What's the point

Why I climbed 5000 metres on a mountain bike

Photo: Taking in the rain on Bamford Edge looking down to Ladybower reservoir, with Derwent Edge to the right.

Published: 06.07.20

Peering out my window at 5am to rain and fog, I wondered what the hell I was thinking and nearly went back to bed. Rain wasn’t what I’d envisioned when I’d settled for nothing but optimal conditions to attempt to ride a total elevation equalling over half the height of Everest, on a heavy mountain bike over technical trails. 

 

The trouble was I had the day off work and spent much of the previous few days preparing for it. For weeks I’d been growing impatient by the unsettled weather and increasingly stressed by the pressure of accomplishing something I wasn't sure I was capable of.

 

But I knew I was ready, so I had to at least try.

I felt uncomfortable about publicly making claims about something I wasn’t sure I was able to do. What if I couldn’t pull it off? How stupid would I look?

Photo: Bloated and tired. You won't be looking your best after 15 hours on the move.

A story about endurance 

 

My first endurance challenge was in 2017, when my goal was to gain 10,000 feet of elevation in one mountain bike ride. It would mark the perfect end to my first year of exploring the hills of the Peak District on a bike.  

 

The ride pushed me to my limit, and only two-thirds into the ride I was almost unable to keep going. Through mental power alone I pushed through, completing my planned route of 11,000 feet ascent over 71 miles after a gruelling 12 hours.

 

It was a powerful experience and, knowing I’d reached my limit, I had no plans to push it further. Three years later I wanted to see if I still had it in me, so did it again. But it wasn’t like the first time; I didn’t finish feeling overwhelmed with emotion. In fact, I questioned the point of these kinds of rides and decided there wasn’t one.

 

Two days later my mind switched and I realised I needed a new, bigger challenge - what about 15k feet of elevation? Aware of the discomfort this would entail I hoped the idea would fade.

Photos: Conditions on Wymingbrook and the lower section of Stanage Steps.

To fundraise or not to fundraise

 

A few weeks earlier my mum shared her plans of doing a big ride to raise money for charity. It was no surprise then that the idea of doing the same to give meaning to this stupid idea (that annoyingly definitely did not fade) was born.

 

I was hesitant. While I knew that the ridiculousness of the challenge would attract attention, I felt uncomfortable about publicly making claims about something I wasn’t sure I was able to do. What if I couldn’t pull it off? How stupid would I look?

 

Knowing these were poor excuses I decided to go ahead and, for the first time in my life, train.

 

While the challenge was on my mind I was bouldering at Stanage Plantation when a climber took a bad fall on the edge above. The local mountain rescue team arrived to rescue the injured climber from a ledge high off the ground. 

 

It was incredible to see a team of 20 volunteers in an extremely technical and delicate operation, successfully bringing the injured climber safely to an ambulance. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a mountain rescue team in action either, but I knew I’d found my cause.

Stanage Edge. Moments earlier the valley below was completely out of sight, but like clockwork (or maybe the weather was embarrassed by how god damn awful it looked) the fog blew over slightly as I pulled out my phone.

Back to the day

 

‘F-it, it’s just a bit of rain and I’m up now.

 

With my bag on, my rear shock sag went from 25% to 35%. I’d never mountain biked with such a heavy bag, but everything in it was essential: food for at least 17 hours of riding, three litres of water, three cans of energy drink, spares, tools, battery pack, road lights, a coat and spare top…

 

I knew track conditions would be bad, as it had rained a lot over the previous week(s), but I hadn’t expected mid-winter conditions. Since I hate riding in the wet, this was a battle in itself. 

 

In my attempts to keep moral high, I laughed about getting wet feet 30 minutes into a 17+ hour ride, saw the conditions as an opportunity to work on my winter riding skills, and laughed again about all the time I had spent getting my bike spotless the day before.

'I don’t give a sh!t about my plan, I’m not riding that track again, not today. I was one puddle away from throwing in the towel.'

Photos: 1 - Ladybower reservoir from Bamford Edge. 2 - Near the start of Les Arcs, another classic trail. 3 - Looking at Win Hill after it emerged from the fog on Derwent Edge.

Planned descents 

Estimated total elevation: 17,000 feet

 

BHDH x2

Rivelin golf course single track

Blackbrook woods

Wymingbrook roots x2

Stanage Steps

Bamford Edge to A57

Les Arcs from a high drop in

Win hill summit to bottom

Roots track (Let it Flow)

SB/Meadow track 

Steeps

Open moorland track 

Original woods track

SB/Meadow track

Summit to Hope

Cave Dale

Jacobs Ladder

Descent from Mam Tor 

Descent from Mam tor ridge

Mam Tor to Loose Hill Ridgeline 

Loose Hill to Hope

Win Hill moorland track

Original woods track

Win Hill summit to bottom

Stanage to Redmires

Porterclough 

Photos: Wet muddy tracks = wet muddy bike. Time for another drivetrain clean.

Rain, mud and tempers

 

Two hours into the ride at the top of Stanage Steps it was still raining and the valley was hidden by fog. Unsure how else to react, I laughed once more.

