Our sportive blogger Chris Walker reports back from the mighty Tour of the Peak.
Above: Chris approaching the summit of Winnats Pass. (Image: SportivePhoto)
As I’m planning to do the La Marmotte sportive in July this year, I was looking for a long and tough sportive to test myself on 5-6 weeks before The Big One. I identified the KiloToGo Tour of the Peak sportive (long ride) which promised 97 very hilly and challenging miles. I can tell you now that this promise was fulfilled in spades……
Initial training for this had been slightly hampered by a chest infection which lasted a couple of weeks, so I arrived for this feeling slightly apprehensive. I had combined this with a few days’ holiday beforehand at a B&B in Chapel en le Frith, situated less than two miles from the start of the ride at Chapel Leisure Centre.
Above: Crowds waiting to start in Chapel.
Being somewhat paranoid about being late, I elected to get there 15 minutes or so before the 9 a.m. start. I was somewhat dismayed to discover that there was a very long queue to get through the starting gate, but as I’d got my number affixed to my bike and had the timing chip stuck on the right side of my helmet, I didn’t have to check in. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about, as I was on the road by 9.10 a.m.
We hit the first major hill less than 4 miles from the start, just the other side of Whaley Bridge. As usual, this sorts a lot of riders out and we began to string out up the hill. This was to be a recurring theme – going uphill, I mean. I’ve learned from doing rides like Mont Ventoux and a couple of Spanish training camps that my ideal strategy is simply to gear low, keep the cadence reasonably high and just plug away. I did an awful lot of this on the ride – it’s the only UK sportive I’ve done in which I spent most of the time on the small chainring!
The first renowned climb was the Cat and Fiddle about 12 miles from the start. This actually was no problem – average gradient no more than 4% with a few steeper ramps thrown in. It was just long – and busy with traffic. It was also windy, so the anticipated thrilling descent was a complete damp squib, having to pedal to go downhill. Bummer.
More undulating terrain followed, mixed in with some really quite dodgy road surfaces in certain areas – lots of gravel in particular, always calculated to make the heart skip more than somewhat when one is descending into a shady and twisty section. Also, lots of really sharp bends into which one descended in a highish gear only to be faced with a 20% ramp the other side! Lots of frantic gear work to get onto the small chainring in time...
The temperature was also beginning to climb – it was already about 24 degrees when we arrived at the first feed station after about 25 miles. As a result, my water bottle was empty and so elected to stop and refill, which wasn’t my original plan. Very glad I did, though, despite the long queue. At least they had barrels of sports drink already made up, so no time was wasted adding powder and dissolving it. Good move, in my opinion.
Above: Collecting plant samples was no doubt the last thing on riders' minds as they faced the 20% ramps of Winnats.
I got straight back on the bike and headed off towards the next big challenge – Winnats Pass. I hadn’t really been keeping an eye on the time, but suddenly realised, to my horror, that I was really going to have to go some to get to the top of Winnats by the proposed cut-off time for the long route – midday. As time progressed, it was obvious that there was no way I was going to make it, but neither were several hundred other cyclists. Somebody then said that the cut-off was 1 p.m. – there had been a misprint in the initial briefing. That made me feel a whole lot better and I relaxed a bit.
Winnats (Mile 42) was mayhem. Cyclists walking up it, being overtaken very slowly by cyclists weaving all over the road in their attempts to stay on the bike, themselves obstructing motorists who were trying to get past, both up and down, on a very narrow and steep bit of road. Much in the way of frank and mutual exchanging of views, unsurprisingly. I’m very pleased to report that I made it up without falling off and made the cut-off comfortably, but there were one or two hairy moments when the front wheel lifted off the surface as I pulled up on the handlebars – it was that steep. However, I managed to stay in the saddle pretty much all the way up, and punched the air at the top in celebration. Definitely the hardest hill I’ve ever done. It’s not long, but it is steep – over 20% in places.
Above: The mouth of the hellish Winnats Pass yawns open for one unsuspecting rider.
Thankfully (?) I turned onto the long route about 2 miles further on. More of the same – very little flat stuff and one real stinker of a hill at about Mile 60 that I wasn’t expecting at all. Got up that as well – just plugging away, yard by yard. Stopped at the second feed station at around Mile 68 and it was obvious that many were feeling the heat and the relentless pressure on the legs. I actually wasn’t feeling too bad – I’d been mentally really quite well prepared, and I’d done longer climbs in France and Spain in even hotter temperatures. Make no mistake – my time was not quick, but at least I was going to make it round. Or so I thought…….
On going through Holmfirth over a bumpy section, I landed on my saddle which, to my surprise, suddenly went downwards at the back so it was no longer level. I carried on for a while, but it became very uncomfortable for a sensitive male area, so had to stop to adjust the saddle just before ascending Holme Moss.
As we went around a corner in the glorious sunshine, I suddenly saw it – this long gash in the hillside ascending heavenward. The lady cyclist who was in my vicinity at the time said “Oh, glory – do we have to go up THAT??” I said “Yes, that’s Holme Moss” (as though I knew what I was talking about…..). It so transpired that we DID have to go up THAT, but it really wasn’t too bad. Just a long grind, with markers in the road saying “1 1/4 miles”, “1 mile”, “3/4 mile”, etc. I found these hugely helpful as I knew I didn’t actually have that far to go.
The descent from Holme Moss was exhilarating. The last big climb over and done with and I could see all the descent lines clearly. Lovely. Then – disaster. Right down at the bottom, without my putting any pressure on at all, a spoke broke in my rear wheel.
To say I was gutted was putting it mildly. This was the second time within a week that a spoke had broken on the same wheel, which was one I’d rented because it had a PowerTap hub on it. The bike was unrideable and I still had 14 miles to go.
Fortunately, I’d been prepared enough to put the emergency number of the organisers into my phone. This is one reason why you pay good money for these things, so I phoned them up and let them know of my plight. About half an hour later, the broom wagon swept me and my stricken bike back to the start, but it was a rather inglorious way to finish what had been a sensational ride up to that point. I actually didn’t feel too bad, and was sure I could have made it, but there were some more nasty hills towards the end which I didn’t have to do.
I’d had a fabulous few days in the area before the ride, staying at a stunning B&B called High Croft. The only saving grace for not finishing the ride is that I will have to come back and stay here again next year to have another go. Unfinished business..…
Summary? Absolutely astonishing ride, despite my bad luck towards the end. Wonderful scenery, some really punishing hills, great organisation, fabulous weather and very good for my ego. I can approach Marmotte now, knowing that I won’t break any records but also knowing that mentally I am pretty much there. A bit more work to do physically, but I was expecting that anyway. A (virtually) unmitigated success all round.