Contrary to the evidence of the above picture, November is in fact rubbish. It’s an awful month: cold and dark and getting worse by the day, but without any of the compensations of the holiday period (not being in work, being allowed to get drunk every day etc). Last year I made a concerted attempt to head off the usual seasonal slump by getting up early and riding my bike as the sun dragged itself blearily into the sky, and I managed a few excursions like this before a root-canal abscess flared up and knocked me back onto the sofa for a couple of weeks. This year I decided not to jinx things by posting smugly about how much I’ve been doing until nearer the end of the month, hence the lack of updates. I have got quite a bit done though.
I’ve been going round and round in circles on the National Cycling Centre velodrome, which is interesting, and I’m hoping to progress through a few accreditation stages this winter. It’s a novel experience and the early coaching is as much about learning the various rules and conventions of track riding as it is getting physically used to the bike and boards. Great fun.
I took a month off riding outside following the Three Peaks CX, but dropped myself right back in at the deep end at the start of November with a forty mile MTB grind around Lancashire taking in visits to the three towers of Rivington, Darwen and Ramsbottom before a huge drag up Winter Hill. This windswept jaunt was the first serious outing for what is supposed to be training for the Strathpuffer, the 24-hour endurance race that takes place in the north of Scotland in January. I’m part of a four-man team, thankfully, so I’ll only have to weather six hours or so of riding in freezing mud and darkness, but even so I’m going to need to continue loading the miles into my legs to keep myself going in the middle of the night.
This loosely-organised training plan was also the reason for last Saturday night’s 60km slog over the Pennines with my ‘Puffer team-mate Kai. We set off from Hadfield at just before 9PM, and followed a good solid off-road loop all the way round the top corner of the Dark Peak via the moors above Saddleworth, Marsden, Holmfirth and the Woodhead Pass, through rain, fog and freezing sleet, all in the name of acclimatising ourselves to the sort of conditions we’ll be dealing with in January. We got pretty cold and wet but Kai kept us rolling along at a good fierce pace and we put the whole ride away inside five hours, which was a fair bit quicker than I expected. I enjoyed the outing and we didn’t encounter any serious problems, but I was fairly well chilled by the time I got back to the van. Hopefully the traditional strategy of taking every last bit of bike kit I own with me will avoid any hypothermia episodes in January.
It’s not all been grim, wet, muddy riding this month, though and I managed to get out on a lovely crisp autumnal day mid-month, following a short but enjoyable loop above Marsden where I saw a Short-eared Owl, a beautiful sunset, and almost no humans at all. The moors have died back to their winter colouring, all brown and yellow, very pretty in the low sun, and frost has killed off all the midges so you can stand and admire the views for as long as you like. The breeze had even dried off the rocks enough that there was plenty of grip in-between the muddy puddles, although inevitably I encountered a herd of grumpy old ramblers on the best bit of the final descent of the day, because where else would they be?
And last but not least, in terms of suffering at any rate, I have also been out running. Don’t tell anyone, ok? I always swore I’d never take up running, on account of it being horrible: it’s slower and much less fun than riding a bike, it’s much more painful, and it’s liable to knacker your knees. But in the name of cross-training this month I’ve run 70-odd kilometres, mostly on trails, and I have to say… it’s still horrible. Absolutely awful. It does have one virtue though (apart from getting you fit fast): when the weather is absolutely minging, it’s not actually any more horrible. Wind and rain and general normal November conditions can really spoil a bike ride, but with running it’s not really much different whether it’s chucking it down or not. When you’re squelching across some godforsaken boggy field, gritting your teeth up some disgustingly steep farm track, or galumphing down a perfectly good descent in a pair of pumps rather than zooming down it on a bike, the weather is pretty much irrelevant. I still hate running, but at least it gets me out of the house.
That pretty much sums up my November for this year, and I feel like I’ve landed a few solid hits on my least favourite month this time round. I’m a lot happier than usual and a big part of that has to be down to not just wallowing on the sofa and hiding from the world. Hopefully I’ve also started to set myself up reasonably well for surviving what might be a rather brutal start to next year’s bike antics at Strathpeffer, although of course it remains to be seen if I can carry the momentum over into December and through the holidays and keep the training going.
