The brain is a remarkable organ. Some would say the most remarkable organ in your body, although most of those wouldn’t be men. It is capable – rather unlike certain other appendages – of significant displacement activity especially when faced with much of the same for most of the time.
In the case of one hundred kilometres of not terribly different things happening in front of me, the cerebral loaf sliced up time with the insertion of looped music into a head otherwise stuffed only with boredom. Sadly this synapse sponsored play-list contained only one song, of which I know almost three lines from the entire lyrical ensemble.
Elvis Costello may be a genius songsmith and I have some time for much of his back catalogue, but even his most ardent groupie would tire of hearing a repeat of lines including “Checkpoint Charlie” / “Mr Churchill” and “Johannesburg” interspersed with some desperate humming. Six hours of “Oliver’s Army” has left me with no choice but to dedicate the remainder of my life to hunting down and eating every remaining copy.
Between slapping my head in a doomed attempt to skip tracks, the HONC passed me by in a series of emotions primarily swinging between boredom, misery and dashed hope. I’d also like to record brief periods of fun, humour and generic enjoyment except I don’t think there were any.
It went something like this:
Arrive in Winchcome at far-too-bloody-early o’clock, and am immediately confronted with arm waving high viz jackets, middle class white people* of differing shapes struggling with the full range of two wheeled accesories from the basically recreational to the achingly niche.
Meet riding buddies and swap excuses. Difference being they a) have ridden the event before and are looking confidently fit and b) are both much younger and competitive that me. I decided right then this would be the last time I see then.
And we’re off. Instant cockage overcomes pelaton types and there’s some elbow out action down the high street. Wonder if it’s just me that thinks with 59.5 miles to go, sprinty showboating might be a little out of place. “It’s not a race” I want to shout but instead just hand out some lessons in exactly how pointy Yorkshire elbows are.
First climb and I wave bye to my friends as they carry out their threat to put in some hard yards, so not to be caught behind slow and rubbish riders as the road turns to dirt. As one of those slow and rubbish riders, I applaud their commitment from a very spinny position some way back.
We crest the first (and longest) climb with testosterone levels still high enough for some knob to save himself one second by rudely pushing in as we approached a gated crossing. Already a bit miserable, I opt for some sport by drafting el-knobbo on the road right up to the point when he notices, then cruising by in the manner of the aerobically untroubled. Then slowing right down so he has to go straight back past. Guess what I did then? I know, I know I just can’t help myself.
Childish yes, and I bored of it after a couple of miles which unfortunately swept us past the exit marked “all non lunatics turn here” and committing myself to the full 100k. Mr Costello sat himself downon a comfy chair for a nice long set.
First checkpoint. Only thing of note was the first proper muddy section (of which there were thankfully few) where some racey nutter took a bankside route to pass the double stacked riders. The end of which dropped him into a hub deep puddle of vile slop, and – because there is a God – then pitched him head first into a second vat of something similar. To be fair to the fella he did acknowledge the cheers from the righteously avenged.
“Give it a REST ELVIS” I found myself shouting much to the apparent consternation of some innocent fellows I’d fallen in with. It has to be recorded most of them were significantly quicker uphill showing levels of commitment reflected in their raspy breathing. Show them a bit of downhill though, especially were it enlivened by a smattering of the slippy stuff, and they’d show you their getting off and walking skills.
But with the ups lasting far longer than the downs and the off road being pretty benign, soon they left me to be replaced by the next keen set of riders who would swallow me up and spit me out the back. This bothered me not at all as my plan had nothing at all to do with what what going on with other riders’ abilities.
Time to execute on Ride Plan. Off the bike, bit of a stretch, force down some ‘orrid energy bar, slurp a few mouthfulls of electrolyte laced water and then stretch some more. Having fallen victim to terrible cramp and general un-wellness on long events before, this time I was going to finish on the bike however long it took. In my mind that was about seven hours, but the GPS told me I was doing a little better than that.
It also told me I still had 40 miles and 4.5 hours to go. I began to obsess a bit about that pleading for the miles to decrement at an entirely unrealistic rate. Paranoia infected my thought processes, and I forced myself to look away believing the evil little numbers would only change if I wasn’t watching.
It was in this state of mind that I made the first of my navigational mistakes. Obviously it was downhill, and some distance from the usefully placed course marker I’d somehow missed. On the upside, I’d dragged about five riders with me which ensured company on the grind back up to where we could see many riders zipping by wondering what these losers where doing all the way down there.
From now on, I’d forget about the miles and follow the little pointer religiously.
“My GPS says we’ve gone the wrong way” I quietly whispered to a few more riders milling about on a road junction. Back we went a headwind-y mile back up a dusty road with me pretending it wasn’t my fault. Thinking about equipment and its’ appropriateness, it is fair to label the ST4 as far too much bike for the road sections. Even with 40psi in the tyres, I was briefly jealous of those whizzing by on Cross Bikes or light hardtails.
