The Rapha Prestige – an adventure through the Peak District

As my alarm went off at 06:00am we pulled back the curtains to discover the forecast for heavy rain was showing itself on this summer Saturday in June. A wise man once told me your skin dries but the fabric of tights might leave you feeling cold so despite the seasonally low temperature I took this advice onboard and pulled on my shorts.

I was in Manchester for the Rapha Prestige. The rules, your team needs 4 riders, your team needs a name, ride as a team, arrive at 3 check points as a team, get your personal brevet card stamped and arrive back at the Manchester Cycle Club as a team with a crate of beer to share with everyone. There’s an official route, 160km / 1700m of climbing starting from RCC Manchester and stretching out in to the beautiful Peak District. You have options, follow the official route using a supplied route card, a GPX file or asking locals as one team did or make up your own route but avoid the banned roads. There’s no route signs to follow, no broom wagon, no marshalls, this is you and your team out in the wild on the best adventure you might ever have.

First one in, last one out

First one in, last one out Photo credit: Paul Williams http://www.williams-photo.co.uk

There’s a £20 per rider entry fee and the fastest team home wins* (*but this isn’t a race). Rapha feeds you porridge upon arrival, they give you their lovely Cycle Club coffee plus a limited edition Rapha Prestige cap and musette. It’s already worth getting out of bed for.

Photo credit: Alex Wright

Photo credit: Alex Wright

Preparing for the adventure, the weather man said it's raining but you don't see us complaining. Photo credit Matt Randall http://www.mattrandallphotography.co.uk

Preparing for the adventure, the weather man said it’s raining but you don’t see us complaining. Photo credit Matt Randall http://www.mattrandallphotography.co.uk

As we prepared ourselves for the off inside RCC Manchester the vibe was incredibly friendly and happy, the dark sky outside wasn’t affecting the mood. I was riding in a team with 3 other ladies, we called ourselves Your Pace Or Mine. I’d met Libby briefly the week before at the Tour of Cambridgeshire but Susannah and Michelle were both new to me. The 4 of us gathered outside, we said our goodbyes to the other girls riding and we set off. As we did we managed to catch up with another team and we (very cheekily) followed them out of Manchester. The rain was coming down so hard we couldn’t see our Garmin’s and we weren’t equipped with local knowledge, being bold was our only way out of the city. The boys didn’t seem to mind us tagging along, the good camaraderie on this event was prevalent and we rode with them until Manchester faded in to the distance.

Team: Your Pace or Mine  Photo credit: Matt Randall http://www.mattrandallphotography.co.uk

Team: Your Pace or Mine
Photo credit: Matt Randall http://www.mattrandallphotography.co.uk

The first checkpoint was reached in what felt like no time at all, the beautiful Rapha, H-Van, Pedro was parked up on the roadside. This was a very welcome sight, offering us hot cups of that famous Rapha coffee, yummy flapjacks and bananas to refuel. After some lovely smooth, undulating lanes and a few hills with a bit of bite we found ourselves on the Monsal Trail, a former railway line. The trail would usually be littered with people young and old on bikes and out walking but because of the weather we had it mostly to ourselves. The weather also meant the trail stuck to our faces, our bikes and all the way up our backs so when we arrived at checkpoint 2 we happily took photos of ourselves covered in mud.

At Checkpoint 1  Photo credit: Alex Wright

At Checkpoint 1
Photo credit: Alex Wright

Checkpoint 1 stamp

Checkpoint 1 stamp

Your Pace or Mine; doing just fine

After the Monsal Trail

After the Monsal Trail

The Monsal Trail left its mark on me

The Monsal Trail left its mark on me

Mam Tor Photo credit: Paul Williams www.williams-photo.co.uk

Mam Tor
Photo credit: Paul Williams
http://www.williams-photo.co.uk

Monsal Trail Photo credit: Paul Williams www.williams-photo.co.uk

Monsal Trail
Photo credit: Paul Williams
http://www.williams-photo.co.uk

Riders had the chance to change their kit at checkpoint 2 if they’d come prepared, Rapha kindly transported this from the RCC. It was still lashing down with rain so we tucked in to the lovely meat pie and Bakewell tart on offer and got on our merry way as quickly as we could.

