Saturday 21 September 2013

Working in Wakefield for a firm that regularly supports the local Hospice means that when they launched their first charity sportive event my participation was pretty much guaranteed. And so I found myself at the Nuffield Health Gym on the outskirts of Wakefield at 7.30 on a Saturday morning getting ready to tackle some of the first stage of next year's Tour.

The 74 mile route (badged as the "Extreme" option as opposed to the 30 mile "Moderate" and 50 mile "Hard" options) began with a long gentle climb out of the Calder Valley and westward up into the Pennines. We were following the A636, and then the A635 towards Holmfirth, home of the extremely English sitcom Last of the Summer Wine, which next July will become extremely French as the Tour passes through the town and up over Holme Moss.

Before we got there, however, there was the long descent into New Mill with lovely sweeping bends on the way down. Usually this is a 40mph+ stretch for me but today the road was a little crowded and the last thing I wanted was a spill this early on.

I'd taken it easy on the way up to Holmfirth as I had a plan for the day, which was to ride the route non-stop. I was a couple of weeks away from the much tougher Etape Pennines and this seemed like a good warm-up event. I was a little wary of the food and drink situation - 74 miles on just two 750ml bottles was going to be a bit uncomfortable and my frame bag crammed with fig rolls and jelly babies was surely going to be empty well before the finish.

I've ridden Holme Moss plenty of times before and it's not a particularly leg breaking climb, more of a steady grind, but between the edge of Holmfirth and the bottom of the climb proper there are some surprisingly steep gradients that require a bit of effort in their own right. Eventually though my attention was drawn to the hills ahead, particularly by the cloud cover sitting on top of them. I'd hoped to get some video footage of the ride but what had been mild clear conditions now started to deteriorate.

By the time I crossed the first distance marker painted onto the tarmac at 1 ¼ miles from the summit the temperature had dropped significantly and the cloud cover was closing in. This was starting to become a bit of a chilly ride and it was getting worse as the elevation increased. While the effort of riding kept me warm, the visibility was deteriorating and at the ¼ mile to go point I decided I should turn on my rear light to avoid being hit by anything. Doing this while riding on the flat is a piece of cake, but keeping the bike steady and straight on a hill climb while groping for the on switch turned out to be a bad idea as I lurched towards the crash barrier. I caught it just in time but not before a second or so of the front tyre scraping along the kerbstones and some serious panicking.

Had the organisers known what the weather was going to be like on the day, they might have reconsidered the location of the first feed stop as the top of a freezing cold fogbound hill was not somewhere I'd have relished, regardless of whether I was planning to stop or not. I rode on, as did the guy to the side of me, both of us looking forward to getting down to Woodhead Pass and into some warmer air.

The road down to Woodhead is a great descent and seeing how fast the pros ride this next year will be fascinating. Today though it was a tricky task, squinting into the gloom and carefully picking my way down while trying to avoid potholes and oncoming traffic - all of which was made harder by the moisture condensing on my glasses! This had been going on during the climb but I could spare a hand to clear the lenses back then. Now it was harder and harder to see the guy in front of me and if it wasn't for his bright orange top I'd have been in a bit of trouble. The bumpy surface and high speed meant I couldn't risk taking a hand off the bars so by the time I got to the final stretch where the road really drops away it was a miracle I could see at all. Later I wondered if I might have in fact been safer just moving them up onto my forehead!

Clearing my specs and getting down to more sensible speeds was a relief, as was the higher temperature in the valley. Next year the pros will turn left at the junction with the A628 and head up the Woodhead Pass and down into Sheffield. Hopefully the junction will have been resurfaced by then! Today, those on the Hard course followed this route while the Extreme riders were sent to the right then off via the back roads to Glossop to tackle the Snake Pass.

Leaving Glossop the Snake's uphill gradients begin almost immediately and virtually the whole of the road is visible off to the right strung out along the hillside. It looks a lot worse than it is though, especially in the misty murky conditions we were enjoying, so I was happy to put my foot down a little and overtook a lot of riders who were either saving their energy for steeper gradients I knew would never arrive or were suffering in the cooler conditions. One pair in particular stuck in my mind as from a distance they looked to be riding strangely large bikes...until I caught them, and realised they were in fact two young boys on adult-sized bikes they had no doubt been told they would eventually grow into.

