Difficult Decisions, easy decisions

End of the season and physically tired, but mentally exhausted. A combination of head “fun and games” and starting medication again left me needing to take things easy, be sensible. I’m not very good at sensible.

No Relentless, no Bearbones 200. I’m disappointed I missed them, but they will wait until next year.

Instead, making the most of the still-booked week off, I decided that I needed my own, personal adventure. No pressure, minimal logistics, just riding for a long time. Time to think, not think, ride quickly when I want to, slow up when I’m ready.

The ride was one that I have been thinking about for almost a year. As it was, it needed less planning than I first thought. I liked the idea of riding from Settle to Carlisle, following the route of the famous railway line as much as possible, as much off-road as I could eek out of the route. Familiar landscapes of the Dales would soften into the flatter landscapes of Westmorland. The opening of the final section of the Pennine Bridleway made route choice from Settle to Kirkby Stephen extremely straightforward. The first 35 miles or so would be almost entirely off-road. Beyond that, it was a case of dot-to-dot linking sections of bridleway in a vaguely NW direction, with the quietest looking roads possible, and maybe hunting out a few road-map chevrons along the way. Bikehike is a brilliant tool for doing this. Simple online route planning, using OS and Google maps, all for free, and it allows you to export a GPX file. Bloody awesome. The route was planned out, and came in at 104 miles. Nicely in the zone of long, but do-able in a day.

Unfortunately, the train service decided to add an interesting “against the clock” slant to the day. The last train out of Carlisle was at 18.18. Unsure of the quality of the going, and keen to avoid an unscheduled stay in a Cumbrian hostelry, I opted for an early start. A very early start. Leaving the house at 3.30am was painful, but I was awake, and excited by the time I parked up next to Settle station. Faffing was kept to a minimum and I rolled through the silent village not long after 4.30am. My USE lights creating a safe pool of light in the increasing dark, as I left the amber glow of street lights behind, I popped a headphone ear in, familiar sounds adding a welcome soundtrack to the early miles. My back wheel span on damp earth and grass, lights having a flattening effect that sadly only applied to my eyes and not my legs. I removed layers quickly, as despite the coldness of the early morning, I generated excess body heat. I remembered the benefit of the bar-mounted GPS early on, as wandering ever-so-slightly off course, my lights didn’t pick up the well signposted gate, that in the daylight would have been impossible to miss. Only a minute or two wasted.

Perfect solitude. I wondered what people in the valley below would think of the two odd spots of light moving gradually across the lower fells. Stereotypically “Yorkshire Dales”, with white drystoned walls and barns. Unfortunately, with walls come gates. Very many gates. Enough at times to really break rhythm. I looked at the clock and decided it was too early to make mental calculations. I felt like progress was too slow though. There was a different feel to the riding for a while. Valley bottom walled singletrack was a welcome and fun relief, despite an “interesting” moment where a combination of a blind corner and excess speed found me on a not-very-wide-actually stone walkway across a cold looking stream. Higher up than I might have wanted; a little closer to one edge than I might have wanted. It was far too cold and dark to get wet just yet. Continue with care.

Black was beginning to fade to inky blue in the east, as I climbed again, Ingleborough directly north of me, just over a week since I was climbing the now innocent looking Simon Fell with a CX bike over my shoulder. I rode over rubbly track, then grass; the local sheep doing a superb job of buzz-cutting it to closely-cropped, easy riding ground. Inky blue was stained orange and yellow, silhouetting Pen-Y-Ghent. It felt colder than it had two hours ago. This was autumn.

 Bombing back down to the B6479 and straight across the other side of the valley, I afforded myself a smile. I was enjoying this, although my head still felt clouded with extraneous thoughts. I couldn’t leave them behind like I normally do.

 My memory of the next section is mainly climbing. Not nose on stem, gritted teeth climbing, but steady height gain, fairly easily won, wandering east away from Ribblehead for a while, before almost doubling back and riding above Dent, just able to spot the viaduct low in the valley. More gates. So many gates. Going was slower than I wanted, and I did start making mental calculations. Average speed, distance covered, distance to cover, 18.18. Hmm. I knew that things would get quicker after Kirkby Stephen, as the gradients eased and the route used progressively more tarmac. But, I would be tired. And what happened if I punctured, or had a mechanical? Keep riding.

 At least the sums kept unwelcome thoughts at bay for a while.

 Puncture. Sealant bubbling. Quick toot of CO2, and back rolling. I don’t have time for this, ah well, keep riding.

 Tyre has deflated again. Stop. Tube in. I don’t have time for this. Back riding, having taken the opportunity to eat. Mental calculations. 18.18. Crap. Time for a decision. I had the option of another 5 miles or so of what looked like more gate purgatory, or a slightly shorter route via back lanes that would spit me out back on course with minimal effort. I didn’t want to leave the blue line on the screen. It wasn’t what I had planned to do. Stubborn. Common sense won over though, and it was pleasant to sit on top of a big gear, feeling the air quickly flowing past my face. There was no more off-road until after Kirkby Stephen. I didn’t actually go all of the way into the village, but turned directly north, into, what was for me unknown territory.

