Cycling is going through a bit of a return to form at the moment. Everyone from the hipster to the slightly overweight 40-year-old is getting involved. Forget the days of men in Lycra and legs like matchsticks, cycling has well and truly hit the big time.
Why, exactly? There are many reasons: expensive transport in cities, fashion, cheaper gear and weekend warrior type events like sportives. For gear and gadgets fans, there can be no better sport. There is no end to the amount of money you can spend on building a souped-up ride. Naturally then, when Pocket-lint was offered the opportunity to go to Greece to ride a leg of the Virgin Media-sponsored Dallaglio Flintoff 2012 Cycle Slam using a full carbon bicycle, we jumped at the chance.
This jumping continued right up until we reached the airport, when we were informed that the full distance we would be cycling was double what we originally thought. Pretty much anyone, as long as they don’t weigh 20 stone and smoke 50 a day, could manage 100km with very little training. But 175km, with plenty of uphill sections, that can take some doing.
To be fair, our input into the ride was peanuts compared to what Lawrence Dallaglio and Freddie Flintoff are taking on. Along with around 12 other core riders, the two sporting superstars will, by the end of their epic journey across Europe, have cycled nearly 2800km. On top of that, the riders have already generated more than £1 million for charity, with hopes to top the £2 million mark by the end. After doing just one day, we can tell you, this is a fairly incredible feat.
Neither Freddie nor Lawrence is really built for cycling. They are huge guys who both needed special custom-made frames. The bigger you are, the more weight you need to drag uphill and the harder it becomes when riding into a headwind. Still, though, we expect the fact both of them have legs thicker than tree trunks won't do much harm.
Arriving at the site of the original Olympic games, two tour buses full of eager cyclists poured out. Lined up at our hotel was a collection of bicycles like we had never seen before. Halfords had provided a full set of Chris Boardman Team Carbon bikes for the core riders and ourselves. These we shall be talking about later, and should you be interested we have a full review of the rather brilliant cycle here.
We were also kitted out with a set of Mavic Avenir Road shoes, some specially made Virgin Media branded jerseys, a Garmin Edge 800 and a Dare 2 B hydrolite waterproof. A lot of gear then ... oh and a Specialized helmet, always important. We also shoved a GoPro HD Hero 2 and an Ion Air Pro on to our cycle for good measure.
Many of those who would be taking on the entire trip had pimped out their Boardmans, adding things like electronic shifters, expensive carbon fibre rims and clever Garmin satnav systems. As well as, we would notice later on, a special bag for Jelly Babies. The powers these little sweets can have on a long-distance cycle we cannot emphasise enough.
First up was a trip down to the Olympic site to snap some photos of the two sportsmen and our riders. Problems were immediately encountered when it emerged that the set of rather beardy Greek men who ran the ruins took major opposition to our holding England flags. Perhaps it was the connotations of football hooligans, or maybe just someone the size of Lawrence Dallaglio that threw them off, either way they shouted something in Greek and the entire gang legged it.
We did eventually find a site to snap official pics for the tour, which would eventually turn out to be the start line the next day. It would also be the point where the Mayor of Olympus would hand over some of what looked like vine leaves to Freddie and Lawrence as well as, rumour had it, cause some guffaw over European styles of greeting.
Next up it was time to get our bikes fitted. This was when things got really interesting. Our Boardman had arrived boxed-up just as the core riders' bikes were being dismantled and put together again with updated parts. This meant we were treated to watching a set of pro mechanics putting together incredibly expensive bicycles. Think building a formula one car, just without an engine and you get the picture.
Particularly enjoyable was the problem that Shimano Di-2 system was causing. These are clever electronic gears that allow you to change up and down without having to put in any effort. Brilliant for the longer rides when hands can become particularly achey. They do however mean that rather hot and tired mechanics need to drill special holes into every frame and wire up a fairly complex cabling system.
The mechanics eventually got round to Pocket-lint’s bike. Selected especially by Halfords, the event's partner, these chaps were the best mechanics in the land and it showed. We have ridden plenty of carbon bikes before but none that has been customised and setup to this level. Hopping on, it felt incredibly nimble and stiff, yet very, very comfortable. Good news for the bum we thought. A brief chat with the mechanics and a few height adjustments and it was ready. The difference these changes made was incredible, however. Any threat of lower-back pain or shoulder ache was eliminated. We urge anyone considering a new bike purchase to make absolutely sure they have it professionally fitted. It will make an enormous difference on longer rides.
