The over-enthusiastic cyclist

If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…

Category Archives: Events

New Pennine Bridleway tour!

Long time readers will know that I’m a big fan of the Pennine Bridleway. A long distance mountain bike route along the lumpy spine of England is one of the best ideas ever and such is my love of the PBW that I’ve launched my own tour of the route! It’s the first tour under the Peak Pedalling banner, which is the professional arm to these ramblings… Even though it’s the first Peak Pedalling tour, I’m drawing on five years of MTB and road tour guiding experience to make sure everyone has a good time.

So here’s your chance to conquer the Pennines! We’ll look after all the logistics so all you have to do is to enjoy pedalling your favourite mountain bike for four days. The first tour’s happening in September 2017, with numbers are limited to a cosy eight. There’s more dates planned for 2018, including a five day option.

More details at the Peak Pedalling website

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Fred Whitton Challenge number five

The emotive sound of clanging cowbells and cheering crowds. It was almost loud enough to drown out the screaming coming from my legs as I crested yet another Lakeland pass. Yep, I was riding the Fred Whitton Challenge again. Friends and long term readers will know of my ongoing goal to get round in under seven hours. Would this be the year when everything fell into place?

My training had been substantial. A huge amount of riding and running during the spring had got my weight down to an all time low, with a recent visit to Tenerife to finish off the preparation. The truth was though, I just wasn’t feeling super-motivated leading up to the event. I wasn’t sure whether it was general fatigue or a touch of over-training, or maybe I just wasn’t up for these kinds of events anymore. Touring commitments had prevented me entering any events last year and it was all feeling unfamiliar.

The weather can play a huge role in the Fred. After several years of dangerously cold, wet and windy conditions, everyone had been praying for fine spring weather and it looked like our prayers had been answered. I set off feeling good and my Garmin was telling me that I was saving time on every section of the course. The weather was also presenting the Lake District in all it’s stunning glory, with Ullswater still and misty like a giant water colour painting to my right. No time to stop for photos though.

Some cycling snobs turn their noses up at paying to ride an event on open roads, pointing out that you can turn up and ride the route any time you want. That’s true, but you can’t put a price on the crowds who turn out to cheer everyone on, regardless of whether they know you or not. It really is part of the local calendar now and unlike many modern sportives, all the profits go to charity. Everyone’s a winner.

By 85 miles, I was way in front of my previous best and totally on pace to achieve the sub-seven. And that’s exactly when it all started to unravel. Despite filling both water bottles at the feed stop five miles ago, I’d been playing catch up with my hydration, and now I’d nearly emptied both bottles again. Worse, my right leg started cramping – a worrying sensation as you make your way towards Hard Knott pass. That warm weather I’d been praying for was taking it’s toll on me, and to make matters worse, a hot headwind was blowing hard as the route headed inland from the coast. I’m not great in the heat (thats’ growing up in Northern England for you) and as we approached ‘the big one’ the temperature was up to 25ºc and I really wasn’t feeling great.

Hard Knott pass is never easy, even when you’re fresh. I definitely wasn’t feeling fresh, but having done it ten times before I knew I just had to dig in, ignore the pain and get it done. The first half of the climb was probably the worst 10 minutes I’ve ever spent on a bike. Both quads were now cramping every time I got out of the saddle, but with gradients over 25% there wasn’t really any alternative. I was pleased to survive the first ramps and get to the middle section where the gradients ease off to just plain ‘steep’. I was in trouble though, with diminishing control of my legs and the road about to rear up to 30% again.

I’ve never pushed up Hard Knott pass before (or any other road climb) but on the next hairpin my legs defiantly let me know that they weren’t up for any more of this abuse. With a spasm so violent that I only just managed to unclip and get off the bike, I frantically tried to stretch them out to get them under control at the side of the road. I’d always been a rider who’d battle through the pushers, proudly riding up the steep ramps whilst taking the cheers of the crowd. Now I was on the side of the road, barely even able to push the bike. I felt sick, dizzy, frustrated, but most of all exhausted. I could feel my sub-seven hour ride disappearing as I pushed my bike to the top with wobbly legs. Despite having kept the calories coming in all day, I felt as weak as a kitten and I was in a mess. There was still Wrynose pass to tackle but it was the same miserable scenario. I could definitely kiss goodbye to my goal.

