RCC Norfolk Belgie, February 25th 2017

Words: Dan Hustwayte

Images: Dan Glasser

On February 25th I took part in my first RCC ride, the Norfolk Belgie, a 115 km tribute to the start of the Belgian Classics, riding from Ely Cathedral to the Bank House Hotel in Kings Lynne. It was a fantastic day out and almost exactly what I had expected from joining the RCC.

My day began the night before, wanting my bike to look it’s best to match my shiny new RCC kit I spent my Friday night washing down my bike.  This was intended to be much simpler than it transpired.  After making my bike beautiful, I attempted to put the back wheel into the dropouts ready to give the chain a good lubing but found it would not fit.  After a few attempts, some good head scratching, some poking around and some pulling I was left with the cassette, still attached to loose freehub and the rest of the wheel in different hands.  Turns out that not checking and tightening your freehub for 10,000km of riding isn’t good for it.

Panic! It was 7pm, we’ve got a dinner out at a restaurant booked for 8.  I’ve been looking forward to this for a month.  I’ve booked train tickets and everything!  What do I do?  Well you’ve got your race wheels.

So I the solution was found, I scurried up to the loft to grab my race wheels and got them down.  It was now 7:30 so time for a shower and then out to dinner.

This plan was perfect, a nice easy swap, my bike would look even cooler and be faster.  However there was one concern.  My race wheels are tubs.  A day ago Dorris had smashed through Britain, littering the roads with all sorts of sharp invisible land mines for me to find.  Plus this was to be an homage to the Belgian Classics, the roads are definitely going to be shit.

So at 10pm I return from an excellent steak dinner to a task not primarily suited to an amateur mechanic who needs to be up at 6 to make sure he catches the train to his ride.  My race wheels are currently shod with race tyres, some light Vittoria Corsas.  Luckily I had bought some new training tubs, Vittoria Rallys, which I had intended to roll out slightly later in the year, post named storm season.  Never mind, it was time for some late night tub swapping. Surprisingly this went somewhat worryingly smoothly and by 11pm I was ready for the next day and ready for bed.  I’ll admit I did go to bed nervous, knowing that tomorrow I was going to ride on some new roads, with new people, with only a single can of Vittoria Pitstop to save me from the embarrassment of the broom wagon.  Hey ho, I rarely get punctures.

With the ride starting promptly at 9, Sunday morning was an early start to catch the train to Ely.  The ride to the station was filled with nerves.  Not because I was off to ride with strangers or a route I didn’t know but because the knowledge that a puncture may very well be the end of day before it even starts.  Needless to say I rode in the middle of the road the whole 6km to the station.  I made it. Goal 1 for the day was complete, no punctures yet.

Catching a train to go for a ride was a novel experience for me.  I’ve done once, in Belgium for the Ronde Sportive, and that was only as a necessity. However I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to take a bike on the train, and if the whole experience has definitely opened up a whole new world of possibilities for my riding adventures.

Arriving in Ely I had 10 minutes to make it to the Cathedral. I didn’t look up how to get from the station to the Cathedral beforehand, and had never been to Ely before but i figured it was the tallest building in the town so I’d just ride towards it.  Luckily as I was leaving the station I saw a group of cyclists glad in the distinctive grey, black and pink of the RCC.  After some quick introductions and the quicker realisation we all had the same plan we set of towards the big Cathedral looking building.  Luckily the plan worked, we got there unscathed, a little roll the wrong way down the one way system are only error.

Sea of Grey, Black and Pink (and a little bit of green) at Ely Cathedral

At the Cathedral we were greeted by a sea of grey, black and pink, and two riders wearing the same green rain jacket as me, we had all thought we’d be the only one.  In total there was 56 riders, 1 sausage roll and cake making extraordinaire, 1 photographer and 1 support driver.  A very impressive turn out for a ride in an area not particular famed for it’s riding.

With everyone there and signed into to Steve, our road captains phone it was time for his briefing.  With the remnants of Dorris and the incoming Ewan the focus of the briefing was to be crosswinds, and they would play a significant part all day.  Once briefed we split into our 4 separate groups, 56 riders sharing the same piece of road would of been carnage, clipped in and rolled away from Ely and into the big grey skies of the fens.

As the RCC is a global cycling community with upwards of 8500 members and rides being organised via an app it is impossible to know everyone and their riding ability on a ride.  This is possibly one of the coolest features of the RCC as it means that on ride like this groups are made up of a mix of riders and abilities.  This means that on every ride you are faced with new best friends and new challenges to be overcome as a team of riders and today was my first taste of this. On this particular ride the flat open roads of the fens, and the winds of Dorris and Ewan tested this sense of teamwork from the off. As we left the sheltered streets of Ely we were immediately faced with crosswinds, and big gaps in the group opened up. We quickly regrouped, moved are slower riders to middle of the punch for maximum protection and continued on a slightly better pace.

