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Road to Ventoux: Hell in the Chilterns [Jun. 1st, 2009|03:00 pm]
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I spent most of yesterday muttering to myself, "Don't do the Etape". Along with the rest of the Independent's Etape team, I was taking part in the Chiltern 100 sportive, which involves exactly what its name suggests – a 100-mile trek that takes in over 20 climbs in the line of hills that stretches across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.

I’d done two Chiltern 100s before, and it's always a pretty brutal ride. Obviously the climbs are incredibly short compared with say the Alps but they keep on coming and many of them are horribly steep. And the killer element yesterday was the heat. The temperature was in the mid-20s, and the toll it took on people was extreme. This morning I found I had lost half a stone.

When I finally crossed the line after just under eight hours in the saddle, I was almost paralysed with exhaustion. I lay down on the grass outside the school in Great Missenden that was the event HQ and wondered how I’d ever get up. Graham brought me some food but my body was too ravaged for me even to eat.

My Inde confreres had all done it rather quicker than me but they too had suffered. Distress was the order of the day. From all accounts a lot of people were reduced to walking up the steepest climbs, though I never saw anyone doing that myself. I did see someone who had come to a halt at the side of the road, his head slumped over the handlebars, his face etched with pain - the classic pose of the cyclist who has met his nemesis. And he was barely over halfway.

It had all started brightly enough for me. Lewis, Graham, Simon and I were all in a group that set off together, along with another Inde man Ben Brannan, for whom this was a first tilt at 100 miles-plus. I knew I wouldn't be able to stay with the group for long but as it was I managed nearly an hour, to the edge of the Downs around Dunstable, and maybe the effort I expended cost me later on. But the upshot was that I got to the first feed station, after 36 miles, in just over two hours, which was good progress. The sizeable challenges that were the Bison and Ivinghoe Beacon were behind me.

The middle section was where the ride got really serious, though, culminating in the double whammy of Whiteleaf and Wardrobes, two climbs just outside Princes Risborough that are just plain vicious. By now it was late morning and getting hot. Under heavy tree cover, I got a foretaste of what the Ventoux might bring. Soon after that I was on Kingston Blount, another severe test, and then the second feed station was in sight, with 70 miles or so completed. I was now up to the five-hour mark, with 30-plus miles to go, and oh the agony of that final stretch. A long soul-destroying climb at Watlington, a 14 per center up to Bledlow Ridge, with still two more lines of hills to be crossed before the end was in sight.

If I had managed to stay with a group, life wouldn't have been quite so bad. But I never did. For long periods I was all alone, frankly hating it, occasionally overtaking people, more often being overtaken – by people I should have latched on to but never did for long.

The inevitable question is – if the Chiltern 100 is such a struggle, what chance do I have on the Etape? After all, it'll probably be much hotter still. It took Lewis, a great proponent of the power of positive thinking, to put me right.

First, in the context of the Etape, it was just a training ride. Never mind that I was a few minutes slower than last year (everybody’s performance seemed to be down on 2008, when the weather was cool and damp). On the Etape, with its 8,000 entrants, finding a group to stay with shouldn’t be a problem. And while the Ventoux is obviously a shocker, the 150kms to the bottom of it, though hardly flat, doesn't have anything terribly steep in it. And I think it’s the steepness of the Chiltern climbs that really gets to people. The Chiltern 100 was about lessons learnt. Still seven weeks to go. And, as Lewis said, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Meantime hats off to Lewis, Graham and Simon for all clocking around six and a half hours. So the rest of the team's looking good, even if I am not. And Ben did 7.10, a magnificent effort for a first-timer.

I just want to add that as in previous years, this was a really well organised event – upwards of a 1,000 people between them tackling a Gran Fondo and a Medio Fondo – with excellent signage and feed stations, transponders that provided read-outs of your time at the finish, and volunteers who seemed to genuinely share your pain.

Next up the Dragon ride in Wales in a fortnight.