For me the defining image of last week was of Tony Martin during Friday's TT stage from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence. Over an undulating 27km the powerfully built German HTC Highroad rider flew, head down, mouth jammed wide open whilst drooling like a rocket propelled guppy fish. And how he flew. Perhaps the saliva detracted from the beauty of the feat, but standing with the podium girls post-race if it hadn't in fact embellished the glory of the performance this aesthetic detail was clearly quickly forgotten.
Needless to say, this image of the locamotive Martin impressed itself upon me, renewing my wonder at the feats the human body can achieve when properly trained, fuelled and piloted, and was very much in my mind as the clock wound down to my first big sportive event on the Sunday. The relative comfort of the Hilly 50 of the previous week and the sweat drenched micro intervals on the turbo in-between had given me a degree of hope that I would find myself well prepared for The Spring Onion with it's 70 miles and hilly terrain, though I was still a bit nervous and not exactly foolish enough to expect I'd wake up blessed with unexpected powers of strength and endurance.
My goal had been to finish without dismounting for a climb (especially the 19% gradients of the infamous White Down Lane) and to arrive at under 5 hours. Not exactly Tony Martin style but still... we all have to start somewhere. The stresses of the week, and my new job that's been keeping me very busy were immediately forgotten after an early start and train confusion, arriving rather later than desired but in time to see 700-odd riders and about half a billion pounds of carbon bicycle amassed in a line waiting to start under a ominously cloudy and dark sky.
I was one of the last out, rider no. and timing chip secreted on my bike, and rather disappointingly quickly found myself on my own as the few riders that started with me quickly disappeared into the distance leaving me to the forlorn and sporadic bleatings of my gps as I tried to whip my legs to a higher tempo and a modest 15mph average that would see me well into my 5 hour target. I'd expected there to be the same level of riders to gee me along as the week before, but then, I'd started about an hour and a half after the first groups went out so in retrospect it was a foolish assumption even despite the inordinate amount of forlorn punctured riders I passed, head down and grinding away resolutely.
Quickly I began to feel underprepared though as the climbs featured in the first 20 miles put my heart rate right up over the desired level and refused to recede despite my own best guppy impressions to scoop oxyxgen into my system. Trying to moderate it through breathing really had no effect.... nerves? Focusing on tempo and getting a good rythym. Nope. In the end I hid the offensive data from view and had to challege its benefit given the circumstances, instead soldiering on in trying to enjoy the ride as much as I could whilst occasionally passing or being passed by small groups. For some sections I felt good, and able to really put a sustainable, positive level of effort in that saw me reeling in distant riders and pass people on the climbs. I watered and fed myself as I read I should, and consumed a fair amount of banana in addition to the cake at the misleadingly placed feed-stop that was definitely not half way.
For large periods though I felt pretty uncomfortable and lamentably off-pace. It was a battle through cold rain and muddy roads for the first half, then unwilling legs and cramping neck and back for the second. I wasn't passed on the hills by the few groups of riders I encountered en route, and would say that I was quicker up them than a lot of folk, but on the flat the same people I'd passed would whip past again chainganging it and I couldn't even hold their wheels to draft them. One uncouth mamil even blessed me with an ill-directed glob of his own spittle over his right shoulder. Accidentally I hope, though with some folk's road discipline I could never be sure if it wasn't purposely delinquent or just reckless.
I would later discover that my previously beloved gps would betray me by freezing for a section of the route and giving me the wrong time elapsed... meaning that the satisfaction I felt in passing the line in 4hrs 44mins and inside my time target would be replaced by an actual 5.07 and a vague sensation of resentment. Even if I was placed 345 and roughly half-way up the field overall, it certainly hadn't felt a success. Climbing the White Down after 50k is very different from climbing it after 100, and the memory of those leaden legs and the way my heart sunk at the prospect of climbs I thought I'd mastered the previous week is more prominent. I need to do much more work on my base fitness and get the damn heart rate down.
So... Not a total disaster but quite a humbling episode really where I have to confront my lack of fitness over longer distances and poor pace. Looking towards the next major mile-stones on my route to the foot of the Alpe in the form of the Hell of the North in April and Etape Caledonia in May, I must accept that the only comparable thing between me and Herr Martin for the moment is the spittle!