Wednesday, 20 August 2014

2013 - A short life of Maggot - Afan and Bike Park Wales

Coed-y-Brenin and the group set my mind whirling on the importance of kit.  The speed at which Jim and Milo moved could not be matched on poor Crank and I put this down to suspension (rather than the more likely reason that the two guys were in fact more skilled than me).  Therefore I turned to ebay.
A beautiful metallic brown 2007 Enduro was listed for £600 as collection only and was located in Penrith.  I was happy to pay £600, but not much more, knowing that too much spent would cause me to worry about how I rode the thing.  I needed something with durability and with the E150 forks the Enduro ticked all boxes.  My bid went in last minute.  The bike was mine.

This happened in November and I asked Baz if he could collect it for me.  His buddy Stan that had joined us on the Seven Stanes made the collection from Penrith and delivered it to Cockermouth.  At Christmas time Baz transferred it to Mark in Bedfordshire and in January, on a bitterly cold day, I drove to Woburn to collect it from Mark.

There was something very fitting about the bike coming off Mark’s car and touching down on Woburn’s dark peaty earth because it was also the first place I had ever ridden Crank.  On that occasion I had crashed plenty, with the infamous over the handlebar head slam into dirt when learning the power of hydraulic disc brakes.  This time I was not wet (or muddy) behind the ears and looked forward to a fine ride.

The geometry was crazy.  When on the saddle and holding the grips it felt a little like I used to on the Honda Shadow which was part cruiser and part street fighter.  Then I set off behind Mark down our first trail and realised the claim that this was “the only downhill bike that can be ridden uphill” failed to mention that you needed to bust a gut to make this happen.  Man, it was tough going and for a moment I regretted my decision.

That was until I turned it to face downhill and experienced something altogether new.  It was like floating on a cloud, only this cloud was being thrown along by a Hurricane and just wanted to get faster and faster.

It was a good day, with awfully tough climbing, a few wobbles as I tried to adjust to the new geometry and a couple of crashes as a result of almost bald tyres.  Then later the front break failed after having unscrewed itself from the frame and later still the chain developed a need to jump from the front cog.  We called it quits at this point, partly because the Enduro seemed to be coming undone, but also because the snow had started to fall.

Back home I inspected the bike properly.  It needed a lot of help to get back to good health so I replaced the battered triple with Blackspire, replaced the XO cassette like for like, put on Nukeproof flats, Jagwire cables, Lizzard Skin grips, Continental 2.3 vertical Protection tyres, replaced the disc brake pads and bled the system.  I also spoiled it with a gold chain which then coined the name “Maggot”.

I still loved Crank and knew the bike was sound, hence why I chose to attack the South Down’s Way on him rather than on Maggot.  I still believe the entry for South Down’s Way would have ended very differently had I not decided this, but Maggot was slowly earning a place in my heart with a few trips up onto the heath where I had honed my skills on Crank.  Sometimes my son would ride on the crossbar and on others it would be just me and the dog, but nothing too strenuous.  A trip later in the year to Swinley forest to sample the new designated trails that had been put together showed that Maggot really was a capable trail bike and a trip to Chicksands really let it shine, but I knew it needed a real test.

When winter set in I sent out the email inviting the guys to join me in Wales.  The wolf pack were in as soon as it was offered and I also invited along an old pal from my days of living in Manchester.  Matthew was a hard core mountain biker and had recently completed the Great Divide trail so I knew there wouldn’t be anything that could phase him where I had planned for us to go;  Afan Forest and Bike Park Wales.

Friday 15th November

This trip was another of my planned babies and so detailed for the group down to the finest detail.  I had booked us into The Farmhouse which is as it sounds and placed on the edge of a Golf course and a 15 minute drive from Bike Park Wales.  Afan forest was almost an hour away, but with Bike Park Wales being scheduled for the final day of the weekend when we would have limited time it seemed to make sense to put lodgings in that neck of the woods.

My plan started out flawlessly:

·         Up at 6:00 am.
·         Dropped Henry off at nursery at 7:30 am
·         Had an eggnog latte from Starbucks by 8:00 am
·         Car valeted by the local Polish by 8:40 am
·         In Costco to buy consumables by 9:00 am
·         Back home with a car packed and dog walked by 11:30 am

From here it involved me meeting Matthew at the Farmhouse by 2:00pm so we could get our kit over to Bike Park Wales for some sneaky runs, but as I came to the M4 at Reading and saw cars reversing back up the slip road I knew plans were about to fall apart.

Unfortunately I had no alternative route to take and had to crawl down the slip road onto my route.  It was painfully slow and 2:00pm came and went.  I pulled over at a service station to let Matthew know and as ever he was totally chilled.  I didn’t reach the Farmhouse until almost 4:00pm, but there was no way we could let the day be a complete waste.  A quick unloading of the car, transfer of Maggot onto Matthew’s car, change of clothes and we were away.

We pulled into the car park to find it almost empty and no-one on the road to take payment from us so it was a free ride.  We took the road route rather than the “Beast of Burden” to the top and Matthew kindly curbed his pace on his brand new Whyte t1-29 Works which was a true beauty to look at.  My climbing pace was determined by the giant Maggot beneath me, but I assured Matthew that the return to the bottom would be a completely different story in terms of pace.

At the top we surveyed our options and rolled out onto the start of Sixtapod.  This started out in the open on beautiful packed trail and then swooped off into the woods where a series of jumps, rollers and berms caught us by surprise, mainly because it was pitch black beneath the trees.  However, regardless of the danger we let our machines fly and did not pause as we popped out at the end and charged straight into Willy Waver. 

Willy Waver was yet another blue run, but the amount of flow it offered enabled our speed to increase so much that it almost upgraded to a red.  Jumps and berms, with corners that could be tail whipped and jumps that encouraged more and more height.

This popped us out on a sort of road where the uplift station stood empty.  From here we took Norkle which was by far the fastest so far and concluded with a huge berm that spat us out near the car, but also at the mouth of yet another run.  It seemed rude to end it there, so we took what was offered and hurtled down through the series of berms and compressions until we reached the lowest point of the centre and started the short, but steep climb back to the car.

