A debrief: (Blood, Sweat and) Tour of the Peak

The Tour of the Peak is a pretty big deal. 182km and 3400m of deal to be precise. Big distance, three bloody big climbs (Winnat’s Pass, Holme Moss, and Cat and Fiddle), and a big number of leg-sapping smaller climbs and rises inbetween. It looks like this:


And it’s not just big based on the stats alone. The route is based on a now defunct stalwart of the road racing scene under the same name, which was cancelled at various points due to issues getting roads closed etc. It is now managed by velo29, who run road races and various sportive up north.

Having been lucky enough to spend a week in Mallorca in mid-April (more of which here), I’d spent the two weeks prior to Tour of The Peak largely on the turbo, looking for intensity over volume. I’d only ventured onto the road a few times in this period, and it felt a bit odd sort of awkward, uncomfortable and unable to get into the mindset. So i was a little apprehensive, and going in with low expectations. So, here’s how it went:

The prelude

Sportives and early starts go hand in hand. A hard way to start a hard day. During the initial seconds after that stupidly early alarm, and the inevitable confusion and anger at such twisted torture, I genuinely forgot I was signed on to spend the best part of seven hours on my bike that day.  Then the crushing realisation hit. Solace was sought in feasting.

Fellow victim Nick and I opted for our own ‘picnic’ breakfast rather than risk our Premier Inn’s fry up, and so. Jim’s Gourmet Breakfast was rolled out; aeropress coffee, instant porridge pots with peanut butter, muller rice, fruit and ham, cheese, and bread.

Once satiated, and then having eaten another few rounds just in case, we checked weather for the 28th time in the last 24 hours, contemplated and then recontemplated clothing options, and then waddled out to drive to the HQ. I made the most of this 15 minutes to continue eating, obviously.

I think I had entered a vague sense of denial about the whole thing and so didn’t feel particularly nervous or apprehensive. However, on arriving at the car park and seeing a 60 year-old guy warming up on a turbo outside his van, apprehension was most definitely to the forefront. If this old fella is warming up, should I not be full of fear?! Does he know something I don’t? Will there be a 30% climb 100m from the start ramp?

The day seems to fall into three parts in my mind (and in my legs) and so i’ll take you through it according to those divisions.

The sticky opening salvos: Two bloody big hills and some ham rolls 

Having staked a place in the queue to be set off with the fellow ‘long’ riders and allow Nick to ahem, brave the facilities, I proceeded to get cold. It was a stunning clear day forecasted to get pretty warm, but that inevitably means a cold start. Kneewarmers, armwarmers, long finger gloves and a thin jacket do not keep a whippet warm. I consoled myself with the fact that I felt no need to test the facilities having decided to test facilities in the more civilised Premier Inn (8.9/10 by the way).

Eventually we were off, and after an all to brief 30 second ‘warm up’ we decided to try to follow a bunch of fast looking chaps. Cue cold legs shrieking in pain as we sprinted up ramps at way over my threshold and fought to hold wheels moving just that bit too fast for us. We eventually decided to let them go… y’know, hanging the breakaway out to dry. We’ll get them later. Yeh. Sure.

It immediately became clear that Nick was going better than me, his turns being that bit harder, that bit longer. My legs felt sticky and reluctant, and the stark knowledge that my compadre was firing on all cyclinders was a bit dispiriting. I let the simmering anger that he dare be fitter than me boil away. I’ll release it at some point soon. The whole first 70km or so continued the theme, Nick’s turns into the headwinds being a bit more feisty, his cadence a bit more spritely, my legs a bit more muddy.