Soon after the rain stopped just in time for the crowning glory of the day, the final checkpoint was located at the top of Mam Tor, whose name means ‘Mother Hill’. I’d just muttered those stupid words to Libby ‘there hasn’t really been a significant climb all day’ as my bike took a vertical position and my legs started crying for mercy. There’s 3km worth of up with a lung busting gradient and a twisting road that allows you to see what lurks ahead. Some teams opted to take the even steeper Winnat’s Pass, just shy of 1km with an average of 10% gradient but a considerable amount of 20% towards the top. Rapha rewarded riders for their hard work with a sip of Brandy, Whiskey or Pastis however with 50km still to go I opted for some water and haribo.

So happy to reach checkpoint 3, the summit of Mam Tor Photo credit: Paul Williams www.williams-photo.co.uk

So happy to reach checkpoint 3, the summit of Mam Tor
Photo credit: Paul Williams
http://www.williams-photo.co.uk

After a welcome rest at checkpoint 3 we set off on the adventure again Photo credit: Paul Williams www.williams-photo.co.uk

After a welcome rest at checkpoint 3 we set off on the adventure again
Photo credit: Paul Williams
http://www.williams-photo.co.uk

With all 3 stamps now secured on our brevet card it was just the simple matter of getting back to the Cycle Club! The sun was now out, the jackets were off and we were motivated by the finish line reward, hot food and cold bottles of beer.

Just the simple task of getting back to Manchester after checkpoint 3

Just the simple task of getting back to Manchester after checkpoint 3

Along the way I experienced more camaraderie in a cycling event than I’ve previously done before. Anytime we were stopped by the road side and another team passed they always checked we were OK before moving onwards. There was friendly banter, new friends made and experiences shared on the road, the ones that leave you with the greatest satisfaction. Did someone say it was raining most of the time, I honestly wouldn’t of noticed from all of the smiling faces and laughter heard throughout the day. A winter version of this event would be interesting and then we wouldn’t have to wait as long for the next one because the weather certainly didn’t put people off, it just added to the adventure and reward. This was a very prestigious event indeed.

Meeting the broom wagon for the first time – Etape Du Dales

A DNF (Did Not Finish) is a bitter pill to swallow; it’s one I’ve never tasted before. In the past I’ve always found a way to recover and fight back no matter how bad things have become. Despite putting on a very brave face the experience knocked my confidence and I was shattered. I’ve sat on this story for a few weeks because the ending has been unclear to me. Everyone told me I’d learn from it and I’d come back stronger but I wanted to see for myself if this was true or if people just say that to make you feel better. It’s taken a good few weeks to unravel and a few more big rides but on Sunday I took part in the Tour of Cambridgeshire and my Etape Du Dales DNF became very clear to me.

Heading out from the B&B at 07:30am, it was all smiles

Heading out from the B&B at 07:30am, it was all smiles

UK cycling legend Brian Robinson wishing the riders well at the start of the ride

UK cycling legend Brian Robinson wishing the riders well at the start of the ride

As I rode around the Etape Du Dales in a howling westerly wind that approached gale force on the tops my mind went back to my days before cycling. I was a hill walker and I’d regularly spend weekends in the Lake District climbing the fells. In 2009 I entered the popular 3 Peaks challenge, climbing Ben Nevis, Scaffell Pike and Snowdon. All 3 should be completed within 24hrs, sleeping if you can on the move but inevitably staying awake for most of the time.

On my way to the top of Ben Nevis

On my way to the top of Ben Nevis

At the summit of Ben Nevis

At the summit of Ben Nevis

My 3 Peaks adventure turned in to an epic, I developed a migraine on Ben Nevis and I started vomiting. Somehow I managed to pull myself together, I drank some rehydration salts, I got to the top and back down again. We got stuck in bad traffic passing Loch Lomond so our 03:00am arrival at Scaffell Pike was not only well behind schedule it was perfectly timed for a nasty storm with 50mph gusting wind and sideways rain, the adventure of climbing in the dark was about to get very exciting. I’d recovered from Ben Nevis and found a new spirit, I was ready for this peak and I marched on. I’d never climbed in the dark but I found the experience, with only a head torch as my guide strangely reassuring. We only knew we’d reached the summit because we had altimeters, we couldn’t see past our own noses through the driving rain and we could barely stand up in the wind.