It was getting seriously close to dark now so we headed back to the Farmhouse.  We both cleaned up – the shower room on the ground floor seeming like it belonged in a sports centre due to the size of it – and started drinking.  Not long after the rest arrived, popped their bikes in the garage and started tucking into the pizza and beer I had sourced.  Introductions were smooth, as I knew they would be and so had begun the final adventure of 2013.

Saturday 16th November

We woke up full of beans and Baz got the Costco sausages going in the pan while we dressed for the day ahead.  Fed and full of coffee, we set off on the long drive to Afan with me riding shotgun with Matthew and Paul bringing the rest in his new Q7.  What struck me was the difference between the north and south of Wales.  Our trip to Coed-y-Brenin had been on long winding roads through the national park, but here in the south the roads dropped deep into the earth and then climbed up and up to run along rugged mountainous peaks before falling again to hell.  It was almost as if the south had tried to fit as much land in as the north had, but was given less room in which to place it, creating these enormous folds that gave a little, if not a lot, of warning as to how the day would be at Afan.

The carpark at the trail centre wasn’t entirely deserted, but it certainly wasn’t humming like Coed-y-Brenin had been.  After lifting bikes down from cars and slipping on shoes (I had reverted back to clipless pedals after a few scary moments on the heath riding Maggot too fast and too hard), looking at the sky and adding a layer or too to our bodies, we pedalled up to the bike shop and café to get some advice.

“Riding all day?”  The question from the guy standing there was simple.
“Yes”, we replied.
“W2", he advised with a nod.  “It’s epic.”

Trail: W2
Distance: 30 miles  - 3,199 feet of climbing (and descending!)
Grade: Black

30 miles doesn’t sound much, but off-road and gradient certainly make it feel a lot.  Afan’s W2 trail was structured perfectly as a game of two halves.  For two hours we climbed and climbed and climbed, working our way on a mix of technical forest single track with switchbacks, root and rock  as well as blessed sections of wide fire road.  Now and then a short descent linked parts of the trail, but the sense of climbing was always there.

This split the group of course.  Maggot had not made it any secret that he refused to climb at speed and to make matters even worse he now decided to refuse me the use of any except the middle ring.  Any attempt to change down to use the Granny Ring proper was greeted with a grinding and then a clunk as the chain spat off onto the bottom bracket.  I was overjoyed, of course, but thankfully not climbing alone like I might have been in the past.  Matthew and I had not seen each other for a long time and he thankfully matched me on those slow climbs so that we could natter like old ladies.

Finally reaching the top of the climb we could see that the centre was structured around a valley.  We were now on the ridge and managed to regroup, following an open trail around the valley below, soaking in the breath-taking views.  We passed a wind farm on our left and climbed a little more on rocky, technical tracks past relics of old stone buildings, now abandoned.  Then there was nowhere up left to go…

Descending at Afan on Maggot was like catching the wind beneath wings and soaring towards the sun.  Despite the order of climbing involving me being at the back, when it came to descending I was allowed to push through to near the front.  Baz took the lead and Matthew followed.  I came after on their tail, snapping at Matthew’s back wheel, while Mark, Paul and Dan came behind at a far more sensible speed.

The trails were thin and twisted, rocky, rooty and undulating with peril perched in every inch of it.  On one side if one dared look it was down into the belly of the forest while the other side reared up with biting rocks waiting for you to make the slightest error so it might taste the flesh of your arms and face before spitting you out down the opposing drop.  But there was no error as we flew over boulders, kicking up spray of stones and mud on natural berms and putting way too much trust in our wheels as we passed over rock bridges on ill cambered corners crossing deep drops into ruinous rivers.

My face hurt from smiling.  My eyes watered from the cold air rushing over them while I dared not even blink, but what I remember most of all is the ultimate control and grace that seemed to be gifted to me through this battered old machine beneath me.  Maggot was a coin, with one side as heads on descending, filling me with electric fiz and infectious insanity.  The other side was a dirty, fat arse that represented the climbs.  Despite this, the sides were by no means equal and Afan ensured this with how it was put together.

On the final run of the first half the group split.  We had reached a point where works were just completed on a new descent and the options were to take the old route named “The Darkside” which once served as a climb or to travel up a little further to take on a route full of berms and jumps.  An elderly chap arriving at the same time recommended the Dark Side “if you don’t mind hanging on for dear life” and me and Matthew followed his advice.  Tempted by jumps and brand new berms, the rest of the group moved up a little to the alternative.

The Darkside is unequivocally the most challenging and exciting descent I am yet to experience.  From the moment maggot tasted the slop he accelerated and kept on doing so.  I was leading the way and didn’t want to be holding Matthew up as there would be no chance of passing with the steep drop less than half a foot from the trail so I pushed past what I believed my limit and discovered my limit was still somewhere further out of reach.  Rock and stone littered track bucked the bike as it skipped on the brink of disaster and then one jagged rock reared out at my pedal throwing me off.  How I managed to launch my weight to counter it, to twist the bars back onto my line and lose no speed is still beyond me.  It had all been instinctual and one of those moments that slowed down in the minds’ eye, saturated with colour and emotion to brand a lasting memory into my genetics.

We were down quicker than the rest of the group and I was still chuckling when they arrived.  The old man who had followed us hung around for a chat while we regaled the others of the experience and they confessed that the new route was a touch tame.

From here we rolled to the café that marked the halfway mark, ate a slightly heavy meal washed down with a bottle of stout and came back to the trail to start a brutal climb.  Maggot was indeed back on the side of tails, limping up the highly technical ascent like a wounded bear, pushing through rim deep slop and skittering over large wet slabs that rocked as you passed the middle.  The group waited for me at the top and were waiting a while, but a short ride back around the ridge, past the wind farm again, led us to the final descent of the day.

Tight packed forest again thrilled us and gaps opened between the group as much for safety as it was a symptom of descending prowess.  Then with clear space between me and Matthew and bravery creeping too high I thought to take a natural jump off a slab of rock to add spice to a trail that really had enough flavour already.  I flew from the ridge, releasing the compression perfectly but only realising whilst in flight that the path turned a corner.  Extending my legs and arms I tried to ground Maggot in time to take the turn, but gave it too much beef.  The front fork, all 160mm of it, bottomed out and Maggot went down beneath me, slamming me into the curve between trail and drop.  My knee opened up on the stones and Maggot, still attached to my foot, travelled down the slope taking me with it.