I limited my losses on the rolling section to the finish, crossing the line with a time of 7h 21m. Though initially gutted, as the evening (and beers) went on I knew I’d still done ok and that I am capable of the sub-seven. My time put me 242nd out of 2100 finishers, which is in the top 12%. Better than last time, though if I’d been able to ride the last two passes like I usually do then I would have been nicely under seven hours.

I’d been telling people that whatever my result, I wasn’t entering again and that I needed to leave this Fred Whitton obsession behind. Who am I kidding?

Trying to hold it together on hard Knott

Trying to hold it together on Hard Knott…

7th time lucky at the Mary Towneley Loop

An event must be doing something right to keep you going back for more pain every year. That I returned for the seventh consecutive year says a lot about the Mary Towneley Loop Challenge. There’s obviously a great 46 mile off-road route with 6500ft of climbing through some cracking scenery for starters. There’s also the appreciation from the local mountain rescue service who run the event brilliantly every year in order to put your £20 entry fee towards saving lives. No commercialism at this event!

I’ve been chipping away at my ride times over the years and though I seemed to have plateaued at around 5h 25m, I still felt that I had a sub 5 hour performance in me. I had high hopes for this year, though the mystery virus of last week (and a few too many drinks on the Friday) left me unsure of my form as I lined up at the start.

Unlike road sportives, it’s a mass start for the 200+ riders. The mountain rescue Land Rover leads out the peloton for a high speed half mile of tarmac, before blocking the road to traffic and leaving the pack to fight for position into the first section of trail. If you’re at the back here you can get held up as the pack thins to single file and an onslaught of gates and mud takes effect. I’d shuffled near to the front on the start line for this very reason, though it did mean I was having to keep pace with some very strong riders. There’s a strategy specific to this event, which requires you to keep within a bike length of the rider in front as you pass through a gate. Each rider gives the gate a good shove to enable the next rider to pass through and shove it open for the next rider. And so on… The gates become less frequent later on and of course the pack thins out after the first few miles, but I found myself sprinting hard for some of the gates. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually quite skilful and almost fun.

After riding well for 35 miles, the mid-race lull finally kicked in and my average speed started to slip. An energy gel before the final climb of Rooley Moor Road managed to stir up some adrenaline but I knew I needed to put up some kind of fight to finish anywhere near 5 hours.

The next half hour was one of my finest ever on a bike. I made a conscious decision to ’empty the tank’ to ensure that I beat last years time. My body was screaming and the adrenaline was flowing yet at the same time I was totally calm inside, almost tranquil. All I had to do was keep pushing the pedals round as hard as I could and ignore the disturbing heart rate readings on my Garmin. Each rider I passed gave me more confidence and in my head I felt like I was about to win a stage of the Tour de France. The descent off the top was equally adrenaline fuelled, with the loose rocks feeling like minor inconveniences as my hardtail skipped over them.

All these ‘heroics’ meant that I not only shaved nearly half an hour off my previous best, but I finally broke the 5 hour barrier, stoping the clock at just under 4h 56m. The low-key nature of the event doesn’t stretch to clocks though, just a short stagger into the school building to give your name and number. Here you can feast on the free tea and cake whilst swapping stories with other muddy riders in various states of delirium and exhaustion.

Regular readers of this blog might now be realising that this is the only event of the year that I’ve actually achieved my target in. Trawling through the results indicates that I came 23rd out of 210, which is a satisfying way to finish the summer. Though I’m looking forward to an autumn of riding purely for pleasure, I’ll have the memory of this pennine triumph to carry me through till spring and get me motivated for next year. Under four and a half hours next time?

 

Leading the way / trying not to get overtaken

Leading the way up Gorple Rocks

A busy month

After a relatively successful assault on the Fred Whitton two weeks ago, I took on the Manchester 10K run a week later, followed by the Spud Riley Polkadot challenge to complete a trilogy of painful Sundays. These events are usually much more spread out, which would have been appreciated this year as my legs were only just recovering from the Fred as I set off to try and beat my previous best 10K time of 49m 02s.

