I’ve got a cycling mate who defines ‘hill’ as a gradient steep enough to come off the big ring. There were 16 such hills on the Tour of the Peak last weekend, meaning a good baker’s dozen to test the legs as well as the three major headliners of Cat & Fiddle, Winnats Pass and Holme Moss. And if that wasn’t enough, torrential rain and high winds were on the menu. The result: a sportive to remember.
At the start, there was no hint of the drama to come. The town of Chapel-en-le-Frith seemed sleepy. The weather was a bit damp, but not too cold. There wasn’t the usual eager queue to get started though, so maybe some riders had seen the future and decided to stay in bed.
I was riding with three club-mates, and we took it easy on the first few miles down to Whaley Bridge, before turning south for the first climb of the day, up past Wingather Rocks. Knowing this was the first of many hills, we took it easy up here too, despite several fast-starters sprinting by. We were up in the mist as well – another foretaste of things to come.
A right turn at the top took us down Dead Man’s Hill, appropriately named as it turned out, because this was the site of some serious pile-ups. Some riders were simply descending too fast, then losing control on the narrow wet roads covered in leaves.
Next came Cat & Fiddle; about 7 miles of steady climbing over the Pennines. The gradient was fine – just sit and steady-pedal - but the mist turned to rain, and as we crested the summit the wind hit us too, making for a tough couple of miles across the moors before descending towards Buxton. We got a bit of respite as the route wound through the pretty lanes of Derbyshire, with just a little grunt up Millers Dale to reach the first feed at Tideswell.
The next descent took us down into the Hope Valley. Another appropriate name? Most riders used their brains, and their brakes, but an optimistic few threw caution to the wind and went down pretty fast. Lo and behold, this was another site of several serious crashes.
Through the streets of Castleton, then came Winnats Pass, a narrow road snaking up between limestone cliffs. It started steep, then got steeper, with the hardest bit about 25%. Fortunately the wind was behind up here, but still a few people ran out of steam and had to walk.
Just beyond the top the routes split, with the shorter option winding back towards Chapel-en-le-Frith, and the longer option throwing in another steep little climb over Mam Nick. Hard on legs still recovering from Winnats but at least there was time to recover on the decent into Edale, although just in case there was any danger of starting to enjoy ourselves, the rain got heavier.
The next few miles on the long route seemed innocuous on the map, but held some surprises: a drag up through Bamford to Ladybower Reservoir, another long steady climb to Moscar and then the Strines Road, running parallel to the crest of the Pennines, so crossing lots of steep-sided river valleys with lots of steep little ups and downs. Once again, leaves on the road meant careful descents and a few wheel-spins on the other side.
The second feed was at Langsett. By this time the hills and weather had taken their toll. Fast boys who would usually run in and grab a banana were sitting down for a rest in the dry. There were queues for food and drink but few riders seemed to mind. It was good to be out of the rain. The hot soup was a nice touch too.
Refuelled, we pushed on for more miles over bleak moors and then descended into Holmfirth, the start of the classic climb up Holme Moss. And that was where the fun really started. This is a testing ascent on a good day – around 5 miles, with plenty at 5-7%, some at 10%, increasing to 14% near the top – but on Saturday the wind was absolutely howling down the road, making it very tough indeed. We were in a group of about eight and tried to stay together, but it was hard to hold a wheel in the gusts. As we got higher, the wind got stronger and we were slowed to about 2 miles per hour. Any slower and we’d have simply fallen off. Then the road turned so the wind was on the side, and three guys in front of us did fall off. Literally blown over. Lucky the crash barrier was there or they might have rolled down the hillside.
So the options were: (A) walk; or ( B lean into it at 45 degrees and hope for the best. We took option B, and managed to get to the summit. Not a good day for deep section rims.
The wind was just as gusty on the descent. Only down near the Woodhead Pass road did the bulk of the Pennines finally shelter the route from the worse of it.
In Glossop, the road signs showed Chapel-en-le-Frith within grasp, less than 10 miles along the A624, but there was still more climbing: the long drag up Chunal, then another to Chinley Head. Not major hills usually, but enough to come off the big ring today. My mate was right. And just when we thought it was all over, a sharp right turn took us off the main road, back onto narrow lanes for a final few miles – and one last bugger of a hill – before descending to the finish.
I’ve never seen so many looks of sheer relief at the end of a sportive. It had been an epic. Organisers Kilotogo reported 900 entries. Of these, around 600 finished - about 350 on the short route (64 miles) and about 260 on the long route (originally billed as 97 miles, but actually nearer 100). Times on the short route included 40 riders under 5 hours and another 150 under 6 hours. On the long route, 30 riders got under 7 hours, and another 80 under 8 hours. Chapeau as well to all the riders who were just out for an enjoyable ride, and happy to take all day. I use the terms ‘happy’ and ‘enjoy’ very loosely, of course…