We took a hammering from the wind and rain on Scafell Pike

We took a hammering from the wind and rain on Scafell Pike

As we approached Snowdon our driver got lost and we wasted further hours, the irony, he couldn’t find the highest peak so I took out my phone and using the map I guided us in. Upon arrival, the event organiser told us we’d missed the cut off point and we couldn’t complete the event, it was too dangerous, we’d been awake too long. I was devastated, I hadn’t battled through vomiting, 50mph wind and rain to get to the final and easiest climb and be told I couldn’t do it, I was raising money for Breast Cancer Campaign and I wasn’t about to give up. Across the car park I noticed a café so I asked the organiser to put our bags there and as a team we’d carry on without support. We understood the coaches were leaving, we’d find our own way home and back to London later after we’d climbed Snowdon. The whole team wanted to continue, we decided to stay together and complete this thing, we marched on and finished the challenge.

Team 13 making our way up Snowdon

Team 13 making our way up Snowdon

The summit of Snowdon

The summit of Snowdon

Team 13 - the challenge took us 36hrs but we did it

Team 13 – the challenge took us 36hrs but we did it

The week that followed was a blur and I was exhausted. For the first couple of days I’d find myself on the wrong tube, a journey I knew really well but my brain wasn’t computing. It didn’t really matter though, I had a job, I could just about get my work done and when I went home at night I could go to bed or sit on the sofa and mentally switch off. No one really relied on me, I had a boyfriend but he understood that I would recover after a few days and life would return to normal.

On Sunday during the Etape Du Dales as I reached the feed station at Moorcock they were shutting it down and I was told I wouldn’t reach the next feed station at Stainforth in time for the next cut off. If I chose to carry on it would be unsupported and they strongly advised against this. At the start of the ride my pockets were crammed full of food, enough to complete the ride but the weather conditions had changed the pace and now I only had enough for around an hour of riding and there was still 40 miles to go, in the conditions with the terrain this equaled at least 3hrs more riding.

My head went a bit crazy, this was completely unexpected but all the way around I’d been thinking about the insane things I’d done in life before. I was thinking about those moments and matching them to this day, thinking in the past I had the will and determination to keep going regardless of what anyone said to me. I assumed I was showing myself I had the strength to keep going, no matter what obstacles were thrown at me. However right then as one of the organisers suggested it was too dangerous for me to carry on my mind instantly agreed with him and all I could think about was Savannah, her beautiful smile and infectious laugh. I’m her person; I’m her sole provider. It was an intensely strange feeling, I had battled my way through some of the most dangerous situations I’ve been in on my bike all day but I’d found the courage to keep going. We’d seen a rider taken away in an ambulance at the bottom of Buttertubs. I’d really struggled on the descents, holding my own line, being blown around in the wind, I was pushed out in to dangerous places, faster riders passing me from behind were shouting at me on the fast descent of Fleet Moss and I didn’t have the strength to keep my bike on the left hand side of the road but I’d managed to keep going and fight the fear. I had that will and determination to carry on.

The ride up to Tan Hill was probably the darkest time I’ve ever spent on a bike, I went to some really bleak places in my mind. I wanted to get off and throw my bike as far away from me as possible, I had to fight everything inside of me not to unclip, to keep going felt like the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. Reports after the event have shown riders putting out 250 watts going just 4mph and hearing that the support team based there were struggling to even stand up makes me feel a lot better, I managed to ride to the top. I managed to pass the riders that had given up the fight, the ones that were walking, pushing their bikes; this is something I find so hard.

