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Ride Guide: Mary Townley Loop

widdopA challenging 47 mile “loophole” in the Pennine Bridleway of the South Pennines, which like Everest demands to be tackled “because it’s there!”

The Mary Townley Loop is named after the horse-rider who campaigned for both the Pennine Bridleway and the loop which now bears her name. The Pennine Bridleway runs roughly parallel to the famous Pennine Way footpath, whilst the Mary Townley Loop describes a rough circle to the West of the linear routes in the border country between Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The Loop is approximately contained by the textile towns of Rochdale, Halifax and Burnley, but although close to the huge conurbations of Manchester, Bradford and Leeds, not to mention numerous towns and villages in this cradle of the industrial revolution, much of it crosses remote peat moorland at and above the 300 metre contour and it requires both navigational expertise and a degree of technical riding ability.

It’s a fairly logical route, but although well way-marked, with distinctive pale blue on wood signposts, it’s occasionally convoluted and carrying a good map of the area is recommended. And pay attention, a couple of the classic navigational traps on the route lead you down long descents in totally the wrong direction – beware and take your time when route picking!
When to Ride the Loop

It’s a genuine all-year route in terms of its ride-ability under-wheel. There are muddy sections, but nothing which could stop heavy winter tyres. However, the altitude it often reaches and the remoteness of much of the moorland means that you have to take notice of the weather and make all the usual precautions in terms of clothing, equipment, food, drink and letting people know where you’re planning to ride. There’s an annual challenge ride round the full loop run by Rossendale Harriers

How Long Will it Take?

Well, it’s been done in just over 4 hours and a fit rider can get round in 6 to 7 hours in the summer. The classic challenge is to do it in one day, however slower riders and those tackling it in winter probably need to consider breaking the route up into sections over a weekend. There are lots of road or canal path options for cutting off corners and turning halves or even thirds of the ride into mini-versions of the loop.

What Type of Bike?

There’s probably no stronger case for full suspension than the Mary Townley Loop. Although mostly well drained and in places it has been smoothed and graded extensively, its overriding quality is its unrelenting roughness.

Food, Drink, Bike Shops etc

Food, drink and accommodation are available in most of the many villages, hamlets and towns on the route. However, strangely, the route almost completely bypasses all of them, so plan to make a short detour if you want to break your ride. There are bike shops in Rawtenstall/Waterfoot, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden and Broadley.

For more info on the ride, including accommodation and other service listings, visit the http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk website or refer to the excellent leaflet and map on the Loop published by the Countryside Agency.

How to Get There

If you want to avoid using a car, the obvious alternative is to use the rail line through the Calder Valley, which connects Leeds and Manchester. The stations at Littleborough, Todmorden and Hebden Bridge are all within a couple of miles of the route and make ideal starting points.

Highlights

widdop3So, what’s so special about this route? Well, the sheer range of panoramas alone makes the ride worth tackling: the views from the beautiful moorland above Widdop Reservoir really stand out for me. But as well, there’s the way it utilises and stitches together a huge variety of old tracks of varied heritage/packhorse tracks, farm, reservoir and quarry roads and ancient routes across barren moorland, and sets them against a backdrop of the post-industrial landscapes of the South Pennines; the traffic free quality of the route, even the few road sections; the way the route stays away from civilisation.

Some have criticised it as lacking technical bite and it’s true that much of the bridleway used has been sanitised. However, the local climate ensures that it’s never predictable. Happily, it’s already showing signs of “weathering” nicely and given its length and general roughness, the mix is pretty much spot-on!

Route Guide

Traditionally ridden in a clockwise direction, many people start the Loop in Waterfoot near Rawtenstall and that’s how we’ll work our way round, though you can of course start anywhere and ride in either direction. The route crosses five distinct tracts of moorland, divided by deep, steep-sided valleys.

Part 1 – Waterfoot to Cliviger (6 miles)

This is a good warm-up for the route, if you’re trying to do it in one day. A steady climb, it gradually works you onto to heights of Deerplay Moor, allowing you to warm up on some attractive tracks and singletrack, much of it embraced by stone walls. This is one of the muddier sections in wet weather, but like the majority of the route, it’s only very rarely unrideable.

After the route crosses the A671, the first serious downhill looms, dropping you into the spectacular Cliviger Gorge, which is rightly famous for its spectacular glacier cut profile and hanging walls. Despite this, the descent is actually pretty friendly and ridden with care is not in the least technical. It finally spits you out under the railway and down to the A646.

Part 2 – Cliviger to Callis Bridge (16 miles)

widdop2A monster section of spectacular and in places stunningly beautiful moorland, almost all of it above 300m and much of it significantly higher. It starts with a slogging climb up grassy tracks, including a few sapping sections of open pasture. Eventually it reaches a high moorland road, which links Burnley and Hebden Bridge, with one of the country’s original windfarms to your right.

It’s then onto a lengthy and undulating run through a landscape former by two contrasting industries: it begins with some rough but fun singletrack through a virtual moonscape of lime mining spoil heaps and exposed rock; before the theme changes to the grander tracks alongside a couple of the beautifully engineered reservoirs which dot this area.

Having passed Hurstwood Reservoir, you find yourself on a wide track which heads onward and upward on a consistently Eastward bearing. It’s a tough slog and always rough enough to prevent you developing a rhythm, without distracting you with any outstanding challenges. The track finally tops out and there’s a nice stretch over the high plateau above the twin Gorple reservoirs.

The surrounding moorland here is wild, relatively unspoilt and very beautiful. Come at the right time of year and the call of the curlew will mingle with the gusting wind, a suitably untamed sound for one of the route’s real highlight sections.
After topping out at a distinctive collection of stones, there’s a fine descent to the shores of Widdop reservoir. Again, it’s not too technical, but it’s tricky to ride well at speed, with its loose corners and occasionally rocky surface.

After crossing the parapet of the dam, a brief run down a minor road takes you to a deviation to the right and onto a concrete reservoir road. After another parapet – this time of the lower Gorple Reservoir – you veer right again through a distinctive iron gate and up over Heptonstall Moor.

The following 3-4 miles are arguably the hardest to navigate of all, with several changes of direction as the route works its way across a couple of small valleys, so keep your wits about you. There’s one particular turning, just after you leave a brief section of road at Jack Bridge, which catches out many. As you turn off the road by the New Delight Inn, be prepared to look out for a poorly marked turn sharp right. Miss it and you’ll end up a couple of miles off course, in Hebden Bridge, albeit by a very enjoyable downhill section.

Get it right and you’re faced with a couple of hundred yards of very steep, but grippy climbing before you arrive in the amlet of Blackshawhead. A quick left onto the road and then right again back off road puts you at the top of one of the most technically challenging sections of the route. The drop into Callis Wood, in the bottom of the Calder Valley, begins innoucuously on farm tracks, but suddenly narrows into classic packhorse track and singletrack.

It’s a steep switchback, well drained but rocky and loose surfaced. There are numerous steps down, patches of exposed rock and the gradient is consistently steep. It’s challenging as a descent for all but the most experienced. Ride it in the other direction and it makes a killer climb, verging on the impossible……but some have ridden it, so there’s a challenge for the technically gifted and fit.

Callis Bridge is a relief in more ways than one, marking the end of the descent, the end of a very long, sustained moorland crossing and also marking the mid-point of the ride.

Part 3 – Callis Bridge to Bottomley (7 miles)

Callis Bridge is a spectacular crossing point, with A-Road (A646), Rochdale Canal, River Calder and Railway Line all coming together in a narrow valley bottom – you cross over or under all four inside a minute!

Climbing is back on the agenda as you make your way up a zig-zag climb before emerging above the tree line, in the shadow of the Stoodley Pike monument (built to commemorate various 19th century wars). The climb eventually slackens off and via some attractive new singletrack and narrow old packhorse tracks, you eventually reach the grandly named London Road, a broad, rough and old track running under the monument and into the hamlet of Mankinholes.

There’s more tricky navigation here as you pass between Mankinholes and nearby Lumbutts, before climbing away from both for about a mile on the road. Then it’s back onto rough tracks and a great two to three miles along the very edge of the moorland, high above the town of Todmorden. This is a favourite section of mine, fairly technical, narrow, dry in all weather and with an uncontrived feel to it. A series of narrow cobbles climbs and descents follows, taking you down to the valley bottom again at Bottomley, where you cross the canal again and then the A6033.

Part 4 – Bottomley to Broadley (10 miles)

mt1This is a varied and enjoyable section, mixing a variety of going, including reservoir service roads, cobbles, farm tracks and moorland singletrack as it skirts to the North of the large Watergrove reservoir. However, before you tackle the undulations and folds of this large are of moorland edge, there’s the most challenging climb of the clockwise route to tackle.

It comes straight after crossing the A6033. A track works its way up a very steep hillside, doubling back on itself occasionally. Not particularly rough, it defeats most riders with sheer gradient, which renders the occasional technical corner extremely challenging as you try to balance exertion against forward motion.

Overall, this is section which requires some attention to navigation. It’s east to miss a couple of significant turnings and end up in nearby Littleborough. Get it right and you’ll enjoy the variety, even the slightly surreal section which skirts Whitworth Golf Club, before dropping down to the A671 at Broadley.

