Sometimes, life on the bike is easy. The pedals turn seemingly of their own volition, requiring only the slightest encouragement from the rider. The miles pass in a dream. Hills rise up ahead only to be conquered.
Such days are infrequent and never occur in January. More particularly, they do not occur on the first mission on the bike after five days of interval sessions on the turbo trainer, a form of purgatory enforced by the storm conditions that have swept the country. Today, the miles are hard, and pass slowly.
My ride begins shortly after 6am: an up-and-at-‘em stance that tops my copious list of new year’s resolutions. The tops of my bars glow reassuringly, lit by the glow of the Garmin 510 and the illuminated power switch of Hope’s R1 LED light. For once, it isn’t raining, and the temperature is registered on the Garmin’s screen at nearly five degrees.
These good omens evaporate at the first hill. My heart rate moves quickly beyond 150bpm and I’m breathing more heavily than usual on this well-worn route out of town. Worse, however, is the feeling in the legs. The effects of yesterday’s turbo intervals command centre stage. Additionally, I’m too hot, having rolled out, unnecessarily as it transpires, in a race cape. I pull to the side of the road, remove it, and am made to pay for my schoolboy error for the next mile-and-a-half or so as the sweat chills and my body adjusts to protection from a Roubaix-lined jersey and merino base.
I pedal onwards. The legs still feel heavy. I turn onto the first proper climb, a narrow, single lane B-road overhung by a canopy of trees, and switch the RI LED from flashing to its maximum, ‘steady’ output. Its glow turns a non-descript highway into a magical corridor, but there is no glorious surprise waiting at the end, only pain as the gradient ratchets into double digits. At 6.20am, I have the road to myself, and the sound of my breathing is clearly audible. Just forty-five miles to go.
Deeper into the countryside now. This is obviously my first appearance in the daily routines of villagers leaving for work. They are cautious, and so am I. The Hope earns it corn in such scenarios, casting a warning beam far into the distance and the few cars I encounter have all slowed notably by the time we pass.
At 7am (7.04am to be precise), the route leads east for the first time, and for the first time the faintest lightening of the inky sky becomes apparent. A further 40 minutes will pass before daylight holds sway, but even this earliest sign is encouraging. Farmers are far into their day now, and while it would unfair to describe the occasional passing tractor as ‘traffic’, I’d feel safer encountering them in brilliant sunshine than the murky depths of a pre-dawn Wednesday in January.
I’m back on Schwalbe’s Durano S for the first time in a while after an extended hiatus on the tubeless incarnation of the German brand’s Ultremo ZX flagship. The Durano S isn’t flattered by the comparison, and I try to block out residual memories of its senior sibling’s performance and focus entirely on what is going on beneath my wheels. I have them at 10psi more than the tubeless, already stacking the ‘comfort’ odds in favour of the ZX, before the additional softness of the compound is taken into account.
The transition from pre-dawn murk to daylight is completed suddenly, in a window of about 10 minutes between 7.30am and 7.40am. The sky, no longer black but grey, is crossed by a beautiful pink stripe, as if left by the swipe of some giant paintbrush. This does not augur well for my ride (“Red sky in the morning/Shepherd’s warning”) but it’s impossible to resent such beauty. The race cape is stowed safely, and can be deployed within seconds should the need arise.
The greater threat from water comes from the road, rather than the sky. I reach the first flooded road after about 25 miles, and tip-toe around the extreme edge of a giant pool of standing water, incurring the displeasure of a van driver behind, to whose journey I have selfishly added 20 seconds in my bid to remain dry. It will be the first of a series of flooded highways, the last of which, on my exit route from a market town, forces me around the ‘road closed’ signs, and onto the deserted pavement.
The pain in my legs has slowly increased. I nibble again at the CNP energy bar (lemon meringue flavour – nice) in the fear that fatigue will turn to the dreaded bonk. Whether its effect is real or imagined, I find something extra and drive onwards, watching the cadence on the Garmin and striving to remain at the magical 90rpm.
As the final 10 miles unfurl, I’m made dimly aware through the haze of suffering of a large golden ball in the sky. A pale sun has risen, turning the sky blue around it, perhaps for the first time in a week. Its effect further strengthens my resolve and I grind my way through a final, climb-laden eight miles to home. Fifty hard miles have passed beneath my wheels before I’m showered and changed, and it’s not yet 10am. My ‘ride early’ resolution may yet pay dividends.