I signed up for the Cheshire Cat back in about November last year, to provide motivation to maintain a training plan throughout the winter. It worked!
Having participated in the disastrous Etape Cymru in October 2011, and having just today ridden the long version of the 2012 Cheshire Cat route, I can safely say that it was the polar opposite of Etape Cymru in terms of effective organisation and planning.
From the moment we arrived it was clear where we should go. Riders were funnelled in and segregated according to coloured seat post stickers, which had been sent out two weeks earlier. This was to provide staggered starts – a key component to getting it right, as it affects so many other factors.
Etape Cymru got it wrong by starting everyone off all at once. The Cat sent us off in small groups of about 40 or 50, 5 minutes apart. This meant that no sooner had we arrived at the venue and shepharded into the relevant colour coded bays, we were off within minutes. No standing around getting cold!
A significant knock on effect of this approach was that immediately, it was possible to ride at your own pace rather than being held up by hundreds of people moving slower than you would like. This was the case all day. Even though there were allegedly up to 3000 riders, it felt reasonably spacious out on the road.
The first 15 miles or so were fairly flat and then suddenly the tarmac wall of Mow Cop appears. I think this climb had been hyped to death in the run up to the event but who could blame them? It is a good selling point.
On the approach run, you could feel the atmosphere among the riders change, as they faced the imminent reality of the challenge. I joked to my riding buddy that it felt like being in the queue for Oblivion at Alton Towers, such was the sense of impending doom. Mow Cop was a bit steep, but the worst bit wasn’t very long and we both got up it fine. My garmin however, took delight in later reporting that it had recorded a new maximum heart rate, as if to contain any opportunity to boast.
Some beautiful scenery over the hill and down the other side, which I captured on a GoPro camera; its first outing. As if cycling apparel isn’t ridiculous enough – try strapping a camera to your helmet! It’s come to something when cyclists smirk at you for looking daft. Like, they can talk….
After several more ups and downs we pulled in to the first feed station, eager to refill and get moving again swiftly. This was not a problem. This event was clearly organised by experienced people who know what cyclists need. The layout of the feedstations, with many separate tables dotted about rather than bunched in a line, made it simple and quick to grab what you needed. Each mini station was very well stocked, and again the staggered starts probably helps to avoid situations where a huge horde descends, locust-like and cleans the place out. Like in the Etape Cymru…
I felt strong in the first half, but started lagging between 60 and 80 miles. Had I been riding alone I would have probably maintained a slower pace but I’d decided to try to stay with a fellow club member who is a shade faster than myself, and I was starting to feel it. Coupled with that I was experiencing a very irritating rattling noise from somewhere on my bike. Eventually, at the third and final feedstation, I deduced the cause. My cassette was falling apart! Grasping the largest of the cogs, it was possible to wiggle it sideways about 5 mm. Not good! Fortunately each feedstation also had mechanic facilities and this one was attached to a retail shop. Within 10 minutes I had a shiny new cassette fitted and was ready to go. The last 20 miles was a pleasure again in terms of gear shifting and smooth rattle-free riding, but comfort on the bike starts to become a factor after this sort of mileage. Aches appear, particular in the lower back, numbness in the feet (and sometimes hands) from road buzz. Of course, the saddle can become the source of much discomfort too. Having said all that, I often experience a sort of threshold. Leading up to this point can be miserable and uncomfortable but somehow, sooner or later you break through it and are able to just carry on without thinking about it too much. Perhaps it’s an endorphin thing.
The last 20 miles somehow saw me find this second wind, and I felt reasonably strong once more.
Pulling in to the finish zone, the whole area was buzzing with hundreds of riders who had already completed their rides. We claimed our Mow Cop medals and goody bags, the highlights of which were a High 5 sampler bottle, a Cat themed buff headwear item, and a sampler bottle of some Purple Harry freshener spray stuff to use on cycling shoes, helmets and gloves.
Overall impression of the day: a very well organised event. They had obviously paid attention to the one thing that the Etape Cymru organisers had forgotten about – the customer experience. As a customer, they seemed to have thought of everything and managed to deliver it in an accessible, common sense way. Top marks.
The only negative comment to make about the day would be directed at Cheshire County Council. The road surfaces were pretty awful, verging on very dangerous. We couldn’t recall riding on any new tarmac for the whole 103 miles. Hint: North Wales has lots of new tarmac and even more spectacular scenery, in my opinion._