Sunday, October 04, 2015

3 Peaks cyclo-cross 2015 - The Coming Back Year

It all started for me when we arrived at Helwith Bridge on Saturday. Having a chat with Mick at the campsite and setting up the tent whilst team support went off for a run up Pen-Y-Ghent and I caught up with team mates in the Norton Wheelers corral.  I didn't stay too long because I didn't want to infect them with the cold I picked up at work the week before.

We tried out our new stove and it worked!  While we would like to think that everyone was jealous at the camp site we were pretty damn warm all evening and I had to keep drinking to make sure I kept hydrated,  since most of my fluids were leaking out through my face and now, sitting next to a glowing steel wood burner, through my pores.

In the morning there was a thick layer of frost on the ground as I made my way to registration we got the stove going but were quickly outdone by the Hope balloon burning liquid hydrogen.

No need to worry about proving my kit at registration as I was registered by Alison Kinloch and we spoke at length of broken thumbs and wired joints and turbo training.  Back outside the tent the Hope balloon started to make it's mark on the frosty field much to the glee of spectators and riders.

I caught up with everyone before the start except my dad who I eventually found on the start line. As we chatted in the morning sunlight,  a heron flew over the head of the course.  The first sense of nature's blessing for what was to become my most enjoyable 3 Peaks experience ever.  I gave my husband a kiss then said see ya later to dad and wasn't to see again for some hours.

For the first time since I remember, I didn't struggle up that first hill out of the lane.  I found myself a strong lady wheel to sit on and stayed there past a few groups until I let her go to do the last few climbs at my own pace.

Off the road I remembered to close my mouth for the farmyard then started picking my way through slower riders and the obligatory bloke on his side at the first sign of limestone paving. I also heard the first mumblings of "oh god,  we're not going up that are we?" A beautiful line of colourful riders snaked up the vivid hillside and for once there was no need to avoid-wet-feet-as-long-as-possible because there were hardly any bogs and to be honest, feet were about to get pretty sweaty. I was also really excited to be able to see what looked like the start of the race, not only because the sky was clear but also because I was doing much better than usual.

It took me a while to get to the steepest part of Simon Fell but that's because by the time I noticed it, I was already half way up it. I tried stopping for a rest when I needed it but just started to peel backwards off the hill so I kept ploughing forwards,  zig zagging across the fell,  avoiding those stopping at the fence for a breather. I was happy to see Fitz at the stile helping with the bike haul over the wall.

I decided not to follow my team mate, Owen Hendrickson over a drop off as I know he's a demon bike handler but settled instead for taking the mick out of team mate, Jo Jebb for crashing in the bog on the long open meander across the flat. And then I noticed the temperature inversion,  filling the valley and Morecambe Bay with silver-white cloud in the morning sunlight. To the right was Whernside,  our next destination, beyond: the Howgills and  straight ahead, the Lakeland fells. I have never seen a day like it on the 3 Peaks. Not the warmest but, that cloud! Owen tried to distract me by saying, "ooh look at that view", but I was having none of it.

I left him to taking his moment and set off for the summit finale (pt 1). For once plenty of riders were around me as I dibbed and started force feeding myself descent-food (yes, that's "descent", not "decent").

I did manage not to drop my bike on my head on the way off the summit this time and also had a good run at the descent. I am sure I heard someone being advised to go slower to avoid falling off as much.  Good advice which seemed to work for them. For me unfortunately,  the tool bag I had hoped to get one more 3 Peaks out of spewed it's contents all over the trail. Thankfully I heard it go and scrabbled to recover as much as I could including compulsory emergency bivi. Unfortunately not including an inner tube which escaped from my attention.  I was relieved to have packed my camelback this year for the first time ever and stuffed everything in there, not my pockets.

5 minutes later I was with Andrew picking up food and drink and getting rid of warm clothes and the buff which I put on at 6am.

Again,  an easier-than-usual road section to Cold Coates. Water refused to flow from my camelback but I could sort it out on the hill.

I waved my annual hello to Ian Small,  cyclocross racing veteran of North West 70's fame and long-standing 3 Peaks rider of days gone by.  He waits in the same layby every year and I look forwards to seeing him on the long and lonely stretch of road.