Part 5 – Broadley to Waterfoot (8 miles)

After crossing the road at Broadley there’s a brief back and forth section of new paths which finally resolves itself with an atmospheric mile or so of old cobbled and brick surfaced farm and reservoir tracks. This no-man’s land finally gives way to broad, rough old moorland roads and an abrupt right turn onto the infamous Rooley Moor Road.

This is an old route which served moortop stone quarries and at some point in the past must have been cobbled over its not inconsiderable length and width. However, the cobbled sections are now few and far between, and the surface of the road is rough, gravely, though well drained. The challenge is the sheer length and monotony of this section, which climbs for several very exposed miles. It’s never steep, but if this is near the end of your ride and you’re tired, it’s a killer. It’s uncompromising in every way and at the mercy of the weather. On a hardtail it can be torture.

Finally, the road crests the hill and there’s a long flat section as it winds in and out of the numerous disused quarries above Waterfoot and Bacup. Eventually, the road splits, and soon after taking the left fork you find yourself at the top of the final plunge into Waterfoot. This is a fun descent, technical in places and steep. I’ve never climbed it, but it must surely rival the Callis Bridge climb for difficulty if you’re doing the route anticlockwise

And so the route wraps up in Waterfoot, your starting point 47 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing earlier. If you’ve done it in one day, congratulations. But whatever your personal goals, it’s great notch on your cycling bedpost – give it a try!

Further Information: http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/PennineBridleway/

Mountain Bike Orienteering – This is where is starts to get difficult!

THIS IS WHERE IT STARTS TO GET DIFFICULT!

Four months after my first Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) event, the time has come to review my progress to date and share a few of the key things I’ve learnt in a short period which has encompassed 9 events.

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MAP READING & NAVIGATION

MTBO has definitely sharpened up my map reading. Almost by definition, you are always trying to find a spot on a map, namely a control. Find one and you’re straight on to the next. There is a constant need to know exactly where you are, tracing every curve in the road, every junction and every wood, river and building.

In many ways this is a very different technique to map reading whilst walking or cycling, which generally involves infrequent references to the map, usually whilst stationary.

In MTBO, every second spent stationary is a second less of riding time, so it soon became clear to me that I would have to learn how to navigate on the move. Experienced riders I spoke to told me to sort a decent map-board and reinforced the need to develop the ability to map-read and plan on the way.

I also started using the Strava App, which tracks your route via mobile device GPS and then pops it on a website for later analysis. Strava has provided me with detailed mapping, route and pace analysis. However, it’s actually a simple stat called “moving time” that actually revealed the most. If you start and stop the app promptly before and after your ride, the difference between the full elapsed time of the ride and the “moving time”, (i.e. the time you are in motion), gives a good guide to the amount of time you actually “waste” during an event.

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Above: Strava’s post-ride readout gives lots of info

Of course, with controls to visit, gates to open and close – not to mention the occasional call of nature and random traffic lights – there will be some stationary moments in every MTBO competition ride. But as I’ve got slicker and more polished, I’ve managed to reduce it to as little as 2-3 minutes per hour of riding.

Returning to the actual process of map reading, the priority is doing it effectively and accurately whilst actually moving. This is obviously easier said than done, but I’ve gradually evolved a system which basically sees me doing the majority of my map reading whilst going uphill, on road.

Descending and riding off road whilst map reading are currently outside my capabilities and I would suggest are generally unnecessary (not to mention unwise) if you take full advantage of better opportunities to catch a brief glance at the map.

It has struck me that MTBO map reading has more similarities with following the instructions of a satnav system, than with traditional map reading. As with the satnav, MTBO map reading is based on a steady stream of information about the route ahead, with long-term planning and detailed monitoring of the current location seamlessly intertwining. Instead of the satnav’s vocalisations, you have the internal instructions as your brain analyses the map and plans accordingly.

My point is that the information comes to you in a linear stream, rather than the occasional information-rich chunks you get with traditional stop-start map reading. And, as with all the best satnavs, when it’s working well, you’re always aware of what’s just ahead and nothing catches you by surprise. Well, that’s the theory, anyway!

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TECHNIQUE

Here’s an area where I can certainly improve. It’s all well and good knowing where you are and where you are heading. But, if you are not making the best possible speed through the landscape, you are not going to fulfil your individual potential.

Two key examples have caused me problems, in particular. Firstly, the actual visit to a control and secondly my passage through gates.

In theory the visit to any control is simple once you have found it. It’s just a case of dib-in and get on your way. But, in practice, it’s all too easy to waste time. For example, by stopping a bit too short of a control, forcing you to improvise, scooting the last few yards, or dismounting in a tangle of bike, legs and arms just to reach the box.

Equally, it’s easy to forget which direction the next control is in and whether you are going to be riding uphill or down once you are underway again. Precious seconds are burned as you clumsily turn your bike and then struggle to engage a suitable gear, perhaps even having to dismount and run if the gradient is too steep.

You must plan ahead and tackle each control accordingly. Work out which way you need to be facing to begin the ride to the next control. So, make sure you stop at each control pointing in the best direction to make a swift getaway. Check that you have engaged a low gear, too. This will enable you to make a swift acceleration, whatever the gradient. As you roll up to a control, make a careful assessment of where the SPORTident box is and decide if you need to dismount to reach it. Again, look to align you bike ready for off.

I’ve rolled up to a control full of the excitement of having found it, only to stall just out of reach of the box. Having failed to “leg” my bike closer, I’ve then wasted valuable seconds putting the bike down, walking to the box, dibbing and then returning, re-mounting and setting off again.

In most cases, it’s possible to roll right up to a control, dib-in, and be underway, in the right direction, in one seamless movement. Make a mess of it and you may only lose 15 seconds, but multiply that by thirty controls and suddenly you have a total loss of over seven minutes. That’s enough time to ride a couple of miles and perhaps visit another control or two. Given that I’ve already missed out on at least two wins by a margin of less than five minutes or ten points and you’ll see how crucial technique really can be.

Gates offer similar time-wasting opportunities. I’m currently favouring dismounting at all gates that are shut on a latch. This allows me to tackle the gate unfettered by my bike. Despite moves in the right direction in recent years, there is still a bewildering array of different gate fastening methods and only a few of them move as easily on their hinges as they should. Again, assessing where the gate’s latch is, how it works and which way the gate will open as you approach will allow you to position your bike and body in the best possible place to make swift passage and getaway.

Add together visits to controls and passage through a number of gates and you have the potential to save ten minutes or more over a three hour event, which is a big margin and one which you would probably struggle to make up for by improving your fitness, for example.

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FITNESS

It’s fairly obvious you need to be physically well prepared for MTBO events. I’ve ridden and raced off-road for many years and one of the things that attracted me to MTBO was the way that high levels of physical fitness are not nearly as critical as they are in pure racing disciplines.

However, to succeed, it’s clear you still have to be able to maintain a decent pace for three hours or more. Three hour events have seen me regularly topping thirty miles of riding and 3,000 feet of climbing. So, we’re not talking about a stroll in the park.

Interestingly, I’ve found that as my other MTBO skills have improved, the pressure on my fitness has increased, not lessened. As I blundered about during my first couple of events, stopping regularly to check the map, my body was able to take regular breathers.

But, now that down-time is gradually being eliminated and my map reading and general navigational skills have improved, I’m able to travel faster for longer and I’m finishing events with not a lot left in the tank. Happily, my previously mentioned experience in racing means I’m fairly good at metering out my energies over whatever timescale the event is being run under.

Having said that, I have been aware of how physical fatigue has a connected effect on my mental state. Push your body hard and your mind will similarly find itself prone to tiredness. And this leads me neatly to the area of MTBO I find most difficult: mid-event decision making.

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DECISION MAKING

MTBO is clearly as heavily reliant on mental skills as it is on physical fitness and strength. Add to this the concentration needed to ride over constantly varying and probably unfamiliar terrain, plus handling all the gate-opening, control-visiting and other myriad calls upon your mental resources and you’ll see that this sport is played out as much in the mind as in the body.

During recent events I’ve noticed a couple of pressure points, where the mental requirements of the sport tend to peak: firstly the first 15 minutes or so and secondly sometime around about the mid-point of the event.

The tense few minutes when you make your initial route plans and more specifically identify the first couple of controls you will visit, naturally provide a spike of anxiety and stress. Adrenaline is running too and so it’s important to begin your ride with your thoughts fully collected.

Generally, event organisers allow you a couple of minutes to preview the map before you have to “dib-in” at the start control. From then on you are riding and navigating against the clock. I’ve found that in those couple of minutes, the most important task is to identify the first control you will visit and the route to it. With that logged in your mind, you give yourself breathing space with which to start planning further ahead, whilst settling the nerves.

Critically, at this point you also need to make a rough assessment as to whether you think you can get around all the controls within the time limit. If you think you can reach all the controls, the aim is to plot the quickest possible route around them all.

However, in many events you soon realise that a complete set is out of reach and the focus of your planning becomes visiting as many of the high value controls as possible.

I’ve been advised by one experienced rider to make myself a piece of string which is equal to the scale distance I can travel in the duration of an event. Using this in conjunction with the map, he maintains you can rapidly and reliably decide whether or not you can do a clean sweep or whether you have to concentrate on a compromise route, aiming for the best score available in the time. It’s an interesting suggestion and one that I am considering.

Against that advice, terrain and weather conditions can radically effect how far you travel within a set time, so the string method can only be a guide at best.