The 56th Annual 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross took place on 30th September, and I raced it and finished it. I have wanted to ride in this event for years now, but as we shall see there’s more to it than simply rolling up and pinning on a number. Happily for me 2018 was the year when the stars aligned, plans worked out, and I was able to line up for the chance to pedal, push and carry my bike over this remarkable course.I have always loved the countryside of the Yorkshire Dales, ever since my parents brought me here as a kid and we climbed Ingleborough via Gaping Gill. Despite the underlying rock being closely related to that beneath the hills of my home in terms of geological history, and less than fifty miles further north, it is a very different terrain to the South Pennines. Obviously pockmarked and porous in a way that our millstone grit is not, the limestone bones of the land also give the place a more open feel. The dales are wider and the ridges and peaks stand apart from one another, more distinct than the wide plateaus and narrow valleys of my part of the world. The summits are higher too, having a good 100m or more on the highest tops of the Dark Peak. They felt to a ten-year old boy like gigantic mountains, the conquering of just one a monumental endeavour that left me exhausted. The idea of traversing three of them in one day struck my young mind as being somewhere along the spectrum of intrepid achievement not far short of climbing Everest. I must confess, about thirty years on, that I have still not got round to Doing The Three Peaks on foot (nor have I climbed Everest, for that matter), but they have always held a strong attraction for me and I have returned to the area many times. One of the first holidays I took with my wife was at the foot of Ingleborough exploring the limestone pavements around Trow Gill. Penyghent was the first proper mountain my son climbed, aged six, and I made sure he went up and down all the way under his own steam, because you treat these hills with respect, son. I’m getting a bit involved here, sorry, but suffice to say that I really rather like these mountains, and the idea of racing a bike around all three appealed enormously.Running or hiking the Three Peaks is a classic big day out for pedestrians and people do it all year round, but there is just one day a year when a few hundred lucky racers get to legally take bicycles over these tops. Nowadays the race is sufficiently popular that the organisers have to run a lottery for entries, and unless you marshalled the year before (or are fast enough to be invited) then you aren’t guaranteed a ride. You also have to provide some evidence that you are fit enough to haul yourself round the course in a reasonable time (my effort at the Glentress 7 seemed to suffice). You are only allowed to use a cyclocross bike: drop bars, 35c tyres, no suspension. If you don’t make the cut-off times at various checkpoints then you get sent home. These barriers to entry combine to make just lining up at Helwith Bridge with a number pinned to your sleeve feel like a small achievement in itself.There were about 500 of us at the start last weekend, loosely organised into ranks by estimated finish-times behind the sub-3h elite riders on the front row. I took up my customary place at the back with my friends Rik and Andy, theoretically putting us in line for 5h-plus finishes, although I was hoping to beat that mark if possible. I wasn’t sure how I was likely to feel, as the previous week had been wiped out by a cold, and to be honest my efforts at training had suffered from the inevitable summer holiday slump. A good few hilly miles in September had helped give me some confidence that I’d get round, but a satisfactory time wasn’t exactly certain.When the flag dropped the bunch shot off up the road towards Horton and we enjoyed a few flat miles of bunch riding sheltered from the blustery winds before leaving tarmac for the farm tracks leading to the first fearsome climb. Before we had even reached proper off-road terrain a rider directly in front of me was barged to the ground by a stray sheep. He seemed to be okay as he picked himself up (the sheep was fine), but the incident served as an excellent reminder that this is no ordinary race, and takes place out in the real world in a living, working landscape. I negotiated the remaining farmland with no further mishaps and began the astonishing climb up Simon Fell, the first section of the first peak of the three, Ingleborough. The ascent starts steadily enough over a series of shelving fields, but you can see the pack stretched out in front of you like a stream of multi-coloured ants climbing a wall where the hill rears up to about forty-five degrees. Here you have no choice but to shoulder your bike, hanging on to tussocks and fences as you trudge towards the top. Matching the slow pace my fellow back-of-the-pack racers as best I could, I was near my limit all the way up, and those riders with more of a fell-running background enjoyed a clear advantage here. I had left my friend Rik a little way behind on the flat road section, but he caught and passed me with ease here thanks to his superior hill-jogging skills.Photo by muddygorilla.com
The top of Simon Fell was blasted by wind and rain, but the terrain was mostly rideable, and the traverse across to the foot of Ingleborough’s summit pyramid allowed a little time for recovery before the inevitable slog up the slabs to the first checkpoint. Having dibbed-in we swung left for the descent to Cold Cotes, down a rocky path which gave way to sweeping grassy terraces off Little Ingleborough. I started to enjoy myself, opening up the brakes and letting the bike fly past some more careful riders, making up a good few places by the time we reached the bottom. Slotting into a group on the road and picking our way through motor traffic on the B6255 I made good progress to the foot of Whernside. This ascent is less absolutely precipitous than the first climb, but is perhaps a more relentless slog overall. I passed through the summit marshal point where I had stood last year pretty exhausted (see pic below), and picked my way down to Blea Moor over some of the most technical sections of the entire circuit, winding up the pace to another enjoyable blast once the drops, slabs and drainage ditches of the upper reaches of the hill were dispatched.Photo by racingsnakes.com
