The Dark Peaks: Love, death and cyclocross
I sat down on the grass at the finish line of this year’s peaks, put my head in my hands and wept quietly. In a moment of being utterly spent all of life suddenly caught up with me. It was without question my hardest Peaks, mainly because for most of the year I had not ridden my bike and I’d barely run.
By any standards 2018 has been a big year for me. In May I left my wife and in July my mum died. I moved house several times, from a big house in North Wales via various places staying with friends to settle in a small rented room in Lewes, East Sussex. I changed career from running my own furniture making business to working a few days a week as a mechanic in a bike shop and doing some freelance writing. I also rediscovered a love from 20 years ago that has made me very happy.
Right from the start line, where I put myself near the back with ambition of just finishing, every inch of this year’s race was physical agony. In the red before reaching Horton and with cramping calves on Simon Fell, this was never for me a race against anyone else – it was an exercise in minutely managing my efforts in every footstep and pedal stroke just to get to the end. To realise that so near the start and to know what lies ahead is daunting.
And that was the pattern of the day, those peaks looming above you that had to be scaled and those road sections that seem so draggy if you’re off form. The only place where I found myself making time was on the descents, so I was I was really going for it. Ultimately, not too far from the end, this proved my undoing. More on that later.
I saw my dad at cold cotes and he offered me a water bottle that I refused. I just waved and said I was ok, but I really wanted to stop and give him a big hug. Emotions were high. After my descent I’d caught quite a few people and sighted just ahead of me on the road my friend and 3 peaks nemesis (my old clubmate Sean McKibben) – I’d taken a 1m40s back on him on the way down and although I was only a couple of hundred metres behind him I had the (unusual for me) sense not to try and chase him.
I must thank a rider from Here Come the Belgians who I wheel-sucked horribly and who gave me no grief for it. I did thank him later when I saw him. On two of the road stretches he saved my veggie bacon. And somehow I’m at the bottom of Whernside. The track up that git of a mountain stretches for miles into the sky. At the first carrying section my legs turned to jelly, every footstep up those uneven treads of rock was teetering and wavering and I wished I could make it stop. It felt like I was holding everyone up – people politely asking to pass me. And then the mind did its thing. I just started counting 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 and thought very hard about sitting in the hospice ward watching my mum die, struggling for every last moment she could squeeze out of life, and I knew there would be no stopping and no retirement.
Down. I was flying again. I saw my dad at Ribblehead and this time I took the bottle he handed up. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but that just seemed much too soft. Onto the road and time to latch onto to another wheel and grovel to Pen-y-Ghent. And there I am, the finish line almost in sight but… there’s that diversion left up the lane to P-y-G. I started pushing the bike whilst most people were still riding. Those faster riders were descending on the other side of the track, nearly home. As in previous years, there was so much support and so many shouts of encouragement that you just have to keep going. It’s a long way up when you’ve nothing left. I can’t say much about it except that it was an extreme effort of will, but somehow I’m there, dibbing my thing with a marshal at the summit. I wanted to give him a hug as well, but his nervous look put me off.
Last year I smashed it down of P-y-G. This year I did the same. Last year I got away with it. This year I nearly got away with it. About mile before the track rejoins the road I hit a rock that didn’t move and my front tyre went bang. Being tubeless, I couldn’t be bothered trying to fit a tube. I shouldered the bike and ran, past my bewildered father, to the road. Back on the bike I cycled cautiously on my flat front tyre to the finish. There I shouted at a small boy who was trying, legitimately, to remove my wristband. I am sorry for shouting at you. Then I went round the back of the tent and sank to the floor, never more glad that something was over.
My dad found me. He told me he was proud of me. I’m proud of him too. What a Peaks. What a year.
In the final analysis the time doesn’t mean that much. That said, I was 34 seconds slower than last year, when I had done thousands of miles of riding and hundreds of miles of fell-running – and I didn’t puncture. I think it would have been a personal best for me had I ridden just a little more conservatively on that last bit of offroad. Oh well… that’s bike racing for you, as an old clubmate used to say. Genuinely, I was happy just to finish. I decided immediately that I will never ever be persuaded to do this to myself again… until next year.
There are lots of people who have helped me this year, to get through a combination of things in life that might otherwise have been overwhelming. You know who you are. I’d like, in particular, to thank all the people who run and work at Cycle Shack in Lewes who have been patient with me when I have not been able to work and who have made me feel happy and supported and have provided me with a living over the last few months. I am grateful – even if I don’t always look like I am.
To check out the race visit their website here: