Up The Buttress

the wall

(a fellow ‘rider’ tackles the cobbled climb)

Ride 400 metres up a street, how hard can that be? Very as it turned out when the street in question is insanely steep and cobbled.  Saturday saw me and Rob (@chasinsheepMTB) head over to Hebden Bridge for the Up The Buttress challenge, a timed hill climb up the steepest ‘road’ in the town.  Now anyone who has ridden over in that valley knows that it is steep sided and makes for challenging riding, whether that be on or off road but this street took things to a whole other level.  I don’t know how steep it is but people milling about the registration tent were saying it varied from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5.  We had no chance to think much about it as after paying our fee we were lining up ready to roll, I had no idea what I was facing as you could only see the start of it from where we were to set off and that looked like a wall.

There was much talk of tyres and tyre pressure and what was the ‘best’ style of bike to get up it.  There were all sorts, hardtails, full suspension, blinged out cross bikes, old clunkers and one dude having a crack while attempting to tow his daughter in a trailer !  All ages were present and it had a feel of a really inclusive event – young or old, good or bad just have a go which exactly as I like it and it should be and everyone no matter the ability was cheered, encouraged and cowbelled up the slope.  To add to the air of inclusiveness anyone who got to the top, no matter how you did it, got entered into a prize draw and there were some amazing prizes including a bike from Orange !

As I got ready to go Chipps from the Singletrack crew felt my tyres, “any good?” says I, “you’ll see” was his reply with a knowing look in his eye.  Oh dear.  I didn’t bother thinking about trying to charge into the bottom of the slope, I thought I’ll just roll to it in bottom gear and then spin away.  I’ve recently ridden up some very steep stuff so I thought I’d be OK but I’d not factored the slippery cobbles into my equation.  As the wall hit and I started to peddle I thought to myself, yep I can do this and inched up the steepest part of the hill but then just before a lip across the path all my wheels were spinning like something out of the road runner cartoon and I ground to a halt.  Jumped off and pushed for a bit then tried to get going again which was a lot harder than it should have been as just could not get any purchase.  Finally got moving and felt OK (well that I was not going to die anyway) and plodded slowly along until the inevitable spinning of wheels hit again and I ground to a halt again.  I seemed to be now standing on glass as I was actually struggling to stand still but I could not get the wheels to get any grip so resorted to pushing up the hill in a comedy slip / sliding about fashion.  As I neared the top the shouts of encouragement rained down but I could not have moved any faster if Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes had been behind me.

Crossing the line I realised that at least there were some others who had slipped about, Rob however had no problems right tyre choice and running at an insanely low pressure meant he didn’t slip once, that and he’s a great rider of course.  We encouraged a few riders up, got our breath back and then headed down the road to the pub for a few beers before going back to see the winners receive their fantastic prizes – a massive cobble a la Paris-Roubaix and see what our lucky numbers got us in the raffle.  Rob got a bottle of beer whereas I got a fantastic Timothy Taylor’s cycling jersey.  Sometimes it pays to be the snail.

lucky number

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Racing Snail

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I must be honest I’m not quite sure how I managed to find myself in a car park attaching a race number to my trusty steed, but Saturday saw me take part in my first ever cycling event.  I say event as I don’t think the inaugural running of Clifcross was technically classed as a race but more an adventure event, but there was a start and finish line, timing chips and winners which sounds like a race to me.  As I’ve mentioned previously this year I’m embarking on ProjectSnail whereby I look to have more fun on my bike, have new experiences, get fitter and try to increase my skills and confidence.  In my head I’ve sort of got the idea that I might try and enter some cyclocross events next winter but after some cajoling from Emma Osenton and a patient recce of the route I took the plunge somewhat earlier than I’d have ever anticipated.  Quite why I decided to have a crack at this I’m not totally sure because I knew that I was going to be totally and utterly outside my comfort zone but I guess that’s partly the point.  As the quote below from Oliver Burkeman in one of his columns outlines it’s important to have new experiences, get outside and encounter new people and places – it’s these things that make us happy and I think brought me to the start line.

happiness has a mixture of causes; that it involves trial and error, and broadly chimes with common sense; that there isn’t a single secret or quick fix, waiting to be uncovered, and that looking for one might make you miserable. The advice is straightforward. Remember to be grateful. Spend your money on experiences, not objects. Volunteer. Nurture your relationships. Spend time in nature. Make sure you encounter new people and places. And never assume that you know what will make you happy.  Some of this sounds like familiar folk wisdom, and some of it like a string of corny clichés. But it’s worth considering, surely, that this might be because it is true.

My kids have also been fantastically encouraging, turning my own advice to them back on me.  I’m not in the least one of those pushy parents, instead my advice to them is simply to keep your eyes open for opportunties that you might enjoy that come along and if there is something that you think you might want to do it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at it have a go and if you enjoy it then that’s all that matters.  This of course is exactly what they said to me when I mentioned I might enter an event but was a bit unsure about it all.

My unsureness increased when looking round all the athletes getting ready before the start and I do mean athletes I’m not sure there was an ounce of fat on the lot of them, unlike your good self built for comfort not speed.  If felt really weird going through the signing on ritual and picking up my number, time chip and goody bag like I was some weird imposter and that any moment someone would say OK Ian jokes over, but no I was soon to find myself lining up and ready to roll.  I knew that I’d finish last (that’s not defeatism just the reality of my abilities) and I was totally fine with that as for me this was a big test to see if I could get round and I knew that everyone would vanish away from me within the first few pedal strokes and I’d be spending several hours on my own.  Knowing this is going to happen and having it actually happen are too different things.  It’s hard not to feel utterly demoralised as everyone around you simply vanishes and you prepare yourself for a mental and physical battle with yourself for a few hours.  I found the mental thing really interesting the way that sometimes my mind would wander and I’d lose concentration, other times on the tough climbs it was saying to me just get off and push Ian what are you doing but it would answer no I’m going to try my best and push as hard as I can.  I did have to get off a couple of times but mostly I just pushed and pushed as hard as I could to get to the top.

