Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Lapierre Tour of the Black Country Sportive

The lure of the dark side

I have been riding my road bike a lot of late and loving every minute too. So I thought it was high time I dipped my toe into the Sportive arena. It's probably the mtbr in me that the one day spring classics, especially the Belgian cobbled classics and the daddy of them all  the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is my favourite.  It's one of the Five Monuments of cycling and will be on any self respecting sportive riders bucket list and was my initial target but due to issues at work meant I had to change my plans.

My disappointment was tempered when I came across The Lapierre Tour of the Black Country Sportive . I couldn't believe my luck that a sportive with it's inspiration from one of the toughest of the one day races was only 45 min drive away in Wolverhampton. The main inspiration for this sportive is the Paris-Roubaix , otherwise known as the Hell of the North, it even has the finish in a velodrome like the Paris-Roubaix does. The organisers have linked sections of farm tracks,bridleways and have even  given a nod to the Ronde with the inclusion of a monster cobbled climb. Walton Hill or affectionately known as The Waltonberg, with ramps of near 25% gradient near the top and coming after 2 miles of steady climbing at an average 7% and at roughly the halfway point of the 93 km's of the full route provides a stern test for tiring legs. It's not paved with your usual cobbles either as it's basically paved with a mix of cobbles, old bricks,rubble and full of pot holes so you'll need to count on good technical skills and picking a good line if you want to reach the top without putting a foot down because if you do you're not going to get going again.

The ride organisers Cycle Classics have two other Sportives inspired by the one day classics with the Cheshire Cobbled Classic which uses the tough cobbled climbs including the insanely steep corkscrew at 45% found on the eastern edge of the county with the Peak District which takes the Ronde van Vlaanderan for it's inspiration.

Italy and the white Tuscan roads of the Strade Bianche one day classic is the inspiration for the White Roads Classic and uses the similar white gravel lanes found on the Wiltshire Ridgeway .

These three Sportives will become classics in there own right with UK sportive riders and will give anyone looking to go over to the continent to do the big cyclosportives a good realistic taster to what awaits them.

So I had about 4 weeks to prepare myself and the bike. I ramped up my weekly mileage and made plans for a recce. The route runs about 15km's southwest of Wolverhampton and then makes a loop of 65km's before following roughly the same 15km route with a final couple of the 19 off road sectors back to Wolverhampton to finish at the Velodrome. For my recce I decided to just have a look at the big loop as it had most of the off road sectors and the infamous Waltonberg climb.
I didn't bother to change my bike set-up for the recce as it had Cinelli gel cork bar tape for a bit of extra cushion and I run a Shimano RS-610 tubeless wheelset shod with 25mm Schwalbe Ultremo ZX Tubeless from in Germany which I was hoping would give me just enough of a cushion on the off road sectors.

The Recce

At the bottom of the Waltonberg on the recce

The Trig Point at the top of Walton Hill
From the the recce it became clear that the organisers had put together a great route but at times I was questioning whether a road bike was a good idea and pondered using my On One Pompino single speed cross for the ride. The off road sectors all had different surfaces, from compacted dirt bridleways to gravel farm tracks and the Waltonberg climb was a beast where just as the climb ramps up the steepest the surface deteriorated to just rubble and potholes. I'm not ashamed to say it, and the 22% incline got the better of me and I had to walk the last bit to the top. I finished the ride of about 65km's feeling pretty fatigued and was starting to feel a little worried as it was now only a week away. Fingers crossed it wouldn't rain because I couldn't imagine what riding a road bike on these surfaces would be like after any prolonged rain spells.

