Return of the Century

The last time I'd ridden a century was June 1996, when I'd ridden with the local Cambridge branch of the CTC (Cyclist's Touring Club) on their annual century ride. Soon after that I had a bad bout of RSI, and after that chronic tendonitis in my elbows. Finally, after getting my riding position sorted out, I was increasing my mileage. I'd done a 72 mile ride (the off-road Audax) and a 65 mile ride, and lots of 40 and 50 mile rides. I was ready for a century, and the CTC Cambridge century was approaching. I decided to ride it.

old touring bike
my fixer

It was only a question of deciding what bike to ride. The three speed was out, as it is far too heavy. The handlebars on the racer are still too low for long-distance comfort. My mountain bike is very comfy, but it seemed silly with ride an almost full suspension bike (suspension fork and seatpost) on a road ride. And so that left my Fisher (a 10 year old alu MTB that has been fitted out for road riding) or my fixed gear bike (with a 42 tooth chainring and 16 tooth cog, making a 69" gear). The latter is built on my old touring frame, which has been made ridable by putting on a much higher stem and MTB bars. I decided to go for the fixed gear for two reasons. First, the Fisher has a very harsh ride because of the stiff frame. Even with racing tires the old touring frame gives a softer ride. Second, I wanted a real challenge. I've ridden centuries before. Lots of them. I wanted to do something different, something that was truly hard. Riding the century on a fixed wheel bike gear would give me that challenge.

In the previous century in 1996 I was quite fit, and the average overall pace of the group wasn't very high. I rode with the fastest people in the group, taking turns leading short pace lines. One of these times, almost at the end of the century, I'd spent too much time at the front. When I pulled off going up a little hill I was too tired to keep up with the group, and they rode off away from me. I had a que sheet with me, but I didn't have a map, and I had no idea where I was, so it was pretty useless. What I should have done was pull over and stop and wait for the next group to go by. Instead I slowed down, hoping that the next group would catch me soon. In doing so I missed a turn, got completely off track, and then I had to ask directions back to Cambridge. Since the official end of the century was in the village of Caxton, about 15 miles from Cambridge, the rest of the group wondered what had happened to me. This year I was less fit than I was in '96, and I since I'd be riding a fixed gear bike, I decided to be conversative in my riding.

This year, the century was split up in two groups, one that aimed to finish in 9 hours (starting at 8am) and one that was aiming for 8 hours (starting at 9am), with each group trying to end by 5pm. I joined the 8 hour group. The weather forecast was for sun mixed with showers. I wore a long sleeve cycling top and bike shorts, with a light nylon jacket and cycle tights on top. There were 9 of us aiming to do the century in 8 hours. As we start it was cool and cloudy, but by the we'd gotten about 10 miles from Cambridge, the sun had started to come out and it got warmer. We stopped to take off our jackets.

There were some hills along the route, although of course nothing really big or steep (it is not hilly around here by any means). With my fixed gear bike I had to maintain a reasonable speed on the hills in order to make it up. I found that momentum was my friend, and by pouring on the power at the base of the hills, I could conserve my momentum to help me make it to the top. Since the others would allow their momentum to drift away, shifting down as this happened, I would have to pass them towards to bottom of the hill to keep up my speed. A couple of times I found myself trapped on the edge of the road when we were riding two abreast, so I made sure I was in the outside line.

I wondered whether my legs would last through 100 miles of standing up for the climbs. I'd been doing a fair bit of cycling recently, but it was on my mountain bike, where I sit down for all climbs. I soon discovered, however, that since the mountain biking had been in very hilly areas (the South Pennines and the Pyrenees) my sitting-down climbing muscles were alot stronger than before, and I could power up quite a few of the hills remaining seated. In fact, going down hills proved to be more of a problem. I couldn't coast, and I kept trying to find ways to keep the pedals moving with minimal effort. At first I tried using my calf muscles to pull my feet back at the bottom of the stroke, but they started to cramp. Arrrgg. I then tried to relax the calf muscles and just move the thighs, letting the pedals push my lower leg around. I had better success with this: at least my calf muscles stopped cramping. However, I ended up bobbing in the saddle alot, giving my sit bones lots of little shocks, and I found going down hills painful towards the end of the ride.

The group didn't get too split up in the first half of the ride. The faster people I was with would wait for the rest occasionally. At about the 52 mile mark we stopped for lunch at a pub. It was 12:40, so we were ahead of schedule. The 9-hour group was leaving the pub as we got there. We stopped for half an hour, and as it had gotten very warm and sunny, I took off my cycle tights. After we headed off the faster riders didn't wait for the others: I think we were motivated by trying to catch the 9-hour group. The route flattened out, so in the last 35 miles or so, there were no hills to speak of. Eventually, to conserve energy, we fell into a pace line. Sue (the same Sue as on the Castle Acre Audax) sometimes lead, but usually it was Brian in front. Brian is a very strong rider: he had done this century last year in 5 hours 40 minutes. We passed the 9-hour group just outside of Gamlingay, about 75 miles into the ride.

Although the weather was fine and the scenery was agreeable, I was getting tired and was starting to ache. But I kept up with Brian: I knew I had it in me, and I didn't give up. The last 15 or so miles were very painful, and it was a real effort not to fall off. A few people in the group did fall off when we went up a slight incline. They had cue sheets, and Sue knew that knew that one of them had done the century the previous year, so we didn't wait for them. Finally, at 4:07 pm we were there, 7 hours 7 minutes after we'd started. I took off my helmet and flopped in the grass. I was completely exhausted.

There was tea (with sandwiches and cakes) at 5pm, so we rested while the others arrived. First came the people who had dropped off our group right at the end, then 9 hour group, then the rest of the 8-hour group, all arriving well before 5pm. My boyfriend Simon also rolled up: he'd ridden out from Cambridge to meet me. Tea was in a pub, and I ate lots of sandwiches and cakes. Riding back to Cambridge was painful: I ached all over and went very slowly. But I had Simon for company, and that made it better.

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