My experiences in recent 3-hour events illustrate this issue nicely. In both cases, I set off confident that I would get round all the controls, only to find mid-event that this was not going to be possible. In both cases, the delay in my realising this cost me dearly as I visited a number of low value controls that, with hindsight, I should have ignored.

This is the area of MTBO where I feel exposed by my lack of experience. The ability to rapidly assess a map and the related ability to make a mid-event decision to change strategy are both real weaknesses. Experience will doubtless help, but I’m a bit of a control freak and generally want to find instant solutions.

For now, I plan to combine the “piece of string” method, with better time awareness.

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CONCLUSIONS

For me, the fascination of the sport of MTBO lies in the sheer range of skills you need to deploy to achieve success. In an earlier piece I wrote about an evening sprint event, I likened it to a round of golf, where you are looking to minimise errors and where one bad “hole” can spoil an otherwise excellent performance.

In a recent event I failed to find a control after reaching its apparent location. Wrongly assuming I’d made a mistake, I wandered a couple of hundred yards up the road before returning to find the control exactly where it should have been. At home, afterwards, using Strava I was able to pin down how long I wasted. I was almost exactly 3 minutes. Guess what? When the results came out, that just happened to be exactly the time gap between myself and the winner.

But, as well as minimising errors, you also need to be positive and proactive. Just as the golfer must not be consumed by caution, but must hit long and hard where necessary, in MTBO you need to ally quick and effective decision making to energetic yet controlled riding.

Like all the best sports, it’s not just about winning, either. It’s also about doing the best you can within your own limitations. And it’s about building the skills that reduce those limitations to the minimum. Bring together fitness and skill and add in clear thinking and decision making and you’re in with half a chance of doing well.

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Mountain Bike Orienteering

Phil Ingham tries his hand at an evening mountain bike orienteering event and finds himself caught in a winter storm.

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Well, it wasn’t the start I’d been looking for! Foolishly trying to read the map by the light of my head-torch, whilst descending an unlit bridleway, I found myself projected in a gentle arc over the bars and towards a water-filled ditch. As luck would have it, I was still zonked from the hurried drive from work to the event and, in my semi-catatonic state I didn’t tense up as the accident unfolded: instead, I somehow looped my legs over the bars, over the map holder and over the now stationary front wheel and landed pretty much upright. My boots were muddied but otherwise I was unscathed.

If nothing else the incident woke me up and a dart of adrenaline ran round my body, energising my previously sluggish limbs. I wrestled my bike from the mud – it was buried up to the front axle – and five minutes late I’d “dibbed” in at the first control and was slogging back up the track to the road.

Mountain Bike Orienteering is the two-wheeled equivalent of the more familiar “on-foot” version of the sport. The principles are the same: armed with a map, you have to navigate around a series of marked “controls”. The aim is to visit as many as possible and arrive back at the event HQ within a set time limit.

In some events it is possible to visit all the controls within that time period, in which case the rider with the fastest time wins. In others, where collecting a full set is not possible, you have to pick and choose which you visit. Each control is allocated a points score and as a rule, the further from the event HQ a control is located, the more points it is worth. The most remote controls are worth twenty-five or thirty points, compared to a little as five for a control near the start. Strategy comes into play as you try to target a big score but still get back without incurring time penalties, initially just a point a minute, but rapidly becoming more severe if you are over 10 minutes late.

Putting my “it could have been a lot worse” crash behind me and having picked up my first points of the event, I was up and running and the next two controls, came and went in quick succession. Three down, seventeen more to go!

Ahead of me now lay the first big terrain challenge of the night. By the light of my head-torch I could see from the map, spread on a small board mounted on my handlebars, that the road leading to the next control was crossed by a number of closely spaced contour lines. A hill-shaped black shadow reared up ahead of me, telling me this was a climb, not a descent. Overhead a faint orange glow from the distant streetlamps of Huddersfield under-lit the low clouds which scudded by, driven by a brisk wind.

I flashed my head-torch from side to side as I neared the point where the next control was located. The map showed a red ring just before the summit of the hill. Each control is marked by a small red ring and the control is supposed to be located at the dead-centre of the ring.

Each control consists of a battery powered SPORTident dibber box, about the size of a cigarette packet, into which you insert a wristband-mounted “dibber” which records your visit. In night events, there is also a small reflector next to the box, to help you locate it. Sure enough, ahead and slightly to the right a small bead of reflected light caught my eye.

After a quick glance behind to check for traffic I scooted across the road, pulled up at the foot of a footpath “fingerpost”, located the box, fastened by cable to the post, and rapidly inserted my dibber. A distinct beep indicated that my visit had been recorded and I was immediately underway again.

I’d already made a quick assessment of my route to the following control so, as I accelerated into the darkness and settled into a rhythm again, I began to make frequent glances at the map to check its exact location.

Map reading is perhaps the single most critical skill of the sport. You are presented with your map just two minutes before you start, so it’s impossible to take in and memorise all the control locations there and then. I tend to try to get a general overview of the distribution of the control points and come up with an outline plan of action, before identifying the first two or three controls I’ll visit.

The two minutes flies by and from the moment you “dib-in” at the start – a control box located at the start which records your departure time – you are left with no alternative but to navigate on the hoof. I find that my route generally evolves from there onwards. Apparently some top riders can plan their entire route in that short space of time before the start, but not blessed with a photographic memory, it’s an ongoing process for me.

Another feature of the start is the absence of the melee that accompanies the opening moments of most bike races. In orienteering events you usually have the freedom to register and start anytime within a window of an hour or even two. This means you can set off when you are ready, which is a very pleasant change from the nervy count-down to a traditional race start.

Meanwhile, back to the action, and cresting the unlit road over the hill, the sky was suddenly lit by a huge flash of lightening. Etched onto my retina was a vivid image of wet road, dry-stone walls, dripping telegraph poles, fringes of snow on the verges and, towering massively overhead, the concrete tower of the Emley Moor TV transmitter. Seconds later another flash was accompanied by a crash of thunder, then came another and it dawned on me that the transmitter was acting as a focus for the storm’s electronic energies.

That was a relief as the rain and sleet notched up a level and the spray ran down the frame and forks of my bike. I didn’t fancy ending the evening as a lightening rod and though that thought made me a little uneasy, I put it out of my mind and returned to the task in hand.

I was now approaching a three way road junction, with a control located perhaps half a kilometre down each road. The next nearest control was then perhaps a further kilometre away down the left-most road of the three. I targeted the control down the right-hand road, which I reached inside a minute, finding it on a fence post at the side of a small car-park.

I quickly re-traced my route to the junction and repeated the process going to and from the second control before heading down the third road, picking up my seventh checkpoint – fastened around a telegraph pole beside a remote farm this time – and riding on toward my eighth. I was almost half way through the controls and I’d been riding for 45 minutes.

From there I was heading off in a fresh direction. My initial thrust had taken me virtually straight North, but from then on I was describing a rough semi-circle heading clockwise. The wind was increasingly unpredictable, whipping around the small hilltops that characterise this area of West Yorkshire, nipping along the valleys, before breaking like invisible waves over roadside walls and from behind buildings. It was cold too, but the effort of climbing and battling the wind was keeping me warm.

With a thin, slushy layer of snow decorating the road surface and lightening still shooting its random stills onto my retinas, I was glad that there was virtually no traffic about to add a further complication to my choppy progress through the elements.

Orienteering course planners are a fiendish bunch. They place their controls with the aim of disrupting your natural progress across the landscape. They force you to make difficult judgments and often sacrificial decisions: if I go for that remote, outlying control will I have time to get back and reach the finish? Do I drop down that steep hill to pick up that control now, or do I pick it up later when I’ve crossed and re-crossed that ridge ahead? Do I try to maintain height and take the road route, or do I take the shorter but hillier cross-country option down that potentially muddy bridleway?

All this has to be computed as you ride, change gear, clock-watch, drink and eat and monitor your overall progress. It’s multi-tasking on a grand scale: physical and mental demands coming at you thick and fast. It’s all too easy to lose track of time or overshoot a control whilst thinking about something else, like your burning lungs, or that slippery surface that’s threatening to whisk your wheels from under you.

Knowing exactly where you are at any given moment is central to maintaining an inner calm. The moment you realise you are lost is the cue for panic. I’ve even gone as far as counting walls and gateways as I work my way along a pitch-black bridleway looking for a control. Half a mile of nothing but monotonous walls and fields on either side can make it terribly difficult to identify the exact location of a control wrapped around the trunk of a small tree. But, to get it right, and find it exactly when and where you expect to, is deeply satisfying.

Mid way through the evening I was faced with one of the classic decision-making moments that define orienteering. There was a single control some four kilometres away from any of the others, on the extreme edge of the event area defined on the map. It was worth only five points. With the wind still battering me and rain and snow alternating with occasional clear spells in which the moon shone down from a sliding window in the clouds, it was all too tempting to ignore it and hope that all my rivals would do likewise. But, what if they didn’t? “Sod it” I thought, “in for a penny, in for a pound!”

So, I turned southwards and committed myself to finding that five-pointer, out there in the darkness somewhere. This is the time when your thoughts can wander. I briefly nodded off and it took several minutes to re-locate exactly where I was and moments later I came upon the isolated control. I’d been seconds from riding right past it and, more importantly, straight down a hill that would have made re-tracing my steps doubly painful. Relieved, I motored on, another fifteen minutes passing as I battled with the gradient and elements – both of which were now set against me.

