Sportive – Bronte Monster – Sunday 19th July 2015

Quite a bit like a parkrun, sitting a sportive in as a race report doesn’t entirely sit properly. To get around prohibitively expensive and quite probably impossible to attain road closures, sportives are at pains to stress that they aren’t races but merely events that are timed. Some offer medals based on your finishing time. To make the event even less like a race than a parkrun, finishing times are often not even displayed in a time based order.

The reason this fits in to the race section is that, unlike the handicap bike race I took part in a few weeks ago with Witham Wheelers, the Bronte Monster Sportive was undoubtedly one of the hardest sporting events I have ever taken part in. Its quiet unassuming nature; hardly any fanfare at start nor finish, belied the sheer enormity of the challenge packed into 88 miles.

It’s by no means the longest sportive on the calendar, most like to come in at over 100 miles to make the sense of achievement seem more significant. It’s not even that large an event, with only perhaps a couple of hundred taking part. What makes the event so tough is that in the heart of Yorkshire, it packs in over 22 hills (or Cotes as they are now more familiarly known in the area thanks to the 2014 Tour De France Grande Departe), most of which have percentages that average 8% minimum, many of them considerably steeper. Thanks to the Vale of Belvoir I have a fair few hills on my doorstep that could be used as a test run, but as it transpired the vast majority are mere mole hills in comparison to the sheer abundance of lung busting, leg breaking climbs in Yorkshire.

The sportive was based in Keighley and proceeds were going to the local Sue Ryder hospice – over £4000 was raised on the day. As I drove up from Grantham the poor weather became progressively worse. As I tried to navigate Bradford I could barely see out of the car windows the rain was falling so hard. I pity those who had chosen to leave at between 7:15 and 8:15, they would have experienced terrible conditions, apparently a fair few chose to abandon.

As it was when I arrived at 8:15 the rain chose to stop and the sun even attempted to make an appearance. I took around 45 minutes getting changed, making decisions on how much clothing to wear – I went nearly full spring spec, at the last moment electing to carry the long gloves and knee warmers in case the weather really deteriorated –  and set off at just gone 9 o’clock.

The first couple of miles were easy enough as we left Keighley – I recognised the roads from our family holiday a year earlier when we made a couple of tricks to the Eureka! museum in Halifax. The issues I’d had with the gears not shifting properly I’d seemingly fixed with some lube and gentle manipulation – the changes were crisp and smooth – I felt quite proud of myself for this very small piece of mechanical proficiency. The first climb on the Halifax road was 1.6 miles long and a Cat 4 climb according to Strava. I felt comfortable up this, aware that I wanted not put in too much effort too early on.

A short downhill followed then we climbed up Bridgehouse Lane at Haworth (Famous for the Bronte Parsonage Museum) and took a dogleg left turn onto Main Street which is not only very steep, but cobbled. Despite the severity of the climb I was feeling fresh and making good progress. I was just passing two other riders on the steepest bit near the top when…. SNAP!!! I lost all drive from the pedals. I nearly went over the handlebars, my Garmin dismounting from its mount and onto the floor – thankfully without damage. A quick look down and I saw the chain, under considerable strain, had snapped at a seemingly weak link. Luckily I was able to unclip from my pedals and avoided a low speed topple. I walked the short distance to the top of the hill and thought the game was up. A long way to travel for just under four miles of cycling.

Eerily calm, I had a quick chat to the photographer at the top of the hill (Apparently the shot from that vantage spot was front page of The Times when the tour passed through twelve months earlier. I’d bought equipment for a puncture, but not for a chain snap (It has never happened to me before). There was an emergency number I could call, I assumed in this instance it would be to pick me up so I could make it back to the start and head home for an early bath.

To my great relief the voice on the other end of the phone stated that someone would be on their way and would try their best to get me back on the road. Around 20 minutes later salvation did indeed turn up in the form of one of the race organisers, complete with a large white van. Not safe to park at the top of this very narrow hill, he drove me a couple of hundred meters to a nearby car park – he said he wouldn’t report it to the commissaire, which was quite topical, as a rider in the Tour De France had been disqualified from the race the previous day for the exact same offence when his chain too broke.

It was not a quick fix, the broken chain link proving very stubborn to come out. However after 15 minutes or so the job was done and I waved the van off out of the car park. Ten seconds later I was trying to hail him back for after two pedal strokes the chain had snapped again! Slightly bemused I rang the organisers again and I was told a few minutes later my mechanic would be back just as soon as they’d rescued a rather lost competitor. Not too long after he returned; a few more chain links were removed and fixed. We made the wise decision to do a test lap of the car park to decide the chain was in good order. Thankfully it was and, after an eighty minute delay, I was back in the game.

After a few miles I almost wished the chain had been too damaged to fix. The climb out of Oxenhope (A third category climb on Strava, was very hard thanks to a stiff headwind. What made the ride more bearable was the plethora of hand written messages to Tour De France riders from the previous year, still clearly visible from the road. Indeed for 21 miles we followed last year’s stage two route and even if it could in no way compare to twelve months earlier, you could almost feel the fever still lingering a year on.

