Velo Club Moulin

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Puddle ducks swim the Tour de Ben Nevis

While others VCMers think about CX season or walking up West Yorkshire hills, I'm still clinging on to XC season. No Fuss Events' Tour de Ben Nevis has been on my bucket list for years, but as it always falls on the weekend of Mrs W's birthday, I tend to lack the requisite brownie points.

For those unfamiliar with the event, it is a 60km loop around Ben Nevis, starting in Fort William and finishing (for 2018) at Nevis Range. It is run as a sort of enduro/XC mash up, with points allocated based on placings in timed stages, but with the whole loop from start to finish also counting as one of those five stages. My previous attempt in 2016 coincided with biblical downpours so the race became an "out and back" rather than the full loop. In 2018, with rumours that this might be the last edition, I made myself unpopular at home and headed up to Fort William.

After a spirited early morning drive through Glencoe, I lined up for the usual trackstand procession along the High Street behind the piper. As the pace increased, the first climb appeared sooner than expected, and my mid pack start position left me still some way behind the leaders. Bugger. I burnt a few matches to move up to a top 10 position and settled into my own pace.

Arriving at the top of Stage 1 (a rock strewn descent to Kinlochleven), my only ambition was to be less cautious than in 2016. A plan to recce this stage had not come to fruition due to work and weather, but I pedalled into the stage and hoped for the best. Riding my Giant Anthem gave me a bit more confidence than the hardtail ridden previously, as I popped off rocks and hopped a few water bars. Two larger water bars had me hauling on the anchors though: whilst I could probably hop them without incident, the consequences of a slightly mistimed landing would be a dented rim and a long walk back. An inelegant foot down over those two bars saw me getting to the bottom without any drama, still with inflated tyres and a good chunk faster that 2016. Job done.

The following road section was a chance to grab a bar and save some energy for Stage 2: a 12 minute landy track climb which I reckoned should suit me. After faffing with my timing chip at the start, I tapped out a reasonable pace which turned out to be good enough for 2nd fastest of the day. Boom.

From there, bow-waving through a succession of puddles alongside Loch Eilde left me cold and damp. I knew the river crossing and stage 3 hike-a-bike would be soon though, so I pressed on, eventually wading the river (thankfully only knee deep) and stopping for a couple of bars and a bit of banter with the marshal. As I dismounted for the walk/jog/ride/walk routine, it quickly became clear that my super-stiff carbon soled shoes had not been a wise choice and I probably should have eaten earlier, as the legs ran out of gas. A front wheel plunge into a deeper than expected muddy puddle and the resultant over-the-bars compounded my woes, as the two riders in front skipped off into the distance. I didn't ever get into a decent rhythm on this stage and arrived at the checkpoint to regroup. Unfortunately the jelly babies in my top-tube bag had taken a dip in the aforementioned muddy puddle and were not looking too appetising. The marshals were great though, helping me replenish my supplies quickly and sending me on my way.

Armed with the news that there were "4 or 5" riders in front, the aim became to preserve my position. Eventually (probably about an hour too late) I gave in to the cold and stopped to put on the lightweight Endura jacket that I had been carrying in my back pocket for the past 2 hours. This (combined with the sugar finally kicking in) gave me a much needed boost for ticking off the final 10 miles.

The Nevis Range firetracks were a headwindy gurn on tired legs, made better only by the thought that I definitely had it easier than the plodding ultra-marathon runners I passed. I eased past a flagging rider with a few miles to go and just kept turning the pedals, longing for a singletrack descent. Pedalling into Stage 4 it soon became apparent that my front brake pads were shot after hours of muddy puddles though, so I lacked the control and flow I would have liked, and lost a few crucial seconds.

Rejuvenated by the swoopy descent, tired legs were briefly forgotten and the sunshine of the Nevis Range finish seemed to arrive too soon. Crossing the line in 5th in around 3h30min (still some way behind overall winner Gary Macdonald) I was pretty pleased to be towards the sharp end. Final results confirmed that my hesitancy on the descents cost me on the overall points though: despite finishing 5th overall and 2nd on stage 2, my lower placings on the other stages saw me drop back to a still respectable 6th.

It will be a shame if No Fuss don't run the race or something similar next year. This event is a great day out in big hills with a properly remote feel, and there are precious few races of this distance. Fingers crossed it returns in some form. I know I can go faster on those descents, bring some brake pads that last, eat a bit earlier, and shave a few minutes off in the hike-a-bike. Maybe next time it could even be dry. More of this sort of thing.

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