Distance: 73.4 miles. Elevation: 1516 ft
One of my goals for this year was to complete the SFA sportive in under 4 hours. Last year’s time was 4:10. So I needed to achieve an average speed of roughly 18.3 mph. I made it known to everyone that this was my goal – that’s one way of ensuring you do your best!
The previous day’s weather had been glorious, but not today. As I took my bike outside, there was a low, dark grey, overcast sky, definitely portending rain. I left my house with plenty of time to sign-in at the start in Marden. Less than two minutes into my journey, I had a front tyre blow-out while descending Barn Hill at speed. I struggled to bring the bike to a stop. I couldn’t believe it! I hastily set about fixing it as quickly as possible. Now I was worried about being late for the start. I changed the tube and was off again in under ten minutes and that included inflating the tyre with a mini-pump! That was the fastest I’ve ever changed a tube. Now I was in a rush – just what I didn’t need. I rushed to Marden in 15 minutes. I made it in time to sign-in and wait for the off, after finding my group of friends who had all decided to start together.
And we were off. Right from the start, I didn’t hang about – I was on a mission. We all stuck together until the bottom of Hunton Hill. Same as last year, I had no intention of waiting at the top for anyone. I was in front going up the climb, but I could hear a rider just off my back wheel. It turned out to be Al. By the time we reached the top, we had created a bit of distance from the others, and from that point on we never saw them again.
Al set a fast pace through Coxheath to Boughton Monchelsea – a good bit of luck was that we managed to blast through the traffic lights at Linton Corner without catching a red. Our average speed over the next 15 miles was 20 mph, bringing the overall average at that point to 18.6mph, which was on target for my 4 hours, but I was not confident, because now we had to turn into a headwind as we travelled SW towards Biddenden. And it had started raining. In fact by this point we were soaked and I could barely see out of my goggles. And it was miserably cold.
By the time we reached Biddenden, the average had dropped to 18.3. And still the wind and rain were in our faces. And yet still we pushed on as hard as we could, passing other riders. Only two riders passed us. The next ten miles south to Wittersham saw the average fall again, now 18.2. Not enough to beat the 4 hours. I knew the weather was to blame – it was just too windy. I now resigned myself to merely beating last year’s time. I knew that the last 20-odd miles were much hillier and we wouldn’t be able to improve on our average.
About the only stretch where the wind was behind us was the Royal Military Canal road. We blasted down there at 22 mph, the feed-stop looming. “What are you doing at the feed stop?”, asked Al. “Riding straight past” I replied. But as we neared it I softened. “Let’s just grab a banana and carry on”. We stopped for 47 seconds! I grabbed a banana and stuffed it in my pocket to eat later. I had intended to eat at least 2 energy gels every hour on this ride and had my back pockets loaded with 8 or 9 gels and bars. But in the end I only ate three of them! And I didn’t even eat the banana!
We left the feed stop and got back to the task in hand. We now had only 25 miles to go and I gave Al a regular countdown to try to keep up morale! Our average dropped further. By the time we reached Tenterden it was 18.0mph. I knew by then that I was in danger of not even matching last year’s time. Knowing that all the other riders would have been affected by the weather, I re-evaluated a new target. I told Al ” I at least would like to improve my overall finishing position in the sportive as a whole”.
Eighteen miles to go now. It had stopped raining I think. But I still could see very little through my goggles because they were smeared with dirt from constant wiping with my gloves. I could at least see well enough to note that the level crossing gates were closed as we approached the Kent and East Sussex steam railway just past Tenterden. Damn! Luckily it only cost us 30 seconds or so before they were opened.
With tiring legs we pushed on through Cranbrook and the hillier section towards Goudhurst. From the top of Winchett Hill I gave one final blast to Marden, riding as hard as I could. I sped into the finish, practically threw my bike down and rushed inside to give my number. I was pleasantly surprised to find I had only been 4 minutes slower than last year, 4 hours and 14 minutes. I had expected much worse. Al came in one minute later. We had ridden well as a team, and couldn’t have done it without each other’s help.
So I hadn’t reached my set goal of four hours, but I knew that the weather had made that unrealistic. Speaking to other riders, they all reported times much worse than last year. I actually began to feel that we had put in a superior effort. I hung around chatting to others for an hour and then rode home.
Later that evening the results were published and I was able to put our time into perspective. I compared the data of all the riders who had ridden in both 2015 and 2016. It showed that the top 40 riders from this year who had also competed last year finished, on average, 15 minutes and 21 seconds slower than they had last year. Only 7 of those 40 had improved on last year’s time. So, by finishing only 4 minutes slower than last year, we had bucked the downward trend caused by the conditions by a factor of at least ten minutes. And looking at my overall standing (which had become the revised target) I had moved up from 19th last year to 17th this year (of those riders who competed both years). In real terms (as politicians say) we had done better than I had last year! And I’m pleased about that.
I have already mentioned to Al that the four-hour target still stands for next year!