Back when I came up with a list of British sportives to help us train for the Etape, I wrote this: "And on June 2 a final test - the King of the Downs. 115 miles of the hardest grade of Sportive going in the UK."
Since then I've learnt that there are far harder sportives. The Fred Whitton challenge and the Dragon Ride to name the first two that spring to mind.
But that's not to under-estimate the King of the Downs. It's 117 miles (longer than advertised) and as much as 2,800m of climbing (depending on whose Garmin/Strava you believe - although advertised as 2,700m). I'd never managed a century ride, thanks to walking up the last 25% climb in Wales last week. I also haven't ridden that much climbing in a day.
Throw in concerns about my back and it's fair to say that when we rolled out from home on Sunday morning (at 5.30am) I wasn't the most confident.
After cramming our bikes onto a train packed with people and luggage then wandering through an airport fully kitted out before cycling though a business park (the start was a mile from Gatwick), we arrived at the start.
It felt like a real event: Hundreds of cyclists, some stunning bikes, club riders gathering in their matching jerseys, breakfast thrown in (just toast or cereal, sadly) and a queue to set off.
The profile scared me. There were a few hills on there I'd been up before. One that I hated. Utterly hated. We were promised 10 hills. But a route analysis from Pez showed at least 12. Possibly 13 or 14, and that's not counting the "three short ramps" he also found.
|Make no mistake - this was going to hurt|
We rolled out at 8:10, after spending an hour waiting for Paul to park, and the race began with a nice flat warm up, followed by a short leg-stretching climb, then on to "Hill 1" (there was a sign and everything). Pez and Paul pulled away, as is becoming standard, but I met back up with Pez at the top.
I lost him again at Hill 2, was overtaken a lot on Hill 3 and entirely missed Hill 4 (which tells you something about how hard it must have been).
|The top of Hill 1 - where I met Pez, missed Paul and made full use of a hedge|
Fame at last!
We met up at the first drinks stop, which came a little sooner than expected. Chilling out, while grabbing some peanuts and cake, someone walked up to us and asked "are you guys doing the Etape?" "Er, yes". "I thought so, a group of four of us are riding it and we read your blog."
He then went off to get another reader, introducing us as "the blog guys". It’s the first time any of us have been “recognised”, I only wish I’d asked how they found it, or thought to grab a photo. Something like “Look! Actual readers! They exist!”.
After a chat, we set off. Another climb, another descent and then I spotted someone I knew - Rob from our Just Pedal trip to Mallorca in February. I went over to chat to him and catch up. Then I realised he wasn't on the Sportive.
In fact, not only was he not in the Sportive, all of a sudden we were on the run up to Box Hill on a sunny Sunday morning. I hadn't seen a route-marker for a while (I missed Hill 4) and couldn't trust that the riders around me were on the same ride as me, it's always busy here.
I remembered that Box Hill was on the list of climbs for the ride, but I had no idea when we were meant to go up it. I went up anyway, chatting to Rob, cruising along, smiling at the official photographer, setting a personal best time by some distance and desperately hoping that at the top I'd see a directional arrow from the ride organisers or find Pez and Paul in the cafe at the top.
I didn't find Pez or Paul, but it turns out Box Hill was Hill 5 - not that I knew that. I found the route markers a little past the top in the end. Next up was a fast descent, a few miles of rolling terrain, during which I caught up with Pez - then lost him again - and a Hill or two.
Of course, all of it, even "The Wall" (Hill 8, 1.5km at 9.1%, ramping to the 20%s for bits) was a build up. Because I knew York's Hill was coming.
An unkind hill
|The last time we tried to ride it|
Officially it's 2km at 6.3%. But that's a lie. A big fat lie. Because what it actually is is a most of a kilometre at basically 0%, followed by half a K at 6% followed by a full K somewhere north of 15%. It finishes at 18.7% for about 200m.
I hate it. But I've never walked up the same hill twice. Never. And I really didn't understand how I was going to get up it after 145km and 8 official "Hills" into King of the Downs.
This made me hate it more.
I did everything I could to prepare. I stopped and had a gel when I thought it was near (I didn't know exactly when it would start). I purposely didn't refill my bidons (so I went up with about half of one left - there was a drinks stop at the top). I conserved all the energy I could. Then I hit the bottom of it.
I made it up. Pedal stroke by painful pedal stroke. Back wheel slipping on gravel. Front wheel lifting off the road on the steepest parts as I pushed down. Weaving wherever possible. Out of the saddle. In the saddle. Past the walkers. At one point shouting encouragement at a man who was close to the top but struggling. Somehow I made it up. Without walking.
And then... The world's most welcome drinks station.
"If I hadn't walked up that hill before, I would have walked today," Pez confessed at the top. I couldn't have put it better myself.
|The world's most welcome drinks stop|
After that we were officially done. Well, apart from the secret 11th hill. Unknown to the course planners, apparently, but harder than at least two of the official hills (again, well over 10%). I almost walked up it in protest. Didn't.
|The musette contained amazing hats|
There were actually about 12 miles (20km) from the bottom of the final descent until the end of the course, a long way to ride on your own, pretty much exhausted, with no gels left, pushing to end strongly (because surely we were about to finish? Right?). Mostly into a headwind.
Then, after waiting a fair while to turn right on a busy road, a group of riders I'd breezed by earlier cut the corner at about 20mph just as I'd managed to get a very nice man from the AA to stop to let me turn.
This angered me. They'd lucked their way to a 100m lead after charging through an opening I'd made. I pushed again. Harder. Mile after mile their lead fluctuated between a bit and a fair bit. I got a stitch. I kept riding. Somewhere along the way a train formed behind me, hiding from that oh-so-welcome headwind on my rear tyre.
I passed the annoying group - after wishing punctures on them for a mile or so, they eventually stopped of their own accord (presumably to relieve themselves in a hedge or somesuch).
Instead, I became annoyed by my train. I was more or less gone by this point, but there they were behind me. Not helping. Four of them. I pushed on to spite them.
After another mile or two one of the guys behind me (a lovely, lovely man in a Liquigas jersey and bib-shorts) went past me. I had no idea if he was part of the train or not, but I latched onto his wheel with a massive sense of relief.
The train didn't help him either. I did, after we passed the "1 mile to go" sign I went back in the lead to try to step up the pace. Then, with less than 500 metres left the rest of the train surged past us at a turning. "Thanks for the lead out" one told me with an "aren't I clever" grin on his face in the Park Firmé (or cycling equivalent) at the end.
I didn't punch him, I was too tired. I did thank the man in Liquigas gear - he apparently felt so sorry for me he overtook two other people in the train to get to the front and give me a hand.
|The end. Like the start but with more exhaustion. Also pasta. And hats.|
So how did we do?
Our official times for the 117 mile (188km) route were: Paul - 08:44:17; Pez - 08:44:55; me - 08:51:41.
It's not a race, officially, so finding out how you did is rather hard. But not impossible.
Once you cut out the DNSs and the DNFs It looks like I came on the cusp of the bottom 20%, with Paul and Pez in and around the bottom 25% mark.
Not great, but then again, we all averaged more than 20kph - even including the stops - and more than 100 riders finished more slowly than us.
Which left me with one question. Well, two, if you include "When will I stop hurting". Or maybe three if you include "Will I actually be able to cycle to and from the station to get home". But the main one was: "Are we actually good enough to do the Etape now?"
Best keep training in case.
p.s. I don't know how the lovely readers did, but they overtook Paul near the end, so it can't have been too bad.