The first hill, someone gets pumped. He knew he was never going to last with this group, there's a “buyer beware” agreement that comes with following these wheels, there will be no quarter given if you're not up to the task.
The pace isn't relentless at first, and it's a 20 mile schlep along some fairly rough roads to get to the first decent hill of the day. We reach the toe and straight away I'm slipping backwards, all I can hear is my heart thumping away in my ears, I look back and there's 3 behind me; I look forward and theres one coming back. We get to the top in a small strung out group, down on the tight pack that made it up together thirty seconds before us. We keep going over the top, it's a long descent and we can make up some time. Back together at the bottom, one peels off and heads for home.
It's another lumpy ride to the Duke's Pass, the Aberfoyle side isn't my favourite climb by any stretch of the imagination, luckily the way that the group is rotating has left me near the front by the time we get to the turn, though we're not even a couple hundred yards up it and most of them come past me. I'm not busting myself here, we've still got 50 miles to do after this climb. I settle in to a slightly uncomfortable but sustainable pace and sit with Dave, he's got tri-bars on a rather nice looking Cannondale, he's training for a rapid LEJOG to take place on the days between Christmas an New Year. Tomorrow he's doing a 150mile ride, he's not bursting himself here and rightly so.
Up and over, again we try to make up time on the descent. Back with the group, smash down the last of my food (I know – I'm underprepared for this ride), a quick rest stop then we're off towards Loch Katrine. Another of our number tells us he's heading home.
A few vintage motorcycles have passed us on the way up the Dukes. They're in the car park at the entrance to Loch Katrine, there's a nice 1970's Z900, and a Dreadnought (I later find out this is THE Dreadnought, there's only one remaining). Off we go through the barrier, it's a private road and there's walkers and leisure cyclists to say hello to. They look at us with slight wonder as we fire past at speeds unattainable on a hub-geared hire bike. The rises in the road cause cracks in our group, someone starts to straggle and one of the group drops back to chum him home; he tells us to go. We're now down to 5.
The kickers round this loch are killer. Every time we get to one, I'm reminded once again that I need to start that fabled diet and lose some pounds; my legs are like a couple of hairy sausages with a pair of Bonts strapped to the ends of them. I'm hungry. There's two of us shooting out of the back at various points. At the end of the loch, at the junction between Stronachlachar and Inversnaid, my legs really start to scream. I plug away and get back up to the rest, they've sat up a bit, I get back on, they no longer soft-pedal. My heart rate remains above 170bpm.
At last some decent descents. It's still lumpy but there are places to hide along here, places to recover, but also places to hurt. One of our number is having mechanical issues, big gears aren't an option and he drifts back. We sit up a bit, he's back on, then he's off again. This carries on as we get back into Aberfoyle, we stop at the Co-op so I can get some fuel. Cashew nuts and a pint of whole milk. On-bike cravings are bloody weird. Down the hatch and off we go, my legs are still feeling rubbish and on the first hill I'm nowhere.
Then I'm back on, there's another hill. I make it up but we're motoring on the flat and hanging onto my clubmate's wheel is like trying to follow a derny. He's having a good day. There's more humps and bumps and now there's two of us struggling. The other three disappear into the distance. We resign ourselves to pedalling back on our own and sit at a less strenuous pace. We see the Dreadnought again, round a corner at Thornhill and they're waiting for us. Bugger.
We're 5 again. Not far back now. Only one rise in the road to negotiate now and it passes without incident. Back on the flats now and we're motoring again, all haning onto my clubmate who's enjoying his good day. My other clubmate with combined leg and gear issues has popped. We won't see him again until the café at the end of the ride. I'm sat second wheel now, we're in the mid/low 20's strung out on the flats like the end of a Belgian Classic race (they'd be rolling along much quicker than us though). I'm doing everything I can to make sure I stay on and make it home. It's all I can do. A couple of times a clubmate comes up and takes a turn. I stay put. It goes through my mind that this is probably as close as I'll get to the feeling of the end of a Classic, when you see riders strung out in a line. We sit there as spectators cheering on our favorite riders, yelling at the screen for them to make their move when no move can be made. My legs aren't doing anything other than keeping me in touch, but they're doing their job.
I've got stuff to do this afternoon. There's a half-finished path in my garden waiting for me. This is the last of the good weather and instead of heading towards the café, I shout my farewells and head home. My speed starts to drop and by the time I get to the hill up to our house, I'm out of the saddle to ease the ache in my back coming from the top of my glutes. It's a reminder that I need to start stretching again – I never got this when I was taking care of myself. Back home and I take every item of clothing off and put it straight into the washing machine. Standing in the kitchen wearing bib shorts peeled to the waist whilst draining chocolate milk from the end of a carton isn't a proud moment; I'm not looking forward to laying paving slabs this afternoon. I feel slightly broken. Next week I'll be back to break myself all over again.
Thanks to Andrew Wilson, my "derny" clubmate, for the pics.