 I avoided the farm which is now a tea shop (always wanted to stop there). When I was small and so was the 3 Peaks (with around 40 entrants) mum and I would park then walk to the farm to wait for dad. Sometimes I would sit on the wall and cheer.  Sometimes I would huddle in the arched carriage-sized doorway and watch the raindrops drip off the hood of my coat and wish I had normal parents.

Nowadays the race is so big, race support is not permitted in cars and only a few hardy pedestrians walk this way to cheer which makes the drinks station all the more welcome.

I was overjoyed to find team VCUK in residence and be served by Nicki Hartle, Sinead Burke and Neil Hendry. There was talk of jam butties and cake but they were keeping those under wraps.

For the first time ever I was vaguely tempted to ride the next section.  I know the rules so didn't but it gave me a massive confidence boost to know that I couldda.

The bloke next to me complained it was awful. I tried to explain to him that he was experiencing a 1 in 100 year weather event and he should be thankful but he wanted to know how many times I had done this. While he was calling me mad, I decided it was like a bad joke,  if you have to explain it it's not really beautiful anymore... but it was -very beautiful - so I suppose it was like a good joke.

The steps of Whernside,  in contrast to the road,  still hurt and as always,  left me wishing I had done more step aerobics (or just hill reps in general). At least my camelback started flowing again though with a high proportion of air entrained too. The summit path however - joy of joys- had a tailwind.  I was getting blown along so quick I hardly had time to look over the wall. That is an overstatement. I think I was concentrating as I constantly checked if I was in my lowest gear (like I'd be anywhere else).

Chats were limited to a brief interaction at the kissing gate / bike lift and the summit dibbers, their clothing giving away that it still wasn't the warmest day ever, although a female hiker in a vest said, "I can't believe WOMEN are doing this". Though she found it perfectly reasonable when I pointed out our lack of more sensitive areas to be beaten against rocks and an uncomfortable saddle.

The descent started with a warning from a rescuer that a rider was down, just the same place where my friend Beate had dislocated her shoulder 2 years ago. This rider was in the care of mountain rescue and wrapped in a sleeping bag.  I hope he is recovering well. My descent was initially easy going. My cautious approach to the limestone slabs a norm. Enjoying running on the grass where I could. I ran over the rocks at the start of the path where things suddenly stop being steep then started to let my hair down. As I picked up speed and my heart soared at my legs whipping through the reeds still feeling fresh,  I started to sing my usual downhill songs.

Clearly I angered the gods or forgot I was on my cross bike and just as it was too late to remember, I suffered a snakebite puncture for my sins. After 5 minutes of trying to cram my pump onto a stupid short valve stem I tried to repair the puncture but found my glue on its last legs, the hole on top of an existing patch and me on the wrong side of an adrenaline rush.

A friend of a friend offered me help  as did a few others including Jo who had suffered a similar fate, also enjoying herself too much on the downhill. I did help her pump her tyre up though my adrenaline stopped me doing too good a job and actually I should had left her the pump until she caught me up on my long slow hobble down the hill, running the steep and rocky bits and riding on a flat tube on the grass at the edge of the path where I could.

Some rambler ladies who saw me were very impressed and gave me a big cheer which went a long way to cheering me up. Then disaster struck and my cranks locked solid. I could freewheel but I couldn't propel myself.  It was just getting worse.  I found out later that my derailleur had taken a beating and the chain was locking between top gear and the frame but at the time I couldn't see it through all the adrenaline. I didn't have time to calm down!

I was so disappointed.  Things has been going so well and this path is part of the fun of the day.  Fast and dangerous in the dry - choking with dust or skittery and exciting in the wet. Its rollers and river crossings bringing misery or joy depending on your condition and its condition.

Just as I was recalling how far it is to my spare bike, a gentleman in tweed trousers and cotton shirt asked if I needed anything.  His halo appeared in the form of a rubber tube with a 60mm valve stem and he saved me and saved my day. We changed the tube,  he kept mine in exchange ( for what it was worth) and I gave him a kiss,  leaving him to offer flap jack and water to the remaining riders.
Jo had done her bit and Andrew was prepped at the check point with bike pump and tube.

Thankfully the wheel coming out of the frame had put the cranks back in order and I decided to risk sticking with my light bike on the way to Pen Y Ghent. A top up of energy drink and feed and I set off along the penultimate road section.