I’ve been trying to do a run every week and was finally getting to the point where I was actually enjoying doing a few miles at a moderate pace. It turns out that this is quite a bit less demanding than running 10k flat out. As soon as I set off I knew I didn’t have my running legs on and once I’d passed my family supporters clubs at 200m it all started to get a bit painful… It was actually hot weather for once and and I spent the remainder of the event summoning up all my will power to not stop, much like when cycling up Hardknott Pass – just for much longer. After an overly fast start, I watched my pace tumble and eventually finished in 51m 18s.

I wasn’t too unhappy about the result, but it was the start of a very frustrating week. My legs felt stiff on Monday morning but I still managed a recovery ride to keep them moving. By Tuesday morning, my walking was laboured, painful and somewhat comical. Even riding down the road to the train station was agony, with my left leg struggling to get the pedal round and getting out of the saddle physically impossible.
By the end of the week I could just about walk without raising attention from concerned passers by, so was beginning to feel that I could attempt the Polkadot Challenge. I was hoping to put my dalliance into the world of running behind me and get back to my preferred discipline of pedalling up and down hills for a hundred miles.

If the wet weather forecast hadn’t raised suspicions, a bad nights sleep and a lack of butter for my morning toast should have been recognised as a bad omen for the day. I pedalled the seven miles from home to the start line in hope of getting a useful warm up and set off in suspiciously fine weather. Within an hour the rain was battering the roads and riders and the waterproofs were on. More worrying though, were my legs: I was getting up the climbs ok, but it just felt harder than it should have done. I tried to keep with other riders to pace me up , but there were more passing me than I was passing – a bad sign indeed.

Having recently read Sen Kelly’s autobiography, I tried to summon his famous resilience to foul weather, but all I got was the sound of his mumbling irish commentary in my head, describing how I’d “blown big time”. Here’s how I downgraded my ambitions throughout the first half of the event:

  1. Get under 6h 30m
  2. Get under 7 hours
  3. Beat last years time of 7h 10m
  4. Get under 8 hours and just try and enjoy it
  5. Ring my fiance and persuade her to come and pick me up

I progressed from steps 3 to 5 at an alarmingly rate. I’ve been slogging out these eight hour events in the rain for years and I usually rise to the challenge in a manner that Sean Kelly might at least acknowledge, if not actually be proud of. Today, I realised that it wasn’t just my legs that were tired: my head was too. All my previous performances in such events rely on my mind pushing my body way past the point when it would rather stop. As my head and legs got themselves in a vicious circle of defeat, my average speed started dwindling towards mountain bike efforts. Without any proper effort going on, my body gave up the fight against the cold and rain and I knew it was game over.

A long hot shower went a long way to restoring my morale and also gave me time to reflect. I reckon my weekly runs have improved my fitness this year, but pretending to be Mo Farrah doesn’t seem to suit my legs at all. There’s probably a lot to be said for sticking to what you’re good at and I’m sure that if Mo attempted the Fred Whitton then he’d wholeheartedly agree.

I now have even more respect for pro cyclists, especially the stage racers whose powers of recovery are every bit as impressive as their performance on the bike. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself though – that’s their job and the top teams have experts and carers to manage every detail of their riders lives to ensure that they perform well in every race. And that’s a world away from the rest of us, who manage our own training programs whilst still existing in the real world of stressful jobs and family issues.

Anyway, time to get back to the important business of just enjoying riding my bike. At least I’m good at that.

Running: a lot to answer for

Running: a lot to answer for

Fred Whitton time again

After last years efforts to break the 7 hour hour barrier went astray, I had high hopes for 2014. I’d put in more miles and climbing than any other year and I was knocking decent chunks of time off my regular climbs. I felt that with good weather and a little bit of luck, I could finally get under 7 hours and get on with the rest of my life without having to suffer on the Lake District’s hardest roads every May.

But the problem with luck and weather is that they’re both out of your control and whilst I didn’t suffer any bad luck this year, the weather was up to it’s usual tricks: wet, windy and cold. It wasn’t quite as bad as forecast, but with the roads wet for most of the day descending was never going to be as carefree and fast as I’d have liked.

So how did it all turn out? Well I didn’t break the 7 hour mark so I’ll have to be happy with 7h 30m. But with hindsight I think I am actually happy with my time for once. I felt good round the first half of the course, setting a new personal record over Whinlatter Pass and generally getting stuck in. I didn’t seem to have as much cooperation from other groups as I have in the past and so rode the majority of the day on my own, which maybe makes the result fairer and more of an achievement.

