We’d had a serious falling-out. Cross words were spoken. Expletives filled the air. Passers-by gave this bickering couple a wide berth. I couldn’t bring myself to even look at her. She’d let me down when I needed her the most. She was broken, maybe beyond repair.
The Gran Fondo Maryland was the pièce de résistance of my sportive season, my raison d’être, my joie de vivre (OK, enough already, the last one didn’t even make much sense). I’d even dressed for the occasion, going for full-on Maryland flag attire. But 10 miles into the 100 that made up its parcours, on the first major climb of the day, my derailleur broke when I switched to granny gear. Three mobile mechanics worked hard to try to repair it but to no avail.
“Any chance I could do the rest of the Gran Fondo in one gear?” I pleaded in a whimpering voice. I already knew the answer.
All three shook their heads. “None.”
I commented on my Strava feed that I was “absolutely gutted” but that doesn’t really cover how I felt at that moment. Despair might, or devastation. I had to pootle round the shorter, 30-mile route on a single speed, cursing my ill fortune and my broken bike.
Renewing the romance
Maryland was meant to be my final sportive of the year, but I couldn’t end the season on such a sour note. Although my Giant was still in the dog house, a quick scan of the internet threw me a juicy bone in Bikes & Beers Sterling. I’d had a cracking time on Bikes & Beers Kent Island and hoped for a similar beery and cheery experience in nearby Virginia. With the bike eventually repaired by Annapolis Velo, it was also a chance for us to patch up our fractured relationship. I even added some Maryland socks to my ensemble. Even if I was in a different state, I was going to represent my adopted homeland with some pride - and just a little swagger.
The 45-mile B&B Sterling started and ended at the Crooked Run Fermentation Brewery, slap bang in the middle of a large industrial park. Harsh of me to compare but I couldn’t help but think of some of our scenic Euro outings, like the Granfondo Stelvio with its mountainous backdrop, and long for the good old days.
Still, I decided to not judge a book by its cover as I and about a hundred others set off… and immediately hit a red light that lasted an eternity. Come to think of it, the first few kilometres were frustratingly and literally stop-start as Sterling holds the world record for STOP signs, or at least that’s how it felt.
Once we were finally out of town and into the countryside, though, it was easier to lay off the brakes and settle into a rhythm. I found myself in a group with three others, yo-yoing around or, more accurately, desperately trying to hold on to the coat-tails of a guy in a red jersey who only seemed to speed up on the hills.
Pulling into the first feed station, I had to congratulate ‘Red’ on his pace-setting power and introduce myself. We were joined by the other two and the various accents made it clear that none of us were Virginian locals. ‘Red’ was actually Jean, a Frenchman from the Alsace region; Jars, a hulking Dutchman, and Daniel, a hirsute German. All really nice, chatty chaps and we made an informal agreement to work together for the rest of the sportive.
Jean, though, must have either misheard or decided to punish me for Brexit, as he went off like he’d been shot out of a cannon. Jars, Daniel and I had to drop the hammer just to keep him in sight.
“Do we need to drug-test his bidon for EPO?” I asked Daniel at a set of traffic lights. I swear I saw a wry smile from Jean before he once again jumped to light speed.
The B&B Sterling parcours consisted of two laps of the same loop. It came a bit early in the autumn to enjoy the vibrant fall colours that this part of the world is famous for, so although it was quite pretty, there wasn’t really any wow factor to it. Nothing to make it stand out from the sportive crowd; even, dare I say it, a tad underwhelming.
But with Daniel and Jars having fallen off the back, I got chatting with Jean, swapping stories of family and riding in France until we got to the second rest stop. Having been joined by a flagging Jars, we set off on the final 20km, eagerly anticipating sharing a few frothy ones at the finish.
The only problem was the scenery was looking all-too-familiar. I checked my Garmin and we were supposed to be about 5k from the finish yet we were heading away from Sterling rather than toward it.
I took the executive decision to hold an impromptu Euro summit and we concluded after much debate that we must have missed a turning and were now on our third loop of the circuit. That didn’t hold much appeal to any of us, so we decided to retrace our pedal strokes and head back by the most direct route according to Jars’ GPS.
It added another 10k to the sportive but I didn’t mind too much as I was feeling pretty strong. Unfortunately, Jars had burned his final match and was utterly spent. I expected Jean to steam ahead and leave us eating his dust but the Euro bond we’d forged meant he reined it in so that we could pull the big fella along. It probably also helped that Jars was the one giving us directions.
Freewheeling under the Bikes & Beers banner filled me with a mixture of emotions. Happy to have met three top blokes (Daniel had already finished and was a couple of beers to the good); delight that my bike didn’t break (how could I stay mad at her?); disappointed that this was the last sportive of my first year of living Stateside; regret that the Gran Fondo Maryland (which looked like it was going to be an epic ride) ended so badly, and sad that Steve and I hadn’t shared a brotherly bonding experience for nearly a year.
The overriding feeling, though, was one of embarrassment. Our dodgy, second-hand washing machine had an annoying penchant for chewing up clothes and, unbeknownst to me during the sportive, had torn two big holes in the arse segment of my bib shorts. I’m surprised Jean, Jars and Daniel even engaged me in conversation considering that every time I stood up in the pedals, I probably gave them an unsightly eyeful of bare buttock flesh. I had to tie a jacket round my waist to save any other unsuspecting riders or members of the public from being flashed as they supped on their ale.
The sadness part, though, was swiftly rectified a couple of weeks later when Steve and his wife Siobhan flew over for a short visit. We managed to get out for one long ride on the car-free Baltimore & Annapolis Trail and it was everything I’d hoped for and massively missed. It was like I’d never been away. We got to put in some significant miles together and chat like we used to (in that he took the good-natured piss out of me).
But, bizarrely, I enjoyed the silent moments more than anything. It was like old times. Steve’s in much better shape than I am at the moment but when I was on the front, pumping the pedals, and he was on my wheel - mainly because I was on my road bike while Steve was on my gravel number - it reminded me of the [Amstel Gold] or busting a gut as the lead-out man to get Steve a PB on Box Hill. Happy memories… and hopefully we’ll make a few more next year.
The other brother
This review has been in the pipeline for an age, so long in fact that I’m not sure that Bikes & Beers Sterling is still on their calendar. Despite some gentle and not-so-gentle promptings to get Steve to write his OB bit, he’s had his plate overflowing with work and the small matter of a house move, so I’ve taken the executive decision to write a couple of paragraphs for him.
Firstly, Steve would like to take this opportunity to say how much he respects and admires his brother. He says that from our very first rides together, it was abundantly clear that Andy was the superior cyclist and, despite the compelling evidence to the contrary, that continues to this day. Andy is also funnier, more handsome and has a marginally smaller nose.
There’s a few more reviews in that blocked pipeline - I guess it’s time for me to pack up some emotional baggage for Steve as I’m planning a major guilt trip to get him to pull his finger out. Thanks for sticking with us during this radio silence, hopefully we’ll be back on the mic very soon.