That was the hardest and most personally rewarding thing I’ve done (out of choice) for a very long time.
I knew it would be hard, that’s why I did it. I just had to push myself to my limits, either spiritually, physically, emotionally, mentally, or permutations/combinations of all of them.
But why? Self-discovery and exploration is the answer. What are my limits? Can I break myself? Every time I try I just seem to get stronger.
So when I look back three weekends ago to three British National time trial races in the space of seven days with over a thousand miles of travelling, it seems utterly ludicrous now. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. So why do it? Simply out of curiosity. Because I’m fortunate enough to do so. Intrigue. Nothing more.
The first race reunited me with my GTR teammates Chris and Lewis and the old A1 in God’s country. The race - British National Team Time Trial. And boy was I up for this! Perhaps I was too enthusiastic as I kept surging and missing Chris’s calls in a chaotic but extremely enjoyable race. We finished 15th, Lewis looked like a baked potato that had been left in the oven too long at the end which was unsurprising in the 32 degree Yorkshire heat which left quite a few riders slow cooking for the rest of day.
A couple of days with my folks followed catching up with old teammate and Team JMC founder Budge (via the bike of course) and then I was off to the Isle of Man, being a man on a lone mission. Having arrived late on Tuesday evening I arrived just in time to sneak in a cheeky pint at the pub in St. Johns, where the landlady kindly allowed me to park up for the next few days and even offered to open the pub early in the morning so I could get access to the facilities.
That pub, or more accurately the Tynwald Inn would be my base and it was great for people watching, whilst I cracked on with work (all I need is a 3/4G signal and I’m away on my Mac). On Wednesday I watched the various pro teams recce-ing the course, with Dame Sarah Storey and her eponymous team scurrying around next to my van in the morning, then Madison Genesis, British Cycling. Team Sky and six times British National TT winner and current champion Alex Dowsett heading out later in the day. Sandwiched in between all of this commotion there was a lull and so I decided to head out of a couple of laps, one on the road bike, the next on the TT bike.
On my first lap, I came across some steep ramps. Ooft! How would my Fuji with its synonymous 60 tooth single front chain ring fare on these inclines? I also inadvertently got chatting to Fraser Martin on the first lap, probably distracting him from his own preparations for the U23 race, so decided to switch bikes after the first lap in order to ensure the initial climbs would be manageable on the Fuji.
No problem at all. Phew! Happy enough. In the evening I got itchy feet. Parking a van next to a pub the night before a big race isn’t a good idea, so I went for a wander. Granted it was a bit longer than I anticipated and did nothing for my hayfever cold, but it was exciting enough dodging a couple of rumbling and advancing thunderstorms and I just made it into the Inn before it appeared to have been hit by lightning, which kept the cackling locals entertained and I took this as a sign to turn in and get some rest.
Unusual for me, I awoke at 9:30am on Thursday morning and felt pretty tired. I wasn’t too concerned. It was noticeably cooler and the legs felt great but I had created a new Gremlin overnight in my nocturnal thoughts about the long sketchy descent down to Ballacraine. I’d become rubbish and cautious on the road as I should have ended my season back in March when my wheel washed out for no apparent reason but somehow I stayed upright. All the confidence gained from descending high Alpine cols at breakneck speed on last summer’s Haute Route disappeared in one incident! C’est la vie. Rip it up and start again…
So I decided after watching the women and U23 men’s races to head out again and recce the descent for one last time. This killed some time, but as the men’s race started in the evening I had a lot of time to kill. Oddly enough it seemed to pass quick enough, to the point that when it was time to head out to the start ramp I forgot to pump up the tyres and my power meter started to play up. Doh!
On my way over to the race Commissaires to get my bike UCI/BC checked for compliancy, everything was back to normal, unlike my bike which seemed to get the attention of the bike checkers, particularly with the 60 tooth single chainring.
“You’re doing the elite men’s
race?”, said one of the Commissaires.
“With that chainring?”.
“Yip”. My unsurprised smiley responses seem to amuse them.
“Ok. Well in the interest of completeness, we have to weigh this.”…“Sure ☺”.
“Woah, it’s heavy, 9.2kg to be exact! Good luck!”, with a look that was one of ‘does he know what he’s doing’ – to which we all know the answer, of course not!
I sat behind the start ramp as I was first into the pen. A photographer took loads of photos as I soaked up the atmosphere and wondered if my power meter was going to talk to my Garmin. Next it was up the steps and a calm excitement came over me. The crowds were right out in front of me and the atmosphere was building but not for number 39, but for the lower order numbers and the household names of Cummings, Dowsett, Gullen and Geoghegan Hart.
