolation to take from the experience was that it came in the opening mile and I didn’t have to tackle it on the way back.

The 20-minute ‘up’ became a bit of a favourite. Just doing it, seeing the feet spin in respectable time, managing to sit and spin in lower gears in parts, stand and attack in others, or grovel and defend on some more, it all became part of the game.

The ‘Z’ road is the biggest of all and by the end of my holiday I could take it all on in one go, in both directions. Smug satisfaction guaranteed, as well as breathing difficulties.

Pity it isn’t hill-climb season, not because I’d be a contender, but because I’d be better than I’ve been before. Sounds as good a reason as any to find an autumn break in the South-West.

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Got to keep on moving

A recently retired professional sporting acquaintance of mine says his body feels dreadful this year as it has finally realises it is able to take it easy and even shut down from time to time.

No more batterings in training sessions or matches, no more trying to disguise or ignore the knocks, no more physio or massage, no more adrenlin pulsing through to act as a camouflage. And, most important of all, no more ‘buzz’ to build up to, live through and then recover from.

Left to its own devices, his body appears to be getting its own back.

It is a warning I should have taken more seriously.

I came back to cycling after a 14-year for no other reason than I like to ride my bike and it seems I have finally found the time again to do so. Now, after a few months back in the saddle, it seems I have to keep getting back on the bike.

The only way to remove the aches and pains from yesterday’s time on the bike is to get back out on the bike today. Tomorrow I know I will be riding to remove the after-effects of today. The day after I will do my best to remove tomorrow’s stresses and strains. And this is just from me riding alone, without competition, without targets, and without any raceday ‘buzz’.

Miss a day and suddenly the hands, wrists, shoulders, neck, thighs and calf muscles take turns in reminding me that I need my fix. By late evening they come together with a more orchestrated reminder, especially when attempting to negotiate stairs.

Everything aches, except when I’m actually putting them under stress on the bike.

No one said it would actually be like this. But it’s the best way, surely, of ensuring you get back out on the road.

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