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Ride and learn

The pack sets off around the hills of East Radnorshire (© Sport Pixs)

As you get older, stuff that was a mystery in your formative years is, all of a sudden, nothing more than common sense. Mark Twain was right on the money when he said, “My father knew nothing when I was 16. It’s amazing how much the old bugger has learnt in the last five years.” Well, hell, 21 was so long ago, it’s another country whose language I can barely remember. But things endure: girls don’t dig hangovers, mooning is funny for about two seconds and your famed impression of the birth experience is amusing only to those seriously starved of entertainment. We grow up, we learn, we conform. Get over it.

Except of course, if I were a pie chart, there’d be a 15% slice with the legend “no idea at all” in bold type. It’s a gradually reducing slice, mind. I’m whittling away at it, gaining knowledge by sending stupidity to college and admiring the results. One example is an enduro event known as the “Marin Rough Ride”. It’s called that because you’re not allowed to send out literature with “You are my bitch, prepare to die, city boy” on it. In 2003 I’d spent two days locked in a frozen computer room during this event, but with every year getting shorter an entry form was dispatched about five minutes later.

So I find myself tramping all over the Chilterns on my singlespeed in an attempt to prepare for the 70km of riding and 6000feet of climbing which awaited in East Radnorshire. An interesting couplet that, 70km/6000feet, and not just because it’s another example of the randomness of units of measurement in the world of bicycles. That aside, it does nothing to catalogue the hours of pain which are shortly to follow. Here’s another: hardtail/skinny tyres. A fantastic decision made during one of the many pre-race bar sessions making perfect sense for the massive 7km of road work out on the course. That 15% pie slice is going to come back and bite me in the arse. And I’m being absolutely literal here.


We arrived in a sun-drenched field populated by thighs the size of Luxembourg and a body fat index that justified the purchase of a micrometer. Normally this would be of great concern but since I was barely awake and horribly hungover, my brain was firing photon torpedoes labelled “tea” and “bacon sandwiches” at such intensity that I was able to rise above it. Suitably refreshed at Wilf’s bastion of all things cholesterol, we met up with the crew who, in the best tradition of the 1XV ethos, were chowing down on burnt pig and working on their tan. They all looked extremely relaxed which I assumed was due in no small part to a recreational pharmaceutical pipe opener, but on closer examination appeared to be related to the large collection of pivots on display. I counted the hardtails. Twice. There was only one and it was mine. My whining was cut short by Nick pointing at his steed from which someone had stolen all the gears. He’s a lovely lad Nick but there are strong suspicions that he was dropped on his head as baby. And not just once. There is a reason they call him ‘cricket ball’ Cummins.

We spent the 30 minutes before the start watching the 700+ competitors file past our grassy knoll passing comments on bikes and attire. Eventually though we were off, rubbing tyres on the first of many climbs. This one was on the road and even though I’d given myself a stern talking too about tortoise and hares, we ground ourselves through slower riders with kind words and sharp elbows. Frank, our ex-Marine jeycore rider had already disappeared skywards and the next time I’d see him was some seven hours later as he offered a beer and a sympathetic expression. The rest of us stayed together as we winched up Offa’s Dyke passing quite a few uphill and far more when the terrain flipped the fun way. Sadly the 1XV battle cry of “Begone, you mincer!” carries no weight this far west and the elbows were out again as we descended first a grassy bank and then a shale track whose well-defined gulley claimed a couple of victims. We were eventually spat out on the road and my ‘enduro’ cadence again labelled me ‘tortoise’ as the XC racers were out of the saddle pumping the bars up the hill. They lasted about three minutes before fully appreciating that being the hare has few advantages. I’m ahead of Nick now as he’s forced to push on the first of many “Is that a hill or the side of a building?” climbs. He catches me later, which somewhat deflates my not getting off and walking ego trip.