I say briefly because almost every off road section was a washboard field crossing, a rutted doubletrack or a rocky gulley. Here the full suspension bike held sway, and it was with some vainglory that I passed riders who were desperately hanging on to the bars and, probably, their kidneys.
One fella I kept seeing on a cross bike very similar to the one I sold just in time that I couldn’t ride it here, did a pretty solid job of descending on something entirely unsuitable. But every time he caught me up on the next road section, something had broken; his toolkit, a spoke, his eyeballs, etc. It is difficult to show sincere sympathy while at the same time explaining just how smooth the ST4 was down that very decent that had beaten him up.
“You didn’t enjoy it?” / “No way, it was ACE”
HALF WAY. Thank fuck for that. 30 miles still to go? Bollocks.
Mr C clearly in for the duration “Churchill” “hmmmm, hmm HMMM HMMM hmm hmmm Johanesburg Hmm hmm OH FUCK OFF”. Arse starting to hurt now. Even with sufficient Assos cream to lubricate a Rhypnol evening at a Boy Scouts badge ceremony**, my “sit bones” were becomes jagged bones to the point where I’d started to have a strange fantasy about squatting on a pineapple. Long, lonely rides can do that to a man.
Photographer attempts to lure me into stream crossing. I’ve heard all about the bike swallowing properties of this obstacle so skirt round the side and freewheel into the food stop. Busy, but I know no-one. I was following up a vague web conversation to meet up with Jo Burt, but didn’t feel I knew him well enough to offer a hand shake when I’d seen him earlier.
To be fair he was taking a piss, but I accept I missed the perfect opportunity – on our next meeting – to open with “Hey Jo, didn’t recognise you without your cock out”
Quick cake and tea stop and I’m off before the chilly wind saps my motivation to get this thing done. A quick stretch nearly had amusing consequences when I had to be helped back to an upright position. I’m fairly sure no damage was done to either my reputation or dignity, as I remained half hinged and mostly helpless.
20 to go, last 2 don’t matter as they’ll be back into the village and sheer bloody mindedness will get me there. I know from a route scan there’s some tough climbs and they are almost entirely into a strengthening head wind. Cake Powered, my uphill prowess increased to the point where tired riders were dispatched with a cheery “On your right mate” and for a while I felt like a proper racer.
Now being passed by same riders who clearly have proper fitness. Pass a few back on a long rutted doubletrack into the valley bottom. Enjoyment tempered by climb out of the far side, firstly through a ploughed field and then over a rocky horror climb bounded by an aggressive hedge. People are pushing now but I’m still grinding on, loving the plushness of the ST4, hating everything else.
At this point my “Greta Garbo I want to be alone” approach was fully tested as an old man riding a bike made new in 1973 – including the original toe clips- breezed by. What was that I said about retaining any dignity?
Okay quick push now up a bastard climb that sat atop a muddy section which showed just how bad this course would have been a week earlier. Pretty much un-ridable in my view and while we cursed the eyeball pinball that the ruts and tractor tyre artifacts begat, it was still one million times better than a 100 kilometre slug-fest with thick mud under tyre.
After that climb was done, I was pretty much done. We rode through the impressively manicured grounds of Salperton House on a wide track awash in acres of verdant grass, and my aching body could no longer resist the siren call of the slack. As I lay supine, happy to be off the bike and out of the wind while being gently warmed by a cloud broken sun, hoards of grim faced riders whummed by. The occasional one took my regal wave as affirmation I was not in need of medical attention, and only the prospect of being shot by a rich man with a gun***with a vague idea of what a pheasant might look like, roused me from a slumbering torpor.
CHANGE YOU BASTARD I requested politely of the GPS. Road, Climb, Field, Bump, Down, Up, “Churchill, Hmmm Hmm Johanesburg, Hmm, hmm, hmm Checkpoint Charlie, Hmm, hmmmmmmm after you Elvis, you know the words, mnnnnnrrrrtghhhhhhmnmmmmm”. Anybody else getting groundhog day?
Last 4 have passed in sort of a blur. A very slow blur that can only be recorded by expensive motion capture cameras normally filming the changing of the seasons. Everyone in our little group looks a bit fucked and worn out. The views have been horizon-to-horizon lovely all day but now we’re climbing onto Cleeve Common which seems to double as a council tip.
Before we get there, another photographer jumps out and demands some kind of cunning stunt from a man who has lost all interest in cycling. I manage to get one of my ends up while silently Spoonering his request. For a second it drowned out Oliver’s Army, but the bugger was soon back garrisoned in my frontal lobe.