The Hardknott/Wrynose Pass combo was as torturous as ever, but it’s also something that really epitomises the nature of the event. After 95 miles/6 hours of hard effort in adverse weather, you’re confronted with a ridiculous road that rises up at gradients of over 30%. If you haven’t put yourself through this ordeal then it’s hard to describe the severity of the situation. You’re battling against gravity to carry on turning the pedals when your body and mind is screaming at you to get off and stop the pain. It’s sometimes only made possible by the support of the crowds who’ve turned out to shout encouragement at the bedraggled riders. The Lake District loves the Fred Whitton Challenge, with Hardknott just one of the favourite spots for supporters. There’s really nothing like it in the UK. For example, the Etape du Dales route is every bit as challenging as the Fred, but local support amounts to nothing more than a few quizzical looks from bemused Yorkshire folk.

The Fred Whitton supporters really are appreciated. You can hear the cowbells and the cheers coming from high above as you grind the pedals round, whilst trying to ignore the pain in your legs, arms and lower back. I suspect that without that encouragement I might have got off this year, I really was hurting that bad. I knew that I couldn’t forgive myself if I gave up though, and with the summit finally crested there was just Wrynose Pass to conquer before the flat-ish run in to the new finish at Grassmere. By this point I knew that even beating my previous best of 7h 15m was unachievable so my target shifted to getting under 7h 30m and my second ever best time, which I finally managed by a matter of seconds.

In an effort to soften the blow of not getting under 7 hours (again) I looked back through the results sheets of previous years. My golden year of 2010 positioned me just outside the top 20% of finishers. This percentage had gotten steadily worse until this year, where I found myself ranked within the top 14%. The new route is now actually 112 miles – which it has always claimed to be, but was previously always a few miles short. Usually there’s a few fine specimens who get  well under 6 hours, but this years best was 6h 02m, which further made me realise that I’d trained hard and ridden well.

So will I be doing it again? Is the quest for sub the 7 hour ride still on?
At various points of the ride I decided that I’d never do it again and I get the sense that family support may be waning (“Do you have to do it again next year?”) but I’m reluctant to leave it alone. If nothing else, gaining entry gets me off the couch and into the hills several times a week, even through the depths of winter. And I reckon I’m in better shape because of it. I was getting worried that my  age was starting to impact on my performance but I’m fitter now than I ever have been. There were even two guy’s in their seventies who got round the course this year, so I should be good for a few more years yet.

Maybe one more year?

Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier. (Photo: Steve Flemming)

Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier… (Photo by Steve Flemming)

The Mary Towneley Loop mountain bike challenge

It’s sometimes hard to get motivated when the alarm goes off at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning, especially when you know that it’s going to result in five or six hours of gruelling mountain biking round the South Pennines in abysmal conditions. Yes, it’s the Mary Towneley Loop Mountain Bike Challenge again and the 6th year for me.

For those not familiar with this particular form of suffering, it involves a lap of the MTL, which is part of the excellent Pennine Bridleway. The event is run by the local mountain rescue team and the top value £20 entry fee supports their service. That’s comforting, as the weather forecast for this year suggested that they might be busy looking after some of us. Whilst yesterday was a warm, clear sunny early autumn day – today was forecast to feature high velocity horizontal rain. Classic pennine weather.

The route is approximately 46 miles with 6500ft of climbing (74km/1950m for non-UK readers) over grass/mud tracks, cobbled pack-horse routes and generally rough and rocky terrain. There’s not much flat and there’s not much tarmac. To be honest, it’s a brute of a route, but I’ve watched my times improve since that first year when I was chuffed to get under 7 hours, so it’s become a bit of a benchmark for my fitness. Last year I got round in a very respectable 5h24m and I was now left wondering whether I had a quicker time in me. The course record is apparently around 4h15m, which still seems unreachable for me. I was amazed by the large amount of riders braving the elements this year, as last time the weather was this bad (in 2010) only about 70 riders started, allowing me to bag a cheeky 10th place.

