Wednesday, 1 October 2014

A Sunday in Hell - Three Peaks 2012

2012 marked my third attempt at the Three Peaks and I had a simple ambition to beat 5 hours. My first year (2009) in fairly good weather I just missed out despite 3 punctures, finishing in 5-20 after faffing around for ages trying and failing to repair my last flat on Pen y Ghent. 2011 saw my second attempt - worse weather but I was going well until I cramped really badly on the road from Ribblehead, didn't eat enough and ended up walking on some of the rideable bits of PYG, finishing in 5-07.

This year I was determined to do well and started training in March doing some fell running. This quickly confirmed I'm definitely a cyclist. My knees don't seem to have any 'springs' in them and after a while I shuffle along like some sort of weird peg man. However, I stuck with it and I can run at least 8 miles across the moors if I really have to! In April I was lucky enough to get some work (designing cycle routes!) in the Lake District which gave me a chance to ride some classic road climbs and Grizedale MTB course on my cross bike. I even managed to do two hours at Grizedale followed by the evening cross race in Todmorden park one day! Almost a professional! I was laid low by the drugs that I take for a long term illness that I have in June, but did some serious miles on the road throughout July, riding every steep local climb, seeking out all the nasty slippery cobbled climbs as well as regular cross-bike rides across the moors. At the end of July we did the Mary Towneley Loop one afternoon, a tough 40 miles with steep climbs and technical descents. All going well! An expedition to ride down through the Outer Hebrides with full camping gear in August kept the fitness going and gave us lots of headwind practice! Onto the start of the cross season and a painful reminder that I really must learn how to jump on and off my bike properly - good job I don't want any more children!

I'm lucky to live quite high up on a big hillside so its hard to avoid uphill training. My daily commute home from the railway station (with bike, bag, laptop etc) in September started to include a run up the 'Hundred Steps' in Hebden Bridge (there are actually 105) followed by a run/ride up the steep cobbled Buttress and a second set of steps towards Heptonstall village, a ride up the cobbled high street and finally get home on the edge of the moors about 600ft of climbing later!

I was pretty certain on the start line that despite the dire weather this could be my year to beat 5 hours. It didn't take long to shatter that illusion - even before the start of the climb proper at Ingleborough there was a 'new' stream crossing and soon after we were all pushing/carrying/sliding across fields that are normally rideable. So here's my account of the race.

Simon Fell is usually the scene of a 'biblical' procession of colourful riders stretching to the top, but this year all is grey/green with visibility just a few yards. Despite being on a vast hillside the overwhelming sense is of being shut inside an angry vortex of howling wind and driving rain. The only view is the feet of the person slipping in front and looking for somewhere vaguely solid to grasp and stand on for the next step. There is no queue at the famous stile this year as already the field is fragmented (mostly well in front of me!). I shout my thanks to the two heroic helpers who haul bikes across here every year. Some of the next part is rideable, but trying to steer and balance in the screaming wind is nigh on impossible. Ahead, I see a woman's bike literally blown out of her hands as she tries to shoulder it! At last we reach the grim rocky summit. On a good day the descent of Ingleborough is a real blast, bouncing over tussocky grass and charging down the steep banks. This year it is yet another torture of trotting and grinding through bog after bog, but as we emerge from the cloud there is at least a view to the bottom.

After the now traditional face plant into the mud at Cold Cotes I'm 30 mins down on my schedule. Shovel down some food and an energy gel on the downhill road. Already my legs are cramping in the cold and its actually a relief to start the climb out of Ingleton. I pick off quite a lot of riders every time the road goes uphill, and I try to jump on the wheel of any fast riders who come past. The gale force tailwind has been a help getting to Whernside and I start the rocky steps feeling good. Back up into the blackness and we're in a frustrating 'traffic jam' of idiots trying to carry a bike up a mountain! I can sense time ticking away but there isn't much scope to pass and people are constantly catching handlebars and brake levers in spokes as we crowd together. Off the steps and onto the track, which is rutted single track punctuated with big rocks. I've practised on this sort of terrain so much that I know I can ride this stuff where lots of people walk. I set off on my bike - only to be quickly blown off it again! Back on again and its the same story, but this time I land heavily on my thigh and struggle to stand up. This weather is serious and not the place to get hurt (my wife was airlifted off here in last years race!). I resign myself to a bit more pushing and carrying towards the top! It's a similar story slithering along the top part of the descent. For once however the rain has an advantage because the 'terryfying steps' and stone causeway are being constantly jetwashed by driving rain and are a lot less slippery than usual so I manage to ride most of the way and cross the drains without punctures. All is well until another rider doesn't quite move far enough over to let me pass and I plunge off the edge of the causeway and over the handlebars! Oh well, par for the course and no real damage done. Ribblehead seems a long time coming and is a welcome sight! To finish in 5 hours I need to get from Ribblehead to the finish in 1.5 hours, last year it took me that long to get from Ribblehead to the top of Pen y Ghent.

A nice person from Zipvit shoves an energy gel into my hand, reminding me that I must eat! I gobble the gel and then a banana and some flapjack. I suffered like a dog on the road to Horton last year. This year I take it in my stride, trying to control the cramp in my legs by pedalling heel down and concentrating on catching one rider after another. As Sean Kelly would say I am suffering big time. There's a bloke in front going roughly the same pace as me so I close the gap and sit on his wheel for the last couple of mile to Pen y Ghent to try to give myself a break.

I panic when I see the ford at the foot of Pen y Ghent but someone shouts keep left its rideable and for once they are not lying to get a good photo and I stay upright! I love climbing Pen y Ghent, it suits a road climber and I manage to pick off a few people on the way up and ride further up than most. Eventually the gradient gets too much and its off the bike. I can barely carry it - all that wind blowing has been twisting my back and its killing me. I push as much as I can, but the wind keeps catching the back end and blowing it across the track! I can sense myself shutting down and each step is a becoming a real challenge as my strength ebbs away. Summit at last! The cheerful marshalls congratulate me - but they are the real heroes stood there for hours on end.

The top part of the descent is on the grass and I find myself sliding uncontrollably as it gets steeper and steeper. There's no dignified way to stop so I throw myself off before I hit the rocks! A quick trot down the steep stony bit and then its onto the track. I remember reading that Nick Craig doesnt use his brakes on this bit and dare myself to do the same - but I don't have his guts or talent! I manage to pass some more cautious people, and in no time I'm back on the road. There's a sense of elation as you hit the tarmac but still a few miles to the finish and I push on as hard as I can. Every undulation brings searing pain and cramp but at last I drop round the bend and over the bridge to the finish.

It's impossible to say how you feel after such a self inflicted ordeal. Relieved and elated to finish in one piece. A sense of 'mission accomplished'. Results wise I got my best ever placing but my worst ever time. It's all irrelevant however. The real story, as for most people in the race, is knowing that I couldn't have pushed myself any harder and I survived one of the tougest years of the toughest race.