A couple more controls, one down a dead end path, another by the roadside, left me only a three of four kilometres from the finish with five controls packed around the centre of another small village still to find. A quick check of the watch gave me 20 minutes and I reckoned I was on for a full house and well within the two hours.

But panic lurks behind every wall, at every road junction and after each control. Occasionally even the best organisers misplace the location of a control on the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps they use. My penultimate control was marked at the bottom of a small side-road in the village centre. But it was nowhere to be seen when I arrived.

Organisers provide riders with one other aid to finding the controls: as well as the map, they give you a small sheet with written descriptions of the controls’ locations. In this instance, it read “telegraph pole in front of gym.”

I retraced my wheel-marks to make sure I was on the correct road and then set off again along it in search of the elusive control. The road ramped up steeply and my by now aching limbs sent messages of mild distress to my brain, which was indeed close to panic. In truth I’d had a pretty good run so far. Was I about to have my hopes of a perfect score dashed by a control I simply could not locate?

Suddenly, a single-storey building emerged on my right, and a wave of relief swamped me as I noted the “gym” sign on the wall. And the control was there, on a telegraph pole. A quick dip of the dibber, a beep and I was on my way again.

The final control was a routine find, on a lamppost a few hundred yards from the finish. Seconds later I dibbed a final time at the “finish” control outside the event HQ, a welcoming looking pub, and I was finally able to relax.

The first priority was to change out of my soaked riding kit and then to stow away my bike. Then it was into the pub to hand in my dibber to the organisers, who use a special interrogator to download the contents and print off an instant score-sheet for my ride.

Other riders and runners (some organisers run mixed events) awaited me in the pub and over the next hour or so the remaining competitors came thought the door. All were grinning, despite the cold and wet. Stories were exchanged, tales of success and failure, especially centred on the location of the gym control. The bar snacks thoughtfully ordered by the organisers dwindled and disappeared and the bar did a steady trade in beer, coke and crisps.

Scores were compared and, although there was a winner, no-one seemed all that bothered. It was that kind of evening: just to have been out in the wind, snow and rain, whilst the rest of the world huddled round their soap operas of choice, was enough to have produced a collective buzz that only competitive exercise can bring.

As I drove the short journey home, the roads empty and half-flooded in places, I mused on the unique nature of this off-shoot of the sport. There was something nagging at the back of my mind: a sense that I’d been through something similar in the dim and distant past. Then, as I drew away from a traffic light in the centre of Huddersfield and the obligatory white cab cut me up as it dived for the front door of a nightclub, I realised I knew what it was – golf!

A dalliance with the ball and stick sport a decade ago opened me up to the unique challenge of a round of golf, where a birdie could easily, or perhaps inevitably, be followed by a visit to a water hazard or pot bunker. One’s success or failure, though teased out a hole at a time, did not become fully apparent until all eighteen holes had been tackled. Then, and only then, could the sliding scale of success and failure be truly balanced.

And so it is with orienteering: a smooth and untroubled run around the controls can all be undone by a moment’s inattentiveness that leaves you lost or miles down a steep and testing hill, with no alternative but to retrace your steps in the sure and certain knowledge that your final score and time will both have suffered. It’s that kind of sport – one where the moments of success when you locate controls have a transitory sweetness to them and the true savouring of a job well done can only come at the conclusion of the whole event.

And like a round of golf, no matter how well you perform, there’s always somewhere something you could have done better during your ride. Upon such challenges are human obsessions  built and I am well and truly hooked by this branch of cycling where the mind plays at least as important part as the body.

Fancy having a go?

Most of the events I have ridden so far have been promoted by Organic Adventure: http://organicadventure.co.uk/

The governing body website has a big calendar of events: http://www.bmbo.org.uk/

Rider Blog: Mountain Mayhem 2012

Words: Phil Ingham  Images: Ed Rollason

“Yes, well, you can have too much of a good thing!” came the tart reply to my “I don’t really mind riding in mud” comment. I was looking down on the main arena of the 2012 Mountain Mayhem 24-hour MTB event which lay like a giant, glistening brown horseshoe in the valley below. I’d just arrived, full of optimism after a largely dry drive south, but my optimism had been ill-founded.

mayhem13-bWith hindsight, my flip remark was always going to come back to bite me. The 2012 edition of Mayhem (an event which has always had a reputation for testing the resolve of participants with cloying mud) took the concept of liquid soil to a completely new level. A week of heavy rain immediately preceding the race turned the venue – a beautiful pastoral valley just north of Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury in Herefordshire – into a quagmire.

Never before have the car parks, trade arena and camping areas been waterlogged before anyone had even arrived and inevitably the whole site was churned into a sea of mud before a wheel had been turned in anger. Mud oozed from the ground in an amazing range of consistencies – thin and fine like a chocolate smoothie; gloopy and globular, like emulsion paint; and thick and cloying like butter icing.

Warm sunshine and a brisk wind began to dry things up during the first afternoon, but as parts of the course eased, others grew tougher and stickier. Then, as darkness fell, rain began to fall and most of the short mid-summer night was lashed with heavy driving rain, falling from clouds which seemed to have grounded on the low hills on either side of the main arena. A final morning of drying winds and warm sunshine brought back the stickiness to drag at tired legs as the timer counted down to the magical 24 hour point.

Amid all the mud and guts, everyone had a story. “Epic” was probably the most over-used word of the weekend. And, in truth, with marshals all round the course, and the mud reducing progress to walking pace for most, there was little actual peril. There was plenty of scope for suffering, though, and cyclists are usually keen to indulge in a bit of that if it earns them bragging rights.

For those who don’t know about Mayhem, the aim for teams is to have someone lapping the ten mile course throughout the 24 hours of the race, which starts at 12 noon on the Saturday. You hand over to your next nominated rider in a transition area. Riders usually only ride only one lap at a time. It’s a great formula which, with most teams consisting of four or five riders, means you usually end up riding at least one night lap each. Team-work and mutual support are essential. However, some super-heroes and heroines do it solo. “Respect”, as they say!

So, here are a few of my personal observations and experiences from a”memorable” weekend which I shared with my chosen team-mates, Liz, Rich, Baz and John.

Time to Race

8pm Friday (16 hours to race start) – I’m sitting in a marquee sipping hot chocolate and watching a woman trying to extricate her small white dog from the mud outside. The dog has a muddy tide mark around its legs and lower belly and looks exhausted and fed-up. With hindsight, it’s a “look” that was to become very popular over the weekend.

8am Saturday (4 hours to race start) I’m fitting my 1.5 inch continental “mud” tyres. “Bloody hell, they’re thin” someone comments. My team sends just one rider to the pre-race briefing. We’re trying to keep movement and cycling in particular to a minimum with mud ankle deep all around the arena. I have Porridge for breakfast and a slight sickness in the pit of my stomach signals pre-race nerves.

12 noon Saturday – I watch the start of the race with John, but we fail to spot our first man, Baz, in the melee of riders setting off. I cruise to the top of the Kenda sponsored first climb to see the riders making their way up the first serious upgrade of the race. Many already have a thick coat of mud on tyres and shoes less than a mile from the start.

mayhem13-c

5pm Saturday – I receive the wrist band (Mayhem’s answer to the runner’s baton) from our second rider, Liz, who has just returned after two and a half hours, and head out on my first lap. As I mount my bike, a rider alongside me slings a leg over his machine and wipes a long streak of mud down my leg. Nice! The course is like a morass. I squeeze up to the tapes and try to stay on fresh grass and keep my heart-rate down!

6.30pm Saturday – I finish my first lap. It’s been tough and at times I’ve had to adopt Cyclo-Cross tactics, running where it’s more efficient and avoids clogging the bike with mud. But, on the whole, it’s not been too bad. Now, if only it would stay dry, but I can feel the first drops of rain even as that thought enters my head! As I leave the transition area a friend who is making her Mayhem debut collars me and gives me an earful, blaming me for getting her involved! I’m not entirely sure she’s serious, but she’s had a tough lap and clearly isn’t pleased. As I wander back to the camp I’m at a loss as to work out why it’s my fault she’s riding – her boyfriend persuaded her to have a go. Several years ago I helped him get into the sport: I suppose, then, that if you trace it back far enough technically it’s my fault she riding. I think!

8.30pm Saturday – the rain has now well and truly set in and driven by a brisk wind it’s lashing against the side of the tent. We’re sitting with friends from our sister team and comparing notes. I’ve dined on lamb curry. Liz and John once had two pet sheep, Rogan and Josh, but they didn’t remain pets forever. Their loss is, in this instance, my gain. Despite everyone being in good spirits, the consensus is that things can only get worse: the weather forecast is for rain throughout the hours of darkness.

9.30pm Saturday – I phone my family to have a grumble about the mud only to learn that they have been caught up in the flash floods in Yorkshire and have as much mud in their house as I have around my tent. I cut the call short, allowing them to get back to bailing……. and giving TV interviews. Typical, I’m embroiled in the wettest, muddiest Mayhem ever and I’m not even the muddiest member of my family!

