I didn’t take part in last year’s Velothon. Growing up as a skinny kid in a rugby mad school had put me off competitive sports, and cycling was something I did mostly for social and commuting reasons. I ride a heavy tourer rather than a fancy-pants road bike, and I’d only recently made the begrudging foray into the lycra world of bib shorts for a week spent cycling from Holyhead to Cardiff (highly recommended, but not the focus of this blog). Velothon, on the other hand, just seemed a bit too focused for my ‘stop and smell the roses’ approach to cycling and I decided against it.
And yet, on the day itself I found myself in town and I was dumbstruck by the number of cyclists milling around, refuelling on burritos and beer with their medals around their necks, and I felt like I was missing out. I watched friends cross the finish line and, to my surprise, vowed that next year I’d be doing the same.
I signed up when registration opened and following an email reminder that there were only a 100 days to go began training in earnest. Most weekends since have featured rides of ever-increasing distances, with routes designed to fit in as many hills as possible.
As much as I loved the training, I was still a bit worried that the event itself wouldn’t be for me. That feeling that it’d all be a bit too macho was amplified by the full-kit cyclist who gave a back-handed compliment about my shoes, as they overtook me on the climb up Caerphilly Mountain from Tongwynlais one evening.
Despite my daps, I still got a personal best that day, but as the event approached, I found myself looking forward less and less. The weather forecast was terrible, and on the morning my alarm clock failed to go off. But one mad dash later and I was lining up in my pen, all ready for the 7:36am start. No turning back now. We were off.
The sheer number of cyclists was unlike anything I’d experienced. Everywhere I looked there were cyclists. Streamlined cycling clubs in their matching jerseys kept appearing from behind, authoritatively issuing commands to work their way forwards. I felt like the Cool Runnings bob-sleigh team when they first encounter the efficiency of the Swiss. But my apprehension soon melted and I found the confidence to take my place in the pack. Able to weave around slower people, giving space to the faster ones. Despite my initial pessimism, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.
Those flat roads to Newport and beyond, usually so hairy with passing traffic, were freed from their lorries and we thundered along. Plenty of riders seemed to suffer punctures and mechanical issues in that first stretch. I experienced my own disaster, and I swore loudly in disbelief. The woman cycling next to me was concerned and asked what the problem was. Sheepishly, I informed her that I’d dropped the last bite of my sandwich. “It was peanut butter and jam” I explained. I pushed on, leaving my embarrassment behind me. That first 40km were a blur. I knew I was probably pushing a bit too hard but for the time being, I was happy enough not to care.
The rest stop near Usk gave me a chance to catch my breath as the rain clouds finally burst, queueing for what felt like an eternity to use one of the four portaloos (only four!), and eat what I’m fairly convinced was one of the tastiest bananas I’ve ever consumed. Refreshed and refueled, it was back on the road and onwards towards the Tumble.
As part of my training I’d climbed it the previous week, and this turned out to be one of the smarter moves of my cycling life. That “how much longer can this go on for?” question, which has in the past stopped me in my tracks, couldn’t form as I worked my way uphill. Not that it was easy. It’s a long climb that feels unending at times, but that prior experience and my touring-bike gears kept me going. I even overtook a few people – something I never thought I’d do. I decided against a Magnum from the ice-cream van at the summit, instead using that long descent as an excuse not to spin my legs for a while at least.
Pulling into the next rest stop I received a text from my brother: ARE YOU DONE YET? Hah, no chance! I quickly scoffed another PBJ, a chunk of protein bar, and climbed back onto the saddle for what turned out to be the hardest segment. The dual carriageway seemed to be a constant uphill to my tiring legs, and then there was Caerphilly Mountain itself, which just felt unnecessary by that point.
I’d not experienced Caerphilly from this side before, and that ‘unknown’ factor conspired with my legs and lungs, forcing me into an unscheduled roadside stop for the first time that day. I caught my breath, and let the worrying spasm in my right leg subside. Eventually I made my way to the top, and into the final rest-stop for one last breather and bite to eat. I felt spent, and figured that I’d make my way gently to the finish line. But that rolling descent revived me, and the Welcome To Cardiff road-sign made my heart soar. I experienced for the first time in my life the endorphin high that runners often talk about, and I sprinted through the suburbs. The roadside support from locals had been fantastic all day, but in that final stretch it really did carry me along. I high-fived some children, such was my enthusiasm. Suddenly the streets were familiar, and before I knew it I was on the home straight and over the finish line.
One medal around my neck and a complimentary bag of (delicious) crisps later, and it was all done.
I really didn’t think I’d enjoy the day anywhere near as much as I did, but I can honestly say that I loved it. I’ll definitely be back next year. After all, I’ve got a score to settle with Caerphilly Mountain.
By Tomos Jones