It took me until Sunday morning to realise that I never knew how to ride a bike. Throughout most of my life – from the age of seven, when I cycled to school, and would spend my summer evenings pretending to be Stephen Roche, and now to commuting across London on a single-speed two-wheeler – I have cycled almost everyday. And yet, as I was overtaken going up hill in the last five kilometres of the Bradford-upon-Avon triathlon by someone twice my age and half my size, it dawn on me that riding a bike properly is actually quite an art.
It had all started so well. I had signed up for the triathlon just before Easter on the repeated promise that the weather last year had been stunning. And the appeal of a 1.5km swim in the river followed by 40km on the bike and then a 10km run was only heightened by the fact that it would be a weekend in the countryside and the boy could crash around by the river with Mrs H while I somewhere over the hill.
By the time that Alex and I were standing on the river bank the water temperature had fallen to 12.8 degrees. The swim had been reduced to 1km because of the current after 5 weeks of rain, and while he was still muttering about how warm it had been last year, I was busy worrying whether two swimming caps was really enough.
As it turned out the swim was the least of my worries. After 25 minutes in the river we were dragged onto the bank unceremoniously like line caught tuna being hauled on deck, and on our way to the transition area to change out of our swimming gear to get on the bike. It took me nearly six whole minutes to complete this task. Granted I forgot I had to get the wetsuit over the timing chip on my ankle and ended up rolling on the grass like a dog trying to scratch his back. But six minutes! I’ve had board meetings that have been shorter than that.
And then it was onto the bike. The real surprise was that I was actually ahead of Alex when we got out of the water, but that time was lost in transition and by the time we were out of the gate he was well ahead of me. I later found out that he thought I was still ahead which is why he bolted, but try as I might I couldn’t catch him. I could give you the excuse that my head was all over the place from the swim or that my stomach seemed to have taken leave of its senses, but really it was that there wasn’t enough in the legs.
The real selling point of the race was that it went past Alex’s parents’ house at kilometre 30. By this time I was way off the back but loving every minute. I was expecting to see the boy standing on the wall waving, but the garden was empty and when I got off the bike and knocked on the door, hopeful of a cup of tea, there was no answer. Instead they were waiting at the bottom of the hill and by the time Louis had sat on the bike and changed the gears I was 12 minutes down on Alex. And there was still an almighty hill to climb back up.
T2, the second transition, was a breeze. Off the bike, and a change of shoes while chewing half a banana that I think was mine, I bounced into the 10km run. If there was one thing I knew how to do it was run. Except it didn’t quite work like that. My legs were all over the place. More intend on going from side to side and with a foreshortened step – a result of an hour on the bike – my son had a better technique than this, and it took 2km for my legs to wake up.
By the time I crossed the finish line in 2 hours 40 minutes – a full 50 minutes behind the winner who had passed through the transition area in 2 minutes flat – I had climbed to 96th out of 120 overall. And that’s the point. Even when I was running my first marathons it was never really about racing, more about surviving. This was all about competition, about finding the fastest line around the buoys or the perfect position to descend the hills in. (There were guys there wearing aerodynamic helmets, as if every millisecond did actually count).
None of this is to say I won’t be back, and it has piqued my interest in the Dart 10km swim and an idea that goes back to when I was 18 to cycle the length of France as fast as possible. In the meantime it’s back to what I know best and I’ve just signed up to the Dusk ’til Dawn 50-miler in the Peak District in October. I expect it to be spicy, what with all the hills, but guaranteed that there won’t be wetsuit in sight, and plenty of tea.