That was hard work! The plan had been to ride to Stevenage and meet up with Siobhan and pilot her tandem, but that plan fell through, so I rode it on my normal† bike with a view to catching up to Sean and Phil on the other tandem at some point on the course.
Note: this ride report is a mild rewrite of my submission to yacf, here. Codified names are the nicknames of people on the forum, sorry about that. The post date has been changed to the date of the ride.
Having missed meeting up with Gareth in Cambridge for a brisk ECE to Stevenage (sorry Gareth: entirely my poor timekeeping), I had to slog it out into the wind on my own: 57km directly into the biggest storm for a generation‡, on my own. Child's play. I take the slightly longer laney route on the basis that the hedges will be closer to the road and so will provide a better wind break; that works so long as there's a hedge. Unfortunately, 15km from home I realised that my Garmin wasn't recording and hit the Go button, bugger! I spent the rest of the ECE wondering how to set this right, um, especially as my RRTY depends on this ride and I won't get the chance to ride another …
On arrival, it's a case of fighting through the crowds to get my brevet: the two rides (lite and full-fat) have nearly 400 entries between them, and that's a lot of riders and a lot of bikes, although it doesn't look like every single one of them has turned out: some fair-weather fairies may be sulking in bed still, which is a shame, because although it's a bit breezy, the sun is shining!
I am in group E: there appear to be eight or so groups of riders set off at five-minute intervals and we're leaving at 10:20. Stepping up to the line I bump into HK and LittleWheelsAndBig, but I barely recognise them: neither of them's riding little wheels! Shock!! To be fair, though, neither's riding a normal bike either: LWaB is riding fixed and HK's on a hub-geared mountain bike. Also, the bhoot tandem is in the mix: it's nice to see at least a few friendly faces in this crowd of bling. Notably there are another couple of Bromptons: it would be nice for a bit of same-as-me company, but I never did get to ride with them out on the course. There's a quick safety announcement – perhaps it's a route change – but it's completely lost on the wind.
And then we're off! There must be 50 or so riders setting out and it soon becomes a bit of a battle on the road to find a place. I try to hang onto LWaB's wheel, but with having done 50-odd kilometres straight into the wind already, and trying to take photos as we climb out of the car park, I find myself somewhere near the back. I catch back onto HK's wheel and we settle in for the first few kilometres through Stevenage.
Three roundabouts – this is Stevenage, almost as bad as MK – and it's a right-turn into the lanes. There's a small queue of bored car drivers waiting for the stream of cyclists to pass – I give them all a cheery wave and a smile. I ride with HK for a bit and we discuss the merits of steel vs. carbon, little wheels vs. big, simple bike frames you can keep clean in winter, the clown-bike section. There's one thing about having only a few gears: you have to climb with the gear you've got; fixies and singlespeeders feel this even more acutely. I drop HK on an uphilly bit, sorry!
This leg of the course is rather lumpy: not big enough to really worry, but also not big enough to really recover. I pass riders, but there's very little conversation: maybe I've got my race-face on and am scaring the kids; maybe they all have colds and aren't having a good day (maybe they just don't like little wheels because they don't conform). I roll onto the back of a group and start to work through it. We hit an uphill section and as I honk up past another rider, I recognise him to be Big Saxon, who I've paced on at least half a dozen rides this year. We trade greetings and as I'm already in a gear, I honk to the top and wait. And wait. The group passes me and I call out to one of the riders about a big guy coming up just around the corner down there: "pnctre!". Big Saxon walks around the corner: I can't do anything to help here, my tubes are just the wrong size, even my pump's the wrong type, so we agree to meet at the first control for a chat – it's really great to see him out on the course after his health issues earlier this year and it will be good to compare notes. I try to catch back onto the group but it's shedding riders quickly and I manage to only pass the stragglers.
We roll down to the first control at Hare Street: I pass Phil and Sean as they're leaving in the opposite direction. A quick stamp and I decide to bounce the control: Big Saxon hasn't made it in yet, I learn later that he had a bit of trouble with the repair and lost time. Next time, mate.
Within a mile or two I am back on HK's wheel, this time with LWaB in tow. It's nice to be in a small group again, with the wind just off my right shoulder giving a gentle push, and we eat up the kilometres towards Saffron Walden: this bit doesn't feel quite so lumpy as the last, but there are still occasions where we make space for LWaB to maintain his fixed momentum up the hills, masochist. A few miles out we turn with the wind and it's a quick sprint to the roundabout: we appear to have picked up some strays who don't have a routesheet, so I take the front to guide. However, as we turn at the roundabout, the road starts to gently climb and I discover that 50-odd km into the wind and that fast section with the wind have taken their toll and the entire group rides past leaving me to wheeze up to the top of the hill down into Saffron Walden. I catch a couple through the traffic, but I am on a commuter bike, so what would you expect? Again I decide to bounce this control: it's too busy, likely to lose a lot of time, but I will definitely have to stop in Therfield for caik.