I was lucky to get my claws into a tangle of roots to stop the drop, but I was winded and could feel the heat of my open knee as the blood began to flow beneath my clothing.  I hauled myself up, dragging Maggot on my foot, back to the trail.  Once it was safe I twisted my ankle to snap my foot free of the pedal and dared look at the knee.  It was a proper hole and Mark arrived as I took to my feet.  He asked if I was okay, having heard my cry as I slammed into the ground and with true Elliott bravado I confirmed I was fine and remounted.  Despite knowing I was being untruthful, he allowed me to take the lead and I let Maggot gather speed like before, but confess I was now avoiding jumps instead of seeking them out.

Back at the trail centre we had a quick lunch and then returned to the cars to kit the bikes out with lights.  The plan had always been to ride a trail at night, but the mood for this was low after the exertion of W2.  Regardless, I pushed them into following the plan and we set out on the small blue, fooling around for a while in the pitch black on a mini skills area and then called it a day.

There was talk of finding a pub on the way back, but the one place that seemed like a civilised stop seemed less so once we stepped out of the cars.  Our bikes were all too much of a temptation for idle hands and we could not find a pub that allowed us to keep them in sight.  We therefore ditched the plan and returned to the Farmhouse where we cleaned up and Barry cooked us a splendid Carbonara before we started laying into the beers.

People drifted off to bed at various times and I continued drinking.  After a while I was alone downstairs and started cleaning up the devastation from a Baz Chef session in the kitchen.  Beers slipped down easily and the kitchen again started to shine like new.  By the time I walked up stairs in was 5:00am.  For some strange reason I patted Matthew on the head as I passed him as if he was a pet dog and then climbed into my bed already knowing it was nearly time to get back up again.

Sunday 17th November    

We were up at 8:00am and finished off the Costco supplies.  I had packed my car the night before…  or was it morning… so very little required other than getting dressed.  My efforts in the kitchen were gratefully received, but then Mark clocked the depletion of real ale.  Talk began of me potentially being over the limit still and plans were being made for me to leave the car behind, but I remembered that I had a breathalyser in the door from a previous trip to France.  Cracking open the kit, I took the test and passed – ending any more nonsense talk (although it was touch and go if I would pass and I did so by a very small margin).

Issue put to bed, I handed back the keys and we took the short drive to Bike Park Wales.  This time someone was waiting for our money on entry and already the place was buzzing.  Vans littered the car park, emblazoned with MTB brand names and team logos.

We congregated at the cafe and I said I wanted a cup of coffee before we began, but Mark, Barry, Paul and Dan were concerned about how much time they had and wanted to push on.  This seemed okay as they wanted to climb on the Beast of Burden and because me and Matthew would take the road climb again we were likely to meet and regroup at the bottom of the first run.

The reality is that we didn’t get to ride together.  Me and Matthew got to the top and followed the route down we had enjoyed so much on the Friday when we had first arrived and this took us deep below the car park.  The rest of the group on the other hand had taken two runs down and then returned to the top, putting the two factions at opposite poles from that point onwards.

Me and Matthew took another long ride up and came back down to the very bottom a second time, this time on different blue runs than before -  Melted Welly, Blue Belle and Bush Wacker - and received a call from the others telling us to meet them at the café.

We watched Baz on the sections closer to the café as he nailed a section of berms and rolled over to us with a big smile.  Mark and Dan came a little while after at a more sedate pace and joined us, but Paul was nowhere to be seen.  At last, when we did spot him, he was trickling along a trail and finally joined us, but without a smile.  He was in fact shaking his head, looking down at his bike and claiming it didn’t feel right.  A little inspection revealed that the wheel was not actually attached to the frame and it was a wonder he had made it down at all.

We had lunch together and shared our stories of the trails we had taken down, but my suggestion of us riding together after lunch was quickly shot down.  People needed to get on the road to home and they felt that after lunched seemed a logical time to disband.  I was disappointed, having missed the chance to follow Baz down a run to witness how close a person can push his luck without dying, but knew distances were great and families demanding.

So it was the first two that arrived on that Friday who would be closing the weekend with a final run and the last climb to the top told my body that this really was the last run down.  We set off down melted Welly but switched from the blue to the red once in the woods.  This red was called Vicious Valley and the transformation from well packed and wide trail to tight, twisting and fast natural track took me a little by surprise.  Add to that the unexpected presence of rock step ups and root sprawls and the easy going speed fest of earlier became a game of rapid thought and technical mastery.

Just before entering another red Matthew finally remembered that he had his Go Pro with him!  After all the riding we had done, he remembers now on the last run, so we paused to let him set up and then continued on.  Bonneyville had a very natural feel to it, with loose dirt bomb hole-esque switch backs and long paths littered with humps that became jumps as our speed increased.  Bush Wacker took us back to the cars and we packed them away before having a final coffee and cake to close the day – chuckling at the very short piece of footage captured because the memory card was utterly choked full.

Maggot had truly proved his worth, but as I drove home I began to think of Crank and whether or not the experience would have been any less joyful had I ridden him instead.  This thought continued in my head for some time and after a couple of runs out with Maggot on the heath, a cracking all day visit to Swinley with Matthew when he was down south on meetings with work (a ride hindered a little by me losing my wallet and it then magically appearing in the pocket of my camel pack) and a crash as I attempted to descend a long woodland stairway…  my mind settled on an answer.

I loved Maggot for descending, but the type of riding we did was more than that.  I also remembered harrowing Baz’s wheel on the Seven Stanes, particularly on the Spooky Wood section of Glentress so Crank wasn’t unable to descend at speed.  The difference was in the comfort offered by full suspension.  It was an element of the bike that actually took away the need to be agile and responsive on the pedals because it offered greater forgiveness whereas a wrong move on Crank offered none.  The truth was clear; I wanted to ride a hardtail.

