Graeme Obree Challenge – my first timed sportive

I think the ideal is to get a really good nights sleep on the night before a physically challenging event.
My night before couldn’t be further from that truth….

Time to prepare
I’d been working late in the run up to going on holiday and to be honest there was a slight sense of surreal “it’s not really happening” going on my head until late Saturday night. Having cycled to work and then getting a lift back home in the pouring rain from my wife in the car – it slowly dawns on me that my bike has had no preparation, cleaning or even just basic thought into e Sportive starting at 9am next day. Time to start the ritual…….

Bike – check. Good working condition? Eh no….
Gear changes were a bit crunchy, chain was clogged in muck, there was a bit of rubbing of the chain and derailleur on the topmost gear and if in top gear the rear dérailleur was rubbing the spokes of my new wheels. This will just not do….

11pm and the bike is at least clean – having had a hose down in the garden. My neighbours must hate me.

Now it’s time to get the bits off – starting with the rear dérailleur. Give it a good soak in my cleaner bath. Give the chain a good clean with my chain cleaner – great tool that. Chainring, cranks, bottom bracket – all removed – all cleaned – all reassembled. Check.
Now – tyres – good condition. Check.
Spare tyre? Check.
Tools? Re-pack saddle bag – checking carefully that I DO have a spare tube and tyre levers and quick pump CO2 with cylinders.
Wheels – visual check and are spokes true – is it running well? Check.

Workshop in the kitchen
Workshop in the kitchen


Clothes now – weather forecast for rain. I hastily pull together my rucksack with under layers, extra layers, jackets, cycling shoes, comfiest long distance gear (code for comfiest pants folks! Undercarriage care is of utmost importance! – No – I’m not kidding either). Long leg leggings and, of course, the Celtic Challenge T cycling shirt, helmet, Gore gloves (best ever)

Food supplies – no cereal bars left, bit light on carbs powders for my bottle.
Manage to make up two bottles and get them on the bike.

Admin- checking I’ve got the itinary sorted out.
Print map to get to the right location. Check.
Print out reservation codes and map of College grounds that we meet at. Check.
Check start time – 9am but I’d agreed to meet two other Celtic Challengers there for 8:30am. Check.
Check how long it will take to get there by car with the bike on the back. Merde!! Two hours travel time

All sorted by 2am. Feeling a bit peckish, I rustle up some food and get to bed about 2.30am.

Short on sleep.

Only to get back up again at 6am… (I’d slept through my alarms for 5:30am, 5:45am, and 5:55am)

On the road by 6:30am, having got the bike rack clamped to the car, the bike clamped to the rack and me in behind the wheel. No time to get supplies – just get there on time.

Got as far as the end of the street before I have to go back to get my rucksack with all of the rest of my gear. Doh!!

Long Journey

It’s a long trip from Edinburgh to Auchincruive. Long enough for me to wake up and feel slightly more alive. And long enough to get a latte and several sandwiches in whilst motoring at 70mph.
Morning world!!!


The road through Glasgow was unusually quiet  that morning and I motored straight through and out the other side without going less than 40 miles an hour – RESULT.  I’m was now on track to get to the Auchincruive Agricultural College campus on time to meet my follow Celtic Challenge colleagues Phil Townsend and Liz McRobb. Hooray!

I got slightly worried as I headed south on the M77 onto the A77, as it has an extensive length of average speed camera’s before you get down to Prestwick Airport and on towards Ayr.

My phone had pinged twice with messages from my two cycling buddies before I got to the road with signage indicating the college campus was just two miles ahead. I arrived at the front car park – just in time.

Oswald Hall - the starting point
Oswald Hall – the starting point

A quick check of the campus layout tells me the start point is still a good bit away however…so I shifted the car into another car park slightly closer – once I’d figured out that a car parking gate would rise automatically to let me in if I drove up to it slowly. Not wanting to look like a twat I had avoided it the first time I spied it as I wasn’t sure if it would rise to the occasion, so to speak, and I’d have to reverse out away from it feeling really embarrassed!  Liz McRobb pulled in nearby in the most enormous people carrier I have ever seen, even as I was untying my beloved bike from the bike carrier on the back of my car. I was glad to see her – but slightly concerned for her health.

Liz and Phil.

Liz had already put the wind up me by telling me she’d done her back in just two weeks previously and had been visiting a chiropractor to get her back sorted out. She had texted to say she was still up for it – “should be ok now” – but obviously wasn’t seeking to push it time or speed wise.

The other Phil had arrived also – and had a mountain bike with him, of all things!! ok – it was a mountain bike / hybrid with smooth centred tyres but even so, it was quite  a heavy brute.

What? Didn’t he realise that he’d end up cycling twice as much as anyone else on this sportive? It was a roads sportive after all – I’d checked on this – so I figured that with the weight of the bike and the titchy tiny gearing that he had,  he was going expend at least twice the effort and energy as anyone else on the ride. Sadly, this was a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled as true.

Liz and Phil
Liz and Phil

Speed,  or the lack of it – dampens my competing spirit.