Jeez, we’re in the epicentre of the world’s largest fly tipping experiment with a difficult juxtaposition of dead fridges, spring-out sofas and surly motocrosses. Bastard rocky climb as well which I ride because I don’t trust my knees for pushing. I pass a few with a tired “how you doing?” generally illiciting not much more than a grunt or groan. The fast boys and girls are done and showered, and it’s all mid pack and difficult now.
Not far to go but it’s properly hurting now, I’ve had a first bout of cramp trying to re-seat a dropped chain that’s disappeared behind the cassette of a rider whose entirely clueless on what to do next. I fix it at the expense of bloodied knuckles and comedy emergency stretching.
Ah hah, ROTB (Roadies on Mountain Bikes) in matching jerseys and beaten expressions make organic slalom markers on a proper ripping singletrack descent from the common’s top. I spend some happy seconds thinking no one has passed me on a descent all day, before the realisation that about ten times as many have gone past when the trail points the other way somewhat dampens my rampant ego. Not much else is rampant apart from a desperate need to eat, but I’m sick of goo-ey energy bars.
God shows again he’s the beneficent being the Church is always banging on about by placing some young entrepreneurs on the common, pimping out mouth watering chocolate slices for 50p and encouragement for free. Many riders pass while I make multiple purchases and wonder if I can recruit them for Dragon’s Den.
Hello twatty headwind how I’ve missed you. C’mon Elvis let’s sing it together “Checkpoint” grind “Charlie” Gurn “Churchill” Grimace. Repeat until it’s gone beyond funny, and into that dark place where the cackley demons live. I. AM. NOT. GETTING. OFF. Most of the other riders did as pedalling on damp grass after 55+ miles of quite enough became far too much into the tooth of half a gale. But I’m just not built that way. For all my pretending not to care about the pace of others and sticking to a plan, I still have myself to beat and beat up so I give up trying to find a lower gear and just bloody well get on with it.
It ends eventually and what an ending with the best descent of the whole day opening up into a rocky gully full of mud hidden traps waiting to claim tired riders. And I’m shot, completely, no new Trail Skills to save me here, no “in slow out fast“, no looking round the corner, no outside pedal down, just sheer bloody bravado and joy and this being so good and so close to the end. I know the climbs are done so I may as well put everything into the next mile
It’s ragged. It’s not pretty. It’s not even a distant cousin of smooth. I hear the chain slapping the swingarm, the heavily PSI’d tyres scrabbling for grip and I’m making too many corrections, trying to flow but never getting close. And then Ol’ Toe Clips is marooned in the middle of MY descent doing 4 mph and that won’t do. I have two options, one is polite and correct, the other tells you why instinct and common sense are never equally distributed.
Suddenly Elvis has left the building, the pineapple was a forgotten fruit and my mind was full of “The Italian Job” imagery as they escaped down the tunnels. I hit the bank hard, rocks cascading below me to the drumbeat of the impulsive, railing high and left above Mr. Marin and his Sensible Pace before I’m running out of road and ideas. Got to drop back in, probably clear, probably, definitely maybe, better than an even chance, no choice, it’s crash or turn.
Noises sequence like this: Trail bike hits trail hard, suspension compresses with a loud squish, rider behind makes a noise with an “O” shaped mouth, rider in front is high on adrenaline shouting “YOU WERE ONLY MEANT TO BLOW THE BLOODY DOORS OFF”. Everyone is happy. Well one out of two anyway.
I stopped some time later as muddy dirt met tarmac to clean my splattered sunglasses and still my beating heart. Matey Marin caught up and we agreed to disagree that my passing move was either “Safe, controlled and well intentioned” or “Dangerous, bloody stupid and inconsiderate”.
This is a very friendly event even with 1200 riders, and yet I’ve managed to piss at least two of them off. Ah well, it’s not like I’m coming back.
And I won’t be. Collecting my time at a smidge under six hours I didn’t feel particularly worthy or content. The car park was more than half empty which shows exactly how good the time really was. My arse hurt, my knees ached but not so much I didn’t ride last night on some sublime, dust speckled woody singletrack. I probably could have finished 30 minutes quicker if I could have – at any point – given a shit, but that never got close to happening.
My mates finished nearly an hour quicker and declared themselves satisfied and sated. They’ll be back next year. I’ll be riding somewhere fun for three hours and then going to the pub.
* All driving 4x4s as well. Honestly, what a stereotype eh? Know anyone like that?
** I apologise for the tastelessness of that joke. You have to appreciate the pain I was suffering at the time.
*** Salperton House is a very expensive retreat for posh people with too many teeth and not enough manners to go and shoot fat birds. I believe they keep pheasants in the shed, not alcopop’d blonde’s from Essex, but maybe someone should check.