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Remembering Summer

On a Friday in July, I found myself on the train to Radlett, just north of London at about the same time I would ordinarily be getting on my bike for my regular 30 minute work commute.  Some weeks before, I had signed up to Leigh Day’s London to Manchester cycling venture.  The plan was that cyclists from our London and Manchester offices would set off at about the same time in the morning and meet at Hinckley in the evening. 
The distance between Radlett and Hinckley is a little over 100 miles and, as usual with these things, the challenge was far more appealing as a distant prospect 6 weeks away than on the morning itself.  The nerves hit when I walked in to the coffee shop to meet up with my fellow cyclists.  I felt like an amateur and a fraud looking in at ‘real’ cyclists with their cycling bibs (weird all-in-one-suits that seem like the worst idea ever until you’ve been on a bike for more than 4 hours without one), jerseys and clip in shoes.  
I started commuter cycling about three years ago, before which, apart from a brief stint of cycling at university, I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a kid.  I can’t remember how long I spent feeling fearful of the taxis and buses that whooshed past me, but I do know that within a couple of months I was a convert. The refreshingly cold air wakes me up on my way in to work and a fierce pedal home leaves the stresses of the working day behind in the city.  The feeling of freedom and control cycling gives me is akin to nothing else I know in hectic, crowded London life.
Despite this, I don’t consider myself a ‘real’ cyclist. To us on the outside, real cyclists can seem part of an intimidating club, with all their technical jargon and gear. As it happens, our group of London cyclists was a mixed bunch, but I sat firmly at the amateur end.  The group of 13 of us included at least 6 experienced road racers; a regular long distance cyclist (who is in it for the exploration rather than the speed); a disabled hand cyclist; and a few other amateur cyclists of varying abilities.
I’d cycled long distances previously on a couple of occasions.  I’ve got reasonable stamina and can be pretty strong minded when I decide to do something.
Nevertheless, 15 miles in, it was clear to me that this was a whole different challenge and one in which team work was as important as stamina.  Staying together and maintaining a group cycle when there are vastly different abilities is tough.   As a result, at about 20 miles in, we split into two groups.  The fast group sped off and the rest of us went on at the best speed we could together. The sheer length of time on my bike was tough; as 10am, 11am, and then 1pm and 2pm rolled around and still we were a long way from our Mile 60 lunch spot.  Our group had become split up, we’d lost our way and we’d had punctures. Sure, my legs hurt, but far worse were my back and my shoulders, which were locked in a hunched over position (no doubt because I hadn’t adjusted my bike properly).  When we eventually stopped for lunch, a simple bowl of spaghetti Bolognese never tasted so good.

Before we set off again, I resorted to a caffeine gel, which gave my legs a real boost. The second half, though, was no easier than the first and at 7pm we still had a good 25 miles to go.  The lowest moment for me came at about mile 85; half way up a hill. My eyes couldn’t see the top of the hill and my legs decisively declined to pedal any further.  Cyclists know that there is nothing worse than stopping halfway up a hill.  If you thought the hill was nasty before you stop pedaling, it’s only going to seem even nastier when you have to start pedaling from a standstill.  Somehow, though, I found something left to get up that hill.

We arrived at the hotel about 9pm after 12 hours on the road, sweaty and sunburnt, too late to have dinner but instead feasted happily on sandwiches, cheese cake and wine. I had a wonderfully soft bed that night, but my aching back, shoulders and hips did not allow me to fall asleep. I thought about the day instead.
I’d never ridden in such a large group before; in fact, I usually cycle alone.  I learnt from Anna how to change a tyre on the move, when she casually changed hers (twice), and I was buoyed up by Luke and Rachel’s singing and Sally’s joking.  Gurv hung back quite a few times when I was struggling to ask me if I was ok and in the last stretch, whilst maintaining a bike chain for safety on a dark main road, Rory reached out a hand to push me along when I just didn’t have the strength to keep up with the bike in front. For some people cycling 20 miles is a challenge, for some it’s 100 and for others 300.  But doing it as a team is pretty special.

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