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Cycletta Cheshire REVIEW

by Holly Blades

Those of you who have been following my progress of preparing for my first ever open road mass participation event will know that said event was yesterday! 6 months of training had led to that point - to cycle 40km around the sleepy lanes of Cheshire.

bike
My Bicycle

I'm very much a sit down and watch TV kind of person. However, I live in the middle of nowhere and don't drive so a lot of my exercise comes from walking nearly everywhere I need to go. I learnt how to ride a bike when I was about 5. I happily rode up and down the pavement outside my house, or through the woods with my grandparents. I even took my bike to France when I was about 10, and rode it around the local lanes for about six weeks. Granted, it ended with me faceplanting down a gravel track after my brother fell off his skateboard and grabbed the nearest thing to him - my saddle - but I loved it. The point I'm making is that I'm not massively unfit, and I know I can ride a bike - so it shouldn't have been to hard, should it?

My training for the event consisted of cutting down on alcohol, which was pretty easy as I don't drink during the week usually, and taking the bike out onto the Tissington Trail before I moved out of Derbyshire. Once I'd moved house though, circumstance and weather (mainly weather) meant the bike was confined to the Turbo trainer for 20 minute sessions every other day.

Freezing
Freesin Cold Morning

And so, I was pretty confident about my ability to cycle 40km as I sat on the startline in Tatton Park. Matt had prepared my bike the night before and loaded the car, and I'd packed all my kit including "worst case scenario" gilet, cape and extra gloves. Sleep was fitful as my reaction to nerves or stress tends to be "I can't sleep", and my reaction to "I can't sleep" tends to be "migraine". I was convinced I was going to wake up with a migraine, and in fact I did wake up with a headache but fortunately no limb numbness and vomiting. So I manned up and dragged myself into the car at stupid o'clock in the morning. I still can't understand why you guys do it.

Matt, being the perfect boyfriend, had made me a flask of tea for the journey and put some cookies in a tupperware pot, and so we set off for the hours drive to Knutsford. Leaving behind the bright sunshine in Shropshire, we were feeling pretty optimistic for the weather until we reached the M6 and it was suddenly like driving through grey rainy soup. I knew I had to collect my number and timing chip before the event so tensions were high when we entered the Knutsford entrance of Tatton Park to see a big "This entrance is closed, please use other entrance" sign. Other entrance being about six miles away. So, we duly turned around along with all the confused OAPs ready for a day out behind us and started the journey back on ourselves in the heavy fog.

thumbs up
Thumbs Up

We knew we were in the right place once we hit a queue snaking back from the car park on to the main street, each car adorned with everything from shoppers to racers, electric bikes (!) to children's BMX. Parking was pretty easy thanks to the marshalls and police, but it would have been nice to have a little more information regarding which entrance to use prior to the event.

Matt unpacked my Specialized (and his own) whilst I layered myself up in all of my "worst case scenario" clothing. My brilliant Cyclosport jersey covered by one of Matt's gilets and my rain cape. Still, I could get some photos of it at the feeds. It was freezing, it was foggy, it was trying to rain, yet the women of all ages getting ready around me were smiling and chatting and taking photos. The startline area was no different. With copious food and drink stands (none of which had leg achingly long queues) and the Pamper Tent featuring manicures and massages, there was plenty to be grateful for. Local radio provided the entertainment with a female MC attempting to enthuse the crowd as classics such as We Built This City on Rock And Roll, and 9 to 5 blared out.

Matt left to watch from a bit further down the starting straight as he wanted to follow the event at a safe distance to take photos at the feed stops etc, and I edged my way forwards to the start line. I ended up being in the penultimate group, and I felt like I was at Alton Towers - more specifically sat on Oblivion at that moment before it clicks and drops vertically into a black hole. Ha, if only it had been as easy as that.

Starting
Starting Straight

Now, I've mentioned my vertigo before. It's not "afraid of heights" vertigo (as that's acrophobia, but let's not split hairs), it's more an inner ear "as soon as both of my feet leave the ground, either to stand on a chair, to climb a ladder, to ride a bike, my brain goes mental." I'd thought I was getting slightly better at it with regards to the bike as I was relatively calm on the Tissington Trail, and the Turbo had made me feel more confident in the saddle. Unfortunately, you can't account for things such as potholes, mud patches, cars and other cyclists until you're actually on the road. My brain went mental. I couldn't cycle in a straight line even though I was convinced I was - Matt, watching from behind said I was constantly veering to the left, like there was a pull. He said it was like watching somebody who had a very bright light shined in their face making them lose all sense of their periphery.
Before I made it through the gates of Tatton Park, I'd veered into the verge twice. It was as though every bike that went past me, or every pothole I tried to avoid just chipped away at my balance until I caved and had to come to a stop. Either upright or not. Retrospectively, I'm proud that I still got back on the bike after both of those upsets. My hands were shaking and my palms were sweating, and I remember trying to control my breathing as I have had to do during panic attacks in the past. But I carried on. Maybe once the riders spread out a bit and we made it onto the open road I'd be okay.

starting
Headquarters Mass Start

The open road meant cars and that was something I'd not dealt with since I was a kid when a shout of "Car!" would go up, everybody would move to the side of the road, and then resume their places upon the call "Clear!" I tried to mentally work out how long it would take me to finish the 40km if I stopped and stood on the grassy verge everytime a car went past. It probably wasn't viable. So, I just concentrated on the yellow line to the left. The wet yellow line that was probably really slippy and that I almost definitely shouldn't steer towards. What was that? The sound of a car? Oh my god, there's a car behind me, oh my god, keep left, keep left, oh there's a wet yellow line, mustn't touch the yellow line, try and steer right a bit more. And so on.

