Following a pretty momentous 2013 for me, I had an idea that perhaps this year might have some difficulty in matching all the previous year's highlights. I didn't set any specific aims, but knew that I wanted to have a go at a few more road races and probably do a multi-day road race event. As I was now in the over 50s veterans group, I planned to target the Dunsfold Vets series and hope for a few podium spots or maybe even a win in my age category. Accumulating the 25 points needed to keep my 2nd Cat race licence was something that I wasn't going to think about until I had got a few races under my belt.
None of us could have reckoned on the two shocking events that were to cast such long dark shadows over the year though.
After a winter when we all wondered if it would ever stop raining and riding through so many roads that were ankle deep in water for weeks on end, it was a relief to finally get out and do some riding in good conditions with all the usual suspects during February, including a great club ride around the Isle of Wight at the end of the month.
After following Sam's training programme since the beginning of the year, I was feeling pretty fit and ready to start racing going into March. My first race of the year was a 2/3 road race on the Dunsfold road circuit, which went well and I was happy with a comfortable bunch finish after a big break had got away. There were plenty of races at Mountbatten coming up and I planned to use one or two of these as a means to check if I was at the required fitness level to enable me to compete and not just get 'spat out'. After racing at Dunsfold on the Saturday, I decided to give the Mountbatten race on Sunday 9th a miss though and went out for a ride with Helen on the tandem.
Later that evening, news of a dreadful crash at Mountbatten started to filter through as there were a number of people from our club present either racing or helping. There had been a number of casualties, including our own young Luke Stace, but the worst injuries had been sustained by Richard Philips-Schofield, who was riding with the Hantspol team. Sadly, Richard died of his injuries two days afterwards. This tragic event sent shock waves throughout the local and national cycling community; everyone that races accepts there are risks, but this was something that nobody had ever really considered possible, right on our own doorstep. Helen told me that she did not want me to race at Mountbatten any more and that she thought I should seriously think about stopping racing altogether as it just seemed to be too dangerous.
With the closure of Mountbatten, and no other races planned, I now had a few weeks to consider what I wanted to do. It was on a club ride at the end of March, when for some daft reason I just kept on riding afterwards and thinking about life in general that I had a moment of clarity that told me I should carry on racing. I also recorded my longest ever ride of 209km whilst I was mulling it all over One of the Strava comments put up on my ride afterwards made me smile - it was from Howard asking me if I had forgotten where I lived?
Early April saw a large contingent of the club travel over to Belgium for the Tour of Flanders Sportive. This was a memorable weekend both socially and for an epic ride over the cobbles. The memory of seeing so many riders literally falling off and scrabbling around all over the place will stick in my mind for a long time Somehow, I managed to pick my way through the carnage and a few of us had a fantastic smash up for the last open road stretch into the finish. Watching the pro riders in the main event the following day was a real privilege.
At the end of April, we embarked on our annual memorial ride, which saw a welcome change of route taking in the isle of Wight and the New Forest for a very long hard day in the saddle with over 200k ridden and a very sore bottom by the time I rolled back onto my driveway.
The early May holiday weekend was crunch time for me - could I manage 3 consecutive days of road racing? There was only one way to to find out! Matt, Clint and Dave Mitchell were also asking themselves the same question. Day 1 was the relatively flat but fast Dunsfold road circuit that I was familiar with and I was happy to finish comfortably in the bunch. Day 2 was on the Bletchingley circuit, which I had not previously ridden and it was brutal I rolled in around 20 minutes down with a number of other guys who had found the course (and the pace) just too much to cope with - Matt had a fantastic ride and top ten finish though. Day 3 was on another new circuit for me near Edenbridge in Kent. My legs fell off on the last lap and I finished a few minutes down on the main bunch, but it was great to see all the guys who had ridden over to support and cheer us on. So although I was never realistically going to feature amongst the contenders, I was pretty happy to have completed the event.
After spending a week recovering from the exertions, I had a good start to the Vets race series at Dunsfold and managed a third place in my first outing, just half a bike length behind the winner of the over 50s category. I also noticed that the way these events were being scored by BC seemed somewhat over generous, so those 25 points might be well within reach; it was a race win that I wanted though!
A trip to Gran Canaria with Helen and some old friends of ours was just the ticket later in May and I was able to get some very nice rides in, together with plenty of sunshine. One of the rides (Valley of the Tears or VOTT route) was memorable as a stunningly beautiful one, whilst also being brutally hard. I was also in a spot of trouble when I got back some 3 hours later than I had originally said! Thoroughly recommend Gran Canaria as a cycling holiday venue though.
June saw the races coming thick and fast, with another third place at Dunsfold and a good bunch finish in the National Masters Road Race Championships held up in Buckinghamshire. I also suffered my first ever DQ along with 7 other riders at the National Masters Circuit Championships at Hillingdon after a pretty farcical race with two separate age category races being run together, which resulted in total chaos. I was a bit annoyed after finishing in the top ten, but knew there was no point arguing with the Chief Comm afterwards.