Away the bike went and then off to dinner. After eating our entire body weight in food for the following day -where we were expecting to get through as much as 10,000 calories during the ride - we went to bed.
A 5.30am start certainly had a few riders, ourselves included, looking fairly discombobulated at morning roll call. Divided up into groups of six, we prepared to embark on what would be the hardest leg of the first stage of the ride. Off we went at a fairly jolly pace and our team was immediately greeted by a massive hill. Conquering that, we figured it couldn’t get much harder. It did.
Get a race on
About an hour in, one of our riders went over a train track and ripped a massive hole in his back tyre. Calling the Halfords team who were following us in a van, Tour De France style, they immediately turned up and fixed things. The problem was, half of our group had gone miles ahead and we needed to catch up.
We began racing each other to try to speed ourselves up. This was a bad move, as all of us quickly ran out of puff. To combat this we put the fittest and tallest in front, tucked in behind and used the clean air he created to zoom along at around 30kph. For those thinking about doing a long-distance cycle, this is a vital technique because it cuts down on pedalling effort by about 25 per cent. You can swap over every 30 minutes to give the lead man a rest while someone else takes the full force of the wind.
A stop for lunch and four Mars Bars later we were ready to go again. The Greek weather had started to get to us slightly, so we painted our faces with sun block in prep for what would be a 100km ride non-stop. This would be the longest cycle we had ever done.
Thankfully the carbon frame on our Boardman bike ensured that vibrations and poor Greek roads didn’t do too much damage to our bums. It also allowed us to really start flying which, once we hit a coastal road, we really got into. Tearing around winding downhill sections and along the coastline at a serious rate felt rather special. For many it is a bit of a cycling dream and one which, having done it, we can only recommend.
The distance turns your body into a bit of a factory, something which we had never experienced before. You begin burning through so much fat and carbohydrate, that drinking an energy drink or eating a few Jelly Babies results in extra pedalling power almost instantly. Spacing things out so you keep your body ticking over nicely is tough, but with a bit of practice can be mastered quite easily. The likes of a Garmin or cycle computer which monitors things such as heart rate can also help quite a bit, as you can see when you start struggling.
By the end of this lengthy stretch we were feeling quietly confident. Having overtaken some of the less-confident riders, we had ended up leading the peloton through several Greek towns. We also managed to overtake Lawrence and Freddie, who had left quite a bit before us. Major bragging rights.
It was then time to cross a huge bridge in a group of about 60 riders. Doing it all at the same time with a police escort was a highlight. It also gave us the chance to see some of the real top-end cyclists in action. One of them, riding an insanely expensive Giant bicycle, sped past us slipstreaming a lorry. Mental.
Then we hit the hills and the final 30km. This would prove to be one of the hardest things we had ever put our body through. A steady climb for around 10km followed by another almost immediately after did quite significant damage to our morale. We also lost our riding partners whom we had been using to draft for so long. This meant handling most of it alone. The result was about two hours spent singing Paul Simon songs, eyes constantly on the ground trying to ignore the never-ending hill ahead of us.
And then we fell of the performance cliff, thighs burning and our average speed dropping right down. We were then left to cycle with some of the slower groups. This did mean, however, that we would finish the ride with Dellaglio himself, which made crossing the line all that more special.
Stepping off the bike, we immediately noticed it felt like our legs were no longer attached. They had ceased to exist, replaced with bags of jelly. Blobbing around on our jelly legs, we sat down and wondered if we would ever be able to walk again, without looking like the hunchback of Notre Dame. A physiotherapist pointed us to the cold shower.
Our legs fixed, we then sat staring for around an hour as the buffet was being prepared. Most cyclists were ready to eat more feta and olives than Greece could provide.
Waking up the next day at 7am to wish the rest of our riders off, we felt fairly guilty that we weren’t taking on the full first stage. A lot of these guys still had another 400km or so to go over the week, some even the full 2800km. The team cracked a few jokes and then off they went to do it all over again.
What an experience it had all been. Given the choice, with time and training, we would have tried to tackle the whole thing. As well as shifting a few pounds, riding a dream bike across Europe, we would have been able to contribute more to the immense amount of fund-raising all the riders have been doing.
Taking on a ride like this is incredibly demanding and we urge you to consider looking at the Cycle Slam’s website where you can track and donate to all the guys who are putting themselves through agony all for a good cause.
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Selected images shot by Rob Cox Photography LTD