After passing through the crowds at Blea Moor the road to the foot of Penyghent gave me chance to catch Rik again, but inevitably he reversed the situation once more on the final climb, and my pace dropped and dropped the higher I got. By now I had a headache, my back was ruined, and my legs were on the verge of cramping at nearly every step. I was reduced to stumbling along at a couple of miles per hour, wheeling my bike up the final slopes, utterly wasted. As I climbed back on and started the descent from the last summit checkpoint I felt too tired to even dismount again, and resolved to just hold on and grit my teeth for the whole descent, or crash, whichever happened first. I let go of the brakes and allowed the bike to run once more, freewheeling and clattering down any available line. I trusted that my finely-honed mountain-biker instincts for picking soft spots to stack onto would save me from total disaster, and as my legs slowly recovered a little I found I was even passing a few riders. The lower sections of Penyghent Lane are covered in loose babyhead rocks, a surface that seemed to cause problems for many other riders, but which I normally find enjoyable and entertaining to ride on, and with the final few miles in sight I felt my spirits lift and I picked off several more places. The last road stretches to the finish are almost flat, and unbelievably I found myself sat on the front of a miniature peloton as I span along, happy enough until we reached the fearsome Cote De Helwith Bridge. This is fifty yards of approximately 3% incline which normally wouldn’t even register as a gentle slope, but at the end of this race it slowed me from about 20mph back down to little more than walking pace. My passengers shot past, leaving me to roll back to the finish line for a completion time of 4h43m51s and 389th place, supremely pleased just to finish, and over the moon to do it well under my target of five hours. Rik managed to beat me to the final checkpoint by two seconds, and Andy made it round in 5h39m28s.For those who care about this stuff I was on a Fuji Altimira 1.3 2017 with mostly stock kit but with a KS Zeta 50mm dropper post (highly recommended) and Vittoria Terreno Mix tyres run tubeless at 50psi front, 60psi rear, which were great, but do seem to wear out fast. I ran 36 x 11-32 gearing, and could definitely have done with a lower ratio or two towards the end of the race. I had no punctures and no other major mechanical issues, although there were a few creaks and groans coming from the bike towards the end, so it’s going to have a bit of a service before I race it again. I drank about 1.5L of water carried in a Camelbak and ate four gels and half a bag of jelly babies. I’m still aching all over several days after the event, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and the horrible bits (the hills) were mostly horrible in a satisfying, type-2 fun sort of way. Even the slog up Penyghent was worth it in hindsight; getting yourself to the top of something when you feel like it’s almost impossible is gratifying in a way that an easy ride will never be, and just letting everything hang out on the descent afterwards was highly rewarding. I will probably see if I can get a spot on the race next year, and if not I may well marshal to ensure that I can ride the year after. I’m definitely interested to see if I can better my time, getting closer to 4h30, perhaps by doing some proper training or something crazy like that.The atmosphere and support from the volunteers and spectators all the way round the course was brilliant, everyone seemed happy to be stood out on windswept hilltops or in boggy fields to encourage and safely shepherd herds of lunatics on unsuitable bicycles around the place. Most of the walkers encountered were happy to share the paths with us (with one exception in a miserable old baggage on Penyghent, who hopefully didn’t manage to actually knock anyone off their bike with her inconsiderate antics – mardy-arse ramblers would perhaps be well advised to choose from the thousands of other paths in the area that aren’t used by the race for the few hours of the one day each year when it takes place, just a suggestion). All my fellow racers were kind and considerate to one another in what are pretty testing circumstances, and I saw no poor sportsmanship or shenanigans at any point.As an event, the 3 Peaks CX is unique and brilliant, and should really be on any serious bicycle rider’s to-do list. It is sufficiently difficult that even the very best will find it challenging, and pure fitness alone will not carry you through. I lost count of the number of whippet-thin roadies who looked out of their depth on the downhills, fell-runners without pedalling miles in their legs will find the linking road sections a serious chore, and mountain biker adrenaline junkies will be in over their heads if their fitness and abilities on a skinny-tired, rigid bike aren’t up to scratch. You need to be both a good all-rounder and in pretty good trim to even finish this race, but it’s well worth the challenge.
In typical style I finally started panicking about the Three Peaks CX race less than a month before the event, and have been hauling myself over the local hills in an attempt to accustom my legs to the concept of pedalling properly again after a summer holidays’ worth of neglect. The weather hasn’t been ideal but then given the considerable chances of the race itself taking place in grim conditions that is no bad thing, and even grinding up and over Holme Moss into the teeth of the first winter storm yesterday I didn’t feel too bad. I’m almost looking forward to slogging the cross bike round Ingleborough, Whernside and Penyghent now. Almost.
