Saxosport Ride Like A Pro Week #1: Cry Like A Baby

I had been dreading the climb to the top of Box Hill for the last three hours. In my mind, it was the final brutal kick that would completely destroy my legs, already feeling as weak as cooked spaghetti from the 1,600m of climbing that I had already done.

As we turned on to the road leading up to the summit (if you can call it that) I thought I heard a car behind me. It was, in fact, a fellow cyclist. Although when I say ‘fellow’ it should be noted that the only similarity was that we were both on bikes. The rider passed me as if I was standing still. Actually I was going so slowly that it could have appeared from a distance that I was standing still.

This was the last lesson from a wonderful morning of lessons. Most of them learned the hard way.

So how did I find myself grinding up Zigzag Road to the top of Box Hill? Well, I was with my erstwhile teammates from the Saxosport Ride Like A Pro programme. The rider that shot past me was one of our group – Sam Harrison: a pro, riding for the Wiggins Team.

Joining Saxobank Ride Like A Pro (season #2)

Photo © Ryan Bevis
Photo © Ryan Bevis

I was part of the Saxobank RLAP programme last year. I felt hugely fortunate to be given the chance to learn about cycling from a great coaching team and a group of riders all more experienced than me. However for various reasons I didn’t feel that I got the most from RLAP’16. Partly that was down to my lack of cycling fitness, specific strength and undeveloped bike-handling skills. I wasn’t able to improve as much as I wanted because I spent so much time trying to get up to a basic level of cycling competence.

So I was really excited when I was one of a handful of alumni from the 2016 programme to be invited back for the RLAP’17 season.

I had spent this winter really trying to get better on the bike. Riding innumerable laps of Regents Park. As many long rides – especially out to Hertford, north of London – as I could. Absorbing as much info as I could about training properly and riding efficiently. And more learning about cycling history (I think that it’s only when you understand the past in a sport that you can get to grips with the present).

The First Group Ride

So Sunday 30 April was the date picked for the first group ride.

Inconveniently the start of the ride was in Dorking, a town to the south-west of London. Basically on the polar opposite side of the city from were I live. So the alarm needed to be set for 5:30am. On a Sunday morning (I was not popular with Mrs. Freeman!)

Having said that the location for the ride was inconvenient, it was a great excuse to check out a new area for riding. As I wrote a few paragraphs ago, most of my long rides have been north towards Hertford, which is lovely, but already becoming predictable. I was happy to check out a new area. One famed for the Surrey Hills. As I would discover first hand.

The ride started in a carpark just on the outskirts of the town. We were asked to choose a group to ride with: the steady group or the easier group. Of course I went for the steady group. The plan was an 80km ride that would take us around 3 hours. That seemed very reasonable and I was looking forward to chatting to some of my team mates and enjoy a roll out in the countryside.

But those Surrey Hills had different ideas…

The steady group was around 12 of us plus a couple of riders from the coaching team, Rowe & King and Sam from Team Wiggins. Thankfully as we rolled out and started to ride properly – in pairs side-by-side – I felt comfortable and pretty confident that I would not be dropped. At least not immediately.

What I had not done was check out the route in advance. Perhaps that was a good thing. But it did mean that I was not really ready for the amount of climbing and descending we would be doing. Wikipedia says that:

Dorking/ˈdɔːr.kɪŋ/ is a market town in Surrey, England between Ranmore Common in the North Downs range of hills and Leith Hill in the Greensand Ridge

The key thing that I had not appreciated was how sharp the hills are around that area. I was not prepared for the little brutes of climbs that we encountered. Leith Hill was the biggest climb, but there seemed to be dozens of other. Each one had me in the easiest gear I could get the bike in and most of them required me to be out of the saddle to keep upward momentum.

Then, of course, each climb would be followed by an equally sharp downhill. Most often on narrow country roads, with a ridge of loose gravel running down the middle. As someone who is a bit nervous about riding downhill, I could not work out what I struggled with more – the quad-shredding climbs meandering across the road at 8kph or the fast, twisting downhills, trying to avoid the potholes and on-coming cars at 45kph that immediately followed.

Towards the end of the ride we found ourselves on more undulating roads and the speed picked up a bit. This was undoubtedly my favourite part of the ride.