I met Duncan, my partner in crime for the day, on the start line. I knew he’d been knocking out 5h30m loops in training, including opening all the gates himself, so I assured him to crack on at his own pace and not hold back for me. We blasted round together for the first 20 miles in great time though, so quick that we started worrying that we’d gone too hard too soon. I felt ok though and had been working to the mantra of “keep Duncan in sight and you’ll do alright” which I’d just about managed to do.
However, by mile 26 it all started going wrong for me…

At the bottom of another tough climb I felt a bad hunger knock. Foolishly, I decided to try to keep the rapidly disappearing Duncan in sight and deal with the issue after the climb, which was stupid as this climb was the one section of the route that would have really benefitted from a full suspension bike and a lack of fuel just made it worse for me. My chain also started to develop serious chain-suck on the little ring (for the non-tech types, when the chain ring approaches the end of its useful life, the chain jams, especially in muddy conditions…). This meant that the remaining 20 miles would not have the benefit of nice low gears on the hills. It was also about this time that the rain really started to heavy.

After a few miles of sulking, I had a word with myself and found my flow again – not quite Duncan pace, but pushing as hard as I thought I could sustain till the end. Odd as it might seem, once I’m totally soaked to the skin, covered in mud and suffering badly, I actually start to really enjoy myself. Obviously I’m counting the miles down and willing myself towards the end by using whatever mind tricks I can, but there’s something rather enjoyably epic about it. By the last (and biggest) climb I realised I could still get back within 5h30m, so despite the aching legs, back and arms, I stepped it up again. The weather was so bad by now that two riders about 100m in front of me were barely visible through the mist. I set them as a target and ground out an adrenaline fuelled pace up the cobbled ascent of ‘Rooley Moor Road’. I caught them at the top and the three of us blasted past Cragg Quarry, though the track was now more like a river. The descent was fast and rough but I just let the brakes off and rode it out. The recent mountain bike ‘practice’ rides had definitely paid off.

Bizarrely, the longest tarmac section of the whole route is the final few miles back to the event HQ, though it’s obviously uphill, just in case you thought it might be an easy finish. Now’s the time to lock the forks out and empty the tank. I was so hungry I felt sick, but I’d have plenty of time for feeling ill once I’d finished.

I stopped the clock at 5h25m which put me roughly 26th out of 195 starters and only a minute slower than last year. It would have been amazing to have beaten my best time, but given the mechanical and meteorological disadvantages I’m going to claim it as a successful day on the bike. Duncan had managed a very impressive 5h01m and is already contemplating a sub 4h30m time. I reckon I might have a sub 5 hour effort in me, but not in that kind of weather…

If you fancy a well run and friendly, but absolutely brutal mountain bike event then I can definitely recommend this one. Free tea and toast at the start and tea and cakes at the end. What’s not to like?

Mary-Towneley-Loop

Manchester 100 – annual fun on the fixie

On Sunday I rode the Manchester 100 for the sixth time. It’s an odd event for many reasons. Firstly, it starts 7 miles to the south of Manchester but then mercifully heads off away from the city towards the the quiet roads of the Cheshire plains, which is a wise direction to take. The other aspect that make the event odd, is the range of people who take part. The event is a charity ride, not a sportive – there’s no timing chips or results posted online, but it doesn’t stop the thousands of amateur cyclists turning up on their £2000+ carbon bikes complete with deep section carbon rims. Many of these riders have splashed out on full pro-team kit, whether they have the figure for it or not.

At the other end of the scale are the riders who are actually doing it for charity – sometimes massively overweight people on cheap bikes, grinding away with their feet flat on the pedals, knees sticking out and their torso’s rocking with the effort. But they’re the real stars of the day. They’ve raised lots of money for the event’s charity (The Christie, a cancer support charity) and some of them have gone to the trouble of getting t-shirts made to commemorate their departed loved ones, sometimes complete with photos. Fair play to them.

And me? Satisfied that (at least some of) my entry fee is going to charity, I turn up to hammer my way round the 100 miles on a fixed gear bike and hopefully bump into a few people I know. It’s become a bit of a tradition and I’m convinced that it’s a good form of training and an ideal build up to the mountain bike event in two weeks time. This year I decided to further handicap myself by pedalling from my new home in Macclesfield, taking the daily total to 114miles (183km). Despite a crap nights sleep, I felt great as I set off at 7.45am and was raring to go when I got to the start. It seems that I’d definitely ‘brought the good legs’ as Hugh Porter would say*.

