Off the Back

Maybe its just me, or perhaps it comes to all of us eventually, but despite not racing for at least 8 years now, I have always harboured the belief that I could keep up , just hang in there. I do a fair few miles, have been riding for years, I am older, more experienced, I can follow a wheel. I may not be in the racing, but hey its still in me, it could never leave. I am a roleur, it’s in my blood.
Cycling (and life) isn’t quite like that though, if you don’t put the time in she punishes you, if the road doesn’t, your club mates certainly will. You may push just as hard as you used to but lets face it, a few hours at the weekend is never going to cut the mustard in the slick, drilled smoothness of the chain-gang. It may be in the blood, but after years of spilling my eight pints on various roads around Hampshire, age instead of experience dictates the day.
Eventually it will come, just letting go, either in a race as the pace eats away at your legs, the relentless pressure of staying in a working break, 30 seconds on the front, just tapping through, then missing a turn.. Fading, fighting your bodies desire to stop, how many of us have prayed for a puncture, any excuse, just to stop.
“How did you do?”
“Well I was in the break, going well and I punctured, shame really as I was feeling up for it.”
As we get older, being a grown up gets in the way, life just gets complicated our hedonist days in the saddle curtailed by other duties, work, partners, it all results in the same, its just the gateway arrives earlier.
Getting dropped is just part of riding in a group, though it doesn’t get any better. That wheel in front may be a meter away, but if you are on your way out the back it may as well be a hundred.
About a hundred meters off the back would be a fair approximation where I spent Sundays ride.
Sunday arrived, Glorious, sunny, warm and windy, overnight a brief shower had all but dried up.
Graham was there already, supporting himself against the Marleswood Garden sign legs occasionally spinning backwards. Pat, recovered and eager to make up for lost sessions, Chris sporting unfeasibly tanned calves after a few weeks battering the Cumbrian hills into submission and Steve, who despite professing to being ‘a bit out of shape’, could still out climb or out sprint me one legged on a happy shopper. I find myself nervously look around at cassette sizes.
“ cr*p!”. That sinking feeling.
If I suffered last week, one look at this lot was all I needed to bring that stinging memory bubbling to the surface like a fart in the bath. This is going to be hard.. So I did what every cyclist does when faced with such a group of peers (?) Excuses, banter, hide the weakness as long as possible.
Jack rolled down from Widley, just as Graham was finishing talking with Stu on the phone. My intentions had been to lead us west bound with a return tailwind, but Stu had missed his alarm and requested that we meet him outside the Gales brewery. A brief pause, more banter, before I led the group towards Waterlooville, This 100 metre stretch was to be the last time that I would take to the front. It wasn’t for long though, through Cowplain the precedent was set; Steve, Chris, Pat and Grahame ploughed off the front, building a solid minute advantage on Jack and myself. It took all of Jack’s negotiating skill to stop me from disappearing off on my own there and then. Stu turned up after a further wait and I was glad to see him as my rising terror at the prospect of a long hilly run with this lot was getting the better of me. We rolled off, headed east with a wasted tailwind drawing us along. Two out of place white van ‘characters ‘ waiting outside the church drew a few comments about pikeys diversifying from driveways to church roofs.
Early days yet, just stay on a wheel, protect yourself.
Just before Finchdean, Jack had decided to have a little break to fix a puncture. While the rest of us mooched, scared wildlife we waited,
And waited,
Waited a bit more.. Until Pat’s curiosity got the better of him and he scooted back to the third telegraph pole , from behind which Jacks backside could be seen rhythmically appearing. Obviously Jack had been following the Captains puncture instructions because a full 10 minutes later he appeared and we started off again.