The weather is very much back to normal now, and last Sunday’s Hope Pre Peaks ride gave me and several hundred other lunatics chance to remind ourselves what riding in the Great British summer is really supposed to be like. We had five hours of that good, old-fashioned drizzly rain that thoroughly soaks everything without making a fuss about it, along with a classic logic-defying circular headwind, and plenty of low cloud to obscure the scenery.The Pre Peaks, as the name suggests, is supposed to be a warm-up event for the Three Peaks Cyclocross race, in which I am apparently taking part at the end of next month. Given that the summer holidays have had their usual deleterious effect on my riding mileage, getting a decent sized loop in was definitely a good idea, and having paid money to secure my place ensured that I showed up in spite of the dreadful forecast. The wind and rain were sufficiently bracing for the organisers to close off the longer 85km route option altogether, so we were all restricted to just 70km of slippy mud and limestone, and whilst I think I could have managed an extra hill or so I will admit that I was not altogether dismayed by having the decision made for me at the start.The first hill both warmed us up nicely and served as an introduction to the type of riding that makes up most of the course: wide bridleways with unmade surfaces rocky enough to be a challenge on a cross bike, but not so difficult as to really make you wish for anything with suspension, because as soon as you’d dispatched a few kilometres of rattly stuff you were on quiet lanes where skinnier tyres and drop bars really helped. We settled into a nice rhythm and ticked off the first third of the course to Long Preston in about an hour and a half. The feed station here was remarkably fancy, with a huge spread of cakes and biscuits, proper coffee, and even a mechanic. Rik took advantage of this last to have the horrible grating noise coming from his back brake dealt with, but we were able to get on the way before cooling off too much, and started out on the biggest climb of the day, creeping gradually up to over 500m on the way to Malham Tarn.The weather up here was towards the character-building end of the spectrum, but we kept moving and just touched the cloud ceiling a couple of times, before dropping down to the second feed station at about three and a half hours time elapsed. One last punchy climb after this chance to refuel, and we embarked on the long descent off the high hills. The singletrack down Calton Moor was remarkably good fun on a cross bike, a snaking ribbon of smooth trail, fast and entertaining, leading into a rocky farm track that took us back down to the lower levels of the Aire Gap. We traversed this over the course of the next hour or so, following quiet lanes, bridleways and towpaths, back to Barnoldswick to collect our finishers’ goody bags (with some pretty decent swag in them for once: a CNCed Hope bottle opener, some bike cleaner, stickers and whatnot, nice). We grabbed a sausage butty, chatted with a few mates, and then made a dash for the van in between rain showers, agreeing that the event had been well organised and executed, a smashing day out even with the fairly horrible weather.
The Howgill Fells have been on my personal list of Rides I Want To Do for ages now, the rolling grassy hills abutting the M6 just before Tebay have always looked inviting to me as I drove past en route to some more northerly destination. I had however always held off visiting on the grounds that anything that verdantly green was likely to be waterlogged and unpleasant for much of the year. In light of the current spell of warm, dry weather, I thought now might finally be a good time to explore this corner of the north, and gathered a couple of friends to join me on a day off following the classic Howgills circuit from Sedbergh. The route follows bridleways up onto the main ridge right to the top of The Calf, then descends Bowderdale before looping back along the eastern edge of the fells via Ravenstonedale; plenty of .gpx traces of variations on this theme are available online, here’s the route we followed, wrong turns and all.As you can see from this and subsequent pictures, the ride was rather puncture-prone. We had four of the damn things. Our first happened before we even left the car park, and a good half-hour was spent trying to get a tubeless repair to hold, liberally coating the tarmac with sealant before we gave up and stuck a tube in there. Any reader thinking “Aaah, serves you right, you’d never have that problem with good old fashioned inner tubes” should note that the failed repair was of a very old tyre, and of the three subsequent punctures two were replacement tubes, the other an inch long slash that would have killed pretty much any setup. My tubeless kit held its air perfectly all day long despite clattering into numerous big pointy rocks with my usual inelegant hold-on-and-try-not-to-die riding style. I think my companions were just unlucky, as sometimes happens, no matter what you’re running.The sun was blazing down when we arrived in Sedbergh at 11AM, and as a result of our start-line mechanical we were already lightly toasted before even turning a pedal. The first climb up to the top of Winder (…is it pronounced “winder” or “winder”? We may never know…) was a brute: steep, grassy, baking hot and sheltered from any breeze. I was developing a headache by the time we reached this first summit of the day, so I necked my emergency paracetamol and stopped to admire the view, which already stretched out beyond the Scafells away over the far side of the Lake District, and out to the Yorkshire Three Peaks in the other direction.After regrouping and rehydrating as well as we were able we continued our ascent up more moderate gradients, with the exception of the sharp kick up to Calders, and (via a brief pause courtesy of puncture number two) finally topped out on The Calf. This was the high-point of the day, and the Howgills, at 676m. The small tarn marked on the map near the summit was completely dry, and in the distance we could just see the smoke plume from the massive fires raging far away on the moors in Saddleworth. Everything was bone dry and beginning to take on the warm tones normally associated with more arid climes. I could have stayed up here for hours, but we had many more miles to cover, and a pub stop scheduled, so after a quick point at the view and a bag of sweets we pressed on to the main event of the day, Bowderdale.The Bowderdale descent is one of those routes that frequently pops up in the mountain bike media’s Top Ten UK Trails You Must Ride articles, so I was very interested to see what it was like and how it compares to my own personal favourites. Nearly ten kilometers of unbroken singletrack, it starts off with a gentle roll from the trig point on The Calf, before turning into a frayed ribbon of rock-infested ruts curving around the shoulder of the fell, dropping into the top of the Bowderdale itself. You lose over 250m of height just in this one relatively technical kilometre down to Ram’s Gill, and I definitely needed a bit of a breather before carrying on into the longer, more sedate second movement. For the remaining seven or eight kilometres the path clings to the side of the valley, contouring round numerous streams and gullies, many of which have collapsed to provide an interesting off-camber exercise in traction management. The path between these little challenges is mostly a narrow rut, just wide enough for pedalling; you need to watch your line carefully all the way down or risk being ejected down some fairly steep slopes. Even after two months of solid good weather, there was still a surprising amount of water about the place, and bikes and riders alike picked up a light coating of mud before we reached the road and rolled under the A685 at Wath.