Maggot therefore received a cheap makeover to improve his battered image when posted on Ebay and he sold for £180 more than I had paid for him.  I also sold Crank (which broke my heart) to a young lad just starting out and pooled the money together to buy the new 650 MTB Team hardtail Boardman.  A couple of rides out have given a glimmer of hope for future events, but a real test is yet to be had.

Whether it was the right move or the wrong move really doesn’t matter, as long as we continue to ride. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

2013 - Going Full Circle (C2CR)

Summer of 2013 saw us going full circle, returning to where it all began with the Coast to Coast, only this time we were cyclists rather than bumbling fools on bikes.  Already this year I had conquered two cross country races, the South Down’s Way and MTIE London Revolution (I am amazed still that I got this many passes) so felt totally ready.  The very idea of slamming a route that had previously broken us and then riding back to the start on a partially off-road route called the Rievers may as well have been the plot for a Hollywood movie for me.

I was actually not in control of organising this one, but I did book us Southerners – Me, Mark, Paul and Dan – into a wonderful place outside of Cockermouth called Grayonside Inn for both the first and last night of the epic adventure.  I had stayed there with my family for Baz’s wedding back in 2012 and then shortly after returned for a family holiday.  Jeanette who ran the place is most likely the friendliest and loveliest B&B host I have ever encountered.  As for the remained of the stops, this was left down to Mark. 

He delivered his outline plan:

Fri 26th July:  Congregate in and around Cockermouth ready for off
Sat 27th July:  Workington to Alston (Day 1/2 C2C)
Sun 28th July:  Alston to Tynemouth (Day 2/2 C2C)
Mon 29th July:  Tynemouth to Bellingham (ish) (Day 1/3 Rievers)
Tue 30th July:  Bellingham to Carlisle (ish) (Day 2/3 Rievers)
Wed 31st July:  Carlisle to Whitehaven (Day 3/3 Rievers)

All in this was a 313 mile romp over some of the most challenging climbs the country has to offer, but we would be travelling light and staying in B&B’s instead of camping like we had on the first attempt.  So when we checked into Grayonside on the Thursday night (and cracked open the first bottle of Lakeland) spirits were deservedly high.

Baz had to drop out of a couple of sections of the route for reasons that were unavoidable and the first section, travelling from Whitehaven to Cockermouth, was just for the Southerners.  We parked up in Whitehaven on the driveway of Mark’s university friend and rolled down to the start at the waterside, feeling a little strange.  We had been such different creatures heading to the same place in 2008 and as Dan would concur, far less sober at that point in 2008 as well.  On this occasion I felt like a coiled spring waiting to unleash and once we set off that is exactly what happened.

Whitehaven to Alston – 80.2 miles with 6,546 ft climbing

The wonderful 5 mile false flat cycle path out of Whitehaven was polished off in a matter of minutes rather than slogged out over the space of an hour requiring a break midway to catch our breath.  Then we were into the fangs brow and descending into the shadowy foothills of Winlatter before the morning had even had a chance to realise we were on our way.  This is where we met Baz, kitted out in his King of the Mountain Jersey and looking fit as a fiddle despite being referred to as “Mr Blobby” by his wonderful wife.  We hugged out the emotion we all felt at being back together and set off up Winlatter at our own pace which for Baz, Mark and Paul was breakneck speed. 

I was wearing a heart rate monitor up until this point and tracking the ride on Strava.  I was not so much struggling with the climb, but for some reason could not handle the strap around my chest.  The restriction was just too much under the scorching summer sun so the stats when viewed afterwards look like I died, with heart rate peaking at 196 and then flat lining as I ripped off the sensor.  The truth is that I found Winlatter hard, but manageable.  The top came much quicker than it had in 2008 and although our route back then also incorporated some of the off road sections, by being on road there was still worthy challenge to note.

The descent down the other side became a flat out race between Paul and Baz and was very nearly the death of one or both of them.  With a speed clocked in the realm of 60 mph by Baz on the twisting lane it was no wonder that the rest of us fell back.  Then Dan and I lost sight of the leading three when we needed to get out of the way of a van and took a completely different route from the others down into Keswick.  A few phone calls later and a pub was decided upon as our lunch stop and place to regroup.  This was also the place we would say farewell to Baz until later that week.

It was strange to think that we were having lunch on day one beyond the point it had taken a whole day to get to in 2008.  Our plan for the rest of the day was to get to the point we had reached after two days riding and we all knew what stood between us and there; Hartside.

Having said our goodbyes to Baz, the rest of us set off for Alston.  We passed through Greystoke and Penrith without pause and straight into Renwick where we did stop.  This was not to rest, but to stand on the corner where Dan and Mark had surrendered previously.  Paul, who had not been on the first expedition, could not connect to the bewilderment the rest of us felt and he was also lacking in the knowledge we had of the climb ahead.  When we finally rolled out he got it in his head to put pay to his brother Mark and so the battle began.

As for me and Dan – we went at our own pace.  Mine was a little faster than Dan and a lot slower that Mark and Paul, but regardless, it was rocket speed compared to 2008.  My main focus was to not put a single foot down until I reached a café at the top and attempted to ignore the local riders dancing up past me, looking me up and down as they did.  I fought the urge to shout out “did you start the day in Whitehaven?” because the miles preceding this were my justification for the speed at which I climbed.  What held me back was the very real possibility of one of them replying “yes!”

Having before mocked Mark’s love of climbing as sadistic, I started to actually understand it as I progressed along the zigzag road.  Each pedal stroke seemed to be a reward and badge of honour, while each session standing up and putting down a little more juice before sitting back down and maintaining the new flow sang of personal ability and a little bit of validation for the effort that had gone into becoming this much better (I dare not say “good”).  My focus was still on  looking fluid and comfortable, with good form over speed, but speed was a consequence and before I knew it I was at the summit.  Here I sat with Mark and Paul and listened to the tale of defeat Paul had suffered against his brother and not long after Dan was with us too.