12 midnight – I prepare to go out on my night lap. A tip I’ve been giving everyone is to have a hot drink before going out at night – it helps get the body ready for exercise at ungodly hours. I boil a kettle and prepare an instant hot-chocolate. But I can’t find a spoon in the darkness and find myself drinking the water and then choking on the powder.

mayhem13-a

1am Sunday – mid lap and I’m drenched to the skin, covered in a thin paste of mud and already feeling exhausted. Suddenly I hear shouts of my name coming out of the darkness. “What”, I shout back. “How long have you taken over your first half lap?” comes the disembodied reply. “****ing ages” I answer, puzzled and slightly irritable. Later I learn that friends on another team are looking for a lost rider and are attempting to work out where he might be on the course. Apparently they didn’t hear my reply, which is probably for the best.

2.30am Sunday – lap finally completed, I’m frozen, soaked and standing almost naked outside my tent trying to take off my waterproof cycling shoes, which have filled up with water and have swollen onto my feet. I’ve stupidly rolled down my tights and shorts, so sitting down would bring my bare posterior into contact with the mud. As a result, I’m trying to struggle out of tights and boots with feet bound together, producing penguin-like levels of immobility. The rain is stinging and cold. I’m at the end of my tether and almost crying, hysterically balanced between despair and hilarity. Finally I lever off the boots, swill my legs in the stream which runs by the tent and then towel myself dry and retire to my sleeping bad. I’m convinced my team-mates will see sense and pull out of the race in the next couple of hours. Thankfully I won’t have to ride again!

5am Sunday – I’m woken from a merciful slumber by team-mate John informing me I’m due out again at 7am. I lie stunned. A pale light filters into the tent and I know dawn has passed. The wind has gone and the rain has stopped. But surely we can’t still be in the race. Idly, almost disconnectedly, I realise I’ve slept in my contact lenses. I’ve never done that before.

5.30am – John returns from the showers and cheerfully confirms that “yes, Baz is out on his third lap.” I do a quick circuit of the camp and despite my best efforts the consensus seems to be to carry on. I’m amazed and alarmed in equal amounts. I offer to canvas Baz’s opinion and am duly despatched to catch him mid-lap and enquire as to his fitness and motivational levels. To my further dismay, Baz is keen to carry on and departs with a cheerful “see you at eight!” Team-mate Liz then delivers a fine motivational speech: “I remember speaking to someone who pulled out because they were feeling crap and fed-up. But they said they felt far worse in the car on the way home in the knowledge that they had quit!” She’s right and her words make a remarkable difference to my morale. We might be suffering, but we’re probably through the worst and no-one actually seems too exhausted. We’re going to make it! Grinning, Liz confirms that her lap the previous evening would be her only one of the race. No wonder she’s feeling so chipper!

8am Sunday – fortified with porridge from a dirty pan, which tastes only slightly of Rogan and Josh, plus three big mugs of coffee, I head out on my last lap. The sun is shining and after a few minutes I realise that my body has recovered somewhat. I relax and although it’s not an entirely enjoyable experience the subsequent lap unfolds steadily and satisfactorily in front of me. I clean the nasty, narrow off-camber section near the end for the first time and stop briefly for a second breakfast of cereal bars and water on the final climb.

10am Sunday – I hand over to John who will bring us home with our 12th and final lap. Richard is on hand to accompany me back to the camp and I am able to head off for a shower. The showers are filthy and squirt intermittent bursts of hot and cold water. But it’s still heaven to be cleaner than I have been for 24 hours and I enjoy third breakfast in warm sunshine.

2pm Sunday – the team gets together for the final goodbyes. It’s been a memorable weekend for lots of reasons. I shake hands with everyone and warn that we might just have slipped into the top thirty in the results. Privately I think it might be top twenty. The course had been very quiet on my second and third laps and it’s clear many teams have at the very least taken lengthy breaks during the night. We have had someone on the course throughout – our average lap time has been about 2 hours (almost double that of the year before). A final struggle sees just everything packed back into the car and I’m on the road by 3pm.

Monday Evening – the results are out and we’re 14th. Not bad for a team with two only two regular cyclists to its name. Liz was right – to have given up would have been such a disappointment. Instead we’re looking back through increasingly rose-tinted spectacles at a great weekend.

 

Mountain Bike Orienteering

Phil Ingham tries his hand at an evening mountain bike orienteering event and finds himself caught in a winter storm.

maps3

Well, it wasn’t the start I’d been looking for! Foolishly trying to read the map by the light of my head-torch, whilst descending an unlit bridleway, I found myself projected in a gentle arc over the bars and towards a water-filled ditch. As luck would have it, I was still zonked from the hurried drive from work to the event and, in my semi-catatonic state I didn’t tense up as the accident unfolded: instead, I somehow looped my legs over the bars, over the map holder and over the now stationary front wheel and landed pretty much upright. My boots were muddied but otherwise I was unscathed.

If nothing else the incident woke me up and a dart of adrenaline ran round my body, energising my previously sluggish limbs. I wrestled my bike from the mud – it was buried up to the front axle – and five minutes late I’d “dibbed” in at the first control and was slogging back up the track to the road.

Mountain Bike Orienteering is the two-wheeled equivalent of the more familiar “on-foot” version of the sport. The principles are the same: armed with a map, you have to navigate around a series of marked “controls”. The aim is to visit as many as possible and arrive back at the event HQ within a set time limit.

In some events it is possible to visit all the controls within that time period, in which case the rider with the fastest time wins. In others, where collecting a full set is not possible, you have to pick and choose which you visit. Each control is allocated a points score and as a rule, the further from the event HQ a control is located, the more points it is worth. The most remote controls are worth twenty-five or thirty points, compared to a little as five for a control near the start. Strategy comes into play as you try to target a big score but still get back without incurring time penalties, initially just a point a minute, but rapidly becoming more severe if you are over 10 minutes late.

Putting my “it could have been a lot worse” crash behind me and having picked up my first points of the event, I was up and running and the next two controls, came and went in quick succession. Three down, seventeen more to go!

Ahead of me now lay the first big terrain challenge of the night. By the light of my head-torch I could see from the map, spread on a small board mounted on my handlebars, that the road leading to the next control was crossed by a number of closely spaced contour lines. A hill-shaped black shadow reared up ahead of me, telling me this was a climb, not a descent. Overhead a faint orange glow from the distant streetlamps of Huddersfield under-lit the low clouds which scudded by, driven by a brisk wind.

I flashed my head-torch from side to side as I neared the point where the next control was located. The map showed a red ring just before the summit of the hill. Each control is marked by a small red ring and the control is supposed to be located at the dead-centre of the ring.

Each control consists of a battery powered SPORTident dibber box, about the size of a cigarette packet, into which you insert a wristband-mounted “dibber” which records your visit. In night events, there is also a small reflector next to the box, to help you locate it. Sure enough, ahead and slightly to the right a small bead of reflected light caught my eye.

After a quick glance behind to check for traffic I scooted across the road, pulled up at the foot of a footpath “fingerpost”, located the box, fastened by cable to the post, and rapidly inserted my dibber. A distinct beep indicated that my visit had been recorded and I was immediately underway again.

I’d already made a quick assessment of my route to the following control so, as I accelerated into the darkness and settled into a rhythm again, I began to make frequent glances at the map to check its exact location.

Map reading is perhaps the single most critical skill of the sport. You are presented with your map just two minutes before you start, so it’s impossible to take in and memorise all the control locations there and then. I tend to try to get a general overview of the distribution of the control points and come up with an outline plan of action, before identifying the first two or three controls I’ll visit.

The two minutes flies by and from the moment you “dib-in” at the start – a control box located at the start which records your departure time – you are left with no alternative but to navigate on the hoof. I find that my route generally evolves from there onwards. Apparently some top riders can plan their entire route in that short space of time before the start, but not blessed with a photographic memory, it’s an ongoing process for me.

Another feature of the start is the absence of the melee that accompanies the opening moments of most bike races. In orienteering events you usually have the freedom to register and start anytime within a window of an hour or even two. This means you can set off when you are ready, which is a very pleasant change from the nervy count-down to a traditional race start.

Meanwhile, back to the action, and cresting the unlit road over the hill, the sky was suddenly lit by a huge flash of lightening. Etched onto my retina was a vivid image of wet road, dry-stone walls, dripping telegraph poles, fringes of snow on the verges and, towering massively overhead, the concrete tower of the Emley Moor TV transmitter. Seconds later another flash was accompanied by a crash of thunder, then came another and it dawned on me that the transmitter was acting as a focus for the storm’s electronic energies.

That was a relief as the rain and sleet notched up a level and the spray ran down the frame and forks of my bike. I didn’t fancy ending the evening as a lightening rod and though that thought made me a little uneasy, I put it out of my mind and returned to the task in hand.

I was now approaching a three way road junction, with a control located perhaps half a kilometre down each road. The next nearest control was then perhaps a further kilometre away down the left-most road of the three. I targeted the control down the right-hand road, which I reached inside a minute, finding it on a fence post at the side of a small car-park.

I quickly re-traced my route to the junction and repeated the process going to and from the second control before heading down the third road, picking up my seventh checkpoint – fastened around a telegraph pole beside a remote farm this time – and riding on toward my eighth. I was almost half way through the controls and I’d been riding for 45 minutes.

From there I was heading off in a fresh direction. My initial thrust had taken me virtually straight North, but from then on I was describing a rough semi-circle heading clockwise. The wind was increasingly unpredictable, whipping around the small hilltops that characterise this area of West Yorkshire, nipping along the valleys, before breaking like invisible waves over roadside walls and from behind buildings. It was cold too, but the effort of climbing and battling the wind was keeping me warm.

