Erstellt am: 11. 7. 2016 - 17:44 Uhr
Flatlining the Flatlands
There are seven thousand cyclists at the start of the Tour of Cambridgeshire, some are whippet-thin of frame with shaved legs. Others, like me, sun-cream smeared, hairy-legged and bursting proudly out of our Lycra after overdoing the porridge breakfast.
But, whatever our shape is, we all have our road-bikes in hand and are waiting to click into our pedals for the start of an adventure, riding as fast as we can over the same 137 km course on some of the flattest and most bucolic of England’s roads.
The sun has burned away the early clouds and the nervous tension is rising.
The World Championship for Amateurs
The Tour of Cambridgeshire is part of the Gran Fondo World Series. This is a collection of 12 races around the globe, from Botucatu in Brazil, to Marlborough in New Zealand or Niseko in Japan that gives the most ambitious amateur cyclists as well as the most casual of adventurous hobby riders the opportunity to test themselves against each other and to clock over closed roads.
The series is now under the umbrella of a sport’s governing body, the UCI, and the fastest riders can even qualify for the official world championship Gran Fondo race which will be held in Perth, Australia with an official rainbow jersey up for grabs.
I won’t be at the business end of this race, so I can forget the jersey and trip to Oz but for me this is full on fantasy fulfilment. Today I can pretend that I’m in the race that has obsessed me since childhood - the Tour de France. For a cycling freak, it’s a bit like being allowed on stage in a full arena and getting to pretend you’re a rock star.
That, says organiser Tom Caldwell, is the aim: “We give everyone, who participates, no matter what their ability, exactly the same experience, to make them feel like a professional,” he says:
“Riders can feel what it is like to ride on closed roads, to ride in big pelotons. And whether the sense of achievement is from doing well in the race or from just finishing the event, people seem to get a huge kick out of it.”
Tour de Nostalgie
There’s another reason I am here: the event is being held over the roads I grew up on, in the region where my family still lives. I get to play out my Tour fantasy and then go home for tea and a pint at the Black Horse Inn in Elton - which indeed hosted much of our lengthy pre-race hydration and carbo-loading routine.
Room For Everyone
I’d better be honest about this, in my cycling crew, slightly hung-over after a long and frustrating night of debating Brexit with the Elton locals, we know nothing about cycle racing. But Alex, Robin and I have survived cycling the dirt tracks of Uganda and the cold moors of Scotland together, so we are battle hardened, and we’re confident of at least not getting in any serious racer's way:
To avoid accidents and annoyances, the start is stuttered according to age, ability and ambition, with those with race licenses starting first and riders released in four of five batches. We’ll be setting off a full half hour after the speedy cyclists:
“It is great, if you are an elite racer, because you can participate in a fantastic event,” says Caldwell, who says cycling has learned from urban running marathons: “But if you are just going out with your mates it’s nice to be able to beat them and get a ranking and a time.”
There are no mountains here; in fact the second half of the course leads through The Fens, a region that is pancake-flat. These are former marshlands that were drained centuries ago and the yellow crop fields rarely rise more than a few metres above sea-level. We ride through vast wheat and barley fields which are criss-crossed with irrigation dykes and hump-back bridges. Fittingly, they evoke the cycling soul-lands of the Netherlands or Flanders - with all that entails for riding conditions. It’s all about exposure.
“It’s hellishly challenging,” says organiser Caldwell. “It’s the most technical kind of riding because obviously in order to protect yourself from the crosswinds and the kind of terrain we go over you have to be right on it mentally and technically.”
That means riding in large packs - which brings new challenges. I made my Gran Fondo debut this May in the Giro d’Italia Vienna and suffered for lack of similarly paced friends and the self-knowledge to set off at a sensible speed and, after 100km out of my depth, ended the ride miserably alone pedalling almost backwards.
It was a bitter experience that I’m keen to avoid this time and luckily my old riding buddies imbue me with three musketeer spirit - or perhaps an Asterix metaphor would be more appropriate: Alex is a broad-shouldered rugby forward, and offers a wind-shadow worthy of Obelix.
The key is not to get left alone, a life lesson that the Brexiteers in the pub might have heeded. But it’s never hard for us to find a decent sized group in which to hide from the wind; this entire flat corner of England is crawling with multi-coloured cyclists. I marvel as I see the seemingly endless snake of riders ahead and, believe it or not, behind us. Indeed it seems that, despite Brexit, Britain has fallen even more in love with that most European of sports - road cycling.
A Boom in Cycling Enthusiasm
“I have always known it is a great sport but for others, it’s really the Olympics: Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and latterly Chris Froome and the amazing success of Team Sky as well that has really inspired people in the UK,” says Caldwell. Over 2 million adults riding once a week or more and the numbers are rising quickly.
“When I first started cycling it was very much a minority sport and all of a sudden I find myself in the middle of a sport that is really cool. Everyone wants to ride, everyone wants to emulate their heroes.”
Caldwell says that independent studies have shown that his event, now in its second year, brings 1.2 million pounds to the local economy, a fact that has helped soothe some of the anger about temporary road closures. The grumblers have now been outnumbered by enthusiastic spectators who use the race, and the good weather, as an excuse to sit outside pubs cheering the riders, adding to that Tour de France feeling.
I left home was I was 18 and have been living outside the UK for 16 years, so it was a nostalgic riding through these familiar roads. I feel the ghost of my former self, a little boy pedalling in yellow T-shirt, riding by my side and the ghostliness only increased when we hit the former American airbase at Alconbury.
This was once a mini-America in the middle of East England with an American Football Stadium, a giant skateboard half-pipe, basketball courts and roads called California Street. I used to go there with a childhood American friend whose Dad worked there. Now it is just a giant empty, cracking runway blasted by the wind. When did this happen? Why did no-one tell me? And why are there so many British flags everywhere?
Our priority, of course, apart from soaking up the atmosphere and wallowing in nostalgia, is not getting caught up in a crash with so many riders packed onto narrow roads. My main aim in a bike ride is to be fit to ride again tomorrow and early on I find the roads rather claustrophobic.
“We think very carefully about where we put narrow roads in the course,” says Caldwell. “Actually it is quite deliberate, because it is a way of thinning people out.” He says it’s always a going to be tough for people riding in very large groups for the first time, but adds that on the other hand “it’s an amazing experience and it’s a starting point for many hobby riders. They are going to have to do it sometime.”
Still, particularly in the opening few kilometres, we hear the unnerving approach of the medical motorbikes pushing through the large field of cyclists, called to attend another accident. “No matter what you plan, cycling can be a dangerous sport,” says Caldwell, who admits his heart is always in his mouth on race day. “When people are on their bikes and the red mist descends it is sometimes very difficult for an organiser to control what happens."
By the time we arrive, sun-blasted but high on the intoxicating sense of being in a race, they are already packing up the merchandise tents and catering. There’s no Champs d’Elysée champagne moment for the weekend heroes, just trains to catch and London-rush hours to beat. But next time we are watching the Tour de France on telly, we’ll feel some sort of kinship with the riders - we know about those cross winds and those energy slumps - we might be a bit fatter and a bit slower, but we are now race cyclists too.