Before you can walk, first you must crawl
I literally cannot take another step upwards. I’m stuck. The ground, inches from my face, smells damp despite the current dry spell and I can see the imprint from the toe studs of another racers shoes immediately in front of my nose. My calves are jittering as I keep my weight perched on the very front of my feet, toes curled inside the stiff soled diadoras, I look across to my left and see a wire fence draped with other 3 peaks competitors, all clinging on for grim death, each hauling their bodies up the near-cliff face.
I start to shuffle myself across the hillside, one hand gripping the downtube of the Uncle John slung over my shoulder the other clawing at tufts of grass from the hillside that I’m pressed up against. I’m acutely aware that one slip backwards could spell disaster and glancing down behind me I can see many eyes looking back up, all willing me to stay upright, knowing that if I slip, I’ll be on top of them almost instantly. Deep breaths and baby steps get me within arms reach of the fence and a kindly fellow racer lets me into the line of climbers just as my Achilles tendons begin to twang in pain. I grab on and swing wildly for a second, unused to the weight of the cross bike on my back. After some kind words of encouragement and some better footholds on the terraced steps worn into the ground by countless feet before mine I’m able to start hauling myself upwards again.
I’m less than graceful at the best of times, but here and now I feel positively amateur. I keep dragging myself upwards, wrestling the unfamiliar lump of bike around on my back and gasping for air. All around me others are doing the same. I don’t know if the top guys manage with more skill, or whether they just grovel up in the same fashion I am but with slightly more speed, whatever it is they’re already long gone as the track finally begins to lever out a bit and ankles, straining under the pressure, are given some blessed relief.
I’ve been gone from the start line for only around 45mins, but what I’ve just learned has wiped out months of half arsed “training” for the event in no uncertain terms. I’m grinning to myself as I finally remount the bike and begin to pedal, gently shaking my head in disbelief. I am out of my league here, right out of it, trotting up the side of a local fell (a couple of minutes at most) a few times a week? I might as well have trained on the playstation for all the good it’ll do me if this is what it’s all about. All those words of warning from past entrants and the OTT sounding advice they offered? They suddenly make a lot of sense. But I’m here now and being back on the bike gives me some small comfort – people around me are still walking and several who are trying to ride are making simple looking mistakes, I put a bit of effort in for a minute or so and overtake a few riders before the slope kicks upwards again and I’m back to walking.
Once again the ground begins to rise up towards my face and for a few seconds I start to think I’m going to be back to crawling but it never gets quite so crazily steep, in fact within a few minutes I’m onto a set of man made steps up to the plateau at the top of Ingleborough.
“One down, eh? Only two left now!” shouts someone just in front of me as I spot the marshals at the first checkpoint. I have mixed feelings about this; delight that I’ve got over the first fell and mild panic that I’ve got to do it all over again over a bigger hill…and then do it once again for good measure. I’m mulling it over as I leap onto the bike after “dibbing” at the checkpoint, it’ll be alright, I decide, as long as there’s more riding from now on and less grovelling round shouldering the bike. The instant I finish thinking that sentence the ground drops away from me and I’m back on foot, this time descending, feet slipping across greasy rocks and hands pressed behind my back to keep me from sliding down on my arse. More internal laughing ensues, if there’s anything I’m worse at than climbing up steep slopes with a bike on my back…it’s coming back down the other side in the same position! To my right someone is trying to ride down the slope, he gets a few shouts of respect for his endeavour, but he doesn’t make it far before hooking his front wheel up behind a rock and flopping over to the side. Just as I begin to wonder if I’ll get to ride the bike for more than 10 seconds at a time the grounds starts to even out again and a more distinct track appears.
Another full on cyclocross remount (that’s two I’ve managed now, with no damage to nether regions…at least I’m getting something right) and a few big pedal strokes to get the chain up onto the big ring and I’m off. Swooping past riders the Uncle John feels custom made for this, skipping over waterbars and errant rocks thrown around by other back wheels I’m a different prospect as I glide past riders being wildly bucked around. No longer an underprepared fool, scrabbling about on the fellside, this is my element and I am very much in it.
Another two riders become nothing more than a blur as I float past. I’m fair flying down the now grassy track, eyes locked on the narrow line scored into the earth by tyres, flicking my hips left and right in time with the contours of the ground to guide the bike towards the next road section. “I’d better scrub off some speed actually, best not over do it and crash”, I think to myself as another well timed hop gets me over a boggy section. I pull on the levers and am rewarded with pretty much no effect.
