Monday, 26 September 2016

A Very Yorkshire Race: 3 Peaks Cyclocross 2016

Weeks of planning, hours of preparation and now only minutes remain. For many a return to a familiar spot but it's my first time waiting in the drizzle gazing up at the cloud-bound summit of Penyghent. I'm telling everyone it's 'only a bike ride' and it is, but once that countdown finishes we are all going to push hard because we love to race, otherwise we'd have stayed in bed this morning instead of rising in the darkness and driving for hours.

There is nothing quite like the 3 Peaks Cyclocross Race, this was the 54th edition of the race and the Dales village of Helwith Bridge has played host to most of them. It's the kind of race that you wouldn't be able to get off the ground if you tried in 2016, it doesn't make any sense. Except that it's a proper challenge, and that is why every year the race is massively oversubscribed, the 650 riders gathered here this morning are the lucky ones. 

The countdown starts but it is barely heard in the mid pack, instead the sound of hundreds of pedal cleats clicking into pedals marking the start of the race. A commisaire's car neutralises the front of the pack and I fight my way forward to get closer to it taking every gap to make sure that I'm forward for when we leave the road under Simon Fell. There are plenty of sketchy moments as I'm not the only one trying to make it forward, as the road narrows in Horton in Ribblesdale a handful of brake is needed to avoid riders in front, my rear wheel locks and I'm reminded to allow a more space. A gentle climb out of Horton sorts the impostors from the contenders and then an open gate and the start of race proper. 

The climb to the start of Simon Fell is soft in places and many of us dismount to run rather than spin up rear wheels in the rapidly dissolving grass. I glance at my watch to check heart rate, 160bpm isn't sustainable but feels ok for now. Gears are skipping which is odd as they were spot on last night so I put it to the back of my mind instead focusing on picking a good line through the soggy fields. Legs spin wildly, arghh, no drive. Snapped chain and in a split second I'm out, no longer a racer. Tens and hundreds of riders stream past and if I'm lucky I'll be at the back of them all by the time I'm pedalling again. Chain tool out from my pack and I can't find the handle for it, a few riders ask if I'm ok but most are focusing ahead until Star Wheeler Gary stops and lends me his multitool just as I'm considering calling it a day. 

Fix complete but by now most have passed and my calves are burning by the top of the steep and tussocky climb up Simon Fell. Overtaking opportunities are scarce on the singletrack towards Ingleborough and the ones I take frequently land me knee deep in moss and peat. The descent from Ingleborough starts off rideable but I soon shoulder my bike to take more steep shortcuts from the summit. It becomes nearly rideable and I hang on for a rough ride to Cold Cotes. The violence ceases near the timing point giving way to smooth grass and tarmac, time to drink and take stock, tubeless rear tyre feels softer than it did but it's ok for the downwind section up to the Hill Inn. No time for passengers on the straight road past White Scar caves, hangers on are swiftly ejected unless they take their turn. 

thanks to Phil Hinchliffe (HCC) for the photo
Whernside is less steep but more imposing, the view back down the valley is spectacular, low light reflects off every flood in the valley whilst the cloud close above frames it beautifully. Shame I left my camera behind. Near the top my rear flats and I change it but it flats again within a few minutes on a sharp rock. Ok then; I find a sheltered spot behind a wall past the summit to fit my last tube. 'Must more ride carefully, must more ride carefully, must ride...' chants a small and hopeless voice. These steps look fun though, and no one else wants to ride them, maybe I could though? I'm soon hanging over my back wheel bouncing down Whernside's slabbed footpath. Any idiot could tell me that it's not going to end well, a loud 'pfttt' and I've just bought myself a 4 mile run to Ribblehead Viaduct. The novelty of running pushing and carrying a bike soon wears off as more riders pour past me.  Yup, I'm now riding to finish, any hope of a respectable time well and truly out the window.