The roads in the Fens are long narrow and flat.  They are often protected by hedgerows of hawthorn bushes and following the carnage of Dorris I was hyper vigilant of her debris.  I hopped potholes and made sure I didn’t ride too much in the gutter.  But at 16 km we turned left off the main road and onto a disused piece of the old A142.  As we hopped the curb to mount the verge at squeeze through the narrow gate I thought, ‘here we go!’

The disused road was worn, with verge gradually reclaiming the tarmac, with one debris free line I stuck to it, praying for my precious tubs.  Then I looked up, my heart sank.  Up ahead I saw pile upon pile of disused road chippings spilling across the road.  I knew this was going to be it.  I gingerly rode on, trying my best to avoid the chips, but less than 100m and that distinct hiss of despair coming from my front tyre.  I bounce on the wheel, it’s a slow puncture so I bravely ride on to get out of this minefield.

After exiting the boulder sized chip field I call the puncture and pull over to the side of the road.  I quickly spin the tyre and locate the tiny bit of flint embedded in the tread, air slowly leaking out around it.  I flick it out of the tyre with my finger.  With only my trusty can of Pitstop, which I’ve never tested, I set about the quick fix.  I empty half the can into the tub, feel it, it feels hard enough and spin the wheel to spread the goo.  The hissing stops, the tyre seems to be staying up.  I was semi confident I’d avoided the broomwagon for now, but the ‘reassuring’ words of “Good luck with that,” from Peter the bike shop owner put paid to it.  Nevertheless I flung my leg over the top tube and clipped in and on we went.

Our group continued in good spirits, with good chat ensuring we stayed together.  Out through Chatteris, then turning with the wind for a blast to Manea.  But our good fortune did not last.  Two more punctures, not for me, but for Peter, a double flat and nasty crosswind section.  A quick change thanks to following van and we are off again towards coffee, cakes and most importantly sausage rolls.

Hanging out at the back

Our mud ride stop is at Welney Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Visitor Centre.  Victoria, Steve’s wife, had laid on a feast of homemade sausage rolls and cakes to feed 56 hungry riders. As we swapped stories about the ride so far, a few more punctures and a couple of crashes we sipped coffees to warm up.  The staff at the centre were incredibly obliging to allow their café to be overrun with muddy riders for half an hour, and I’d just like to take the opportunity to thank them for their amazing hospitality.

The amazing sausage rolls courtesy of Victoria

Inevitably the stop came to an end and we headed back out into the biting wind.  We saddled up and continued on towards Downham Market.  Fighting the wind we had now perfected our teamwork and our bunch rolled nicely along.  We even got a nice through and paceline working in the less windier sections.

Out from Downham Market we turned head on into the wind.  We put our heads down and drove on, sticking together as the weather decided to take play its final card and open the heavens.  But we carried on. Ex Duris Gloria!

Puncture Stop

Luckily the head wind didn’t last for too long and we caught the tailwind through Outwell and Upwell.  We were on the home stretch.  Things were going great, the Pitstop in the front wheel had worked, and the front tyre had lost no air. We were chugging along at a good pace.  Then 8km from the hotel and lunch I got the nagging feeling.  That sagginess of the back wheel that can only mean one thing.  I hoped that perhaps it was a phantom feeling, paranoia from a day of continued punctures in the group.  But no, it was a puncture, a slow one but it was going down.  7km to go and I had to pull over, I shouted to the group to continue, I’d catch them up.  I pulled over with Steve, another quick spray from the remaining half a can of pitstop, a quick wheel spin and the hissing stopped.  This time the offending item had been a thorn in the tyre.  We remounted and quickly got up to speed.  I towed Steve back to the group. It turns out teamwork is great until lunch is on offer.  Having been overtaken by another group during our absence, our group had splintered, with half continuing on with the new group and half remaining.  As we rejoined I decided to push o and catch the more eager members of our group, and get to the pub before my luck ran out again and I was left walking there.

Haring through the final kilometers in the bleak weather really brought to life the charm of the Fens.  Living between the flat Fens and rolling hills of Rutland and Leicestershire I have always had a negative view of riding out in the flatlands, opting for the hillier routes of the latter.  However the great day out and the final few kilometers soloing at the top speed to the finish I realised the charm definite comparisons with Belgian Classics riding this area has to offer.  I definitely will be doing more riding out this way.

Finally I made it the pub.  Inside awaited a splendid hot lunch with three options and hot coffee to warm us up after a hard days riding.  Again the pub were fantastic to allow us to all come in dirtied from the day’s ride.

Filling our faces at the end of day

Looking around I saw 56 riders who had all had a fantastic day out, sharing a great ride with great people.  Steve and his team had put on a fantastic day and we had truly experience the essence of what the RCC is all about.  Enjoying your bicycle with a bunch of great people.

On the train ride I couldn’t wait for my next RCC ride in Rutland on April 1st


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