So day one ended with a roll into Alston and checking into the YMCA hostel.  We showered and ate in the same place we had eaten back in 2008 – this time not needing to beg the kitchen to stay open because we were not arriving near closing.  We also drifted into the supermarket and I purchased a bag of ale that I shared with the owner of the hostel beside an open fire while the other three went to bed.  While they snored I was regaled with stories of the Great Divide – a trip that may one day become a reality for me too…

Alston to Newcastle Upon Tyne – 57.2 miles with 3,902 ft of climbing

My one set of casual clothes hummed of wood smoke as I repacked them into my panniers.  Breakfast happened quickly and we rolled out of the hostel onto the cobbled road climb.  Starting any day with this would hurt, but with 80 miles and 6,546 feet in the legs from the day before it really hurt.  However, it was a sign of our new fitness when soon enough we had loosened up and were eating miles.  We dashed up Allenheads, offering nods of respect to the immensely steep section at the top, before racing like men possessed down through Northumberland on roads that were clear for mile upon mile as they stretched like black ribbons through wilderness.

A few minor mechanical issues forced us to stop in Rockhope which had been a most welcome stopping point in 2008.  What could be fixed was fixed and we set off again, but from here our route would change.  Before, we had walked our bikes up the steep bank and eventually picked up the Waskerley Way, but this time we would stick to tarmac and push up and around the moorlands.  One might be forgiven into believing that this was a blessing, but after setting off we quickly realised that it wasn’t.  With a 20% climb greeting us and road works at the top forcing us out of the saddle to work our way through, none of us came away with fresh legs.

Beyond this climb it was all downhill to Newcastle.  We kept a cracking pace going onto the Derwent walk which resulted in a puncture for me and then a quick stop at the Derwent Walk Inn for old time sake.  We passed over the suicide bridge which had now had the sign removed and beyond was just the urban route to the blinking eye, a couple of sprint challengers against Mark despite not really having the legs for it and a sneaky pint of continental lager at the Pitcher and Piano on the waterfront before dipping the front wheel in the water.

Two days to complete the C2C was a massive achievement.  140 miles and 10,448 feet of climbing done and still three days of cycling left to enjoy, but first a night in Newcastle Upon Tyne in a B&B Mark had booked for us with a host that considered himself a comedian…  but wasn’t.  We met our host in the nearby pub that looked like it could get nasty very quickly and then followed him to his house where our bikes were chained together for safe keeping.  With the sky open above them and a wooden gate between them and the road I wondered what we might be using to get back to Whitehaven.

We followed Paul out to a curry house and met a couple of his friends who lived nearby, but this was not the night for a drink-fest.  The next day we would be starting on the Rievers route which was new ground for all of us and not without its climbing to get us to a pub in Bellingham where we were staying.  For this reason it was a brief visit to the scary local and then off to bed.

Newcastle Upon Tyne to Bellingham – 76.2 miles with 3,370 ft of climbing

We rushed breakfast and were all relieved to find we still had bikes.  It didn’t take too long to get out of Newcastle, but we were now on strange tracks through areas of industrial history which completely jarred with the surroundings of the two days before.  We picked our way along the Reivers route through a rabbit warren of bridleway and cycle path and it was impossible for me to ignore the odd drop off and kicker regardless of riding a bike not built for such games.  Before long I had an annoying click deep inside my bottom bracket, but because the wheels were still turning I simply ignored it.

When we finally did step off these gritty tracks onto roads we were blessed with a complete absence of traffic.  Our pace remained good and we took the hills in our stride.  What really sung to me on this day was the descending which at one point got so fast as to throw my cats eye tracker into failure.  A check later on Strava revealed my top speed as being 57.6 mph and put me as 7th in the rankings for that section.  I am still yet to beat that speed and believe I have also now been removed from the rankings by locals, but what Strava does not show is the utter joy of those sections. 

A slight headwind played a part towards the end of the day, but knowing there was a pub at the end pushed me on.  I had a touch of pain in my foot (presumed by the group to be gout from my love of real ale) but the two days riding before this one had set my body into work mode.  Paul set off on a break with 5 miles to go and I gave chase.  It had been a game we had been playing throughout the day and never got tiresome (except for the game between Mark and Paul which involved being at the top of every single little bump in the road).  I managed to keep him in sight, but never to catch his wheel.  I met him in the car park of the pub and was sat with a real ale in hand as Mark and Dan entered not long after.

Once checked in our bikes were locked in a secure outhouse and the rooms we were shown to were beautiful.  After chowing and changing into my smoke scented clothes we gathered in the restaurant and devoured thousands of calories.  During desert a real treat arrived at the table…  Baz! 

We fed back on our last two days without him, including the tale of Paul’s slaughter on Hartside against the almighty legs of Mark and waxed lyrical about the open roads of the first day of Rievers.  The next day we would be passing through Kielder, which we were all excited about, but I was also excited about the night ahead.  We had the full group back together and were in a pub that served quality ale and quality scotch!  A room key tab was all we needed to get going and although Dan and Paul retired to their comfy beds, me, Mark and Baz went at it like men possessed.  

Bellingham to Carlisle – 69.9 miles with 3,543 ft of climbing

I had been carried back to the room the night before and woke up with a little apprehension for the long ride ahead.  A great breakfast served only to sit on the sloshing grog in my guts and make me feel worse.  Stepping out to get the bikes in the pouring rain and realising that I had a puncture on the rear wheel before we even set off added to the negative mood.  But I had been here before (as heavy drinkers often are) and had a strategy.  This was to take the lead of the peleton and to sweat out the sins of nights gone by and the route ahead offered many opportunity to sweat.  Long climbs followed by long descents straight back into long climbs helped me zone into the riding, although I detached myself a little from the group.  The rain worked hard to wear us down, but we managed to keep going.

The road above Kielder water was absolutely stunning.  The drifts of misty rain coming through the firs and the dark, still waters below made us feel utterly remote and the air we breathed was crisp and cool.  Any sign of hangover melted into the histories.  We then came down to the water on a long swooping road and crossed over the dam.  By the time we rolled over the border into Scotland and down the high street of Newcastleton all I could think about was coffee.

It was not an ideal stop, being stood on the pavement outside of the coffee shop because we were all too sopping wet to sit inside.  Our average speed also took a dent and began to stress Mark out, but for a moment I had to be selfish and get my fix.  I knew that the void in my head was self-created, but I also knew that ignoring the need for caffeine would just roll into the rest of the day.  It really wasn’t as if we were going to get any wetter.