A couple of spare tubes are secured at Ribblehead and I manage to ride more like a grown up from here. Road to Horton doesn't take long but the climb up Penyghent is a slog, descending riders taking the best lines on this out and back section. Hands ache on the descent and I don't envy those riding old skool cantilever brakes. The final mile or so on the road is full on, no point in saving effort now, grab some cheeky air into the finish funnel and that's it. One 3 Peaks down, perhaps more to go. 

Thanks to Saul Muldoon, Gary Jackson and Pete Dukes for support on the day

The Bike

I built this up a few weeks before the event mainly with parts I had lying around - Planet X XLS carbon frame and fork with American Classic Race29er wheels and tubeless Sammy Slick tyres. 50/34 x 11-32 gears. 11 speed Ultegra shifters and Deore brakes.

Friday, 9 September 2016

GT 24: West Highland and Great Glen Way in Not Quite a Day

Midweek apprehension; a big weekend looms, plans and kit list ongoing but the memory of our last aborted attempt hangs heavy. The water bars of Conic Hill a reminder that we are heading back to serious mountain biking country where feed stops are 40 miles apart and black trail features surprise round every other corner. 

Dramatic skies on the M74 northbound
On the bright side we were returning better prepared and with some support, Emily had kindly agreed to drive the van from Glasgow to Inverness saving us an uncomfortable train journey back to Glasgow, and more importantly offering an escape route if something serious went wrong. The odds of 'something serious' going wrong seemed fairly high to me given that on our last attempt we managed two punctures, one concussion and a fatally collapsed freehub within 30 miles of the start. Hmm, maybe a weekend of football, IKEA and washing the car would be a better idea. 

Friday night and Saul, Emily and myself were out on the town in Glasgow, well nearly, we were in Nando's in search of a good veggie pre-ride meal. Our Ibis hotel room had more in common with a hospital than a hotel room but it was convenient for tomorrow's ride start at the Riverside Museum on the Clyde. After our meal we discussed the next day and foolishly convinced ourselves that we'd be done within 24 hours and therefore a late start would be a good idea to avoid getting to South Kessock near Inverness too early. Naivety was not our usual strategy.

Sleep interrupted by post revelry antagonism in the nearby car park and the incessant motorway noise, I was glad when it was finally time to ride. Along the riverside to the SECC where we spotted several cycle team buses parked up for the Tour of Britain stage the next day. 

A couple of cheeky selfies later and we were back at the Riverside museum, déjà vu. 

At least we had a better idea of the escape from Glasgow route and we were soon settling in for a big day as we rolled along an old railway line towards Loch Lomond. Amidst the walkers we passed a man carrying a bird of prey on his hand, we ignored the urge to shout 'nice bird'. This section was busy with walkers who often didn't hear our approach so progress was intermittent.

Start of the West Highland Way (WHW)
Busker in Milngavie

Problems with my eTrex GPS were worrying me, it was unable to load the route up despite testing it back at home the previous week. It was an hour into the ride before it loaded up the right maps and route, fortunately we knew this section from our last attempt. The climb up Conic Hill hadn't got any easier and we were really steady descending the far side, Saul was practicing his 'ride within myself' mantra avoiding the steps and carrying the technical sections. Passing the point where he crashed last time felt like an achievement and it was all new to us from here on.

Conic Hill

Loch Lomond went on forever, initially fun and at times technical singletrack became unrideable after several miles and we were into the 'hike a bike' section. We'd averaged around 12mph to here but this figure plummeted as we squeezed between rocks, climbed stairs and tried not to overbalance into the loch. Hours disappeared and we still couldn't see the head of the loch. Some parts were rideable but the drains and water bars had already caused two punctures to Saul's back wheel and we were soon replacing a third tube. My chain then snapped but fortunately I had a spare link and chain breaker so we were soon moving again. That was until I realised that I couldn't unclip from my right pedal due to a lost cleat bolt. Fortunately I carried spare bolts and cleat since a similar mishap whilst racing the Manx 100 had lost me valuable time and sapped my enthusiasm.
Hike a bike 'til you don't like
Another puncture

Progress on the rocky singletrack at the head of the loch was steady so we were relieved to finally find a fast double track taking us north towards Crianlarich and Tyndrum. We were surprised to pass several groups of young girls and family group walking the route here, so far we'd only encounter older couples. It was strange to think that these walkers were taking a week to walk a route that we hoped to complete around today. More quality singletrack led through dark pine woodland and across moorland blooming with purple heather but we had little time to take in the view and the drizzle and idles kept us moving until we reached the Green Welly in Tyndrum. 