And then Box Hill came …

Riding Up Box Hill to the Cafe

Actually riding up Box Hill was great. Instead of a long, steep grind, I found switchbacks on Zigzag Hill, that resembled – albeit only slightly – what you might find in an alpine setting. Except much, much shorter. I didn’t even need to change out of the big ring. In comparison to the hills we have ridden up for 3 hours, the final climb was a breeze.

At the top the Saxosport Ride Like A Pro team for 2017 regrouped and we finally had a chance to chat properly for a while. The ride had not been the right opportunity to chat – there was too much pain on the climbs and concentrating on the descents. But we shared some thoughts on the ride and started planning what we will be doing next.

Honestly, I think the team – certainly the group I rode with – are all great. It was a pleasure to meet them.

And as for lessons learned. Well the first one is that I have a long (long) way to go as far as improving my cycling is concerned. I think this is probably a project that will take a few years. It will be a matter of getting fitter and stronger, improving my bike handling skills and developing more confidence.

Thankfully as part of Saxobanks RLAP programme, I am in a great position to become a better cyclist. I’m excited to see where this journey will take me (thanks Saxobank!)


Saxobank to the rescue

If you read my last post, you will know that I have recently been in withdrawl from running – mourning the loss of an addiction that took me from hatred of what I had become to one of the proudest moments in my life.

But in the last three years, running has slipped away from me. I’m still not sure why, but I can take a guess. Running is hard – that is part of the attraction. But running faster than you ever have before gets very, very hard the faster you go. Partly I think I knew what it would take for me to better my time in the marathon and simply didn’t fancy it. Plus Julie and I had launched a business and I wasn’t up for dedicated the same amount of time to my running as I had been to achieve my PB.

I thought about focusing on ultras, but they are not where my real passion is. I think that without real passion, it is impossible to excel at something. I don’t have the same love of running in the mountains that Julie does and so I am always happy to run with her in ultras, but I am not going to dedicate weekends to finding hills outside of London to train on. And if a long run turns from two and a half hours (which was what I was doing for the marathon) to six or seven hours, that hardly solves the time-challenge I have with Freestak taking priority.

So I have been drifting. Getting slowly tubbier and less fit. And at the same time, less happy.

What I need is a gift from the Gods

Me in my Saxobank Ride Like A Pro kit after today’s ride

Maybe I have just been given exactly what I need. Not quite from the Gods, but it was certainly unexpected and from a source that I would never have expected; a bank. Saxobank in fact.

Some time ago I received an email about a cycling team project that Saxobank were organising, called Ride Like A Pro. It sounded amazing – a team of normal people riding and training together with a big target at the end of a programme that would last all summer.

With my increased focus on cycling, I thought something like this would be perfect. I also thought I had no chance of being part of the programme. But nothing ventured, nothing gained… I filled in the application form.

Two weeks ago, I was contacted by the person behind SaxoSports Ride Like A Pro to be invited to join the team of 50. First step would be to come to Saxobank offices in Canary Wharf, the financial district in the east of London. That is how I found myself outside a vast glass and steel building, on a cold blustery evening wondering if this was all a cruel joke or a big mistake.

I was welcomed into the building and met some of the other riders in the team. They were all lovely – some had been part of the programme last year, but many were first-timers like me. Then Matteo Cassina – the man at Saxobank behind the Ride Like A Pro concept – introduced the programme to us. Oh and we were give all our team kit. The idea is really quite simple; we will get together once a month between now and September to ride as a group and learn from a team of coaches and experts. We will also start meeting up for rides with other team members when we can. We can have subsidised training and analysis. And at the end of the summer, we go to Spain to ride a stage of the Vuelta a España with Alberton Contador, whose foundation we are supporting through this programme.

I have found the next thing… or it found me.

So like a gift from the Gods, I have been presented with the thing that I was looking for. A bit of structure. A target to aim for. A group of people to be responsible to. And perhaps most importantly, a way to test myself that doesn’t allow comparison with things I have done before.

I have been out riding more and more since getting the call, already excited about the chance to go from a very low base to Riding Like A Pro. Obviously I’m incredibly grateful to the Saxobank team for inviting me to join. I already have a feeling this could be the start of something. Obviously, running will always be my first love. But when the Gods deliver a chance like this, it would be foolish to not fall in love all over again, right?