I blame Pervy Bob. Or his dad. Or possibly even his beautiful, unobtainable, older sister (she was two years older which meant that at the time she was pretty much Mrs. Robinson. Oh, and she spoke fluent French which only added to the unobtainable mystique). Actually, most of all I blame Pervy Bob, and not only for the effect the following had on me.
Back in 1986 I was at college and Pervy Bob invited me for a weekend in Nelson; despite his name this was in no way sinister. Having enjoyed a pleasantly boozy Saturday night I was a bit put out to be raised from my slumber in the attic at some unearthly hour the next morning to go and watch Pervy Bob's dad perform unspeakable acts in public. I must admit that I was a little unnerved to be standing on a desolate and godforsaken hillside with no idea what to come - and then men appeared racing down the grass on bikes. Very fragile looking bikes heading at top speed down a gradient that would have given me pause for thought about walking down. Occassionally one rider would decide to leave his bike behind while performming acrobatic feats rarely seen outside of Billy Smart's Big Top - I swear to this day that one bearded fellow exited over the bars, performed a perfect forward roll to standing and proceeded to run down the hill (no mean acomplishment when the bike was fitted with toeclips and straps pulled tight and he was wearing studded Walsh fell running shoes), although the effect was slightly spoiled when he had to return up the slope to retrieve his bike. Memory may be betraying me (again) but the fact that it was a grassy slope indicates that I was spectating on the descent off Ingleborough near Cold Cotes but I was awestruck by what I was seeing - this was well before the days that mountainbikes were ubiquitous and I wasn't one of those kids who went scrambling around the local woods on a hopped up Raleigh Arena - and there was no way that I would ever achieve the levels of fitness never mind skill to match these wiry men of iron. But I was intrigued and an itch started that wouldn't even be mentioned, let alone scratched, until 21 years later in 2007.
A casual conversation with Gus down the pub (why does alcohol always feature so heavily?) lead to us both entering the 2008 event with one of his acolytes. First thing first, I thought that I better get myself a bike and, helped with the very favourable pound:dollar rate at the time, I got myself an Independent Fabrication Planet X with King headset and Syncros post for the princely sum of £250 delivered. Having looked at a few DVDs, read a couple of articles and purchased some Landcruisers (I was a little worried that they were 'blue labels' that had a reputation of blowing off the rims under high pressure), I was ready. Apart from having never ridden a cyclocross bike and being ill versed in how to shoulder one. Unfortunately my mum was rushed into hospital the day before (thankfully it turned out to be nothing serious) so I didn't even make the start line but Gus and his Plus One had a bash in glorious sunny weather. And failed. I'd been close but now the itch was starting to really niggle so I was going to have to scratch it.
Into 2009 Gus had sworn off for good so I headed North with Vinia. The weather was kind and I managed to get round in 5 hours 36 and 425th. I'd survived without mishap, the itch was gone and in 2010 I gave the event a miss. But somehow it continued to bug me and in 2011 I had another crack (recounted somewhere else on here) and managed 6 hours 26 and 557th in conditions that started on Simon Fell in thick mist but ended up in bright sunshine on Pen-Y-Ghent.
2012 was the 50th anniversary of the event and the last one that John Rawnsley, the winner of the inaugral race and organiser for half a century, would be at the helm. It was therefore a 'must', despite misgivings that I'd somehow survived unscathed twice - would it be third time unlucky? I’d trained appropriately during the dismal British Summer (i.e. watched sport on the tv while eating large quantities of crisps) and was hoping that a week in the Italian Alps would somehow cancel out months of indolence. Using my experience from previous years, I found myself in the kitchen on the Saturday morning, desperately trying to adjust the pads so that they would bite before the levers touched the bars. After a wasted hour or so I accepted that the front one may rub slightly and, if worn, dive under the rim and gave up. I also considered adopting my good luck fail safe – new cleats – but somehow I just couldn’t be arsed so I chucked it all in the car and headed North. At least I had splashed out and bought some new top tube foam.
After a traffic laden journey I arrived in Helwith Bridge, unpacked and contemplated the conditions. The BBC website was predicting heavy rain all day which, combined with photos pasted on Facebook of a partially flooded Pen-Y-Ghent lane made me glad that I was riding a steel bike. One of the chaps in the bunkhouse suggested trying the Mountain Weather Information for a more accurate forecast so we did – heavy rain, cloud base at 300m , wind at 30-40mph gusting to 70mph. However the sky was clear, visibility good and we reckoned that the weathermen, again, had got it wrong. After a couple of pints with Klaus (we were being professional so kept it to a couple) it was time to sleep.