In the absence of my fast riding colleague of previous years, I’d decided to start late and hopefully bump into a couple of other mates on the way round. Unfortunately, it turned out that they’d set off even later than me so consequently I spent the 100 miles on my own looking out for them. But it didn’t really matter though as I was flying round and having a great time on my own. There’s something about riding fixed that’s just really, really enjoyable and it will probably get written about on here in a rather evangelical style sooner or later. The Dolan Pre Cursa was feeling fast and the only irritation was the congestion, which seemed worse than usual. This might have been due to setting off later, but usually after the first 10 miles it thins out nicely. There was a lot of riders two and three abreast who weren’t bothered to check behind them to see if any car or rider wanted to overtake. It really started to get a bit irritating as the day wore on, but hey, it’s not a race or even a sportive!

Despite it not being a sportive, there were some quality sights. Here’s my favourites:

  • I was thoroughly entertained by one aging rider who had donned a proper aerodynamic time trial helmet with long tail fin. He managed to turn this marginal gain into a definite loss by riding with his head down, trailing the fin through the air and negating any possible benefit. His compression socks also deserve an honourable mention.
  • The man who was ‘riding’ what could only be described as a cross trainer on wheels. I think it was one of these. Respect!
  • The lady smoking a cigarette whilst cycling caught my eye. Particularly ironic given the charity she was supporting.
  • I didn’t get to see the rider, but I saw a very high end bike with very expensive deep section rims at the lunch stop, though I thought the mountain bike mudguard hanging off the seat post spoilt the aesthetic a little.

I worked with a few other riders, but mostly just cracked on alone, only stopping to fill bottles at feed stops. I finished the day with an average moving speed of 18.2mph (29kph) which given the congestion wasn’t too bad at all. There’s always a good vibe at the finish and even a few people cheering you on along the way, so long as you don’t take it too seriously it’s a really fun day out, highly recommended. I might have to shave my legs for next year to fit in with the more serious types though…

* Hugh Porter is arguably the worst cycling commentator from the UK, possibly even the world. Despite his trademark style of getting riders names wrong in his irritating Wolverhampton accent, he still gets regular employment with the BBC, who incredibly now let him apply the same treatment to swimming.

It’s the biggest and the baddest: it’s the Bowland Badass!

It used to be that if you’d done the Fred Whitton, you’d probably ridden the toughest amateur cycling event in the UK. Then in 2012, some nutter from the small Lancashire town of Garstang created the persona of ‘Professor Badass’ and devised the Bowland Badass. Most ‘proper’ sportives are around 100 miles and feature about 10,000ft of climbing, but the Badass takes in 168 miles and 18,000ft (that’s about 270km and 5500m for any European readers). All this is folded into an area of Lancashire known as The Forest of Bowland, which features an abundance of quiet roads and tough climbs set to a backdrop of spectacular scenery.

Having cycled some of these roads as a teenager, I talked myself into entering last year. Contrary to the recent outbreak of commercial sportives, this was grass-roots event organising at it’s finest. The £10 entry buys you a well signed route and three transit van feedstops that provides friendly faces and a savoury buffet (name me one other sportive that feeds you onion bhaji’s and samosa’s). You also get regular email links to Professor Badass’s blog, which provides you with a tongue in cheek preview of the horrors that await you. What’s not to like?

Anyway, enough of the free advertising, how did I get on with trying to beat my 10th place and fairly respectable 2012 time of 12h 15m? Not very well as it turned out…

I’d been putting in some decent training over the last month and I was sure that the mountain biking was helping as well. Personal records were coming my way on Strava and things were looking good to achieve my target of under 12 hours. Unfortunately, I picked up bronchitis (again…) leading up to the event and had spent the week off work. In my head, this didn’t matter, I’d ridden it before and I’d ride it again. It would probably help clear my lungs out! It was this mixture of stubborn pride and stupidity that would be my undoing.

Out of the house at 5.15am and ready to ride for 6.30am, I didn’t feel too bad to start with. By that I mean that I always take about 20 miles to really get going and that’s what was probably happening here. By 50 miles I still hadn’t really got going, with every climb producing more coughing and an uncharacteristic lack of power. I’d been so mentally unprepared in the days leading up to the event that I hadn’t even made any notes about how to pace myself. I usually know that I have to summit key climbs at certain times to be on target, or at least know an average speed to stick to. I had to rely on my mental arithmetic for this one, but at exactly halfway round I was at 6 hours – cutting it a bit fine, but could it still be on? I’d been suffering badly so far and the rapidly rising temperature wasn’t really helping, but I pushed on harder with the blind hope of achieving my 12 hour target.

