• A walk on part in the war

    From my vantage point riding up and down the damp main road above the scene, heavy, leaden skies combine with the silent quarry walls to backdrop a line of cars tucked tight against the side of the small back road from the Helwith Bridge Inn, seemingly leaching the otherwise vibrant splash of colour from huddled riders trying to shelter from their imposing surroundings.
    Away from the hustle and bustle of yawn-interrupted, often harshly Northern sounding greetings, as the riders fidget their preparations there’s an almost silent foreboding to the atmosphere. I lift my head away from their movements towards the race route to see the three giants stand tall, towering over the quarry, over the melee, over the best plans being laid out below. This race, this event, is A Big Ask. Maybe too big. I’ve not trained for this like I have in any of my previous attempts. Less running, an almost baby-skin soft shoulder, I’m no hardened warrior, battle ready and raring to go. I bow my head and choose to focus on watching the heart rate readout on my computer. In the absence of an abundance of training I’ll have to make a race strategy based on knowledge rather than just strength enough to fight the mountains.

    The race begins with it’s “neutralised” start. I’m buried deep in the charge, which feels as safe and as neutral as a war zone. There’s little sign of a ceasefire between the riders as a mixture of adrenaline and a lack of experience of riding in tight pelotons makes for an uncomfortably tense first few minutes. I move my way towards the front of the swarm as it flows through the sleepy Sunday villages in the hope of finding a more ‘civil’ space to begin my assault. The hopeful roar of cyclocross tyres on wet tarmac is silenced almost instantly as we hit the first of the off road sections, riding across tussocky fields towards the vista-stealing flank of Simon Fell. A baked dry summer helps make for quick progress across the flat and before I know it, I’m flinging the bike onto my arm like a downed comrade being carried from the battlefield. As the hillside steepens in response to my advance, the well worn footholes appear in the earth that are simultaneously several steps ahead and immediately in front of my face. “Good god this thing is steep”, I remember as my progress slows to the classic 3 Peaks death march, “I wonder if I’ve used these particular footprints before…”.

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    Around me, calf muscles and lungs begin to pop like bombs going off as Simon Fell really kicks in and fights back. As riders seem to succumb to their own onslaught, I duck out of the procession and make my way back towards what I deem to be safety. Like an old friend, the wire fence to the side of the route up the slope, curved and bent by years of hauling hands pulling at it, waits quietly for me. While others try for the fast, direct method, I award myself some assistance and re-assume a position I’ve adopted several times before at this point; one hand pulling on the fence, one holding the bike in position on my shoulder with my feet jabbing into the well established grooves that tell the tale of decades of past races. It’s not as fast, but the technique gets me over the top and onto the high plains before the summit with more energy saved in reserve. Knowledge over brute strength. It’s working so far.

    I “dib in” at the top, with two things prevalent in my mind; the views across the countryside below are in attendance, a rare treat that shouldn’t be ignored and it seems quieter than in the other editions of the race I’ve taken part in. After the briefest of glances across towards the softer fells of Bowland I realise the emptiness around me is due to me being further forward in the race than normal. I’ve knocked a couple of minutes off my PB to the top and it’s paying dividends.
    Complacency and over eagerness aren’t allowed to take hold on the descent towards Cold Cotes. I’ve done well to get to the top quicker than normal, but this is no time for a flat out charge down the hill. My lack of “away from the cyclocross race field” riding means I don’t have as much skill as many of those around me. I don’t chase them or try to keep up as rider after rider sails past me. I keep myself upright, fighting fit. I know how much more there is to come and how ominous the view becomes as you realise you’ve still got two mountains to overcome. I rejoin the road at Cold Cotes with the leaden skies that enveloped the start still surrounding me.