Taking shelter at the Tan Hill feed station and trying to recover from the experience of getting there

Taking shelter at the Tan Hill feed station and trying to recover from the experience of getting there

I have to add that there were some amazing moments in amongst the struggle and this is why I do it, this is why I ride my bike. Coming down from Buttertubs, looking across to my right presented me with some of the finest scenery I’ve witnessed, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up right now remembering it and I truly believe you appreciate those views a million times more when you’ve reached the top by bike. Yorkshire offers some of the finest scenery you might ever see from 2 wheels and provides some of the most challenging climbs the UK has to offer and this ride manages to include a good few of them. When I reached the top of Fleet Moss I was elated, I have the photo to prove it, this was one of the happiest moments I’ve had cycling. The challenge to get to the top of that climb was so intense, in the wind, the reward of getting there was 10 times greater than anything I’ve experienced in cycling before.

At the top of Fleet Moss - feeling on top of the world

At the top of Fleet Moss – feeling on top of the world

At the top of Fleet Moss

At the top of Fleet Moss

I was riding well, I was climbing well and at times I was being told to slow down by my ride buddy and I was pulling away from him. I definitely had the energy and the determination to carry on, I have no doubt about that but when you’re faced with a local opinion that it’s probably wise to throw in the towel and you’ve got a 2year old daughter at home it’s a tough decision to go over that persons head. The course was being closed down; there would be no food ahead, no emergency support.

Going home in style - the JLT Condor team car picked me up

Going home in style – the JLT Condor team car picked me up

The car of broken dreams, myself and other riders load our bikes on to the car and get taken back to Grassington

The car of broken dreams, myself and other riders load our bikes on to the car and get taken back to Grassington

This man made a very unhappy moment in my life a lot happier and memorable for different reasons, thank you for the drive back to Grassington,

This man made a very unhappy moment in my life a lot happier and memorable for different reasons, thank you for the drive back to Grassington,

On Sunday during the Tour of Cambridgeshire as we reached the 60 mile point the pace started to ease off within my group, we dipped below 20mph for the first time on our ride. We had a plan for this ride, our goal was 20mph average and I was trying to qualify for the World Championship Amateur Road Race. Although we were tired and it hurt we had to push on, we’d ridden 60 miles to plan and there was only 20 miles to go. In my mind I mapped that out as ‘just a local ride’ something we’d do casually on a Saturday morning, I was breaking it down that way, we were on the home straight, this job was done, there was no easing off now, we had to push harder and finish this ride and keep up the pace.

When I threw the towel in on the Etape Du Dales I thought I’d lost my nerve, I thought I’d given up the fight but I realised on Sunday we can be defined by how well we rise after a fall.

Racing to victory at the Tour of Cambridgeshire - I've qualified for the World Championship amateur road race

Racing to victory at the Tour of Cambridgeshire – I’ve qualified for the World Championship amateur road race

This Mum Can

This morning I heard the very exciting and surprising news that my finish time in yesterday’s Tour of Cambridgeshire was fast enough to qualify for the UCI World Championship Amateur Road Race.

I don’t hold a race license so I’m not insured for a mass start event like the ToC. Riders like myself, without a license were held back in a 2nd pen and started in slower waves, it meant we started with a time penalty, the timer went with the gun so when I crossed the start line the clock had already accumulated 20 minutes and the peloton was a long way up the road.

Qualifying riders had to finish in the top 25% of their category, I was racing in the females aged 40-44, I placed 24th overall in this category.

In September I have the opportunity to travel to Denmark and represent my country, in a world sporting event, I can ride my bike, in the discipline that I’m best suited to, road racing. The course distance is 164.8km with 1330m of climbing, the route profile looks fairly similar to a ride I would complete locally, it looks like the type of terrain I’m used too. I’m excited about the opportunity, going to represent my country, wearing a Team GB kit would be a huge achievement in my life especially now, at this time in my life.

The people of Cambridgeshire were out in force on Sunday, lining the route and their support definitely propelled me along the way. The course was mostly flat but those flat lands are nobodies fool, the headwind that accompanies them more than compensates for the lack of up. I averaged 20mph over the 128km course distance, this was me riding at my maximum, I left nothing behind.

Denmark, see you in September 🙂

Before the event I bumped in to my lovely Rapha family friend @brynridesbikes

Before the event I bumped in to my lovely Rapha family friend @brynridesbikes

Lining up before the start with my Ampthill Velo Club mates Darren & Nick

Lining up before the start with my Ampthill Velo Club mates Darren & Nick