I sensed the bedroom before I entered it but opening the door was olfactorily challenging – the aroma was so strong you could taste it. And the taste was of lightly salted rubbish that had been left outside in the hot sun for just a couple of hours too many. Stoically I settled down to sleep, only awoken by two room mates entering nosily at 11 p.m., turning on the light and then coming out with inane small talk for 10 mintes. Luckily they repeated this approach in reverse at 6 a.m. so there was no need for an alarm clock. Imagine my smile when I found out they weren’t riding.
So, how was the weather. Just like the forecast. But worse. It did stop raining just long enough for me to get the car so that I could listen to some motivational music and consider whether I could just drive home without anyone was noticing. I had the engine started when I realised that my bike was still in the bunkhouse. It seemed foolish to abandon it but my hand did pause perceptibly before I turned the key to ‘Off’. It was no good, this was going to have to be done. Or at least attempted.
I’d seen Klaus only briefly that morning and at the start he was nowhere to be seen (to be fair, I was lurking right at the back). And then, we were off. Or we weren’t and I dabbed before we’d even crossed the start line. Looking ahead, I could see the riders snaking towards Horton. A quick glance behind and I found that there was no one else. This wasn’t happening, not to me, not today, and I lifted the pace and joined the other riders as we headed off the main road towards Simon Fell. By this stage I was already drenched and each footstep caused a stream of filthy, peaty water up and over the shoes. It was clear that this was going to be a long day. If only I’d known at the time how long.
Heading into the cloud the sidewind was terrific and, with the bike on the shoulder acting as a sail and the 45 degree slope, forward momentum was tricky. Add in some bracing horizontal rain and it was a truly visceral experience – at one point I started to laugh and was met with a few blank stares so stopped pretty quickly and I trudged on. All too soon I was getting ‘dibbed’ at the top of Ingleborough and turned to begin the descent. What I saw, in the thick cloud, was people trudging towards me, reminiscent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Girding myself for what was to come I climbed on the bike and began the drop across the very rocky terrain – pretty much as soon as I’d started I was perched on the top tube scooting with one foot. The wind was ridiculous and it seemed almost harder than climbing. Having reached an unrideable section (by anyone I think), I hopped off to find out that my cowardly scooting had detached the two bits of foam lagging so any subsequent carries were going to be a bit uncomfortable. Luckily I only had the ascents of Whernside and Pen-Y-Ghent to carry up. Plus the descents to carry down. I continued down the soggy bog, pausing only to fall off at exceptionally slow speed. Still in the cloud I ran, I carried, I occasionally rode but the conditions meant that I was no slower than many who were aboard their bike and often others were on foot too. Klaus passed me just before we reached Cold Cotes and I stopped to relieve myself behind a few tufts of long grass. Being ever considerate I thought that I must have the wind at my back in case some of my urine sprayed my fellow competitors so orientated myself appropriately. It was a good job I did as I created what can only been described as a horizontal piss cannon – I swear that not a drop hit the deck for 100m or more. I was impressed. And I was 25 minutes inside the cutoff as well.
The rain eased (as it turned out, only briefly) and road section flew by. I was feeling pretty good. Pausing at the water stop at the base of Ingleborough however, the marshall advised that we were only just inside the cutoff. I suspected that he was mistaken – even I can’t lose 25 minutes on a 10 mile road section – I pushed on (literally) with a little less optimism. Which soon vanished completely as the rain lashed down and water literally poured down the rough stone steps of the climb. I glanced down at my slowly pumping thighs which were totally sodden – through the white panels my upper legs were the colour of tandoori chicken. On I climbed. The rain intensified – it was bitter, spiteful, Tory. The wind whipped around, trying to snatch the bike from my bruised shoulder. Well, it could bloody well have it if it wanted although I’d pretend to put up a fight. I was definitely no longer having fun.
At the top of Whernside I dipped in again and queried the time. I can’t remember what the guy said – the wind had risen to really silly speeds – but as I slung my leg over the crossbar and wobbled away I had already given up in my head. The passage along the top of Whernside was really horrible, about 4 feet wide, rock and mud strewn with a strong gale and a sheer drop to the right. This wasn’t the right time to remember that I am afraid of heights, even ones I can’t see because of the cloud (fear of heights and fear of descending? Are they linked. Frankly I didn’t care). Still, I rode more than in previous years and, as I turned right onto the stone slabs I figured I may as well try to ride. The frequent square sided drainage channels have always concerned me – pop a wheel in there and if you are lucky the worst that will happen is a puncture – but somehow I was flowing over them. Ok, I wasn’t bunny hopping but I was showing enough technical nous to slightly lift the front wheel and imperceptibly unweight the saddle a moment later. Hang on, I was smooth. And fast. And loose. I’d got this descending lark licked! Then I was lying on the smooth slabs with my bike about 10 feet behind me. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I do remember as I was mid air that this was the sort of thing that broke collarbones so used the point of my elbow and my knee to break my fall. Standing up I realised that I had the perfect excuse to drop out. I also realised that no one had seen my pathetic crash and I still had to get out of the cloud. I flexed my knee. Ow. I flexed my elbow. Double ow. I tried limping for a bit but it looked and felt pathetic so I broke into a shuffle/trot (my supreme descending confidence, so hard earned, had vanished). Plenty of riders were passing, on bike but mostly on foot, and it looked like the chance of making the cut off at Horton was gone. Oh well, I had tried.
