Fit in my 40s: ‘I’m on a mixed ride, and I am intimidated’

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‘Don’t fear the middle-aged men in Lycra,’ I’m told. ‘Most are retired.’ They don’t look very retired

Illustration of two bikes going uphill




‘By Prune Hill, I’d had it.’
Photograph: Kellie French for the Guardian

Fit in my 40s: ‘I’m on a mixed ride, and I am intimidated’

‘Don’t fear the middle-aged men in Lycra,’ I’m told. ‘Most are retired.’ They don’t look very retired

‘A lot of women are intimidated by mixed rides because they think the men are going to go too fast.” I’m in Richmond Cycles, where Belinda, my ego-ideal from the Bella Velo club, has recently started working. Bella Velo still do a ton of women’s rides, but this is a mixed ride organised by the shop, and I am intimidated.

“But there’s nothing to be afraid of with these Mamils [middle-aged men in Lycra],” she says. “They’re free during the day, if you know what I mean.” Nope, not a clue. “Most of them are retired.” They don’t look very retired.

“It’s a social ride,” Sabina says. “The slowest person sets the pace.”

“I don’t want to set the pace,” I say. “I can’t take the pressure.”

“We won’t drop you. It’s a no-drop zone.”

We set off. Sabina has cool socks. Sarah has a cycling jacket with leather detailing, like a warrior princess. There’s something wrong with me. They are communing with their wheels and the tarmac, and I’m wondering where their clothes are from.

The ride is to Windsor, out through Twickenham and Bushy Park. At 10am, the fancy Middlesex streets had glittered in crisp winter; half an hour later, a romantic fog had settled, the sun glowing. There’s a lake in the centre of the park, some gilded Victorian celebrity rising out of it. God, it was all so beautiful: then, wham, four seconds later, we were out of there, waving at Hampton Court, burning down an A-road. What is wrong with these people? Why do they go so fast?

“That’s the good thing about cycling in a group,” Sarah says. “It’s so easy to cruise if you’re on your own.” She’s trying to persuade me to sit in Belinda’s back wheel (you conserve energy that way), but I can’t, because I’m scared. An hour in, all the things I was afraid of before we set off had become my most ardent desires: a puncture; an injury; a bleed on the brain. Anything. The hills, which nobody will call hills (“We’ll go right after this slight dip” was the memorable euphemism) were gruelling. By Prune Hill, about five miles outside Windsor, I’d had it. I got off the bike, giving unmistakable instructions, with semaphore as well as with talking, that everyone should go on without me.

About a year later, I crest the hill, pushing my bike, relishing the solitude, except the buggers are all waiting for me. “I’m not in your no-drop zone. I’m too tired for the zone.”

“Everybody,” says Anthony, the leader, “is in the zone.”

In Windsor Great Park, the deer appear like an apparition, a reward for the exertion, like climbing a mountain to see a gorilla. If I’d had to cycle home, which they were going to, I’d have done something desperate, like a carjacking. Instead, I take the train and watch them cycle off into the mist, feeling like a soldier who did his best, valiant, comradely, nearly dead.

This week I learned

Following someone else’s wheel can conserve up to 40% energy. Best to ask their permission first.

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