Top navigational tip: Sheep make poor landmarks (© Sport Pixs)

I could write about 5000 words on what happened next but I’m not going to [er, you have – Ed]. Why? Because it’d be dull as I’d be striving for idioms for “another hill” and while the downhills were fantastic fun, clinging to the side of the hill or providing a natural dual track, it’s hard to write about this stuff. If you’ve ridden there, you know the rush from a balls-out pass on the outside of a tyre-width rut or the lightness of the bike as it flies over a rock outcrop. If you haven’t, then get out there and give it a go. It’s not forest singletrack or the most technical, obstacle strewn course you’ve ever ridden, but it’s huge, fast and pretty bloody stupid when there are twenty riders and two lines. Choking on the dust, looking for a pass, drifting the tyres in the dust and feeling the synapses explode as your internal guidance system selects rut (a) which gets you out alive at 30 mph when rut (b) is a six inch wide ground zero event waiting to happen.

I hit the 35k mid point in 2hrs 35. I’m pretty pleased with that, completely unaware that the super fast riders will finish the entire course only one hour later. Lots of riders are here, chilling in the sunshine, except for the guy who ignored the marshals and dropped into a 4ft stream at 20mph. He crosses the finish line in an ambulance so we’re properly cautious and I’m away again grinding up a road climb fifteen minutes ahead of the rest of the club (except Frank who’s buggered off for good) as they’ve had punctures and mechanicals. That’s good because I’m starting to feel it – I’m not sure what’s giving up first, my back, arse, neck or legs. I’m running a book to keep myself interested but the odds are on a dead heat. My plan is simple and yet hugely shallow. The buffer I’ve built on other people’s mechanicals will allow me to finish with the faster guys. I mean 35km to go with a 20 minute gap – surely I can’t lose all that? Well I can and I do and it’s a long and painful process.


Firstly, I’m chasing some full suss guys down a rocky descent and I’ve beasted them all to my huge satisfaction but as the gradient reverses, we’re suddenly four blokes and no trail markers. The flow I felt thirty seconds before has gone and we’re left with a twenty minute grind back up the trail to regain the course. As I spy the trail marker hidden in the vegetation, two blue 1XV jerseys flash past and instinctively I join line astern. But I’m all over the place, tired from the climb and not ready for the suddenly narrow singletrack. The guy behind (another 1XVer) gives me the “MINCER!” shout and I’m on it but not in a good way. No flow, all fast entries and crap exits, nose wheelies and excursions in the bushes. This is the best section and I’m at my worst.

The club has a minute’s respite and I’m hoping the worst is over. It’s not. The next climb refracts riders as light through a prism and it’s clear I’m in serious trouble. There’s just two of us at the back now and I’m coveting Nigel’s full suss because every rut is a Hobson’s choice of an energy-sapping out of the saddle move or a seatpost up the arse. We’re 42km in on a grassy climb and I’m starting to hate it but it’s about to get much worse. Twenty minutes later, I’m all on my own, one broken chain, two punctures, three sense of humour failures. I finally free the chain from behind the cassette by dint of jamming my bloodied hand in there for the twentieth time. Streams of riders come past before I finally get back on the bike, then my hamstring cramps up. Force an energy gel down but can’t face anything else. Remember that 15%? It’s all about hydration and food and I know all this but I just can’t face it. Get back on the bike and grind away up the next road hill cramping all over the place and having to walk 100 paces before pedalling is an option. I’ve tried stretching but I’m getting cramp in places where muscles have never really been considered. Someone stops in front of me and in the process of a panic stricken unclip, both legs go into spasm and I’m lying on the side of the trail wondering how to call a helicopter. The next summit has “vanishing point” written all over it and I’ve no ideas how to close the gap other than trudge through the dust with the bike on my shoulder.

This goes on for a while. I’ve convinced myself we’ll be done in five and a half hours max, but a friendly marshal tells me that there are 15 miles to go. It’s already gone four and a half hours and I know we’re staring into the abyss of failure. Nothing in my legs, can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t imagine how I’m going to do it. I’m whinging at everyone about my lack of 32 and 30 tooth cogs after the chain break but then I remember Nick is 30 minutes ahead on 32:17. I keep that to myself.