Rolling out of Newcastleton, the rain stopped and we crossed back into England on truly remote roads that took us through Bewcastle and into Mollen Wood, here roads seemed almost out of place and we monkeyed around with small sprint challenges and hill climb races with no fear of needing to share the road with anything more than a couple of sheep.  That was until Baz and Paul raced up a hill and were almost swallowed up under the wheels of an Asda delivery van that came hurtling over the ridge and down to us.  It seemed he had as little expectation of seeing us as we had of seeing him.  I still do not know how Paul managed to stay on the road rather than flying off into the fields below.

We encountered some incredible climbs through this stretch, with switchbacks that increased in gradient so quickly as to feel like slamming on the brakes.  The only way up was to bench-press the pedals and at the top of each of these we would find ourselves surrounded by trees and engulfed in a world were only we existed.

How strange it felt when this slowly slipped away and transformed into the outlying urban sprawl of Carlisle.  Following traffic heavy roads into Carlisle proper, past industrial estates and shopping centres was like losing something special.  In Carlisle we were booked into a university dorms and I was struggling to keep pace and had been for a while.  The stretch through Mollen Wood with those incredible climbs had combined with the excessive drinking of the day before to allow weakness to return.  When the group finally stopped at a crossroad to allow us all to regroup I took up one of my water bottles and squirted Baz and Paul's their legs in a mini protest only to see their faces transform into utter shock.

They had been pushing hard and always leading the group for this last stretch of many miles.  This pace had barely allowed me to keep them in sight let along ride with them, therefore I had no way of knowing that they had both exhausted their water a long time ago and were gasping for a drink.  In their eyes, me wasting the precious drop on their shins was akin to punching them both in the face.  I admit I didn’t care too much.  If nothing else, it was a lesson in the benefits of group riding and certainly a reminder to communicate.  As a side note, it was also evidence that I am not very skilled at staying hydrated which might also contribute to my inability to keep up in those final hours.

We had a quick beer in a local bar and then checked into our dorms.  With local knowledge in hand, we followed Baz out onto the streets, played a few games of pool and again drank a little too much before treating our weary souls to a hefty Nados.  We all refused to think or talk of the simple fact that only one day remained of our adventure.       

Carlisle to Whitehaven – 61.1 miles with 4,391 ft of climbing

We breakfasted in the local Asda and it was a most unsatisfying meal.  Our route from this point would take us back onto the C2C which was partially shared with the Rievers, but Baz suggested a slight amendment so that we could experience the infamous Newlands Pass.  It was quickly agreed that we hadn’t come all that way to shy away from a challenge, so accepted and geared up for the off.

Our first hill out of Carlisle was a monster and Skidaw grew and grew on the horizon beside us.  It didn’t take long to step back into more rural zones, but more often that before we found ourselves drifting back through small towns.  This proved a good thing when Dan’s brakes packed up altogether because we were able to slip into Keswick and see the genius crew in the bike shop.

Then there was the pass; a long road that would end with a wall of gradient which was enough to break the most skilled cyclist if he was not having a good day.  Even miles out from this giant we talked of going our own pace which meant Baz, Paul and Mark vanishing from sight almost instantly.  Dan then dropped back a little from my pace and it was back to how it usually was, cycling on my own through the silent Lakeland wilderness.  I do not mind this as I’m aware it is my own lack of fitness that creates the situation.  One day maybe I will be the king hill climber, but right now I have to accept my limitations and the situations it creates.

Right there and then I was not worried about speed.  I had not yet put a foot down on the route (excluding those moments when we had all stopped to either lunch or regroup).  When I speak of feet going down I mean in terms of legs giving out on a climb and forcing it.  This was something I wanted to maintain and I pushed on hard over the ever climbing route towards the wall.  One corner beside a farm, hooking at a right angle and ramping up to what had to be nearly 30%, very nearly ended this but through pure grit and determination I kept the bike moving.

The run up to the wall was a long open road along the side of the mountain and off in the distance I finally got a sight of Mark, Baz and Paul as they crested the wall.  From where I was they were just dots.  By the time I reached the beginning of the slop my legs had already taken a battering and the very sudden increase in gradient had me out of the saddle in seconds.  I pushed down on the pedal, one after the other with all the force I could put down and yet moved in almost minuscule increments to a top that was 200 yards away but seemed a mile.  As I began to weave from one side to the other of the road the fire set into my thighs.  My lungs burned and I felt control slipping away.

My foot went down.  I slipped off the bike.  Considered getting back on and pedalling.  Thought better of it and walked up to the top.

Dan reached the bottom of the slop a little after me and seemed to have made a deal with himself not to walk up any hill, therefore he pedalled to the top of Newlands pass, but it was a game of many sections, with his gears set very low and his legs spinning like roadrunner to make a score of yards before stopping to recharge.  SPIN, stop, SPIN, stop, SPIN, stop in a method that looked a little insane from where I was sitting, but I had to applaud him because he never broke that deal with himself and made it to the top without walking.

The Newlands descent was a beautiful reward for efforts made.  We had to dance around a few cars coming up the other way, but the exhilaration from the speed and twists of the route filled us with joy.  We then entered country lanes and we nearly lost Mark and Paul as they carried their momentum from a downhill into a climb, barely avoiding the little silver Micra coming down and giving the poor old woman behind the wheel a heart attack.

Baz left us here to return to Cockermouth and we pushed on to complete the run back to Whitehaven.  This was of course on the designated cycle path and although my legs had reached a point of no return, being able to spin but apply no real power, Dan’s legs were at the opposite end of the spectrum.  I watched in wonderment as he took a place at the head of the group and pushed on like a man possessed.  There was no way I would keep pace with them so drifted on at my own speed, solo riding safe in the knowledge that I couldn’t get lost.

Soon enough it was all over.  We dipped our wheel for the third time (having refused to dip the back wheel when setting out from Newcastle) and found a pub.  Without any pride left to lose, I passed my keys over to Mark and asked him to climb the awful hill back to the car.  I cannot express how grateful I am that he said yes to this.