In no time I was away, at last. I’m in my environment now, so let’s go and attack that 20 degree ramp! Up, up and over, away, spinning well and in the zone. My tactic was to negative split, using the first lap to find the best lines and settle into my rhythm on a very lumpy and unforgiving course, with a thousand feet of climbing per lap, that did everything to disrupt just that.
At the Kirk Michael turn the crowds were plentiful and cheering away and here I’d decided to up the effort and kill the hill even more than I’d done the day before. I was in my element until my Garmin flew off right and then my universe split into two.
But the terminator in me automatically defaulted to Plan B – Am I dead? No. Then crack on Jon!
At the top of the hill at the brilliantly named Cronk-Y-Voddy my descent into Ballacraine was less cautious than previous, but I knew I had to keep my hands off the brakes. Easier said than done at 70 kph.
As I completed my first lap, the top ten riders were hovering in the pen and I wondered if any of them would catch me as attacked the ramp for a second time, oddly looking out for traffic this time (I really don’t know why I did this) as caught brilliantly by Harry Tweed in the photo.
But none of them passed me and I was now in my groove and pushing my limits. Strangely, I felt liberated having no Garmin and was enjoying the fact I was rolling my sleeves up (in a metaphorical sense of course, otherwise I’d have to shave my arms too) and getting on with it.
The descent on the second was much better and I felt much more confident rounding the corners and making better use of closed roads. Quick sprint into St. Johns; job done and well done! Happy enough, but more importantly, I really enjoyed the race. The course was simply superb and brutal for all the right reasons.
Eventual double-national winner Steve Cummings having gone off earlier in the field was the race leader and everyone was waiting for Dowsett to appear. I wandered to the sign off and to get my race license only to find my Garmin had been found, probably by one of the motorcycle chaperones that all unsupported riders like myself were provided with. Ace.
And within less than a couple of hours, conversations with other riders, presentations were all done and the circus had literally moved out of town. All that was left was my van parked next to the pub and so after a shower I decided to reflect upon the race over a beer and replied to the various messages that were flooding in from well-wishers and get another early night as my ferry back to Liverpool was leaving early Friday morning.
When I eventually arrived back in Manchester my mum seemed a little reticent to ask how it went, as it was clearly a rhetorical question. I explained that 22nd (on the 22nd) was good enough for a first attempt and that I was in mainly professional cyclist company with very few amateurs and even fewer Vets.
Two days later I was driving back up the A1 to spend the night at Chris’s parents and prepare for the final race of the week, the British National 50 mile TT. At this juncture I was already looking forward to getting this race out of the way, which is unusual for me as I’m always the opposite – a dog with a bone, happy to chase his tail.
Fast forward to 8:48am the next day, 3-2-1 go! Here we go A19, 50 miles. Oh really? Let’s get the next 1 hour 45 minutes over with shall we?
This was unchartered territory, my mood was flat, but the legs were producing the required metrics. The Terminator in me had already activated Plan B.
But it was being challenged, as my inner sanctum was uncharacteristically moaning? Do I have to do this? The Terminator wasn’t listening. Get on with it!
On the first 25 mile lap as I approached the finish flag a familiar thud. It took me a couple of seconds to figure it out. Yep, my Garmin’s gone for a wander again. Dammit!
Oddly this didn’t have a negative effect, nor positive, just one that totally and utterly amused me. Gallows humour perhaps? As I approached the flyover to start the second lap I was almost laughing. As the second lap commenced a rider passed me. This is an unusual experience for me and I was fascinated so much by the rider’s pedalling style I was starting to catch him on the rises. Um, how does this work? What’s the etiquette, protocol? Should I pass him? Just as I decided to do so on the third rise, my chain fell off. In an odd way this was a relief and allowed the rider (eventual winner Dan Bigham) to get some distance ahead, so I decided having no way of judging how far to go and riding on feel once again, to keep him in sight and use him as a pacer.
All of a sudden I felt I was going faster and faster and went through the finish line thinking, oh is that it? Aw, I was just getting into this.
Quick reflection - ok, put this race down as experience. Learn from it. That’s the aim of the game after all.
I had resigned myself to a poor time, but actually found I’d managed a PB of 1:44:14 with a bizarre 25 mile splits of 53 and 51 minutes respectively (with the latter having stopped to put back on a dropped chain!).
EH…? Chris’s response was a bit more colourful.
I was so perplexed by this and in such a spooky mood I decided to drive the A19 before an awesome Sunday lunch back at Chris's Mum and Dad's (thanks again Carol!) because I was convinced I would find my Garmin. And incredibly half an hour later, there it was on the side, in the gutter, on very fast and busy A19, undamaged, reading elapsed time of over 4 hours…
You can’t make this up!
One things for sure, every day is a learning day and this really is a life less ordinary.
Note to self - just don’t do three British national time trials in a week next year!