In July, a few of us went over to Bourg to have another go at The Marmotte, prior to joining the rest of the club up at Lake Annecy. The weather up until the day was pretty awful, but on the day we got lucky with some lovely sunshine and perfect conditions. It was great to ride round with Paul, Clint and Dan for pretty much the whole of this fantastic day on the bike. Sadly, and although we didn't find out until the following day, this was also the very day that Howard was to be tragically taken from us back at home.
After driving up to Annecy on the Sunday and meeting everyone else at the rather nice house there, news of Howard's accident had come through. Although it wasn't yet clear that he had been fatally injured we all feared the worst, whilst desperately hoping for the best as we awaited further updates over the next day or so.
We heard of Howard's death during an afternoon ride up the Col du Tamie and there were a few tears shed as we stood quietly together at the side of the road and subsequently back at the house. The rest of the week was understandably a rather muted affair as everyone tried to comprehend what had happened; the weather did its best to join in with some unusually cold, wet and gloomy conditions too. I think we all made the most of what we had though and the poor weather did mean we had an excuse to sit drinking beer whilst watching Nibali ride the cobbles like a master and effectively crush his nearest Tour rivals in the process.
After returning from France, I headed over to Alberta in Canada for the wedding of my nephew. Although I only had a few days there, I took the opportunity to hire a (very ordinary) Felt bike - which cost me a fortune - to sample some of the roads around the area north of Edmonton where my brother lives. I think I can safely say that it was probably the dullest and most uninspiring place that I have ever ridden, with straight, flat and often busy roads that go on forever with nothing to see except oil wells for hundreds of miles It certainly made me appreciate the beauty of what we have right on our doorstep here in Hampshire when I went out for the first time after returning and I have tried to capture this with a few pictures uploaded into the album.
August saw a chance to re-visit Ride London and although the route had to be shortened due to the biblical downpour we endured, this did not dampen my enthusiasm for having a monster tear up with Sam in the company of the great Marianne Vos. It was an honour to have my legs well and truly shredded by such a great rider yet clearly a lovely and most un-assuming athlete who was happy to chat away in the bunch when she wasn't smashing it on the front! Definitely my highlight of the year and I was astonished to see the time of 3hrs 35mins for the 86 miles covered against my name afterwards.
On the Monday after, we all said our final goodbyes to Howard. Although it was a desperately sad occasion, I also found it to be an uplifting experience to see so many friends, relatives and sporting acquaintances there, all of whom had nothing but love and great stories of Howard to share. He is much missed, but we are all surely very lucky to have known him.
Our club sponsored race at Alfold went well as usual and I was happy with a solid bunch finish behind Sam and Matt. Thanks again for plenty of support on the day from many of our club members and well done to Guy for persevering with the barbecue despite the worst of the rain coming down on his sausages!
By now, I had accumulated 30 race points, so had more than enough to retain my 2nd Cat licence for next year, although I was definitely feeling like I was starting to run out of gas in the tank. I also didn't get so much satisfaction out of the points this year as I felt that they were won somewhat cheaply compared to the brutal road race events that I was not really top ten material in. I had also not managed to improve on my two third place finishes, so the top spot would have to wait for another year
My final competitive event of the year was the 4 up team time trial, where together with Paul, Gerry and Dave we formed the 200 year up club Although we rode a much faster time than last year, so did everyone else, so we were some way off taking the veterans crown. Have to say that the SDV vets were awesome on the day though and I was utterly exhausted at the finish - my season's race legs had definitely just come off!
Following a holiday in Greece, with a few nice rides thrown in, I spent October just doing a few rides here and there and generally trying to re-charge. Unfortunately, this did mean that I failed to get any 100k rides in for the first month since we all started this particular caper. However, November's traditional ride over to Alfriston more than made up for this lapse as we had a fantastic group turnout for our annual remembrance weekend trip. The turnout in Ditchling at 11am on the Sunday was exemplary and very poignant and we turned the last 20 miles into quite some smash up in the pouring rain once again!
December saw us heading over to a new venue for the annual mince pie ride and what a venue it was - if Carlsberg made man caves, then they would surely be like the one we found nestled at the bottom of Jon Belfield's garden! Thanks to Jon and Wendy for making everyone so welcome. There was just enough time in the year left to fit our club Christmas dinner evening in the following weekend, which saw a great turnout of around 30 in the Italian enjoying the food, wine and (sort of) entertainment
So that's pretty much it really. I'm not usually one for too much soul searching or introspection, but sometimes there are events that naturally lead one to question all sorts of things about life and this has certainly been the case for me this year. Tragic and unfathomable events such as these just reinforce my belief that we should be grateful for everything we have, treasure our families and friendships and enjoy life to the full for as long as we are able to. My daughter Fiona bought me the picture at the top for Christmas and it really does seem to sum things up perfectly for me.
Most of all though, be happy - just like Howard always was.
Happy New Year everyone.