With no one else around I tried to pick small steps or landmarks along the way to help me round and I found the directional arrows perfect for this as I focussed my attention on when are where the next arrow would appear and having a little smile each time I passed one (I did have a slight panic that I might be so slow the organisers might go round taking the arrows down before I got to them but fortunately that didn’t happen).  Despite the difficulties I experienced I did spend a lot of time smiling as well (not least when a couple of children out with their dad clapped as I went past) not quite believing the surreal experience that I was finding myself in.  The weather was also absolutely fantastic and I have to say I was so thankful that the hard winds of earlier in the week had died away otherwise the experience would have been fairly horrific I think.  Strangley I did have a few niggles and pains as I went round that I could have done without, some lower back pain and very sore pins and needles in my feet.  I could not undestand what was causing this and tried shifting things around as much as I could but not to any great avail.

I felt hugely sorry for one of the fancied riders who I came across having all sorts of techincal problems, he was running 4th but got a puncture on his tubular, had problems with his sealant, broke a valve borrowed a spare inner off another competitor which then punctured.  I chugged past him a couple of times, offering to help but there was nothing I could do.  First time I saw him he was just getting off and going again and the second time he had another competitor helping him.  He had to abandon in the end I believe which must have been hugely frustrating for him.

Finally after 4 and a half hours I rode over the finish line, the lantern rouge comfortably mine by a huge margin but the round of applause I got will live long in the memory.  I really couldn’t have put any more effort in and was immensley proud of myself but it I also have a huge new found respect for the people who do this sort of thing on a regular basis.  Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird don’t judge a person till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  Well I’ll never be a racing athlete but I did a couple of yards in their shoes and am in awe of their ability.  Finally thanks should go to all the people who put on the event, massive amount of work with a great pie at the finish line, cheers to you all.

The photos of me in action were taken by SportSunday and you can see the full gallery of the event here

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The Snail enters an event

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A few weeks ago I met Emma Osenton (@waterrat77) who calmly suggested in the bar that I entered an event she was organising – Clifcross.  Gulping back my gaffaws and the preposterousness of this suggestion I mentioned that I didn’t have a cross bike, no problems says Emma enter on your hardtail.  I then mention that I’m bascially rubbish and after finding out that it is a 30mile primarily off road affair in the South Pennines didn’t think I’d be physically able to get round, no worries says Emma I’ll take you out for a bit of recce on the route.  Well I couldn’t refuse that kind offer so last weekend I pitched up rather nervously to have a look at the route, what I didn’t expect was that I thought we might have a look at a few bits and see how I got on riding them, Emma however clearly had other ideas as we set out to ride the whole route – gulp.  Baptism of fire or what.

I did warn Emma that I’m not called the Snail from South Wales for nothing but Emma was fantastically patient riding slowly along with me and/or waiting at the top of the hills for me.  I did feel somewhat guilty as by the time I got to the top I feared Emma would be getting cold but there was not much I could do about it as I was putting in all the effort I had.  A word on the hills, the route is hilly and very steeply hilly in lots of places but I did pretty much get up all that I was able to ride up although I was so slow at times that I could see snails overtaking me.  Emma on the other hand did not appear to notice that there were any hills as she simply appeared to glide up any and all inclines and I have to say it was humbling to ride with someone so good.  As well as the hills there was another challenge on the route and that was snow drifts which meant that on many occasions we had to clamber over and through some deep snow.

As we were going round I was determined not to ask how far we got as I feared that if Emma had said ‘Oh we’ve not got halfway yet’ I might have collapsed in a defeated heap, I just tried to keep turning the pedals and moving forward.  I fear that Emma will think of me as the world’s worst conversationalist because as she happily chatted away I could never really reply either because I was slipping away from her wheel and could not hear her or was puffing along beside her gulping in the oxygen and only able to respond in monosyllabic grunts but Emma’s cheerful and positive demeanor kept me going on the way round.

As I was riding I could not help but think of mountains, not the hills we were climbing or rattling down but those in our minds, or mine in particular each time I maybe rode off a small step or drop I had little waves of elation knowing that I was beginning to conquer some of the smaller mountains in my own personal Himalayas.  After I reached the top of the final climb Emma mentioned that as this was a long ride for me and I’d put in a lot of effort I might not feel too good in a couple of days, my brain said ‘couple of days, I don’t feel good now!’ but with an intake of breath and one of Emma’s energy gels I rattled my way back down to the start.

I cannot tell you how incredible it felt to have got round the route, what for some people would be a good couple of hours riding was for me a monumental effort, but an effort that was rewarded by a phenonenal ride in incredible surroundings with a great person.  The route really is epic in many ways and has something for every rider whether on a cross bike or MTB.  For those like me just getting round will be a huge acheivement, for others who are fitter and better riders then there are challenges aplenty on the way round.  Whatever end of the spectrum you are thanks must go to Emma for coming up with such an amazing route.  I also owe her a personal debt of thanks for encouraging and cajouling the Snail round, I hope I can do it again when I’ll be riding on my own but either way I’ll be at the start line next weekend to try my best.

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