By this point my knuckles were white and my knees were locking up as my vertigo overcame my determination and everything started to go fuzzy. I called out to Matt who I knew was somewhere behind me that I didn't think I could do this. He shouted back something comforting and inspirational, but my arms were stiff with fear and my eyes were already brimming with tears as I continued to try and control my breathing. I could hear a car behind me, and I could see a car coming towards me and I knew I had to just stop. I've felt that irrational fear and nausea and dizziness only twice in my life before. Once when I was about 11 and had to go to the dentist for the first time in years when I almost literally flipped out in the chair - at that point in time there was nothing more terrifying than the dentist and I didn't care what happened, I just couldn't be there. The second time, which probably gives a better insight into vertigo, is where I had to go rock climbing as part of school camp. I made it onto the third step. I was probably about two feet off the ground, when suddenly my fingers wouldn't unclasp from the rock, and my knees wouldn't move. It took every single part of my body and mind to stop me passing out and dropping backwards. I was just overcome with sheer and utter terror, light headedness and an urge to cry and/or be sick. One of the teachers had to come and get me down. I'm not sure he even needed to take his feet off the ground to do so.

And so, there I was, in the middle of an attack of vertigo which would probably lead to a full blown panic attack, knowing that I had to stop riding if only to calm down. I was putting myself in danger trying to cycle whilst I couldn't actually see properly. I tried to break and put my feet on the ground, but instead I managed a perfect comedy fall into the verge. And if that wasn't funny enough, into a pile of nettles. I lay there, bike on top of me, just grateful it was over as my vision and hearing began to come back. Matt was there like a shot, asking if I was okay. My only response was to burst into tears. Something I don't do very often, so he knew things were seriously wrong.

I sat up, aware of the nettles stinging every part of me that wasn't triple layered - i.e. my bum - and a soreness beginning to emanate from my left knee. I stood up gingerly with Matt's help and tried to get words out, like I couldn't do this anymore, I was completely irrationally terrified and it was consuming me, I'd tried to carry on after my first two tumbles but it had just gotten worse. Like I literally couldn't see and my inner ear was going so crazy that I literally couldn't stay upright. All of this came out as five words, through a haze of snot and whimpering. "I want to go home." 

Matt helped me back on the bike but I couldn't put a lot of weight on my left knee without serious pain. As a former pro and director sportif, he knows how to sum up a post-crash situation relatively quickly. He's also a policeman in his day job so he's pretty good at reading situations on the road. When he said he thought that, yes, going home was a pretty good idea, I cried even harder. He told me I was a danger to myself and others and that he had no idea that, when I told him I had vertigo, it was actually that bad. That he couldn't have known how bad it was until he saw it in action. We started a very slow and very cautious pedal back to the start line where I had to inform the organisers what had happened.

They were very sweet and concerned which eased the embarrassment and total humiliation I was feeling. 
Armed with a cup of sweet tea, I limped back to the car, scratching my nettle stings as we went. After a few awkward moments from enthusiastic park visitors, "Finished already?" and "Ooh, that was quick!" I made it to the sanctuary of the car and composed myself. Rolling my tights down showed that there was no broken skin on the knee, just a large red patch. I think it was more of an internal jarring than an actual injury, and as the day progressed it calmed down which is more than could be said for the ankle that had apparently come a cropper on the chain ring. That's now an interesting cross section of blue hues with jagged scabbing around the foot. Nice.

Trying to get out of Tatton Park was a challenge in itself. Fortunately, Matt is still driving the liveried Tour of Britain car that he was loaned as race controller, so people seemed to think it was fine for us to drive randomly up and down the start line area until we found the arrows for the exit, in fact there were instances where photos were actually taken as if we were part of the event!

It must have been because of this detour that a few minutes into our journey home I received a text congratulating me on finishing Cycletta with a time of 49:40. We forgot the transponder was in the car. Still, by my calculations that makes me a little bit faster than Brad Wiggins. Go me!

Seriously though, Cycletta is a well-organised event with a lovely atmosphere and so many different levels of cyclists and equipment that it's a joy to behold at the start line. Victoria Pendleton was riding and would be signing autographs/posing for photos at the finish line, which was something she didn't have to do but really summed up the camaraderie feel of the event. The weather was so cold but at least it wasn't raining, and it didn't seem to dampen any spirits. I wish I could give you more information on the feed stops but from their locations they seemed well placed and couldn't fail to be well stocked (farm shops etc). 

I just wish I'd known that 30 year old me isn't as carefree and unaware as 10 year old me. You really don't know how you're going to react in a situation until you're in it and by that point it's too late. There was no way for me to know how I would be out on the open roads in a mass participation event unless I'd already been out on the open roads in a mass participation event. And if that had been the case, then this series of blogs about my "first time" would have been pointless. I don't know whether it's something I'll try and combat or something I'll accept and move on from. At the moment, I'm just so relieved that I don't feel like I did on the bike yesterday anymore that I'm happy to imagine I'll never do anything of the sort again. But where's the fun in that?

With many thanks to Specialized, Cycletta, Velobici and of course Cyclosport.org. I hope I didn't let you down too much.





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