The next leg is all there or thereabouts into the wind and starts to become lumpy again. I winch myself out of Saffron Walden's gravity well in bottom gear: plenty of lightweight riders spin past, but I still have 100km to go, whereas they don't, so I take my time. In fact I take my time on most of the lumps on this leg, because the road is really exposed with few hedges and the headwind is becoming a drain on stamina. Fortunately it looks like it's not just me being a wuss: few riders pass me and those that do look like they aren't enjoying it. I console myself with the fact that this headwind will be a perfect tailwind nearly all the way back home to Cambridge and push on. A mile or two before the control I pass the bhoot tandem parked at the side of the road: a visitation. I am moving slowly enough into the wind to have a shouted conversation: it's their first in 6500km, which is pretty good going – I do my own sums and work out that it has been about that long since my last one. Must be the tyres; I must be due another; I must check state of spare tubes.
The control in Therfield is good, solid WI food: sandwiches and caik. Lots of it. I treat myself to a double portion. Yum!
The final leg is more into the wind than the last one, but it turns out to be more hedged-in and so the effect is far less pronounced. It's now just a case of winching up any little hills, of which there are a couple of niggly ones, not forgetting to note down the info control answer, and heading into the maze of Stevenage's cycle ways. I ride much of this leg with Sean and PhilW on the tandem: the relative lumpiness mean they don't manage to drag out too much of an advantage anywhere that I can't answer on the climbs, so we ride together. It's interesting to ride alongside a relatively new tandem team: the old-hands have all the communication down to a sixth sense and so can talk about anything else without revealing how much interaction is actually going on all the time; new teams, though, have to talk a lot. Good to know. They drop me on the downhills towards Walkern and I start to winch them back on the climb to the info control, while chatting to junior-stevevw, who looks like he's been through the mill!
I grab the info control answer and then catch up with Phil and Sean stopping at the pub just up the road for a swift half and a chat: we plan to meet up when Siobhan has moved to Stevenage and get out on the tandem to see how it feels, which I'm looking forward to. It's barely 5km to arrivée from the pub through Stevenage's segregated maze of dual-use paths and I get back in around 5pm: in plenty of time for this slow-minimum BP, but on the edge for the ECE, so I hand in my card and head straight back out to ride the 50-odd kilometres to Cambridge.
I figure that at this time of night on a Sunday the A10 will be light traffic and, because it's wide open, that would give maximum benefit from the tail wind, so I beat a retreat to Buntingford and turn left there. The traffic is indeed light and everyone gives me plenty of space in passing, which is refreshing. At times I am spinning easily at 40kph with the wind, but most of the time it feels like it has really abated and I am back down to my usual speeds. It's now just a case of keeping the pedals turning and I will be home soon: the A10 is dull, though.
But this does give me time to reflect on that missing portion of the ECE: I figure that at worst there's nothing I can do about it, the mistake was made. However, just in case there's a possibility of fixing it, I figure that re-riding the missing segment, this time with the GPS tracking it, I can then submit both tracks with an explanation and grovel. An ECE is, after all, a type of perm, and perms can, usually, be started anywhere and ridden in either direction, so long as you can prove it (your Honour). So after a quick download and check of the first track on the 'puter for exactly where I started it, I set back out into a now strengthening wind and the onset of rain. I rode the 15km again: I don't enjoy that side of Cambridge, the council seems to have done a good job of making the roads positively dull and uninteresting and the wind and rain aren't helping. I reach the "start point" at 9pm and ride on a couple of hundred metres just to make sure. Then I turn for home, the wind behind me, the rain on my back, pedal pedal pedal.
That's that, job done. Back home, reheated chili for dinner, shower and bed: I haven't felt this exhausted for a while, but that's partly because I rode with a heavy cold, and partly because the wind acted as a great big uphill slope most of the day.
My impression of the ride: there were lots of people – both sexes – with nice bikes that look like they don't get much of an outing. There were also plenty of riders for whom this was an extended club run. And there was a fair mix of others. Most riders were well-behaved: I didn't see any overtly stupid manoeuvres out on the course. My bike today is coated in squit: I wouldn't've wanted to get a fancy carbon bike covered in this, and my steel bike now needs a good clean (and a new chain by the looks of it – is 3000km too far on one?), and it would've been nice if more riders had mudguards. I got the usual question of "is a Brompton harder to ride?" I got a dumb comment of "I'm being passed by someone on a shopper!" as I was climbing past him (not on a shopper, either): maybe he was just being ironical or self-effacing or something Otherwise I hardly got to chat with anyone I didn't already know.
The lasting impression I took away is very much that this is a very well organised ride with what looked like a couple of dozen volunteers and hundreds of riders – if all riders had turned out then it would have been pretty manic, as in places it was borderline. This makes for a bit of a carnival atmosphere, which is quite unlike most BR-distance rides, and certainly not to everyone's tastes. I think it certainly makes a good step-up for someone who has only done commuter distances previously, in the same way as a long charidy ride would do. I don't think I would choose this ride over another, but the convenience of being able to ECE it for an October RRTY makes it worthwhile.
† probably not “normal” in the strictest sense.