I was going to need to make the bike more comfortable on the off road sections. My 25mm tyres had been ok but I needed all the help I could get if I was to get round the course in  a reasonable time. Also fatter tyres would help with the fatigue that I felt after the recce. I'd been looking for an excuse to try the new Schwalbe One Tubeless in 28mm width which had been used in this years Paris-Roubaix by the Pro Tour team AG2R LA MONDIALE  so was going to be just the ticket for a sportive that had been it's inspiration. Once again came up trumps with a price for the pair not much more than the rrp for one tyre. I was a little worried they wouldn't arrive in time with just a week to go but I needn't have as with typical German efficiency the tyres arrived in 4 working days, excellent service. My hands can start to go numb on long rides so I went for a double wrap of Cinelli Gel Cork Bar tape which I've stuck with since as I like the bigger grip as it gives me more control in the rough stuff. The other area of the bike where the pro's make changes for the cobbled races are the carbon bottle cages which are swapped for metal/aloy ones which can be bent to grip the bottles tighter to stop them bouncing out. The Planet X Carbon Bottle Cage that are on the bike held my bottles just fine so they stayed. I think that they were the matt finish version probably helped with the grip.  The day before the bike was stripped,cleaned,lubed and rebuilt.The new tyres were fitted which were a real pig to get on the rim but you know you won't have any problems getting them to inflate when they're tight to get on and there was just enough clearance in the frame which I just took for granted that they would fit so I got lucky there as there isn't much clearence. A bit of carbo loading the night before and I was good to go.

The bike taken after the ride with fat tyres & double wrap bar tape

The Big Day

It is only just under hours drive to the velodrome at the Aldersley stadium in Wolverhampton with the ride starting from between 8.30-9.30 am meant the alarm was set for 5.30. I'm not too good with early starts but today I got the help and support of my better half Deb's.  I'm very grateful and lucky to have her as she got up before me to get the coffee pot on and sort some breakfast out so all I had to do was get myself dressed and load the car up, she's a star. I had tried to talk her into doing the ride but she doesn't seem to enjoy riding skinny road tyres off road ? Can't think why ?

When we got there it was obvious this was a popular event as there were cars parked everywhere. We parked on a grass bank. There were about 600 riders on the day and you were supposed to get your number and start time when you signed on but before we arrived there had been a problem with the organisers being locked out of the sports centre.  They had to make some changes to the plans and instead of you getting a start time you just had to line up at the start where they were letting groups of about 20 riders go every 10 Min's which for those turning up later like me was fine but it must of been a bit of a faff for the early birds, but I never heard anyone complaining . The organisers are changing things next year so the same thing doesn't happen again.

My plan was to go off with the last bunch that way I could go at my own pace and not get carried away trying to hold wheels all the time as faster riders would inevitably come past. There were about 25 of us in the last bunch and a few were obviously together by the shouts and hand signals every 5 seconds and knew how to ride in a group. As this was my first time riding in a group I decided to hang at the back so I could suss things out and hopefully I would get an opportunity to move up as I grew in confidence. The pace was fast and in no time about 5 riders me included became detached at the back. I was feeling good so I moved to the front of this small bunch and then I made the jump to bridge the gap with the faster bunch before we lost contact all together. I was just making contact with the back of the fast bunch when we hit Gorse lane west the first of the 19 off road sectors.

The sectors are given a star rating based on length and technical difficulty and this one was a 3 star so in the middle for difficulty but it still completely shattered our little peleton with a couple of the riders puncturing. This was my opportunity to move up with the help of my 28mm Schwalbe One Tubeless tyres and I hope my 25 years of mtbing gave me some small technical abilities to enable me to just put the hammer down through this first off road sector. I was now riding on my own and couldn't wait to hit the next sector. I was caught and passed by a few of the fast bunch by the time we hit the second sector but here again there were more riders puncturing and I able to pass more riders.

The best bit of off road for me in the first half was The Hyde which had a steep loose and rutted downhill followed by a narrow rutted track which I flew down bunny hopping & chain slapping past dismounted riders and thought to myself that they must be thinking that "that guy thinks he's on a bloody mtb" . There is something addictive about riding a bike totally unsuitable and being rattled to the bone and thinking that your bike is about to fall apart underneath you at any moment.


