As cyclists go, I've always been on the heavy side. Being 6ft 2in means I do carry a larger frame than most, and also having had two children, I have struggled with losing those hard-to-shift pregnancy pounds. Add to that a sturdy set of rugby player's legs and, well, you get the picture. I am most happy on the flat or powering up a short, big-ring climb.
So, taking part in the 2018 Tour de Yorkshire sportive with its 'undulating' course was going to be challenging, yes; but as I have spent more than half my life living in the White Rose county and riding various two wheeled velocipedes around its lanes and snickets, I was confident I was in for a steady and thoroughly sociable day...
...Over six hours later, my opinion had changed.
The idea for Le Tour de Yorkshire was conceived in 2014 after the enormous success of that year's Tour de France 'Grand Départ', which saw hundreds of thousands of people line the routes from Leeds to Harrogate and then York to Sheffield.
The initial Tour de Yorkshire Ride was in 2015, with subsequent editions going from strength to strength. The financial impact for the region has been tremendous; in 2015 it generated £50 million, in 2016 £60 million, in 2017 £64 million. Broadcast coverage for the 2017 race was viewed by 9.7 million people worldwide.
In 2018 the TdY is rumoured to have attracted crowds of 2.6 million along its route making it the largest spectator event ever in the UK. The TdY is flabbergasting... the TdY is here to stay.
On the final day of the Tour, Sunday 6th May, 5000 plus cyclists lined up to tackle three routes of 49km, 84km and 129km; we were lined up for the long one. We were also the last group to set off, after stating that we would be covering the course in around 4.5 to 5 hours...idiots.
There was a slight delay on the start line as we made way for Alistair and Jonny Brownlee who were also taking part - no pressure then. As we rolled out, probably 60 or so riders back from the Brownlees, a simple plan was hatched - get into their group and sit in all the way round, chat convivially with Alistair & Jonny about my previous triathlon exploits, give them some pointers, share bidons, and roll into Leeds to the screams of their adoring fans; before finally, doing them in the sprint...no gifts.
After almost 15km of chasing them, that plan was unanimously sacked off. Bloody triathletes. What was also becoming massively apparent was the distinct lack of flatness. All roads so far had literally been up or down.
The first feed station came at 25km and was very much welcomed. Temperatures were in excess of 25C, gels had been consumed, bottles were void, and several matches had already been burned; it was time to take stock.
Fortunately, or, as it happened, unfortunately we would have a bit of time as the first feed station was woefully understocked and understaffed. There was one small stall offering up sustenance and a single gentleman with a flaccid and poorly pressured hose, dribbling water ineffectively into wearisomely held containers.
The mood of the riders changed from optimistic to bewildered and exasperated. I've ridden a fair few events now and I have to say this was the worst feed station I have ever experienced, considering the size and prestige of the occasion. I spoke to one chap who had waited in line for 35 mins to get a refill. We soldiered on.
I was becoming increasingly concerned by the rollercoaster style parcours and things weren't improving. On the route map there were only two categorised climbs and a sprint, and as I said I was expecting the bits in between to be fairly steady. I'll say it again: idiot. The bits in between were anything but steady, and add in a grippy potholed road surface and you have all the makings of a leg-breaking day.
Snowden Bank, Hartwith Bank, Church Hill, the road up to Brimham Rocks, all were uncategorised climbs and revealed themselves to us with all the sensitivity of Katie Hopkins. There was a slight respite as we rode through Brimham Rocks. It was most tranquil and had a mystical, otherworldly feel. The stone formations there are mind-blowing and my energy sapped legs soon seemed to become rejuvenated and pain free - I suspected it to be the work of either hobbits, elves or pagan shamans.
The two categorised climbs and sprint of the day were monsters (at this point I want to register my utter contempt of the use of the word 'sprint' by TdY organisers in conjunction with the TdY 2018 Sprint at Arthrington. By definition 'sprint' is the ability to maintain top speed over a short distance. Having a sprint that goes up to 12% in gradient over the best part of 1 km, massively negates any opportunity to achieve maximum velocity and only causes a massive feeling of distrust and loathing towards the organisers and course by muffin top riders such as myself.....and breathe.
Cote de Greenhow, Cote de Otley Chevin and uphill 'sprint' (whatever...!) at Arthrington caused many dabs and an overabundance of 'head down, arms out, pushing of the bike' stances. On the way up Otley Chevin I encountered two 'merchant bankers' who can be best described as 'Strava Charvas'.
Their conversation grew louder as they approached and passed me, and was along the lines of how many KOM titles they had on other climbs not included in the route today, how these climbs weren't as tough as others they had ridden, and that they had been taking it steady today and would probably return when the crowds weren't around to smash out a PB.
If I could have mustered any spare oxygen from my distraught lungs I would have certainly offered them my thoughts on their fairytale and futile story; however, with my bike straining and traversing the gradient and my legs screaming, they passed unchallenged.
It brought back a memory of Bernhard Eisel from the excellent 'Chasing Legends' film about the now defunct HTC Highroad team of 2010: a team that was basically built around Mark Cavendish with the exclusive goal of stage wins, green jerseys and time-trial results.
As I am sure you can imagine, these big turbo diesel units were invincible on the flat but slightly lacking in the mountains. During a stage in the Pyrenees, Eisel - the modern cycling era's own Patron - was nursing Cavendish through some particularly savage mountain ramps amongst the gruppetto (Gruppetto = a large group of dropped riders that form behind the peloton on mountain stages and work together to ensure they make the cut-off time for the day's stage). There is much giddy chat from some of the younger riders, to which Eisel thunders out an order:
Eisel: "Can you guys stop talking out of respect?!"
Eisel: "People are suffering here....."
I wish Bernie had been with me up the Cote de Otley Chevin. He'd have fettled them. Get well soon Bernie.
The final few km of the route were a stop-start affair with many busy roads to cross and traffic lights to obey. The urban sprawl of Leeds unfolded before us and, if anything, it was a slightly disappointing end to a beautifully characteristic and picturesque day in the saddle.
This was soon forgotten though, as the crowds on the roadside increased in number with the volume greeting each rider home as though they were in fact the winner. The crowds all day were magnificent, and I am sure if you have seen the pictures of the main race you will understand the sheer bulk of bodies and support the three-day race received - it was epic.
So take a bow Yorkshire; tha's done us proud again - we knew you would. Although I can honestly say it was one of the hardest days on a bike I have ever had, I will be back next year to take on whatever course you decide to throw at me.
And don't forget campers: the Road Racing World Championships are in North Yorkshire next year. Can't ruddy wait!