2015 MANX 100

This was one of those races which you just know will be hard, but don’t necessarily realise quite how hard until you are at the top of a massive hill, trying desperately to get enough feeling back into your hands to be able to open a packet of food, anything to keep you going, when the gale-force winds part the sea of fog just long enough for you to glimpse another rider getting blown off his bike. This would become a battle for survival.

 

Saturday was a fantastic day, blue skies, warm temperatures and a gentle breeze as we made our way across to Douglas on board the catamaran. We met a few other racers on the ferry, but despite the lovely weather prevailing at the time we had all seen the forecast and there was a definite atmosphere of gallows humour. It was predicted to be light rain at the start, 6:30am, developing into heavy rain by about 10am and continuing for the rest of the race, with winds of over 45mph. This was of course the forecast for sea-level, whereas we would be crossing the largest and most exposed fells and moors the Isle of Man has to offer, and it is a surprisingly hilly island.

Andy 'Crasher' Howett

Manx 100 - 2015

We were met at the ferry port by Guy, a lovely friendly local who had volunteered to put us up for the weekend and who’s wife, Joan, provided an excellent curry while I made him paranoid about his front brake. Signing-on and last-minute detail checking was in the Control Tower at the Grandstand, the same place as last year, before most racers headed off early to their various resting places, keen for a good night’s sleep. I instead found myself accompanying Gina and another bunch of friendly locals on a walk around Rushen Abbey looking for bats. There are over 1,200 species of bat, 7 of which can be found on the Isle of Man. Only 3 are ‘vampires’, none of which are to found on the island. We saw quite a few and got to play with the bat detectors.

The alarm went off at 4:45am on Sunday and, upon opening the curtains, I was greeted by the most unexpected sight of blue skies and no rain. Actually, that’s not quite true, the alarm went off at 4:45 but it was 5:15 when I conceded defeat to the snooze button and emerged to open the curtains. A couple of Weetabix later and we were in Guy’s van heading back to the Grandstand.

It was still dry at 6:30am, with barely a cloud in view as we all gathered in the TT Pit Lane, ready for the off. The first couple of miles were the ‘wrong way’ along the TT course, lead out by a police motorbike to allow us to jump all the red lights but it was delayed by six minutes (an important detail, remember that) as we waited for the rozzers to get into place. We were all fidgeting, impatient to get off, sensing that we were definitely on borrowed time as far as the nice weather was concerned and anxious not to waste it. I used this time to take my waterproof off and put it back on thirty seven times as I tried to work out if I was just chilly because I was standing still or if it was actually cold and how many layers I would need. A waterproof but no arm-warmers was the compromise I eventually settled on.

The neutralised start followed the same route as last year, allowing most of the fast guys, and me, to get themselves to the front, poor Jon Hobson spinning like crazy on his singlespeed as he tried to keep up. He had started the 100 mile event last year but had to concede defeat and switch to the 100km, meaning that the 100 miles had still never been completed with only one gear and he was determined to be the first.

The motorbike eventually pulled over, we veered left into the first track and the race was on.

The winner of the 2013 event, Rich Rothwell, and the other likely contender Rob Friel, shot off into the distance with Julian Corlett, who was likely to be the fastest local, and me both trying to keep up as best we could. He managed considerably better than I did and I lost sight of the three of them as another little group formed behind them.

It quickly became apparent that I had made the wrong call on the waterproof and I paused to remove it for the 38th time as it was getting rather warm in there. It only took a few seconds but half a dozen riders came passed before I could set off in pursuit.

The first section of the course through Conrhenny to Laxey was easy enough, we were all making good progress, trying to keep the speed up while the sun was still shining. The first ‘proper’ climbs slowed us a little as we headed up Slieau Ruy and Slieau Lhean before dropping down into Glen Mona and the first checkpoint just south of Ramsey.

