In September 24th 2017, I took part in the first Velo Birmingham 2017, UK. This is a 100 mile closed road cycle event set in the countryside around Birmingham area. Velo Birmingham is no normal sportive for cyclists to test their endurance. The 100 miles is the only distance available, no 30 or 50 mile option. Therefore one had to train for such a distance as most of us wouldn’t have had such a chance to ride long distances in this way. Couple with the fact that it is 100 miles (approx. 161km) of closed road riding it was sure to be an event of the year for the region.
What I forgot to mention was that there was 15,000 of us doing it! That is alot of us cycling the same route at the same time…
I pre-registered back in September 2016 at The Cycle Show, NEC, where it was launched with much fanfare at the show. I was with my friend, Marc Denny, and the concept of riding 100 miles of closed roads from Birmingham was very appealing indeed. The official register was done in March 2017. Was rather expensive for a “sportive”, not a race event, but there was promise of 4 stop stations, heavily sponsored by likes of Cycle Republic and Ribble Bikes. However the £75 entry fee did not deter Marc and I. We could have done it for less if we registered through a charity event, but previous years I have done a few charity events and relied on family and friends to donate. So I thought for this year I won’t put that on them.
So since March we were committed to the ride in September. Plan was to train throughout the spring and summer to get ourselves fit for the ride in September.
To get into training was not hard, the weather during spring was generally nice, dry but quite windy. Marc was training regularly, and I was trying to get into it. But with a new van for the business I had to spend some time to get kitted out properly and get my supplies in order. Since more and more people were getting their bikes serviced with me in order for them to ride. All good really, but it meant I couldn’t go out training as much as I like. In April my wife and I registered for a local Triathlon, sprint event held at the Xcel sports centre in May.
There is an irony of having a business in a sport I love, which is, the more the business is successful the less I get to ride. This meant I had to be disciplined and structured in my training plan. But I didn’t actually get all sensible and draw up an actual plan. Instead I set it in my mind when I would do some training and planned things around it. It sort of worked but admittedly alot of times I gave up the ride to do something else.
So throughout summer I hadn’t done much riding, particularly for weekends I had started an eZo Clinic at Hilltop Farm Cafe/Restaurant. That took up every weekend mornings, but did mean I could do some rides in the afternoon, which I needed.
I have a nice route that covers 50 miles which runs around the city in the country roads of the green belt. I did it a couple of times and each time I had too long a break after 25 miles and then suffered to finish 50 miles. But I feel my nutrition and fluids was about right. I had a bar or gel every hour and drank frequently, before I felt thirsty, so for 4 hour ride I drank around 2 litres of water, half of which had isotonic tablet.
Early Autumn the Tour of Britain was happening and another friend, Richie, suddenly mentioned we could ride down to Moreton-in-Marsh to watch the race ride through. Richie planned the route, roughly 80 mile round trip, good test for me being 3 weeks away from doing the 100 miles. Riding there after 30 miles I was already struggling with weather changing every half hour. But with 5 miles to go, we were beginning to think we missed them, particularly when we saw the helicopter overhead. Plus the thunder clouds looming behind us and then I had a puncture. As I was knackered, my tube change was not as speedy as usual. But once sorted, we attacked the last hill and as we rolled down the road to the stretch where the race was, we noticed the helicopter again, so it gave us hope!
As we got onto the race road, we noticed people standing around watching, asked them if the race had come through and they told us, gleefully, “not yet!” and as we got into a nice position with camphone in hand, the race came through. It was brilliant timing after all. Such a wonderful atmosphere and after meeting up with Richie’s friends in a camper van for biscuits and coffee, we set off back to Coventry. However, almost immediately my legs were beginning to crampup, which after some advice from Richie (who has been an amateur racer since a teenager) I managed it all the way back to Coventry. With a huge storm and a last climb, my leg gave in and cramped up big time, all I could do was stand by the side of the road. But after a short walk I managed to ride the last 4 miles home, slowly. Hope this doesn’t happen on the day of the Velo!
The day before we had to go into Birmingham to pick up my numbers for the ride at the NIA, it was already setup for us riders with a large number of crowd getting themselves ready, racks ready for rider’s after race clothes, tables with every rider’s numbers and stalls for cycle maintenance, selling accessories or nutrition for rides and holidays, there was even a group of masseurs there.
Anyway, the night before I got my bike ready, numbers on helmet, front of bike and route breakdown on top tube. Saddle bag was packed with 2 inner tubes, multi-tool and tyre levers. Pump was checked and all my nutrition and fluids readied. I prepared 75% of my nutrition for the ride, thinking 25% I will use one or two of the pitstops to refuel. Also I had 2 bidons with one filled with isotonic drink and the other plain water. Knowing we would refill when we needed to.
In the morning of the ride, I had a lovely bowl of porridge to help release energy throughout the morning, before attacking the bars and gels.
As we got there, the atmosphere was fantastic. We were towards the back of the start groups, so was practically by the NIA. The start line about 1/2 mile ahead of us on Hagley Road. I managed to get a puncture on approach to the start group, rode over some broken glass which Marc avoided. At least I had it early on to get it out of the way.
As we heard the starting announcement, Marc and I set off with excitement. As we crossed the start line we pushed forward, then quickly realised we had 99 more miles to cover, so dialled it down a notch, but then we noticed that our average speed was at least 4-5 mph faster than when we ride solo. so this is what it’s like to ride with large groups (peloton!). Interesting, with this in mind we could try out some serious drafting, riding close to a group with little effort then bit of power to push through and catch the next group.
