Well, that was certainly a different experience for me. Despite having participated in a few Sportives in the last couple of years, I've never really considered a mountain biking equivalent. My only previous experience of competitive MTB was a deeply muddy SITS which was more about the craic than the time. Even this trip was more about socialising, meeting up with some mates and visiting a part of the world which had so far eluded me - despite my history as a motor-cyclist.
First of all though, I was clever enough to take a road bike with me too. Despite some naff weather on the Friday, I managed to sneak out for a couple of hours for a quick tour around the south of the island and I must say that I was very impressed with what I saw. A flatter, greener east coast is contrasted by a rougher, more natural and forested west coast and there’s a cracking wee range of hills between them. Road surfaces were a bit dodgy in places but there’s so little traffic that there’s plenty of room for manoeuvre. What I did miss, is that the 61km TT circuit would be an even better ride. There’s a 396m mountain “pass”, some beautifully maintained smooth tarmac, an absence of cats-eyes and loads of padding on parapets and the like should the worst happen :-) Definitely worth a return visit and I’d encourage any cyclist to pop over for a look.
Saturday was a bit of a rest day for the mates and I, though we did go to see some 4x4 shenanigans, wandering about a muddy hillside watching some real enthusiasts get themselves into- and out-of some challenging positions. We also registered for the race, got our timing chips, etc. The whole process was very efficient.
In addition to tyres, clothing etc I’d also been prevaricating about nutrition during the run-up to setting off for the ferry. As Saturday evening arrived, I realised I’d still not decided, so set off round the local Co-op to see what I could stock up with. “Not much” was the result! I eventually decided I’d wing it with some gels and a couple of Torq energy bars and see what I could snaffle en route.
“Race” day morning saw us up early and heading to the Point of Ayre for the start line. The wet weather we’d had since arriving looked to be drying up as we got there and cycled down to the mass start. While a couple of the guys were keen to get near the front, the rest of us just tagged on at the back of the 1200+ strong crowd and waited for the start. Quite a range of machinery on display and it was obvious from various team jerseys and the like that the event is attracting a lot of off-island interest.
When we did eventually get going, it took us a full 12 minutes to reach the start line and the beginning of the 20+ km road stretch south. It was obvious from the off that we’d be doing some overtaking and soon little groups were forming and breaking up as we passed though some pleasant wee villages, locals lining the roads as we went. Hitting the first real off-road hill was a bit of a shock. The lane narrowed and most folk were simply pushing up. Attempts to cycle past were, at first, successful but eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and joined the throng, looking for the best line up for boots and struggling in places to get grip in the lee of 1,000 other pairs of feet. The first climb ended and what was in prospect was a muddy, braided track, obviously cut up by motorbikes and by many, many cyclists. Avoiding the mud was impossible and it was a case of hop on, cycle for a bit then a quick dismount and carry/push he bike onto a more manageable section of track. To be fair, the track improved the further it went on and as the field thinned out a bit, I started to pass a few more challengers, even getting the bike airborne on a couple of occasions, much to the delight of some of the spectators.
One “disaster” had befallen me though. My new Garmin Dakota GPS had reported “Low Battery” and I’d had to switch it off else I wanted to use it later in the day. It was totally my fault. Rather than invest in some new NiMH rechargeables, or even to buy some alkaline AAs I’d tried to use some older rechargeables and they’d obviously not charged properly. I knew that with all the signing and the number of competitors I’d not get lost but I was using the GPS as a way of checking my progress. Suddenly, without it, I felt a bit under stress, not knowing how far we’d to go and so how hard to push myself. As we progressed further south, I kept looking at the surrounding hills, hoping I’d spot something I was familiar with from my recent travels, but it seemed to be ages before that happened. Querying some of the marshalls and onlookers, I was getting some wild estimates of distance remaining. One thing though, we were down to the last 10km or so.
Having congratulated myself on getting on so well, I was passing one spectator when he simply said the wrong thing - “you’re going really well!!”. No sooner had his lips closed and I was off my bike and into the surrounding gorse bushes. Well, I had to laugh, especially as he looked so concerned. Quickly picking myself up and carrying on it, it was only another few minutes before I was off again. This time, my right calf had simply locked up with cramp and as I lay on the track swearing, I saw some of the folk I’d just passed getting through on me again. A quick rub down and stretch and I was back into the fray - for only another couple of minutes. As a little rocky step-down appeared in the narrow heather track, the rider in front of me hesitated and when I tried to put my left foot down to steady myself, that one cramped up too! This was just getting beyond a joke!
Soon though, it was the fast, grassy descent down to Port Erin and the rather sadistically placed 1:4 final road climb to the finish line. Not knowing how I was going, I was pleased to see the clock at 5h29m as I crossed the timing mat.
How was it then? Well, other than the two long sections of uphill pushing and one rather muddy forest descent when my front wheel became so clogged up that it locked, I’d rather enjoyed it. I was as muddy as I’ve ever been and the effect of the calf cramps had me walking round the refreshment tent very gingerly but I was already thinking of how I could be quicker in future.
- Starting nearer the front would have meant less bottlenecks and what there was would be with folk who were likely to be a bit faster anyway.
- The conditions should also be better with fewer riders mashing up the muddy bits before I arrived.
- I could break the habit of a lifetime and go a bit more lightweight. I was carrying a full 3 Litres of water, a jacket and more, whereas the quicker folk were topping up as they went and just carrying less.
- I’d treated the whole event as a bit of a laugh, but a better training, sleeping, eating plan would show results on the day.
- Having now ridden the course, I’d be more aware of how far I had to go, what was coming up next and how hard to push myself.
I should say that the whole event is superbly well run and it seems like the whole island chips in to help out. Lots of my fellow challengers seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, though there was also a significant number who seemed to have their "race face" on and couldn't even manage to exchange pleasantries as we cycled along. I'd like to think I'm never like that - but I may be wrong!