Prelude. Luxuriating. From congested, intercity motorway, to lined traffic A road, to quiet convoluted B road, to comfortably wide, comfortably smooth, lakeside gravel track. The first target of the weekend was arrived at with enough ease to set me at...well, ease. A short ride along the side of Kielder Water, past the location reserved for feedstation 2, to an acceptable looking tree where I could secretly stash a spare bottle of energy drink and a gel away from prying eyes and trail tidying hands. The late afternoon sun was casting a lovely light across the water and allowed me enough time to pause on the way back to the van to get into the habit of soaking up the view.
A hop, skip and £10 later in the van and I was parked up for the evening, up above Kielder Castle. Far enough up to get a bit of radio signal, so some chilled Friday evening Radio 6 weirdness was enjoyed while I set about preping bottles, counting gels and looking carefully at cleats that I had no way of replacing at that point anyway. With any luck I'd only be clipping in once tomorrow, then unclipping at the end. A long wait for a Friday night pizza was used to get me back into the long ride mentality. The result will come, just keeping hanging on in there. And as the temperature outside began to drop I hunkered down in my toasty warm sleeping bag to drift off to a restful sleep with the gentle sound of the trees in the breeze soothing me to dream of endless trails and countless ...diesel heaters in other people's VW Transporters, oh damn it, oh well, everything else was nice at that point, anyway. I'd set my alarm for comfortably early, but was up before it thanks to the sun coming up a bit and the birds shouting about it. That allowed me a few minutes of just being aware of how snug in the sleeping bag I was for a few minutes before treating myself to breakfast "in bed"while pondering the clothing choice for the day. Previous experience had taught me that to be comfortable at the start line wait was to be way too hot for the rest of the event, so I opted for "a bit too chilly"working on the assumption I'd be able to stuff layers into jersey pockets as the day went on, provided I kept eating the energy products currently occupying those locations. Set for the day I rolled down to the start feeling prepared and happy to crack on with the easy part - just riding a bike.
It never happened and that's not Phil.
One of the joys of Kielder is that there's no phone signal there. At all. You've got to be old school with your plans and not just rely on that device that's constantly beeping to organise everything for you. With that in mind, the first glimpse of Dave H and Phil I had for the weekend was on the start line, from about 10 rows of riders back from them, after failing to meet up beforehand, due to having no idea what anyone was doing or where anyone was. I had bumped into Andy and Dan already and we made plans over the heads of those in rows 2 to whatever number was just in front of us that we'd catch up during the neutralised roll out. I'd done every previous edition alongside Phil (he's pretty good for sheltering behind when you're going though a bad patch and smart enough to stop you getting over eager when a caffeine gel kicks in and you start to go into the red) and thought that Dan and I could work well along with him. The plan was perfect. The neutralised roll out was as neutralised as ever and I was instantly into the red working my way up through the, somehow much larger than at the start line, number of riders between us. I could see Dan had already worked his way though the bunch ahead of me so I settled into chashing Phil down as the event proper began. The first dust in the air of the day was thick, the first skids of over eager tyres were frequent around me and for a while it was like there had been no more than a week or so since I was last doing this. Flashes of Phil's jersey at the head of the race told me in no uncertain terms he was on a good day. Ace, this was going to be a good day hurtling round the hills on bikes. A few more miles of saying hello to people I'd not seen in ages, at high speed, and I finally caught up to...not Phil. But his jersey was very similar. Damn. I surfed my way back through the fast front group but didn't spot him. Behind that group there was empty space, growing with each minute, to the rest of the participants. I glanced at the GPS to see how many miles I'd covered in the search. None, apparently. Just a politely minimalist message quietly pointing out that I was moving and would I like to record whatever it was I was doing? I frantically jabbed at the "yes" button and took another glance behind, hoping I could still see the start behind me and that we'd not actually gone as far as I sort of already knew we had. Nope. It was long gone and time to get into the habit of eating and drinking while deciding what to do next. Dan was still up with the group, so I stuck with it - it'd break up soon enough anyway, right?
