Super Athlete Makes Glorious Return to 3 Peaks (not)

The first time I finished the 3 Peaks (in 2004) I said to myself “never again”.  Then the last time I finished it, in 2008, I said “never again”.   I had a long break from it, but then this year, when entries opened, I thought “go on then, I’ll have a bash”.

In theory, I was going to be fitter than ever for this year’s Peaks.  On the 1 July this year I completed the Dragon Duathlon – riding and running the 300km length of Wales in a day including running over three of Wales’ toughest mountains.  Well, the theory was good but I think it would be fair to say that I rather took my foot off the gas, and sat drinking ale, congratulating myself on my achievement.

3 Peaks cyclocross

And so I found myself on the start line at Helwith Bridge – fit but not tip top. And then it started – the horrendous lung busting ‘neutralised’ section to Horton.  My god, I’ve done easier crit races than this.  Then off left up through the farmyard towards the base of Ingleborough and a sickening crash just in front of me, as the bunch funnels through a gate. It was a nasty one –  I heard later that there were broken vertebrae.

Simon Fell 3peakscx 2017

the trudge up Simon Fell www.cadenceimages.com

Then, up up and more boggy up, getting steeper as we go.  I was making places on the grovel up Simon Fell.  All my fell running was paying dividends.  Dibbing at the top of Ingleborough I was starting to feel good, I was overtaking people on the descent and then…the almost inevitable flight over the bars.  Peat luck if you will – an innocuous looking but extremely deep bit of bog swallowed my front wheel.  Picking myself up I realised that I had managed to jam my brake levers full of peat with the result that my brakes were permanently on. Great, because this wasn’t hard enough already.

3 Peaks damage

a little bit bent

And down – tora tora tora! – sinking, sliding, watching dozens of other riders flying off around me in a deranged display of improvised gymnastics.  A friend of mine who is not hot on modern slang was trying to remember the term ‘face plant’ but instead came out with ‘head splat’ – she’d inadvertently created the perfect phrase to describe a 3 Peaks phenomenon.

3peakscx2017

the face of composed control. Photo (c) Steve Harling

Then I reached the road and I realised my legs felt terrible.  There was a strong headwind and I was struggling to push even my smallest gear.  I was taking deep sucks on my camelback which I had filled with energy drink.  As the day wore on I realised I had made the drink too strong – or maybe I hadn’t mixed it well enough. It seemed to get stronger as I went on, and while it was giving me energy it was making me thirstier and making my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth.  Excellent.

Whernside – there it is, the track stretching upwards for miles ahead. Lots and lots of high uneven steps.  My legs were feeling distinctly dodgy and I was really wondering why I was doing this to myself again.  Finally, the summit and we’re off again.  I’m seeing lots of mechanicals and punctures all around.  I get off the bike and run down to the top section of the steps with the big water bars – I’ve punctured there before and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.  So there’s a man covered pretty much head to foot in black Pennine mud, wearing inappropriate footwear, running down a mountain with a bike on his back – and there’s a lot of bewildered looking walkers very politely/nervously waving me through.  I can’t think what the average punter must make of this spectacle.

And so to Ribblehead and I’m starting to feel OK, but then I hit the road again and it’s as though the lights go out.  A small boy (I mean he was about 7) on a mountain bike cycles past me giving me a smile.  Struggling into the headwind and internally bemoaning my plight I’m suddenly rescued by a little group of riders and I’m able to sit in the wheels and rest a bit. And with that help I find myself at the foot of Pen y Ghent.  I’m managing to cycle up the lane, keeping out of the way of the leaders who are hurtling down towards the finish.  The support is tremendous, generous crowds shouting encouragement and lovely marshals offering motivation.

3 peaks cyclocross 2017

the art of brake finessing

And so it’s through the gate about a third of the way up Pen y Ghent and the track steepens and seems to stretch endlessly upwards into the sky.  It’s another dark moment – and now dozens of people are walking past me. There’s just nothing in the legs.  Slowly slowly I make it to the top.  Some new steps have been laid and they are pretty gruelling. And then the descent – I’m annoyed with myself for feeling like such a slug and so I absolutely leather it down.  The crowds were oohing and aahing as I went.  I was on the ragged edge, but I made it down in one piece with bike intact overtaking about 20 riders as I went. Then just the short road section to Helwith Bridge – made bearable by being nearly home. And then I’m there – the finish line. What a relief.

And then I say to myself that I will probably not definitely almost certainly be back. Possibly.

As pick I the bike up to put it in the car I notice my saddle bag is gaping – not sure exactly when it unzipped itself, but I’d lost my two spare tubes and my co2 inflator.  Ah well, I’m just glad I didn’t need them – I’m happy with the offering to the Peaks gods to get round unmolested. My Vittoria XL tubeless tyres pumped to 60psi held up well to my 80kgs, but they didn’t half feel draggy – but that could just have been in my head.

empty sack

an empty sack

What I learnt (or was reminded of – yet again) is that the 3 Peaks finds you out.  The boggy ground conditions this year left me feeling well drained (unlike the bogs) and If you’re not feeling great there’s nowhere to hide.  What also struck me was the brilliant support from spectators and fellow riders – someone gave me a little push as I was struggling to get going after a remount and I did the same for another rider.  For a super fit few this a real race, but for me and, I think, a lot of others it is a battle with yourself and the terrain to get to the end.