Phil had already confirmed to me what his expected travel speed would be and I admit that it was much lower than I was hoping to average. Liz would have faired better but had had her back problems, so there was no way that I wanted to see her get damaged by trying to prove herself and pushing herself too far. Which left me with a quandary – push on and get a good time or play the team player and stick with the team? I don’t mind telling you that I had wrestled with this one as soon as it became obvious that I’d have to ease up a bit – now it would appear that I’d end up easing up off the back of the cycling pelaton altogether.

Team or split? Team or split? Team or split?

In the end, I chose team.

After all – what would the pro’s do? They’d have team orders telling them what to do – I’d seen Froomey waiting on Wiggo like anyone else had during that infamous uphill section in the TDF. (By the way this is NOT an attempt at a comparison, folks…my level of cycling is purely recreational and I stand in AWE at what the likes of Froome and Wiggo can do.). My desire to push was to be sorely tested at some point in the Sportive to come however.

Whilst we were getting our bikes and bike gear ready, I had been enviously eying up the Scotts and the Pinarello’s being unpacked and set-up around me. There was at least 300 entrants to this sportive and  I had never seen so much lycra and carbon gathered in the same place in Scotland before! Quite an eye catcher – with all the colours of the day on both bikes and riders all around me – like peacocks plumage.

The cyclists gather...

The Cyclists Gather…at the front of Oswald Hall

I was well equipped – as noted above – so did not feel out of place.

Phil was eying up the bikes with a bit of trepidation but felt slightly relieved when he saw 2 other mountain bike hybrids on the go also.

Liz commented on the hybrid that she had – and lamented that she didn’t have a road bike. Her hybrid gearing was pretty good though, and I’ve seen her push on at a great rate of knots when she wanted to so I was less concerned about her progress, as for her back.

Gathering for the start

Registration took an age – I spoke to several people  who had attended in 2011 and they all noted that there was much less people last year, so perhaps the registration staff and process were struggling with the extra numbers.

After we were registered, and had received our timing chips and number placards, we got them stuck to the respective jerseys, bikes and helmets ready for the off.

I was impressed that the timing “chip”, in this instance, was a wafer thin sticker that got stuck to the RH side of your helmet. The timing sensors were on the RH side of the start line to let the computers know when you crossed the line. And they had miraculously re-appared on the RH side (opposite side) of the road when you returned to the same line for the finish. They had moved them whilst you were away. Very clever.

Graeme Obree aka ” The Flying Scotsman” himself was pulled up to the microphone for a wee speech…and a wee speech it was. Graeme was glad everyone was there but was, as a typical road cyclist, far more interested in getting going. He declared the event open and wished everyone good cycling. He himself was going off with the first bunch of long leg sportive riders. I was going off in the last bunch of cyclists – officially the slowest short leg cyclists there. At least there was a good number (about 25) of us.

And we’re off!

The 48 mile route had been shown on the map issued to all registered cyclists with your information pack. It told you nothing about the terrain – there was no contours and no sectional profile so I was cycling with no reall idea what I was cycling into. You started slowly on single track roads within the College campus itself , crossed a cattle grid as you existed sharp right onto the public road and you were curving up a relatively medium gradient hill heading south west. It was typical of what was to come for the rest of the day really.

Yes – the long leg “Sportive” or club riders were taking on a route that would take them up higher and on a longer hillier route.

Yes – the hills they tackled were steeper, the roads narrower and more twisty.

Yes, the weather would be far worse at height than we experienced further down.

BUT The thing was  – it wasn’t the gradient of the hills that were to be the feature of the day – it was the sheer number of them. I had ascended the equivilent of two and a half munros by the time we were finished.

Hilly climb

It was a hilly route no doubts about it. We were just into the route by a couple of miles and several hills when it was obvious that Phil (the other one) was struggling. Perhaps it was the 34 mile cycle he did the previous day ? he wondered?? Hmmm. Not looking good – he was already panting heavily and was sweaty of the brow. Several miles further in and he’s looking grey and rather unwell to be honest. I queried if he’d like to stop or take on board some liquids, food etc. No he was just going to chug along – and grind his way round. Okay – I can work with that.  Liz and I spent the next couple of hours gradually cycling ahead and then waiting for Phil to catch up – this was as loose a team structure as it was ever going to get – but we weren’t going to leave a man behind!

On one stretch of road the sweeper van actually caught up with Phil and tagged along for about half a mile until it was obvious that he wasn’t going to give in and would just keep going. Good on you Phil!

Phil was sweating profusely and still looking grey when we pulled up for lunch. Yes – we stopped for refuelling at Crosshill!

As Yoda would say – Sportive this was not…..challenge this had become.

I was getting quite concerned. Liz at least was in fine fettle and after a slow-ish start had started to warm to the cycle and was getting in to a good rhythm. I was barely breaking  a sweat – but actually quite glad that I had’t pushed harder earlier on as we were tackling a seemingly endless round of hills – one after another. Phil , on the pother hand, just looked ill.

