Sunday, 21 June 2015

Pendle 600 Audax ride .... the highs, the lows and the darn right ridiculous...

It was 2am in the morning after 20 hours of riding as we continued to climb up and over 500 metres in elevation through the Northern Pennines, England. The rain was still lashing down and had been all night soaking every layer of clothing I had on. With every metre climbed it was getting colder, and the visibility was getting worst. We were haemorrhaging time, my brakes were starting to fail after the steepest descents I’ve ever ridden, and my front light kept going into auto-flash mode as we descended at speeds over 25mph on wet dark roads. Just another typical Saturday night on an Audax ride then ;-) ....  whilst the rest of the country are tucked up inside probably watching a dancing talking dog.

This particular Audax was the Pendle 600. It was one I had chosen to do as a ‘bit of fun’ following my successful 600K PBP qualifier in the Windsor-Chester-Windsor ride two weeks prior. But this stopped being fun hours ago. It was fun when I rode into Robin Hood Bay on the East Coast of England in the warm afternoon sun and enjoyed fish & chips overlooking the Bay. Back then I had a warm glow of satisfaction as I breezed through the first 200K feeling great about the ride and how well I was progressing but this was now just a memory, replaced with something a lot darker.

Robin Hood's Bay (170K)
We had ridden swiftly through the Yorkshire Dales, conquered the mighty North York Moors but were being slowly beaten into submission by the constant and never-ending climbs of the Pennines. And we still had the rest of the night to endure and then a full circle of the Lake District the following day. The route was 616 km with over 10,000 metres (30,000ft) of climbing, passing through 5 counties, 3 National Parks and visiting both the east and west coast of England. I was starting for the first time to think that I had taken on more than I or the ElliptiGO could handle.

Pendle 600 route and profile (complete with 'mood' smileys!)

As dawn broke and the rain continued to fall we (I was riding with two cyclists - Chris and Glenn through the night) had almost completed 400k. We were soon to be arriving at the ‘night’ control where we would get some much needed rest and recovery to take on the final 200K in the Lakes. But night had now been replaced with day and the 2.5hr time cushion I’d built up during the first 12 hours of the ride was now all but gone so there was no chance to sleep. I was therefore looking at a continuous 40 hour ride if I was to finish. Oh joy why do I do this to myself.

Typical warning signs of ridiculously steep descent ahead 
As Glenn and I descended the long mountain pass to finally exit the Pennines my brake situation was now critical. We wound our way down in the rain and as I took one sweeping right hander I discovered I had no stopping power at all! They’d taken a pounding over the last 24 hours of steep descents and were worn down to the metal. I almost lost the back end of the ElliptiGO as it fish-tailed out of the bend but just about held onto the slick road surface. I simply couldn’t descend another metre in this state. Glenn went on ahead at my say so (time was far too precious to hang around) and I stopped to assess the situation. For the first time in 4 years of riding I’d actually brought with me a set of new brake blocks. All I had to do now was fit them in the pouring rain half way down a mountain with my snowboard gloves on. This wasn’t going to be a quick job. It ended up taking at least 20 minutes (maybe even 30) to get them fitted. I opted for replacing the front brakes which were both easier to change, and also provide more control over braking.

I rolled into the only manned control point on the entire ride wanting only to stop and not carry on. I’d covered the hardest 400K I’ve ever ridden in a time of 24 hours. I was soaked through, cold, only had a front brake, and the thought of going back out for another hard 200k unsurprisingly did not appeal. I had nothing to prove, I could call it a solid training ride and jump on the train and head back. But it’s amazing what the surroundings of a warm village hall will make you do. There were a few folk still here with some just heading off having enjoyed the luxury of sleep, but most riders had been and gone. I was (almost) last at this point simply due to the fact that cycles are inherently faster than an ElliptiGO (no matter how big the engine.

I spent over an hour getting my head together, taking my time, refuelling with jam on toast (heaven) and changing into a complete dry set of clothes. For once I had packed my drop bag with precision and got it spot on - even down to the 4th pair of gloves that I packed just in case. The other 3 pairs including my ‘Waterproof’ sealskinz were soaked through so this was that ‘just in case’ moment. Putting on those dry clothes was (almost) like starting the ride afresh, and as I left the control I was feeling quite positive again and felt like the worst of this ride was now behind me. However I was heading for the Lake District with all those miles and climbs in my legs and was now ½ hour over the event cut-off time. Failing to finish this Audax hadn’t really crossed my mind until now, but I knew this ride would push me to my limits and it was proving to be the case.