The first of the big three climbs was the infamous Winnat’s pass, which rose its ugly head within an hour (N.B. the pass is bloody stunning. It was a turn of phrase). The pass is pokey to say the least; a gentle first few hundred meters then – after the obligatory cattle grid of the very rural climb – the full fury of the Peak District. From experience, a cattle grid is akin to a gateway to a cave. The pain cave. Climbs in moorlands and the darkest most rural corners of the UK tend to go sharply uphill the minute you cross a cattle grid, and the same was certainly true of Winnats. Over the grid and into almost 1.5km of 12-20% gradient, all whilst dodging around the slowing moving bike traffic spread all over the road. More on slow moving traffic later…

Winnats: a still image from the video produced of the day by velo29

winnats stravaAs if to bathe us in the full glory of the pass, and the type of green meadows that make you feel like you’re living in HD, the sun put his hat on, and put it on hard. I’m pretty sure the sun came out full force on the cattle grid, then went away as soon as we hit the summit. So, a nice sweat was worked up, just in time for to to settle and simmer within my jacket. Nice.

The majority of the rest of the first section of the ride, continued in the same slightly dispiriting way; clearly off form and not up to the pace of my ride buddy, and slowly slumping into a mild grump.

However, on arrival at Holmfirth, around 80km into the route, something started to happen down below. No, not an erection (is that even possible when on a bike? And what would happen to your bibs?). I’m not sure whether it was a mental thing or the fact it had taken my legs three hours to get going – but I started to feel better.

A bit more positive, a bit faster in the legs, a bit more energised.

Maybe subconsciously, my brain, which had been largely shutting down the idea of making my legs turn for 180km, suddenly became flooded with relief at the notion that almost half the distance had been covered, real food and a stretch was imminent.

The 2017 Tour of Britain passes through Holmfirth

Holmfirth is ACE. A proper postcard town of narrow roads, local shops, and classic Yorkshire stone buildings. The final stage of the Tour of Britain had passed through only a week ago, and it seems that residents had left out all the celebratory material for us. Yorkshire flags hung everywhere, and bunting was draped off anything possible. Whatsmore, as we were passing through at around 12noon, the club runs were converging on the town, and the outside areas of the cafes were overrun with riders. Standard club run practice – meet at  9ish, 100km or so, back home for coffee, cakes, and loud and cringey chat about watts. It seemed like a proper cycling mecca, and based where it is, at the base of the Holme Moss  climb, makes it ideal.

holme TdF
Holme Moss: Tour de France 2014

Holme - StravaBy now it was properly hot, and although my extra layers were certainly a wise choice in the opening few hours, I was creating a little sauna in my jacket that could have ripened tomatoes and probably did a great detox for my skin. As I climbed, I decided the longfinger gloves had to be rammed into my pockets – cooler wrists make a big difference. More on the topic of bare hands later….

The scrubby heathland of Holme Moss feels properly wild, and were it not for a few groaning and grovelling idiots on expensive bikes who probably write blogs about their feats etc, it could have been the deepest coreners of Scotland or wales.

Someone has helpfully – or perhaps torturously – marked 1mile, ½ mile, and ¼ mile to the summit on the road along the climb. I like the sense of progress felt on long European climbs where roadside markers are commonplace, but there were a fair few oaths uttered when I realised that what I thought may have been ‘100m to go’ or similar was actually the ¼ mile marker.

After a long and super-fast descent, and a quick pause to peel off my by now very sweaty lightweight jacket and somehow cram it into my pocket, the feed station soon arrived. 

Having studied my training file, I was in and out of the feed in under 8 minutes (probably the most impressive stat of the day, much to the detrement of my legs). In that brief spell, the following was achieved, in approximately this order:

  1. Utilise the facilities
  2. Down bidon of water
  3. Refill both bidons with high5 energy gunk
  4. Eat cheese and pickle mini-sandwich (made by local school pupils and AWESOME. Well filled and perfectly sized)
  5. Grab high5 bar
  6. Eat ham and cheese mini-sandwich
  7. Get paranoid we still had 80km of punishment and grab another high5 bar
  8. Eye up the sausage rolls…. So tempted…overcome with irrational concern about how it may sit in my gut and give up
  9. Stash chunk of fruit cake in my emergency pocket – my gob.
Another still from the v29 video

The mojo-boosted middle

The mid section – from after the feedstation to the final signature climb of the day the Cat and Fiddle, passed largely without incident, except for me shamefuly losing and slogging on without my faithful domestique Nick, who had done 60% of the work in the opening hours of the ride.

