Although it could persuasively argued that gently placing ones wedding vegetables into a desk drawer before slamming it violently for twenty four hours would still push that event firmly into last place. Between these two events were nine months, four bikes and ten weeks of healthy living. The cold and rain were two constants except yesterday this was falling as snow.
Most everything else was different; I genuinely wanted to be there whatever my protestations, the course wasn’t based around a field of mud and despair to be orbited in increasingly misery. No one felt the urge to bellow ‘elite rider coming through‘ and – leaving the most important point to the last – the cake was both free and bloody marvellous.
Handed out as it was by friendly marshalls stamping their feet in the freezing conditions while cheering you on and adding to a chilled (natch) vibe of a really well organised event. Nearest thing to it was the now sadly deceased Clic-24, so there must be something about the organisers being inspired to give up their time for local charities which brings out the best in the riders, and the volunteers manning food stalls, sign on tents, enormous breakfast vats and various frozen points around the course.
And what a course it was. Miles of sweet singletrack enlivened with slick roots, rocky gullys and steep chutes all moistened by a rainy week and a wetter winter. The odd section had that life-sapping mud which rewarded intense and sustained effort with a pace easily beaten by those treating the conditions to a more sensible moderate pushing.
This Mayhem like sickly stickiness was thankfully confined to only a few sections of otherwise brilliant natural trails. Sure there were some grim old fireroad climbs and some tough grunts over endless roots gapped by loamy , greasy ground, but the reward were descents offering a perfect composite of gradient, flow, traction and turns.
Nothing to flatter the flat track bully here. It was a committed ride over four to five hours with little respite and enduring challenges. Once tiredness set it, it was a proper bastard and it’d beast you all the way home. Such tiredness on the climbs would ruin the descents and -most likely- deposit the weary rider in a convenient tree. These arboreal halts were most likely on two slick, steep horrors that had the marshalls cautioning dismounts if you weren’t sure. We weren’t sure but still gave it a go, me successfully but only in a heart-in-the-mouth ARRRGHHH IT’S ALL GOING WRONG manner, my mate Ian via an elegant frontal dismount finishing in a spiky bush.
I was still laughing at his predicament when the fast boys on their full suss monsters motored past with nary a dab of brake. Bastards. Some good riders out of the 400, some fit ones as well. Not always at the same time ,which led to a bit of single-traffic frustration best dealt with via an explosive overtake on a line best thought of ‘a bit cheeky‘.
Fun there but not earlier – the day didn’t start well. It started early and cold. Oh so very cold. Arctic winds had me wrap up in double-socked in winter boots, a-topped by fleecy bib-tights, merino base layer, softshell and rain jacket. A gear selection generally outed during the middle of winter, which March has decided to install rather than the traditional Spring Package.
As ever our first proper sight of the event was a muddy field peopled by a phalanx of middle aged blokes baring their arses in some kind of ritualistic pre-ride ritual involving lycra and swearing. We watched this from the warmth of the car which since it contained a blanket and a flask of tea put me very much in mind of pensioner-sightseeing. I did consider this as a pastime for the day were it not that the view lacked anything compelling to look at.
Go for a ride instead then. Knowing our place, we started at the back and remained there as I regaled Ian with my ‘race strategy‘* involving chunks of chocolate disguised as energy bars, a beeping heart rate monitor and a stash of emergency gels marked ‘open only in an emergency’. Our somewhat low key tempo positioned us perfectly for an early stop, during which I further explained to Ian the bladder pressing issue of a middle aged man having drunk a vat of sweet tasting placebo.
So nearly DFL but considerably less distracted, our experience of the first bit of actual off road was that it was full of people who had possibly never been off the road before. As ever my line choices were of the ‘I’ve no idea what it’s doing to the enemy sir, bit it’s putting the fear of God into me’ kind, weaving dangerously between wheeled innocents before nearly being t-boned by my own team mate who’d assumed no experienced or even vaguely sane rider would randomly cut across his path with a cheery ‘are you using that bit of trail fella?‘
The bite of the wind lessened a little in the thick Welsh forest which was about as good as the weather ever got. Still our minds were fairly concentrated on tricky, stall-happy climbing and proper two wheel sliding descents. Distance is hard earned here with the long route cut off an apparently easily achievable 25k away and some 3 hours to get there.
