And so it began. The day dawned grey and gloomy, the temperature hovering at about 5 degrees, with little wind blowing. Following a hot coffee and some friendly banter in the old dusty village hall in Halstead, and having each handed over five pounds to the organisers, a group of distinguishable riders and some notable top-level racers rolled out shortly after 9am for the Old Portlians CC Reliability Trial.
Reliability trials are a traditional fixture of early season road cycling, and stretch right back into to the early years of the last century. Local clubs organise their own events using well favoured routes on quiet (mostly) country lanes and these, usually with a choice of two distances, are one of the building blocks for a typical cycle season.
The key to these events is the requirement to be self-sufficient, for there are no modern fangled concepts such as mechanical assistance or food-laden checkpoints. This need for self-sufficiency extends to navigation too, for you’ll not find any arrows indicating the route. Instead, a route card is provided with turn-by-turn directions. You’ll find no timing chips either, no results to be posted following the event. You do get a certificate afterwards, however, if you successfully complete the distance.
They owe more in common to Audax events really. Despite the ever increasing popularity of sportives, reliability trials are still faithfully run across the country in much the same way as they have been since they first began. And I’m glad they’ve retained this approach and that not felt the urge to rebrand them as sportives, as seems to be a worrying trend.
There’s a unique attraction to reliability trials. From stepping into the dusty (and funny smelling) village hall, to seeing the people who have turned out, you feel a real connection to the historical roots of road cycling. Aside from some of the bikes leaning against the wall, you could easily envisage you were in 1963.
So, Sunday morning, the rest of the village is asleep while in the village hall it’s a hive of activity as 100 riders sign up. There’s roughly a 70-30 split between those opting for the longer 100km route and the rest happy to do the 68k option. Groups set of at short intervals, to avoid too large pelotons bunching in the lanes.
The group I find myself in numbers perhaps 20-25 riders, but within the first 20 miles this number is quickly whittled down. A brisk pace being is being set at the front, and following a quick series of short and steep hills, the riders lacking in training miles are quickly exposed.
I’ve never seen a group of riders whittled down quite so quickly. On each and every hill people were succumbing to the relentless pace, one by one being shelled out the back, until, by the time we hit the feared ascent to the Ashdown Forest, our group was a mere four or five riders. This is a torturer of a climb; starting off steep it then vaguely levels off, but continues to ramp up uncomfortably. The top is never in sight until you emerge from the cover of trees to the bleak but spectacular views afforded from the summit.
A brief respite here from the hard pedalling as we get our cards stamped, a quick pee stop and a chance to down some food, and we’re off again. Our group has now swollen in size a little, no bad thing as that means more riders to share the work as we head north into a light but chilly breeze. The pace so far has been relentless, the elastic being severely stretched on a number of occasions, and the upper regions of one’s heart rate range explored thoroughly. “Frisky”, was how one rider succinctly summed it up. I couldn’t agree more.
It’s mostly plain sailing back to the finish, but the sting in the tail awaits us. All good routes have a sting in the tail, and on this ride it’s in the shape and form of Toy’s Hill. Not a nice climb at any time of the year, but it’s especially apparent in early February. The road leading into the climb is initially mellow, but gradually starts ramping up in quick succession, and before you know it you’re in your lowest cog and grinding up a virtual wall of a road.
This proves to be the final and decisive downsizing of the group, and I succumb to the early pace and feel my legs buckle beneath me. It’s all I can do to keep my fellow riders in sight, but nevertheless have to dig deep for any remaining strength. It’s the penultimate climb and its everyman for himself, with no regrouping now that the finish is so nearly in sight. A blast through Brasted along the A25 and a dash up the final climb of the day, Polhill, and it’s done.
And then I fall through the village hall doors to get my card stamped, receive my certificate and grab a bacon roll and some cake and collapse on a chair. Stories of the days ride are recounted, highs and lows shared, hand shakes all round for the shared ride experience and a nod of approval to the strongest riders of the day.
More than simply a reliability trial, this has been a “gentleman’s race”. And a lot of fun it was, too.
All photos © Phil Pearson.