Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Just Grand! How to top the Grand Depart.

It's been such an exciting year for cycling in Yorkshire I worried that the Three Peaks might seem a bit of an anticlimax after Le Tour. Of course, I needn't have worried, it was just as big a day as it always is!

My 2014 Three Peaks was five years in the making, because that's how long it has taken to finally reach my goal of a sub five hour ride. I managed to get fit early in the year to take on the Fred Whitton Challenge ride in the Lake District in May, and the plan was to carry that fitness through the summer and work on the specific requirements of the Peaks. This is mainly carrying your bike up ridiculously steep hills for long periods, and riding downhill on surfaces that challenge even the most skilled riders.

My first race was 2009, but 3 punctures saw me finish in 5 hours 20 minutes. The next year I was too ill to cycle. 2011 I managed 5 hours and 7 minutes, 2012 was a battle for survival in the worst conditions and a 5 and a half hour ride. In 2013 I was still recovering from neurosurgery but going well until a sprained ankle the week before the race saw me on crutches and hopping round the race with a strapped up ankle and a butchered cycling shoe, finishing in 5 hours 18 minutes.

One big advantage of being off the drugs that I was taking up until last year is that I have lost weight, down to 67kg from 70kg, which must make a big difference up the hills. I've been logging many of my rides on strava this year and this does seem to confirm that I'm climbing better.

Preparation has not always gone smoothly. In late August I managed to get tendinitis in my forearm, so painful that I couldn't grip the handlebars and the only cure was to rest for a fortnight, right in the middle of what should have been the most intense training. Not even the dreaded turbo trainer was allowed. The last two weeks before the race also coincided with a hugely busy period at work, and what should have been a 'taper' and rest before the race ended up as a week of staying up until midnight to get various things finished.

This sort of thing can really shake your confidence and my one comfort was that strava was proving to me that I was riding as fast as ever by my own standards and also that I was doing some of the local hills as fast as some of the Yorkshire cyclo cross league regulars who regularly beat me in races. So I reached the start line on Sunday morning feeling tired but confident in my own ability.

One thing about the 'neutralised' section of the race is that it is run off at a stately 30mph, so it pays to be warmed up on the start line, and I went off up the road as far as the turn off to Simon Fell and back to open up the lungs before lining up at the back of the race. Everybody jostles to be at the front, but I don't have enough speed for a fast start, and hate being overtaken anyway. You lose time as everyone rolls out, but its easy enough to pick your way up through the field on the road and lower slopes of Ingleborough, at the same time boosting your ego by passing lots of people, and in any case the front of the bunch is a very 'twitchy' and hazardous place on the road to Horton in Ribblesdale, bringing some riders to a premature finish.

The approach to Simon Fell was lovely and fairly dry and rideable this year and for once the leaders were not even on the hill when it came into my view. I knew then that I must be doing OK, and I was managing to stay on my bike and ride lots of sections where others were off and walking. I took it steady on Simon Fell, go too hard and you end up grovelling on the next easier and more rideable sections. This tactic paid off and I had a good ride up from Rawnsley's Leap to the summit.

Over the rocky summit and jump off to pick my way down the steep grassy slope onto the footpath. Fell running pays off on this section as its a bit easier to run along until the stony track gets smooth enough to ride before diving off over the moors towards Cold Cotes. I managed two falls on the way down, one at the peat ditch that gets me every year. When will I remember its not rideable!

Another slight change of tactic, I freewheel along the lane from Cold Cotes, stuffing down flapjack and a gel and having a good drink. This means I can concentrate on riding up the valley towards Whernside. I pass a few riders on the climb out of Ingleton but then I'm on my own and as they catch me again we share the work to the turn off. There seem to be more cars than ever on the roads and we get stuck in traffic a few times along the way, hugely frustrating.