6pm. It was hours later than we'd planned reach this point, the light was starting to fade and we had a major section of trail to tackle before Fort William, nine hours to tackle sixty miles seemed depressingly feeble. Nothing to do but stock up on overpriced flapjack and nuts and carry on. The track to Bridge of Orchy was fast as was the old drover's road up to Rannoch Moor but darkness  arrived just as we crossed one of the remotest sections of the route. A further puncture to Saul's rear wheel whilst descending to the Kings House was fixed by torchlight as midges feasted on any exposed flesh they could find. This had become 'Type 2' fun, we pressed on regardless. 

The Devil's Staircase climb became a shove rewarded by the view back towards Rannoch Moor, tiny car headlights far below us the only clue to our progress. The top of the climb was cloaked in mist but the descent to 'The Electric Village' (Kinlochleven) was a blast despite the dark, wet conditions. What comes down must go back up, surely the next climb would be our last before Fort William? We had soon ground to a halt as Saul stopped to fix his Exposure light mount which unusually had worked its way loose. 

The long descent fooled us into thinking we were in the home straight for the WHW but the glow in the sky behind the ridge to our right confirmed my suspicion that there was more work to be done. We crawled up the steep climbs and dropped through deer fenced timber plantations to arrive at the back of Fort William. We headed to the rendezvous point but the van was nowhere to be seen so we had a look down Fort William high street to see if she was waiting at the end of the WHW. Again, no sign and I was growing frustrated as we wasted time dodging drunks in Fort William when we should be on our way to Inverness. A quick call and Emily and the van were located on the quayside, desperate for some real food I jumped in the van to pull out a sandwich I'd left in there the previous day.
Official end of the WHW
It was now 1am Sunday, hours later than we'd planned to arrive. We had eight hours to complete our ride, fortunately the Great Glen Way (GGW) started out fast and flat, a top gear mission in our tunnel of torchlight. To either side of our path was water but all we could see was the hard pack track stretching away into the darkness of the highland night. Occasional climbs broke up the monotony of the small hours and a donated caffeine gel kept me awake and on the trail. By this point I was craving some real food, flapjack, chocolate and cereal always lost their appeal after seventeen hours. Fortunately I had some nut butter sandwiches left but once they were exhausted my stomach grumbled, unaccustomed to the high energy diet we needed to complete this ride. I checked my watch and estimated how long it would take to the next village. It was pointless really, hours were flying by and we weren't hanging about but the scale of this ride was epic, we'd get there when we got there.

At Fort Augustus the character of the GGW changed, the GT24 opted for the high level GGW sections so we were once more grinding and shoving upwards through the forest round tight gravel hairpins. A wide singletrack roller coaster lurched towards the glimmer of dawn on the horizon. I fought with my gears which encrusted with mud were now very reluctant to work, I became convinced my brakes were dragging but it was just the thick gravel of the trail slowing progress.

Dawn arrived as we summited the second high level section of the GGW but we were far from done with our granny gears. More steep climbs and a great descent to Drumnadrochit for a final refuel before that last twenty miles into Inverness. We expected another climb and this one didn't disappoint but once done we rolled nearly all the way to Inverness, to our left the Northern highlands, to our right the the foothills of the Cairngorms. The last few miles were particularly great, a wide smooth downhill track was nirvana after some of the trails of the last twenty four hours and Inverness was bathed in sunshine. Along the riverside following the purple line on the GPS route to a final effort along the road into South Kessock where Emily waited patiently with here dog Spin. 10am, slower than expected at twenty five hours but we'd made it. Tough but not quite killer, there was unfinished business here.