Everyone around you talks effortlessly amongst themselves. They laugh, converse using full sentences and, if they’re breaking any form of sweat, it’s all happening out of sight.
Meanwhile, you work through the pedals, each stroke making itself known in your increasingly exhausted, aching legs. The conversation moves your way and the group looks for a response; the best you can do is nod or shake your head and let out a . The kilometres don’t slip away. They crawl by slowly, inching your calves closer to the inevitability of cramp. Your stomach is a cavernous pit and there’s not a ride snack nor gel that goes any way in beginning to fill it.
You started the ride running on vapours and now you’ve got nothing.
It’s a scene that will be all too familiar to anyone that’s spent any decent amount of time covering a challenging amount of distance. You didn’t eat enough before you left the house (or sneak anything away whilst on the bike). You’ve been ill. You stayed up too late the night before. You had one too many glasses of wine (probably whilst staying up too late the night before).
Last weekend, in the first Sportive of the year, it happened to one of our group. Six of us rolled across the start line of the Huntingdon Sportive on a mild, mostly dry day in Cambridgeshire. A little over four and a half hours later, only five of us crossed the finish line.
It all started exactly as it should’ve. An undulating but relatively flat course meant we were able to cover the first 50km fairly quickly, accidentally tucking into our first batch fig rolls from the feed station with an average speed of 30kph on the clock. The threat of rain hung heavy in the darkening clouds overhead, so we didn’t stick around for longer than we need to.
About 20 minutes out of the first feed station, one of our six-man chain-gang started to flag. The drive and persistence were still there as Saul hung on through gritted teeth and white-knuckle-persistence, but a fortnight of on-and-off illness had him struggling.
Had it been a race, that would have been it. The pack would’ve ploughed on ahead, leaving his head hanging heavier and heavier towards the handlebars as he attempted to put in solo effort to drive him towards the finish line.
But this was a group ride. We weren’t sizing one another up. No one was trying to second-guess the threshold of their counterpart. Psychological warfare was not being waged on longstanding opponents. We were out to enjoy the roads, the company and the snacks, supporting rather than competing against one another.
So when Saul lifted his head to announce that he had nothing left and tell us to go on without him, there was only one possible response. We gave an adamant and resounding “no" and tightened up as a group. Sandwiching him into the centre of our small peloton, we attempted to take some of the effort out of the ride and carry him through to the second and final feed station, where he had already committed to withdrawing from the ride.
Saul dictated the pace and at least one of us stayed alongside him, doing our best to distract from those final few torturous kilometres. We didn’t know where the final feed station was on the route, so I could feel his spirits lift and hopes rise each and every time we approached anything that bore the slightest resemblance to civilisation. The realisation that yet another Hamlet didn’t contain his end point became more and more palpable each time it happened. It was brutal.
The ‘Feed Station’ sign eventually came into view and with it, an almost audible sigh of relief not just from Saul, but his constantly cramping legs. Desperate to get off his bike, he threw his leg over the top tube to bring both feet back onto solid ground. Relaxing just enough to let his guard down, the cramp took on a new lease of life, surging forward with a force so relentless that it instantly floored him.
We made him as comfortable as we could as he waited around on the gravel of the community hall car park, waiting for the lactic acid to relinquish control of his quads and calves. Forcing any food we had available into his hand, we ensured his bike was securely fastened to the roof of the support car and that Saul was safely and comfortably sat in the back before hitting the road one last time for the final 30km.
Sitting around a tiny, circular table and waiting for our steaming hot flat whites to be cool enough to not burn our tongues, I considered the the plethora of differences between racing and riding.
There are many, but perhaps the defining distinction is that races are led from the front, but group rides are led from the back.