It’s 4.57am and, as is the norm, I’ve beaten my alarm by 3 minutes.
What isn’t normal is that it is Saturday and some months ago I signed up to ride the Hit The North bike race. And it’s today.
This is one of those moments in life when you really question your sanity. I’m about to get up in the freezing cold (it was minus 6 at this time yesterday and today is definitely colder), drive to a park in Manchester and ride round some hills with a load of men in Lycra.
Hit The North is a 2 hour lap race. The course of 3.5 miles long and you do as many laps as you can in that time. Sounds simple enough. The course is a mix of grass, mud, trails, fireroad etc etc. It goes up and down a lot. It goes through a stream, up and down steps. For someone like me, it’s hard work.
I park at a local rugby club and ride down the access road to the ‘sign in’ area.
This is a first for me so the whole thing has a bit of that ‘first day at school’ feel about it. Loads of people know each other. Some are liberally spreading Deep Heat on their thighs. Loads have bikes with no gears. The way I feel I’m wishing mine had an engine.
I join the queue and soon enough I’m trying to get my now completely numb fingers to work so I can use what must be the world’s smallest and stiffest safety pins to put my number on my back and my left arm (the last one is important as they note your number and shout it to you as you finish a lap I later find out).
Once I’m numbered up I do what we all do at any social gathering, people watch. There are a lot of cyclocross riders here. I kind of like them. It’s hard to think of a less cool sport which kind of makes it one of the coolest. The ‘Here Come The Belgians’ club are here, great name, great shirts. The cyclocross mob all look seriously fit and, with a few exceptions, just plain serious. Fortunately there’s a liberal smattering of forty-somethings who look like their enjoyment of mountain biking falls under the heading ‘occasional’ as opposed to ‘obsessional’. There’s plenty of the latter. A few beards and knowingly retro bike kit. There’s also a couple of snowbikes. I can’t help thinking these are a bit of novelty (I’d love to know if anyone has actually paid for one rather than them just being toys for the sponsored guys in the magazines). Basically they’re mountain bikes with what look like motorcycle tyres.
Great in Nova Scotia. This particular race is in Prestwich (all very well me being cynical, but once the event is underway the whippet riding said snow bike will pass me on a worrying number of occasions).
Most mountain bike forums will have a thread for ‘bike porn’. There’s plenty of ‘flesh’ on show here. Lots of Ragleys and On-Ones. The air is full of the ‘click, click’ of Hope hubs. There are a lot of rigid bikes with carbon forks. Coves, Konas, Santa Cruzs and Oranges. Loads to look at as we wait for the hooter to tell us to make our way to the start line.
We have a ‘briefing’ (introduced by a quick blast of The Fall). By now I’ve got chatting to a few people and am feeling much more relaxed about my impending foray into ‘racing’.
They stagger the start at the bottom of a long tarmac climb (we only ride that on the first lap). The various headings start with ‘Elite’ and end with ‘Bit of a plodder’ and ‘Will Probably Die’. I take my place at the back.
Most mountain bike forums will have a thread for ‘bike porn’. There’s plenty of ‘flesh’ on show here.
Get talking to a few people and there’s a lot of self-deprecating banter. All good stuff and gets rid of some of the nerves. That’s right, nerves. I’m feeling pretty nervous at it all. There’s a lot of people here. Most are very, very fit and very, very experienced. I’m not. Fuck it. Let’s race.
We’re off and first climb is relatively easy. I like climbing. It hurts a bit but there’s a nice element of challenge to it. Lance Armstrong became famous for his high cadence ‘coffee grinder’ climbing technique, my style is more Maxwell House but it works for me.
Once we reach the first ‘singeltrack’ there’s a massive bottleneck and we grind to a halt. 300 riders into one 3 foot wide track does not go. There’s then a couple of minutes of shuffling before the first descent and we spread out again.
The terrain here is the sort of stuff I normally ride, I’d had a little warm up tootle before we got going and I feel good. The ground is rutted from people riding the course before today but frozen solid. It throws my back wheel all over the place. It’s good.
There are some bits that are technical for me, but a mix of adrenalin and not wanting to look like my Gran get me through them on the first lap. I’m about half a mile out from finishing the first lap when some lycra-clad rocket speeds past my shoulder.
‘Rider’. Thankfully I guessed left and so did he. After some winding stuff on the flat and a fantastic descent with some switchback berms I’m almost through ‘number one’.
We cross a grassy field, puddles now frozen solid which ends with a sheer climb up to more singletrack. My legs are screaming as I shove the bike up. Remind me why I bought a steel mountain bike?
There are some bits that are technical for me, but a mix of adrenalin and not wanting to look like my Gran get me through them on the first lap.
I’m not going to be able to do the course justice but it really is a mixed bag. There are marshals all round the course and, as daft as it seems, their clapping and words of encouragement really help. Decent bunch the bike lot. Every speedster that passes acknowledges your moving out of the way. There’s even a full Samba band at the end of one climb. By the second lap, I’m starting to feel tired. I’ve probably only done 5 or so miles. I do between 15 and 25 most weekends. The fact is, I’m doing this without stopping. I can’t rest on a fence and have a breather. I can’t take an easy option or just stop and admire the scenery. And it’s tiring.
I’d aimed to do three laps and ultimately I do. I don’t fall off exactly although I have a couple of skids and, if I’m honest, on the last lap I avoid a really rutted descent by getting off and careering down it fell runner style. My legs are tired and I don’t want to break anything (for a start I drove here on my own).
The two hours have been and gone as I end my third lap, so that’s it. My first ‘race’ done. I may well have come last. I don’t care. As I type this I can look in the kitchen and see my number.
Above the number it reads ‘Hit The North’, below ‘Where It Hurts’. It did.
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