At this point last year I was walking. The blood thinners caused my body to rush through fuel like I was being chased across the moorland by a cheetah. By the time I reached the viaduct I had been ravenous and suffering incomparable cramps... or comparable only to 1995 when I dnf'd due to eating a bad pastie on my way to a cyclo cross race in Kent 1 week before the race.  Back then, 6 months living in Cambridge trying to establish my career probably didn't help either.

The difference last year was Ironman training which had given me two things: a reserve of endurance which seemed to out-last my illness and the knowledge that it takes a little time for that hastily eaten banana and Cliff bar to make it into the blood stream and while you're waiting you may as well walk.

No such trouble this year as I got going well with a small group of 2 ladies and 2 men. I sat on for a while then,  feeling good for all the places I had lost, did a turn on the front. They all passed me back on the first hill of course but I caught them as we were stopped by the police for recovery of a motorcycle which had crashed on the railway bridge. I apologised to my fellow competitors for getting them embroiled in my unlucky 13th race. They were forgiving since we were only stopped for a few minutes.

One of the men seemed to be doing all of the pacing on the front and checking we were still there. I asked if they knew him or if he was just a really nice man. Turns out he was just leading his wife around but we had a discussion about dads, and upgrading mine as a lead out man. By the time we reached Horton in Ribblesdale I left them to their domestic bliss to get the clear line through the railway bridges descent. Mum was cheering from the roadside as I was trying to persuade the bloke next to me to try the next peak and not just retire at 2. He was adamant though so I left him to his personal misery. You can't coach everyone.

For the first time since it has been of interest to me I passed through the Pen Y Ghent checkpoint with 20 minutes to spare.

The noise was amazing as usual. More so for me being earlier. The second person I saw coming back down the other way was my ex-team mate (now riding for CXMag) and wedding photographer,  Hannah Saville. Shortly followed by my nemesis and only woman to have done more 3 Peaks than me,  Ruth Gamwell. How was she an ENTIRE MOUNTAIN ahead of me? ? It was a brilliant ride. I cheered on Ted from CX Mag and the SheffRec rider I started with 4 hours earlier.  Phil Hinchcliffe passed, all on their way back down to the finish and then ran out of familiar faces and reverted to carefully picking my way over rocks,  finding my usual lines and soaking in the encouragements of spectators while bleating my own few words to strangers passing the other way,
"great ride, well done,  rip it up". As ever,  Norton Wheelers corner was like Dutch corner on Alpe d'Huez just without the beer but with all the Orange and the cheering.  For once I didn't stop to hoover up more food. I seem to have done a great job with food this year.

I finally had a short walk at the steepest rock band on the approach road. I have ridden 7 races faster than this year but have never paced myself so well to arrive at Pen Y Ghent so have never ridden that far up.

I was greeted by Alison Kinloch again, waving and offering me gels, water and anything else I could stomach - well, the gel was a struggle but once I'd got over the shock that it was cappuchino flavoured, not fruity, it did what it was supposed to and got me over that first lump.  From there, I rode through the gate past Chips Chippendale and Beate to enthusiastic shouts, applause and onto the slopes of Pen Y Ghent climb, which shoots upwards abruptly and you're back to walking, but not before I'd put the last of my riding legs into the first steep slope.

There were more descending riders to keep my mind off the plod up the hillside.  It felt slow but not as slow as years gone by.  It also felt progressive and in between wide-eyed people bouncing the other way on their bikes, I was still passing riders who had rolled past me whilst fixing the puncture on Whernside,.

A short-cut up the zig zag path and no need for the sneaky chat that I usually have to have with my legs when they start to cramp up here.  We stepped onto the path, me and Phoenix and had a little ride before the jagged rocks reduced us to walking once again.  That fence at the top of the footpath came too soon for my brain which was having a bloody nice time but it was too slow in coming for my legs who were looking forwards to the downhill rest.

Over the crest of the fence and you can see the top.  The plateau.  It still demands a walk for mere mortals.  Normally I put my coat on here, regardless of conditions, to keep me warm for the descent ahead.  This year, I didn't even have a coat with me.  I did a 180 and started heading back the way I had come, almost.  This time, riding out across the peaty hillsides, bog hopping from time to time but otherwise riding. until you fall off the hillside and onto the path and the rocks reduce you to one last walk before the bottom.  Off the hill, through the zig zags and onto the descent path where you get on as soon as you dare.  Given the steepness and anyone's ability to jump high enough to even reach the saddle above your bum at this point, that can take a while.

