Picture the scene. Paris’ Left Bank in the early 1930s. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir sit chewing the fat over a couple of long, cool pastis. My French isn’t up to translating their deep conversation but one word stands out – pourquoi. This was a word, albeit in English, that had been featuring large over the previous couple of months whenever I thought about the 3 Peaks Cyclocross. But what relevance did the great existentialist have to lugging an inappropriate bike up a few large hills in the Yorkshire Dales? Somehow, I suspected I was to find out.
Day minus 2
The plan was to have a day off work, prep the bike, load the car and rest. By the end of the day I’d loaded a filthy bike with a dry but dirty chain, underinflated tyres and a non-working track pump. I’d also drunk half a bottle of what a restaurant would call ‘rustic red’ and eaten ham, egg and chips rather than something suitably carbo loading. Oh, and I’d had a pair of pints.
Day minus 1
For Event Eve I was going to take a leisurely drive north, have a siesta and then meet up with Mark Sinnett to set the world to rights with a calming couple of pints. I set off in good time, fortified by a considerable breakfast and laden down with chocolate and Chilli Heatwave flavoured Doritos (Vinia’s latest version of ‘endurance sports food’). The three and a half hour journey morphed into 7 hours but I did manage to read 100 pages of a novel while on the M6 so definitely no time was wasted, even if I was when I arrived. No time for resting, I needed Sinnett’s sage words to calm the butterflies. All I recall was “take the high line” and “make sure your wheels are turning fast enough to clear your tyres”. Sounds fine until I also recalled that he’s not known as Crash Bandicoot for nothing. Hmm, perhaps time to evoke The Elf – “you’ve got to respect the distance, big man”. That’s better. But, really, 38 miles isn’t far, is it?
After a night spent with 8 men and a teenage boy in a bunkhouse I awoke in a truly horrendous, soup like atmosphere, reminiscent of a barn in Bavaria before bear fighting was outlawed. Modestly, I can only claim partial credit for the smell.
Signing on at 6.45 a.m., the weather was warm but all surrounding hillsides were bathed in cloud. I wandered around, trying to keep calm, but was troubled that all the men, and most of the women, were thin and flinty eyed – where were the tubby fellows full of bonhomie? Tucked up safe at home if they had any sense.
I forced down as much of the ‘breakfast of champions’ (low fat vanilla yoghurt mixed with crunchy oat cereal plus a pint of Diet Red Bull) as I could, which wasn’t much. Just after 9 I thought that I should find my starting spot at the back of the field and stepped out into heavy rain. This boded badly indeed as John Rawnsley had advised the night before that Ingleborough was “very boggy” – would this turn out to be classic Yorkshire understatement?
Thankfully the starter held us up so that we started 5 minutes late so that we were drenched rather than merely damp. The opening 5km or so is on the road and I enjoyed the gritty taste of rear wheel spray for 10 minutes. If only I’d known that this was far from the worst thing I’d taste during the day.
The road turn off to Simon Fell came and it was immediately a mess of crunching gears and dropped chains. I was far too much of an old hand to make such an elementary mistake, opting instead to ride in a completely inappropriate gear. And then I needed a call of nature. By the time I’d finished – and is there a stranger sight than a man in a field, bent double in bibshorts, muttering “come on you bastard, come on”? – I was last. Convincing myself this was tactical to avoid the traffic jam on Simon Fell I set off, realising too late that I’d already lost one of the two pieces of pipe lagging that would cushion my body from carrying the bike. Which I was about to do up the 45 degrees of Simon Fell.
Somehow I settled into a steady plod and caught and passed lots of fellow stragglers, occasionally getting a tyre to the side of the head as they slipped (for accuracy I must record that ‘Wildgipper dipped in manure’ is an interesting taste, but possibly not one that I care to repeat. If only I’d known that this was far from the worst thing I’d taste during the day. I paused at one point to allow someone to move across and looked above to see silhouetted figures disappearing into the mist., conjuring up visions of the First World War (although obviously I’m not as crass as to refer to the Somme).
