Sometimes… just sometimes… you can’t complete the challenge you’ve set yourself. Sometimes you have mechanical problems, sometimes the weather dictates your day and sometimes you crash…. on 19th March all three happened.
Gary, my cycling buddy, had arranged for us to the enter Dark White’s Battle of Bradfield Sportive on the edge of the Peak District. The long route was 40 miles of almost endless climbing… and we love climbing… the steeper the better.
We also love centuries, so Gary’s cunning plan was to ride the Sportive route twice and then find another 20 miles so we could add another century to our collections. My slightly more cunning plan was a post sportive ride out to Holme Moss, taking in a handful of climbs from the ‘100 Greatest Climbs’ book en route and then back to Sheffield to take on one final ascent… Côte de Jenkin Road, made famous when the Tour de France came to town.
We both preferred the variety of Holme Moss et al, so that was pencilled in as our plan A.
The journey up to Sheffield was a good opportunity to get to know each other a bit more, we’d only previously chatted briefly on the Sunday club runs.
It turns out that we both arrived at this mutual dual addiction for centuries and hills after life changing events. Gary used to race motorbikes, a serious accident however, left him with multiple spine injuries. He consequently swapped motorised propulsion for pedal propulsion. My path (documented in the book Tales of a Centurion) was dictated by a football injury and subsequent health scare which in turn led to the cessation of my running days. In both cases cycling filled the void.
We figured an early start was required to fit everything in, bearing in mind that we still had a long journey back to Sussex later that day. We were up at six and on our bikes by seven.
I imagined the ride to the Sportive HQ to be quite sedate. I’d only been to Sheffield on a few occasions, but these were only fleeting visits, so I had little knowledge of the city. My home town is named after a hill, but compared to Sheffield it’s like a pancake. This city seems to have a steep climb lurking around every corner… we were forced to climb some of these during the short five mile commute… more like a rude awakening than a gentle warm up!
We were greeted at the HQ by some of the friendliest volunteers I had ever met. Although they were busy with registration, issuing numbers and maps etc… they were all very welcoming, still finding time to chat to us. This all adds to the experience and encourages people to come back.
After attaching the numbers to our bikes it was time to take the plunge, we rolled over the start line and were on our way. It felt quite relaxed. I’m used to racing the clock on sportives but with part two of our adventure planned for later, time wasn’t an issue.
There’s no gentle introduction to this ride, a steep descent then straight into the first climb of the day a 6%’er over a mile long, but that’s nothing compared to what lay ahead.
Five miles in and we’re already on climb two, dubbed Côte d’Oughtibridge for the Tour de France, but known locally as the Jaw Bone. A one mile ascent maxing out at over 15%… we were now getting into the swing of things and I was loving every second of it.
A nice long descent now, but our joy was short lived when Gary punctured. While he was attending to his front wheel an elderly man on foot came over for a chat. He was asking about the event and explained that he used to enter local time trial events when he was a lad. When I explained that we’d come up from Sussex, he said “my son moved down that way and lives in a town called Burgess Hill”… I was gobsmacked… “that’s where I live” I exclaimed… small world!
By this time Gary had changed his inner tube and it was time to resume our adventure… “oh no” it deflated almost immediately. It was now a case of replacing his spare with my spare… no punctures for either of us now.
Less than a mile later Gary’s front tyre was flat again. Now we were stuffed, we were trying to think of options… but there weren’t any… we were well and truly stuffed. We started asking if anyone had a ‘spare’ spare. A couple stopped, saying that they had enough spares between them and gave us a fresh inner tube… our saviours! Gary offered them some money for the tube, this was declined… they say it’s grim up north, but the people are lovely.
Tube number three duly replaced number two and we were on our way again. This one lasted a bit longer, maybe a couple of miles, but the sorry sight of Gary’s front tyre airless once again left us deflated as all four inner tubes. Completely out options now, he had no choice but to call it a day and phone for emergency assistance. I felt a bit guilty about leaving him, but he encouraged me to continue, not wanting to spoil my day as well as his.
Next up was Côte de Midhopestones, another Tour climb. This one’s a mile and a half long, averages 6.5% but similar to the Jaw Bone, peaks at over 15%. “Gary would have loved this one” I thought to myself missing my climbing buddy.