After a spin along some quiet back lanes to a leisurely refreshment stop at The Black Swan in Ravenstonedale we set about the tarmac climb to Adamthwaite, and what we thought would be a quick and straightforward ride back to the start. Two punctures, a wrong turn, several scuffles with uncooperative vegetation and farm-furniture, and varying levels of heat-related exhaustion put paid to that notion, so it was a very tired party who rolled into Sedbergh at well past 6PM. The first thing I did when I unlocked the van was hunt down more painkillers for the splitting headache that had manifested in the final hour, before hurling my kit in the back and leaving my companions in a cloud of dust as I set off for home, much later than intended.Even with this slightly trying ending, I had an excellent day out in splendid surroundings with great company. The loop round the Howgills is a proper Big Day Out, well worth saving up for a sunny opportunity just like this one. Even with copious mechanical problems and the odd route-finding mishap we had a marvellous time, and I’ll definitely be back in the future to revisit these lovely fells.
The main set piece of the Bowderdale descent is very good, although its finest attractions are all blown through in the first third, from the top of The Calf to Ram’s Gill. The subsequent thread of riding down the last two thirds of the valley, whilst charming, is overlong, and by the look of it very wet and muddy for most of the year. In terms of absolutely ride quality it doesn’t quite compare to the various Torridon descents I have done, or even more accessible routes like Cut Gate or Nan Bield, but it is worth noting that we saw absolutely nobody else, even on a gloriously sunny day, and from the very top to almost the very bottom there are no gates, stiles, bridges, or ridiculous waterbars. You can ride this huge valley top to bottom without touching the ground (in theory; you’re doing very well if you do, it’s a good solid challenge even for a fit, technically competent rider). It is very definitely worth a visit, and the surroundings and approach are unique and beautiful.
It had to end eventually. A month-and-a-bit-long run of dry, dusty riding broke in spectacular fashion last night when a skyful of lowering clouds burst above us and we got caught in the resulting torrential downpour on the tops. Watching the grey ceiling slowly dissolve into pillars of raindrops along the valley and out over the city until it finally caught up with us was quite a sight, although of course the view vanished completely once the weather hit. To add to the fun, just after things really got grim, one of our number suffered a show-stopping mechanical which required the removal of half a drivetrain before we could even start to roll and push him back down the hill to the pub. We stayed cheerful, but having set off in lightweight summer kit we were all so cold and wet once we got back we couldn’t face hanging around for a pint, and just set off home with heaters on full-blast.
On the plus side, we did get a very pleasant ride in before our soaking in the last half-hour or so, the hills were deserted as everyone was watching the football, and the ground has been so dry for so long that we didn’t actually get particularly muddy, just very, very wet. The weather forecasters are now all reassuring us that the lovely, sunny high-pressure systems are going to come back shortly, but even if they are wrong I feel like I’ve actually had a bit of a summer this year, for the first time in ages.
It’s been absolutely lovely out there for weeks now. Blue skies and dusty trails everywhere. I must have ridden past this trig point hundreds of times over the past few decades, and the hill it tops is as dry as I’ve ever seen it. Marvellous.
I spent the last Saturday in May with my wife and son in the beautiful Tweed valley, near Peebles. Sadly for my family, however, we weren’t there for a civilised weekend getaway with museums and tea-shops and gentle strolls by the river, but for me to muck about on bicycles yet again. I had brought my family with me for the Glentress 7 MTB race, ostensibly to provide support whilst I avoided my paternal duties and rode round a forest like an overgrown child. In my defence I must stress that I was simply succumbing to my wife’s gentle hints that she would like to be involved somehow in this ridiculous pasttime of mine, and I certainly didn’t force them to join me. We rented one of the camping pods at the Glentress hub, which sit right next to the course, very handy for getting to and watching the race, and significantly less uncomfortable than a tent. The weather was pretty much perfect, dry and sunny but with a nice cooling breeze, and this helped make the experience bearable, I think. I’m not sure that wife or son particularly enjoyed playing at being an MTB pit crew, but then hanging about aimlessly for most of a day during which time your only communication with your partner or dad comprises a few grumpy monosyllables once an hour isn’t exactly a receipe for fun times. I did warn them how things were likely to be beforehand, but by the end of the afternoon they’d had enough and retreated into the pod to snooze and play games, so my vision of being greeted on the finish line by adoring wife plus child was not to be realised.
