The Montane Kielder 100: A classic in the making

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Richard Rothwell
Richard on his way to a top ten finish

I found myself wanting to begin, ‘It’s that time again’…. but then I remembered that this is just the second running of this fantastic event! SIP Events have really hit a nerve with this race, as evidenced by the huge start list, and despite not particularly liking the terrain – lots of fire road and not particularly technical – I love the race, the atmosphere and the fantastic scenery, which I am lucky to call my ‘backyard’.

Josh Ibbett dropped by on Friday and we headed up to Kielder together. We also hooked up with Ant White and my good friend Glen Stovold. Once registered, we seemed to be losing about a pint of blood a minute to the midges and decided that a burger and a pint was the best course of action. Fortunately, self control limited the Black Sheep intake, and, full of that invincible, ‘if I feel like this in the morning’ excitement I went to bed in my crap pop up tent.

This I regretted. Not the going to bed bit – the crap tent. I have nice tents. Why did I choose the Christmas cracker version? Being lazy always backfires and I woke up at about 3am soaked in condensation and freezing. It was like having the blood sucked out. Again.

Light slumber ensued. To get to sleep, I counted the calories I was burning trying to stay warm.

Then, horror upon horror, the alarm went at 5am. I didn’t know it had a setting that low. Josh was irritatingly lively, while I fought through the toughest part of the race; eating breakfast so early without vomiting.

Ant got himself together while Josh and I got a good front row start spot and shared the usual friendly banter with those who’d been here last year and those who’d been attracted by the inaugural event’s huge success. The start line had some seriously fast people on it and it was obvious that a top ten would be a result.

Off we went, paced out to the north of Kielder Castle. I made a special effort to look back over my shoulder once we had got a mile or so down the pacing straight; what an amazing view! Hundreds of riders forming a brightly coloured river through the early morning mist. People’s faces were happy and enthusiastic, yet nervous energy filled the air and tyres buzzed as the faster guys jostled for position.

Then we were set loose up the first climb. It hurt. As expected a lead group shot off and a second group formed. I didn’t feel great and didn’t really try to chase, I was determined to not limp over the line like last year (turns out this is an inevitable aspect of the event). More people went past me than I really wanted but I knew if I pushed it here I would suffer badly later and my legs just didn’t feel sharp.

I eventually settled with Paul Ashby and a pleasant Scottish chap, Grieg Brown. We pushed each other along, chatted and worked well together, Grieg offering me some of his drink when I had ran out, so thanks to him.

I would imagine that many people who rode Kielder encountered at least one problem. Mine was missing a feed station. So I went for about 50 miles on two water bottles. I was seriously dehydrated. Unlike the physiological enigma that is Ant White, I really suffer without liquid and, as the heat of the day built I started to panic as the miles passed with no sign of water (Ant had one Camelbak and one water bottle for the full duration!).

When Newcastleton finally arrived, I downed a couple of cups of water through a mouth overflowing with Jelly Beans. I tried to speak to the ladies at the feed station though clearly with half a pound of sugar in my mouth only muffled grunts could result. Despite knowing this, I carried on garbling. They smiled at me with kind sympathy. Knowing Ant’s ‘pitting’ strategy, (i.e. don’t do it) I quickly grabbed more Jelly Beans for my pocket and stumbled out the door in hot pursuit as Ant disappeared towards the trail head and the cracking Newcastleton single-track.

We were flying down the main descent when my water bottle flew out. I didn’t want to stop, but, after being so close to wiping out through lack of liquid earlier, I knew I had too. I lost touch with Ant and for the next 20 miles or so he was always tantalisingly in sight but frustratingly out of reach, along with Grieg and Paul.

Then in the woods I went past Craig Bowles, winner of the Bontrager 24 solo. He had some problem with his tyres so bad luck to him. I pushed on as hard as I could, knowing that the last few miles would be tough and places could change. I also knew, from last year and local knowledge, that the final sections would be nasty.

As I predicted, the course headed up into a valley that I knew had only one exit point… a hideous zig-zag climb up loose and broken ground. Horrible. The marshall at top said, ‘Downhill to the finish’. I knew this wasn’t the case and for a minute I wanted to scream, ‘I know that’s not true!’ but I would have come across as weak and pathetic. (I was feeling weak and pathetic but there was no need to advertise the fact). I found one last solitary crusty Jelly Bean in the bottom of my pocket and to it, I owe my life. I was seriously close to bonking.

A glance over my shoulder and I could see Craig, head down, and chasing me down… No! I wanted to limp over the line, down some fire road and then the hideous, inevitable stepped, steep and protracted climb, in my own time. It hurt. While mostly downhill from there, it had some kicks and I thanked that little Jelly Bean each time I pushed over one. Craig hadn’t caught me and then I went past Grieg, who also had tyre problems.

Careful to make no mistakes on the final rough sections, I finished in 8hrs 43 and in tenth place. I’d like to call it a heady mix of luck and judgment. Given that I wasn’t feeling my strongest, and the competition was very stiff, I can’t complain with my finish.

It was an amazing performance from the winner Andrew Cockburn who broke eight hours; that will take some beating! Many good riders had problems that knocked them back or they couldn’t resolve. This is perhaps the beauty and the challenge of the Kielder 103 (yes, it was 103 miles!); if you have a problem, you have to deal with it. Like a proper big day in the hills, you just can’t capture that atmosphere on a lapped enduro course.

Another aspect to this event is the ‘we’re all in this together’ side of things. It is an extremely difficult challenge, whether you are racing or just aiming to complete the full course. Many people were out there for 11, 12, or 13 hours… that’s a heck of a long time to be on a bike, especially with draggy surfaces and killer climb after killer climb. Everybody who finished that ride did exceptionally well. Many riders have never covered distance like that off road and the killer blow (again, unlike a lapped enduro) is you can’t hide in the trees and let the clock run down – you just have to go the distance.

I hope the experience encourages many more people to try a ten, 12 hour or ever a twenty-four solo now that they have proven they can ride for that length of time. I also think this event could become the Fred Whitton Challenge of mountain biking!

I’m already looking forward to next year!

For more information on the Kielder 100 visit www.sip-events.co.uk/kielder-home.html

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