IT is a sport often associated with insurmountable amounts of speed, stamina and endurance.
Hill climbs, sprint finishes and excruciatingly long distances can all add up to gripping, and at times intimidating, viewing.
Personally, bar the occasional bike ride as a youngster, and the temporary interest when UK riders taste success in the Tour De France or the Olympics – me and the sport of cycling have rarely crossed paths.
Therefore, I readily admit there was no small amount of nerves before my fifth Commonwealth Games challenge, a 17-mile trek with the Milford Tritons group.
The distance, merely a recreational ride for regular riders, was far longer than I have ever comprehended travelling on a bike.
My saving grace was I knew the Tritons, who have around 50 members and train three times a week after forming in August 2013, catered for all abilities.
“We aren’t exclusive,” explained club secretary Jeff Arnold.
“We have members who simply enjoy cycling, as well as triathletes, duathletes, and people currently training for the Tour of Pembrokeshire or IronMan Wales.
“But when we go out on rides no one is under pressure and can go at their own pace, as we always re-group at certain points.
“We sometimes split into two groups, or if we are doing a long ride, say 40 miles, we’ll arrange it so that people can stop after 20 if they wish.”
Jeff himself is a former member of the Pembrokeshire Velo, and three years ago cycled from Bristol to London to raise money for Action Medical Research.
The Tritons group originated from him and a group of friends meeting up on a weekly basis to cycle – before some local advertisement prompted a positive response.
Indeed, they have recently started hosting rides purely for female cyclists or beginners.
“Newcomers can be daunted, especially if they haven’t done much cycling before.
“So these rides, led by a few of our more experienced members, give them the chance to meet people and see what we’re about.”
Sure enough, the diversity of club members Jeff spoke of was evident before we set off.
Amongst the group of 12 were Mark Whitby and Debbie Phillips, both of whom have entered the IronMan Wales 2014 in September.
The event, being held in Tenby, incorporates a 112-mile cycle ride, as well as 2.4-mile swim and 26.2 mile marathon run.
But also setting off was 68-year-old Simon De Wolf, alongside others who admitted they had little interest in competing, but enjoyed the camaraderie and social aspects of group rides.
Ironically, my early struggles as we set off from Lidl Car Park in Milford Haven centred around my 14 gear road bike – hastily borrowed from a friend just 24 hours previously.
As a child, I had only ridden a mountain bike, and in school, anybody who owned one with more than 12 gears clearly had parents with too much money.
“We get people on all bikes,” said Jeff as he rode effortlessly alongside me.
“Some turn up with mountain bikes, other road or racing bikes. We are hopeful of soon being able to purchase some club bikes for members to use if they have problems with theirs.”
Speaking of problems, I was beginning to realise a quick blast around the Cross Square in St Davids that morning was insufficient preparation for a mode of transport I had never used before.
The clip in pedals, handlebars and gear changes all took some getting used to. And the first hand indication when we turned off the main road, meaning I temporarily had to maintain balance whilst signalling, produced a nerve jangling moment.
But as I began to get used to the bike, my first real lesson in road cycling came on the long stretch of Scoveston Road – the first chance to reach full pace, so to speak, albeit it into a slight headwind.
“Position yourself behind another rider and hang off their shoulder,” Jeff advised me.
“It takes up about 30% less effort.”
After following those instructions, the times I had obliviously watched cycling on television, and wondered why teams on the peloton would ride in groups, suddenly made sense.
Of course, when it was my turn to try and lead from the front, and help the cyclist behind me, the 30% difference Jeff had spoken about felt like double that.
But my first real test of endurance, and subsequent mistake, came a few miles later at Hazel Bank Hill.
An ambitious attempt to power to the top in a high gear was proceeded by a stoppage and re-adjustment, before making the arduous climb to find the rest of the group patiently waiting at the top.
The remainder of the ride took us out to Johnston, Tiers Cross, and Thornton, before returning to Milford.
Inevitably as time wore on, I found it harder to maintain my pace and I looked on enviously at the leg speed of others, but I still found the downhill jaunts somewhat exhilarating.
That was until, one helpful member pointed out I was a potential accident waiting to happen:
“It’s sometimes natural to crouch forward when you are going at high speed,” he said.
“But you need to lock your arms out, especially in high winds.”
But despite my clear technical deficiencies, I was able to finish the ride unscathed, and we completed the 17 miles in about 80 minutes, at an average of around 13 miles per hour.
For me, that represented a huge effort. Others merely jumped on their bikes and cycled home.
But the beauty of the Tritons is that they are not all about times, facts, and figures.
“Riding in a group is very different and a lot of people just do it for the social side,” said Jeff afterwards.
“It can really bring people together.”
Of course, the professional World of cycling is far more cut throat than my brief experience – and the Commonwealth Games competitors who will hit our screens this summer will do so after years of brutal training regimes and round the clock dedication.
But for those purely looking to get into the sport, and wish to enjoy themselves and meet new teammates whilst doing so – the Milford Tritons is an excellent place to start.
One solitary piece of advice though. If it’s been a while since you’ve been on a bike, and you want a comfortable sit down the following day.....then wear padded shorts.
Bill Carne's verdict:
As Fraser Watson and I drove to Milford Haven to meet with Jeff Arnold and the Milford Tritons, it was easy to see that our ‘give-it-a-go’ reporter had some minor doubts about this particular challenge.
It wasn’t the ride of 17 miles that gave him butterflies because he’s a fit young feller but more about how he would handle a multi-geared cycle which he had borrowed from a friend and had little time to practice.
Remember, all the Milford Tritons are used to being amongst heavy traffic around that area of the county, and knew the circuitous route around Herbrandston, Johnston, Neyland, Llanstadwell and back to Milford Haven. Jeff even drives around to measure the course and sends out a map, revealing a distance of 17.3 miles and including a couple of steep hills to challenge Fraser.
The group was set up to accommodate a range of cyclists from Jack Davies, who is 17, through to 68 year old Simon De Wolfe! Throw in Debbie Phillips, training for her first ’Iron Man’ and Jeff’s son Tom, a very good rugby and football player, and it is easy to see how well the group gel together.
Jeff checked Fraser’s tyres for him and made sure his helmet was secure before they set off, looking resplendent in their special club colours, with Jeff explaining the signals to show Fraser where pot holes in the road were, and the other safety precautions.
After a cautious start, getting used to his 14 gears, Fraser was soon into the swing of things and he handled the uphill stretches well. Indeed, my only concern, in my special pursuit car (a la the Tour de France), was the speed he generated downhill!
Then it was back to our starting point and a cheerful few farewells before a smiling Mr Watson was able to put his bike in the back of the car and off we went.
The warmth from Triton members was evident and as Jack Davies said, he would recommend joining because it is a great shared experience – and now he is preparing to do the 100-plus miles of the Pembrokeshire Cycling Challenge.
And it is worth remembering that similar cycling clubs are now available across our county so if you’ve got a bike in the garden shed or garage just join up – like Fraser you will enjoy it!
Tune into the Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his cycling experience, as well as Jeff Arnold and other Milford Triton members about the group.
For more on cycling in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.