By now the wind had picked up and every descent was subject to gales in excess of 20 mph. The wind direction didn’t seem to matter as Mother Nature was intent on making riding as difficult as possible. The only favour she dished out was the occasional tail wind on the climbs.
The descent that followed is the brutally steep zig zag road down to the delightfully named Wigtwizzle. A really technical descent made even more technical by the high winds. The joy I was experiencing on these climbs was the polar opposite of the anxious moments encountered on these dicy descents.
I was relieved to be climbing again, thus is the nature of this course… back to back bouts of climbing and descending. This short but steep climb was soon over with and I was facing another dangerous descent. I was so pleased to reach the bottom that I took my eye off the ball and missed a turning… steaming full on ahead instead of turning right.
This misjudgement led to a mile long climb not on the route. As I zig zagged up the hill I couldn’t see any other riders either in front or behind me, “had I missed a turn?” I thought to myself. I decided to answer that question at the next junction. Unfortunately, this didn’t arrive until I’d ridden a few more miles including a mile and half descent into Deepcar. I stopped and checked my whereabouts on my phone “Oops!” I was way off course. My only option was to follow the exact same route back and try to pick up the route signs… now to head back up that steep mile and a half climb… trying not to grin too much about the prospect of even more climbing.
Pretty soon I was back on course, realising my mistake I vowed to concentrate and get back to the finish with no more detours… I didn’t want to keep Gary waiting any longer than necessary.
Three more climbs came and went… Canyards Wood less than a mile long but with a 9% average and maxing over 25%… Edge Mount a mile and half long with a slightly kinder 15% max… and Gibralter Rocks, over two miles long also maxing out at 15%. These, of course, were interspersed with some nervous descending.
The latter of these descents deposits you in the picturesque village of Low Bradfield, the calm of which does nothing to prepare you for the brutal climb you’re about to undertake… Côte de Bradfield… over a mile long (it felt longer) with an average grade of 10% and long sections of over 20% (if felt steeper). A right turn after the village and you are immediately plunged into a section of double figure gradient, which steepens to a 20% section where some riders were dismounting… I was still grinding out some sort of rhythm, already on my easiest gear and fighting the gradient. A slightly easier section followed of around 15%, but then it rises again to 20% to what I thought was the summit… “phew” I thought to myself… “oh no, there’s more” a right turn at High Bradfield then a left onto the rest of the climb. Back into a 20% section as it sweeps left, but then it mercifully gives you some respite with a section in single figures before kicking up again towards the summit. “Surely, this is it now” I said to myself as I ground out the last few metres… its was… an awesome climb and my favourite part of the day.
The two mile descent that followed would normally be a relief and a joy, but the winds were getting stronger… this one was probably the scariest. A cross wind for most of it meant leaning into the wind in an attempt to stay upright, intermittently braking to control my speed.
I was having second thoughts about our planned venture over to Holme Moss. We would be on higher ground in the Peak District and exposed to the 40 mph gusts forecast for later in the day. We were also running out of time. This was taking a lot longer than anticipated, with the multiple punctures, the detour and the sheer amount of climbing all taking huge chunks out of our time schedule.
By this time I had one last climb to go, less than a mile this one. Although it peaked at over 15%, it seemed easier than some of the others. A mile or so later I arrived back at the finish line, greeted by the sight of dozens of relieved riders, all happy to have got back safely.
Back at the ride HQ I was reunited with Gary. He’d been picked up OK and the mechanic had found a tiny slither of glass in his tyre… it’s amazing how something so small can have such a big effect. Big shame, but at least it had been sorted.
I checked in to get my time, which under the circumstances I wasn’t at all interested in, but I commented on how much I enjoyed the hills. I also explained how I’d missed a turning, ended up riding an additional six miles or so, but was pleased to get two additional hills in. I was promptly nominated as “going the furthest off route today” followed by a congratulatory “well done!” what a friendly bunch.
While waiting, Gary was hearing stories of riders being battered by the strong winds and struggling to stay upright. My arrival more than confirmed that. I explained that I wasn’t keen on riding east into those winds and I also pointed out that it’d been over five hours since we left the hotel and at this rate we wouldn’t get back until early evening… and we still had a long drive back to Sussex.
