Date: Sunday 14th June, 2015
Distance: 93.2km | Elevation: 962m
Start kms: 3,717.7km | Finish kms: 3,810.9 | % complete: 38.1%
In an age where everyone’s looking for a new challenge to add to their list and people place increasing levels of importance on experience, races (be they bike-based, running-oriented, obstacle-laden or some combination of all 3 and more) feel as though they have never been more popular.
As a result, it’s often difficult to find one that isn’t over-subscribed, over-priced or sponsored to within an inch of its life.
No tags, no numbers, no timing chips, no sign posts — for your £11.00 entry fee, you were sent a paper copy of the step-by-step directions for the course and had access to a Mr. Kipling cake and a cup of tea at each of your three rest stops.
That was it.
No Powerbars or energy gels in sight, and if you wanted a sandwich, you’d need to make sure you’d packed the extra change.
After an evening of rain, we awoke to a dry and sunny morning. Porridge down, jersey pockets stuffed with tools and inner-tubes and bikes racked on the back of the car, we were on the start line for 08.00.
It was there that I realised I had left my Garmin on the bedroom floor. It was time to fall back onto my iPhone and Strava.
But there was a problem. I had next to no phone signal and, despite my best efforts to record, the app insisted on auto-pausing every 10 seconds. I spent the first 10km (and the first climb of the day) angrily thumping my screen, willing it to work.
I realise all this technology-reliance flies in the spirit of the events off the grid approach, but with 10,000km to cover this year I very much subscribe to the Strava Prove It and Strava Or It Didn’t Happen credos. Sadly, with Strava’s signal dropping in and out, that was difficult to do.
I’ll leave it there and concentrate on the ride itself after making one last point: my stats fell around 15km short and, somewhere in the hills of Shropshire, I lost 400m of climbing.
I will claw them back.
Having carried out numerous breathing exercises, I was able to restore my inner-calm and begin appreciating the unbelievable scenery being showcased at the top of the numerous climbs of the course.
Sadly, I don’t know the actual name of one particular highlight, but as a local, Luke was able to tell me its moniker: Top of the World. At the top of this climb was some of the most exciting and unusual riding I’ve been able to experience this year. Surrounded by valleys and hills, the road before you morphs from compressed tarmac to loose gravel soon after reaching its top. Whilst the probability of experiencing at least one puncture increases exponentially, so too do the number of sheep and cows freely roaming the green grasses either side of our route.
Eventually, the tranquility gives way to cattle grates (never a pleasant experience on the posterior or the forearms) and an incredibly hairy downhill section.
Those were two of the major risks we were facing on the challenge: high likelihood of punctures on messy roads following heavy rain the day before and steep descents on unknown roads.
The latter is always a recipe for potential disaster as confidence and excitement fuse to become arrogance and you find yourself misjudging the sharpness of the corner, the surface or the road or amount of oncoming traffic waiting for you on the other side.
It’s never worth it and thankfully we didn’t fall prey to either.
A risk I had not factored in, however, was wildlife and — more specifically — insects. Somewhere between our short jaunt over the Welsh borders and back into England, an incredibly acrobatic wasp was able to work it’s way up, over and into my not-exactly-baggy lycra jersey. Feeling it buzzing away somewhere down near my left love-handle, I clawed at my jersey to waft my uninvited passenger back out into the world.
It seemed to work. The buzzing subsided and I was able to focus on the next 5 miles to the final rest stop. Dismounting for my third instalment of the Mr. Kipling range (Viennese Whirl this time round, if you’re asking), the vibrations of wasp ricocheting between skin and lycra began again in earnest. Before I was able to panic-strip and indecently expose myself to a community hall filled with people, it had gone in for the kill and stung me.
I watched as it half-heartedly flew towards a window, already on its last legs.
On the subject of last legs, the last leg of the challenge brought with it the most challenging hill of the day. As a general rule, the last hill is always the most difficult regardless of gradient or categorisation purely because your legs are already storing everything from the kilometres that have come before it.
Anything left should and will be left on that final upward stretch.
In this case, I’m confident that this climb would have been considered the hardest of the day regardless of where it was placed. If you’re unwilling to take my word for it, I hope the name will convince you: Goat Hill.
I do not know the etymology of the name, but having ridden up it I can take an educated as to how it came to be. Quickly running out of gears, any hopes of standing out of the saddle for a little more power were quickly stymied, with my back wheel beginning to spin freely as it lost traction with the road.
Luke, borrowing his Dad’s bike for the ride, had forgone cleats for trainers and stirrup pedals. To have powered through on that set-up was impressive, especially as I watched more than one rider lose grip, then momentum and finally their balance on the sharper, steeper bends, forcing them to walk the remainder.
The Mr. Kipling range sampled, hills conquered, two countries covered (just, but a border crossing is a border crossing — just Ireland left to go now) and rain, crashes and punctures avoided, we were greeted beneath Ludlow Castle with a medal and the promise of lasagne at the end of our short drive home.
Oh and by the way, learn from Luke’s mistake: you won’t want to bring the extra change for that sandwich. They’re not so good.