I caught a slight glimpse of the sort of stark bloody mindedness that a good pro cyclist would need to compete in very hilly territory and also realised quite vividly that this sort of hilly terrain was the ideal training ground for a cyclist like Graeme Obree. It wasn’t ideal for Phil – he was looking greyer around the gills than ever. He didn’t stop for lunch – just pushed on through to get ahead of the rest of us.

Thing is – it got rougher (and better) after Crosshill – rising from about 350 ft to 850ft in one long series of steep uphill curves. It also started to rain and the temperature dropped. I was okay with this as I had started to overheat with all the hill climbing and hadn’t taken off my overshoes since I’d had cold feet in the morning, but had since warmed up considerably.

The event photographer had set himself up at the highest point of the route and  captured the moment when you neared the top after grinding your way all the way up.  It made his job easier – picking a slow speed shot of riders with rosey cheeks!!! I put on my biggest smile just as I reached the crest of the hill….

Not me…..Liz!!!!

What we had after that was a 5 mile long up and down switch back roller coaster of  a road that went progressively down and allowed you to build up a real head of speed! Brilliant!

I couldn’t see some of it because of the rain and the spray from the road – but Liz and I flew down that section. So much so that I nearly binned it altogether at a sharp corner, as I hadn’t allowed for the longer braking required in the wet and was caught a bit short on my approach. After fidgeting around on the bike, slamming on the brakes and agressively swinging/ banking and adjusting my stance on the bike I managed to manhandle the bike against all grip and road handling characteristics and continue to sail down the remaining hills and roll to a slow stop at the bottom. My small saddle back bag had come undone going over a slight pothole at speed and I needed to re-attach it lest it would fall off. As I fumbled around it took far longer to re-attach it as my fingers were gloved, wet and shaking slightly from the adrenaline rush of the combined speed down the hill and the near over the wall excursion that came towards the end!! Phew! Liz and Phil had carried on and were by now some way down the road in front. Thankfully a small pelaton of cyclists came my way and I tagged along behind – I don’t think the rear cyclist even knew I was there until I coughed to get his attention…finally I’m moving along at a fair clip and getting above 20mph under my own steam for a while ….

After about 5 minutes in the train, I spied Liz and Phil and rejoined them at a more leisurely pace. By now we had cycled on toPath and Coalhall.

A camera car passed and instinctively my pace quickened and I could feel myself giving chase – grinning like an idiot.

Hey Presto –  Graeme Obree drew alongside and notes that the camera team have been following him for some time as he ha sbeen creating “The beastie” – his next human powered hour long land speed record attempt bike. This unique bike design is a horizontal frame that you lie along with your head at th efront wheel and your legs and pedals lying flat behind you to reduce wind drag. For the 2nd time in two years we cycled alongside one another and had a wee chat.

Graeme Obree and me.

I have to admit that the 1st time I met Graeme Obree I was somewhat taken aback as he pulled alongside me in his car whilst I was cycling, wound down his window and had a chat with me whilst rolling along the road…

To be honest I wondered if this guy really was the actual Graeme Obree I’d read about in the books and magazines – he looked quite small and had a really strong weegie accent!! Sorry Graeme – there you were showing an interest in a fellow cyclist and there I was not really sure if I believed you! This time round I had at least seen you in the ITV 4 cycle show the week before to know that it was really you this time….

Graeme had completed the long sportive and had cycled back to join us slow coaches for a chat!!! After blethering about general stuff , including cycling, his camera team and him took off.

Graeme Obrees Goldie bike
Graeme Obrees Goldie bike – note the really low stem and high seat position!!

After Graeme had departed I spied two cyclists at the road side – I stopped long enought to loan one of them my cycle spanner multitool as, unusually, neither of them had one between them. Stupid really!! It got them back on the road though – and they set a good pace down the hills – which I quickly followed to catch up with Phil and Liz again.

Only 8 miles to go – but what an eight miles!!! 7 hills in 8 miles – 7 short and steep hills in the last eight miles.

Each one wasn’t so bad lasting only 5 -7 minutes each, but it was the combined effect of each one after the other that gradually wore you down. I was beginning to mutter things under my breath about Graeme Obrees sense of humour…..grumble grumble.

At last, we swung into a familiar valley and you could see Oswald Hall in the distance – 5 minutes later, Liz and I we were crossing the finish line and set to one side (with medals) to await Phils catch up.

4hrs 6 minutes 57 seconds.

Rubbish really…. but it was the 1st time and there was quite a lot of hand holding along the way….not a bad first experience for 3 novice riders.

Incidentally, Phil rolled in a full 15 minutes behind us – and was mighty relieved to finish. He had slowed down in the hilly sections that had had me muttering so had fallen ebhind as Liz and I had instinctively speeded up in our anticipation of the imminent finish line.  I insisted that Phil found fluids and food soon – but he didn’t need any encouragement and was soon snacking on several bars that he had along with him (at Last).

Nice shiny medal though.

Shiny Obree Classic medal
Shiny Obree Classic medal

One Comment Add yours

  1. Nice tires, compliment the frame colours and handlebar tape! Looking nice!


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