Idsworth Down on the left is capped by no less than ten ancient burial mounds but it was the congregation of St Huberts, who slowed us, its worldly worshippers into our path, (and the path of a rather irate Range Rover). Apparently St Hubert ( patron saint of Hunters , mathematicians, Opticians and metal workers) only has this one church in the whole of Christendom, and many people come to see its priceless 14th century wall painting.
http://www.hull.ac.uk/Hull/GR_Web/Idsworth/idsworth.htm

My request for a lower gear as we turned right towards Compton down was rewarded by messing up the shift, leaving me comically spinning air and forcing me to stop to sort it out, not the best start to the mile and a half climb. Luckily for me, firstly Stu, then Jack held back to admire the downland.
Before long, a left hander took us onto the first ‘sector’. A rough mud strewn rise forced us out of the saddle and a short rutted descent led us out to the back of Compton. Smoother roads greet us until a cheeky 1 in 10 kicks up to the Southdowns crossing. Stu casually slips back as the rest disappear over the rise. Just before the road drops past an ancient barrow called Bevis Thumb. Jack obviously inspired by St Davids day and our pagan heritage decided that this was the ideal place to treat those watching ( no-one) to a strip tease of which I am sure that the few rooks and maybe a bored looking horse enjoyed.
He joins us sans base layer at the junction at the bottom. At this point Stu had decided that the little leg stretcher was enough and turned right as the rest of us swung north towards the back of Harting Down. I should have listened to my legs and Stu..
I manage to get back on when the others stop, just prior to turning into the headwind and dropping down to the back of Long Harting. The noise of the wind only broken by the vocal exhaust of a passing chavved up saxo.
The climb up to Harting (97m) was not as bad as I expected, obviously a large gap opened up. Jack was not firing on all cylinders yet and was behind me.
Sorry Jack, I can’t drop back, I don’t dare ease up in case I lock up, just keep my own pace, my own rhythm.
The summit comes early and as I pass the others I lead them into Hill Lane. This little used lane drops off to the side of Long Harting . I don’t know why, but descending long Harting has always given me the heeby jeebies, but Hill lane, is more technical due to the poorer surface and tighter bends.
The patch of gravel to the junction checks progress as we pass through the odd named Turkey Island and out onto the Nyewood road.
We regroup, a conversation starts, as we turn into Dumpford lane. The occasional sandy patch punctuates more smooth lanes which help us relax as we pass the recently burned down Southdowns Hotel. (28th Jan) ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7213730.stm )
A short rise into Dumpford (snigger) and a brief dash along the A272, soon saw us taking cover in the familiarity of the narrow lanes again. Chithurst with its karma calming Buddhist monastery came and went, but from here the tone of the ride changed for a while, the next mile was punctuated by two sectors (14 &15) of particularly challenging terrain. I make few concessions to ‘my kinda lanes’ but in hindsight I think it was maybe a bit irresponsible leading these guys, on the cusp of a racing season after a winters training, down these two sectors, The skein of mud, the dark tree canopy and potholes, could have easily led to a spill, that could have messed up a season for any one of them. The first drop is superbly named Hammer Lane.
The Captain duly punctured but with the help of a slightly guilty feeling author, was soon on the road again. The second sector passed without incident and we were all soon on the long drag up to Woolbeding Common. Jack gently rebuked me and hung back for a while, but I climbed the last half of the draggy mile on my own. A tubby guy at the top was passed and as Jack pulled away on the descent I was unable to point out the fabulously named Titty Hill to our left.
My rotund friend catches me on the descend. Have things really gotten that low? I think about their obvious distaste to my choice of lanes, an air, I think I am in the dog house. I have built a reputation for quality routes, stringing together the best lanes to build routes that I am proud of. But obviously a step too far there. I feel small as we round the wide bend by Elmers Marsh, they are still p***ed with me.. Someone reads the sign No HGVs aloud..
“No Bikes”
Maybe I have been hiding behind the obvious. My lack of strength and riding fitness has been offset by this bravado, the tortuous routes, I was there once. It worked through the winter, but now as legs start getting stretched in the spring cashing in those training miles, cycling bites back; I am exposed as a fraudster, .
The usual clatter of dropping to the small ring is ominously missing as they power away towards Liphook. Time to let go, ride at my own pace, Pat is first to go , but one by one they all slip away. My cadence may be the same, but when I am turning 39×26 a gap is inevitable.
It is only two miles into Liphook, a brief short hill interrupts, Chris waits for me as we enter Liphook. A hesitant driver on one roundabout forces Steve to dab a foot and we pass through north bound.