Weighed down with a gut full of ham and cheese sarnies, Nick was slow out of the blocks after the feed. I seem to have a pretty cast iron stomach and can ride when pretty full of food. Buoyed by my mental and physical relief at corssingt he mental divide of the 105k feedstation I (slowly) scampered off up one of the short climbs aroun d Glossop. After a few checks over the shoulder, he was gone. A few minutes of soft-pedalling and still no sight. 10 minutes of faff and still no Nicholas.

Cue that terrible debte that crosses the mind of many when out on a long two up ride. To wait devoutly for your +1, fight it out gamely together, corssing the line as brothers in arms? Or follow that unmentioned and unwritten rule of following one’s own path when a non-bonk or non-mechanical related split occurs, allowing each to forge their own fate? The latter, more selfish, option prevailed, and I cracked on. That’s it… final 80km of solo breakaway.

The mid-section was sort of unremarkable in that there were no solitary massive climbs, just a series of five or 6 shorter climbs over around 30-40km that still mounted up to a solid 1000m or so of climbing. On days as long as these, it all starts to blur into one under such circumstances. The legs still felt sort of better than they had earlier in the day, and, perhaps without nick around to make me feel slow, I sort of relaxed into it. With 100km under the belt, 80km felt like nothing. Probably around 3 hours of ‘nothing’ mind you, but small victories and that….

After an hour or so of this, the final big obstacle, the Cat and Fiddle climb, loomed into the horizon. The route descended rapidly into Macclesfield, and I somehow found myself on the outskirts of a retail estate. Sure, it’s useful to be able to buy a new sofa, get all your DIY needs, and buy a new PC in one location, but I didn’t need it now. A large metal groan occurred as it dawned on me that I’d missed a turn. In a moment of surprisingly clear and lucd thinking, I opted to turn around immediately rather than press on and keep an eye out for one of the arrows signing the route. Fortunately, within about a minute of mildly panicked pedalling back through Macclesfield, I spied another rider taking a turn that I’d totally missed – I guess in my exuberant descent into town my eye was on other things and I missed perhaps the one sign of the day that was possibly slightly poorly placed.

It turns out that this missed turn may have been a portent of the beginning of the end.

The homeward slog; Cat and Fiddle to Chocolate Milk and First Aid

C&F strava.jpegOn a normal day, the Cat and Fiddle wouldn’t present too much of a challenge. Sure, it’s long, with some calling it a 10km climb, but only those first 3-4km are actually a ‘climb’; the remainder was just a grippy drag of mostly 1-2% gradients. I chugged my way over that climbing bit easily enough, but the top section of drag, through scrubby heathland that seems to common in the Peaks, felt really tough. The roads were heavy, you were constantly hoping for a descent, and the road was fairly busy, meaning you had to keep vigilant.

Cat and Fiddle (picture credit- Philip Halling, Wikimedia Commons)
Atop of the Cat and Fiddle

On reflection, the heaviness I complain of above were as much a heaviness in my legs as in the road surface. There was a pub somewhere along the top of the climb, and i probably should have pulled over for a restorative pie and pint. The pins had more or less given up i think.

The inevitable slump into a glycogen-depleted, mashed-legged mess that is almost unavoidable on massive days such as this soon commenced. There was no full on bonk, just a draining of energy and tightening of muscle. A gentle cruise down the hill and into the abyss, taking the scenic route, as opposed to careering down into it via the most direct route available…