With a thin, slushy layer of snow decorating the road surface and lightening still shooting its random stills onto my retinas, I was glad that there was virtually no traffic about to add a further complication to my choppy progress through the elements.

Orienteering course planners are a fiendish bunch. They place their controls with the aim of disrupting your natural progress across the landscape. They force you to make difficult judgments and often sacrificial decisions: if I go for that remote, outlying control will I have time to get back and reach the finish? Do I drop down that steep hill to pick up that control now, or do I pick it up later when I’ve crossed and re-crossed that ridge ahead? Do I try to maintain height and take the road route, or do I take the shorter but hillier cross-country option down that potentially muddy bridleway?

All this has to be computed as you ride, change gear, clock-watch, drink and eat and monitor your overall progress. It’s multi-tasking on a grand scale: physical and mental demands coming at you thick and fast. It’s all too easy to lose track of time or overshoot a control whilst thinking about something else, like your burning lungs, or that slippery surface that’s threatening to whisk your wheels from under you.

Knowing exactly where you are at any given moment is central to maintaining an inner calm. The moment you realise you are lost is the cue for panic. I’ve even gone as far as counting walls and gateways as I work my way along a pitch-black bridleway looking for a control. Half a mile of nothing but monotonous walls and fields on either side can make it terribly difficult to identify the exact location of a control wrapped around the trunk of a small tree. But, to get it right, and find it exactly when and where you expect to, is deeply satisfying.

Mid way through the evening I was faced with one of the classic decision-making moments that define orienteering. There was a single control some four kilometres away from any of the others, on the extreme edge of the event area defined on the map. It was worth only five points. With the wind still battering me and rain and snow alternating with occasional clear spells in which the moon shone down from a sliding window in the clouds, it was all too tempting to ignore it and hope that all my rivals would do likewise. But, what if they didn’t? “Sod it” I thought, “in for a penny, in for a pound!”

So, I turned southwards and committed myself to finding that five-pointer, out there in the darkness somewhere. This is the time when your thoughts can wander. I briefly nodded off and it took several minutes to re-locate exactly where I was and moments later I came upon the isolated control. I’d been seconds from riding right past it and, more importantly, straight down a hill that would have made re-tracing my steps doubly painful. Relieved, I motored on, another fifteen minutes passing as I battled with the gradient and elements – both of which were now set against me.

A couple more controls, one down a dead end path, another by the roadside, left me only a three of four kilometres from the finish with five controls packed around the centre of another small village still to find. A quick check of the watch gave me 20 minutes and I reckoned I was on for a full house and well within the two hours.

But panic lurks behind every wall, at every road junction and after each control. Occasionally even the best organisers misplace the location of a control on the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps they use. My penultimate control was marked at the bottom of a small side-road in the village centre. But it was nowhere to be seen when I arrived.

Organisers provide riders with one other aid to finding the controls: as well as the map, they give you a small sheet with written descriptions of the controls’ locations. In this instance, it read “telegraph pole in front of gym.”

I retraced my wheel-marks to make sure I was on the correct road and then set off again along it in search of the elusive control. The road ramped up steeply and my by now aching limbs sent messages of mild distress to my brain, which was indeed close to panic. In truth I’d had a pretty good run so far. Was I about to have my hopes of a perfect score dashed by a control I simply could not locate?

Suddenly, a single-storey building emerged on my right, and a wave of relief swamped me as I noted the “gym” sign on the wall. And the control was there, on a telegraph pole. A quick dip of the dibber, a beep and I was on my way again.

The final control was a routine find, on a lamppost a few hundred yards from the finish. Seconds later I dibbed a final time at the “finish” control outside the event HQ, a welcoming looking pub, and I was finally able to relax.

The first priority was to change out of my soaked riding kit and then to stow away my bike. Then it was into the pub to hand in my dibber to the organisers, who use a special interrogator to download the contents and print off an instant score-sheet for my ride.

Other riders and runners (some organisers run mixed events) awaited me in the pub and over the next hour or so the remaining competitors came thought the door. All were grinning, despite the cold and wet. Stories were exchanged, tales of success and failure, especially centred on the location of the gym control. The bar snacks thoughtfully ordered by the organisers dwindled and disappeared and the bar did a steady trade in beer, coke and crisps.

Scores were compared and, although there was a winner, no-one seemed all that bothered. It was that kind of evening: just to have been out in the wind, snow and rain, whilst the rest of the world huddled round their soap operas of choice, was enough to have produced a collective buzz that only competitive exercise can bring.

As I drove the short journey home, the roads empty and half-flooded in places, I mused on the unique nature of this off-shoot of the sport. There was something nagging at the back of my mind: a sense that I’d been through something similar in the dim and distant past. Then, as I drew away from a traffic light in the centre of Huddersfield and the obligatory white cab cut me up as it dived for the front door of a nightclub, I realised I knew what it was – golf!

A dalliance with the ball and stick sport a decade ago opened me up to the unique challenge of a round of golf, where a birdie could easily, or perhaps inevitably, be followed by a visit to a water hazard or pot bunker. One’s success or failure, though teased out a hole at a time, did not become fully apparent until all eighteen holes had been tackled. Then, and only then, could the sliding scale of success and failure be truly balanced.

And so it is with orienteering: a smooth and untroubled run around the controls can all be undone by a moment’s inattentiveness that leaves you lost or miles down a steep and testing hill, with no alternative but to retrace your steps in the sure and certain knowledge that your final score and time will both have suffered. It’s that kind of sport – one where the moments of success when you locate controls have a transitory sweetness to them and the true savouring of a job well done can only come at the conclusion of the whole event.

And like a round of golf, no matter how well you perform, there’s always somewhere something you could have done better during your ride. Upon such challenges are human obsessions  built and I am well and truly hooked by this branch of cycling where the mind plays at least as important part as the body.

Fancy having a go?

The event I rode was promoted by Organic Adventure: http://organicadventure.co.uk/

The governing body website has a big calendar of events: http://www.bmbo.org.uk/

Video: Route guide to a classic off-road Peak District trail

A video guide to one of the best mountain bike routes in the Peak District, Cut Gate, an ancient link between two valleys with wonderful, if man-influenced, landscapes.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/36900957″>Classic Mountain Biking route in the Peak District</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/philipingham”>Stainlander</a&gt; on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

cutgte

The Ramblings of a Three Peaks Obsessive

Welcome to the random ramblings of our tame Three Peaks obsessive as he looks back at his various attempts at the race and shares some of his experiences. He encounters epic adventure, soaring emotions and the odd humorous interlude as he tackles ‘Cross’s toughest challenge.

3 Peaks Cyclo Cross

The sky is a flat grey in every direction. Where Pen-y-Ghent should be, the horizon is sawn off by low mist. The other horizon is dominated by a giant quarry, scratched from the hillside, as though by giant claws. Under my feet, the grass is heavy with autumnal dew. Around me the car-park is filling up steadily. I have a deep-rooted loathing for the final hour or so before any race. I hate the overpowering anticipation, the nerves, the fear of having missed some crucial part of my preparation or forgotten an essential piece of kit, I hate the empty, unknown echo of pains soon to be endured.

This year’s Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race saw my third attempt at this unique event. By rights it should’ve been my sixth, at least. I first entered back in 2003, but was laid low by a flu virus the week before. A year later I tried again and came down with a food allergy which took six months to sort out. I temporarily gave up at that point and went along in 2005 to watch and see what the fuss was all about. A short morning spent at Cold Cotes, at the foot of the Ingleborough descent – not the most spectacular point of the race by any means – was more than enough to get me hooked. I came away convinced I had to ride the race, if only to sample the atmosphere from a competitor’s point of view. The heady mix of a stunning landscape, three monumental climbs and the sheer, ludicrous improbability of tackling them on a fragile ‘Cross bike had grabbed me.

And so, in 2006, I rode and completed the race. I was almost overwhelmed by the experience and genuinely thrilled to have completed the event in one piece. Calling my family to report on my successful attempt, I found myself strangely choked – overcome with the kind of emotion I had only ever felt before at the birth of my daughter. Blimey, I thought, this thing has really got to me.

I entered the 2007 event, only for it to be cancelled because of the foot and mouth outbreak in southern England. But in 2008 I was back again and just over four and a half hours after rolling out from the start at Helwith Bridge, I had finished the race once again – cue more unexpected emotion and euphoria.

And so on to 2009 and with the dew soaking through my shoes, I joined the queue to collect my riding number and timing chip from the incongruously small race HQ. A badly timed cold had settled on me on the Wednesday before the event and for a couple of days I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to ride. However, a late rally on the Saturday meant that I was there, a bit chesty, but ready to go again.

Actually, after reading this back, I guess you’d be forgiven if you formed the impression that my life is made up of long bouts of illness, interspersed with the occasion healthy day. In actual fact, the opposite is true: I’m blessed with the constitution of a horse, outside that crucial last week of September!

Whilst talking of the last week of September, there’s a small, diplomatically sensitive issue every time I ride the race. Unfortunately it coincides with my wife’s birthday or the weekend when it is due to be celebrated. How do you do the decent thing and celebrate properly, but at the same time avoid alcohol and late nights? Well, if you have an understanding wife, it’s just possible. The biggest problem is not talking endlessly about the race, when you really need to be at your most sensitive and most attuned to your loved one’s needs. It’s pure torture as, in common with most men, if there’s one thing which will get me talking, it’s one of my obsessions.

