This week I took part in my first Sky Ride.
Sky Rides are run jointly by British Cycling and Sky, as part of a drive to get a million more people cycling regularly in the UK. As well as launching women only rides and social groups, they have been staging big, mass-participation events in cities (Sky Ride City) and hundreds of community-based rides up and down the country (Sky Ride Local).
The Sky Ride Local rides are led by experts familiar with bikes, cyclists and the route. They are offered in three categories: Easy Going, Steady and Challenging. I chose the Cannock Chase Criss Cross Challenge which was one of the challenging rides.
Now in my defence, I thought that, at 29 miles, it was probably not going to be the sort of challenge that I needed to worry about.
That was foolish.
Also, I think I stopped reading after discovering that I would be following in the tyre tracks of my hero. The moment I learned that I would be pedalling a section of the 2012 Tour of Britain as ridden by Sir Bradley himself, my mind was made up.
That was probably foolish, too.
Riders met at a public car park on Cannock Chase at 10am. It was quite exciting to see the bikes arriving, some being ridden to the start, others fixed to racks on cars. I don't have a rack but by dint of removing the front wheels, we had fitted my own bike and the much more impressive bike of a friend into the back of my car. We had, initially, planned to ride there and back.
That would have been folly.
There were three leaders on our ride. They were wonderful. Encouraging, enthusiastic, good-humoured and friendly. Everything you could want in a ride leader. They also knew how to mend a puncture, which was particularly valuable in my case.
The route turned left out of the car park and climbed. And then it kept on climbing, for most of the next 29 miles. Good grief, I had no idea that Staffordshire went up that far.
The BT Tower at Pye Green is one of the most familiar, if unlovely landmarks of the Midlands. Constructed out of reinforced concrete, it can be seen across much of the county. It stands 388 feet tall and was built on the highest available ground. Wikipedia says that its "...combination of height and elevation gives it line of sight to Birmingham".
Line of sight to Birmingham? I looked to my right and I had line of sight with the top of the tower. All my life I've seen that ugly tower on the skyline. I confess that I have never had any desire to scale the summit.
Cyclometer reveals that I climbed a total of 2195 feet. I also reached my fastest ever speed of 31.5 miles per hour. At that point, I had my eyes tightly closed and my hands clamped firmly on the brakes. The rapid downhill motion was accompanied by a sinking feeling that this probably meant another climb at the bottom. I was right.
My fellow riders could not have been nicer. Nobody minded waiting for me at the top of hills or if they did, they kept it to themselves. The leaders were brilliant, ensuring that there was always one at the front, one in the middle of the group and another one seeking to make me believe that "It's flat just round the next bend." It never was.
The frustrating thing was I worked really, really hard. I stood on the pedals until they could turn no more. I gasped on the climbs so that now, two days later, it still hurts to take a deep breath. Bright red in the face, my heart was pumping so fast I could hear the pulse in my ears. Still, I was bringing up the rear. I would have been completely last were it not for a wonderful man who was trying to do the entire journey in one gear. I don't know why he was doing this but I was very glad he was there.
So what's wrong with me? Is it my age or my fitness? Is it my bike or my ability?
Dogged determination and a supply of banana muffins will always see me to the end of a ride but how I wish I could cycle just a little bit better. I don't want to win anything, I just want to finish at roughly the same time as everyone else.
You can find out more about Sky Rides at www.goskyride.com . If you read this before the end of September, you can have even a go at the Cannock Chase Criss Cross Challenge when the route is reprised on Sunday 29 September. Information on that ride is here: http://www.goskyride.com/Search/Details?eventid=23733
Participation in any of the Sky Ride Local rides is free and we received a hi-viz tabard to take home.