The author putting on a brave face for the camera (© Sport Pixs)

The final drinks stop hoves into view. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one. That’s bad because I know there’s a shedload of riding left and I’m in dreadful shape. But it’s good because there’s an end, if not exactly in sight, at least in my mind’s eye. I don’t stop – cup over water through the helmet, spent tubes in the bin bag and cranking on up yet another grassy climb. The cramp forces me off but the marshals tell me I’m the 20th today walking up here. To hell with it, back on the bike wobbling away we hit the road with the fluorescented jacketed sadists waving you away from the five mile flat valley road to the finish. Instead they send you back up Offa’s Dyke which, to my amazement, I climb non stop, grimacing at the photographer stationed on the crest. I’m praying now: “Please let this be the end, please no more climbing, just let me get back, I’ll read the Guardian, I’ll vote Liberal Democrat, just make this stop”. I’ve already agreed with a fellow pusher that if we find the course designer, I’ll sit on him while he kicks him as long as he’ll return the compliment.

I’ve given up on the descents now because I don’t have the physical energy to do anything but fall down them on the brakes. Nothing is working. Optics are blurred, throat is full of dust, arms offer nothing but a plank for trembling hands to connect and legs are a pair of jellies no longer responding to any input from the brain. Shame really, as the singletrack descent is fantastic – a ribbon of trail between fence and hill swooping as a bird in sight of pray. Suddenly the course designer is only getting a mild kicking but then we’re presented with the North Face of the Eiger and I’ve changed my mind. No way I can ride up there so I push for a 100 steps, lay my head on the bars, count to 20, and start again. Despair is not a strong enough word for how I feel right now.


Finally we crest the last grassy bank and we’re accelerating down the tarmac. I miss the final exit to the finish and have to grind back up another road climb. At last we make the left into the field, left nearly seven hours ago and only bloody-mindedness and pride stops me walking through the finish. I want to rant at someone about the stupid difficulty of the course and the sadism of the organisers but I can’t. I’m just too tired. Frank comes down, showered and fresh, to collect my bike and hand over a beer.

Everyone is back. Jon’s had a nightmare and taken the 40k route but everyone else is in street clothes looking weary but worthy. I’m really pissed off with my performance but try to keep it inside. We grab some food and I realise I’ve got half a Camelbak full of water and I’ve not eaten for four hours. Remember that 15%? All of that plus never again with baggy shorts and a hardtail. Or maybe just never again.

I’m so glad I’m not driving home. But I can hardly sit due to chafing and cramp everywhere. Amusingly I drop my phone and on trying to retrieve it, find my stomach muscles cramping. Now I didn’t even know I had stomach muscles, isolated as they are from the real world by 20 years of extreme lagering. We stop at a service station and Frank looks worried as he finds me clinging to a landscaped tree sobbing as every muscle I own goes into spasm. I can’t eat because the dust has closed my throat and saliva is only happening to other people. The car park is full of families who have spent their weekends putting up shelves, washing cars and pointing at sweaty oiks leaning on trees. This should make me feel good. It doesn’t.

If I could be carbon dated, I’d be 400 years old.

Finally we make it home. My wife takes one look at my pathetic form and provides hot water in the bath and cold beer from the fridge. I feel better for about 30 minutes until I make the transition from horizontal to vertical and all of a sudden the Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks has found a Bucks branch.

Until then, I lay in the soapy bubble planning my attack on the leader board next year. Lighten the full suss, more training, more water, more food, better map reading… It’s all playing in my mind and I’m in the zone replacing the 15% of the unknown with experience and racecraft. I’m in the zone alright, but it’s the twilight zone.

Anyone want to buy some pre-loved mountain bikes? I think I just learnt something important.

Find out more about the Marin Rough Ride at www.marinroughride.co.uk. Thanks to Sport Pixs for the pictures – check out all the shots from the event here.


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