The race itself was great fun, if very tough. Unsurprisingly in light of the lovely weather we’ve been having, the course was very dry and very fast, which is exactly to my tastes. The descents were all excellent: twisty, rooty singletrack with tricky little drops and steep chutes, flat-out blasts, off-camber corners and swoopy, flowy curves everywhere. Everything was just the right side of challenging to be fun and keep you on your toes, and I was pleased to make it down every time without hitting any trees and without holding up too many people. I even managed to pass quite a few riders on my earlier laps before fatiuge set in, not a normal occurrence for me. The out-and-out fun of the downhills almost made up for the brutal slog of getting up to the top each time. The climbs were tough but all completely rideable, even at my lowest ebb on laps four and five. Although the grind up the hilariously nicknamed Rue De Souffrance, a long straight slowly-increasing incline, got harder and harder every time, I still ground my way up there on every lap, pedals turning at a cadence of maybe 15rpm, but still turning all the same, damn it.
During these climbs and descents I encountered several new and interesting places for pain to take hold: I don’t think I’ve ever had my triceps spasm before, for example, an indication of how much the course beats your entire body up. My back was making its usual protests by the end of lap one, but gave up whinging in due course and my legs took over the task of telling me I was an unconsionable idiot for the remainder of the race. I refused to listen and occasionally thumped my left quadriceps to remind it who was in charge. It exacted revenge by cramping fiercely in concert with its counterpart hamstring after I was sideswiped into a patch of nettles by an overenthusiastic team rider, thus compelling me to roll around in the venomous foliage for a while, yelling amusingly. On the positive side the resulting stinging, itching rash on my left arm distracted me from my weirdly aching eyelids for a good half-lap or so. By the end of the race very little of my anatomy wasn’t in some sort of pain, but nothing was so badly beaten up that I had to stop at any point, which I think is about as much as I could have hoped for, given my daring training strategy of doing one long ride two weeks ago and pretty much nothing else for the rest of the year.
When the final lap came to an end I was very glad to see the finish line, and I felt like I had emptied the tanks fully in getting there, but at no point prior to that did I really feel like I wanted to stop. I did definitely go out too fast at the start, and I wasn’t fuelled properly for various reasons; I definitely made mistakes which slowed me down, besides just not having enough miles in my legs. Having said that, this was the longest solo race I’ve ever done by some distance, so I wasn’t expecting anything much from it, even by my own very low standards. Whatever the discipline I am usually glad just to finish without any disasters, and not coming last is a bonus. Apparently I placed 42nd out of 60-odd V40 riders, riding seven laps in a smidge under seven hours all told, which is respectable for a first go. I had a really good time doing it, and I have to admit it was rather lovely to have my family with me after I’d finished. I did spend plenty of time with them afterwards and I don’t think the experience was too awful for them, although I’m not sure they’re likely to want to come back again with me next year.
The Jennride is a bikepacking event in the Lake District organised in memory of Jenn Hill, the cycling journalist and racer who died of lung cancer in 2015, and I had heard great things about it from a couple of friends last summer, so I booked myself a spot as soon as entries opened in January. This year saw a choice of three routes to follow, with a 50km option aimed at first-time bikepackers, and a shot at the Lakeland 200 for absolute lunatics, in addition to the 100 mile main event. I was slightly worried that my current level of fitness might not be sufficient for the headline ride, but I was reassured by the fact that the convoluted course had numerous bail-out options and loops that could be easily shortened or omitted should there be any failure of equipment, body, or sense of humour, so I went for the off-road century option with a planned overnight stop roughly halfway round the route.Saturday morning saw riders line up under mostly blue skies, and we set off at 9.30am for the first hill of the day, Green Quarter, which spread the field out nicely before we all hit the long push up Garburn Pass. This climb to the second-highest point of the whole ride was a slog and even taking it easy I was starting to feel the effects of the previous night’s beers, which was slightly worrying. I took a couple of paracetamol and pressed on, only to puncture on the fast, slatey descent into Troutbeck. A quick repair of the slashed sidewall had me on my way again, and rolling down a bit more carefully I passed several other riders who had suffered the same problem.By the time we had made our way up from Troutbeck and down Jenkin Crag into Ambleside my headache had faded, and happily it stayed away for the rest of the weekend. By this time our riding group had settled down naturally into a quartet of me, Daz, Russ and Anthony, and we remained together for the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday, although of course we met up and rode along with numerous other riders and groups at various points over the course of the weekend. We took advantage of the offer of free cake and coffee at the Alpkit shop, where I was also able to pass on my thanks to ride organiser Rich Munro, who happens to have been the marshal who scraped me off the course when I smashed my leg up at the Grizedale PMBA enduro the other year.The next stage of the ride took us along the coffin road from Rydal to Grasmere, then back down the other side of the valley via Loughrigg Terrace, where I witnessed a chap on a fully laden, rigid fat bike accidentally ride off a two-foot high drop without crashing, most impressive. The sharp little grind over Loughrigg saw a few of our group lagging somewhat so we determined to stop at the next available hostelry to refuel with chips and beer (bikepacking is generally quite a laid-back form of athleticism, even compared with normal mountain-biking). We rolled into Chapel Stile in Langdale and left the route slightly to visit The Wainwright, where we topped up the fuel tanks.The route takes a southward trend from Great Langdale, aiming roughly for the hills north of Hawkshead, and on this leg of the ride we ended up in a fairly large bunch, rolling along admiring the views and chatting companionably with complete strangers, vaguely familiar faces, and old friends alike. The mass-start bikepacking event is clearly a