As the road passes over the A3 a sharp right turn comes into view, a hidden lanes of smooth tarmac, take us through Bramshott. It was here that Canadian soldiers were based during the First World War and is known for being haunted by the ghost of Boris Karloff who lived there until his death. The slower lanes allowed me to get back on and recover slightly, conversation strikes up as we move two abreast. Agreeable lanes and some kudos is restored.
An obtuse left took us onto Hollywater road. This long straight leads us to the village of Whitehill where I rolled past the group as they waited. By now I just wanted to get them back to familiar roads so that they could get on without me. I lose contact again on the twisting hill above Bradshott hall. You can just glimpse one of the surreal white globes of Oakhanger to the right.
A nature stop at the top as we join the B3006, I wish they knew where they were, they could leave me to my aches and own pace. The cramp wasn’t as bad as last week, offset by 2 litres of fluids , but the relentless pushing triggers the tell tale twinges. When you are off the back it is like a feedback loop, you get dropped, you suffer, everyone waits for you at the top of the next hill and can rest as you toil towards them. Then as soon as you join they are of again, fresh, while you barely catch your breath. Eventually the loop gets smaller and smaller and you crack for good.
A right turn towards Empshott and we finally head for home. I love the lanes in this area, they draw towards Little Switzerland. A very sharp descent and technical down hill sharpen up your resolve as the ‘hidden valley’ greets us. A semi rabid yappy dog greets us by the old mill, and takes aim at Grahame who has to multi task between staying upright on the gravel and avoiding the slavering pooch. The gentle climb the other side has a pendulous vine hanging over the road and in the summer the lush vegetation gives mill lane a special atmosphere.
Hawkley, with it’s out of place church roof allows us to chat a bit, I have relaxed again. Home turf, I start to build up for the coming climb. Green Hill ( not its real name) its one in five and steep near the top. The broken polished tarmac at the bottom is reminiscent of cobbles, so today we ride it in homage to the Het-Volk. I grind up on my 26 but I have no idea how Steve get s over it on a 21. I have a smug grin.. I may be slow, but I know that would have made a dent….
Church lane sweeps us south again, another mile long climb brings us out by the highest pub in Hampshire. Called ‘the pub with no name’ because the locals kept stealing the sign. (actually the white horse)
A fly-tipper with an odd sense of surrealism has left a pair of pink basin pedestals in the hedge. They look just like a pair of legs.. mine feel the same.
As the brisk headwind bites, we regroup and after deciding to take a more direct route home. Tear off towards Froxfield and the A272 beckons as we drop towards Old Down.
This 1.3 mile climb only gains 36 m so it looks a lot worse than it actually feels. It snakes away ahead of you, but even with a headwind you can stomp and get a very reasonable pace up it. Chris held back, It was the last I saw of the others.
Chris and I turned down the rolling fast descent into East Meon, hugging the top tube, trying to build speed on the roller coaster, loosing that hard fought altitude, only to bury yourself again to regain it.. Together we turned towards the masts on Salt hill (Mercury) and started the empty climb, watched by a small herd of deer in valley. I lost contact with Chris near the top, but was very grateful for his company while my legs lasted.
The headwind along Catherington Down tugs and whips at me, but this is the home straight, I notice how irritating not having Shimano gear cables to hang on in a semi time trial position is. I practice my Spanish verbs drills.. I don’t feel as bad as last week, and just before Chris disappears for good around Lovedean Lane I touch my brow as a grateful salute.
I climb of the bike and my left hamstring twinges, just to let me know that my legs are ticked off with all this abuse.

Was a good ride, kind of enjoyed it. Have a good Racing season and see you all in the Autumn.
Ride safe

Craig’s rules for getting dropped gracefully.

•Smile. No one can see it but it is better than frowning
•Make sure that you are the only one that knows where the hell you are.
•Don’t bother with excuses… just admit it …your cr*p.
•Have other skills… maybe an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds or cloud types.
•Practice your foreign language verb drills.
•Prepare excuses for when you meet them at the next junction.
•Let them go with a flourish, citing reasons like
o“I had a hard session yesterday”
o“ I have circuits tomorrow”
o“ I am breathing through my ring piece and this chamois cream tastes yukky.”
o“ I am afraid that my wheezing is putting you off”
o“ The cat needs feeding”
o“ I have new glass pedals, if I press them too hard they will shatter with my awesome power”
o“ Just p**s off and leave me alone will you!”
•If the group waits for you, ride through with authoritively and nonchalantly as if nothing was wrong.

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