No one is speaking anymore.

We have all staggered out, finding our rhythm as we pick our way across the peat bog. We have climbed past the point of making banter and conversation with our fellow riders, now we all just want is to pass the cairn and make it down to the bothy. The mornings rain is easing, but the effects on the course are fully felt underfoot. On passing the cairn everything is greased with a slick mud that makes the usually predictable granite an uneasy exercise in slipping the rear wheel round large loose rocks.

The staccato nature of what is rideable takes its tole, with the constant mounting and dismount burning through my thighs. My right leg is making a damn fine attempt in trying to cramp. Experience has taught me that once it has, it will become a constant feature for the remainder of the day.

No one likes the goat track, when people tell others about this race, the hike-a-bike is what they talk about, but I don’t remember it being like this.


6 hours earlier,

I was here for the 2016 edition, but when the weather was looking to be especially mental, I thought caution was the better part of valor and pulled out. Back for redemption in 2017 I was eager to run the race differently than I had before, going with a long travel full suss and pack-less over my previous attempts on a XC hardtail. This time I would be going full enduro (note, never go full enduro).

20171007_171453

Assembled on Fort William High Street, the customary rain fell lazily on 230 riders of all stripes. It is a self seeding event, so everyone is casually looking for riders that look a bit like themselves, in both bike and attire. Milling around with an air of sodden tension, we all await the start.

After a brief pre-race speech from on of the organisers atop a bin, we are informed that the river crossing is open, this is good news as the full course will be raced unlike the previous year. The pack tightens up as the trials bikes position themselves to escort us to the road in a rolling start.

I keep to the right of the peloton to avoid be snagged up by parked cars as we break off up the first climb of the day. The course starts on single track roads which quickly build in elevation as we make our way towards the West Highland Way. The pack starts to thin out but it is not until we move off road that the race really staggers out.

My strategy for this year was to go easier on the whole course and make up time and points on three of the special stages. The Kinlochleven decent, the climb to Eilde Mor and the final special stage on the Nevis Range single track. I knew that this would be a very different race with the bike I’d chosen (a Banshee Spitfire). I felt it was a strategy that could work well, if I was able to kept my average speed up where I knew I could maintain it.

Tour De Ben NEvis No Fuss Events Stravaiging 12

This started well with the mix of climbing and descending resulting in me hitting my target average speed of 12.9 KM/H perfectly. I may have reached the start of the first special stage later than in previous attempts, but the queue was shorter.

Feeling fresh and ready to go I dibbed in and cranked hard out the start gate. The bike felt great, floating over the loose rocks and tracking perfectly, hopping the water bars that have claimed so many riders in their time. I had forgotten how steep the trail was, keeping the bike light I built in speed and confidence. I was just passing my third rider as I approached, the corner. If you know this trail you will know the corner I am talking about.

He panic braked with all the anchors he could muster

It is a tight left-hander with a drop onto shale covered slab with a few water bars just before the treeline. It is usually typified by two or three riders standing to one side fixing punctures.

As I made the turn, in front of me was a rider who may well of been an experienced rider, he may have been a novice, regardless, was not expecting the trail to be like this. He panic braked with all the anchors he could muster, stuffing his front wheel into a water bar. This threw him out the front door and down the slope, his bike flying through the air and into the centre of the trail. With no where to go without running into him and crashing myself, I hauled hard on the brakes. With all my effort going into not crashing I hit the water bar that had swallowed his front wheel, I managed to lift my front wheel but this just meant my rear tyre took all of the force. Pffftt, sealant sprayed everywhere as it ripped a centre knob on my tyre, well thats my race strategy scuppered.

An inner tube it is then.

In what felt like deja vu from the first time I ran this race, I was shouldering the bike and running down the trail, as there was no point trying to fix it mid stage. The clock after all, was still ticking. Finally dibbing out the stage probably couldn’t have gone much worse for myself. Thankfully the guy that had crashed was unhurt, but he had snapped his front brake lever.

Vainly hoping that there was enough sealant left that some CO2 cartridges could re-inflate my tyre and let tubeless work its magic, I pushed my inflator onto the valve stem. With the rain coming on heavy frost instantly built up around the cartridge, the tyre was halfway there and another blast of CO2 would surely be enough. Engaging the inflator a second time resulted in the rainwater that had worked its way in whilst changing the cartridge freezing instantly and the inflator exploding under the pressure. An inner tube it is then.

With the help of one of the frankly amazing roving marshals, we fitted a tube and got my bike moving again.

One stage was done, but there was still opportunity to make up time and my place in the field, I would just have to push a little harder. Replenishing myself at the bountifully stocked feed station at Mamore Lodge, I made my way to the start of the second stage and the climb up to Loch Eilde Mor.

Taking a deep draft of magic potion, (High5 gels decanted into a small flask) I locked my shock and pushed in as high a gear and cadence as I dared. Knowing how long the climb is and therefore, how hard to push is a big advantage on this stage. My constant steady pace led to me working past 9 riders before the sweet little descent at the end of the stage.

The next job was to get to the river crossing and make the ascent on stage three, the infamous hike-a-bike. The trail followed the shoreline of Loch Eilde Mor, the standing water on the track was frankly insane and felt more like multiple river crossings. Climbing slightly higher lifted me out of the wet and I looked forward to the rowdy little descent down to the river. Not far into descent, I remember that I washed out my front wheel here in a previous race, as if the thought had been a curse, I felt the unmistakable feeling of a rear puncture.

