MF takes on the Specialized Silverstone Sportive
MF's Matt Ray cycles the 161km Specialized Sportive in preparation for the punishing L'Étape du Tour.
In a couple of weeks I'm taking part in this year's L'Étape du Tour, in which ordinary cyclists get the chance to ride one of the stages of the Tour de France - in 2010 this event runs for 181km through the Pyrénées from Pau to Col du Tourmalet. As part of my build-up I've headed to Northamptonshire to take part in the 100-mile (161km) Specialized Silverstone Sportive.
It isn't a race though, it's a long-distance mass-participation cycling event. In Britain, it's illegal to race on public roads. Still, as I strap the timing chip to my ankle, tie my event number to my handlebars and line up at the start in front of a guy with a starting pistol, it definitely feels like a race.
The start is just beside the racetrack that Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton will be howling around in this weekend's formula one grand prix. The gun fires and I hit the pedals. It's 9am and brilliantly sunny but there's a gusty, speed-sapping wind building up. I get into a bunch of riders and we blast through the hilly first 40km in an hour or so, riding together to save energy. The course is a mix of fast B roads and winding country lanes taken straight out of the tourist brochure.
But after that initial burst I find the pace is too fierce for me - my legs are already stinging - and I drop off the back of the group to wheeze up the next hill. I'm starting to regret choosing the 100-mile route instead of the 25-mile or 50-mile one. I try to keep my average speed around the 30km/h mark, which is hard work in this wind but somehow I manage it.
Just as I start to get into a good rhythm I swing around a corner to face a convoy of tractors. I slam on the brakes and manage to stay upright. At least a dog hasn't run out into the road and knocked me off, as happened to British rider David Millar on the same day in the Tour de France.
Many miles, water stops and energy bars later, I've battled through the wind to finish in 5hr 32min. I'm pretty happy with that, but it doesn't give a real taste of what the Tour de France riders go through every day for three weeks. For that, I need to take on the steep mountain roads of the Pyrénées. I'll be reporting back after I've done just that, so watch this space.
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