Oh yeah, I’m not running discs am I, I’m on “good ol’ cantis”. Eek. Suddenly my face is rigid with tension as I haul the levers as hard as I can and force the wheels down into the ground with my legs to get any extra grip available. Robbed of skimming speed I begin to get bucked by the tussocks in the grass and my wrists start to take a hammering as the front wheel starts to bite into every little dip in the ground. I’m juddered for a few seconds before I get back to a more sensible speed and I decide to take it easier. I’m still ticking riders off one by one as I pass them as Jason skims past on his Uncle John. “It’s because he’s running discs” I lie to myself as he rapidly becomes a speck in the distance of a massive panorama I’d failed to notice. Taking it easy obviously has it’s own rewards, especially on a sunny morning like this when surrounded by hills and dales. I adopt a routine of glancing up at the scenery every few seconds in between keeping the bike on track for the rest of the descent and hit the road at Cold Cotes far calmer than I had been at the top.
The following road section is easy. I put the hammer down, pass Jason and fly from group to group of riders, pausing briefly to catch my breath before pushing on and dropping each one. Evidently I have some fitness left, it’s just a shame it’s of no use once I’m off the bike!
As it to prove just how big the gulf in the difference between my good points and bad points is, Jason repasses me on the big rock steps that make the climb up Whernside as I find that my feet won’t go upwards any faster. As if to prove which of the skills is most useful in a race like this he’s soon gone and I won’t see him again until the final climb on Pen-y-Ghent. I stay focussed on the few footsteps ahead of me and settle down to “just keeping going”, shifting the top tube of the bike around on my shoulder in search of a comfortable position.
The sun’s out now and the chill of the morning air is long gone as I continue to take step after step towards the second checkpoint. My calves ache, the super stiff carbon sole of my shoes seems to be transferring every miniscule vibration straight into my spine and the bike has definitely doubled in weight somewhere between dismounting at the bridleway water stop below me and here, or at least that what my shoulder is telling me. Am I nearly at the top? No idea, the steps appear to simply climb straight into the sky. I let out a deep breath, wipe the sweat from my forehead with my glove, stretch my back a little and remind myself that this is what it’s supposed to be like.
More steps – many more steps – later and I’m up on to the ridge along the top. There’s a few rideable sections before the welcoming sight of two people in orange bibs waving me towards them heralds checkpoint two. Hurrah. Two down and I’m not dead yet. Not only that but, in the closest thing to worthwhile training I did, I’d walked along the next section a few weeks earlier, so I know what’s coming up on the descent and I’m feeling sneakily confident of recatching a few people who seemed to dance past me on the climb.
It starts off well, I fly along the ridge, hopping waterbars and floating over rocky outcrops in a way that, I hope, makes the watching ramblers think I must be one of the top guys that’s had some sort of problem earlier on. I’m once again catching racers in front of me, many of whom are just running the entire path, not even bothering to remount as I reach the start of a long section of roughly laid paving slabs. I remember looking at these on my previous visit and deciding that they were entirely rideable with a bit of care, so on I push. I reach a steeper section, where the slabs form an unequal set of steps down to where a gaggle of walkers has moved to the side to let me past. I’m not entirely sure about this bit, it looks steeper than I remember it and I’m being bounced around quite a lot, but there’s people watching, so I can’t really get off and run, my ego won’t allow it.
Thump, thump, thumpity thump thump dadump dadump dadump, narrow tyres pumped up hard start to slither over the coffin sized stones, whoa! I’m getting out of control, too much speed, not enough accuracy and there’s a gap between two slabs that looks just the right size to snag a front wheel coming up. Braking doesn’t stop me and I’m on the gap before any real avoiding action can be taken. My front wheel drops and I throw my weight as far backwards as I can to stay on top of the bike. No good. I’m in the air, my feet still locked into the pedals and hands outstretched in front of me to cushion the landing as I’m flicked over the bars. The bike twists beneath me as the front wheel pops back out of the hole and I hit the ground on one side, my chin and right hand making contact first before the rest of my body comes crumpling down on top. Memories of being punched in the face for the first time come flooding back and disappear as shock is replaced with pain. I roll off to the side of the track, scrabble to unclip from the bike and feel a hand rest on my shoulder.
“Just take a minute lad” someone above me suggests, “that were a big ‘un”.