 

After my first run on Win Hill (where I’d planned to ride more than 10 tracks) I could feel my drivetrain grinding away from the mud and grit it was bathed in. I stopped after every couple of runs to attempt to clean my chain, but as all I had were tissues, it was akin to patching an already leaking dam. I was running out of patience and I could no longer fake a laugh. FFS! This is why I don’t ride in sh!t conditions.

 

On my favourite track in the Peaks, I’d had enough. I wasn’t even enjoying the descents anymore. I was constantly getting soaked from puddles and barely holding on. What’s more, I wasn’t even a quarter of the way into the ride.

 

What’s even the point of this? I loved Win Hill, and much of the rides elevation gain had to be made here, but right now I was hating every minute of it.

 

I don’t give a sh!t about my plan, I’m not riding that track again, not today. I was one puddle away from throwing in the towel. Instead, while wasting time attempting to clean my drivetrain for the umpteenth time, I decided to break my first rule of the day: changing the plan. It was that or go home, so I decided to ride other tracks to make up the elevation gain.

 

Think about performance, not the goal. 

 

The monster route I had planned was too intimidating to think about as a whole, so I split it into six sections and just thought about the one I was on. During each descent I focused only on what was in front of me and during snack breaks checked I was keeping to my pre-planned schedule.

I pictured a desperate scene of myself huddled around a phone in the rain, for an unknown period of time, at 11pm and after 17 hours on the move, physically well but unable to continue until a stupid recording of a stupid ride resumed. What’s more, I could do nothing but accept this equally pathetic and likely reality.

Photos: 1 - Before the exciting bit of Cave Dale. 2 - The summit of Win Hill on the left, and Hope Cement Works on the right. 3 - the paving slabs on the way to Jacobs Ladder. 4 - heading towards Kinder Scout.

Half way turnaround

 

At 3pm, on the summit of Win Hill for the fourth time that day, I celebrated the end of the most challenging part of the ride with a few minutes of rest to appreciate the views before dropping down into Hope. Finally the rain stopped and the fog had lifted. For the first time that day, things were looking positive. 

 

As I cleaned and lubed my chain on the Pindale climb to Cave Dale I chatted to two guys in their late 70s who were out on their e-bikes. ‘You look very determined’, one of them said, and I realised he was right. A fire was burning inside me and I was in battle mode. If anything the struggles from the first half the day made me want it more; there was no way I was backing down now.

 

Rolling into Castleton after an all-time run down Cave Dale despite the wet, I was psyched. I was riding well and feeling strong.

A welcome break from myself

 

I met Rob at 6pm, 12 hours in, after another mega descent down another gnarly rock fest and a Peak District classic - Jacobs Ladder. I was peaking. My legs still felt strong and I was actually having a good time, and the ride was now officially the biggest I’d ever done. 

 

Riding with a mate provided a major moral boost. I noticed my pace slowing but that was okay, since I’d been going way above my normal pace until now. At around 9pm, half way up to the summit of Win Hill, I waved goodbye as he rode towards the rainclouds back to his van in Edale. 

 

My final descent from the summit of Win Hill was a painfully slow affair, since it was dark and I could barely see more than one metre in front of me thanks to my appalling light setup. It was a relief to make it to the bottom and cross the dam with only 13ish hilly but easy miles home.

Boundaries are fluid and often self-imposed, and when people realise this they can achieve feats of endurance previously deemed impossible either by themselves or others. We don’t learn anything about ourselves until we enter the unknown.

Photos: 1 - On route to Jacobs Ladder. 2 - Win Hill summit views (randomly thrown in here). 3 and 4 - At the start and part way down Jacobs Ladder.

Phone says no

 

But there would be no Hollywood ending. 

 

Rather than slowly riding home after a glorious sunset, ecstatic the challenge was in the bag, I was instead frantically pedalling up New Road in the dark and rain, all the while dreading my phone to vibrate for the last time. At every opportunity during the day I plugged my phone into an external charger, but it wasn’t enough. Since I was recording the ride on my phone it was crucial for it to stay on. 

 

Fifteen minutes earlier I realised in horror that my phone, now at 4% battery, was no longer charging. I didn’t understand why: it was connected, the charger was at 50% battery, and the charging symbol displayed on my phone. Yet after 10 minutes the screen still read 4%. I knew I had to get back ASAP - there would be no food stops.

 

At the bottom of the Long Causeway climb to Stanage Pole my phone dropped to 1%. Evidently it wasn’t charging, so my plan was to stop when it died, plug it back in and pray the damn thing would at least charge while it was off. Then wait for the number to creep up, turn it back on and continue.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d fought for much of the day against the weather and conditions, and won, only for a phone to take me down in the last round.

 

I wondered how long I’d have to wait for it to charge, and even whether it would. I pictured a desperate scene of myself huddled around a phone in the rain, for an unknown period of time, at 11pm and after 17 hours on the move, physically well but unable to continue until the stupid recording of this stupid ride resumed. What’s more, I could do nothing but accept this equally pathetic and likely reality.

