Thursday, 18 October 2012

Southdowns Challenge - A Sportive virgins perspective

Sunday 16th September 2012, was the day on which the Pixie achieved another milestone on the journey to completing l'etape (A quick overview of what l'etape is can be found here) It was the day on which the Pixie competed in his first competitive cycling event, the "Southdowns Challenge"

The Southdowns Challenge is a type of event known as a cyclo sportive and the following is an extract from Phil Sinclair's guest blog post which was published on here last month provides a description of what a sportive is ;

"The issue of sportives, for some is sensitive. Especially in the UK where older riders do not see them as races. More as touring rides, (randonées) as they are unlicensed and not normally on closed roads. There also exists Audax rides for which the challenge is long or ultra-long distances. Recently there has been a huge upsurge in the popularity of sportives.

Sportives are very definitely races, with a timed start and a timed finish. With winners in different categories and non financial prizes. Depending on the country, and laws you may need a licence (or day licence bought at registration), a medical certificate and third party and personal insurance. Normally sportives offer up to three routes of different lengths and difficulties."
The Southdowns Challenge offered two different courses of 50 miles and 80 miles and as this was to be the Pixies first competitive cycling event I felt that it would be prudent to choose the lesser distance as my chosen race distance.
Prior to arriving at the start of the event I had exchanged e mails with the organisers who reassured me that, "yes the route would be well sign posted, no, I would not need a sat nav to get around the course, and it would actually be difficult to get lost" this was obviously the answer I was looking for and it certainly played a major part in me not withdrawing my entry for the event (at this point I had run out of reasons to not compete and accepted my fate of probably being the only Sportive "newbie" competing in the event)
Now that I had run out of excuses, I got down to the serious matter of preparing for the event. I'd read any number of internet articles on competing in Sportives. I've got more than a couple of books on the subject, which were consulted and re-consulted, checklists were written, the bike was checked and checked again. My kit bag was packed, unpacked, packed and packed again while I tried to decide what kit I would need? In the end I think I just took everything cycling related I own (better safe than sorry)
On the day of the event I got my route planning for the journey down to the start hopelessly wrong and arrived at the start a full hour before the organisers got there, of course this gave me more time to check everything again, decide what which of my now considerable cycling wardrobe I was going to wear and check the bike again.......
"Signing on" for the event was outrageously simple, no complicated forms to fill in, just turn up, confirm my previously allocated race number together with my name and before I knew it I had my very first competitive cycling race number in my hands.

With race number fixed to my handlebars, I lined up with at the start with all of the other competitors and awaited my turn to set off, was I nervous? Oh yes! At one point my resting heart rate was 101 beats per minute which is about double what it normally is.
When my turn to set off came, I started with a group of around twenty other riders, who thankfully all looked like old hands who I figured I could follow for the first mile or so until they "dropped" me and then I would ride at my own pace for the rest of the ride and hope that I didn't finish with to slow a time.
About three or four miles in, I found that to my surprise I had passed a couple of other riders and was catching up with another group of riders who had either started in the group before mine or had been at the front of my group at the start. When I caught up with this group, one of the riders very kindly asked me if I wanted to join them for a while and ride part or all of the course with them? As a "sportive newbie" this was an offer I wasn't going to turn down, I mean it would be really difficult to get lost with this bunch who clearly knew the ropes.
Over the next couple of miles I was introduced to the rest of the group (Doug Lucktaylor, Steve Dickson, Miles Van der Lugt and Craig Pidcock) and what a great bunch of lads I'd found to ride with, friendly and willing to teach the newbie some of the expected form when riding in a group.
As somebody who had spent the entire summer riding on my own, I was really surprised at how much less energy is used when riding in a group of riders who all take in turns to ride on the front of the group and also how much concentration is required when the rider in front of you is only six inches in front of your front wheel.

The rest of day was a real learning experience and I learnt so much about riding in a group that I would never have picked up had I gone around on my own, so Doug, Steve, Miles, and Craig thank you for letting me ride with you, answering all of my questions and for being so willing to let a stranger ride with you.
Steve competing in a previous Southdown Challenge
The course itself was a really good blend of challenging hills, long inclines, fast descents and long flat sections which meant that all of the different riding styles and techniques that I had been practising since June were called into use. I was particularly grateful to the coaching I had received from Simon at Total Cycling Performance in respect of riding within specific heart rate zones and not riding beyond my lactic threshold on hills as without this coaching I'm sure I would have run out of steam on the longer, more challenging hills. I was quite pleased with my progress in respect of being able to get up big hills without running out of steam when I realised that I was actually passing other riders on hills and was able to have conversations with them as well! #chuffedwithmyprogress 
One of my memories of this event will be Steve proclaiming that "this is the last big hill on the course" as we were climbing Ditcham school climb. The profile image of the entire route taken from my Strava record of the day shows that this was clearly not the case. Somebody once said to me "never trust the locals" that might have been true in respect of Steve's somewhat hopeful statement!
The rest of the ride went really quickly and illustrated to me just how much harder it is to ride on your own than it is when you have the company of other cyclists to distract you from focusing on how long you have been in the saddle and how far you have got left to ride. One of the things I learnt about myself on this ride, was that I think I quite like going up hills, and the steeper they are, the better I like it - weird, I know. It might be something to do with overcoming the challenge or knowing I am pushing myself to the limit or something like that. Alternatively, it might be that I am starting to become a cyclist and accepting that to go down a hill you have to go up a hill.    
Something that Doug and I were discussing towards the end of the ride was the fact that Tandems punch a really big hole in the air, as they move and if you are following one it really does shield you from any headwind that might be present. So the Pixies advice is this, if you are on a Sportive and find yourself behind a tandem, take the opportunity to rest for a few moments before pulling out into the brick wall of wind that you will run into as you try to pass it. 
So how did I do on my first Sportive? Well with the help of the Doug, Steve, Miles and Craig I manged to get around the 50 mile course in a time of 3 hours and 17 minutes which meant I achieved a "silver" standard award.

Was I pleased with this result? Oh yes, just a bit!
I'd gone into this event not knowing what to expect, hopeful that I wouldn't embarrass myself by not finishing or finishing with a really slow time. I had been completely unsure of how a newbie would be received by the seasoned sportive veterans and had been unsure of whether riding in a group would be something I would enjoy? 
The organisation on the day meant that I didn't have have anything worry about in respect of the logistics of competing in the event and I would definitely recommend the Southdowns Challenge as a first event for a Sportive newbie or seasoned competitor alike. The other competitors couldn't have been more welcoming or friendly and if you are reading this and thinking about entering your first Sportive, don't worry about whether you will find somebody to talk to or ride with, you will and everybody will be really friendly. What about riding in a group? Well the Pixie, loves it and is now taking every opportunity to ride with other people. If you haven't tried riding in a group, try it, you'll probably love it and won't look back.

I could have written a lot more about this event as it really was a milestone for me in my preparation for next years big European adventure, however I suspect you will have read enough about this event by now, so I'll resist the temptation to write more :)

Once again thanks to the great people I met and rode with on the day (lets do it again sometime) and thanks to the organisers for putting on a very slick and enjoyable event.

I will be riding this event again next year and I will be riding with the intention of achieving a gold standard, so if you fancy joining me, feel free to get in touch.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read the Pixies ramblings and I hope you can find the time to visit my blog again in the future.

Dha weles diwettha


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