With 1200 riders, the Isle of Man’s Manx End2End is one of the UK’s biggest endurance races. Jennifer Stuart-Smith tackled it for the first time this year and managed to mostly keep it rubber-side- down.
The Manx End2End has a reputation as one of the hardest events in the UK. As the slightly masochistic rider I heard about it from told me, it’s an awesome event, and sufficiently ball-breaking that even he would enjoy it: 70km across the mountains of the Isle of Man, north to south, with 1,700m of climbing in between. At the time, I didn’t give it much more thought.
Come race day, I was still trying not to give it too much thought, as I lined up with 1200 other competitors to take part in the 2012 Sleepwell Hotels Manx End2End. The event attracts riders from weekend cyclists to elite, sponsored athletes as well as a huge number of spectators.
I’d been gearing up for it, in my own low-key way, all summer. Now I just wanted to get going. There’s nothing worse than waiting, adrenaline pumping, and stewing over the course and challenges ahead. The video of the 2011 race that the organisers showed at signing-on, the day before hadn’t helped. It was full of drama and crashes.
At 10am, the commentator announced the start, and we began to move, en masse toward the starting mat, nervously muttering to one another and wishing each other luck. My knees trembled as I clipped into my pedals. But already, my dread was turning to excitement.
I was lucky enough to be part of the Dirt Divas team, led by Jacqueline Easton, two-times female winner of the End2End, and so had been treated to a superb briefing the day before. On paper, I knew what was to come. In reality, there was going to be a surprise around every corner and over every hill.
The first ten miles was along narrow lanes, lined with cheering locals. My training had involved a fair amount of road cycling, so I was looking forward to the road element; happy in a tightly packed group and clinging to the wheel of the man in front. Jacque had briefed us on drafting and I made it my mission to find a chubby man, travelling fast and ideally in some garish cycling top, so I could keep an eye on him. Man in green, thank you. I was the pesky girl latched on to your wheel.
Those ten miles were the perfect warm up, and my legs felt great as we approached the mountains. The cheers and clapping from the roadside also did wonders.
This summer had been the wettest on record on the Isle of Man, so the route had to be changed slightly to allow for the dodgy conditions. What, in previous years, had been a half-hour slog uphill for the fastest riders, now became an hour of grinding up loose, rocky tracks. As the misty summit of Slieau Dhoo came into view, I looked across to the man on my left for reassurance. His bloody face and cut legs did not fill me with confidence.
On we slogged, up on to the grassy tops, only to be met by a howling headwind and the feeling that we were cycling on Velcro. None of us were going anywhere fast, but I knew we would soon have a bit of downhill singletrack before the first checkpoint at Brandywell Road.
Any thoughts of a smooth flowing whizz through the pine woods soon vanished, as hundreds of us converged on a narrow, slippery and rooty section with most riders unclipping and getting along it any way they could. It certainly wasn’t textbook handling of tricky singletrack, but the number of riders queuing through the woods left few alternatives. Take note, the cocky pair of northerners, who were mouthing off at the back.
After our briefing the day before, my aim was to use the checkpoints as a reminder to eat something, rather than actually stopping. As it happened, the extra half an hour and 150m of climbing, early on, meant I was tucking into my gels way before the first checkpoint. But, it was still a fantastic sight and, as Jacque had said, the hardest work was now behind us.
Before I left for the Isle of Man, I’d reassured my Mum that this was a low-risk ride, and that the main challenge was the distance and uphill slogs. I hadn’t bargained on rocky stream beds, both up and down, deeply grooved moorland, with hidden rocks, and slippery meadows, which caught a few people out on the corners. It wasn’t so much about if you fell off, as when you fell off.
My most stylish dismount was arse-first into a gorse bush, and I still have the marks to remind me of it. Other than that I got away – for a change – with just a few bruises and relatively few falls.
One thing that was a massive help, was that I had borrowed a snazzy bike. Until the week before the End2End, all my mountain biking had been on my old Specialized Stumpjumper M2. A retro classic, but hard work nonetheless. For the E2E, I was on a Scott Spark 20, and, jeez, the difference was mind-blowing. It made all those years of slogging around on my Old Faithful seem worthwhile.
I’d pumped up my tyres nice and hard and was running Panaracer summer tyres. Couple this with full suspension for all those hideous rocky stream beds, and full lock-out for the roads and tracks, and we were flying. As test rides go, it was a baptism of fire, but it certainly put a smile on my face.
We took the ups and downs of the ridge in our stride, avoided getting any pinch-punctures on the rocky descents – with drainage pipes to jump off, if you wanted a bit of air – and soon we were past the second checkpoint at St John’s. This is where a lot of people decide to call it a day. A marshall called out: “This way for the half-way finish point!” Err, no thanks. Couldn’t they see how much fun I was having?
As the miles mounted up, I started to see people crippled with cramp. The hills kept on coming, and those who maybe hadn’t done too many long-distance training sessions, started to pay. I have short legs and am carrying a few extra pounds, but I trust my legs to keep on going, as long as I keep on eating. That said, I’ve never done a mountain bike ride of this length, so I felt lucky not to get cramp. The only time I thought my legs were going to let me down was when they turned to jelly on a long, bumpy descent. A new one on me.
All this time I was just chipping away, going at my own pace, and had no idea of my position in the race. I don’t have a watch and had decided against taking my bike computer. When a spectator told me I was the seventh woman through, I couldn’t believe it. My competitive side kicked in.
There was a female rider up ahead of me, and I pushed my bike past her on the hill. Not the most dramatic overtaking manoeuvre, but it worked. After that I put a little extra effort in, to keep my position, and felt buoyed up that I was near the front of the field.
The last checkpoint came and went, and I knew it was mostly downhill, in a good way, from there. A lovely local guy who had encouraged me to get back on my bike earlier, pedalled alongside me and warned me not to take the downhill moorland too fast. “It catches a lot of people out,” he said. Sure enough, the narrow groove, through the heather, with occasional rocks, had people flying off left right and centre.
Including me. An indignant guy, with whom I was tangled on the ground, asked if I could please remove my handlebar from his spokes. “I am trying!” I said. He didn’t seem to get that it wasn’t a very favourable position for me either.
And so, on to the finish, down through the slippery meadows, and on to the last bit of road section. Never has smooth Tarmac felt so good. I knew there was an ascent to the finish and a horrible kick of 25 percent for about 500m, just before the line, but I didn’t care.
Down into the granny ring, and up I went, sneaking past another local who had given me a tip-off about the hill to come. I crossed the line, knackered, mud-splattered but thrilled to have finished. Finding out I’d come second in my class was just the cherry on the cake.