Monday, 28 April 2014

Pendle Witches - the trial

Outside the pub, Sean's immaculate TI-Raleigh was leaning against a wall, gleaming red, yellow and black in the watery sunshine. Someone had kindly pinned a gradient profile for the route up on the door - it looked like a particularly vicious set of shark's teeth. There was a massive point somewhere near the middle - Waddington Fell. This had utterly humbled me two years before. I ended up walking up the thing in the rain and the fog, thinking I'd reached the top three times but each time finding more hill beyond the false summit. Still, at least I could see why my legs had thrown the towel in.

Inside the pub, there was a fire going, vintage bikes on display and free brews getting handed out. But it was nearly time for the off, so I went outside and lined up the Aerospace with a pride of beautiful vintage bikes. There was Mark's Daccordi, a spotless Hetchins in black and red, and a couple of burgundy Carltons. Lightweight British bikes are often covered in the heraldry and gothic detailing of the middle ages, so we looked a little like a bunch of knights getting ready for a cavalry charge.

Not all of the townsfolk of Rawtenstall were pleased to see this beautiful collection of classic machinery. While we were lining up, a Nissan Micra pulled to a halt. The window rolled down, and a visible fog of Lynx Africa wafted out. One spark would have seen the whole lot engulfed in a massive fireball.

"Is there a bike race today?" asked the panicked, but extremely well deodorised lad driving. I said that there was. "Are they closing the roads? Only I'm moving house!" I assured the gentlemen that the highway would remain open, and returned to my pre-ride prep of noting everyone else's sensibly sized chainrings.

There was a lad on the PA system giving a blow by blow account of the route; the only words that lodged were "tailwind to help you up the last hill..." I'll have that! I thought, losing myself in a sunny daydream of being gently wafted up the last hill before the finish. Then it was time to go.

The cruel, energy sapping evil of the route comes from that gradient profile. Even while you're steaming up the first hill out of Rawtenstall, feeling a hundred feet tall and like you have literally had all of your Weetabix, the gradient is taxing your muscles and stealing calories which you will need later on. I got a bit carried away and tried a bit of a break away, getting wound in about ten seconds later by a group lead by Daniel and Zena on the Hetchins and a lovely blue Roberts. We summited - and there was a miniature Burnley and Padiham down at the bottom of the valley, backed by green and brown hills.

(Childzy's picture of Burnley from Wikipedia)

This is the good bit: I got my head down and shoved the gear lever forward, listening to the "...clatter bang! clatter bang!" of the chain jumping all the way over to the fast cog. I booted the Viscount up to 35 - 40 mph and screamed down the hill. It was still early, and the roads were totally clear. We raced through Padiham and climbed out of the valley. This was steeper than the first climb, and I had the Viscount in the lowest gear all the way up.

Cresting the top of the hill gives you your first view of the Nick O'Pendle. This brutal hill climb looks like a grey stripe painted up a green wall. Looking at it from across the valley, there is no indication that it is anything other than vertical. The sun was out, and it all looked glorious. Hard on the brakes, all the way down the hill into the tiny village of Sabden, a place presumably entirely inhabited by people who enjoy witnessing human suffering close up.

Chris Boardman has an absurd course record for climbing the Nick O'Pendle in about ten seconds flat. And that included a short break near the top to plan his excellent, world conquering range of bikes. I gave it my best shot. I hammered across the bridge at Sabden at full chat, and then starting to work down through the gears, ending up on the big ring at the back frighteningly quickly. Steve Ransom steamed past, winding his Thorn up the hill as if gravity did not apply. "Fair play pushing those gears." he said, giving me a good wide berth in case the insanity was contagious.

I realised I was actually slightly scared of the Nick. It was demanding a level of physical effort which I just wasn't comfortable giving. It looked more massive this year in the sun than it had a couple of years previously, when the mist had at least hidden the top. Jonathan passed me on his sparkling red, turquoise and chrome Eddy Merckx  He'd said a little while earlier that he'd put some effort into training this year, and it looked like it had paid off handsomely.

The hill won. I got off before the cattle grid and walked for a couple of hundred yards. Last time, I'd taken my time over eating a Boost, as though the middle of this vertical incline had just struck me as being the best place to enjoy a bit of glucose. I hopped back on and gave the pedal an exploratory push. It turned! Magically, my legs both reported for duty and I got the Viscount moving again. Photographic evidence suggests that I managed a ghastly, re-animated corpse style smile as I passed Rick Robson, the event photographer, towards the top of the climb.

Once you've wrestled the Nick into submission, you really do have a day pass into heaven. The middle bit of this ride is just beautiful, treating you to brief views of perfect villages, church bells ringing, the smell of bacon frying. The sun was sticking with us, and the leaves on the conker trees were the most incredible green colour. Coming up Waddington Fell, there was even some cowbell. The halfway point is at Dunsop Bridge, where there is a very good chance that HRH the Queen is the postmistress. Here there were tables creaking under the weight of homemade cakes, boxes of bananas and gallons of water to refuel us all.

For me, the ride back down was tough going. There is a long, steady climb out of Whalley, but my legs had started to cramp before we even got that far. Rain came on as I started the climb, and the wind got up too. I was waiting, of course, for it to turn into the tailwind that we'd been promised at the start, but it kept on stubbornly boxing me in the face and around the ears as I rode through Blackburn and tried to get some steam up for the last big climb, up to Haslingden. This was sheer torture. It felt like I would have been faster if I'd got off and walked, and I had to have an argument with myself before committing the effort required for each pedal stroke. My speed readout on Strava is a crazy little zig zag, dependent entirely on what the wind was doing and how steep the hill was. I had the Arctic Monkeys on my walkman and tried keeping time to the music. And then, almost before I realised it, the last descent into Rawtenstall was in front of me, and I'd done it. Paul and Sarah - who'd just done the short route on their Carlton Corsair and Raleigh Candice - gave me a finish line interview before I staggered into the warmth of the pub to tuck into the pie and peas.

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