    Energy gels and electrolyte drink are poured down my throat on the tarmac descent to Ingleton. Whernside is coming and I’ve cramped up on that climb before now. Not today. Those memories and that knowledge leave me forewarned and forearmed.
    Before that, the long linking road between the mountains gives me an opportunity. when the risks are low, sometimes a good offence is the best defence. With little chance of crashing, and safe in the knowledge those gels will soon be kicking in, I put the hammer down and set about getting back some of the places I gave away on the descent. tucked in and as aero as I can get on the ‘cross bike I chase down rider after rider. Occasionally someone will tag onto my back wheel, but it’s gratifying to see that no-one hangs on for the whole road section.
    I’m still taking back places as I hit the lower slopes of the tallest of the Peaks, with a determination as grim as the still-heavy clouds framing the scene. I dislike the descent off Whernside so want to get as much ‘in hand’ on the climb. The stone steps on the steeper pitches of the ascent differ in feel under my feet from the soft grass and dirt of Ingleborough. Harsh clunking of cycling shoes on the unyielding, uneven staircase echoes in front and behind me as I try to keep moving up through the field. It’s little more than the cycling equivalent of all out waras a group of us reach the gentler slopes along the backbone of the mountain, towards the top.

    Pic by Joolze Dymond – click her name for more brilliant shots of the race

    Over the top, my lack of preparation comes into view as fully as the sprawling Ribblehead viaduct far below. I have no idea where the rideable lines are. Once again, racer after racer is flying past me as I stumble my way along the weather beaten slabs. It’s not until we’re about halfway down the hillside that I realise I can’t win the battle by continually surrendering. Bike flung over a stile I resolutely remount and get pedalling. Forceful pedal strokes to remind myself that I can ride just as well as those around me. Skipping the bikes over rocks, floating over waterbars and dancing down the drops. A glance at the ride time on my computer shows me I’m further ahead of my previous best time. This is war, this is fun!

    I nearly miss Angela, waiting patiently for me at Ribblehead with a spare waterbottle and another gel. She shouts and waves as loudly and as vibrantly as she can, buried within the trailside throngs of supporters and spectators, but I don’t spot her until the last minute and grumble inaccuracies about her attempts to attract my attention. Half the crowd leap to her defence and I slink off, chastised for my surly attitude.

    More gel and electrolyte consumed on the 2nd tarmac link section of the day I revert to my earlier tactic and drop the hammer towards Horton in Ribblesdale. I catch up to a group of five riders and we work together quite well right up to the sharp left turn towards Pen y Ghent.
    I’m becoming increasingly aware I could sneak home in under three and a half hours – an ‘elite’ finishing time. Comfortably fuelled I decide to put everything into the ascent. Pen y Ghent is the most rideable of the three mountains, offering me a bit of an advantage which I take with full gusto. I chase down rider after rider, continually spurred on over the rocky bridleway by the lack of any leaders hurtling past me on their way back down the course. I’ve never got this far up the climb without the eventual winner and his pursuant racers going by.
    I jog where I’m forced to dismount by the slope, always looking for an opportunity to get riding again as soon as possible. The trail s still littered with the shellshocked, the injured and the just-plain-blown-up, even this far ‘up’ the race rankings. I keep taking places as I race – truly race, not just ‘make my way’ – towards the final summit.
    The descent is treated as a final salvo. Gravel machine gunning from under my tyres as I skip off waterbars I recognise from years gone by and drift round the loose surfaced corners I feel like I know quite well. Knowledge and brute strength combined. I’m still by no means the fastest rider heading back towards the road, but I find myself spinning my biggest gear while skimming over the rocks and rubble. The bike is left to play about underneath me like the battle weary war horse it is.
    I only loose one place and it’s by so little that I spend the final couple of road based miles chasing like a madman to get it back. I fail, finally ‘dibbing’ in at the finish line just a second or so behind my newfound nemesis, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m officially decorated as an ‘elite’.
    It could be argued I was truly part of the ‘race’ this year, rather than a ‘taker part’. OK so I wasn’t in any danger of getting near the podium but for the first time, if nothing else, I had a walk on part in the war.

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    Elite! Finally! #3pcx

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    2:43 pm on October 2, 2018 | Comments Off on A walk on part in the war | # |