There’s not many sports where you can play out with the best in the world. You can’t just have a kickabout by the garages with Lionel Messi, a quick nine with Rory McIlroy is unlikely, and you most probably can’t burn it up the by-pass with Fernando Alonso. Want to go for a bike ride with a Tour De France winner and Olympic medalist? No problem, come for a Ride With Brad.
The Ride With Brad Sportive is a 160km or 100km ride through the Lancashire countryside using the roads and climbs the mutton-chopped Eccleston local regularly trains on. The full fat route has over 3122 metres of climbing squeezed into it, taking in hills that have featured in the Tour of Lancashire, the Tour of Britain and the National Road Race Championships. Leg testers Barley Fell, Waddington Fell, Nick o’ Pendle, the Trough of Bowland, and Longridge Fell form the knobbly back bone of the ride with plenty of smaller but no less significant climbs in between to crumble knees. The 100km route only misses out one of the major climbs but still has enough Up in it to hurt.
The Bradley Wiggins name isn’t just tagged onto the event, leeching off his yellow jersey and cupboard of gold medals to get punters in, although numbers are significantly more bulging than last year when the sportive was just the Pendle Predator. It’s 7am on a grey Sunday morning in glamourous Barnoldswick and Bradley’s here to start the event, and he doesn’t merely turn up as some token gesture either to sign a few autographs, kiss a baby and wave us off before getting back in the car. He rides the whole 160km route, being cheerful to everyone while they suck his wheel, and then he’ll hang around at the finish for a bit of a chat, raffle off some prizes and sign endless autographs and have his picture taken in the slashing rain.
The Ride With Brad is the launch-pad for the Bradley Wiggins Foundation, which at this fledgling moment has the well intentioned, if a little vague, aims to promote sport participation and encourage people to exercise on a regular basis, to support keen and talented athletes from all sports and take their potential to the next level and finally to provide equipment and facilities to facilitate this through community groups, clubs and schools. It’s early days though, the Foundation and the Ride With Brad was only conceived last December, and Brad has obviously been a bit busy training since then.
The start is the usual sportive bun-fight of over-excitement, special awareness issues, middle-lane riding and erratic manoeuvres, so thankfully we’re not long out of Barnoldswick before we’re directed down the A59 for a bit which strings things out and gives a chance to catch a reliable wheel before turning right at Gisburn onto the small country roads. The day and legs are warming up nicely with the sun peeping round the side of Pendle Hill as we flow swiftly along the undulating Ribble Valley lanes until the route turns north and onto Waddington Fell - the first proper climb of the day and the first of three King Of The Mountain sections.
As well as the total ride time being logged, (but it’s not a race, right?) there are three KOM challenges on the days big hills; Waddington Fell, the Trough of Bowland and Nick O’Pendle just to spice things up. This first climb is just over 4km long and pretty steady apart from a sharp pitch right at the top that has sportivants strung out in a puffing line all the way up the Fell, encouraged by a decidedly un-British spattering of spectators. Over the entire day normal people are along the side of the road, banners up, flags waving, to cheer on the riders, it’s amazing and most Continental, instead of trying to drive riders off the road they’re actively encouraging them on. Weird. The Wiggo Effect is strong, every time they see a Sky jersey they think it’s Brad and cheer a little louder, it’s usually not Brad.
Over the timing mat at the summit and it’s a fast and serpentine descent, apart from the sneaky right at the very bottom that catches out more than one and into Slaidburn for the first feed station of the day. It’s a “Splash and Dash” affair with just gels, energy drink and water, and on we go. There are four refreshment stops on the 160km route, two are gel and juice only with the other pair providing energy bars as well, augmented by cafes and stalls selling hot drinks and cake. As well as a wealth of sustenance along the way riders are further assisted by a fleet of support vehicles and mobile mechanics, and the marshalling at each and every junction is exceptional.