Gary was pleased. Still traumatised by his relentless bout of punctures. We resolved to head back to Sheffield, pop over to Jenkin Road to savour one last gradient and then head home.
The route over to Jenkin Road, started with a long descent back into Sheffield. It was still raining at this point and having cooled down after the sportive I slipped on my brand new shower proof jacket. I had the route from the Hillsborough football stadium to Jenkin Road plotted on my Garmin, so it was just a case of navigating the main roads to the infamous stadium.
As we neared the A61, there was a build up of traffic and a long queue to get onto this busy road. As is usual practice for experienced cyclists we weaved in and out of the traffic in a cautious but vigilant manner, however, these two ‘experienced’ cyclist had never encountered tram lines before… let alone wet tram lines. At this point we were both riding down the middle of the road, between the tram lines overtaking the queue of traffic. With a left turn coming up we had to switch to the left of the lane and cross three tram lines… I didn’t make it past the first… my front wheel slid along the steel and thud!… I was down… “Ooooouch!” for the first time today I was experiencing ‘real’ pain. It seems that the northern tarmac is harder than our soft southern variety… I had fallen the week before on our Sunday club run, it barely hurt at all… this was excruciating!!!
It seemed like I was on the ground for an eternity trying to come to terms with the pain while trying to unclip. Gary’s back wheel had skidded on the tram lines, but somehow he’d managed to stay upright. He was first to the scene with the driver of the car immediately behind me. Although I was in a great deal of pain I knew there were no serious injuries. I was helped to my feet and thanked the car driver for his concern assuring him that nothing was broken.
Now out of the road, time to asses the damage. New jacket… ripped, arm warmers… ripped, leg warmers… ripped, overshoes… ripped, but my beloved Castelli kit and Sidi’s had come through unscathed. And my bike? Just the bar tape ripped, phew what a relief. Me? I daren’t look, I’ll check that out later.
Gary suggested that we change our plans and just take a gentle ride back to the hotel and go home. A resounding “No” was my response, “we can’t end it like this, we have to do Jenkin Road and end on a high” I added. I also wanted something to take my mind off the pain.
Côte de Jenkin Road
A few miles later we arrived at the foot of the climb… a 90 degree left turn from a set of traffic lights, so no chance of taking any momentum into the climb.
My first sight of the climb was overwhelming, a wall of tarmac rising skyward with no let up in the 15-20% gradient. Gary with his fresh legs immediately took the lead, I couldn’t stay on his wheel and slipped back slightly as the road switched right with the gradient now increasing to 20%. At this point you get your first sight of the famous left hander. “Oh shit” Gary exclaimed, this doubled the effect of the daunting site of this 25-30% section with the railings on the pavement to help pedestrians climb the hill.
We both dug deep, using our personal mind game strategies. Gary was pulling away from me now, but I was more concerned about grinding to a halt as I pushed against the gravity. Once round this leg burning corner, the gradient lessens to a mere 15% before the final 20% kick up to the summit. Wow, we’d done it, we’d both conquered Côte de Jenkin Road 🙂
Gary stopped just past the summit. I continued thinking he’d follow me and without checking, I descended down the other side. I made a left turn at the bottom, looked over my shoulder and he was nowhere to be seen… I’d have to go back up… ‘hurrah’ more climbing! He was still at summit, chatting to some Dutch cyclists who were on an adventure themselves… riding the climbs made famous by the Tour de France.
Back at the hotel, I tentatively peeled off my arm and leg warmers to reveal scarlet patches where a layer of skin used to reside… ouchy!… I was starting to feel it now especially without the cycling distraction. It felt like someone had tattooed over a patch of sunburn… double ouchy!
From my perspective, it had been a fantastic day of glorious climbing which more than made up for missing out on a century. The 8,776 feet climbed turned out to be the most I’d scaled in any one ride since records began. Yes I was sore, but very satisfied with the weekend’s achievements. Although Gary was disappointed having only ridden 30 miles, he didn’t regret coming all this way. He was pleased with his Jenkin Road effort… or was it the pleasure of my company?
Lessons learned from the weekend… If you get consecutive punctures, take your tyre off, turn it inside out and find the problem. And… don’t cross the tram lines!