Keen to tackle the problem, last year I went on the offensive: I persuaded my family to come along and support me at the race and to help my father, who is now my tried and trusted supplier of food and drink at the race’s service points. However, the feedback from my wife and daughter after the event was not as positive as I had hoped: “we didn’t see much of you, did we?” That was a great opening line. Well, what did they expect? Does Lewis Hamilton’s pit crew say the same to him? Didn’t’ they understand that the less time I spend with them, the better they had done their job?

Then there was my father, drawing me to one side, later that evening, to tell me that they had nearly not made the first service point at Cold Cotes in time. Apparently, whilst all the other support crews were haring down the country lanes intent on getting into position, my other half had decided to call off for morning coffee. My father is, like me, anxious if put under time pressure and he had clearly had a trying time of it as my wife and daughter had tried to balance the job of supporting me with their own expectations of a day out in the Dales. So, when the family announced that, sadly, they would not be coming with me this year, it was not exactly a surprise.

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Did you get me? The author crosses the finishing line and checks he’s been registered by the timing mat

Whilst we’re on the subject of the strange ritual of receiving service at the Three Peaks, it’s worth giving it some thought if it’s your first time. A good deal of time can be lost if you don’t plan your service carefully. My own experiences illustrate this.

Before my first attempt, my father and I thought we had the whole thing under control. We correctly anticipated that the biggest problem would be finding each other amongst the crowds – bear in mind that there are now over 500 riders in the event, the majority of whom will have someone waiting for them at both Cold Cotes and Ribblehead. We came up with the, apparently, foolproof plan that my father would wear a fluorescent tabard – I’d spot him a mile away, wouldn’t I?

You can imagine my consternation as I emerged from the mists at Cold Cotes to be greeted by the sight of a crowd of several hundred people strewn down the hillside, the majority of whom seemed to be wearing fluorescent tabards. It looked more like roadworks on the M1 than a rural bike race. More by luck than judgment, we located each other and I fuelled up and shot off into the mists.

When I dropped down towards Ribblehead for the second service, I told myself that the race would now be more spread out and that the crowds of supporters would be smaller. The truth was that there seemed to be even more people waiting in the shadow of the giant viaduct. What’s more, they were spread out down half a mile of farm track. Again, the fluorescent tabard seemed to be the garment of choice.

Fate then intervened to add further layers of confusion to an already difficult scenario. I was forced to slow down and pick my way past the eager hoards, all craning their necks, looking for their rider. How would I ever pick out my father? Well, perhaps he would see me and call out to me. That might have worked if, at that moment, an exceptionally well-known and popular local rider who shared my Christian name hadn’t cruised up behind me. The crowds on either side erupted. Everyone was calling out his name, keen to wish him well and catch his eye for a friendly wave. Of course it took me a while to register what was going on. To me, it seemed as though suddenly a sea of total strangers had taken it upon themselves to greet me like a long-lost friend. It was only after a number of slow and stressful minutes that I finally located my father, who had helpfully placed himself at the very far end of the service area “so I would stand out” he later told me, grinning, as I related my difficulties to him.

In the two subsequent races, we’ve evolved a lot more successful strategy of agreeing a precise location to meet and sticking to it. But, if you ever want a bit of a laugh, just go along to the 3-Peaks and watch the attempts of riders to find their support crews. A work colleague managed to get hold of a giant red flag for this year’s event and forced his crew to wave it so he could pick them out. If it had been mounted on a pole, it might have been a good plan, but the two hours they spent holding and waving a square of material, which wouldn’t have looked out of place streaming from the stern of the Titanic, took a hell of a lot out of them!

But I digress. Returning to this year’s event, it was with some relief that I found myself queuing with the 500 plus other riders waiting for the off. Moving off down the road, I kept station in a very twitchy pack, breathless both with the sudden exertion and with laughter at the attempts of a small number of self-appointed peloton police to get some sort of discipline into hundreds of riders, many of whom will never have ridden a Road race. Brakes squealed, voices bellowed, thick knobbled tyres hummed on the tarmac as we rocketed through Horton-in-Ribblesdale.

With well over four hours in the saddle ahead of me, I had planned not to go too hard too soon. So, naturally, I promptly forgot that and arrived at the first off-road section dripping with sweat, wheezing alarmingly and already at my limit. Eventually I settled down as riding gave way, first to pushing and then to carrying the bike.

My preparation for this year’s event had included some specific training at my secret local facility. The pain of climbing the near 45 degree slope of Simon Fell had had a seriously detrimental effect on my performance on the subsequent climbs in the 2006 and 2008 events and this time I was determined to prepare myself for the steepness and length of that crucial first climb.

I live in the Pennines, but finding a suitably accessible and steep hillside on which to train proved more difficult than expected. That was until I remembered a tale I’d heard a few years ago of a rider who trained for the event by scaling the grass-covered dam bank of a local reservoir. A recce ride to the reservoir revealed that it could have been made with preparing for the Three Peaks in mind. The banking was steep and smoothly grassed. It was also higher than I had expected – a quick count of the flight of concrete steps which ran up the face of it and bit of mental arithmetic later and I realised I had found the perfect 200 foot high training climb.

Prepare for this or prepare to fail!

If this sounds a bit extreme, I hold my hands up – guilty as charged, but if you have ever ridden the Peaks and cursed as you fitness and strength ebb away as you clamber, crab and stagger up that first wall of a climb will understand that anything which reduces the debilitating suffering is a good idea. It’s also an event which amounts to an obsession to many of us. Anyway, three times a week for three weeks I rode the 10 minutes up to the dam and clambered up the banking four times. My first effort took almost 4 minutes but by the time I was winding down my training I had got that down to under three minutes. So, I hear you all cry, how much faster did you go as a result of the training?

Well, the evidence is that it did nothing to speed me up. My first attempt at the race, in 2006, was blighted by two punctures. The second attempt saw me pick up only one and I went 3 minutes quicker – saving very close to the amount of time it takes me to change a tube. This time I avoided punctures altogether and went three minutes quicker again. So, if you exclude the flats, my time for the event has pretty much flat-lined. Having said that, I may not have gone any quicker this time, but I felt a lot more comfortable on the climbs and I will have no hesitation in repeating the grass bank training next year. If only to avoid the pain of Simon Fell.

Back to the race and I guess I’d better cut to the chase and pick out a few personal highlights of this year’s event.

Having made a reasonable start and got myself over Ingleborough in decent fettle, I then proceeded to make a complete pig’s ear of the road section up to Whernside. This is a straightforward run, which is a great opportunity to catch a lift on a faster rider’s wheel and grab some food and drink. If only!

I first chose to eat a bag of crisps – and don’t all email in telling me off for my antiquated re-fueling habits, it works for me – on the downhill section from Cold Cotes to Ingleton and only succeeded in inhaling most of the crisp fragments as the slipstream upended the bag into my face. I then coughed them up for a couple of miles, missing several passing wheels in the process, before finally trying to settle myself down with a drink. I promptly dropped my nearly full bottle and had to stop and retrieve it. Streams of riders seemed to be passing me and I totally lost my rhythm.

Luckily, the bulk of Whernside rearing up ahead of me seemed to re-focus my thoughts and by the time I was off and carrying my bike again I was back in the groove. Whernside was the only hilltop not wreathed in cloud and I took the time as I cycled along the ridge to look around me. The railway viaduct lay far below. All around, the high hills of the western dales rippled into the distance. Dentdale nestled close by and, on the horizon, the Howgills’ round backed summits were clearly visible. I then made the mistake of pointing out to another rider that the views were superb. He gave me a strange look and rode on in silence.

The descent off Whernside is a cracker. It’s technical, varied and very exciting, with narrow lines and lots of potential trouble. However, it flies by in a whirl of dust and you’re soon onto the long road section down to Horton-in-Ribblesdale and the foot of Pen-y-Ghent.

From there, it’s reputed to be one hour to the finish. All I know is that the climb, much of it rideable, is where you learn more about your fitness than you ever wanted to know. I’ve suffered cramp there in the past but, thanks perhaps to the nasally ingested crisps, I didn’t this time and although tired, I made good progress, even getting a round of applause for a clean ride through the tricky rock section half way up the walled track.

Out on the upper slopes of the mountain, riding stopped, walking began and the mists descended. It’s this section which sees one of the strange rituals of the event: as you climb grimly upwards, you are met by faster riders coming down. The protocol seems to be to offer a grim smile and a nod of the head if you are on the way up and a cheery grin and a shout of encouragement if you are on the way down. In truth, there’s a sub-plot, with those coming down effectively saying “I’ve beaten you” and those coming up having to soak up the inevitability of the situation. For me there’s always been the shock of seeing riders descending who you think you should beat. Similarly, on the way down there’s a flood of pride as you see riders you respect still making their way up the slopes.

Some bike race. This is the view of Simon Fell riders get 15 minutes in

Finally, at the top of the final peak, it’s impossible not to feel a premature sense that you’ve finished. The back-breaking climbing is indeed done, but there’s still perhaps the most dangerous descent ahead of you, a heart-in-the-mouth ride with other cyclists, senses deadened by exhaustion, climbing head-down towards you.

