As my wheels hit the first section of cobbles, I did wonder whether joining this ride was a decision I was going to regret. The road (and that’s a very loose description) seemed to stretch vertically into the sky. Twin potholed, pavé pathways bearing the impression of the farm tractors the track served and a slippery, domed centre that set your back wheel skittering. Not that these conditions seemed to lessen the pace of the ride leaders and the more accomplished bike handlers. They were soon disappearing round the corner ahead leaving me to simultaneously process the following thoughts: What if I fall off, make a fool of myself, break my bike, break ‘me’?
Finally joining the group at the top – some riders taking a moment to eat and drink, others breathing heavily over their bars – I noticed that although I’d come to a stand-still, my legs had not. Adrenaline was coursing through my body, producing a trembling of the knees and a gentle quiver of leg muscles. It was then I heard Lee, who’d planned the route and never seems unfazed by whatever conditions we find ourselves riding, quietly comment that it would do as an appetiser but there was plenty more to come later. Too late to back out? Or time to test whether pride does indeed come before a fall?
By way of providing some context, this was the Manchester Rapha Cycling Club’s tribute to the iconic Tour of Flanders. The idea was to seek out cobbled climbs and dirt tracks to the north of Manchester before returning to the club house to watch how the professionals do it. The club, having just celebrated its first birthday, provides a range of rides and routes to suit all abilities and appetites. I’d recently enjoyed a ride inspired by Milan – San Remo that perfectly honoured the classic route over 123 miles from Manchester to Cleethorpes on the east coast. We had a suitably hilly start and our own version of the Poggio before racing down the seafront where, after refuelling on fish and chips, we caught the train back over the Pennines. This was a ride that, although long, I felt confident in clicking the ‘Yes, I’m attending’ button on the RCC forum.
But cobbles? My initial reaction was a resounding ‘NO’. As I read the forum thread, however – other members discussing the route and sharing their enthusiasm – it dawned on me that this was why I joined the club in the first place. To ride with an inspiring bunch of people, all sharing a love of cycling, from different and varied backgrounds, many stronger and faster riders than myself. And, above all, to take me out of my comfort zone. To ride with individuals that will support, challenge and encourage me to take a risk.
I’m not for one moment going to suggest that I suddenly discovered my Flandrian ‘mojo’ on the later sections of cobbled climbs we rode. Unfortunately I never found enlightenment on the road to Saddleworth Moor. I bounced, shook, even on occasion walked. What I was left with, however, was a true sense of achievement. Of facing up to apprehension and not simply accepting that, because a ride is difficult, I should choose an easier route.
I’ll finish with an observation. I understand that television can lessen aspects of the climbs we see the professional teams tackling but the Belgium pavé seemed rather tame compared to the brutal surfaces we’d ridden earlier in the day. Maybe even the great Peter Sagan, if riding the climbs I’d struggled up, might have had second thoughts?
Then again, perhaps not.