The Struggle was the season goal and what all the hours of training have gone into; so suffice to say I was very nervous in the few days up to the event.
The run up to an event normally goes like this for me:
- Train for several weeks
- 1 week before event: check the weather religiously on the hour from the hours of 9am – 5pm everyday during the week
- Thursday before event: Order any emergency kit that may be required
- Saturday before event: Stew; stress and be restless
- Day of event: “ARGH It’s here! I feel unprepared!” Then start.
In terms of my training for this event; it is a bit archaic. I try to do around 100 – 175 miles per week. I don’t train by power but I do use heart rate/cadence however, most of it is done on “feel”. Generally, I throw myself up hills. In all weathers. As I signed up for The Struggle during Christmas 2015 I have had ample time to train and prepare. The longest ride I had done as part of my training was 70 miles…and only 3300 ft of climbing!
I was either confident or stupid!
Leading up to the event, checking the weather religiously was not going very well. The weather when checking on the Monday was resembling somewhat of a hurricane. The bullet was bitten on the Tuesday and waterproof arm and knee warmers were ordered. Just in case. As it turned out; the weather was perfect. The extra kit wasn’t needed but the emergency sun cream made an appearance!
Sign on for the event could be done on the Saturday at Prologue from 12 pm to 5 pm. I went down for 12 pm and we were already queuing round the shop like a bad game of Snake on a Nokia 3310. When it was finally my turn to sign on we were handed an envelope with our wristband for the feeds, race number and stage profile.
This has just got. Real!
I studied the route, even though I had memorised it and could recite the climbs in my sleep, over lunch with my family and girlfriend.
On the morning of the event I was up at 5.30am and thankfully the weather was perfect. That’s the first challenge of the day out of the way!
I always aim to get up and have breakfast 2 hours before I leave for an event, due to the size of the this event I got slightly earlier so I could have my breakfast and coffee and then have a stomach settler; as today wasn’t the day for IBS to bother me.
I had arranged to meet some of the guys that I cycle with on a Saturday from the LBS at the bottom of the road at 8.00am at the start line. As per usual, I was pushing the limits about whether I would be on time.I rolled in at 8.05 and we left at 8.10am so I was cutting it very fine! Typical of me.
For some, un-be-known reason to me, I expected to see lots of people at the start. However, there was only the group I was starting with and the Harrogate Nova train. It appears everyone started very early and we were about the last. It was quite a scary prospect knowing I would be last on the road.
As we rolled out and got he first few miles in the legs it was really nice to be starting in a group. This group was probably quicker than me overall but the fact that we were working as a group made the first hour (until I got dropped) fly by. As we made our way along to the first climb we stuck as a group and then we splintered ever so slightly on the first climb; which was Bedlam Bank.
Climb 1: Bedlam Bank
Bedlam Bank was the first climb to get us underway. This was merely a dot on the profile of the course as it was very short and not overly steep. About a 7% average and it probably maxed at around 10% – 11%. Going up we stayed pretty much together as one group. I was mid group and this allowed me to cycle within myself a touch as I was effectively being paced up the climb.
After cresting Bedlam Bank we passed through Burnt Yates and then carried on towards Summerbridge. The road is quite undulating towards Summerbridge and it is a relatively busy road as it is the main one towards Pateley Bridge. However, at this time of the morning the road was pretty deserted…so we had plenty of time to contemplate the berg that lay ahead!
Climb 2: Hartwith Bank
Hartwith Bank was hit 10 miles in and as the road to Brimham Rocks was closed for resurfacing the diversion pushed more traffic up and down Hartwith Bank. However, once again, due to the time there was very little traffic on the roads.
Hartwith is a pretty brutal climb. Averaging about 10% but maxing out 20% and hanging around 15% – 18% for what feels like an eternity. The climb is only 0.9miles but as soon as you leave the main road, it ramps up to around 12% and stays there and then ramps up again past some houses. At this point it is very high banked at either side and quite enclosed, almost claustrophobic. It hovers around 17%-20% until a guest house three quarter of the way up, you then go round a hairpin and it goes down to a more manageable 15% and decreases further as you get out in to the open again. It is no understatement to say that if this was cobbled (as the road surface is that poor it may as well be) it would be the equivalent to the Koppenberg!
It was here where it got a bit interesting because although we tried to stay together as a group we, inevitably, splintered here. I was trying to ride within myself up the climbs as I was very aware of blowing up if I pushed too hard. However, getting up something like this didn’t allow me to ride within myself. Therefore, it was a grind. As we created I was 3 to crest from our group. However, I was now blowing…This was not good for Greenhow coming up in less than 5 miles…
The descent from Hartwith to Glasshouses was welcome. Some leg resting time. The group was also back together as we moved on to Pateley Bridge. In Pateley Bridge lay Greenhow. The next big challenge.
Climb 3: Greenhow Hill (Where it all began to unravel)
Getting to the bottom of Greenhow Hill in a group was obviously a good thing. I thought at the start of the ride that I wanted to stay with the group until the bottom of Park Rash which was on 52 miles. This would have saved me some energy and also given the illusion of time passing quicker through sharing the pain and general chit-chat.