We made it with 20 minutes to spare by maintaining an even pace but not stopping much. This approach works for me with bugger all anaerobic threshold and an asthma tuned physiology which is always steady and mostly slow. Not so much for Ian whose third cold in as many weeks had drained away both fitness and endurance. So wheeling into a hastily build pit stop of goodies, we stopped for awesome cake and a much needed hot cuppa to take stock.
Trooper that he is, there was never a doubt the full 50k was our mission. So let’s get it done, firstly from this high point gained on a stupidly steep road gradient, swishing down sinuous singletrack throwing surprises around every curve – rock steps, narrow ridges drops into deep gullies, rocks to pop off and perfect turns to be carved with more than a nod and a braking finger to the slippy conditions.
That was great. The next few climbs less so for Ian who was really struggling now but he kept at with super little rewards of trail pleasure including a rocky section highlighting how good these new-fangled 29er bikes are even with 100mm of single sprung travel and Mr Useless on board. Who was having a ball up and down with winter honed reflexes, hard earned fitness, a methodological eating plan and an eye on my HRM. Normally by this time it’s all hate for the course designer, spite for those breezing past, excuses being formed and resolutions to never be in this situation again forging under crucible steely skies.
Not today. Ian clearly felt some of this but mostly frustration at his body letting him down. That’s so different to me, most of the time it’s really the other way around. At the last checkpoint, he insisted I bugger off and leave him to suffer alone. I wasn’t keen, but he wasn’t having it so, as is my somewhat chequered history in this area, I abandoned him to his dark place, popped the emergency gel and pushed hard pedal strokes to see exactly what I had left.
Quite a lot as it transpired. I passed a lot of tired and walking riders on the last few climbs, all of which were the kind of muddy/rocky bitches that you really don’t want to see after the best part of four hours and 1400 metres of climbing. On the rather shallow grounds of having ridden everything so far, it seemed churlish not to at least attempt a bit of bloody effort to complete the course on bike both up and downhill.
Up proved surprisingly easy with my reeling in of more tired riders reminding me of how easy the first couple of hours had been. So either that’s a plan for the future or final proof that laziness pays off in the end. The final descent was signalled by the every happy hi-viz outfitted marshalls now back lit by falling snow and it was almost a disappointment.
Probably for the best though, as after a couple more dodgy overtakes withered-body(tm) began to request heated cars and a long sit down by the simple mechanism of a bit of arm pump and a smidge of leg cramp. The road home was exactly that after a final slither on a descent where 50% bravery felt about 40% too much and I wasn’t sad to see the tarmac. With the finish in sight, it seemed a sprint might be in order for which I’d like to apologise to rider 263 who was gasping up the final climb as I flashed past flat out and out of gears.
It’s just that kind of showing off which used to really piss me off when it happened to me. Which was, of course, every other event I’d ever entered. And it’s not like my final time was anything to shout about. Whisper it quietly at best, four and a bit hours on the GPS, five hours elapsed. The field of nightmares was half full at best by now with all the fast boys and girls long gone.
Ian wasn’t far behind and we were soon motoring home in the blissful warmth of my ice-cream van with the heater turned up to ‘I NEED TO FEEL MY TOES’. Ian was disappointed, I was pretty elated but tried not to show it. Might have failed, sorry mate bit bloody inconsiderate.
So what was learned here; important stuff first – great event for great causes, superbly organised, signed and marshalled. Ace course which was tough, fun and committing. Great people to ride with all of which seemed to have exactly the right attitude to a non-race race. Might have been a bit pointy-elbows at the front, but I had absolutely no first hand experience of that. Nor is it likely i ever will.
But I might achieve some mid pack obscurity at the HONC assuming my ride lots/eat less lifestyle survives a trip to the alps in a week or so where I expect beer shall be for lunch, dinner and breakfast but not for winners. After that I’m definitely quitting. Apart from that 100k road ride I’ve already signed up for. And maybe the 24/12. Sleepless is something I’ve never done but feel I should. Hmm. But not Mayhem. I don’t care where it is this year; might as well be on the moon for all the chance there is of me getting within 100,000 miles of it.
I may have learned this – I really don’t like Mayhem but I quite like racing if I’m somewhere close to as good as I can be. Which – we’ve repeatedly established – isn’t very good at all, but that’s somewhat missing the point. I’ve yet to understand what that point is but it might have ‘entry form‘ written all over it.
* It’s not a race he said. And your strategy appears to be muttering ‘I SHALL NOT LEAVE MY WINGMAN‘ every time a rider comes past.