I won’t continue with a blow by blow account of day 2. The route picked up where it left off and included a not so enjoyable stretch of an extremely busy Dual Carriageway into the Lake District which I was not expecting. Then it was into the ups and downs of the Lakes. One climb after another after another with many (as they’d been throughout the ride) commonly over 20% gradient climbs. These were obviously slow GOing but on the bright side the rain had stopped and the sun was shining.

The Lakes really tested my only working brake with the rear totally out of action. It squeaked like hell on the descents which only added to the surprise I guess when by-standers saw what I was riding. I battled on and eventually made it to Seascale on the west coast 45 minutes inside the cut-off. I’d somehow made back some time, but this time would all but be lost waiting for my food to arrive at the seafront cafĂ©. To be honest I didn’t care. I’d ridden for over 30 hours now so stopping was a pleasure and I didn’t stress about the time lost. In hindsight it was this lengthy stop that actually cost me the successful completion of this ride. But there were other lengthy stops all the way along this ride including a late night pizza, plus the 30 min brake repair which all cost time. So it really doesn’t come down to any one particular stop but the combination of them all which added up to a non-moving time of over 6 hours.

Between Seascale and the next control at Carnforth they’d saved the biggest (steepest) climbs of all. Hardknott Pass in the Lakes kicks up at over 30% (1 in 3) and even sees cars struggle. As I approached and looked up I knew straight away that I’d be walking a fair amount of this climb, and that a hairy descent awaiting on the other side followed by a second climb and another steep descent. Even walking and pushing the 20+KG ElliptiGO up this climb was a struggle and very time consuming. Time I simply didn’t have at this stage. Eventually I made it up and over both climbs and could enjoy (read: endure) the remaining stage that flattened out and hugged Lake Windermere all the way south to Carnforth.

Strategically located telephone box at the bottom of Hardknott Pass! **** come pick me up!

Hardknott Pass
At Carnforth (565K) my ride came to an end. I missed the cut-off by around 20 minutes so I wouldn’t be listed as an official finisher of the Audax but I could still have continued and completed the full distance. But I simply didn’t want to go on. And so this is where I really need to understand what changed in my head from leaving Seascale to arriving at Carnforth that made me SO intent on stopping. Physically I was more than capable of riding the remaining 55K to the finish. Mentally however I was done. I convinced myself that there was no real value in continuing the ride, and playing on my mind was the fact that it would mean riding into a second night, with more big climbs and descents to come ridden in the dark with only a front brake. I was last and had no company. I had no one to share what would have been an amazing finish. And with that and the relative warmth of the Truck Haven garage that was it. I feel crap now that of course I didn’t continue. I feel that this is the same mental weakness that I led me to pull out of a 100 mile ultra-run in 2012 simply because I didn’t want to continue.

And I now can connect the reason why it happened then, and why it happened again now. And it’s very simple. In the emotional turmoil of the situation and the desire to stop it totally clouds your thinking and any rational thought as to why you are out there doing what you are doing. Critically you forget your goals because your mind is very powerful and wants you to stop. My goals for this ride were very simple (and I even wrote them down in an email to a friend before the event). Plan A was to finish under the cut off and ride every climb. Plan B was to finish under the cut off. Plan C was to simply finish the event (over the cut off). I’d forgotten Plan C. I allowed myself to reset those goals and convince myself that 565K was a good (2) day’s work which I could be happy with. And now I’m kicking myself for not continuing even though at the time I was convinced it was the right decision.

So there we go…. My first Audax DNF. I don’t honestly know how I feel about it. Gutted of course that I didn’t prove the ElliptiGO could finish the Pendle 600 in under the cut-off because I truly believed I would, and still can. 6 hours was too much time to waste on terrain this tough, and I estimate I only needed 1 hour over the cut-off to complete this ride this time around. So I’m not finished with the Pendle 600. I’m quite certain now that I’ll be back to complete this ride. And with the modifications that I’m in the middle of sorting out on my ElliptiGO that involves the braking system, plus sorting out lower gearing for an event like this, I know that next time the ElliptiGO (and I) will be far better equipped to deal with the relentless terrain.

Windsor-Chester-Windsor 600K Audax

Very very briefly the WCW was my final qualifying ride for PBP which I rode two weeks prior to Pendle. WCW went very well (almost like clockwork). I rode at a pre-determined pace of 21kph for as long as I could sustain with fellow ElliptiGO rider Billy. We built up enough time to stop for 4 hours at the night control and slept for 3 of those hours. Quite in contrast to Pendle! I finished the ride in 38.5 hours and have officially qualified for PBP having ridden a SR series (200/300/400/600).

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