I make no apology for not proof reading this, I never proof read things. I probably should, but I don’t. Feel free to read on though, just don’t complain when it all randomly goes poorly spellud or grammerd!
Watching a fist sized stone fly up from the rear wheel of the bike in front, as it span towards my shin and what seemed to be an infinitely slow pace, the inevitable impact brought sharply into focus just how fragile I was in comparison to my surroundings.
My face slowly contorted into a prepared wince as it made it’s unstoppable way towards me and, as it connected with thinly veiled shin bone I gritted my teeth to the dull, almost hollow sounding thud.
The total focus with which I’d watched the rock hurtle towards me had allowed me to wander just ever so slightly off line and those few inches left me sliding as the loose stones and gravel refused any grip, leaving me drifting further across the path towards much bigger, nastier, bone crunching rocks and boulders lurking to either side of the trail. Already tensed from being hit by the flying rock, I pull on the bars and try to put in a pedal stroke to regain control. It works, the rear wheel snaps into line underneath me and the front end dives back in the direction I pick out in front of me, where the lines drawn by numerous other skinny, overinflated tyres have parted some of the debris to leave a ‘line’ of sorts.
I sigh a relieved sigh, shuffle the camelback around to a more comfortable position and await the next sketchy moment as I plummet down the slopes of the first peak, trading wildly bucked places with other riders just as on the edge of control as I am.
Clambering up the almost insanely steep slopes of Simon Fell some 20 minutes ago I had displayed a naivety that has undoubtedly punished countless competitors before me by beginning to think that the 3 peaks might not be such a tough challenge after all: I had survived, quite comfortably, the crowded road section wrapped tightly in a peloton of over eager riders and had made good progress over the lower slopes and their gentler gradients. In fact, even as I swung from the wire fence on the steepest, most terraced slopes where I had almost become marooned last year, nothing seemed as difficult or quite as epic. I made steady, nicely paced progress and reached the summit of the first peak without feeling anywhere near as out of my depth as I had done in 2008.
I let my mind race far ahead of me and was already thinking of the final descent and roll into the finish as I leapt onto the bike and pointed it downhill for the first time – this was just a descent, it would be fine, then there’s a little road section, that’s no problem, then a set of steps to the top of Whernside, a few paving slabs back down to another short bit of road and hey presto! You’ve only one hill to go…and that’s lower than Whernside anyway.
I was practically back at the finish as that rock was thrown up by the rider in front, aimed directly at me by the hill to snap me out of my complacency, to bring me right back down to size and show me just how easily the fells could wipe me out, at any time.
As if to drive home the point, as the rocks and gravel began to give way to grassy tussocks and boggy puddles the vista in front of me, so far hidden by low cloud, opened up, stretching further in every direction than I could hope to see. I could just about make out throngs of supporters at the end of the descent, dwarfed by the looming bulk of Ingleborough behind me. A darted glance behind me at the field ribboned out across the flanks of the hill set to reinforce just how insignificant the race was in comparison to the countryside over which it was creeping it’s way. This was an epic race, most definately. I might be feeling fine after making my way over the first summit, but to be planning how I would cross the line at this point was nigh on stupid!
Hunkering down in the drops, fingers tentatively poised over the brake levers, I let the new bike carve it’s way along the faint singletrack that marked the route down to the supporters and spectators, desperately trying not to use the bke brake after discovering, in a howling moment of embarrasment that I’d not toed in the pads properly, leaving any deceleration from the back wheel entirely down to kinetic energy being changed into a loud screeching noise. It worked in as much as I would slow down whenever the lever was pulled, but the looks of shock and revulsion coming from anyone within about a ten mile radius of me meant I was hesitant at best to use it, Oops!
Back on the road to Cold Cotes, the first hill cleared, I set about the second greatest stumbing block in the race after the hills – my head. A strong desire to absolutely nail it along the linking section to the foot of Whernside pulled at my legs as marshalls waved me round a tighter-than-it-looks bend in the road onto the first dragging tarmac climb. Countless reminders from previous competitors, of how they didn’t balance their energy intake and output, leaving them grovelling at the mercy of Pen-y-Ghent’s incline, ran through my mind as I contorted my back to reach into my jersey pocket before squeezing a slightly sickly tasting energy gel down my neck. Washing it down with strongly flavoured energy drink from the camelback wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience either, and left me gasping for air as I kept my speed up, trying to jump onto the back of a group of three riders grinding their way up the road ahead of me.
It wasn’t much in the way of calorie replacement when compared to what I’d sweated out on previous slopes, but it was enough to let the “race everyone in front of you” part of my head take over, throw caution to the wind a bit and just blast past the group in front of me rather than tag onto the back of them.
I ignored the dull ache developing in my thighs as I kept my head down low and thrashed out as fast a rhythm as I could, watching the speed readout on the computer rise, before settling at just over 23mph as the pumped-up-hard land cruisers thrummed and buzed their way over the tarmac.