Having reached the high point of the Sportive early on (a shade over 1400ft) The long descent back down to 360 ft was fairly hairy thanks to some blustery winds. Indeed the wind was quite a factor during the ride – the next long climb up to over 1000ft, the well known Cragg Vale, which is apparently the longest continuous hill in the UK, was into a stiff head wind, which made the relatively shallow gradients feel all the harder. It was here I began to pass fellow competitors, I was no longer the last man on the road.

After the drop down from Cragg Vale we came to the first of three check points which doubled up as feed stations. I took on as much flapjack and chocolate I could muster, and with me also came a banana, half of which literally fell out of my mouth as I tried to eat it on a descent which quite quickly had me at 45mph.

Incidents were thankfully few and far between on the ride. We were warned at the checkpoint that at one hill the road had actually been closed at short notice for resurfacing. Thankfully we were permitted to use the footpath and after a short delay were back on our way. Miles 30 to around 65, which included another briefly visited checkpoint, were just a relentless succession of steep ascents followed by steep descents, the kind of which you can’t relax on as you hurtle out of control possibly just moments from imminent disaster.

Thanks to my chain issues I’d lost my two lowest gears on the big chain ring. Not a huge deal, but useful gears to have on some sections of the ride and a pain to accidentally engage at points and find the chain jamming. Despite this I felt I was riding quite strongly, indeed on Strava I was typically in the top three on the day for most of the climbs, but some way down on the descents where I was being quite cautious. There were even a couple of hills where I made the top thirty, and one the top ten, which I was quite proud of.

That said, by 60 miles I was beginning to suffer badly. Having the route loaded on Garmin was very useful in terms of navigation and the elevation profile handy for letting me know when hills were coming or if they were coming towards and end. By the 16th or so hill – each one marked on route at the beginning and end – and with a series of large spikes still to come, I wondered if I was going to make it, especially as my left knee was beginning to ache quite a bit thanks to a tight IT band. I would definitely have had to stop were it not for it being pain free when I stood on the pedals to cycle – which ended up being most of the way up the latter hills.

Shortly before the final feed station at around 67 miles, there was an option to cut the ride short and ride 72 miles. It was severely tempting – quite a few apparently had and many more were likewise enticed by the prospect of an early end to what had now become near misery. The stubborn fool that I am meant I decided I’d entered the 88 mile Monster and the 88 mile Monster was what I was going to finish.

A quick stop at the final feed station (only four or five more steep climbs I was cheerily told) and I was back on my way, only to be hit by a bout of severe stomach cramps which, if I was running would have been disastrous, but on a bike merely at times very uncomfortable. Still, I battled on. The third from last climb Netherghyll Lane was a 20% bastard – the cadence dropped to a point where pedals were barely turning, those ahead of me had given up and walked. I made it to the top only to be faced a couple of minutes later by the fourth category Dick Lane climb. At 1.8 miles and averaging 6%, on most rides for non Yorkshire folks it would be the killer climb. But after 20 or so of Yorkshire’s finest for practice, somehow I found this one relatively easy.

Climb finished and 80 miles into the ride, I’d thought we’d tackled all the climbs as we dropped down into Sutton-In-Craven, narrowly avoiding taking a wrong turn and returning to the correct route, even seeing a welcome sign post for Keighley, which we disappointingly were signposted to ride in the opposite direction from. A couple of miles later and we took an innocuous looking right hand turn into what looked like any modern day housing estate. This housing estate though was built on Burrows Lane which, leading to Redcar Lane, forms a 1.8 mile climb which Strava has classified as a third category climb.

According to my probably dodgy Garmin elevation data (but gives an idea of the climb), the initial ramp was around 12-15%, followed by a short section of 3-6% where I thought the climb was coming to an end. However a left hand turned revealed another ramp, this time more severe, with a short section over 20%. I’ve never had to climb off my bike on a hill before, but here I had to briefly admit defeat. I walked for 15-20 meters to a point where the hill’s severity lessened a touch, came to my senses and got back on my bike. Happily, although the climb continued for another mile and had a section of only 12%, I was able to recover sufficiently to make it to the top, bizarrely setting the 43rd best time out of 391 riders for the hill segment on Strava. I can only assume that walking was barely any slower than riding at the moment where I climbed off.

That hill done and with 86 miles covered, I knew now it would be downhill to the finish – and indeed it was. In a very understated way I came to the finish to be greeted by the man who came to my rescue when my chain snapped. He congratulated me on my efforts. I thanked him not only for helping me in my hour of need but for creating a truly brutal course which pushed body and mind to the limit. They offered a barbecue at the finish. My stomach overdosed on energy drinks, bananas, sweets, flapjack, chocolate bars and malt loaf, I politely declined the offer, but welcomed a nice cup of Yorkshire Tea.

My official finishing time, including the time taken for repairs and the small amount of time at checkpoints, was 6 hours 59 minutes, earning me a bronze medal. My Garmin time (which discounts any stops) was 5 hours 40 minutes, which was five minutes inside the time limit for a silver medal – which I would have come close to attaining had I not had the mechanical issues. The time though was largely irrelevant, it was an achievement just to finish. Each of the people I spoke to at the end said it was the hardest sportive they’d ever done.

I wasn’t going to argue with them.

Publishing my data - putting the doubters to rest ;)
Publishing my data – putting the doubters to rest 😉

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