Last year I got stuck in a very slow moving queue of people walking up Whernside so I pass as many people as I can on the approach to the climb and on the wider steps at the bottom before hitting the inevitable bottleneck on the steepest section. At the top of the steps the wind is blissfully absent and its actually a relief to get on the bike and ride up to the summit, with a magnificent view down to Ribblehead over my right shoulder. Dib in, shove down more food and gel, and away down the hill.

Whernside is the descent that everybody loves to hate. The top section starts innocently enough, but then there are steps, rideable with courage but not for the fainthearted, followed by slabs punctuated with yawning gaps and boggy ditches off to the side. When that horror is over a section of rocky path awaits, with massive boulders waiting to rip out spokes and bend derailleurs. Only when you have negotiated these terrors are you rewarded with a lovely smooth gravel track to Ribblehead. I am a coward by nature, inclined to bottle it at every opportunity! I have spent much of the summer forcing myself to ride down all the worst most slippery, steep and stony paths in Calderdale to prepare me for this. I am happy to say that I rode everything except the steps, and that was mainly because there were some walkers (well that gave me an honourable excuse to dismount!). I cant say that I brought much style or panache to the descent, but I did it my way! I even passed quite a few people. One minor fall and that first twinge of cramp as I got up.

More food at Ribblehead and onto the road. I feel pretty good, but as soon as the road starts to go up the cramp starts and I'm pedalling in squares. I try standing up on the pedals but that makes things worse, so I push on and wait for the next downhill to try and get my feet out of the pedals and stretch the muscles. This happens every year. Its so annoying. I still feel good but my legs are protesting. I take the opportunity to recover a bit on the run in to Horton In Ribblesdale and then give it everything on the climb up Pen y Gent lane. My legs settle down again into a bit more of a rhythm as I get to the flatter section. I'm doing OK, passing a few more people. Everything is telling me to get off my bike, to stop the pain but I know that this is one of my 'good' sections where I am usually able to ride faster and further up the hill than some of my fellow back markers. I keep going until the path gets too steep to ride and start the steady trudge to the top, leaning on my bike for support until the steep corner that means its just a quarter of a mile more to climb. All the time I'm focusing on the rider just in front. If I can catch him before that rock. Mission accomplished. If I can get her by the top of the grass. Another one down. Just keep thinking about these small achievable steps, don't think about the distant summit just yet! Soon enough that final hill is climbed.

If Whernside is the descent that I fear, Pen y Gent seems to have the opposite effect. I once read an interview with Rob Jebb where he said he didn't use his brakes all the way down. I haven't quite reached that standard yet, but there is something about the wave of relief and the non-technical nature of the downhill that means I do always really go for it on this bit. It's not logical, because a high speed crash here would hurt far more than a lower speed crash on Whernside. Improvements to the path last year have made this whole section incredibly fast, and being towards the back of the field there are not that many riders still coming up so it is pretty much a free run. What an adrenalin rush!

Shaken up by the downhill but buzzing from the excitement of it, its a blessed relief to reach the tarmac. I'm soon brought back down to earth by the dreaded cramp, but the end is in sight and I'm soon rolling over the bridge and into the finish funnel in a time of 4:42.

OK, so Rob Jebb was at the summit of Pen y Gent by the time I got to the top of Whernside. I am no champion. But the great thing about this race is that every rider, whether in first or last place, has overcome a massive physical and technical challenge using skills, courage and sheer will power. This is the essence of the event, only a handful will ever win a prize, but everybody can achieve their personal goals.

The other thing that is so fantastic about the race is the atmosphere. A few times I felt almost tearful at the support from the crowds and the encouragement from fellow riders (well, I was pretty tired and emotional!). It is a friendly event. The organisation is fantastic and efficient but never officious. The marshalls and mountain rescue are always cheerful whatever the weather. The people on the podiums are an eclectic mix of elite riders, stars of the past, everyday club riders and thankfully an increasing number of younger riders who will keep this Yorkshire tradition going into the future.

Time to start planning for next year. What better way to celebrate being 50 than a sub four and a half hour ride.........