I catch my breath and gingerly prod at my face, half expecting to find some new lump or hole, half expecting that to be the end of the race for me. Everything seems to be where it should be and the pain subsides a bit, enough for me to take stock of where I am at the bottom of the flight of steps in amongst the watching ramblers. Great. If I had to crash anywhere it would be right into a group of spectators wouldn’t it. Mild embarrassment takes over from shock and I hurry to get the bike sorted. Smacking the brake levers back into position from where they’ve been knocked around on the bars reveals a sore palm on my right hand, which will no doubt make riding a skinny tyred, rigid bike down bumpy trails interesting, but to my surprise and delight no other damage to the bike appears. It’s obviously quite tough then!
My confidence is all over the place for the rest of the descent and I end up walking a lot of rideable track, but still manage to regain a few places and get to the road at Ribblehead without further incident, telling myself that the worst is out of the way, even though I don’t really know what’s still to come.
I once again nail it along the road, my legs feel fresh on the bike and sharing the workload with another racer means I rarely see the speedo drop below 20mph, even on the climbs. Remembering that this is meant to be a race I put in a surge of power on the way into Horton-in-Ribblesdale and drop my shadow as I’m directed left by a marshal onto the final climb of the day up Pen-y-Ghent.
It’s rideable for quite a while and pedalling a nice rhythm sees me pass a few more competitors before I’m on foot again as the path takes a far more direct route straight up the side of the hill.
The monotony of plodding upwards is broken frequently by the clattering of riders well ahead of me coming back down the same track, their eyes fixed on the loose gravel that will shortly be flying up from their rear wheel. I wonder how far ahead of me they actually are and how much more climbing I’ve got to go. Rather stupidly, I glance upwards.
It’s chuffing miles. Tiny dots scamper down the hill while other tiny dots crawl up it. Tiny dots. I’m not a tiny dot, I’m an aching, bruised, bloodied lump with the Worlds Heaviest Bike ™ trying to force it’s way though my already tenderised shoulder. It’s going to take while to become a tiny dot, it’s going to take a lot of staring at my feet to get to that point, so I shuffle the top tube around until a slightly less painful bit of shoulder appears and get back to stomping. More people pass me as I continue up the hill, stopping only to grab a mouthful of water from a volunteer handing them out, but I can’t speed up. My legs don’t feel overly tired, but I’m stuck at one speed and it appears to be a slower one to that of those around me. Still, I’m moving, which must count for something, right?
It does, eventually. I can see the top. Woo. I celebrate by glancing around to take in the view, which is well worth the effort and as I turn back to look up the path I see Jason riding back down. We exchange fleeting greetings as he hurtles past and I reposition the bike for one last time before forcing my legs back into the now familiar trudge up over the rocks and gravel to the final checkpoint and more congratulating orange bibs.
I’m still shaken from faceplanting on Whernside and the final descent isn’t taken with as much gusto as it should be, in fact I find myself walking sections that would normally by an excuse to let rip. I pass richpips on his ascent and he asks if there’s something wrong with the bike. I shout out that the bike’s fine, it’s me that’s not working properly. This is crap. I stop, stare at the ground for a second and remount the bike, I’m going to ride the rest of it, it’s all doable, I know it is, so I’m going to do it. Clipped back into the pedals I settle myself down, fingers cautiously gripping the brake levers and eyes darting around for anything that might pitch me off I clatter back down the hill, slowly regaining confidence, not catching anyone in front now, but not getting dropped either, that’ll do.
Other racers still making their way up the hill seem to take all the smooth lines so I’m forced over rocks and roots that would no doubt be flat out on a mountain bike but requires extra effort on the cross bike and I’m thankful of the puncture protection built into the tyres as I feel the rim smack against solid edges a few times.
One last sprint along the road for effect and I’m suddely crossing the finish line, my name belted out of the PA system by the most northern announcer ever. My calves sing with delight as they realise it’s all over. I’m handed a slip of paper with my checkpoint times on it as I unclip my race number from my jersey, I don’t bother looking at it straight away as it doesn’t seem to matter, I wasn’t really racing for a high placing and I had no idea what kind of time to aim to finish in, so just being at the finish with the whole event in my legs seems enough. For this time.
As I walk back towards the car, stopping to chat to a few people about how they got on, my head’s already back up on Ingleborough, one year from now. More knowledgable, more prepared, no longer with a handicap once off the bike I’m an altogether different prospect. Next year.