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Back on my bike

Last weekend I had a couple of errands to run that took me to Highgate. I went on my bike, mainly because I hadn’t cycled for a while and felt that I should get into some sort of exercise routine. I own a hybrid bike – the type that combines elements from road bikes and mountain bikes and is designed for commuting; I originally brought it with this in mind but the combination of an accident back in January and a subsequent reluctance to cycle in bad weather meant that I have been using public transport to get to work more often than not in recent months.

I ended up at Parliament Hill Fields, which meant that I had two options for getting back to East Finchley. Both involved cycling up a very steep hill to get to Highgate Village. I chose Swains Lane, a street which goes up to the entrance to Highgate Cemetery before climbing steeply to get to the village itself. It seemed a bit daunting but I reckoned I could do it. How hard, I thought to myself, could it be?

In a word: Very.

The first part – getting up to the cemetery entrance – was harder than I thought, and it wasn’t long before I had the bike in the lowest possible gear. I was gasping for breath as I reached the cemetery gates, where the road levels out for a few yards before the really hard part starts. This is where the road narrows and climbs steeply up to the village. It was a hot morning, but luckily there was some shade from the overhanging trees.

There is an expression that cycling commentators on the TV use to describe what happens when a cyclist has done all he can and has nothing left to give – “he’s got nothing left in the tank”. Well I truly had nothing left in the tank on that second part of the climb. I don’t know how I did it but made it to the top without stopping, although by the end I was reduced to a crawl, my pulse was racing and the muscles in my legs were burning. At the top, I had to stop and get my breath back – it took at least twenty minutes for my breathing to get somewhere close to normal.

When I got home, I Googled Swains Lane out of curiosity and found that it is listed on cycling websites as one of the great road climbs of London. The graph showing the height gain makes it look particularly fearsome, especially the part after the cemetery where the gradient reaches 18%. Apparently, climbing Swains Lane 24 times is equivalent to one ascent of the infamous Mount Ventoux, and there are people – probably those guys who can be seen on proper racing bikes and decked out in brightly-coloured lycra every Sunday morning – who regard six goes at it as an adequate work-out! Once was enough for me.

Cycling has been on my mind a lot these past weeks, as like many others I followed the Tour de France. I usually enjoy watching the nightly highlights of this most gruelling of sporting events from the comfort of an armchair, although I’ll happily admit that there are certain things about it that I just don’t get, most notably some of the team tactics and the fact that there would appear to be a tradition of not challenging the leader on the last day. This year I was thrilled by Bradley Wiggins’s fantastic victory; I am sure I am not alone in stating that I never thought I would see a Briton win Le Tour. What a performance!

I must admit to being surprised to learn that the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish were planning to take part in the men’s road race at the Olympics, which was due to take place less than a week after they’d completed Le Tour. Surely Cav, who had once again triumphed in the Paris stage of Le Tour, couldn’t pull off a win in this as well?

Even without the prospect of a Team GB medal hope, I was very keen to go and see part of the men’s road race as I hadn’t managed to get tickets for any of the Olympic events that I’d applied for, and the cycling road races were billed as events where anyone could come and line the route and cheer on the cyclists. Some online research showed that it was due to cross the Thames at Putney Bridge, so that was where I found myself at 9AM yesterday morning.

Crowds were already gathering, many of them with large flags (not just Union Jacks by any means) and quite a few people appeared to have cycled down. The atmosphere built up as the start time approached – the word was that they cyclists would reach Putney Bridge around ten minutes after starting on the Mall. The route had been fenced off, although that didn’t stop one guy from cycling along it, no hands on the handlebars and taking pictures of the crowd with his phone. He certainly didn’t look like an official Olympics person, and everyone seemed to find this hilarious.

As the big moment approached, police bikes started to appear on the route, with some of the riders obviously having the time of their lives, waving at and even trying to high-five the crowd. Helicopters hovered overhead and support vehicles also passed by, and then a roar of the crowd on the route prior to the bridge told us that the main event was about to arrive.

The peloton passed in a matter of seconds, and for those seconds the atmosphere was electric. Here was one of the few parts of the Olympics where anyone could turn up on the day and line the route to watch the race, and according to the BBC over a million people took that opportunity. Even though things did not work out for Mark Cavendish, it was still a fantastic experience for those of us who went to watch a little piece of sporting history.

And me? Well I was inspired this morning to get back on my bike and go for a ride in the City, coming home via the challenging Swains Lane.  I’m sure Wiggo and Cav would approve!

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