Greenhow, in case you don’t know, is a climb of several steep 16% ledges, punctuated with with some flatter (but not flat) sections.
Greenhow is 2.5 miles long with a 7% average, which doesn’t sound too bad; but, as happens in Yorkshire, they tend to build roads straight up hills rather than nice switchbacks that gives a more consistent gradient.
As we approached the first ledge I was feeling good. I was about 5 back as we hit it but then the chap in front of me lost his chain! Nightmare! I got caught behind him until he pulled off to put the chain back on. This had stunted my momentum though.
I made it up the ledge just ahead of the other guys in my group but behind the two super strong fellas. As we hit the first flatter section I used this to recover.
Then…BOOM! The other guys steamed past me. They weren’t recovering. I decided to hang fire and still take it easy as I would catch them up on the next 16% ledge because they would slow. Surely?!
The next ledge appeared and as I came round the corner I could see them on it. At this point I thought I would catch them up no problem. As I put the hammer down the legs did not respond. Coupled with the headwind, I wasn’t going to be going anywhere fast at all. I gave it one more dig from the legs but I just couldn’t make myself go any faster!
With that I could see them beginning to ascend the next ledge before I was even halfway along the next flatter section. That was the last time I saw them during The Struggle but as it is a Sportive and a personal challenge I would have done the same if I was in their position. Along with that I would not want to feel I was holding anyone back as it is a personal challenge and everyone wants to do the best time they can. Also, rather selfishly, I knew if I tried to bridge back on to them and then try and keep up with the group I would blow up before the end without question.
Anyway, back to the last half of the Greenhow climb. It was the most painful climb of the day physically and, without doubt, the most I suffered mentally. I have never been so glad to crest a climb and then get a full on headwind.
The next 21 miles were predominantly downhill, with undulations of course and the first feed stop was on mile 28. This was an opportunity to get the head back in the game; as, for the most part, the legs were more than willing.
As I descended Greenhow into the wind I was beginning to think that this was to big of a challenge for myself. I contemplated taking a left in Grassington and heading back to Ilkley and then Harrogate. Tail between my legs. Failed.
I don’t know what it was; stubbornness, bloody mindedness, stupidity, feeling of wasted training hours or the “I’ve paid for this, so I’ll bloody well finish it”. In truth, it was probably a mix of all of the above but we were going to the end baby!
As I approached the first feed stop I was passing riders again and this helped the morale no end. When I got to the first feed station there were LOTS of riders! A quick half a banana, a handful of jelly babies and comfort break later and I was back on my way. Mentally revitalised and ready to complete this event come hell or high water.
From here (feed stop mile 28 to around mile 70) I was on completely new roads and I hadn’t recce’d the next two big climbs; Malham Cove and Park Rash. Not doing a recce on such a large section of the course is very out of character as I normally like to know everything about the course I am trying to complete. However, life had got in the way.
Fast forward to the Climb 4: Malham Cove
This is one of the climbs I had never done before so I was completely in the dark about how it was going to pan out. Although, I wasn’t fearing this as much as Park Rash, the Queen climb of the day.
The great thing about Malham Cove is that it is absolutely stunning scenery to ride through and that really helps take your mind off the pain.
As we approached the bottom of the climb I was in a small group with some guys from a club. I didn’t get their names but they were good chat. Their jerseys also made me chuckle as their club slogan was “Probably the worst cycling club ever”. We all pretty much stayed together up the climb which was a surprise.
Malham is a bit of a deceiving climb because it is only an average gradient of about 6% – 7%. On paper when I saw that I thought…”won’t break a sweat going up here”; but then about a third of the way there is a sign with “1:7” displayed upon it. This, obviously, meant things were going to get much tougher. Probably, very quickly. As we hit the steep stuff there is a right turn and you get the most fantastic view over the cove.
To be honest, this climb was a bit of a grind whilst trying not to expend too much energy with Park Rash in mind. When we got to the top the rain began to spit but this was very short lived thankfully…as I only had a gilet! Bad packing on my part.
The descent from Malham is a typical Yorkshire descent. Steep, narrow, poor roads and lots of sheep! I’m a bit of a nervous descender, particularly on the steep stuff, so I was very pleased that the roads were dry.
For what felt like the first time all day we had a tailwind! Pure. Bliss. As we hurtled down towards Kettlewell, the next water stop and the fierce Park Rash.
The water stop was in the perfect place. Kettlewell, next to the pub. The best place just before the foot of the climb to take on some liquid, take stock and have a comfort break. Thankfully, there was lots of people at the water station so I wouldn’t be going up it alone. And, perhaps even more thankfully, most of them looked worse than I felt.
Climb 5: Park Rash
Park Rash was the other climb I hadn’t ridden before the event so I had no idea what to expect. I only had the myths passed on to me by other cyclists I knew. All I had they referenced was a 30% hairpin. The picture below doesn’t do it justice but this is the hairpin in question…
Leaving Kettlewell there is a smaller single track road around a corner. Up a hill. You can see where this is going can’t you?