After driving back to Grayonside we cleaned up and drifted down the hill on foot to have a BBQ at Baz’s house.  It was not as late a night as it could have been, partly to reduce the inconvenience five big blokes cramming into a house can cause for Baz’s wife.  There was also a large desire for most of our group to go to sleep and a cab was called to assist us back to our lodgings.

From then on it was just the logistics of getting home, which always seems to add a tone of depression for me.  I know it is not possible, but I always wish for the adventure to continue.  Life and the trappings of work and responsibility have a strong influence on it not continuing, but as long as we keep dreaming maybe one day we could just keep pedalling.  Until then it is back to the planning of the next adventure and treasuring the memories and self-pride of not only doing the coast to coast better, but smashing it out of the park and then riding all the way back.

To most I am sure we are just a group of weekend warriors, but amongst ourselves we are legends.

Monday, 18 August 2014

2013 - MITIE London Revolution

My first foray into road cycling was not a nice, easy event to get me started.  No, I signed myself up for 186 miles in two days, starting in London and circling all the way around in a mammoth loop amongst two thousand other riders; the MITIE London Revolution.

I didn’t even have a road bike when I signed up for this, but a quick look around resulted in a wonderful second hand purchase of the Specialized Secteur.  My research into the bike was of course minimal:  

  1. Can I afford it?  
  2. Is it pretty?  

Tick, tick and done.  I could not leave it at that though.  The tyres were quickly replaced with some bling Lugano and the valve caps became chrome bullets.  After all, I couldn’t have people thinking I was serious about road cycling.

I also purchased lycra and I am still trying to deal with this in my head, so let's move on.   

Upon signed up I was sent a wonderfully informative PDF with a full on training plan.  I ditched this as it involved me churning out many miles on road and that ate into my off-road time.  I therefore convinced myself that off-road training was going to serve me just as well.  

I did do some road miles, with a ride from Farnham to Brighton and back close to the event.  I also took a ride out with Mark two weeks before the event following him out of Stevington on a tour of the Chilterns by road.  We covered 50 miles that morning and at a set of lights I managed to screw up my clipping in, jarring my knee.  All in, I was in about as good a shape as I deserved to be and before I knew it the weekend of the event had arrived.

Pre-race day

I had it in my head that this was going to be a proper adventure.  I booked the Elliott's into a swanky hotel at the ExCel and we planned to spend Friday exploring London with our two year old son, Henry.  That way I would have them there to cheer me over the line the next day.

Things started well.  The hotel was as sweet as I had hoped and we set out through docklands with the boy in tow.  We travelled on the DLR a few stops and then took a trip on the emirates Skyline over to the O2.  Henry looked so "Street", strolling along with his hands in his pockets like a cool dude...  until he tripped, could not get his hands out in time to stop himself and face planted into the pavement.

My stomach flipped.  I had been close enough to reach out and feel him brush my fingertips but too far to stop him going.  Seeing his little face bounce made me feel sick to my stomach.  We spent nearly half an hour mopping blood from his swelling lip and nose, but fortunately he had not cracked his teeth.  It did however change the tone of the day.  He wanted nothing other than to snuggle into me and be carried from attraction to attraction.  Still, we made it over to Greenwich Market, saw the Cutty Sark, the Observatory (learning about Dark Matter, black holes and stuff), travelled on a River boat, ate lunch at the O2 and returned to the hotel to make use of the bar.

I drank too much.  My arms and legs ached from carrying Henry everywhere and I was also a bag of nerves.  Then I had a less than wonderful night sleep, with Henry finding it hard to rest with his swollen face and waking every hour.

Race-day One  

The plan had been for me to get up in good time, cycle the 3 miles to the start and be a part of the big photo session as we crossed the start line at 7:30 am in one big MITIE team, but my plan to have the Elliott family adventure caused a slight blip.  I rushed down the 4 floors of hotel to get the cup of milk warmed up and then back up to deliver it.  Anna showered while I dressed the boy, then I was able to get ready before popping down for breakfast...  you get the picture I assume.  Time simply slipped away.

The plan had to change as it was coming on for 8:00 am.  I carried the bags out to the car with a cigarette hanging from my lips (always the professional) and was in for another shock.  Despite strong assurances from the hotel that the car park was under constant surveillance, some scrotum had tried pretty hard to pinch my bike off the car.  They had only been foiled by the Thule locking clamp around the frame, but I doubt it would have taken much more yanking before it would have giving up the ghost and left me with no wheels for the race!  I was now far from the perfectly calm state of mind required before taking on something that was already freaking me out.

We reached the start line and rolled into the drop-off car park and Jack (my planned riding buddy - ex SAS) - was only just ready, so despite being partially late I needed to wait.  I dropped my bag in, registered and had another smoke while I waited for Jack.  It seemed like forever in the coming, but finally we were ready to go.  We had missed the team photo and they were already on the road, but I found myself rolling over the red carpet under the start line at 8:05.  Henry was in my Wife’s arms, looking like a miniature boxer who had tried hard but lost his prime time fight and my wife’s yawn reminded me of my own mortality.

The first hour took us through London traffic as we made our way east into Essex.  Now, I have flown down black graded single track with a bone shattering drop to one side, a wall of rock and trees to the other promising likewise bodily ruin and a steep trail ahead, shredded, narrow, twisting and full of danger, but never have I felt as close to  sh*ting myself as I did on those roads.  Watching a rider ahead slam into the ground as a truck side-swiped him didn’t help, nor did the constant use of horn and general hatred radiating from all car drivers caught behind the plethora of riders.  To make matters worse, at 17 miles, with all the twisting to click in and out of the pedals at traffic jams and red lights my knee that I had been protecting finally "pinged".  The pain made me feel sick, but there was no way I was going to let this take the MLR away from me.  I swallowed drugs, kept the "ping" to myself and pushed on.

I was playing with different positions to stretch it out in the hope to relieve it and came across a revelation.  Stopping for a second, I lifted the saddle by 2 inches, meaning that every time I pedalled I gave the leg an almost full extension and the pain started to ease.  I was however forced to climb using only one leg for a while and had to gain speed gradually rather than slamming it down when I wanted it.  If nothing else, I became very attuned to my gears.