19     (11km)Gorse Lane West1300m  * * *
18     (19km)Enville Common1400m  * * *
17     (23km)The Hyde1700m * * * *
16     (34km)Churchill1600m  * * *
15     (37km)Broome1100m    *
FEED  1  (40km)The Queens, Belbroughton
14     (46km)Waltonberg  (22%)600m* * * * *
13     (47km)Walton Hill1300m  * * *
12     (53km)The Field House600m   * *
11     (58km)Trehern’s Farm1200m * * * *
10     (59km)Burys Hill1000m * * * *
9       (63km)Roman Road1200m  * * *
8       (64km)Whittington Farm1800m * * * *
      (69km)Prestwood Drive1600m * * * *
6       (72km)Gothersberg1600m* * * * *
FEED  2  (78km)The Navigation Inn, Greensforge
5       (83km)Gorse Lane East1300m  * * *
4       (88km)Furnace Grange1100m  * * *
3       (90km)Trescott Ford100m    *
2       (91km)Pool Hall1100m  * * *
1       (94km)Aldersley300m    *
FINISH Velodrome

Walton Hill aka The Waltonberg

As Walton Hill approached I was mindful that as I said before the climbing starts 2 miles out and averages 7%  so I needed to just peg it back a little because as my confidence was growing with each off road sector so was my pace. On the recce I had reached the foot of the Waltonberg already blown and had to get off halfway up so I sat up now and cruised my way to the timing strip start line at the bottom of the climb It wasn't easy holding back as riders came flying past me and I had to fight the urge to jump on their wheels but there was no chance of a tow as these guys were motoring.

As I crossed the timing strip I was already passing riders pushing their bikes and my legs were feeling good, I was spinning a good cadence and picking my line and was confident I could top it out. I passed the halfway mark and then the spot where I climbed off the week before then I hit the steepest  25%  gradient, I dropped it into my bottom gear and started to zigzag and with my lungs bursting I stopped and climbed off about 20 meters from the top. I had given it my best shot though I'm just not quite good enough to clear a climb like this yet.

Walton Hill aka "The Waltonberg"

Me struggling near the top but just about to blow and climb off

My time for the climb was an average 2 Min's 51 secs. Under 3 Min's isn't a bad time with under 2 Min's considered quick.

The track down off Walton hill is steep with ruts,drop offs and would give you something to think about if you were on a mtb let alone a road bike. I was in my eliment. The next bit of road is the fastest stretch on the whole route and had me pushing 70kmh and knowing the worst was behind me and that I was feeling strong I put the hammer down. I was going past riders and anticipating the next off road sector when all of a sudden I was struck with excruciating cramp in both my thighs.

I managed to stop safely before my legs locked up and tried to stretch my legs out but I couldn't it was to painful. This was new to me I had never been hit with cramp before whilst riding. The week before when I had been on the recce I got cramp in my thighs but it was when I was in the car after the hours drive home. I'm pretty sure it wasn't due to not drinking enough because I had made sure I had hydrated properly starting the day before. I have drank far less before and never had issues with cramp. In hindsight I put it down to a combination of the cramp the week before and the fact that I had not got out of the saddle much to conserve energy for the Waltonberg which meant I hadn't stretched my muscles out much .

I was now in a bit of a panic as I was in that much pain I couldn't see how I could carry on as I was only halfway through and still had about 45km's left to ride. I was distraught, I had been feeling really good with worst behind me and now I was looking at a "DNF" and a trip back in broom waggon. I started to walk which helped and after 10 Min's I climbed back on.. But as soon as I tried to put the power down I would cramp up again and would have to walk it off. There were still a few small climbs left and a couple of the off road sectors were on a slight up hill incline which was big enough for me to be unable to ride. I was gutted watching as riders passed me with wide grins on their faces from the buzz of riding their skinny tyres on dirt. Even the sectors I was able to ride I had to take it easy which was harder as it's better to just these off road sectors as hard as you can.

I was still making forward albeit slow progress though,. and having to walk less and less. I was able to gingerly ride the last 20km's without getting off.  I rode into the Aldersley Velodrome with a sense of relief,satisfaction and I have to say a little disappointed too . I did my lap of velodrome and crossed the line in 3hr 55 min which wasn't too bad and before the ride I would of been happy to finish in under 4 hrs but knowing what had happened just made me feel even more disappointed at what I could of done has I not got cramp
I got my plastic flute of champagne and a hug and kiss from Debs and that was that my first sportive was over.

Although the day hadn't quite gone to plan on the whole it was a great ride and after I'd got over the initial disappointment I was able to look back on what was a great event and I will definitely be going back next year and probably sooner because, as they would say in the Black Country it's a "bostin" area for cycling.