 

When I reached Redmires reservoir my phone was miraculously still on and had even risen to 4%. It was now pouring with rain so it wasn’t long until I was totally soaked with a headwind to boot. I could barely see the road in front of me due to my useless lights and stinging eyes, which were full of dirt, sweat and rain.

 

No beauty could be found in those last few miles as I shivered, barely able to look ahead and blinded by oncoming headlights. I turned off my mind trying to think of nothing but turning the pedals.

I had a crazy energy surge between Hope and Edale. In the clip above I'm half way through this section and afterwards was the fastest I've ever ridden between here and Jacobs Ladder. Mam Tor is behind me.

Actual descents ridden

BHDH x2

Rivelin golf course single track

Blackbrook woods

Wymingbrook roots x2

Stanage Steps

Bamford Edge to A57

Les Arcs from a high drop in

Win hill summit to bottom

Roots track (Let it Flow)

SB/Meadow track 

Win hill summit to bottom

Moorland track

Win Hill summit to Moorland track

Down the front of Win Hill

Moorland track

Win Hill summit to Hope

Cave Dale

Jacobs Ladder

Descent from Mam Tor 1

Descent from Mam Tor 2

Mam Tor to Loose Hill Ridgeline 

Loose Hill to Hope

Win Hill moorland track

Win Hill summit to bottom

Stanage to Redmires

Home via Roper Hill past the Norfolk Arms and down Ringinglow road due to heavy rain and poor visibility.

'No beauty could be found in those last few miles as I shivered, barely able to look ahead and blinded by oncoming headlights. I turned off my mind trying to think of nothing but turning the pedals.'

Photos: 1 - Rob looking down his first descent of the day (and my 20somethingth), coming down from Mam Tor. 2 - looking down from the summit of Mam Tor to a top 100 hill climb we had the pleasure of doing twice. 3 - The ridge line is on the left, and the cone summit of Win Hill is directly ahead in the middle.

Home at last

 

After I finally made it home just before midnight, totally sodden and covered in mud after 18 hours, I had one of the most nerve-wracking waits I’d ever experienced as Strava synched the ride. Any moment now the stats would reveal whether I’d done enough.

 

I needed the elevation to display 15k, and I wanted the number to be 17k.

 

‘Your ride is ready to view’

 

84.3 miles (136 km)

16,355 feet (4985 metres). 

Conflicting feelings

 

No doubt I felt extremely relieved I’d reached my official target, but somewhat disappointed for missing my personal one, especially by so little. If I’d climbed just 16 metres more (e.g. my road) I would have surpassed 5000 metres, or the elevation gain of the biggest known MTB ride in the Peak District, the Peak 200. With that fact my heart sank a little.

Regardless of the stats, I didn’t feel how I felt three years earlier. The ride was extremely hard on a number of levels, but I hadn’t found my limit, which was the primary purpose of this ride. There were no tails of heroically pushing on when I was close to giving up; instead I sprinted home sick of being wet and scared my phone would run of battery.

 

There were aspects of the experience I was proud of: achieving a goal, going out of my comfort zone, continuing through adversity and, of course, raising money (around £700 at the time of writing) for a great cause. 

Photos: 1 - looking towards the last hike-a-bike climb on the ridge line from Mam Tor to Loose Hill. 2 - Rob on the summit of Loose Hill. The descent from here is super fast and super fun.

'Regardless of the stats, I didn’t feel how I felt three years earlier. The ride was extremely hard on a number of levels, but I hadn’t found my limit, which was the primary purpose of this ride. There were no tails of heroically pushing on when I was close to giving up; instead I sprinted home sick of being wet and scared my phone would run of battery.'

Correction - this was actually my 5th time on the top of Win Hill that day.

The dreaded question: What's next?

 

I may not have actually improved at riding in foul conditions, but I learnt I was more resilient than I thought. I expected to be at my limit after 17 hours of riding (which is why I didn’t pack proper lights), but I wasn’t. Knowing this would enable me to devise more ambitious challenges.

 

It made me understand why super endurance events such as Iron Mans, trans-continental races and challenges including Everesting exist. Boundaries are fluid and often self-imposed, and when people realise this they can achieve feats of endurance previously deemed impossible either by themselves or others. We don’t learn anything about ourselves until we enter the unknown.

 

So will I push it further? Well I have just ordered lights… Just like on that September day in 2017, I want, need, to find my boundaries again. If you set off on your own ridiculous challenge you’ll understand.

Update - 26 July 2020

I pushed it further a few weeks later with an even bigger challenge, which took 21 hours and also ended in horrific weather - The ultimate Peak District ride.

Endurance and training tips feature coming soon

Photos: 1 - One last run down my favourite track on Win Hill that day (since it was totally unaffected by the rain) - Moorland track. 2 - Climbing to the summit for the last time that day, facing west towards the weather. 3 - Last views of the day from the summit of Win Hill, before darkness ascended and the woods were pitch black.

© 2020 getabmx

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