Surprisingly we pushed on at a good pace and soon had the slower riders from the original start time in our sights.  It was fun to manoeuvre around them and gave me a sense of achievement I probably didn’t deserve.  Then the roads reminded me of their inherent danger and a truck driver, frustrated with the long string of riders, decided to overtake.  He gunned it past, saw the one lane railway tunnel too late, swung back in and took the front wheel out from the lead rider.  He went down hard and the truck pulled over.  As all the traffic stopped and while the poor bloke was being seen to by a mass of people, I barked an order for Jack to tuck in behind me and we left the carnage and group behind.

Soon enough we were in a different world, travelling through splendidly rich Essex back roads.  It felt good to roll into the first pit stop which just happened to be in a pub.  I forced Jack to forgo the queue for flapjacks and fresh water and instead took our place in the bar for a good pint.  

This sweet moment, accompanied by a couple of smokes which earned me more than one sneer from the die-hard health nuts, took more time that I had anticipated, but on leaving the pit stop I felt a new man and finally felt a part of the race.

From Epping forest the roads were great, with very little traffic until we entered Hertfordshire.  We were still catching people and leaving them behind, but Jack was finding the pace a touch strenuous.  He also found the pint I had forced him to drink a touch inconvenient and had to stop for close on a dozen “natural breaks” in the first hour.   

The next pit Stop was supposed to be at Potters Bar, but at that 72 mile mark the signs we had been following suddenly vanished.  It was only after we had travelled 5 miles that I called a halt.  We phoned the Route assist team.  It was concerning me that we had neither overtaken nor been overtaken in a while.  Route assist said to wait where we were while they checked our tracking chips.  The advice after nearly half an hour of waiting was to go back the way we had come until we found a sign.  

This added 10 miles to our 103 mile day and I was a touch peeved - but later discovered that a woman had been involved in a head on crash with a car and needed airlifting.  The route signs had been taken down and placed elsewhere as a diversion around the issue.  It transpires that me and Jack passed through between the period of signs being taken down but before the replacement of them on the diversion.

The lost time turned me into a bastard and the dirt trail monster in me, accustomed to churn and pain, chasing the light, set fire to my pace.  I refused Jack the chance to stop at the second pit stop and instead pushed on into the Chilterns.  Suddenly the rolling back-roads became a series of fast descents into cruel, lengthy, arrow-straight climbs.  Despite the knee I was hitting a lot of these out of the saddle with the gears ticked up a couple rather than being in the granny ring.  This somehow seemed easier than trying to hold the weight over the front to counter the gradient and pedal at the same time.  It felt brilliant to go past so many walkers, but poor Jack, taking my lead as an example, had to have 15 minutes time-out at the top of one particular hill to empty the entire contents of his stomach.

The Chilterns to Windsor were nothing more than a series of roundabouts, busy roads and a few pretty views, but none as delightful as the finish at Ascot Racecourse.

9hrs 20 mins riding over 113 miles (103 of the course).  Avg speed 12.1.  Rolling speed as per the Cat eye was 14.8 mph

Race-day two

I made a mistake in the night and decided to strap my knee.  Some might consider that my immense drinking session might also have been a mistake, but I say live and be damned.  I woke up in my cold tent at 4:30 am with a dry throat and a leg that would not bend.  I quickly unstrapped it, elevated it on my bag and prayed for it to ease up.  By 6:30 am I could bend it again so went for a walk around the grounds, swallowed drugs, drank coffee, ate breakfast and breathed a sigh of relief when it started to feel a little more normal.

I was not sure whether I would have Jack with me because I had "Beasted" him (his words) and had been taken to a hotel nearby to sleep rather than suffer further in a cold tent.  I was actually surprised when he arrived at just gone 7am.

We were on the start line at 8:00 am, but the organizers staged the roll out.  We finally started at 8:45. 

The first 24 miles were on great ground, but Jack was struggling.  He needed a “natural break” every ten minutes.  At the first stop break I told him we would be in and out, but then he realized he had left his keys to his car at Ascot.  We lost nearly an hour while he arranged with the organizers to collect them and to deliver them to the finish line.

We rolled out of the first pit stop - everything arranged and too much time lost - into the Surrey hills.  I told Jack that I wanted Box Hill at my own pace and would meet him at the top - thinking this was going to be the true challenge of the full event.  Having tasted the Chilterns the day before I was setting myself up for facing a true beast.  

What a shock to find the gradient barely challenging and being free enough to click up a few gears and ride the last stretch out of the saddle.  Jack joined me a lot later and after just 5 minute rest I had him rolling again.  This led us into some awesome descending and in my head the rest of the day was going to be a breeze...

We reached the second pit stop and had a pint, but I limited time to 30 minutes.  Back on the road we suddenly hit the North Downs.  Tandridge Hill turned out to the be the hidden beast amongst the route.  The amount of people walking up this was astounding.  I am proud to say I did not but this hill nearly broke me.  It was false summit after false summit that happened so often that I didn't believe the real summit when it arrived and failed to wait for Jack before tearing down the other side,which turned out to be the longest descent so far.

Box hill was put to shame once more as we had to climb Herne Hill.  The road up into Crystal Palace was a real head screw and with traffic coming back into the equation, added to growing fatigue, I was beginning to feel the weight of the challenge MLR represented.  This point in the race also had a flavour of fun as we got to ride 2 laps around the velodrome.  I have to say it was hair raising as the sides are so steep and the wheels on my bike seemed way too skinny to be able to do what they were doing.

The last 10 miles of route put us back into the heavy and terrifying traffic on the streets of London proper.  We finally rolled over the finish at 6:00pm.

VERDICT:   Despite an awful journey back home and not getting in until almost 9pm, I woke the next morning feeling capable of another day or ridding.  The knee, if anything, felt stronger than it did before starting the race so I surmised that the "ping” had needed movement rather than rest.  The race itself was well organised and was more of a challenge than I had given credit for.  It was not however anything like the South Down’s Way which had been used as a training event.  Those two days in April were the hardest and darkest days I have ever spent on a bike, so if you want a challenge, enter the MITIE London Revolution.  If however, you want to enter the deep, dark realms of the truest pain cave you will ever know…  South Down’s Way on a wet weekend is your ticket.