There were a number of checkpoints on the route. Marshals at each of these would tick us all off as we passed through, and they all had time-limits, if a rider hadn’t passed them by a certain time, they would be out of the event. This was to stop those who were slow but determined being out in the middle of nowhere until well after dark, trying to get to the end. Again, more on this later…

After Ramsey I caught Jon on his singlespeed, still going strongly, and someone else I didn’t recognise and we blasted through the meadows together towards the bottom of Sky Hill, it was like being in a hurdles race with all the gates we encountered. Hmm, MTB Hurdles, a sprint and bunny-hop competition, must remember that one.

I recognised quite a lot of the course, having raced here twice before, although not the tight left-hander in Ballure where the sign had blown around and I lost a bit of time faffing with the map. Jon and his legs of steel left me behind on the climb up out of Ohio and passed Slieu Managh, but I could see him again as I approached Checkpoint 2 at the Mountain Box.

Checkpoint 2 was very significant for me, mainly because this was one of the three ‘bag-drops’ and I knew that I had a load of food and a new bottle of Torq waiting for me there, along with a set of dry gloves and various other items of clothing. It was the food which I was desperate for, after all of the detailed planning and preparation before the event the one thing I had forgotten to put in my pack for the race itself was anything to eat… I had raided Gina’s supply of things before the start but at about one third distance I was already suffering. I swallowed a couple of Torq bars and a Mars bar and stuffed everything else into my pocket.

It was 9:48am and much against everyone’s expectation it still wasn’t raining. There was a dampness in the air though, it wouldn’t be long and this high up it was also rather chilly. I put my waterproof on for the 39th time that morning and set off across the moors after Jon, who had very generously waited for me. His singlespeed was less than ideal on this section, but as he was pushing at about the same speed I could ride it didn’t seem to bother him at all.

The descent down to the mines at Laggan Agneash was huge fun, one of my favourite parts of the whole circuit. It was pretty steep, down through the ferns, just about rideable with my rear wheel waving about in the air as I tried to keep my speed down enough to allow myself to steer, Jon a few feet ahead shouting warnings about hidden dykes and little skinny, single plank, bridges. If I had had a dropper post I would have pressed the button, but with an ISP there was nothing else to do but hold on and hope for the best. Jon stopped for a pee break at the bottom and I took the opportunity to cram another couple of Torq bars down my neck while I waited for him.

I recognised more of the course, the climb as we left Laxey for the second time was just as hard as I remembered it being. We were heading for the very appropriately named Windy Corner, another famous TT landmark, although we were of course approaching it across the moors, battling into the headwind at 3 or 4mph rather than blasting up to it at 180mph along a nice smooth road.

The rain was starting to come in by this stage, gently at first but then harder and harder, but the biggest change was in the wind, it was getting much, much stronger. After Checkpoint 3 Jon started to pull away from me. Despite the fact that he had only one gear he was flying up the climbs and I just couldn’t maintain his pace.

We fought our way up the back of Injebreck, battling into the gale. The rain was making it incredibly difficult to see where I was going, it was being driven so hard into my face that looking forwards was actually quite painful. However, the fog soon made this irrelevant, when I did manage to look up I couldn’t see anything anyway. The Manx 100 isn’t one of these well manicured race-tracks with lots of tape and things marking all the corners, it is big hills, mostly in the middle of nowhere, with the odd red and black arrow showing the way. It was an enormous relief when one of those would appear out of the fog, reassuring me that I was still going in the right direction. I have a GPS but it is purely for recording speed, distance, time and such like, it is not one of the fancy ones which show you which way to go and so I was navigating the good old fashioned way, with a map and compass. There were enough signs that It wasn‘t necessary to look at the map very often, which was good as keeping hold of it in the wind was extremely tricky and the rain was making it more and difficult to read every time I got it out, the ink on my print-out running despite the fancy sandwich-bag it was enclosed in.

