On Sunday 11th August 2013 at around 7.30am, I arrived to the very optimistically named Victory Park in the town of Barnoldswick on Lancashire’s eastern borders. The last few brave souls taking on the 160km ride were just setting off and there were hundreds of others milling around who were, like me, about to start the 100km route of the Ride with Brad Sportive.
Though a strong wind and decidedly threatening clouds overhead didn’t instil much optimism for the hours ahead, the simple registration and friendly volunteers meant the queue for this event’s popular middle distance was soon dealt with. We were busy with our final preparations of coffee drinking, portaloo visiting and making the all-important layering decisions while the enthusiastic guy on the PA informed the field that Sir Brad and Team Wiggle-Honda’s Olympic champions would also be riding the 100km route.
Rolling along to the start line, we were set off in clusters of around 40 riders every few minutes. As well as prompting small talk with the group next door, this steady conveyor belt meant that you shuffled past the hospitality tent where Brad and the Wiggle-Honda girls were finishing their various media responsibilities. Sat just a few metres away in white plastic garden chairs amidst the hive of activity, their presence was a reminder firstly of why this fantastic event has continued into its second year, but also of the increased interest in cycling sparked off, in part, by the 2012 Wiggo effect.
When it came to our turn, we rolled over the timing mats and followed the winding route out of the park onto quiet roads. Knowing that there were now ninety-something kilometres to go, I tried to focus on keeping things steady even though the undulating and temporarily dry roads tempted pushing on. There were one or two short, punchy climbs to stretch the legs and warm up a little, but the first 20km or so passed with the group stretching out and each rider finding their own rhythm.
Just as I’d settled into the event and was beginning to think of the impending climb up Waddington Fell (which was now looming in the distance as the road began to swing north), the heavens opened. Spotting a lay-by, I decided to stop and dig out my jacket as the rain fell from clouds that looked as though they didn’t want to give up too easily.
Pulling my jacket on, I heard a whooshing sound approaching and turned around to see Brad and the Team Wiggle-Honda girls in a group of about a dozen pop out of the trees of Bowland forest and zip past. As they sped off into the distance I had a bit of a chuckle to myself that my actual ‘Ride with Brad’ experience had involved me being stationary, in a lay-by, getting soaked, but then I quickly remembered the ninety-something kilometres still to go so pushed on – after trying to capture the moment for prosperity.
Not long down the road and in the village of Waddington, waving arms clad in hi-vis directed us right to follow the 100/160km route (rather than the 50km to the left) and soon the road started pitching up. This was the beginning of a very long but pretty steady climb up to Waddington Fell.
The climb itself was a relatively friendly gradient and stretched over just a couple of kilometres; everyone was soon sorted into single file to find their preferred level of suffering and beat it out until reaching the top. Over the last kilometre the road stepped up a few times offering chances to catch your breath before digging in again, but also giving the appearance of a false summit. Over the top however was a pretty spectacular view paired with a pretty spectacular descent.
In the starting queue an hour before I had paid close attention to one of the groups behind me as they were all local to the area and dished out advice on various parts of the route. Their advice for the descent from Waddington? Mind the sheep – and especially the young ones. While trying to enjoy my hard-earned freewheel, I kept a good eye out for any woolly roadblocks that might meander onto the tarmac but luckily didn’t have to take any evasive action.
Apart from a further series of sudden downpours, the next few 20km were really enjoyable and provided some great views across the valley. The rolling terrain also made it easier to join up into groups again, where the proximity of the first feed station became a popular topic of conversation.
After one or two short and energy-sapping climbs, we followed the signs down to the feed station – just as Laura Trott and Dani King were hopping back on their bikes to carry on. Under each of the marquees were all you needed: lunchbox-sized sandwiches, flapjacks, millionaire’s shortbread, water, a few offerings from High5 and a Halfords tent for those who had noticed niggles over the last 40km. There was also a good complement of portaloos for those in need of a comfort stop.
Speaking to the guy I’d parked my bike next to was a bit of an eye-opener as he explained what was still to come. He lived locally and therefore had some pretty key advice in how not to pop over the remaining 60km – then added that the last two miles would be the only flat bit from here! Setting off again, I made lots of mental notes to take it easy and dip into my personal supply of SiS nutrition and home-made flapjacks to avoid the terrible bonk.
Heading on through Chipping, the route wound its way to Longridge and we were quickly at the bottom of Jeffrey Hill. This climb totals about a mile in length, but sort of hits you in the face with a straight up 20% section at the bottom. There were definitely more people pushing their bikes here than riding, but either method of climbing helped to get your legs moving after the recent feed station stop for the rest of the climb which averaged around 12% for the remaining 2/3 mile.
After an incredibly fun descent from Jeffrey, the next 15km or so were fairly undulating and I ended up chatting to a guy for 20 minutes or so who lived very locally (we almost rode past his house). As he sped away on a descent, I realised just how much distance we’d covered, mostly talking about Beacon Bikes (http://www.beaconfell.com/), a new bike brand he’d co-founded. This sort of encounter remains one of my favourite things about sportives.
At 65km the next feed station appeared and while many rode on, I decided to stop off for a quick re-fuel. Here there was the addition of tea and coffee to the selection offered at feed station number one, along with the Halfords and High5 stands again and a good smattering of portaloos.
Turning left out of St Augustine’s School’s front gates, the gradient increased and we began climbing up the valley through the villages of Whalley, Wiswell and Pendleton. There had been much talk of the Nick O’Pendle throughout the day, reinforced by encouraging messages of “Good luck on that hill” and “Girl Power!” from the locals I passed as the climb started. What had initially been a bit of a worry however, turned out to be probably my favourite climb of the day.
It was a fantastic bit of road to settle into, with pretty awesome views north across the valley we’d been circumnavigating for almost all of the route so far (plus the sun was out). We’d also arrived at the point on the ride where the gusting wind was, at times, behind us, which was quite a bonus knowing there were still a lot of lumps and bumps to come.
Descending from the Nick O’Pendle the road swung east, which was a big psychological boost knowing you were heading home – however the climbing was far from over! Short, lung-busting hills seemed to pop out of nowhere but were great fun at this stage where the end was (almost) in sight. The other riders I’d gotten to know over the last hour or so were all in great spirits and driving up even the steepest sections sporting grins rather than grimaces.
Many of the roads over this next 30km were tiny and offered some pretty exceptional riding, with more and more people out to cheer you on. Ignoring the couple of stray sheep, tractor and occasional dollop of horse poo, the route had been very clear. Nearing the end, I did see one incident where it looked as though someone had taken a corner too quickly: he was receiving treatment from paramedics when I went past but was conscious and wrapped in a space blanket – hope he’s doing ok.
After a small handful of kilometres spent going almost exclusively downhill it was back into Barnoldswick, with the flags flying from the Festival of Sport soon coming in view. A few final corners and I crossed the line in 5:25 to pick up my finisher’s pack and wolf down every variety of pasta available (of which there were many!)
Looking back, the event was just the right level of everything: the roads were never too crowded, it was definitely challenging but not impossible, everyone involved was friendly and all of the logistics came together incredibly well. Whatever Brad goes on to do over the next year and regardless of any titles he picks up along the way, I’m pretty certain that this event will be even bigger and better in 2014. I just hope the weather is a little more forgiving!
By the way, if you’re thinking of signing up for next year’s event I highly recommend the Lower Greenhill caravan park and campsite just under two miles away. Not only did it provide a great local base, but it’s also earned itself a David Bellamy Conservation Award AND it had tiny ponies wandering around. What more could you want from a weekend?