Every year, I tell myself I’m not going to do the Cyclone this time around. It’s too long, I tell myself, too hard, and frankly, I don’t like the pressure of trying to match/better my own times. But inevitably, some combination of ego, peer pressure and the reminder that 100 miles of peacefully deserted Northumbrian roads in what passes for summer up here is probably worth it. So, at the eleventh hour, I was back.
This year, I had set myself the goal of simply trying to be the fastest around the 106 mile course. I seemed to have been perpetually in the top five the last few years, and was getting fed up of being beaten by a group, whom could take “rests” behind one another as they “shared the work” into the wind: a custom that was alien to my Henri Desgrange-esqe desire for a brutal solo slog into the wind with no outside aid whatsoever. I wanted a time that didn’t come with the baggage of having to say “well, I was helped by so and so for a bit”, oh no – my ego would only be pleased if the time was entirely my own sweat and blood.
So, on the Saturday morning, having had my Dad pick up my timing stuff the night before as I was on a train, and having laid out all my stuff for the day ahead – a Zipvit bar, a caffeine gel, a slither of cake and my secret weapon – dried apricots – I set off for the start. Given the forecast spoke of a dry day with cool temperatures and a reasonable but not too powerful breeze, I decided to go with only one bottle, which meant I could attach my rain jacket in the second bottle cage rather than in my rear jersey pocket. Yes, I was thinking aero, and was eyeing up the 5.20 mark, which I had yet to break but had been within a couple of minutes of the last three years.
I rocked up to Kingston Park, home of the mighty Falcons (who again managed a magnificent 11th for the fourth time in six years – we came twelth, and were relegated, one of the remaining years, and gloriously promoted the next), sporting a new, er, Sportful BodyFit jersey, which as the name suggests, was rather close fitting, with possibly the best shoulder/sleeve design I’ve ever experienced. My one concession to Northumberland weather was some arm warmers, and after a couple of apricots, I pressed start on the Garmin, and I was off.
Obviously, aiming for a fast time, there as no time to lose, and I set off at a brisk pace, looping myself around the riders already splurging across the road in the usual careless manner that a critical mass on the road provokes, before finding myself on relatively open road. I settled onto the drops, and began the slog.
Sadly, it turns out that people don’t like being overtaken very much, and so I suddenly noticed family friend John Tuckett, who has thighs that look like great slabs of angular steel have been inserted into his legs, rolled up next to me and offered some shelter in his gang of riders – the Saint Nicks Chain Gang. The Red and black clad men were othewise sitting on my wheel, so I I let them roll through, and we gallivanted through the opening miles, scraping past those who had actually come to enjoy their day out as I cursed myself that this wasn’t really right. Luckily for me, when we began to come to the lumpy section, “SNCG” where less keen to put the hammer down, and so I rolled off the front, and resettled into the joys of trying to hurt oneself seriously for five hours.
I played a game in my head to pass the time. I’ve always thought of the Cyclone as being comprised of three distinct “mega” climbs (an exaggeration if there ever was one), separated that road that magically always seems to be at 2-3% of your Garmin. These climbs are, in order – Bilsmoor, then a climb whose official name I don’t know, but often refer to as “the Gravel Climb” because of its rubbish surface (it is handily known as “Big Cyclone Climb” on Strava), and, of course, the Ryals. For some reason though, I became convinced that Bilsmoor was quite early in the ride, and as the laps ticked by, I was fancifully convincing myself that it had been omitted from the route this year.
It was wishful thinking. After about 45 miles, I found myself making the turn onto its steep, 10% corner, and engaged the small ring to chug up. One down, two go.
Sweeping through the charming little lanes of Northumberland was time for some reflection, on how much better this was then the hectic lanes of Surrey (“So quiet”, the locals yell over the din of yet another car forcing its way past some narrow, damp and dingy road), and how lucky we are up here to have such unspoilt, peaceful areas available to us. Truly, if it was sunny up here all the time, it would be Nirvana. The quiet joy of propelling oneself through nature, soaking up the tranquillity of the world had a calming effect, and the miles began to float by.
As I approached “Big Cyclone Climb” however, I spied a group in the distance, riding in an impressive chain gang fashion, powering along. Obviously, this was a great thing – on a ride that had been, bar the opening miles with SNCG, completely unaccompanied by bicycle, motor or beast, I now had a carrot to chase down.With the climb ahead, I began my quest to reel them in.
Or so I thought. Whilst the climb seemed to bring them closer (indeed, Strava later revealed I had taken about a minute out of them on it), the next section was full of rolling roads where the group would disappear on the downhill, only to reappear on the uphill out of the dip. Try as I might, I seemed to have become stuck about 500m behind them. This presented a dilemma – bury myself to close the gap, and then face the embarrassment of perhaps being dropped of cracking completely, or just keep going and see if they came to me eventually?
I chose the former, and managed to make contact just as the group came to one of the major downhills of the day, which meant, in my head, I wasn’t really benefiting from being behind them. It turned out it was the Early Morning Crew (EMC), who seemed to have taken the morally dubious decision to employ some riders who weren’t even riding the Cyclone officially to act as lead-out men for those who were, protecting them from the wind and acting like the boosters on the EMC Space Shuttle that would eventually fall aside to let their payload fly on to greater things.
It had not escaped my notice that the EMC were the group (I stress group, as my ego is desperate to point out I ride these things solo) who had beaten me just six seconds the previous year. Sure, they had stopped, but that just meant even more rest for them. Even worse, the data track showed me that I had been ahead until quite literally the last mile…but now I had caught them up after their titular early start, there was little chance of that happening again, unless I got dropped.
As we reapproached flat roads, I came to the front, and began reapplying the pressure. What then followed was an awkward set of miles where I managed to dance away on every climb, only to be reeled in by EMC, who then went to the front, slowed down, leaving me annoyed and eager to dance off on the next climb again. This merry movement continued until we reached the A68, not far from the Ryals, but even then, as we approached the triple headed hydra, they rejoined as we merged with the shorter routes, and again, I found myself getting tetchy as we slowed down.
So I rode off on the Ryals again, albeit terribly slowly as my legs were now burning from four hours battering myself into the wind. “Powaaaaah” my mind screamed to my legs, as the hauled themselves round in squares to crest the climb, pining for the ice cream van at the summit, and shifting back up to the big rig to begin the sprint for home.
Typically, the EMC returned, but now I was fed up, so went to the front and sat there for essentially all the way home bar the last couple of miles. This brought some thanks from Gosforth Alumni Dave Jones, a thoroughly pleasant bloke if there ever was one, and we sprinted through the road works before being slowed by the traffic into Kingston Park.
I crossed the line in 5:18:29 – my best time, and just 0.06 under the magical 20mph mark – not bad for a route with over 2000m of climbing. This put me 6th on the overall ranking, but some sneaky checking of the “first” five riders Strava files showed they’d actually gone on the shorter routes. You can really win a sportive, but, well, GERRIN. The throbbing, agonising pain in my legs was soothed by that knowledge, and the taste of blood that seemed to have emanated from my lungs trying to excise themselves from my body in the last 40 miles was calmed by a tub of Haagen Daazs.
Every year, I tell myself I’m not going to do the Cyclone this time around. 2017? Well, we’ll see. Now I’ve got the Strava KOM for the route, it might be nice, to , you know, ride around with people and actually soak it in a bit more. I’d quite like to help my dad get a Gold time, for instance. Because let’s face it, it’s meant to be fun at the end of the day, right?