Marc and I loved this, and generally the first 25 miles was covered rather effortlessly. Marc was climbing like a champ and I let him climb ahead, but on the descents it was my way to catch up. Not often you get to ride fast without having to consider traffic and pedestrians, so with closed roads, I pushed on the descents with vigour and thoroughly loved it.
The pitstops was massively crowded and therefore hard to queue into, unless we sacrificed 30 minutes to get to the feed counters. So Marc and I took a decision to continue on, use the 2nd pitstop at mile 50. When we got there, we queued up to the manor house only for people to tell us that all the food has finished. Majorly disappointing! So we shot off to the next one, only for that one to be super busy too.
All along the spirits were high, with everyone enjoying themselves and lots of banter along the way. The crowds along the way were super to see us riding through. Massive shout out to the crowds in Halesowen, Kinver, Droitwich and Bewdley for having fantastically big crowds and cheers. Weirdly people often shouted out our names as we rode through, now we know we are all strangers to each other, but it was nice to hear someone shout out your name with familiarity, friends at moment in time. Brilliant.
After the second disastrous pitstop at mile 50, we got the feeling all the others were going to be the same. So we started to look for garages or shops along the route to buy some supplies, particularly since Marc came out with less than 50% of food for the ride. So he was starting to feel hungry which is not a good position to be in at halfway. Between mile 60-70 we were busy looking for shops, even had to ask spectators where the nearest shops were. Some spectator shouted out that a shop was coming up. We speeded up and found a small shop with a long queue. Took half an hour to just queue to pay, the shelves were emptying fast, so I grabbed a handful of chocolate bars, cereal bars and sweets. Many in the queue were already tucking into the food before they even got to pay. It was the first time I have seen so many people pay for wrappers only for the cashier to put directly into the bin!
I spoke to the owner of the little shop and he honestly thought noone would be stopping along the route to use their shop and toilets, but it turned out to be their best trade day of the whole year. Something the organisers could learn something from.
So after such a long break we headed off towards the dreaded climb at mile 85. We did stop at the last pitstop there just before that anticipated climb up Clent Hill. Maybe anticipation and rumour exaggerated the situation, as the climb was hard but not horrible as such. Maybe more the fact we were tired after doing 85 miles of 100 miles. Anyway, there was lots of encouragement from the crowds and riders, so we push on up. Manage to ride it all too as I did see some struggling and ended up walking. Marc was phenomenal, as he actually continued to attack the climbs and dropped me off quite quickly. I didn’t bother trying to keep up or ask him to stay with me. He had his flow, I had mine. I just stayed at my pace and was thankful for not feeling any cramp at all.
After what seemed like hours of climbing (20mins max!) we got pass Clent Hill and was on a stretch of descents and short climbs to get to the last 5 miles flat run back into central Birmingham. At this point, I actually lost sight of Marc, so after the last short climb, I was determined to reel Marc back in, we started together so I was determined we would finish together. So I started to put all the race tactics I learned off Richie, slipstream every rider I see in front of me. Took me 5 miles to reel Marc back in and from there we had 5 miles left to finish, so we rode together to speed to the end and crossed the line together. Was so satisfying to have started together and finished together and rode most of the way together too.
After we crossed the line, we were followed the road back towards the NIA, we were given our medals which was also satisfyingly weighty and sorts of justifies our efforts. After 8 hours of riding it was getting late. We had better head on home instead of staying for the party in the NIA.
Overall, riding 100 miles was rather OK and we were capable. It was the first time we had done such a long distance in one day. If the roads were not closed, I can imagine we would have wasted more energy. Having to slow down and get back up to speed. Also to check traffic along the way. Definitely would have been harder for sure.
The amount of training we did was sufficient. But I was glad to have done the 80 mile ride a few weeks before. I was very happy I didn’t cramp up at all. Although there were a couple of moments on Clent Hill where I felt that initial feeling that it might come. But managed to ease up on the pedalling and just spin through.
Velo Birmingham could have done a much better job with the pitstop. But it was their first year, so some learning to be done for 2018. Just hope they actually learnt from this year. My thinking is that they should collaborate with local garages and shops who are along the closed route. They could offer water, some food. Or just show on the route map where shops are along the way. Riders can decide for themselves when and where they will stop. This way it should spread people out more and not have hundreds of riders in a small pitstop area. Such an event should have much more collaboration with local businesses instead of keeping it corporate only. We even saw some families offering riders their BBQ along the route. So kind of them to do that.
The atmosphere was fantastic and for those embracing the road closures also seemed to have enjoyed the day. Some people thought to sabotage the route by throwing tacks and oil purposely along the route. But these were dealt with and I think everyone got through OK. Some riders had issues with mechanical issues or had accidents, but ambulances were quick to call and service vehicles were picking people up.
Personally I really enjoyed myself, the weather on the day was perfect, as a couple of weeks leading up to the Velo the weather was awful. The sun was warm all day, wind was not bad either. Dressed for autumn ride, but then I like to be warm than cold. I wore shorts with leg warmers, thinking I would take them off if necessary, which I didn’t. Had a gilet with me but I took that off at the first pitstop.
The next day I was aching for sure, but nothing too bad, just was a bit slow in movement. Later in the week I was back to normal.
Could anyone ride 100 miles on closed roads, I believe mostly YES, need to train for it though. Do you need a nice bike to do it? Well I noticed many amazing bikes, but I also noticed many very average bikes, some very old bikes too. Tandems, hybrid and even MTB bikes were around. We were all riding together some were faster and some were slower. So it was not the bike that made the ride it was the rider that made the ride. So almost any bike will do I would say, although I don’t recommend doing it on a fixie/singlespeed bike. Although I am sure someone must have done it one.
Pre-regstered already for 2018 Velo Birmingham…