Passing group after group my gasping for air, as I tried to drive home what little advantage I had over the course, alerted everyone to my arrival. On several occasions I heard the snick of excited gear shifts behind me as people tried to jump onto my wheel and hang on in the slipstream. I knew I was at the mercy of the hills as soon as riding became unmanageable, so on the linking road sections I decided to just let rip, to push myself as hard as I could without tipping over the edge and blowing up.
A quick look under my arm behind me, as I swooped over another crest in the road, threw myself forward out of the saddle and let the stiff chainstays deliver as much power as I could dole out into the road, left me surprised to not see a train of riders hanging on behind me. I seemed to be blowing past people and dropping them as they tried to hang on behind me. Ace. I didn’t even have time to worry if I was pushing myself a little too hard as I glanced up to find myself at the turning off the main road onto the access track towards Whernside.
I’ve got ‘previous’ with Whernside. Last year the clamber up the rough, stone steps in the baking sun nearly wiped me out completely – it certainly ruined my shoulder as carrying the bike took it’s toll on me. This year, as I hoiked the newer, lighter frame up over my arm and began the strangely familiar trudge up onto the narrow ridge where the second checkpoint was located, I knew what was coming and took care to keep attention on where I was putting my feet as, all around me other racers slipped and tripped on the uneven surface.
Carbon soles and metal cleats scrapped across cobbles, rocks and dust coated, upended slabs as the field made it’s way up the second impossibly steep slope of the day, the speeds gained on the wide eyed, lung bursting road section were seemed long gone, even though they were only ten or so minute behind. We climbed, burning off more energy stomping and slapping our way skywards, still gasping for air as the incline took it’s toll.
Competitors would creep off to the side of the main path, squealing as cramp set in and tore at their muscles, reducing them to hopping, hobbling limps. Bikes were dropped to the ground in feeble frustration as the climb overcame the lung capacity and leg power of many. The hill was carving it’s way through the field, just as the field of riders carved it’s way up the path and somewhere in the middle of it all I blinked and winced as sweat ran down my face into my eyes.
I was up on last year’s schedule and feeling good, further along the route than this amount of time had gotten me last year, but the sheer scale of the ride was battering at me with everything it could. I didn’t feel close to exhaustion, but was acutely aware that I was only one misplaced step away from injuring myself as I fought to keep pace with the string of racers marching towards the ridgeline. I knew all too well that one lapse in concentration would be all that was needed twist an ankle or something just as minor and end the race.
The top of Whernside, which always feels like it will never arrive as you follow step after step on the lower slopes, is great for making progress on a cross bike – a wide and generally smooth track past the checkpoint and across towards the descent, which is visable from almost as soon as you reach the summit, stretching right down into the valley in front of you, encourages you to build up speed and start to skip over occasional waterbars in an almost carefree manner. After the climb you feel light, as if floating over the surface, and being back on the bike is a joy.
Of course, you’re still riding what is essentially a slightly modified road bike over very rough ground on a very exposed hillside and, as much as I enjoyed being able to flick the bike around underneath me as I made my way back down towards the next road section, I was on constant alert as gusts of wind whipped across, pulling and pushing me ever nearer to the steep drop to the right.
Dirt and rocks give way to slabs of stone, carving what looks, to the untrained eye, like a nice simple way to drop down the hill. Indeed at first I gained speed over the solid paving and even got a chance to stretch my lower back without feeling like I might be thrown off. For a short time the tyres gripped, the bars weren’t buzzing with vibrations that even the most compliant carbon forks couldn’t soak up and I wasn’t hovering as far back off the saddle as possible to stop myself being flung over the bars. It was great, for a while, but the character of the trail changes again as you progress along it’s coffin sized slabs, the gaps between the stones become wider, just large enough to catch your rim as you descend and uneven flights of steps start to fire the bike around beneath you, leaving you way too far forward for comfort over the bars and grabbing at the brakes to try and slow yourself. As if to compound your problems, the lower slopes always seem wetter, adding a greasy film to the surface of the stones that, when combined with a 35c tyre at 65psi, makes for a lot of slithering.
Last year it got the better of me, the slime on the paving slabs meant I couldn’t control my speed properly and as soon as I messed up and left my weight too far forward one of those wheel sized ruts leapt out at me and fired me over the bars, chin first. This year, I gave the path much more repect. That’s not to say I didn’t push slightly against what I knew I was capable of – it is a race after all – but I never allowed myself to get right onto my limits, knowing that a few seconds gained down one flight of steps could end up costing much, much longer sat in a crumpled heap underneath the bike or at the side of the track trying to fix a puncture.