Simon Fell was bested without undue grief but it was still someway to the top of Ingleborough across open bog and in thick cloud. Oh, and it was still raining hard and John handed exaggerated about it being boggy, as I found out when the ground swallowed my wheel and I went over the bars. Undeterred I pressed on and the first peak was knocked off.
I do not want to talk about the descent apart from to say that the only time I rode I ended up diving face first into a pile of farmyard slurry to emerge looking (and smelling) like a mate of Bobby Sands during the Dirty Protests. Luckily the road beckoned which would give some relief. However Mark’s advice about ‘turning the wheels fast enough to clear the tyres’ came back to haunt me as at 30 mph I proceeded to snack on the farmyard slurry. And still this was far from the worst thing I’d taste during the day although at least it was no longer raining.
The road from the bottom of Ingleborough to the base of Whernside was undulating and after chatting briefly to a 70 year old (while half wheeling, naturally), I showed my own flinty eyed side by snicking down a gear and leaving him pleading while I rode off like a ghost faced killa. The ascent of Whernside was not bad at all, simply stepping from one geasy flagstone step to the next with the Ribbleahead viaduct as a spectacular backdrop. All too soon however we were back into the clouds and assailed by rude ramblers who insisted on pushing past us on a narrow path (I will note that the vast majority of walkers we saw on the day were very considerate and the fact that I caught one surly chap with a shit caked Landcruiser was merely an unfortunate accident). The top of Whernside wasn’t boggy – yay – but it was covered with sharp, greasy and loose stones – boo. There was also a pretty sheer drop to the right which would have looked good for the split times but perhaps made finishing a challenge. Asking the time as I dibbed my dibber I realised that the winner had probably finished and I had an hour to get to the turn off to Pen-y-Ghent to avoid being DQ’d.
I do not want to talk about the descent of Whernside other than to say that I walked (lame I know but combine greasy flagstones, 6 inch wide and deep drainage channels and it wasn’t at all Edwards friendly, indeed walking in hard plastic soles and metal cleats didn’t help. Nor did seeing someone wrapped in a survival bag, tended by Mountain Rescue).
I was feeling increasingly weary and the cut off was looking a challenge so to fortify myself I pondered about what Jean Paul would do (that’s J-P Sartre, rather than Jean-Paul who featured in my ‘O’ Level French textbooks). I found that this line of thought made my head hurt so instead focused on thoughts of Kate Moss’ charming bosom, circa 2001. As if by magic I was at the bottom of Whernside in one piece.
Now I may not be able to ride down a modest hill but I can own a transitional road section with the best. I’ve no idea by how much I made the cut off, but doubt that it was by more than 5 minutes. As I climbed riders came streaming down which was a trifle demoralising. And on I climbed. My ability to ride ceased as the terrain steepened so it was portage time again (by this time I was cursing the French roundly, for their damned world leading miserabilist philosophy and for not being able to ‘carry’ their bike like everyone else). Still, the weather had cleared and the views were absolutely staggering. And so was I. My left knee hurt. My right knee hurt. My lower back hurt. And my head hurt from trying to think up mitigating excuses for my paltry performance – if I wasn’t last on the course I was bloody close. It was no good, time for Moss again.
And with that I was at the top of Pen-y-Ghent with just a clattering, loose, rocky descent to come. It almost made the preceeding hours worthwhile but, not wanting to spoil a commendable record, I elected to walk as it was such a lovely day. Marshalls were asking “are there any more?” and, like Peter Ustinov in lycra, I was stopping for a chat; I was almost sorry to get back to the road for the quick scoot back to Helwith Bridge and the finish.
I managed to miss most of the presentations – they wait until the last person is home and I was busy changing when that happened as I’ve found that people don’t like standing next to you when you smell of shit. Sadly I didn’t see SuperGeoff after his brilliant 12th (although as I took 3 hours longer than him I’d have been too embarrassed to do more than mutter a few words), although in my own way I feel that my efforts deserve merit – after all, how many other people were 4th last? And of those, who then experienced congestion on the M6 on the long drive home and had to eat an unidentified meat pasty in a service station (which won the award for worst taste of the day but a considerable margin)?
But what of Sartre, who started us off? He once said “for an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it”. So I have. And it was.