This first hill, according to my Garmin (which is before this elevation above), touched 21%. Once up that there is respite as you roll by the river on your right. In my inexperience, I thought that first 21% section was “it”. It wasn’t and as I rolled down by the river, basking in the sunshine and taking in the views into focus comes the dreaded hairpin.
Hitting the foot of the climb “proper” it goes from 0% to 7% to something astronomical in the blink of an eye. Thankfully the hairpin area of the climb, just prior to it and just after it had been resurfaced. Result! No avoiding potholes whilst trying not to fall off through lack of forward movement.
When I made it round the hairpins I thought the worst was over. How wrong I was…
I expected the gradient to relent quite quickly after the hairpins; but it didn’t. It sat around the 20% for what felt like an eternity. As I came around another corner there was an ambulance parked up. Very fitting for how I currently felt! As I came round another corner with the gradient still pretty high there was a photographer just waiting to catch me in all my pained glory…
Arriving to the top of this I was euphoric! The road tailed off to what I thought was the top…again. However, I was wrong yet again! The peace that my legs felt as it tailed off was amazing; but, then I look up and it begins to climb again in the distance.
The road, once again, climbed and hit about 18% at it’s peak. I’m glad it didn’t go on 200 meters further otherwise I probably wouldn’t have made it up on the bike!
Dragging myself up this whole climb was probably the toughest thing I’ve done in cycling climbing wise. I think that although I could probably go quicker up if I wasn’t 50 miles into a ride, I don’t think I would actually be that much quicker. It’s amazing what a bit of adrenaline and some people to target does to the little voices in your mind.
As with every great climb there is (hopefully) an equally great descent. Going down the other side was a great feeling.It was a nice steady descent instead of going down a wall. The only things you had to be careful was the moving (and sometimes unmoving) obstacles of sheep! I almost hit two. At speed.
Thankfully, the next 20 or so miles were downhill punctuated by a few small climbs. Within this 20 miles I managed to jump on to the back of the Cappuccino CC train. This club is local to Harrogate and more of a social club than a competitive one. Thankfully they didn’t mind letting me sit in.
After leaving the Cappo’s behind and getting into another small group of riders we ended up a Fearby and the final food stop at the village hall. After a quick comfort break and some food and re-hydration I was on my way again…on wards and upwards!
Climb 6 – Trapping Hill
Trapping Hill was a climb I first stumbled across when I was doing some recon for the Ripon Revolution. Now, it’s a climb I know very well and rather enjoy! The climb is broken into two distinct climbs with a breather in the middle.
The above profile is the second part of the climb, I cannot recall what the first part is called. As you can see, as is the case with most climbs in Yorkshire; it is pretty much “wall like” from the get go and eases off. As you crest the top of this climb you are greeted by views across the Nidd Valley and to Pateley Bridge in the far distance. In the forefront is Lofthouse village and reservoirs stretching out in to the distance. Once you take in those views it is time to knuckle down and concentrate the descent down Trapping is very steep and reasonably technical (for someone that cannot descend, Me!) descent.
Whilst ascending it was amazing to still feel strong and keep on passing other riders. Going up there was quite an eye opener as there was quite a bit of zig-zagging from other riders. This served two purposes: 1) It made me feel extremely strong as I didn’t feel the need to zig-zag, and; 2) Took my mind off my ordeal and filled with a bit of confidence for the final climb.
Going on to the final climb of the ride, it is reached by cycling along the valley floor from Lofthouse through to Pateley Bridge. Unfortunately for me, this could not be enjoyed due to knowing what was awaiting my legs…
Climb 7: Two Stoops
Two Stoops is quite a formidable climb with only 30 or so miles in the legs so to hit this at mile 95 made it nothing short of a monster. The climb starts with a sharp left hander which is off camber and very steep. To try and equalise the gradient I moved on to the other side of the road and got out of the saddle; safe in the knowledge that there wasn’t much further to go. Getting back into the saddle once it flattens off slightly allowed me to get to get my breath back…before the show piece:
The main showpiece is a 20% ramp followed by a vicious switchback/chicane. By this point I was just about on my knees and the only thing getting me through this climb was the fact that when I crested it; it was pretty much all downhill back to Harrogate and the finish line.
When cresting Two Stoops there was two overwhelming feelings. Firstly: elation, I was elated that I had finished climbing and, unless there was a catastrophe, would finish comfortably and secondly; relief. Relief that I had managed all of the climbs and didn’t have to call the girlfriend to pick me up and feel the shame of failure.
Crossing the line my time was 7 hours and 8 mins.
This was pretty much bang on my 7 hour – 8 hour estimate. I was a touch gutted that I could get a 6 hour 59 mins but all things considered: longest ride, most climbing in one ride and riding the majority of the ride on my own.
The Struggle was excellently organised and the food stations were brilliantly stocked. We also lucked in with near perfect weather.
It was the perfect day for the perfect challenge.
Would I ride The Struggle again…? Most certainly, without hesitation. After all, I have to get back in under 7 hours next time!