Essex Explorer

Essex Explorer

7 hours 12 minutes and 27 seconds. That's how long it took me to cover the 100 mile circuit that is the annual Wiggle Essex Explorer Sportive.

Just getting to the start line with both our bikes - I'd persuaded Mike to join me again this year even after the disappointment of having his bike stolen whilst we nipped to the loos at last years event - and in one piece - I'd had to pull out of the Haywards Heath Howler (don't you just love the names) after breaking a rib - felt like a major achievement.

The day started with an early morning drive to Mike's house in Chelmsford whereupon bikes were checked and double-checked, gels, energy drinks and bars were crammed into jersey pockets, tools and kit deemed ready for any roadside emergencies and the obligatory fussing with the Garmin and the GPX file I'd hastily installed the day before.

Setting off at about 8:15am we soon wished we'd driven to the start rather than cycle to Ongar Sports Centre. It doesn't seem like far but a 12 mile ride home is probably the last thing we'd feel like after spending most of the day in the saddle.

As we rolled onto the start line we were surrounded by hundreds of Lycra clad men and women and I was surprised by how many team strips were on show, mostly Team Sky and mostly worn by overweight men. That aside there were lots of lovely bikes on show and the lady with the microphone was doing her best to get us hyped-up before the start, although I'm not sure how effective she was going by the lack of crowd participation to her MCing.

20 minutes later and we were on our way, surrounded by other riders but steadily making our way past them as we set a reasonable pace and soon found ourselves on our own in the Essex countryside and uninterrupted sunshine.

The miles ticked by and suddenly we were at feed station number 1, 40 miles in. Filling our bottles with yet more High5, replenishing our stocks of gels and grabbing a chocolate bar or two we were soon back on our way. Now it was at this point things got a bit chaotic. Approaching a red light at a junction someone tried to come up the inside and got a bit overexcited, hammered down on the pedals only for his shoe to slip and his chain to snap. Maybe it was the other way round but that moment of madness probably cost him a good chunk of time and energy assuming it didn't end his day completely.

After that we were rolling along at a gentle lick when the guy 10 metres in front of me decided to go straight over his handlebars and enter the shrubbery. I got a good view of it and spent the next 10km trying to work out how he'd managed it. I didn't and still can't but I hope he's okay. He managed a sheepish "cheers lads" to his mates as they issued ironic cheers so I'm sure he's fine.

As the riders around us thinned out the further we got from the feed station it was nice to be on our own again until Mike's bike developed a strange rattle that we couldn't fathom the cause of. 5km later and we found the culprit: a lose bolt on the seat-tube bottle cage. Thankfully it was soon tightened with the trusty mini-tool and we were back on the road in blissful mechanical silence.

I'd been struggling for most of the day with mysterious abdominal pains. I couldn't work out what was causing it but it was either: too small bib shorts (damn you Castelli, we're not all tiny Italian climbers), a stitch, digestion issues due to all the energy junk we were gobbling or a combination of all three. We decided to have a rest under a tree near a church somewhere around the 70km mark and after lying flat on my back for a few minutes I was miraculously cured - maybe the proximity to the church had something to do with it.

After more gels and energy drink we were off again and making good progress into the second half of the course. I was surprised at how many puncture repairs were going on at the side of the road but didn't want to jinx us by saying how lucky we were. Fortunately our luck held all the way to the finish.

As part of the package I knew there'd be photographers on the course taking some action shots of us speeding by but I hadn't noticed any until we flew around a corner and spotted a seated man with camera firing away. I opted not to do a cheesy celebration or smile and the resulting shots looked a bit miserable, I need to practice my on-bike look for future events.

Arriving at the second feed station we were greeted by a handful of riders in different states of fatigue. What was great was that we could finally eat some real food: bananas, nature's own energy bars, which felt fantastic on my sensitive stomach.

The second half seemed much easier than the first, maybe we were into our rhythm, maybe it was because I wasn't in pain any more but every glance at the Garmin seemed to show a surprising amount of kilometres had been covered.

Having lived in Essex for most of my life I'm always amazed at how much of it I haven't explored and among some picturesque villages and funny place names Matching Tye stands out as the best of the bunch on both fronts.

As the sun continued to beam down on us and there were no signs of the storms and flood warnings of the day before we continued to enjoy the scenery but slowly the aches and pains of spending so long on a bike crept in. The nerves in my hands began to tingle from being on the bars for so long, my hamstrings felt like they wanted to cramp and my bum was beginning to plead for a comfortable sofa rather than the slip of plastic it had been perched on all day.

Another official photographer caught us by surprise but this time the results were much better, definitely one for the Strava profile image. Speaking of Strava, the day's ride data is below, as recorded on my Garmin, all 202.1km of it.

After a brief stop at the last feed station - somewhere around the 130km mark - we were on the home straight and back on the road to Ongar and cursing the fact we'd be travelling home on the same road home having already been up and down it four times already.

By this point we were well and truly knackered. The kilometre's that before had been effortlessly falling away seemed to drag and drag no matter how hard we tried to up the pace or simply ignore the Garmin display and its annoyingly accurate readout.

However, as long as we were moving forward we were making progress and eventually we pulled into the sports centre and under the start finish line, side-by-side and to the cheers of the event MC and one lone bystander who probably thought we were someone else. You can even relive the moment by watching the finish line video but as you can tell, it doesn't quite capture the emotion and deep joy we felt at completing the challenge.

We rolled onto the grass at the back of the centre and joined the small gang of other riders collapsed on the floor and not really sure what to do with ourselves and slightly dreading the very real fact that although we'd finished we still had to ride home.

Rested and with our finishers goody bags we got back on the road home where we promptly got lost and probably added another few miles to the journey. Fortunately there was no roadside meltdown from either of us - probably due to the ridiculous amount of caffeine we'd consumed - and eventually we made it back to Mike's for recovery shakes (drinks, not physically shaking) and a well-earned sit down.

All in all we'd had a fantastic day at our first sportive. The weather had been amazing, we hadn't got lost (other than on the way home), we had no punctures or mechanicals other that the minor bottle cage issue and the staff and organisation of the event had been superb.

In the days following the event we were treated to a range of post-ride goodies. First came the official rider times and certificate from Results Base showing we'd managed to creep inside the 7 hours 20 minutes cut-off limit that got us a bronze medal time. Then came the official photos supplied by Sportive Photo, nice but pretty expensive costing the grand total of £27 for four shots.

Would I do it again? Definitely. But I don't think I'd do 100 miles next time, perhaps trying to do 50 or 60 miles in a fast time would be more suited to my personal fitness level. That and I think my bum would thank me for less time in the saddle.