A suddenly as they begin, the packhorse trail style slabs end at one of the many clambers over styles and gates, leaving you with a final, fast rocky descent down to rejoin the road at the photographers favourite Ribblehead viaduct. The sides of the last section of trail are always littered with riders who’ve got ahead of themselves and relaxed just a little too much, thinking they’ve made it to the final section before actually reaching the tarmac, mangled bikes and broken bodies are commonplace. Still determined not to find myself among them I rode fairly gingerly across to the next group of supporters and promised myself another fast blast along the road after another energy gel and a few more swigs of now luke warm drink.
The linking road section between Whernside and the foot of Pen y Ghent can easily make a mess of anyone on the verge of running out of energy, numerous short but sapping rises will drain yomixture of u leaving you in a complete state at the foot of the final hill of the day. Not me though. I was back to throwing caution to the wind and mashing as big a gear as I could muster. People were once again jumping onto my wheel before falling off again as I passed them and, when one person finally managed to hang on behind, I was bombarded with apologies as he admitted he would happily take his turn on the front, if only he wasn’t struggling just to stay hidden behind me. I was fine with it, I just kept my head down and got used to being called “a beast” as I fought the bike over towards Horton in Ribblesdale without letting the speed drop below 20mph.
Although the lower part of the climb up Pen y Ghent is totally rideable, the loose stones and rocks litering the track mean that you can’t stay out of the saddle for prolonged periods to put more power down, you have to stay perched on the tip of your saddle to keep traction while turning a decent enough gear to, in my case at least, make it look to the spectators cheering you on, like you’re really putting in all the effort you can. The atmosphere on that section is always great whether you’re racing for the win (erm, I’m guessing here…) or just trying to finish, a constant corridor of noise follows you as you climb out from Horton to the final push/carry towards the last checkpoint.
If you’ve ever wanted to feel insignificant, I can recommend you take part on the 3 peaks and, just as you shoulder the bike for the first time on Pen y Ghent after riding away form the claps and cheers of those watching you, take a look up at the throngs of riders ahead of you, barely visable against the backdrop of the hill, creeping slowly upward and clattering their way back down. It can seem like a very long way from where you are to the top, even if you’re not already tired and sore from two previous hills of similar stature.
I took advantage of the offer of a sip of water from the heroic supporters who carry massive jerry cans of water halfway up the hill to give to racers as they passed and failed to give anywhere enough thanks for their endeavour as the lack of sickly sweet taste seemed nigh on perfect, like an oasis in the desert as the sun beat down on the exposed fellside.
All the way to the top as I pushed whenever possible and carried the bike whenever I had to I was looking out for Jason, expecting him to come thundering down the hill towards me. Rider after rider came past, eyes locked on the ground in front of them as their tyres dug into it, sending loose gravel and dust flying up into the air where it was whipped away by the wind racing up the side of the hill and scattered across the moors, but I reached the final checkpoint without seeing him and began to wonder what might of happened to him. I didn’t haave to wait long to find out, as I began to make my way back down the hill I met him, still on his way to the top after being slowed down by cramp on Whernside. I felt gutted for him as it was obvious before the race began how up-for-it he had been and how cruel something as trivial yet utterly devestating like cramp can be.
He seemed in good spirits despite the setback though and cheered me on as I got on with stumbling my way down the parts of the hill I refused to ride, after seeing numerous wheels in front of me wash out in the gravel while I was walking upwards earlier.
Further down the hill I remounted the bike and got carried away with having fun on the descent, nearly flying off the track on a few corners before remembering just how many people I’d seen crawling over the finish line last year with tales of woe from disasters that had befallen them while convincing themselves the race was done on the drop back down Pen y Ghent, and steadying myself.
Back into the lower slopes, lined with people still cheering as loudly and ethusiastically as they had been when I rode upwards throug them earlier I pass a couple of riders nursing punctured bikes over the final section of rocks and tree roots before rolling out onto the final section of road to the finish line, ignoring the now growing protests from my legs as I pick the biggest gear I have and set about grinding it out all the way to the timing tent. I come close to cocking up my not-fallling-off record by drifting very wide on the very final gravelly corner to the finish tent, glance down at the stopwatch on my computer and have to do a comedy double-take to ensure I’ve not misread the fact that, despite feeling less battered and shell shocked by the ride, I’ve knocked a full 30 minutes off last year’s time!
I feel like I’ve been perched on a knife edge for the last 3 hours and 53 minutes, never far from overcooking it and crashing and constantly on the verge of losing some sort of battle against the hills – it’s been a race against Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen y Ghent more than against anyone in riding in front of me or even against the clock. Last year I was left stunned by just how hard the race and the topography was, this year, armed with a little more knowledge and a sizeable chunk of caution I feel like I’ve been able to succeed where previously I’d just survived.
Moreover, I managed to set a decent benchmark time to beat next year; a little more leaning on the knife edge to see where I can claw back some time from this year’s caution, pushing myself a little harder against the hills to see what I can get away with and who knows how fast I could get round…