Some bridleways were a pleasure to ride, some were churned up clag-fests through more cowshit than mud. Time was still moving quickly, but I was moving quicker. I didn’t need to clock-watch any longer. But I wanted to ride faster. The scenery was pretty. The weather was good. I didn’t want to be “not riding”, but I wasn’t particularly enjoying riding. It is what it is. Keep riding.

The peril of planning a route entirely using maps, is that if you aren’t paying attention, you may miss significant obstructions on the ground, that your pen (or pixels) skips over without an issue. My track lead me to the River Eden, just south of the A66. My assumed bridge wasn’t there though. The river was a good 20 metres across, and looked like it was probably knee deep water. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It turned out that knee deep was thigh deep, and quite quickly moving thank you very much. Careful foot placement and some strong shuffling saw me on the other side, with a note to self to reroute that section if I ever tried the ride again.

The villages of Westmorland are extremely pretty, with a Dales like feel, but constructed out of local red sandstone, rather than the more familiar limestone and grit of further south. I continued in my own quiet world, uncomfortable with my own company, but relieved to be alone.

I spotted the first sign pointing me to Carlisle. Destination in sight. No sense of “nearly there”, just an acknowledgement that this ride would nearly be over. No fatigue, I had been riding comfortably within myself. I was aware that it had been a long time since I turned my first pedal stroke though. The last miles stretched out. Time became elastic. It wasn’t until the last mile that I actually felt like I was in a major town. Talking to the ticket assistant felt alien. We joked about the mud on my face. I’d just missed the earlier train and had an hour and a half to wait. I didn’t care. I was in no hurry. Coffee and real food bought, I sat quietly. The odd one out in muddy lycra and hastily added layers, while commuters and locals hurried past me. It felt like after a whole day of moving through a static world, the tables had been turned. Now it moved around a static me.

Could I have ridden further? Yes. Could I have raced over the longer distance? Yes. Would I have enjoyed it? Maybe not. Did I have that needling desire to travel as quickly as I could, and the mental strength to see it through to a result I would have been proud of? Unlikely.

 

Yet, a few weeks after the ride, I sit writing about it. I’m already excited about races and adventures next year. I already have the itch to ride quickly again. I will continue to rest and ride purely for fun for a little longer, until I feel the need to start pushing myself harder again. The fact that I’m smiling while writing this says more than anything else. Riding bikes remains part of me.

Here is the route, if you fancy checking it out.

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Racing season hotting up

I have a hectic month of racing ahead of me.

I have 3 races in June. Each of them has their own challenges and will require a different physical and mental approach.

Let’s take them in chronological order, starting with Glentress 7, this Saturday 2 June. It is a pretty straightforward format. Start at 10am, complete as many laps as possible within 7 hours. Most laps/quickest time wins. I came in the top 20 last year, while singlespeeding. Theoretically, I should do better this year. I’m fitter. I have a bike with gears (which should be a real advantage on a course that has a large amount of up and down per lap). I’m more experienced, and feel back into the swing of things as far as racing is concerned.

Weirdly, compared to the last couple of months worth of exertions, a seven hour race feels rather short. I’m under no illusion that this is no sprint, no walk in the park, no other stock expression for “easy”. I want to do well. It will be hard, relatively fast racing. To add to the challenge, I’m working all day Friday, and driving up after work. I will be “solo” in the purest of terms. I’ll be camping, and I don’t have a pit crew. All my bottles will have to be made up (by me) in advance, and I need to make sure my mini pit (luckily there is a solo racer’s tent) is suitably stocked.

I’ll be dropping my bike off with Garage Bikes tomorrow for a quick once over. ‘Arry is beginning to show the signs of well over 1000miles use since February. The lower headset bearing needs replacing, I’ve worn through a set of tyres, and the BB area has developed a familiar creak. Luckily Al knows his business. It makes a huge difference to my self-confidence knowing that I can depend on the bike.

The following weekend, I will be donning my VeloCake jersey, and it will be a new experience for me… I’ll be taking part in a mountain bike race as part of a team. Bristol Bikefest sounds like a great sociable event. I had originally hoped to race solo, but numbers mean it is far more sensible for me to join a team. Another “as many laps as you can” event, this time in 12 hours. It introduces some new challenges for me… going flat out for a lap, then sitting around for a while, then doing it again. Could prove difficult. The team I’m in will be trying hard, but not taking things too seriously. It will be all about just doing our best. I’m looking forward to meeting up with some old friends and turning some “twitter buddies” into real life acquaintances, especially Directeur Sportif Mikey Mullerton.

I then have a week off from racing, and I’ll be taking things (not so) easy with a lap of the Mary Townley Loop with my friend Peter. I’ve done big parts of the loop before, but never linked it all together into a single ride. It may not be the best riding, there may be a million gates, but I still feel the need to get it ticked off. It will also be a great opportunity to catch up with a guy who I don’t get to see very often.