gregarious experience, although of course if you do fancy a little peace it’s simple enough to either ride off the front or drop off the back. Having said that, it is pleasantly easy to make friends with people who are clearly just as mad as you are, and in pretty much the same way.Little Langdale, High Tilberthwaite, Hodge Close, Iron Keld; the place names and miles ticked past through the afternoon, with only an unintentional dismount into an extremely foul stagnant puddle to detract from the otherwise enjoyable meanderings. We planned to stop for food in Coniston, only a few crow’s-flight miles away now, but several noticeable hills and deviations stood between us on the official route, and it was a hungry bunch that rolled in at around six. A massive, slow-moving queue at the chippy didn’t help matters, and by the time we set off for Torver our plan of dispatching Walna Scar before bed was looking extremely shaky. In addition to this more than one of our number was feeling the effects of the distance and terrain quite significantly, so after a critical team meeting (in the pub, naturally) we decided to set out for a bivvy spot roughly half-way up the ascent, far enough that we would be sufficiently committed to carry on in the morning, but not too far to attain on our remaining reserves. A very tired band of riders wobbled their way up to the edge of the forest above Stephenson Ground, and at a spot named Natty Bridge we unpacked our gear and attempted to get some sleep.It was here that I discovered that I had made a major error of judgement when I set out that morning. Having trusted the Met Office and XCWeather forecasts I had omitted a tarp from my kit in the name of travelling light, but unfortunately shortly after we set off the predictions for the night changed from <5% chance of precipitation to over 50%. Sure enough, shortly after I’d folded myself into my bivy bag the rain began to fall. Within half an hour or so it had set in steadily with occaisional heavy showers to liven things up, and I was reduced to holding the aperture of my bivy closed tight in an attempt to keep the water out. The first few hours were most unpleasant, and I toyed with the idea of packing up and heading back to the van in the dark as I drifted fitfully in and out of consciousness in alignment with the intensity of the downpour. At around 3AM things became almost torrential, and I curled up as tightly as I could to hide from the elements, but after ten minutes or so the clouds seemed to have exhausted themselves and I was able at last to pass out. I awoke again at first light, surveyed the damage to my kit (nothing serious), rearranged a few things and nodded off for another couple of hours until my more sensible companions awoke under their various shelters at about 6AM.We packed and pressed on up Walna Scar, passing several groups of riders further up as they broke camp. The range of kit exhibited both bivy-and-tarp combos and full sized tents. Nobody else seemed to have gone for the unsheltered idiot-in-a-ditch option apart from me for some reason, although I have to say once I got moving I didn’t particularly feel any ill effects from my poor night’s sleep. Admittedly I had to push most of it, but even if I’d been fully rested I wouldn’t have fancied my chances up this relentless gradient. A couple of hardier riders attempted the feat and covered some impressive distance, but nobody quite managed to clean the whole thing whilst we were watching. Spectacular views of the Scafells on the way up made up for the discomfort of starting the day on the biggest hill of the weekend, and we made the most of the descent back into Torver, arriving back just in time to pick up a coffee at the small shop there. We basked in the morning sunshine for a few minutes and awaited the arrival of Anthony, who had camped in a hammock a little further down the hill in the woods.Pressing on around the bottom of Coniston Water and up towards Satterthwaite it became clear that the day was going to be one of those rare, almost-perfect ones: sunny, not too hot, light breeze, clear air, gorgeous scenery, brilliant trails. The preposterously beautiful Lake District was really pulling out all the stops and around every corner we encountered yet another absurdly stunning vista. I was feeling good, not flying exactly but easily keeping up a steady pace and really enjoying the excellent riding, popping and flowing my way down rocky, rooty descents and having to remind myself that I had luggage on the bike and needed to rein it in a little to avoid punctures or crashes. Even being forced to retrace my steps for half a mile or so due to somehow dropping my Garmin, an irritation that would normally have me swearing the surounding air blue for hours, barely dented my by now bulletproof cheerfulness.Not everyone was feeling quite so good, unfortunately, and on the final descent before reaching the shores of Windermere, a technical line down through old growth forest, Russ took a tumble and bashed his shoulder hard. Unable to lift his arm more than a couple of inches, he took the sensible decision to hop on the nearby ferry and roll back to base; it turned out that he had a separated shoulder when he visited A&E the next day, a nasty injury and definitely not one I’d have wanted to ride the remaining miles on, so bailing was definitely the right choice.Having grabbed some lunch and waved goodbye to Russ our reduced group of three pressed on into the final leg, slogging over three successive climbs and descents of Claife Heights, before turning towards Ambleside and another brief break to faff and refuel before the final push for home. I felt amazingly good over the final miles, pushing myself on the climbs despite aching legs, and (by my standards at least) positively flying down the descents. The last downhill in particular, the Three Rivers, was brilliant fun, rutted, rocky, swoopy and flowy, and I had to have a word with myself when I hit one corner at slighly silly speed only to discover that had I drifted a few inches further I would have dropped about twenty feet into a ravine. I took the final few hundred metres to tarmac a bit more sedately and we regrouped to roll the last couple of miles back to the start, tired but satisfied, and pleased with ourselves for completing the entire course with no omissions whatsoever.The Jennride 2018 was fantastic, run over a brilliant course in spectacular scenery, with a great atmosphere and friendly riders, and just the right sort of low-key organisation. Huge thanks are due to Rich Munro and team for making us feel so welcome and for putting together such a smashing event, and congratulations to them also on raising over five grand for good causes. I had a brilliant time and will definitely be signing up for another go next year if I can sneak it onto the calendar again. I’ll bring a tarp next time, though.