I managed to have another of my less organized interludes as I began to come back down, picking the wrong lines repeatedly and then falling heavily onto rocks as I failed to unclip cleanly for a short stretch of running. I got up, pride hurt, but otherwise OK and from then on got things back together fairly well.

A quick word at this point about the timing in this year’s event. As we signed on, we were all given a demo of the timing mats, which would be on each mountain top. Riders of big enduros and sportives will be familiar with these mats, which look like large strips of carpet. I idly wondered who would have the arduous task of hauling them to the summits. I needn’t have worried. The mat on Ingleborough was small, but nothing compared to the tiny squares of material on the tops of the other two mountains. And to add to the slightly comic effect, they were mounted in such a way that you couldn’t ride over them, but instead had to wave a leg at them as you passed by. It was very effective, but it did remind me more of a dog cocking a leg at a lamppost than it ought to have done.

A final timing challenge awaited at the finish, where the mats do require a degree of co-operation from the riders and several individuals had to return to re-cross them, having won hectic sprint finishes, but failed to register with the sensors. It was all taken in good spirit by the majority, as was the gravel surface of the final turn into the finish, which caught out a surprisingly large number of riders who had ridden the 5000 plus feet of ups and downs without an crash only to slide to earth within touching distance of the finish line and under the eye of race’s merciless commentator.

My own run into the finish was not without incident. I emerged at the bottom of the Pen-y-Ghent path in Horton and forked left out onto the road under the careful guidance of a busy marshal, placed there to help riders integrate with the passing traffic. To my surprise I emerged alongside a police car and for a few uncomfortable moments I had visions of being pulled over for dangerous riding as we “proceeded” – to use a policing term – side-by-side. One of my more vocal Yorkshire Cyclo-Cross acquaintances, watching at the road-side, witnessed the incident and enjoyed himself immensely shouting a loud warning to me and then bellowing with laughter.

The final couple of miles into the finish on the road are, on paper, an anti-climax, but are actually the scene of a number of very small, very short road races, often featuring half a dozen or less riders, who battle like Tour pros to gain an extra place at the finish. I duly got involved in a peloton of four and just lost the bunch sprint. In my first Three Peaks I became so engrossed in a last-gasp battle with another rider that I overshot the final turn and had to do a u-turn and crawl over the line with my tail between my legs. It’s that kind of race – there’s always something happening, always a fresh challenge just around the corner.

The finish, when you reach it, is a massive relief. It’s also a great social gathering as you catch up with your mates, share tales of the day and hear the news of another inevitable Rob Jebb win. Only this time, it didn’t quite finish like that, did it? “Cyclist wins bike race” quipped one rider in a reference to Mr Jebb’s status as a runner first and foremost and a cyclist second, the opposite of that of the victorious Mr Craig. To me it’s just incredible that someone can complete an event which takes me four and a half hours of extreme effort, in less than three hours. It’s a mystery how they do it and I’ll be back again next year to explore the mystery again.

Mayhem 2009 – Mind Over Matter

A “reflective” piece I wrote after the 2009 edition of Mountain Mayhem, a 24-hour mountain bike race.

Here are my post-event reflections on an event which took me out of my solitary cycling existence and pushed me into the cut and thrust of the biggest off-road event of the year. I apologise in advance for his self-centered navel-gazing!

As I’m writing this, it’s twenty-four hours on from the twenty-four hours of Mountain Mayhem and although I’m physically still feeling it, I’ve worked through the mental fallout and I’m ready to tell my tale.
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Mind Games

It was only my second Mayhem and I’m just beginning to come to terms with some of the event’s unique characteristics. Foremost amongst them, for me at least, is the way the event plays with your mind. Riding in a team, as I did this year, is an up-and-down process of getting yourself up for a lap, turning on the concentration for an hour or so of intense riding and then attempting to wind down again.

Repeat this cycle every three or four hours for twenty-four hours, without the balm of sleep, and it’s not surprising that it’s the mind, not the body, which starts to give way as the hours slip by.

My third lap came just before 1am and I’d begun to doze when the time came to prepare to go out onto the course once more. Emerging from my tent, suddenly I was shaking with a mixture of tiredness and the evening chill. The prospect of another grueling lap when all I wanted to do was sleep produced a strong feeling of what could perhaps be described as dissonance: what I wanted to do (sleep) and what I needed to do (ride) were in direct conflict.

Ten minutes later, at the top of the first climb I was back into my rhythm and the tension of the moment had passed.

Fast-forward another four hours and I was experiencing the same problems in the cold early light of the second day. Again I was wrenched from the fingertips of sleep’s comforting embrace. Again I was shivering and cold and enveloped in what can only be described as despair. And again, once up and rolling, I was soon back in control.

Thankfully, my preparations for my final two laps – which came mid morning and at lunch time – were marked by greater resolve and more self-control. I guess there’s no mystery as to why the night laps saw me at my lowest. Who in their right mind would put themselves through an hour of hard physical work in the wee small hours, whilst dog-tired?

What interested and intrigued me more was the way that, once riding, the fears, the demons, the doubts and, indeed, the pain seemed to slip away. We like to think that our minds rule our bodies. In truth, the relationship between the intellectual and the physical is one of co-dependence. In the daylight hours, my mind seemed prepared to take a lead and the body followed. In the night, when by rights it should have been drifting in the abyss of sleep, my mind was incapable of giving direction to my thoughts, leaving me vulnerable to the random uncertainties and doubts which crowd in on the tired rider mid-event. Only when the physical process of riding intervened, swamping this irresistible negativity, did I regain some sort of feeling of control.

Some riders want to make the event even harder for themselves!

I can only wonder at the mental resolve of the soloists who put themselves through so much during the event. When you read soloists’ accounts of their experiences, it’s almost always the mental aspects of the event which they find the hardest. For all the cramping, the exhaustion and the saddle soreness, it’s still their mental strength which gets them through in the end.

Yet, there’s also a sense that much of the fulfillment that they derive from their endeavors comes from those mental uncertainties and in facing them down. They may well have conquered the physical and technical challenges of the course. They may also have beaten their rivals. But, most of all, it’s winning the deep, internal battle with their own weaknesses and doubts which perhaps produces the purest sense of achievement.

That’s just one of the joys of Mayhem. Whatever your standard, whatever your personal goals, it’s an opportunity to push yourself and explore the parts of your psyche that the modern world shields us from for much of the time.

There’s No “I” in Team

Cycling is essentially a solitary game. As I’ve already suggested, it’s an activity which enables you to challenge yourself, improve yourself and, if you’re lucky, learn a little bit more about yourself. But Mayhem really throws a spanner in the works by introducing a team element. As we’ve seen in recent weeks in the Tour Series Criteriums, the concept of team first and individual second can be alien to even elite cyclists.

(READ THIS PARAGRAPH WITH A CYNICAL SMILE ON YOUR FACE – I WAS FOOLED. WERE YOU? ) Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team employed unprecedented levels of teamwork and commitment to a central cause, enabling the American to dominate the Tour de France for seven years. Some in Road racing even questioned the fairness of the team’s approach and wondered at the selflessness of the eight riders who sweated their way round France every summer with just one goal in mind. Inside every racing cyclist there is an urge for personal glory.

So, as non-elite cyclists, team thoughts are alien to us for 364 days of the year. But Mayhem changes that if you’re part of a team. Last year, in my first Mayhem, I got an inkling of it. However, the hastily assembled team with which I rode actually fell apart somewhat during the event and I was left wondering what it would be like to ride within a team with a shared goal and shared determination to achieve it.

This was the basis of my Mayhem 2009 experience. Riding in the mixed category, we wanted to make the top ten, but knew that we’d have to ride to our full potential to even get close. We gave it everything: the mental ups and downs were tough, but I never came close to giving less than 100% because four other riders were working with me. In 2008, I’d happily given in to the suggestion that we stop riding for a couple of hours in the night because of worsening weather and on-course conditions. Fresh again on the second morning I’d ridden with renewed energy and enjoyed a couple of sunny laps of personal enjoyment and hadn’t really been bothered when we failed to have someone out on the course at 2pm, making our exclusion from the results inevitable. I finished the event happy, but with a slight sense of having missed out on something.

This year, backed by four similarly prepped team-mates, all working together and encouraging each other, the nature of that missing something became apparent. Suddenly, where I’d drifted through the 2008 event, I found myself driven along by a common sense of purpose and responsibility. I couldn’t let down my team-mates any more than they would let me down. We missed no change-overs: there was always someone waiting when you came into the transition area and every lap began with the motivational words of a team-mate ringing in your ears.

Team spirit is the key to success – even if your iron-on logos go a little awry!

Personal pains and individual levels of tiredness, though still challenging, were brushed aside by a desire not to let the team down and not to be seen to be the weak link. When doubts did crowd in – and all five of us had our dark moments – there was always someone on hand with a positive spin on the situation or a light-hearted quip to raise the spirits, or something as simple as a pat on the back.

But, be warned, there’s a down side to team riding. Despite achieving our target and despite a really positive experience of what a collective effort of will can achieve, the levels of commitment, both physical and mental, that the team environment demanded, left me drained. I found myself working far harder than I had the year before and I probably enjoyed the actual racing less. With commitment came responsibility and pressure, both quite stressful.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience. On balance, the scales of enjoyment tipped a little more in favour of the reflective post-event sifting of memories and satisfaction of a job well done and a little less in favour of the raw pleasure of racing the bike and enjoying the moment.