Out of Slaidburn we’re instantly back up onto the moors again with Gisburn Forest looming to our right and climbing, again. The roads round here are unbelievably quiet, crowded by the Lakes on one side and the Yorkshire Dales to the other it’s a bit of England secretly wedged between two tourist-sticky honeypots meaning all the traffic is elsewhere, well, apart from a couple of thousand cyclists stretched along another road rolled out across the hill. Would I come back and ride and train on these roads on my own on any other day, just like Brad’s done, even a grey cold drizzly one when no-one knew who he was? Yes. Emphatically. But today there’s always someone to pass, or follow, or carrot to chase, swap a brief comment with or even chat for a bit. And brush past Tour De France winners. As I’m dropping into the second food stop at Wray I graze past yet another rider in a Sky jersey just leaving, but the jersey isn’t stretched beyond its design parameters and they’re wearing yellow Oakleys. Blimey, it’s Brad!
“All the food’s gone” he quips as we pass each other and everyone gathered around the Gatorade cooler is buzzing about their brief encounter with Brad. The whole day is sprinkled with riders conversations about their moment with the man and rather than see it as a chore Mr Wiggins genuinely seemed to be happy just riding his bike with other people. Wonderful.
Exactly half way round the long route the Ride With Brad, or Ride Past Brad if you’re me, turns left and straight into the climb of Appletree Fell, and into a tacky headwind, oof. People are suffering already, gears are ground and cramp is being endured, which is not ideal at this mid stage of the day. Once at the gentle summit it’s a quick cleated clatter to the top of Jubilee Tower to look at the 360º view, the peaks of the Lakes to the North and the sea to the West before the earned descent that looks like it might be a giggle; there have been a lot of motorcyclists on this road, which is always a good sign for pedal cyclists, it’s going to be twisty and fun. If fun means climbing twisty roads as well because it doesn’t take too long to reach the base of the Trough Of Bowland, the second King Of The Mountains climb of the day. A narrow road that edges right onto the fells it’s not a hard or long or steep climb by any means, but its remoteness, weaving through a crease in the hills makes it feel quite special, and quietly beautiful. The start of the rain that’s been bothering all the previous day’s forecasts only adds to the atmosphere, as does everyone suddenly going a bit quiet.
Over the other side at the bottom of the valley a lay-by burger-van under the trees must have thought all their Christmases had come at once as a constant parade of hungry MAMILs are pawing desperately at it. Resisting the wafts of bacon sarnies and warming possibilities of a cup of sweet tea I crack on into the rain, up and down, up and down into the drizzle, warm rain that’s actually not so bad, until it suddenly gets so bad it forces most to stop for waterproofs. At Chipping, site of the last proper feed stop, cyclists are taking the opportunity to hide in from the wet at tea-rooms, racked with bikes outside, and inside the village hall a pair of girls are selling cakes and taking pity on haggard looking sportivists that don’t quite have enough money by taking just what small change they have.
A good 110 kilometres in riders hit the wall up Jeffrey Hill to breach Longridge Fell, a climb that goes straight up, no messing, quite rudely before leveling off to the right to finally turn sharply up to the left to summit the hill. The steep initial stages have too many people walking whilst more gutsy riders slowly tick them off as they winch or gurn past with quiet but painful satisfaction, especially the cheerful smiling girls that are still pedaling. Dropping off the top we pass through Whalley where I’m bed-and-breakfasted for the weekend and it takes some effort to keep going rather than nip right and wolf down a Sunday Dinner, especially as it’s a pub with a fine pint. Keep going, not far now. I think.
The next proper hill is the Nick O’Pendle and the King Of The Mountains sign at the bottom is enough to encourage a low groan from those tired around me, even if it is only a not too harsh 2.5kms long, and with only about 25km to go it should be the last big effort of the day, and amongst riders that haven’t studied the route profile there is a general sense of relief and the feeling that’s it’s going to be a nice gentle trundle home along the valley floor now. But after the steep descent of the Nick O’Pendle, which is the more traditional and harder side to attack the hill riders swoop joyously through Sabden and whoops suddenly turn to grunts and swearing as the road heads straight back up again, on a hill with three black arrows on the map, which comes as a bit of a painful surprise to most. The final kilometres are a succession of half a dozen sharp spikes to completely drain the legs and the spirit, and judging by the muttering Bradley probably loses a few fans about now, I don’t think I’ve seen so many people walking on a sportive. The Ride With Brad was brilliantly brutally hard, but if you want to ride like Brad, then it has to be.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he’s not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he’s not doing either of those he’s pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he’s agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours doesn’t. He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.