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.