I barely noticed the first feed stop swoop past, we were moving at such a good clip (plus, that dust! At points riding was just guesswork in a cloud! What were the early morning views like? Who knows!). The group hadn't broken up. Some people had been shelled out the back but it was still The Front Group and I was happy and comfy sat in it. Sadly, the guesswork involved in decending in a group and luck required to avoid any issues, saw my rear wheel hit something on a fairly innocuous drop while right in the middle of the group. I think I knew instantly that I wasn't carrying on with the tyre in the state it was, but Josh Ibbet confirmed it to me as I began to squirm around as it deflated ( I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to him for hosing him down in sealant, as half a gallon of the stuff sprayed out of the missing chunk of tyre!). Oh well. That's me out of the front group. At least Dan's still in there somewhere. I guess I'll see Phil while I sit at the side of the trails and stuff a tube in the rear wheel. I thought to myself.
Headwinds and gifts.
I didn't see Phil at all, while I was trailside, wrestling a tube into the slimy with sealant tyre. I did see Dan though, who wasn't in the group I'd been with as I thought. He whizzed past a few minutes into the faff with a few other riders. Oh well, it's better to be in a group, I thought to myself. Windy today. Probably be horrible on your own. A few more dribs and drabs of (still very fast...) riders went by as I reinflated the rear end of the bike but, as I got back on and glanced back down the trail...nothing. No-one. Just me and the trees. And that wind. Oh arse. Somewhat grumpily I stomped off into the permaheadwind alone and tried to get back to the same level of exertion I'd been enjoying before the puncture. Nothing for it at this point but to push on and see how well I could still do in the event that was, lets not forget, only about a third of the way through. I found myself able to ride up to the ones and twos infront of me and each time told myself to push on - they were welcome to hop on if they wanted, but eveyone I passed seemed happy enough with their own pace so for quite a few miles I had the views mostly to myself. Despite much of the scenery being (lets not beat around the bush here) pretty samey, it being an enormous forest of almost exclusively one type of tree, an hour or so later I found myself on a section I recognised from several years back. On that occasion I'd spent a short while chatting to Mike Hall,as we rode in a small group, about the sort of nothing in particular you do, while enjoying a big day out on bikes. It felt like it could have been just minutes ago. Riding it again, this time just me, hit home more than I could have anticipated. I put my head down and reminded myself that getting to spend the day on a big ride to the best of your ability was to Be More Mike. The headwinds were a gift. The climbs were there as a way of earning the descents. The descents were the quickest way to the next climb. The miles ahead were a way of wrapping it all together and there was no better thing I could be doing at that point than appreciating being in the middle of it all. I grabbed my 'secretly stashed spare bottle near feed stop two' in the kind of blur that's super satisfying when it's all pre planned, after riding past Dan and his group - they were seemingly still together and riding well. Happy days.
The Ant White Group and Nootropics
I'd spotted a group of three riders ahead of me after what seemed like a suitable eternity of self indulgance and had slowly, inches over miles, worked my way back up to them. They were obviously happy working well together and as I got closer I recognised the distinctive kit Ant was wearing - not even the dust in the air and on his back could disguise it! A short while and some full on aero tuck action on the descents later I made contact and for a few miles, shared the headwinds with them. Not being 100% sure how far we'd done (overly polite GPS being blamed for this...) I came to the conclusion that working in the group was a better idea. If I'd overestimated the distance we'd done I could just end up running out of energy and them recatching me anyway, with me feeling rubbish. Also, and very importantly, they weren't going slowly at all. It had taken ages for me to reel them in and the 'treat' of sitting at the back in between pulls at half the effort for the same speed, was very welcome. I rewarded myself with an energy gel I'd been saving for a special occasion during the latter parts of the ride, one with "nootropics" added. The packaging made much if it's ability to increase performance and improve concentration when tiredness was setting in. I was looking forward to whatever turbo boost it would provide.