And later, in the pub, we wonder how we could do it faster next year… shall we never learn. I hope not.

3 Peaks medal

The dog ate my hard work or medal, medal, medal

3 peaks bog

muddy

bog boy

Berwyn Up (Part 1)

From our house we have a good view of one side the range of hills known as the Berwyn.

 

I spend a lot of time staring at these hills, watching as they change by the second with the passage of clouds over them and noting how they change with the progress of the seasons.  This year I have also spent a lot of time riding over them.  There is one metaled road across the top of the Berwyn, which in itself makes for a beautiful road bike ride, but, as I am discovering, there are many old green lanes and drovers’ tracks that cross the tops, dipping in and out of steep-sided blind valleys.  You know that if you descend from the tops you are going to have to work to get out of the valley.Road cycling Berwyns

My father’s family is from a small place called Froncysyllte at the northern end of the Berwyn, made famous by Thomas Telford’s aqueduct which carries the Llangollen Canal across the River Dee.  My paternal grandfather was born there in 1917 and met my grandmother there when she was visiting her family in the valley.  He only left the place when World War II dragged him away.  Subsequently he became a vintner and went on in the 1950s to invent and name the drink ‘The Snowball’ (for which he won some shopping vouchers and bought an highly fashionable studio couch (sofa bed to you and me).

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying that I have some connection with the area.  In fact, and this may be sentimental mumbo jumbo, I would say I felt a profound sense of homecoming (something akin the fulfillment of the Welsh sense of hiraeth, which refers to the longing for a place, tinged with sadness for the departed) when my wife and I decided to move to near Bala just over three years ago.  I have since then been learning Welsh and also my way around the area.  As a child I spent many holidays in the area and before I was really aware of notions of longing I was conscious that my heart used to lift as we crossed the border into Wales and the hazy outlines of the Berwyn would start to emerge.

The main venue for my childhood holidays was a small village in the Tanat Valley, called Llangynog.  I used to ride my Raleigh Burner round the disused quarry there, and drag the heavy little bike to the top of the steep hills that surrounded the area, then descend with no meaningful form of braking as the flexy calipers failed to grip the yellow plastic ‘mag’ wheels. There was literally no stopping me.  The same disused quarry is now the Revolution Bike Park and the obstacles created there by the Athertons are well beyond the capabilities of me and my Burner or indeed of me on any bike.

More to follow as our small boy becomes a man (of sorts) and reacquaints himself with the Berwyn.

Cadair BerwynBerwyn cyclocrossBerwyn mountains

Unrepentant in the shadow of the cross

I don’t like putting the bike in the car to go and ride, so for me a cross bike is great.  It extends my range from the doorstep, allowing me to eat up the road miles and access cross country epics.  This was certainly true when we lived in South London but is even more the case since we moved to North Wales.

I just decided to rebuild my old Brodie, having managed to replace the bent mech hanger.  Me and this bike have seen some action, from the Three Peaks to London League cross races and to the other day when I found myself thigh deep in a bog with the old bike on my back.  Moments of elation when it feels like you’re flying, to despairing times when you wonder why you thought this was a good idea.

Cyclocross Llyn Celyn

One boozy evening earlier this year, cajoled by an old friend (and Three Peaks stalwart), I applied for the Three Peaks entry.  I didn’t get a place, but I decided to get myself fit like I really had to avoid wallowing in the mid-Peaks trough of misery.  Well, I’m some of the way there in spite of a bad ankle sprain and whilst the fitness is lagging a bit what I have (re)discovered is my absolute love for the cross bike.

I’ve spent many evenings over the last few weeks poring over maps, identifying circuits of bridleway and byway that take me out over remote moors.  And, when I go out the next day to track these routes on the ground I’ve been about 95% pleased with the riding.  There I am spinning along an old drovers’ road, on a trail so ancient that the rocks have grooves cut in them by centuries’ of wear from cartwheels.  I stop to look at the map and I see that the bridleway carries on over the mountain into the next valley and from there back down to the main road some five miles further on.  I’ll be sitting down with a pint in an hour… And so I bowl down the hill and the bridleway so prominent on the map isn’t anywhere to be seen.  And there you are suddenly ‘transitioning’ from firm ancient trackway to thigh deep in blanket bog. So I ask myself: is this a bad thing? And I don’t have to think long to decide that yes, it is a very bad thing and this feeling only grows as I carry my bike two miles to firm ground.  Did it occur to me to turn back though? Of course not.

Then about two hours later when I’m finally sitting in the back room of the world’s greatest beer shop, I reflect that it is that familiar sinking feeling (5% displeasure) that makes so many of my rides round here great.  Embrace the bog, knuckle down for a slog and then hail the grog.  Exertion, stupidity, reward and REPEAT.

Like the first time I did the Three Peaks, I swore at the finish line “never again”, only to find myself in the pub a quarter of an hour later wondering how I could do it faster next year. STOOPID but FUN.

Cross is not just for girls