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?