The 100 mile point painfully passed as I worked out that to still be on target, I’d need to be two-thirds of the way round at 8 hours. It looked like I was up on the schedule – the race was on! Then I realised my maths was wrong and I was 5 miles off…. A blow to my morale. I was also out of water and relieved to see transit van number 2 at 107 miles. I stopped long enough to drink a bottle of water, refill both bottles whilst taking on some snacks, but I knew I had to press on. The next climb took me steeply round the Eastern flanks of Pendle Hill, and that’s where it all started going wrong. I was turning the pedals but not really getting anywhere. I felt sick and despite the heat, I felt like I was shivering. Not good, but if I could just get over this climb then I could recover on the descent into Barley village and be ready for the next one. After all, this is what I do – keep eating, drinking and pedalling and eventually I get to the finish and it’s all over. The climb out of Barley village changed all that for me.

The climb from Barley to Newchurch-in Pendle is only half a mile, but it’s 11% average gradient. Not massive by my standards, but today it was the final nail in my Badasss coffin. Time started slowing down, I felt faint and light-headed and strange things started to happen to my vision. I might also have been making some pitiful noises, I’m not really sure. I finally wobbled over the top to enjoy a brief descent, but I didn’t really feel in control of the bike. Then the road went up again.

I then did something I’ve never done before – not in an event or in training. I got off and sat down on a wall with my head in my hands. I realised that I was 55 hilly miles from the finish and that it just wasn’t going to happen. The frantic call home couldn’t really help – I had the car and it was parked at the finish line –  and yes you’re right, I probably shouldn’t have started it. Even taking a direct route back would involve 25 miles of hills.

At this point, another rider appeared and stopped. He had reached the same sorry state at exactly the same point, having also started the event off colour. At least it wasn’t just me. After a while, we’d both devised plans and concluded that you need to be 100% fit to take the Badass on. We undulated painfully for a couple of miles, then dropped down into Sabden, he to ring a friend for a lift, me to ride 4 miles mostly downhill to the train station at Whalley. My escape plan was to be a train to Preston whilst I recovered, before pedalling an easy 11 miles up the A6 to Garstang to get the car. I like to think of this as a tribute to Maurice Garin, who used this creative method of transport to win the 1904 Tour de France.

So should I have started the event? Probably not. Will I do it next year? Definitely. Will I ever learn? No.

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The Great Manchester Cycle 2013

It doesn’t sound like a great event on paper: multiple laps of Manchester’s motorway flyover and the busiest A-roads between the cities two football stadiums. BUT, the roads are closed to traffic and there’s thousands of other cyclists doing exactly the same thing. This is the edition running of the Great Manchester Cycle, which is aiming to become the pedalling equivalent of the Manchester 10k run, or even the London marathon. I’m glad Manchester is the first city in the UK to stage such an event and I’m hoping that it becomes as established as it’s running equivalents. There’s options for 52, 26  or 13 mile routes, all cunningly staged at different times of the day to avoid clashes between the lycra nutters and pootling families. It’s this opportunity to do 52 miles flat-out without having to stop at junctions that appeals to me.

I like this event. I did the 52 and the 26 mile routes last year, getting a great speed work out on the first, then enjoying the more relaxed nature of the second with my girlfriend. The main grievance with last year was the ‘technical section’, which involved queuing to get across a footbridge over the ship canal. I’m pleased to report that there was no such bottleneck points this year, though I’m still not convinced by the idea of sending thousands of speeding amateurs around u-turn bends and tight corners in car parks…

Unfortunately I had been suffering bronchitis prior to this years event – which wasn’t ideal – but after raiding the medicine cabinet for various tablets, inhalers and syrups I made it to the British Cycling members start point, which has the advantage of setting off prior to the masses. I didn’t want to go 100% due to my poorly chest and the upcoming Bowland Badass and this made me feel better about failing to stay with the really fast bunch. I then found myself on my own and between groupss for a while, before slotting in with a pack who were riding my kind of tempo, around 21 -25 mph. The brilliant part of this event for me is the experience of riding in a large group and the insight into how the pro peloton works. The swarm of riders is fluid, so one minute you’re cruising along in the middle, marvelling at how little energy you’re using to travel at 25 mph, then you realise that you’ve had a lapse of concentration and you’re now hanging off the back and need to chase to keep in touch. If you were to leave it too long to get back on, you wouldn’t see your group again. Also, when you get to tight corners, if you’re not careful you can lose your position and slip right to the back.

