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Circuit of the Dales last weekend. A 50 mile TT round some of my favourite places to ride a bike. Hilly enough to stop anyone entering of getting round in a "TT fast" sort of time, but scenic and entertaining enough to stop anyone entering caring about that. I love it. Last year I got round in 2hrs 6mins, which I was happy enough with given how out-of-energy I was by the last section up to and past the Ribblehead Viaduct. This year I wanted to go quicker.

Now, me being me, I'd decided that a couple of days before was a fine time to head out with Phil and Dave H for a 7.5 hour, 100+ mile, 10,000ft climbing, semi off road ride. I wasn't wrong in so much as it was a great day to do it (a Friday, while most people were stuck at work, ha ha ha ha ha) and it was a great day out, gravel grinding across Lancashire's remotest hills, but you won't find it in any guide on how to do well at a race, under the "stuff to do in the day or so before the event". Lee made mention of depleted glycogen stores, hydration and all sorts of very clever sounding (and no doubt accurate) problems I may encounter as a result of it, but I remained convinced that all would be well; he'd got me in shape to thrash round last week's hilly TT straight after a stag do feeling good so this would be a walk in the park...

...speaking of which, the thought of getting a puncture halfway round the TT course filled me with such dread (seriously, it'd be a long LONG walk in a skimpy skinsuit and inappropriate shoes over some ruddy big hills to get back to even the nearest town if the worst should happen) that I spent the evening before gaffer taping a multitool, canister of sealant and spare tubular tyre to the back of the bike. When combined with a "I'll never drink it, but I'm taking it anyway because I *should* drink it" water bottle it essentially created a bit of a wind catching parachute behind the saddle, but the reassurance it all provided, wobbling about back there was well worth it, to my mind.

In the last few minutes before getting an early night (just the one beer for me, thankyouverymuch) I checked last year's ride details and made some quick notes on how long it had taken me to get to a few 'notable junctions' on the course to stick onto my stem, in order to give myself some targets to aim forwhile riding.

The weather on the drive over to the HQ was, if I'm being honest, almost perfect for a TT. A bit chilly, perhaps, but sunny with a few fluffy clouds, bone dry roads and not much in the way of wind. I got my kit ready in the back of the van and decided to shoehorn a windproof baselayer on under the skinsuit and a skullcap under the TT helmet, to keep the chill at bay.

Suitably attired, I hopped on the turbo trainer for a warm up that revealed, no surprise, Lee's talk of dehydration was accurate, as i poured a full bottle of water down my neck with it barely touching the sides. The legs were turning over well enough though, so I rolled down to the start line feeling suitably comfortable with my chances. While being held up in the final few seconds before my start, I heard one of the time keepers remark that there were only aa few riders left to start. "We're into the big hitters now", he commented. I had no idea if he meant 'the people after me', or if he was looking at the state of my 'half a bike shop' hanging from the back of the saddle and being sarcastic about me chances. Whatever. Off I went and got settled down as quickly as I could.

My first, self imposed 'checkpoint' was less than 10 minutes in. Last year I thought I'd dome that bit of the course pretty quickly, so when I got there a good 30 seconds quicker this time I was delighted. The right hand turn was wonderfully traffic free as well. Hoorah! Back into position and along the flattest section of the course to Kirkby Lonsdale (which isn't really flat, but all of the little lumps and bumps pale into insignificance compared to the later climbs).

Section two ticked off. Just over a minute up on last year, feeling OK in myself (though my heart rate wasn't really responding to any out of the saddle efforts- I presumed this would sort itself out later on). Happy days. Happy days riding a bike in the countryside, no less. I awarded myself with an energy gel, which disrupted my rhythm a bit, but seemed like the right thing to do at the time but, to my great annoyance, a mile further down the road a set of temporary traffic lights appeared in front of me. On red. I did the correct thing and stopped, while cursing the missed opportunity to have a gel without the mid ride faff, the loss of 'flow' and the suddenly tumbling average speed on the computer.

I'm only stationary for about 25 seconds but it felt like a lifetime. Long enough, certainly, for my legs to feel sluggish to respond as I overcompensated and spent the next couple of miles chasing a flying Patrick Casey, eventually getting to my checkpoint three at a right hand turn at Sedburgh about a minute behind my self imposed schedule.

Bugger it.

Slow moving traffic through the centre of the village saw me gnashing my teeth in frustration and I'm not surprised to see my minute man come past as we exit Sedburgh and begin the 'Dales proper' roads towards Hawes.

It was blatantly obviuos that he had more power to put out than me, but after a few iles it was also blatantly obvious that I was going up the hills quicker.

Essentially the route all the way from Sedburgh to Apperset becomes a two-up time trial. He rolled smoothly past me every time the road flattened or descended (for a short while I was cursing all the crap hanging off the back of the bike for causing huge amounts of drag, until I saw another rider at the side of the road, next to a punctured bike, which sent such a shudder down my spine that I felt it catch on the tail of the TT helmet. I'll take the drag over that walk!) and each time the road rose back up I'ld close the gap and, on the longer climbs, move back in front.

We both refsed to take the mickey - no drafting took place, with us both making sure we moved out of the slipstream of the rider in front and we were both pretty laid back about the silliness of it, but I was still secretly happy when a longer descent saw him get a bigger gap. I could settle back into my own ride and chuck another gel down my neck while wondering how far off my self imposed deadline I was.

I hit the right hand turn at Hawes nearly four minutes back and two things struck me as I started the big climb towards Ribblehead. Firstly, it wasn't chilly any more - I definitely did not need a windproof, thermal baselayer, or a skullcap under the helmet and secondly, I was not 'revving'. I certainly wasn't dying on my arse or cramping up like I had been last year but my heart rate wasn't interested in going up and I was doing a lot more 'zone 2' riding than I should have been. Clever people would no doubt been muttering about depleted glycogen stores. I chucked the final gel I had stashed down my neck and 'just got on with it'. Progress was still made, the hill was still climbed and, by the time the lovely Three Peak iconic bridge came into view I was delighted to note that that section, at least, had been done quicker than last time. I was still down overall, but I'd closed the gap...

From Ribblehead to the finish line is an annoyingly long distance. It should be all downhill. It should be a final sprint, but it isn't. It certainly wasn't for me. It was fast (more so for other people, a few of whom sailed past me as I rolled down the hill feeling a bit like a sailship catching the wind, as they either retook the place I'd caught them for or just reinforced how many minutes quicker than me they'd gone) but not fast enough for any miracles to quite take place - I crossed the finish line about 45 seconds down on last year's time, finishing in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 50 seconds. 6th place on the day - so 1 down on last year but still comfortably top 10. I'd already decided that the sub 2 hour ride would have to be next year's early TT season target by the time I'd got back to the van and found someone had parked so closely to it I had to move it in order to get the passenger side door open to get to my kit in the back...

Huge thanks to everyone involved in the event - every major junction had helpful marshals keeping us all going, everything ran smoothly and there was even still some cake left by the time I'd got my act together and returned my number to the cheerful organisers. Once again it was an ace day out round the Dales.

Mega huge thanks to the aforementioned Lee at Advance cycle coaching who's...well, right about what happens when I act like I do. And patient too, obviously, given how me puts up with with my stupid ideas, while still managing to keep me riding up at the pointy end of the results sheet. Clever stuff.

Scarily, I think my next race is the Dirty Reiver - here's hoping for all the speed and dust of last year, with non of the punctures :)


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