As I snuck under the Metric Century Challenge February deadline on the last day possible, labouring hopelessly at no more than a brisk walking pace up the gentle hill from the seafront to my house after an agonizing 68-miler, it struck me that these are the rides that make the Challenge challenging.
It’s all very well popping out three times a week for casual tons, barely breaking into a sweat until 30 or 40 miles have been covered. We could all do that if we had the time. I certainly did two years ago when I was woefully, blissfully under-employed and fixated on training for a quick Lejog. Back then, rides shorter than 50 miles seemed hardly worth bothering with. The big challenge was finding enough new routes to keep the constant pedaling interesting. In May alone of that glorious year I clocked up 17 100km-plus rides. Seventeen!
But now I’m a stone and a half heavier, with perhaps four hours a week to devote to cycling if I’m lucky, thanks to new work responsibilities and – horror of horrors! – my first ever commute. Every day as my train goes over the Balcombe Viaduct I stare out of the window at the glorious Sussex countryside criss-crossed with the lanes I love so much and wish I was cycling along them, glancing up at the passing train.
Now my weekends are the only time I get to spend with my family. Every hour seems so precious; every moment spent idling so extravagant. All of a sudden I’m time-poor. And when the opportunities do arise, of course I take them like a shot – but there’s also an undercurrent of mild anxiety about how much this one’s going to hurt; how much fresh evidence I’ll gather this time to reinforce the inescapable truth of my sliding fitness.
It will change of course. Something will happen to shift the balance back again one day, sooner or later, and before you know it I’ll be moaning about not having enough work and taking long bike rides for granted again. The fitness will climb again; then I’ll start climbing again too, rather than avoiding the hills as I do now.
But for now I’ll take my comfort where I can. I’ll rejoice in the knowledge that I’ve not yet failed in the Metric Century Challenge, not since that March two years ago when I first discovered it. I’ll take a perverse pride in the pain involved in a 100k ride these days. I’ll do my best to ignore the effortless ease with which club riders overtake me.
And when I’m fit again I’ll remember how tough it feels now. When I pass pink-faced, sweat-drenched mamils labouring up gentle hills I will ruthlessly suppress any part of me that is tempted to feel superior, because I will know that what I’m doing is easy. They – we – are the ones who are really pushing limits.