Together we hit the one "not dry" bit of the ride, a splash through a stream that felt delightful to my "it's getting hot now we're at the middle part of the day" legs and for a few metres afterwards shut my dust encrusted chain up, from the continual squeaking it had been soundtracking the ride with. Lovely. No noticable increased mental accuity as yet, so the gel wasn't kicking in, but that was fine. We were working well together so it wasn't an issue.
Our four swelled in number as another group caught us up and I was happy to up with pace along with them. A few more miles of through-and-off (or thereabouts...) and we hit some fast tarmac. Then there were houses to either side of the tarmac and all of a sudden I realised this was the little detour that was required to get to the third and final feedstation. In all the previous versions I'd done, this was the first feed stop but this time it heralded the final 30 or so miles. Our now faster group all seemed to want to stop, with the exception of me and Ant (Ant never stops. That's the rule. Always. I was still due some sort of super transformation thanks to the nootropics, so didn't need mere mortal food) so, with me expecting them to recatch us after a few miles, we left them to it and carried on without pause. I double checked the distance we'd done with Ant as we re-rode the in/out section while checking my own computer to make a note of where the finish would be by it's reckoning. I still felt good and was happy to set a decent pace as we rejoined the dirt and got back to climbing.
The Swoops of Ego I rode past a couple more lone figures, fully immersed in my own level of effort, before realising that they'd not tagged on with us and that I was, in fact, on my own again. With a better idea of how far was left (and that idea being "not all that far really") I decided to let people ride back up to me, rather than slow to wait for them. Another rider was ridden up to and, discovering he'd left the feedstation witout stopping, as I had, but without any water I swapped a half full bottle I had (I knew I had loads left in the 2nd bottle, more than enough for the rest of the ride) for one of his empty ones. Mostly out of altruism, but also slightly because there was no point in me carrying it round for no reason. Extra weight for me or a drink for him. What a hero. He offered me a gel, but I was still awaiting (now somewhat overdue...) the nootropics super strength, so declined. We ticked off a few miles together - one of the many benefits of long rides is the abundance of them to spend with different people - before I once again found myself alone. Briefly.
The shorter route and the full ride I was doing rejoined for the final few miles/hills and all of a sudden there were no empty spaces to ride across, just far less dust encrusted participants to hurtle past. The comfort of long silences were replaced with a near constant stream of "excuse me" "coming through" "on your right/left" "can i just nip past"over and over while flicking the bike around and through groups at what I secretly hoped was an impressive looking pace.
I spotted where the route joined onto the wonderfully swoopy lakeside trail and knew the end was in sight (metaphorically, still loads of trees and quite a few headland traverses in the way in actuality). No need to meter out effort, just play in the corners and have fun stomping up the small rises still to overcome. I doubted the gleeful feeling was anything to do with the nootropics (unless someone's figured out how to bottle that "last lap" feeling...), it was just the freedom to chase the dust as the (what seemed like the first) tailwind pushed clouds of it ahead of me, encouraging me to let the bike slide around a bit more, maybe occasionally overcook a corner in the afternoon sun, then grin and gurn back up to speed.
(Thanks to Andy Porter for the pic)
A final dance on the pedals across a field and up the tarmac drive to the Castle and I crossed the finish line jokingly thinking to myself "I could do that all day!". I had. I wasn't sure how long it had actually taken me, or how many of the original Front Group had already finished, but I was pretty confident that it was a decent performance. All that was left was to steal some of Dave Haygarth's chips, a coffee voucher from Andy Porter, actually get to say hello to Phil (who had taken time during his ride to help Dan, whose event because suitable epic, with multiple punctures, a walk to the final feed stop and a spot of the dreaded bonk...non of which stopped him finishing, mind) and promise myself to do it all again ASAP.
In the end 14 people finished in front of me (one V40...), which I'm happy enough with. I've not felt the need to think "what if" because, well, it was just ace as it was. To finish a good effort feeling strong, without ever doubting it would happen, is amazing - big shout out to Lee @ North Cycling Performance who can take the credit for it. Next year I hope it's all as good again :)
(Thanks to Andy Porter for the happy dusty pic!)