I like threes, because they are predictably different. The first iteration is always horribly hard, the second surprisingly easy, the third has a twist in the tale. I find this applies almost universally, whether to love, losses, hills, or just laps of Richmond Park.
On the world’s slowest club ride to Richmond Park this weekend I was told about the three laps ‘challenge’. The goal is to ride it in under an hour, a feat a completely unscientifically proven only 20% of cyclists achieve.
I like threes and I like Richmond Park and I definitely like the idea of being top 20% material so I rolled up on my Eastway to see how I got on. I am exceptionally curious about what I can actually do on a bike. I think I can tick ‘get from A to B’ off the list quite comprehensively, but I want to know what else is out there. The more I ride my bike the more I want to ride it and the more I learn about what other people do on their bikes, the more I want to do that too. The more I think ‘well why not?’ and the less I think ‘well obviously I can’t do that…’
Also I need an excuse to show off my beautiful road bike, which I cleaned and fettled and taped the bars a ridiculously pleasing shade of lime green in readiness for an audax (long-distance cycle) I then never managed to attend. It’s been glaring at me irritably ever since, all dressed up with nowhere to go. I put on my nice kit to ride in so it doesn’t feel unappreciated.
I’ve ridden plenty of laps of Richmond Park and never once timed myself. However Barry, 70, my club’s time triallist extraordinaire, has seduced me with talk of steel-framed TT bikes from the 1980s with downtube shifters into wondering if I have any speed in these legs of mine. He makes time trialling sound really romantic, I have visions of first light on hazy summer mornings and that secretive silence of usually busy roads and the magical otherworld of Things People Do When Other People Are Asleep. I expect crucifying myself along the A24 at 4am in June is not quite like this, but that’s the image Barry has put in my head. The charmer.
I have deliberately not researched the distance and average speed required first. All I know is three laps, 60 minutes is the target. If I research it and find out it’s actually really hard I won’t do it, my confidence is erratic to say the least at the moment, so ignorance is bliss.
If there’s a technique to riding at speed, I don’t know it, so I just shove my bike into a massive gear and pedal. Up the hills I drop a couple of gears but not many. It hurts consistently. I don’t know how I’m going to keep this up for an hour. It’s a brilliantly sunny day and there’s loads of cyclists out. They all look much happier than me, many are faster without exerting any apparent effort at all.
I have a thrilling teta-a-tete with a chap on a mountain bike, who surely - SURELY - I should outpace on my carbon fibre dream machine and I can tell he surely - SURELY - thinks he should outpace a woman, and we back and forth until he admits defeat and slopes off to the cafe/goes for a planned cafe stop that has nothing to do with me.
Later, when it hurts more, I have an even more thrilling tete-a-tete with a red Jaguar E-Type being driven by a heap of tweed with a face like John Cleese. I think. I can’t really tell and my legs hurt.
I don’t think I’m ever going to be a sprinter. I know my legs are strong but they operate on a time delay, much like the rest of me actually. They never quite fire at the moment I need them to. Thirty seconds LATER, look out world, here I come. Only everybody else is already over the first hill. Last night I trained sprints at BMX (incidentally, did I mention my legs hurt?) and I had the same problem of that time delay before my brain connects to my legs, when I sort of windmill pointlessly with no real impact wondering when it’s all going to ‘kick in’. By the time it does, I’m at the first roller and my pedals catch.
It’s like that, but in Richmond Park.
A woodpecker flies over, low and undulating. Its red cap flashes brazenly in the unseasonal February sun.
I should be wearing a cap. I’ve got a new helmet from Liv Cycling and it needs a peak. I wonder if the helmet is making me more aero. Grip the drops, drop the elbows, I can feel my core is engaged but my thighs are bashing into my ribs. Is that supposed to happen or is that my ‘winter coat’?
Halfway round the last lap I am pondering how incredibly strong my legs feel and how amazingly fast I must be and they just go. Ping, snap. I’m pedalling through treacle with a headwind in my face and I have to switch all the way up to the top of the big ring to compensate, and I’m still slowing down. This won’t do but my legs won’t work, they’re all over the place, going in every direction except forwards and round. It lasts for a few minutes, then all of a sudden I’ve forgotten all about it and have cut up a mint green Nissan Micra and heartlessly slammed the Eastway across a set of cobbles to get round a mini-roundabout at more speed. It doesn’t mind. This bike never minds, which is more than can be said for the driver of the Nissan Micra.
Oh thank god, it’s the end.
When I get home I google, and discover that a lap of Richmond Park is circa 6.7 miles which means to achieve this in less than an hour I need to ride at just over 20mph. Today I averaged just over 17mph. Directly afterwards I rolled home feeling like I got hit by a bus. By the evening, I hardly feel it at all.
I like little challenges like this because of what you learn about yourself. Today I learned I’m not as fast as I think I am. I also learned that there’s probably a better technique to time trialling than putting your bike in a big gear and pedalling hard. I never felt like I was going that fast, even though I couldn’t make the bike go any faster. This feels paradoxical and I expect there is a way around it. Google will know.
I also learned that I can recover extremely quickly, which I did suspect, and that next time I want to try a timed challenge I could pick a day on which I did not train two hours of BMX and not eat tea the evening before.
There might be other ways to shave off that eight minutes. I could ride at a different time so there’s less traffic and pedestrians to negotiate. I could try riding clockwise, to see if that makes a difference. I could get rid of some of the winter coat. Or, I could just ride a bit faster. Next time, I expect I will.