With the winter snows finally receding, I cashed in a few spare days off this week to visit the cornucopia of mountain-biking in the Tweed Valley, in a desperate bid for a little freedom just before the Easter holidays and their compulsory round of relatives and chocolate eggs. We were booked in at the camping pods right next to the Glentress Peel visitor centre, so after driving up straight from the school run, we unpacked and rolled immediately out onto the trails. I had never previously been to Glentress, and would probably have been happy riding anything in this massive forest stuffed with bike trails, but I benefited from being shown around some of the off-piste tracks hidden in and amongst the official routes by my mate Rik, who has been up here loads of times before. I enjoyed the first two runs immensely, in spite of feeling a bit tired for some reason, but the final line we did, one of the EWS stages from 2014, was entirely too steep and slippy and root-infested for my abilities, and I walked down much of it. Having thereby calibrated my guide’s expectations of what he could point me at, Rik decided to skip showing me the more extreme end of things at The Golfie, and we instead spent the next day playing on some enjoyable wiggly segments at Innerleithen in the morning, before heading back to Glentress for a short loop on some of the official trails in the afternoon. Feeling thoroughly wiped out again I headed back to base, leaving Rik chance to get a few more challenging runs in elsewhere in the forest.
We were lucky with the conditions on Tuesday and Wednesday, and apart from a couple of very brief showers things were rather pleasant, especially in contrast with recent months. Our own shadows made an appearance several times, and I even had to don sunglasses whilst sitting outside the camping pod (in a bobble hat and down jacket, granted, but still). The ground conditions weren’t too bad either, there were plenty of puddles and muddy spots but nothing show-stopping, and we only ran into the remnants of the last few weeks’ snow in a couple of spots at the very top of the hills. Things looked set to turn on the last day, however, and after examining the weather forecast we decided that we didn’t fancy the 80% probability of heavy rain lined up for the Peebles area, and instead made an early dash for the morning’s predicted clear skies in the eastern Lakes on the way home.
I had been meaning to ride the classic Nan Bield-Gatescarth loop for years now, but hadn’t yet managed to get round to it, so this seemed a perfect opportunity. The route seems to divide opinion quite dramatically; whilst some do rave about it, I know several people who have told me in no uncertain terms that it is not worth the hike-a-bike slogs over the two main passes, and that the descents are somehow simultaneously boring, and too rocky.
Those people are wrong. After an admittedly massive 500m-vertical hike past Small Water to earn your first descent, Nan Bield starts off with the sinuous curves pictured above, which are as entertaining as they look, before turning into several miles of more traditional moorland singletrack. This is rutted and challenging in places, but very enjoyable all the same, even if you do catch a pedal and wind yourself on a pointy bit of the scenery like I did. There is the odd tricky spot, small drops on corners, damp multiple line rock gardens, that sort of thing, but it’s all rideable by a competent MTBer (I nearly rode all of it, at any rate, and I’m nearly competent, on a good day).
Further down the valley things were a bit boggy in places, but we have just had a very wet winter and we still didn’t get properly stuck at any point, so it’s clearly a reasonably all-weather route. From above Kentmere the short hop over to Longsleddale is lovely, a moderate drag (for the Lakes) through fields, followed by a diverting little drop back down to Sadgill, where you pick up a rocky byway for the final haul back over Gatescarth. This long, stony track is a bit soul-destroying, especially if you’re tired, but most big rides in proper hills contain stretches like this, it’s all part of earning the subsequent fun bits, and the views were pleasant throughout. The descent from Gatescarth is frequently written off as a bit rubbish, so I was a bit worried that the ride might peter out with a concrete farm-track or something, but I was mistaken. It is definitely not perfect flowy singletrack or full-on freeride schralpcore, true, but it swoops and curves beautifully all the way down the hill, a river of loose rocks between earth banks, where you can drift crazily round the corners to see how fast you dare go. And the other great thing about it is that it drops you right back at the car park, job done.
Overall, the Nan Beild-Gatescarth loop is an excellent ride, a good solid mountain outing that you can put away in about three hours, leaving you feeling like you’ve properly earned a couple of excellent descents amongst the spectacular scenery of the Lakes. I’d definitely come back to ride this one again.