I spent most of the descent looking out for my dad on his way up, calling out encouragement to anyone else who would listen and, having found dad and exchanged shouts of "chuffing YES!!!" and "made it!" and other such pleasantries, I just concentrated on getting Phoenix off the hill without another flat tyre.

As I neared the bottom I made a decision to switch to Red, my spare bike, for the finish line just to make sure that Phoenix didn't do anything stupid like fall apart.  Andrew had however left Red in the back of the car and although he was in running distance (yes I made him), I then decided that I didn't want to wait for the wheel to be put in the frame so I just made a dash for it.

As soon as I left the mountain my legs started complaining about having to pedal again.  I can't get through this road stretch without cramp - don't think I ever have.  One woman zipped past me shouting, "At last, time for some real cycling!"  I laughed at her and said, "How did you get in with an attitude like that?"  Thankfully she saw the funny side without being able to see my smiling face as I watched her backside disappear down the road in front of me.

Two roadies pottered past me.  One seemed to be a competitor actually, the other was riding along side him.  I draughted them for a bit but then they dropped me on the first climb as the legs cramped for the first time and I started having a word which ended in something like, "Come the hell on it's only a little bit of road!"

By the second climb it had reduced to a primal scream which really wasn't any good for the cold I was harbouring and resulted in a rather sore throat some hours later but did the trick at getting another few pedal revs over the top of the hill and from there it's pretty much downhill all the way to the finish.

I swept into the finish with no great fanfare.  That feeling of, "you've got this" had been ever present.  I even had time to joke with the finish line marshals (Can I cut your dibber off? Will it hurt?).  I was hoping to go sub-6 hours this year and knew I would be overjoyed with 5:40, without even looking at my historical results.

5:32 hit me with a yelp of joy. Without even stopping to recover my composure (wipe my face) I set off back to the last corner to wait for my dad to come in.

It was a bit of a long wait.  We all knew he was coming, I'd seen him going up and after that point I knew I'd see him down again and over the line - with no more cut off points to meet.  There is generally a rush for the Pen Y Ghent cut off line followed by a group of people on the other side of the marshals drinking pop and eating sandwiches before they embark on the last mountain.  Well there is at our end of the field anyway.

I had the company of Richard Fenn to while away an hour of waiting.  Some of the North West riders stopped in for a chat.  I congratulated Ruth Gamwell on her excellent ride, looking classy with a can of post-race Stella and her children in tow.  Quite frankly, she deserves the comeback award.

John Dowell came in to the finish hand in hand with Liz Orr, his FV50 daughter.  Yes, John Dowell is 80 years old and was riding the race one last time in order to create a new age group record. He finished to respectful applause from the crowd, now assembled for the prize presentation.  But he's only done it 26 times (that's twice as many as me).

Then dad finally graced us with his presence.  After I had a few words with the commentator, dad also finished to respectful applause both from the assembled masses and me as well as a few friends who happened to be passing at the time.

We were dispatched directly to the prize presentation to await prizes that were imminent.  They weren't imminent and having waited for an hour in sweaty clothes, I was looking decidedly dishevelled and dad just wanted to sit down and get the weight off his sore feet (the only bit of his body actually hurting after six and a half hours of racing!).  Neither of us realised it but we had managed to snaffle the second place in the father and daughter prizes and there was much excitement about finally standing on a podium.  (last time we won it we stood in the field).  So that was that, half our entry fee back, just for being related.

There was a real glow to the end of the day.  It took us a good while to empty the tipi and disassemble it - largely because Andrew had to do it on his own as I kept getting distracted by Beate passing and my folks as dad wandered over to swap back the last of our kit and for dad to get his winnings.

The sun was setting on a perfect day when we left.  The farmer was happy because he found £20 in the field. I drove home.  All the way.  I didn't fall asleep at the wheel and even made it out of the car in Settle to get the chips I had been looking forwards to eating for about 3 months.

Next year's target?  Sub 5 hours? Better that my 7th fastest might seem more appropriate.  By then I'll be 42 and if I can improve on a race I've been doing since 21 by half then that would be satisfying.

One thing's for sure, it's time for a new tool bag.

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