And this is probably why most of the 52 mile riders enter the event – we can pretend we’re pro riders for a few hours. I love professional cycling and this event gives you a little insight into what it’s like to ride in a peloton. (ok, there are obvious differences such as speed, riding skills etc). This dreaming can also create the comical sight of overweight men wearing pro team kit, complete with beer bellies hanging out from under Sky tops and even one hideously distorted version of Mark Cavendish in last years Sky World Champion kit. Despite the lack of physique, having riders in team kit all helps with the internal Phil Liggett style commentary going on in your head!

I coughed my way round in 2h 16m, with an average speed of 22.2mph and was 162nd out of 2800, which  I decided was a satisfactory time under the circumstances. Catching up with friends at the end, I realised what a brilliant event this is: great atmosphere, plenty of people cheering you on, slick organisation – I’d definitely  recommend it.

With the event moving back to the end of June, it also meant that I could pedal home and watch the Tour de France on telly to see the pro’s showing us how it’s done. At least their kit fits them properly.20x30-CYCZ107520x30-CYCP1782 20x30-CYDD1209

The ‘Spud Riley’ Polka Dot Challenge

If you’re not from the North West of England then you might not be familiar with this sportive. Originally started as a memorial to local rider Spud Riley, it’s one of this classic sportives of around 100 miles/10,000 ft of climbing, in this case, around a big loop of the Peak District. It might not have the notoriety of the Fred Whitton with it’s signature climbs of Hard Knott Pass, or even the crowds of supporters, but don’t be mistaken for thinking this ride is easy. It’s also one of the events that aren’t run by money grabbing companies. Local cycling shop/club Wills Wheels took over the organisation from Spud’s brother Dave last year, with 0ver £80,000 raised for charity by the event so far. The organisation is slick and the marshalling is well done, complete with big red flags on the dangerous descents.

I’ve done the event every year since 2009, with the long time (but never achieved) goal of completing within 6h 30m. However, with the new organisers deciding to completely change the route and me not having chance to do a recce, I decided that there was no point in setting a target and going all out to achieve it, but rather to check out the new course and set a marker to beat next year.

This had quite a big effect on my preparation. I didn’t prepare at all. After the mellow 10 mile pedal down to event HQ, I signed on and got stuck into the suffering straight away. Even the climbs that I knew really well were hurting and I was starting to curse the lack of a good nights sleep and the after effects of a decent night out on Friday. I was enjoying the change of route though – even doing roads that I’d only ever done the other way round gave fresh and revealing views and previous hill climbs became fast downhills. Once I got onto roads that were totally new to me I had no choice but to take each hill as it came – no pacing my efforts over well-known gradients, just get stuck in and hope for the summit to come soon. I shared these thoughts with a  rider from Leeds for 25 miles, who was also a repeat customer in at the deep end on the new route, though he’d only found out the night before! I know I criticised road cyclists for being anti-social on here before, but his tales of club runs and foreign training camps got me thinking about joining a local club.

So how does this new route compare against the old one? Well it’s certainly not any easier! It still features a relentless amount of climbing in a way that I think is so much tougher than continental roads. The gradient never stays constant, so just as you get into a decent climbing rhythm the road will ramp up to 16% or worse. And the roads are always in need of repair, unlike the well cared for cols of southern Europe. The scenery of the new route is also just as stunning as the old one, which was enjoyed in good weather for a change. It was the original Spud Riley that taught me some of my favourite Peak District roads and I’m sure today will further broaden my repertoire. Some of the roads were incredible: narrow single track lanes that had views so stunning that you had to remind yourself to keep an eye on the road ahead.

So that’s it really. No major revelations or epiphanies this time, just a good honest hard days riding in the Peak District. If you like these big-day-out kind of events run by decent people then I’d heartily recommend this one. There’s also 30 and 60 mile options if you’ve not quite progressed to full scale suffering yet.

So anyway, what time did I finish in? A respectable but not ground breaking 7h 17m., which should set me up nicely for bettering it next year!

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