At some point during this spiral, minor disaster occurred. I toyed with not including this in the piece but I’m not that proud. Trudging my way up one of the seemingly endless hilsl on route, I spied one of the riders from the short route in front of me, making a sluggish progression to the peak. HE was moving (just) with that customary slightly wobbly zigzaggy progress that trademarks the lantern rouge. With 4 or 5 meters to spare I pulled out to move around him. Simultaneously deciding now was the time to ease off my mashed muscles, I got out of the saddle, using different parts of my legs to share out the labour, and foolishly let my head drop, to stare despodantly at my garmin. Then, next thing I know, a rear wheel appeared in my eyesight. And my front wheel went directly into it of course. The guy I had spied in front of me had both pulled into the middle of the road, and stopped dead, all at once. Cue a very slow motion tumble off the side of my bike, bringing down my roadblocker in front of me. All the weight of my landing went directly onto the unprotected balls of my hands and my knee. My victim was fortunately fine, as were both bikes. After a bref dusting off and profuse round of apologies by both parties – he admitted he’d come to a complete and sudden halt in a fairly stupid place, and I, for my sins, was not looking where I was going – I scampered away, tail between legs in immense embarassment.

Although I felt fine with it only being a very slow collision, the fall had opened up a couple of very small cuts in the heels of my hands, and blood was pissing everywhere. All over my bars, forks, and probably my face, every time I put my hands anywhere in that vicinity.

Other than this, I can’t remember muc of the last 40km or so, sort of ridden in a slight coma of weariness. I do remember it feeling somewhat endless though. Y’know that feeling when you’re doing a long, steady turbo interval, andit fees like the lap timer is standing still? Well, that’s what the final 20km of the day felt like. With the end within touching distance, yet still oh-so far away, the distance screen on my Garmin became the enemy. Every time I looked it seemed to have only moved on a few hundred meters. Employing my turbo tactic of trying to ignore these inidcations of progress for as long as possible didn’t help. I was stuck in groundhog day. A groundhog of tired, tight legs, feeling almost bored of being on the bike.

Eventually the 10km to go marker was spied, the glorious run in to home, wrists draped over the bars, tucked in and focussed, aero against the wind and solid through the legs. No. Grinding around on slow heavy legs, creeping over the hills, blood all over my palms, those last 20 minutes or so were not pretty.  Thankfully the last 5km were largely downhill and the road was smooth, progress almost felt… fast? Possibly.

A neat encapsulation of the day – home-made stem notes, home-brewed blood.

On crossing the line, I was awarded with the obligatory crummy medal (which I have proudly kept hold of nonetheless) and a slightly random gift of a Velo29 snood, before standing in a daze for a moment. One of the event staff wisely directed me to first aid, who cleaned up my hands and leg, and then, within a short spell of me crossing the line, Nick swept victoriously through.

After the classiest of showers (wetwipes) and finest of recovery meals (a sainsbury’s feast of chocoloate milk, pasta pot, bits of roast chicken, an avocado, and more rice pudding) we made our merry way home to the Chilterns.

I slept well that night.

Lessons learnt:

  • No matter how tired you are, resist the urge to stare at your stem
  • No matter how hot you are, keep your gloves / mitts on!
  • Schoolkids make good sarnies
  • If your legs feel shit, just keep riding. They may get better (but they may also get worse).

Official rating of the event and organisation:

  • Route: Hors Categorie–  Hardly any main roads. Mostly very quiet B-roads and lanes
  • Signage: Hors Categorie – I missed one at an inopportune moment. Not bad for 180km
  • Feedstations: Hors Categorie – ace sarnies, quality sports nutrition. Should have had that sausage roll….
  • Organisation, admin, communication: Hors Categorie: Pre-event emails etc were clear and it was super-obvious what to do, where to go, and when to do it. Staff were mega helpful on the day.
  • Goody bag: Deuxième Categorie. I don’t really care about these things, but compared to some events, where you get all sorts of crap you don’t want, just getting one piece of crap (the snood) felt a little disappointing.

Overall – i really can’t fault it. And, compared to some of the big UK Sportives such as dragon Ride and Ride London it’s a bargain. A must-do. Just make sure you pack your legs. i forgot mine and it was a tough day out. Top work Velo29.

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