Saturday morning saw a very early start as ten of Woking CC's finest made their way to Gravesend for the start of the two day, multi-stage Tour of the South East. Spirits were high and the banter was flowing. We’d been looking forward to this event for some time. The training was over and now we had over 180 miles to conquer!
Registration at the Cyclopark was efficient. I quickly signed in, dropped my bag off and was handed a pack containing my frame number, jersey number and helmet chip. A last minute check of the bike and it was finally time to rock and roll.
Stage 1: Gravesend to Guildford (90 miles)
After a quick briefing from Dave our ride leader, our group kicked off with a processional lap around the Cyclopark before heading out from Gravesend. The rain had thankfully held off, but looking to the heavens you could tell it was only a matter of time. With NEG motorcycles "guiding" traffic, a team of domestique cyclists, a trailing support vehicle and the bunch flanked by motorcycle cameramen; it was very much as close to a "pro peloton" experience as you can get in the UK.
For the first couple of hours we were hit with on-and-off showers, testing our descending abilities and kit choices. The new club gilets were a Godsend and Paul, our club secretary, quickly showed me how the pro riders deal with their layers:
By the first feed stop our bunch had split into three smaller groups, with Woking guys on the front of the first two as we approached the first challenge of the day; a timed climb up Kidd’s Hill (it’s not called “The Wall” for nothing). As the miles and climbing started to mount up, the day was taking its toll on many of the riders. To be fair we were hauling along at above the advertised average speed. The Huma energy gels and 9Bar products handed out by the domestiques were very welcome!
Alongside ride leader Dave we were setting a cracking pace, something the Woking boys were building a reputation for! I knew it was only a short hop back to Guildford, although that shot hop included two sharp climbs before a flatter roll into town. By this stage I was spent, merely following wheels in true wheelsucker style! The last 15 miles quickly flew by and before I knew it we were edging closer to the finish.
Chasing the motorcycle cameraman back into Guildford was a real rush (although not particularly condoned by the event crew). The shouts of SLOW from Dave were noted, to an extent, but the euphoria of the impending finish took over. Turning into the home straight, all resplendent in our Woking CC jerseys, the four of us lined up and coasted down to the finish together - first riders home - a great end to a hard and hilly 90 miles!
Stage 2: Guildford to Gravesend (94 miles)
After a quick breakfast in my hotel room I checked out and walked back to the start line. Picking up my bike I noticed it had been washed, but nothing much more than a quick spray down. Luckily I'd pre-empted this and brought a few rags and some chain lube with me to give everything a quick once over.
Setting off from Guildford my legs felt much fresher than I thought they'd be, especially after knocking out 90 hilly miles the day before! I backed this up by clocking Strava PB's on the first three Cat 4 climbs of the day (Staple Lane, Ranmore Common and Box Hill) all within the first 18 miles! This, in retrospect, was not the smartest move as I suffered for my sins later in the day.
The sun was shining, temperature rising and everyone in the mood for happy miles. The next 40 were rolling with no serious climbs so of course the pace crept up. With Woking CC once again on the front and living up to their reputation we drove the bunch forward to the lunch stop! By now fatigue was starting to creep in. I was sure to eat everything in sight. Bring me calories!
Somewhere along the way I lost contact with my club mates in the lead group and found myself off the back, almost riding on my own. I could see them in the distance slipping away. I had a decision to make; chase hard and try to bridge or drop back to the rest of the bunch. I knew if I didn't bridge, that would be it, I wouldn't be crossing the line in a red and black flash of Woking CC jerseys.
So I chased. HARD.
Summoning up every last bit of glycogen stored in my muscles I went for it. Right on the nose of the saddle, head down almost kissing the bars to get as aero as possible, legs screaming all the way. I was now pushing well above my 10-mile TT pace and deep, deep into the red zone. I was closing but they weren't slowing down. I pushed harder. The gap shrank.
Chase that wheel... Catch it and you're home... Don't and you're done... Chase that wheel...
One last giant effort and through blurred vision I could see the wheel of the last rider edging closer. Catching his draft I could finally back off a touch. I'd burnt all my matches, but I'd made it. Tucking back into the group it was time for a few recovery miles following the wheel in front.
Having studied the route card I knew there were two sharp climbs left before rolling back into the Cyclopark. I'd recovered enough to climb them, but it was strictly bottom gear, cursing the landscape style climbing. This was accentuated by the film crew driving alongside me, giving me the thumbs up and filming my anguish from the comfort of their air conditioned vehicle!
Roughly 5 miles from the finish and will all the climbing out of the way, one of the motorcycle outriders pulled alongside our domestique. A heated discussion ensued with the general gist being they weren't going to let us back in as we were too far ahead of schedule! With 90 miles on the Garmin they asked if we could tack on an extra loop to waste some time before heading back. Looking down at my empty bottles (and equally empty legs) I let them know what I thought of that idea! We were rolling back into that Cyclopark no matter what.
The finish was a thing of beauty. Five Woking CC jerseys on the front, rolling onto the race circuit for a furious lap to the finish! We had two other riders on our wheels, one in a Charlotteville jersey no less! Slipping into a tight 2-by-2 formation the Woking CC train charged around the track. A further 1.2 miles on the rivet after two days and 185 miles completely drained the legs! Sprinting the slight uphill drag to the chequered flag we crossed under the finish once again first home in a frenzy of red and black! Job done.
Over two days we had covered 185 miles taking in over 10,000 feet of climbing along the way. The Tour of the South East was a challenge, but a well organised crew and professional touches meant that it lived up to the “pro peloton” experience advertised.
Now, where do I sign up for next year?
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