Like a cloth rag caught on barbed wire I flail in the wind. Draped across the flanks of Simon Fell, buffeted and beaten, face not far from the collapsing ground, one outstretched arm grasping weakly at the rapidly disintergrating wire fence as the other is tested to it’s limits holding the bike across my shoulder.
The sound of utterly saturated ground immediately in front of me wrenching away tells me that the person once place ahead, held prone by the gusts, has moved another step. Perched on my toes against the near vertical slope I know it’s my turn. I have to move another step so that the invisible masses below, all lost in a claustrophobic fog so thick your own limbs seem to fade into nothingness around you, can one by one take this spot.
I can’t even breathe.
The aggressive roar of the gale force wind is fighting for supermacy in my head against the high pitched squeal that pulses every time I try to take a breath. Burning lungs and throat scream in disapproval as I try to gulp down the rapidly moving air. I can see, in the murk, the empty footprint of the racer in front of me and, for a moment, it looks like the most comfortable place on earth. I could press my face into it, close my eyes and happliy drift away.
Reality snaps me out of my stupour as my hand slips from the wire crutch to my left. I come close to slipping backwards into the racers behind me as I desperately grab outwards and lurch my feet forwards and upwards. Somehow my feet find purchase in the collapsing fellside and I find myself one step further on my journey. One step out of a million, if not more. In my muddle headed state I become grateful that my surroundings are shrouded in cloud. Ignorance right now is nowhere near bliss, but it’s as close to comfort as I can get, so I take it, let it envelop me like the blanket I sense I should be under, take solice in it.
The sensible thing to do at this point would, of course, be to turn back. To accept that I am too ill to be out here, hung out in a storm on a desolate hillside trying to compete in one of the hardest races there is. There would be no shame in acknowledging that, even on a fine, crisp autumn day I would be too weak to push myself against the mountains of yorkshire with a bike hanging off my shoulder but my previous few years at the 3 Peaks have always seemed to lack something. something that, to me at least, meant I’d never really completed the race. Sure, I’d finished in repectable times before now – legs and lungs working in harmony with the bike and fells to glide me round the rolling Yorkshire Dales in well under 4 hours – but I’d always felt that I’d sneaked a decent performance when the true character of these bleak hills was absent. As I found myself, still astride the bike, pinned against a drystone wall by howling wind, my face a contorted mess as I grimaced and tried to drive onwards, I knew this time round was what I’d hoped for.
My performance would be, by a long way, down on what I could do, but there was no way I was going to miss this fight.
The cold, empty landscape on the top of Ingleborough becames a resolution as I begin to creep across it. Flat, but still tough to traverse due to the sharp, loose rocks that make up the surface, I accept the constant slipping and tripping as weary feet are dragged towards the first checkpoint. My limbs may feel limp, my heart may be racing even when not pushing hard, but I’m here for the duration. Bring it on.
I descend to Cold Cotes slowly, seemingly incapable of planning and following a route down the boggy hillside I survive by following others as they pass, until they vanish in the mist. Loosing place after place. Expecting to be last but almost joyous each time another rider rolls alongside and stops me from having to try and concentrate. It’s only as I reach the (surprisingly large) crowds at the roadside that I realise I’ve managed the descent with no crashes or overly sketchy moments. Slow and steady, but successful.
As smooth tarmac and a welcome tailwind ease the miles between Ingleborough and the beginning of Whernside past, I build up the courage to gulp down a couple of energy gels. Each one feels like a mass of razor blades as it scrapes across my raw throat, but the effect is welcome and impressive. I find myself cruising past riders on the flowing rises and dips and, after narrowly avoiding one poor bloke who is swept off his bike while riding over a cattle grid by the wind, hit the first of the stone steps that reach back into the low cloud and the hidden felltop checkpoint.
I drop my head the instant I begin to climb, bike once again perched on shoulder. I’m not racing anyone around me I am simply. going. forwards. The wind still gusts like it had been on Ingleborough. The higher I get the more darkenss descends in the cloud that once again immerses me. I begin to lose track of whereabouts I am, of everything until, with my eyes still locked on the ground in front of me, innocent and happy eyes look back.
It takes a few moments for me to realise that those eyes belong to a – possibly a poor choice of descriptor – sheepish looking collie dog. It makes the briefest of glances then scampers upwards, flowing over the steps and through the legs of competitors ahead of me before stopping, glancing back and skipping it’s way back down. Then back up again. Then back down. I find myself grinning at it’s playful exuberance in the backdrop of awful weather and obviously suffering racers all around. Its simple happiness gives me a boost as it is called back to it’s owners and I push on to the flatter, rideable track across the summit ridge wishing I could scamper as easily and gleefully as it had.
The flatter trail from the top of the stone stairway to the second checkpoint at the top of Whernside has, in the past, been a place to calm cramping legs with a low geared spin. Nothing too technical, just stare at the views, try not to lose any places and prepare yourself for the descent. Not this time. There are no views and at no point would you have a chance to stare at them, if they were there – the wind whips across the hunched backs of riders infront and behind me, as well as my own, lashing us across the path towards a sheer drop of unfathomable height. Feet are flung at the ground as zig zag routes bring each of us close to disaster over and over again. This is as close to terrifying as I’d like to get…this is exactly what I was hoping for.
