Following an inauspicious debt two weeks ago in the Chelmer CC Hardriders 25TT Good Friday was the opportunity to make amends. After a week that saw an unexpected snowfall in Derbyshire it was only late on Thursday night that I had confirmation from the organiser that the Buxton CC Mountain Time Trial would be going ahead.
As I drove out from my overnight stop in Mow Cop, well known in sportive circles for the brutal ‘killer mile’ climb that features in the Cheshire Cat event, it was apparent that a cold day was on the cards. The snow coverage steadily increased as the roads ascended towards the race HQ in the tiny village of Longnor, from small mounds where driveways had been cleared to long stretches clinging to dry stone walls and deep drifts where, only two days earlier, the roads had been closed to all traffic. In my minds eye it would be like the stages of the Giro d’Italia where the riders ply their trade on roads ploughed clear for their passing.
In the back of my mind was the reality of my situation. A long steady build up towards a block of competition had been undermined by three weeks of sniffles. With only a few weeks to go until the big goal every event has become a training session as opposed to the relative (!) show of strength it was intended to be. Wary of making the mistakes of two weeks ago, a quick run around the course in the car before the start was undertaken. In my naivety I had hoped to perhaps record 1hr 45, or 1hr 50, for the event. The reconnaissance made it clear that this would, at best, be optimistic. It was rather more likely that survival would be the over-riding theme of the days pedalling and there was every chance that, at 33 miles and 1031 metres of climbing, this was going to be a massacre…
A bittersweet parallel with the world of professional cycling was obvious, albeit requiring some background for the uninitiated. In cycling riders are often divided into three broad categories:
1. Climbers: the riders who relish ascents and whose lightweight frames lend themselves naturally to devouring inclines at an unbelieveable rate. Not necessarily the best time trialists. Typical example: Alberto Contador.
2. Rouleurs: strong men, often stocky and muscular, who can power through the miles. Possibly the nearest to ‘all-rounders’ within cycling, often good time trialists, usually happiest on short, sharp inclines, rather than out-and-out mountainous terrain. Typical example: Fabian Cancellara.
3. Sprinters: the ‘fast-men’ of cycling. Inevitably the biggest, heaviest, pro riders are the sprinters, their bodies tuned to travelling 400 metres at 60kph. Their playground is anywhere the road is flat, hills are not kind to these riders. Typical example: Mario Cippollini.
This hierarchy is starkly illustrated on any mountain stage in a Grand Tour. Leading the way up each mountain climb will be the climbers – dancing on the pedals seemingly effortlessly. Over and over they will attack one another, surging up the road as they attempt to break away. Behind them the race will be spread out, the climbers on a bad day and the rouleurs who can climb, a long metallic snake winding steadily up the road. Long behind the head of the race will be a sorry collection of riders – those who are simply trying to make it over the climbs and reach the finish within the time limit. Cycling nomenclature gives this group a number of names: the ‘gruppetto’, the ‘autobus’ – often with a more experienced rider setting the tempo and labelled the ‘bus driver’ but perhaps most ironically ‘the laughing group’. There are no smiles in the laughing group – the rictus grin that can be seen on the face of a rider is pure agony as they fight for survival. In the ‘alone and unassisted’ world of time trialling there is no place for a ‘laughing group’, but it was fairly obviously that, if there was to be a day where I would be the ‘laughing man’, this would be it.
The course itself was three laps of a triangular 11 mile circuit, starting and ending in Longnor. 50 metres after the start the road turned sharp left, plummeted down through an s-bed, then began to rise on a minor road. A sharp kick developed into a longer drag, a rolling section that continued to climb and culminating with a tight left joining the main Leek-Buxton road. A steady headwind added to the toll on the legs. Moments after starting my heart rate was over 170bpm, usual for a 10 mile TT for me – not the ideal start to an event with over three times that mileage to cover. Despite best efforts to bring my heart rate back under control there was no choice – the only way to make progress was to turn the pedals. Brutally, out of the saddle efforts were out of the question on the steepest sections as the cold wet road surface guaranteed a lack of traction and several times the rear wheel spun underneath me. There was no choice but to sit down and grind away.
Once the climbing was complete I turned onto the main road that formed the shortest side of the triangle. The benefits of the fast road were minimised by the strong sidewind, this was a course with nowhere to hide. Entering the second turn, a tight hairpin left, I enjoyed the one small victory the day would deliver. Having started number 51 I caught and passed number 47. The context to this was the numerous riders who caught and passed me in the remainder of the race. The final section of the course was a phenomenally quick descent with at least two chances to get airborne. Speed was tempered by caution, a road with no grip to climb out of the saddle was the kind of road where the bike could easily slip out from underneath you…
As I approached the start for the second time I glanced at the rider waiting for the off. Still hoping for a lap time close to 30 minutes I was shocked to see number 91 receiving their 10 second countdown. 11 miles had taken me 40 minutes – case closed: I was ‘the laughing man’.
The second time up the main climb in the course was horrendous. Riders who had just started streamed by: true climbers who pedaled smoothly and effortlessly as they blasted past, rouleurs who stamped on the pedals as they ground up the road quicker than I could manage. Again the slipping back wheel meant I had to stay seated on the steepest sections, zig-zag-ing across the road in a pitiful effort to minimise the gradient. Again my heart rate soared to the level I’d see during a 10 mile TT. Slightly emboldened from the first lap I pushed a little harder on the descent, but remained cautious where traffic had begun to pull snow across the road and on the steepest section where the road resembled a farmyard. On the first lap I’d watched a farmers pickup scrabbling for grip as it headed up the hill towards me and a broken collarbone wasn’t on my ‘to-do’ list for the day.
The final lap was both agonising torture and an almost enjoyable run in. I knew the pain that the climbs would deliver and they failed to disappoint. However the finishing line was in sight, metaphorically at least, which made the last 11 miles far more bearable. In contrast to the previous laps I struggled to push my heart rate up and my ascent to the high point of the course was correspondingly slow. In contrast the crosswind on the main road section was a little less draining and the final descent saw me throwing caution to the wind and cornering faster than before. Crossing the hump-backed bridge at the lowest point of the course I left the bike in the big chain ring and sprinted doggedly up the final 200 metres towards the finish line, cruelly tucked out of sight around a steep bend. Slowly the chequered flag edged nearer as I gasped for breath and my field of vision developed an unerving tunnel-like quality, a vivid patch of road before me and all else fading through a grey haze to a deep black surround.
Despite flagging severely on the final climb my lap times had been far more consistent than I had expected despite my climbing display on the last lap feeling like snails pace: Lap 1 – 40:04, Lap 2 – 42:31, Lap 3 – 43:21. My finishing time of 2:05:56 was pitiful in the context of the overall standings, the event was won in 1:26:34 by domestic TT hardman Matthew Bottrill, but at least I was spared the ‘lanterne rouge’ prize which fell to Christopher Wilkinson of Manchester Wheelers with his time of 2:27:45.
Thanks to a mixup in posting entries I will not be gracing the startline of the Bishops Stortford CC Hilly TT on Easter Monday, instead a hard session on the turbo trainer will be in order. The next chance to ride in anger will be the Elite CC 25TT in a weeks time.