Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Dartmoor Classic 2014

Over a year ago, my friend Simon and I decided to sign up for the Dartmoor Classic. Now the Classic is classified as a Sportive, and not a race, and for good reason, too: if it was a race, seeing as it's held on public roads, loads more restrictions and regulations come into play. Now just because it's a sportive event doesn't mean people aren't racing! See, when you have two or more cyclists going the same way, at the same time, on the same stretch of road, by definition you have a race!

As it happened, the Dartmoor Classic was fully booked for 2013, and though we went onto the reserve list, neither of us actually secured a place. This was a double blessing: 1) On the day there was a severe storm over Dartmoor, and riders were battling ferocious winds and heavy rain, while 2) I certainly wasn't in shape for it, and it would've been a mistake to enter in 2013.

The Dartmoor Classic is one of the top UK sportives, and has three options: the Grande, which is a 107 miles route, the Medio, which is a 67 mile route and the Debutante, which is a women-only route of 37 miles. Advice Simon and I were given basically stated that it would be foolish to enter the Classic as your first-ever sportive, and doubly foolish to enter the 107-mile version of it.

Of course, Simon and I aren't always very good at following good advice, and so when registration opened for the 2014 ride, we entered the Grande, 107-mile option. There are only 3 000-odd places available for the Classic, and it sold out in under 24 hours. Still, that didn't matter to us, as we were in that number.

From that point on, it was simply going to be a matter of getting the miles in to prepare, then go ride the distance on the day. How hard can that be?

Well, as it turned out, there were a few holes in the master plan. For starters, Simon's wife gave birth to a gorgeous baby girl, and that meant that he almost never managed to get out on his bike, and was suffering from lack of sleep. I was getting miles in, due to commuting 15 miles each way on a daily basis, but when commuting through the dark, wet and freezing cold winter mornings and evenings, any thoughts of a structured training programme soon fades from your mind. OK, from my mind, anyway.

I told myself I'd start putting in serious effort from the start of April, when the weather's improved. April 2014 surprised all by being the wettest on record, with widespread flooding. This meant that most of the miles I was riding were actually quite slow. Nevertheless, I managed to clock up over 600 miles in April and gradually my average speed was increasing.

On most Saturday mornings I'd go riding with a bunch known as the Yealm Rouleurs. They're totally mad, and a really good bunch. They also happen to have several riders that are rather quick. WAY quicker than me! That is a good thing, as it challenged me to try and keep up with them. During the dark, cold months, Saturday rides were rather short, between 20 and 30 miles on average, but as the weather improved the distances started stretching and I believe these rides above all helped me greatly. Well, these, and the hills on my commute!

Now I'm no pro hill climber, but I do like hills. Devon certainly is a good place to live if you like cycling up hills, and there are a few big ones on my commute. On some of the hills I have pretty good times (as per Strava) and I'm well proud of those times, as they mostly were done with either laden panniers on my bike, or with a backpack on my back. Now the ONLY way to get better and faster at cycling up hills is to ride up more and more of them. I find riding up hills while weighed down builds strength, too.

This was basically my "training plan" then: cycle up hills while weighed down, and try to keep up with faster riders on Saturdays. It isn't exactly the most structured, nor the most scientific training plan ever. As a member of British Cycling, I have access to actual, proper training plans, but there all rely on using a heart rate monitor. I actually own one of those, but for a very long time now I've not been able to find the chest strap, and so I couldn't use those plans.

Of course, my entire training strategy has one major flaw: Almost all the distances I was doing were on the short side. My commute's only 15 miles each way, and most Saturday rides were below 50 miles. This doesn't really help prepare you well for a 107 mile event, as I was to discover.

As the date of the Classic came closer and closer, Simon and I started making logistical plans (basically that meant he was giving me a lift) and I was getting increasingly nervous.

On the day, we set off in the second batch of riders, just after 07h05. In our batch was a rider on a Pinarello TT bike, just like what Bradley Wiggens rode in the TdF - all carbon fiber, tri-bars and all.

The ride out of Newton Abbott was easy and in no time at all we were riding through Bovey Tracey and we knew what lay ahead - a loooong uphill all the way past Becky Falls. The route then diverted up a steep lane that Devon County Council had thoughfully "surface dressed" in time for the Dartmoor Classic, meaning we were riding on thick, loose gravel. That was VERY unpleasant and bikes were wheel spinning all over. Some riders got off and walked. We also had to descent on that appalling surface, before turning right up Haytor.

Simon was riding fast and I had my work cut out to keep up with him. It wasn't all that long before we rode through Two Bridges, then Post Bridge and then up the long hill before Princetown. I had a grin on my face when we overtook the guy on the stupidly expensive Pinarello up that hill. He looked like he was already struggling!

We spent too long in the feed station at Princetown, and were glad to get going again. Simon shouted "My roads!" to me (he lives in the general area) and set off at speed. We raced down through Devil's Elbow and all too soon were turning right in Dousland, towards Horrabridge. Coming off the moor towards Dousland is a really good descent (I clocked 53mph down there on the day) and I was surprised by the number of riders who simply weren't taking full advantage of that descent, preferring instead to pootle along.

The climb out of Horabridge was OK and soon enough we descended into Tavistock, knowing there was a fair old climb out of the town. We veered off to Chillaton where there's another exhilirating descent into the village. Sadly, we encountered a MASSIVE tractor coming the other way and had to brake and swerve rather sharply to avoid ending up plastered all over the front of it. Not too long after, and a few climbs later, we dropped down into Lydford, where there was another watering station and control point.

Of course Lydford means Lydford Gorge, and that means another climb, but soon enough we were past it, through Brentor and Mary Tavy, riding south bound on the A386. Because we knew this part of the route, we knew what was coming up: Batteridge Hill, followed by Pork Hill, followed by Merrivale. Three big hills in a row. Normally Pork Hill and Merrivale feature in the Devon stage of the Tour of Britain, and with good reason, too.

Simon was worried that he might be on the verge of pulling a muscle, and said he was going to slow right down. That was a good decision, as a pulled muscle would've ended his ride there and then. He waved me on and I set off for Princetown, where I desperately needed to top up my water bottles. Batteridge Hill was OK, Pork Hill was bearable, but Merrivale just seemed to go on and on and on, and I was very glad to get back to Princetown.

Suitably topped up, I set off again and was happy to see that I was overtaking Medio riders by now. It's probably petty, but I distinctly remember thinking that I'm doing almost twice the distance they were, yet at a faster speed. There was another climb of toward the Warren House Inn, followed by climb very soon after.

By this stage, my feet felt like they were on fire, and my rear end was hurting, too. I had to try and find a balance that allowed me to either stand up on the pedals, or take the weight off my feet, while continuing cycling. Near the top of the climb the Yogi cycling club from Plymouth had set up and were dishing super-sized jelly beans out to all riders coming past.

Once over the brow, I was rewarded with a nice descent to Moretonhampstead. Now all along, to me Moretonhampstead respresented the end of the climbs, but that is certainly not the reality. Soon after leaving the town there was a big climb that went on and on and on. Within sight of the top I simply had to stop for a minute or two. This was the only time (other than at feed or water stations, or traffic lights) that I'd stopped. The descent on the other side was bliss, and while long, it felt like it was over in a flash. Annoyingly, I was caught behind two cars, who were caught behind a cyclist that was going really slowly. What a waste of a descent!

The final run back to Newton Abbott was mostly flat, along the Teign valley, though there were a few bumps here and there. I was seriously lagging by this stage, and just wanted the ride over. Before long, I rode through Newton Abbott and turned into the race course grounds with a grin on my face.

I'd done it! From the outset, when I entered the Dartmoor Classic, I had set getting a bronze medal in my age group as my target. On the day, I finished in 7 hours 48 minutes, 14 minutes too slow to get a silver medal, but comfortably fast enough for a bronze. Simon came in not all that long after me, also qualifying for a bronze, which was amazing considering he'd nearly pulled a muscle.
This meant that not only did the both of us complete the 107-mile Grande route, but we both got a medal. Not too shabby for your very first ever sportive!

I ate mostly home-made flapjacks, though I topped up my bottles with some sort of rocket fuel they had at the Princetown feedstation the first time I went past, and I also grabbed a few gels. I used two gels along the final Teign valley stretch as I could feel my energy levels dropping. If anything, I was carrying way too much food.

What was really nice is the support from complete strangers. In places, like the climb out of Brentor, there were people with spray bottles, who'd run alongside and spray riders with water, there were the girls who'd set up their own watering station in the middle of nowhere after Haytor, there were the Yogi's dishing out jelly beans, and the many, many people who cheered any and all riders on from the side of the road, all along the route. Honestly, you were all brilliant and you helped a lot!

See you all again when we do it again next year!