Another highly caffeinated energy gel keeps what little focus I can muster going as I strive to keep the cranks turning. I pass a few riders as they are blown across rocks that halt the progress of their bikes. Underneath me, the Dirty Disco manages to hold it’s speed even when line choices are randomly rearranged by the gale. I start to imagine I look like I know what I’m doing as I reach the heroic marshals at the top and scream my race number at them. They congratulate me as I bellow thanks at them through swollen and mucus filled airways. I am looking forward to the descent and a hope of some respite from the wind down at Ribblehead, they are here in the heart of the storm for the whole day.
As the marshals fade back into the gloom and the track begins to sweep back down towards the valley below I find myself slightly fearful of what I’m about to ride. I find the Whernside descent difficult in decent conditions. Today the paving slabs are wet and greasy, the moors to either side are covered in wheel sucking deep bogs and the wind, oh the wind, seems to have becone a constantly berating companion on my route across the mountains. Jostling and pushing, always screaming, tearing at clothes and pulling air from me as I try to gulp down breaths, at times I find myself almost wailing back at it, pleading with it as I am once again thrown around against my will. The energy from the gels might be keeping me upright and my clothing might be keeping me warm enough to stave off shivering but the efforts in climbing over the two hills so far are taking their toll on a body which really isn’t fit enough to carry on. I don’t know how i’m going to keep hold of the bike and stay upright.
Deep down I know that if there was a shelter nearby to crawl into, I would. But, of course, there isn’t. You’re not made to carry a survival bag with you in the race for the sake of it.
Ice cold, ice sharp lashing rain beats across my face, shattering the thoughts of shelters and hiding away. I realise that I’m riding. I realise that I’m carving a route down the trail fast enough to be passing people. Limbs made weak by illness can’t lock rigid in fear and as a ridiculous byproduct, I’m soaking up the bumps better than I ever have before. The disc brakes mean slowing down isn’t a problem when I need to and my last minnute decision to raise the bars means my position in ‘the drops’ is perfect for hopping the bike over the waterbars, rocks and down any drops that appear out of the mist. As the rain gets heavier and water begins to pour down from the peak of my cap a grin speads across my face. Somehow this is fucking brilliant.
The road back towards Horton from Ribblehead contains a headwind that seems to have been made angrier by being penned in between the drystone walls on either side. I barely notice. I concentrate of rummaging round in sodden jacket pockets for more energy gels, manage to find a couple of the highly caffienated ones and down them in quick succession. I’m unaware of any other racers on the road around me, I doubt anyone on the road is aware of anything beyond the tarmac directly in front of the wheels. There is nothing to do here but hide from the wind as best you can and wait for a marshal to appear, pointing the way up the final climb of Pen-y-Ghent.
By the time the marshal in question appears and directs me up the bridleway towards the final checkpoint I am, quite franky, buzzing my tits off on caffeine. There is still a grin plastered across my snot and rain coated face as I start to skim past people who seem to be having trouble getting their bikes over the rubble and cobbles making up the climb. Hovering a couple of feet above any such issues, like a demented hummingbird, I make up place after place, loving every moment and not caring at all about the point where I’ll come back to earth with a bump. Flying by bike.
I pass Alan, who tells me his deep section rims were “a bit of a handful” on the ride over Ingleborough, giggle like a loon in response and carry on dancing past people.
on a Dirty Disco.
Onwards and upwards I continue on my merry way, declining the offer of a cup of water from the volunteers halfway up the hill with such vigour that they burst into laughter.
I see Jase making his descent back down from the checkpoint and exchange greetings with him. He’s on a stormer or a ride.
In a storm.
How do I come up with these things?
This is ace.
I wonder if I can win the race from here?
The caffeine and the good mood seem to wear off instantly as I realise that I’ve stopped passing people. In fact, in the short distance between me and where the cloud becomes completely opaque I can’t see anyone at all. I can’t see any footprints or tyre tracks on the ground in front of me and I’m suddenly utterly alone on a dead fellside. I begin to backtrack, eyes on stalks looking out for any sort of movement in the fog. After what is only a few moments, but what feels like hours, ghosts begin to appear in front of me, silhouettes trudging upwards, a line of hunchbacks creeping towards the final checkpoint of the day. I nestle myself among them until we reach more heroic marshals, braving the conditions so we can play at being hardy explorers, scream and shout out my race number against the still howling wind and turn back to face what I’ve just walked up.
‘Dibbed’ for the final time until the finish line I point the bike back down the track. The descent feels easy, for the first time in years I’ve ridden the bike enough in the run up to the race to really let it flow back down the hill and combined with still having brakes, while people I pass seem to struggle to slow down, it’s genuinely enjoyable for the first time. I make a mess of a top-tube deep puddle on the lower slopes and have to wade out after nearly toppling over and drowning, but it doesn’t seem to matter. There’s no ‘ooomph’ in my legs for the final road section but frankly crossing the finish line at all feels like a victory against the best the weather and the mountains could throw at me.
As I clamber back into the car and crank the heating up to full blast for the journey home I come to the conclusion that today’s ‘race’ was my best ever 3 Peaks, irrespective of my finishing time, or placing in the results. As epic as i’d ever hoped for and, to be honest, as epic as I’d ever like it to be…