A little bit of countryside, as we wait for the laggards to catch up. Only 36km to Portsmouth now


DAY 1, 22 July 2010: London (Twickenham) to Portsmouth

6:35 – Leave for York House in Twickenham, 28km southwest of my place, hoping I don’t get lost along the way. It’s nice to be out before the traffic while it’s still cool.

7:35 – After following the directions of a few locals, arrive at York House right on time. Leave my battle-scarred cyclo-cross next to a bunch of shiny new road-bikes with pristine handlebar tape and go inside for registration and a second breakfast: bananas, fruitcake, granola bars and juice. At first, feel a little out of place in my trainers, t-shirt and mountain-biking shorts but, looking around, figure half the people there feel even more awkward in their tight spandex shorts.

8:15 – After a pep-talk and outline of the day’s itinerary we divide into six groups according to fitness level and experience and head out, passing Hampton Court Palace and crossing the Thames and angling southwest towards Portsmouth.

9:15 – We start to find our rhythm as we head deeper into the English countryside – fields, woods, low stone walls and winding roads with steep little ups and downs. Hedges line the way intermittently and I can’t help think of Robert Plant seeing about a bustle in my hedgerow. I hear another voice asking, “Are these what hedgerows look like?”

10:00 – First tea break after about 36km. More bananas, chocolate mini-muffins, nuts and orange squash. Realise I still haven’t fully integrated British society when I try to down a cup of undiluted squash. Sweet. We push on after about 20 minutes, just after the second group pulls in. It’s threatening rain, and after about 30 minutes, it really comes down. We take shelter under some trees until it abates a little, but it’s not so bad.

11:00 – Clearly, hills are going to be the story of the day, although that probably shouldn’t come as any surprise, given the route goes over both the North and South Downs. Didn’t get as much training in as I’d hoped, owing to a heavy work schedule, so I’m wondering how my legs are going to feel by the end of the day. If I were wise, I’d hang back on the hills and take it easy in a low gear, but Luke is tearing into the climbs like they aren’t there, the other guys are trying to keep up, and I’m finding it hard not to give chase. So much for conserving my energy.

12:30 – Lunch in Farnham (?). It’s been 60km since Twickenham and 88 since my place, and I’m still feeling pretty good. Lunch involves whole wheat buns and ham slices, along with tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, plus apples and chocolate mini-bars. Doubt I’ll ever be able to justify eating so many chocolate bars again, so make the most of the opportunity. Outside, I come across a white and green single-speed bike. Considering I found the ups reasonably challenging on my 16-speed, I’m impressed. Did he actually ride up those hills without getting off?

14:15 – We make it up the steepest hill of the trip – or so we’re told. I wonder at first if I’m just out of steam, but everyone else seems to think it’s steep too. Apparently, it featured in the Tour de France one year, although I doubt it caused the racers much trouble. We’re getting close to Portsmouth, but everyone’s ready for a pause at the afternoon tea installation. Lots of malt bread, with doughnuts and bananas. The presence of tea and coffee at every pause seems a little eccentric, but it must be a British thing. I’m reminded of the scene in the Asterix and Obelix cartoon when the Britons break off the battle with the Romans because it’s time for their hot water and milk. Run into Alex, the Brazilian on the single-speed I saw at lunch. Did he make it up the last hill without stopping? Yeah, he says, although he cheated a little: zig-zagged partway up to help reduce the incline. Cheated? He must have ridden 50% further than everyone else!

16:30 – We’ve covered about 110km since Twickenham and I’m realising that a little strategy could go a long way. Rather than attempting to strike a balance between the speed of the lead peloton and what I would do if I were on my own, I decide to thrown in my lot with the group and draft. 32km/h for the price of 28. All the same, the legs are still holding up. We get an impromptu break when we realise we’ve lost two people. A quarter of an hour later, our guide, Barry, has corralled them and we set off again for the last 5 or 6km in to Portsmouth.

17:30 – Our bikes have been left with the tour leaders from Tall Stories, who are taking care of loading them onto the ferry to Caen, and we’re having a well-earned shower in a hotel right by the ferry docks. Down in the restaurant, there’s a full-on English dinner with ham and roast beef, potatoes, parsnips and peas, yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce. Against my better judgment, I take a serving of chocolate cake too. I’m entitled to it. On TV, Contador and Schleck are battling it out on the third-last stage of the tour, climbing one of the Pyrenean slopes at 35km/h. Feel like a mere mortal again.

22:15 – The ferry pulls away from the docks at Portsmouth, bound for Caen. I haven’t slept in a ferry bunk since the age of 8, but I pretend I’m not that excited. Breakfast is scheduled for 6:50 in the morning and with the time-change, it’s going to be a short night. I’m asleep before my fellow-riders are even undressed and sleep soundly till the wake-up buzzer.