David flies up Toys Hill
It’s 9.10am. A small group of cyclists make final preparations, take one last swig of water from full water bottles, zip up their jackets and adjust their hats or helmets, before heading into the lanes of Kent, currently being battered with strong winds, for the 2011 edition of the Old Portlians Reliability Trial.
Reliability trials date back to the dawn of the bicycle, and have been a staple of the traditional club cyclist as early-season form shapers ever since. They’re run by local cycling clubs not to make a profit, but to offer cyclists a chance to get some ‘miles in the legs’ before the time trial and road race season approaches. Somewhat refreshing compared to the many sportives that have popped up over the years and run by faceless organisations with the sole intention of making a quick buck while road cycling is enjoying a boom.
No, reliability trials are about as basic and back to roots as you can get. This is evidenced by the people who turn up to a dusty old village hall early Sunday morning: dyed in the wool roadies replace the usual sportive riders, those flash cyclists on the latest and lightest carbon fibre bicycle with all the accessories. Inside the hall, piping hot tea is being served and people are willingly handing over a fiver in exchange for a simple photocopied route card: there’s no route signage in a reliability trial, navigational skills are a requirement, That’s part of their beautiful simplicity, just a set of turn-by-turn directions and a chap in the car park setting cyclists off in small groups.
I’ve ridden the Old Ports reliability trial for several years now, and it rates as one of my highlights of the season. It’s a classic route, this one, taking in some of the nicest lanes around Kent with some iconic climbs; the ascent of the Ashdown Forest one of the most torturing on offer and the southern ascent of Toy’s Hill the final leg-breaking ball-busting lung-wrenching sting in the tail that always claims many victims.
It’s a tough route, that much is true, made tougher last Sunday on account of the conditions – a strong wind and chill temperature – and compared to last year a considerably smaller turnout. Which means less people to share the workload of setting a fast pace and more time spent with your nose in the wind. Somehow I expected to post a dismal time but oddly, despite wintering badly with very few miles I posted a time almost identical, to within a couple of minutes, of last year’s.
I urge every road cyclist to look up a reliability trial in their local area and get involved. They’re run by cyclists for cyclists and any money raised goes into the club pot for organising and investing in club events throughout the season, so you know your money is going directly back into the sport, not some organisation’s back pocket.
And, as well as doing something generous for the sport of cycling, they’re also a great early indicator of form. As I found out, I’m not in as bad shape as I thought I was, but still know there’s plenty of work to do before the summer comes around.