After a bracing effort up the hill I reached the summit plateau. Here the visibility was only marginally better than on top of Holme Moss and the moorland off on either side gave a mysterious feeling of hiding something rather than revealing the usual expansive views to the horizon. Fans of An American Werewolf in London would know what I mean! Keeping an eye out for loose sheep emerging unexpectedly from the gloom I prepared myself for a cooling descent down to Ladybower Reservoir, mainly by clearing my glasses again but also by shovelling in a few more fig rolls and jelly babies.

The Snake carries sufficient traffic levels to earn an occasional repair to its road surface and so a much smoother tarmac meant my confidence levels were higher on the first mile or so down into the valley than on the previous descent. This didn't last for long though, as the road is eventually shrouded by trees and the surface develops the occasional rough patch and pothole. The second feed stop was coming up, and recalling what a few riders had done at the last stop I resolved to call out my number to the volunteers manning it so they had an idea of who was still out on the ride. Nice plan, but sadly it failed as I shouted the wrong number as I shot past.

Although mainly downhill the Snake eventually starts to level off and becomes more of a rolling undulating ride until the final stretch down to Ladybower arrives, then the road begins the climb up towards Sheffield. Before the edges of the city are even glimpsed though our route turns off to the left for Strines Moor, the toughest section of the ride.

I'd driven over this way the week before and got a flavour of what I'd be in for - a series of four strangely similar descents and climbs, all with a stone bridge over a stream at the bottom and all of them surrounded by woodland. The last of the four brought the pain though with a really tough gradient to tackle after the final bridge and a tricky left hand switchback halfway up. And that was just the start! The road led out of the woods into open countryside but carried on climbing to another nasty switchback that had me thanking my triple chainset for giving me a low enough gear to cope.

Knowing that I only had to get over this hill and I'd broken the back of the ride was sufficient to help me to hang on, and cresting the final rise I dropped back into the saddle to get my heart rate down to somewhere near normal. Sadly, I'd no water left by now and I had to content myself with the dregs of my bottle - sufficient to wet my lips, but it was going to be the finish line before my thirst was properly quenched.

With Strines out of the way I enjoyed coasting down into Midhopestones with the knowledge that I had only 20 miles left to go now. Crossing the A616 and heading into the potentially-not-safe-for-work town of Penistone, I was annoyed to have to put my foot on the floor for only the third time in the ride at a set of lights with extraordinarily long phasing. The remaining miles were mildly undulating but passed easily enough and soon I was approaching the final feed stop. I slowed and asked the volunteers on duty how many miles were left to go and was surprised to be told only seven were left. Another oddly sited stop, but I was close enough now not to really care.

Passing under the M1 at junction 38 near Woolley (of Woolley Edge fame for fans of motorway service areas) I was overtaking a steady stream of MTB and hybrid riders battling to the end of their ordeal. For all concerned there was a cruel finish with a long steady climb up Haigh Lane from the junction to deal with. It was made all the worse for being arrow straight, so it was clear exactly how much further it was going to go on for. There were several casualties lounging around at the t-junction at the top, one or two of whom wished me rather half-hearted encouragement.

It was but a few short miles from here down into Wakefield, skirting around the edge of town past the busy Asda and finally onto the road we had headed out on earlier in the day. I was pleased to be able to keep a good 20mph+ on this section and my legs still felt strong as I crossed the timing mat at the finish.

I was mightily relieved to collect my complimentary bottle of water, and even happier to find that as a participant in the event I was able to use the facilities at Nuffield Health for free. Within 20 minutes of finishing I was easing into a hot jacuzzi and letting it work its magic on my lower back. After managing to keep myself from nodding off in there I had a quick shower and left to join plenty of other finishers in some fish and chips at the Wetherby Whaler, just across the road from the finish line.

So, all in all it was a great day on the bike. My first ever non-stop sportive, and the excellent facilities at the finish left me more than impressed with Wakefield Hospice's first attempt at a cycling event. I'm sure that next year's edition will only get better, hopefully raising even more money for a great local charity.

The 2014 edition of the Wakefield Hospice Sportive will take place on Sunday 21 September. We will be carrying updates closer to the event; in the meantime, general information and photos from 2013 are available on the hospice website.