Finally, into the last week of June, and Original Source Mountain Mayhem. An all time classic in the mountain biking calendar… and event that has all but passed me by. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard all the horror stories from the bad weather years. I will have my fingers firmly crossed for a dry weekend. Again, I’ll be competing in a team, with Jenn and Tim, amongst others. Tim is doing rather well in the summer CX and is a bit quick in general, and Jenn is bloody rapid. I don’t want to let the team down, so I’m glad it won’t be my first team racing experience.

I’ve been working on trying to find a bit of speed in my endurance legs… lets see if it pays off this month!

Luxury

One thing that I haven’t need to worry about is my bike for this weekend. The Planet X Dirty Harry is nicely up to the challenge.

Even better, Al at Garage Bikes has given ‘Arry a once over, to make sure he is running sweetly and smoothly. The FSA headset is already on it’s way out. Bit disappointed with that to be honest. It is apparently a £75 unit (it was fitted as part of the full build). I’ve only had the bike since Feb. Admittedly, I’ve done a lot of miles since then, but not that many?

Ah well, here is a photo from Garage Bikes of the fettling in progress.

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Out there

Saturday morning. 6am. Ouch. Dry mouth. Pain behind my eyes. Groggy. Whisky night. A monthly gathering of mates, which starts as a relatively reserved catch up, with food and sampling some of Scotland’s finest single malts. Inevitably it descends into bad jokes, wild plans and “just one more dram”. Brilliant.

I get up. Empty out the cold, damp grinds from the Moka pot and refill with fresh. Listen to the click, click, roar of the gas hob lighting. Carrying enough espresso to wake a heavy-sleeper from a coma, I sit down in the armchair. Look at the new bike, directly opposite me. Look at the smoothness of the satin finish on the carbon. Immaculate. It will never be this clean again. I imagine myself riding. Stretched out, big-ringing along wide bridleways. Powering up climbs, hands on bar-ends (bar-ends! I’ve not had those since the 90s!).

The pre-ride faffing process is longer than normal. It looks very cold out. Most of my bike kit ends up on the bed. Much of it is left there, to be put away when I get home. That Helly Hansen that is so old it has horizontal stripes on the sleeves (none of that “modern” diagonal business) is left. As is the thick softshell that is perfect for sub-zero road rides, but always too warm on the mountain bike. Decisions made, I leave the front door. The car will stay outside the house today. I’m aware that it is very cold. The retained warmth inside my jacket and cap doesn’t take long to begin to fade. I swing a leg over the bike and pedal down the road. I stop after 10metres. Move the seatpost up by a few mm. And set off. The sun is still low in the sky, but is bright. There isn’t a cloud to be seen.

10 minutes later I’m in Leeds city centre. Shit. I’ve left my ipod at home. The ever present company on solo rides. I could go back, but today, I’ll be absolutely by myself. Another 10 minutes later and I have a coffee in my hand and am walking towards the train along a quiet platform.

The journey is broken up by chatting to a guy who is off to Rochdale to collect a van. He’s travelled up from Ipswich this morning. And then two young lads with stunt-scooter things. We compared notes. How much? Is it any good? Can you do wheelies? How long are you going to be out for? How far can you ride? How many bikes have you got? Can I have a go?

We disembark at Hebden Bridge and I pedal up and out, towards Peckett Well. Turning pedals feels great. Warmth creeps through my body, despite cold air filling my lungs. I notice a glossy finish to the stone walls. Literally as though someone had varnished everywhere… ice.

The first descent proves interesting. That’s interesting as in sheet ice and slippery as hell. Slip. Bruised forearm.

I climb Midgehole Rd. Ice. Slip. No crash, but all of a sudden I’m pointing back down the hill. How did that happen? Walk.

I get to Widdop reservoir. Inch thick ice across the top of the dam. The reservoir itself is frozen. I’m using the studs at the front of my SPDs as crampon front-points. Kick, step. Kick, step. Things only get worse as I start to climb out on the Pennine Bridleway. It’s a good job this new bike is light.

None of this matters. I’m in my own world. Absorbing the environment. No thought in my actions, just moving forward. The sky has changed. No longer is it blue. It has the milky nature of an artist’s jam-jar.

Push, push. Straddle bike. Ride. Slip, wiggle snake hips, stay upright. I’m absolutely aware of every miniscule change in gradient across the trail. I drift to the lowest point as tyres slide down, like a bowling ball dropping into the gully at the side of the lane. Slip, wiggle snake hips, stay upright. SLAM. Bruised hip. Up. Slip, wiggle snake hips, stay upright. SLAM. Bruised palm.

Discretion is the better part of valor, I think is the saying. Time to head home. More slipping, more tumbles. Then a road descent to chill me to my core. The waiting room at Hebden Bridge station warms me, and I share tales with a group of pensioners who were equally enthused by their epic day out on the icy hills. “We slid down the steps on our bottoms!”

I do like being out there.