After crossing two or three swollen streams – one on a greasy plank where I seriously thought about throwing myself in to dry off – I was on the gravelly lower slopes of Whernside and on to Ribblehead. A chap was handing out energy gels so I grabbed one, sucked it down and reached the dibber – “how long to the cut off?” I gasped. “15 minutes” came the reply. Oh bollocks. I’d been prepared to accept timing out with good grace but now I had a chance – 5 road miles in 15 minutes was within range. Except there was an overall uphill gradient and it was still raining. Oh, and there was headwind. Still, for what remained of my self-respect, I had to give it a go so I stuck it in the big ring and did exactly that. I suspect it was the energy gel but I’ll claim that it was mental fortitude – I was passing rider after rider! I hadn’t worn a watch but I suspected it was going to be close as I came up behind a slow moving van as we entered Horton – come on, come on! And then the marshall was waving me up Pen-Y-Ghent lane. Brief euphoria was rapidly replaced by dread – I was now going to have to continue for at least two more hours, no excuses. Oh well.
As riders clattered down on the right, I inched my way up on the left. I crested a small rise to be met by a small lake – I didn’t remember this from previous years. It was of course surrounded by spectators urging everyone, ascenders and descenders alike, to ride through it. I figured “how deep can it be?” and plunged in. As it reached midway up the headtube I realised that I may have been a little gung ho but couldn’t stop as I have appearances to keep up.
I made it through with swashbuckling style, cheered myself as no one did and promptly stopped for some food. Joining me at this point was Thomas Frischknecht’s wife who complained that she now had wet feet. My feet had been wet for over four and a half hours so I laughed, impressed by her dry (ha!) Swiss humour. I was fixed with a level look – damn, the Swiss sense of humour was uber dry. Or maybe I had misunderstood? With a slightly red face, I cast my eyes downward and fumbled with a slippery Powerbar.
The field had really thinned out now and my progress was getting slower and slower. I was also getting cold – the one upshot of the weather was that it was relatively mild although being soaked for over 5 hours in gale force wind did sap the warmth out of the air a little. On the high slopes of Pen-Y-Ghent I met Klaus on the way down – it looked like we’d been separated by only minutes for over three hours! - who was smiling and in very good heart. I feigned bonhomie although I doubt that the smile got as far as my eyes. Then, after another ten minutes I dibbed in at the top of Pen-Y-Ghent. Just the descent to come.
The field was now thinner than Kate Moss in her golden years (July 1999 to mid August 2002) and I was even passed by a chap with only one shoe. It was bloody cold. And bleak. I passed a marshall and asked “are there any more riders?”. “I doubt it lad” was the reply although I appreciated the ‘lad’ as I felt about 150. I tried riding a bit but fell off twice at comically low speed. Thankfully the landing was soft although I knew lower down that I’d have been in a dry stone wall. Still, as long as I was moving forward. Getting towards the bottom of Pen-Y-Ghent lane I met the Mountain Rescue coming up – I was the only number still out on the course and they were checking that I was ok. Flushed with the realisation that I was DFL, I assured them that I was fine - “shit and slow” was all I could manage – and headed on down to that small lake. At this stage I certainly wasn’t going to try it so I walked through, the water eventually lapping quite pleasantly at my lower waist area. But this was no time to stand around in waist deep water in the cold, I had an event to finish.
The little ride along the road was really pleasant and I was pleased that the announcer paused from the award ceremony to greet me over the line with “Ed Edwards. Finished in more ways than one”. The stats? 504th out of 504 finishers in 6 hours 55 although goodness knows how many were DNF. Klaus and SuperGeoff were cheery sights at the finish, the former having been back for just over half an hour, the latter for in excess of 3 hours. But I didn’t care, it had been an epic day and apparently the most challenging conditions since 1981. I was cold though – Klaus did mention that I seemed to be wearing a blue/grey goatee; I’d taken a long time but I had started the day clean shaven. Although I struggled to get warm in the hot shower, the cold sausage that I’d left in the fridge definitely warmed the spirits.
And that was that, apart from the dull, slow 5 hour drive home with the heater on and wearing all my clean clothes. I’d made my peace with the 3 Peaks, completed three events from three starts (albeit slowly) without breaking bike or body and the itch was scratched – DFL, how does it get better than that? Except, yesterday, I started to itch again and I suspect that, this time, it wasn't caused by Pervy Bob........
[to be continued]