Laughing at the predictability of it I thankfully wasn’t sitting for long before the same marshal that had helped me before rocked up. Within minutes the tyre was back up and at a ridiculous pressure to ensure it wouldn’t happen a third time. I was also informed that there were roughly 25 riders behind me, how on earth did that happen!

Descending like Bambi on ice, I make my way to the river counting riders as I pass them, each pass is a small psychological boost after the rain and setbacks so far. The river is flowing strong and deep, but it is a quick crossing. once at the start of stage three I pause to eat and get let my legs have 5 minutes of rest before what is the most physically demanding part of the course.

The stage kicks straight up at a ridiculous gradient, before mellowing out to a leisurely average between 10% and 20% incline. None of this is rideable, the sodden boggy hill side broken with burns turning into peat hags, making the hike feel like half an hour of attrition.

No one is speaking anymore, we have all staggered out, finding our rhythm as we pick our way across the peat bog. We have climbed past the point of making banter and conversation with our fellow riders, now we all just want is to pass the cairn and make it down to the bothy. The mornings rain is easing, but the effects on the course are fully felt underfoot. On passing the cairn everything is greased with a slick mud that makes the usually predictable granite an uneasy exercise in slipping the rear wheel round large loose rocks.

The staccato nature of what is rideable takes its tole, with the constant mounting and dismount burning through my thighs. My right leg is making a damn fine attempt in trying to cramp. Experience has taught me that once it has, it will become a constant feature for the remainder of the day.

No one likes the goat track, when people tell others about this race, the hike-a-bike is what they talk about, but I don’t remember it being like this.

Crossing the final stream before the dibbing out, the usual collection of partially broken bikes and riders are huddled around the bothy. The final feed station has run out of barbeque but still has plenty of other provisions. A quick feed and a refill of my bottles  was all I need before cranking hard into a headwind for the riotous descent down the Lairig Leacach. This is a fast 7km section of LRT, it is perfect for making up some time and to get drifty on some wide loose corners. Its all over too quickly though, even with the headwind, before entering the trees of the Leanachan Forest for the final stretch of the tour.

11.5 km of good fire roads with a modest overall incline were all that were left before the final special stage. I just have to keep the pedals turning to get there. I had made the mistake in previous attempts of not eating enough during this leg of the race. Having burnt all the reserves on the hike, the tank is running pretty low. The possibility of bonking on this stretch is very real, but thankfully my frame bag still held enough flapjacks and jelly babies to get me comfortably to the next dibber.

The final special stage consists of some classic sections of single track, Blue Crane and Cackle (those who know, know). I have ridden and raced these trails before, but there is always the question of how much is left in the legs after 60km? Thankfully, knowing the stage, helps with managing what effort I have left to give.

The clock was ticking loudly between my ears and I was keen the press on

The first section starts steep and rocky, with awkward rooty corners and tight lines between the trees before opening and speeding up. There are a few steep technical sections to keep you on your toes and it was on one of these that I found two riders off their bikes. Standing in the centre of the trail and not really going anywhere, my first thought was that a bad off had occurred just around the next corner. Waiting at the top long enough to ascertain the trail was clear after them, I politely called (to their mutual surprise) “Rider“.

With them stepping aside I dropped in, the clock was ticking loudly between my ears and I was keen the press on. The middle of this stage is a flat pedal heavy sprint, this is where to go full gas and max your heart rate one, last, time. Passing another rider during the sprint was another wee boost just as I made the start of Cackle. This trail is a lot of fast flowing fun, it has some board walk sections as well, but grip is in abundance. I was flying into the finish, having caught two more riders just at the end, we all dibbed out and let our heart rates come back down.

The final few KM are a smooth return to Fort William via the North Face car park and Torlundy. Most this is on quite roads or pathed cycle paths, that doesn’t mean that this is a gentle cool down. Most riders (myself included) find the temptation to sprint what is left in you, out of you, for those final few minutes too much to resist.

With the final dibber dibbed, it was time to stretch off, rinse the bike down and see how badly the whole affair had gone. I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t looking forward to dissecting my times, I knew I had been slower than I thought I would be. The punctures had slowed me down and caused me to lose some descending confidence in the middle of the course. But I they where not going to explain away a lack of preparation compared to previous attempts.

Much to my surprise, I had improved my placings on all the stages apart from the Kinlochleven descent! I had also jumped 200 or so in my total points. The biggest surprise was that the 32lb enduro bike was only 29 seconds slower on stage 2, who says big bikes cant climb!


Ultimately this is what the Tour is about for me.

I’m not going to bother the fast boys, I’m never going to break the top 10. It is a personal challenge to race against myself, to push hard on a demanding and challenging course that tests all aspects of my riding. It is a measure of where I currently stand as a rider, both within the MTB community, but most importantly against myself.

Will I race it again? If I do I will take what this years race has taught me and remember the lessons of past races and come back better prepared. Because however well you do, you can always better yourself at the next race.

Tour De Ben NEvis No Fuss Events Stravaiging 7

 

2 thoughts on “Tour De Ben Nevis 2017

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