We battled on into the wind, down to Sartfell and then into the relative shelter of Druidale, the sides of valley keeping the worst of the wind at bay. It was a short-lived relief though as soon the route began to climb again, another of those never-ending slogs up and up and up into the clouds.

Eventually Checkpoint 4 loomed out of the clag, a man in an enormous waterproof, his hood drawn tight in around his face, his hands blue with cold, while his colleague huddled in the 4×4 trying to keep warm. He asked me if wanted any water. Obviously the fact that I was soaked to the skin and looking like a drowned rat had convinced him that the thing which would make it all better was even more water…However, the second bag drop was still a very, very long way away and so I took the opportunity to refill a bottle.

I dropped down the hillside to Ballaugh, a welcome respite from the worst of the wind as I lost altitude, and then I was on to the old railway line. This is a unique section of the Manx 100 in that, for a couple of miles, I was riding on the flat. It was like being in teleporter, one moment I was in Ballaugh, and then less than six minutes later I was two miles away in Kirk Michael looking up at The Baltic. (I’m mentioing a lot of place names here as I know you are all reading this while following my progress in great detail on the map. Probably)

Ah yes, The Baltic. This is the hill people talk about most of all. ‘Baltic’ is a word used in certain parts of Scotland to mean “absolutely bloody freezing”, quite appropriate as it turns out. From the village it starts innocently enough, a gentle tarmac climb winding it’s way up. One of the locals who lives on the lower slopes of the hill always leaves a hosepipe out for us, in previous years this was a most welcome spot to refill our bottles but this year it was somewhat redundant. Having battled down into Ballaugh, pedalling as hard as I could downhill to make any sort of speed into the headwind I had been looking forward to flying up The Baltic with the benefit of a similarly impressive tail wind. However, the wind on the Isle is quite bizarre, during the course of the whole day, despite wiggling around all over the place on a route which was ultimately a loop I never once felt like I had a tail wind.

Anyway, I kept plugging away up The Baltic. The short tarmac section soon ended and I was onto the LandRover track above it. Although the wind was still as strong as ever the fog had lifted, which at least made navigation a lot easier, it was now actually possible to spot some of the signs before I passed them. I could see another racer in front of me, probably half a mile ahead, way up on the hillside. I could catch him.

I dug in, looking for the lines with best grip as I picked my way up through the slippery wet rocks. The wind was getting worse the higher I got, the shape of the hills funnelling it down towards me. It was tough, but I was gaining. I looked up again, he was off his bike and pushing, I could do this. The wind was still getting stronger and stronger, I was down in my granny-ring, 24t, trying to make progress as best I could. The track turned slightly to the right and what had been a head-wind became a cross-wind. It was blowing me to my left, hard, with sudden gusts of very hard. Keeping the bike in a straight line through the rocks and ruts was getting more and more difficult, every time I was blown off line getting going again was becoming harder and harder. I realised why the rider in front had been pushing, and I was forced to concede defeat and also begin walking.

The fog had closed in again by this stage and I had long since lost sight of anyone else, it was just me, alone in the middle of nowhere, head down against the wind, trudging upwards though the murk. I was starting to freeze, the relentless rain had soaked me right through and now I was moving even more slowly I wasn’t generating enough of my own heat. I eventually reached the crest and was able to get back on the bike. I plugged on, upwards, through the fog, my frozen hands curled tightly around the bars, the wind seeming to come from all directions now.

After what felt like an eternity I reached what felt like a little plateau, I was knackered, I needed food. I stopped, and reached into my pocket. I had already eaten my supply of Torq bars and gels but I did still have a packet of Shot-Blocks left, that would do nicely. The only trouble was opening it with wet gloves which don’t grip and frozen fingers which don’t bend. I tugged helplessly at the wrapper for a bit, no good. I crouched down, trying to use the heather for what little shelter it would give me, turning my back to the wind. I removed a glove.

The fog parted for an instant and I realised where I was, the course doubled back on itself and I was passing the other side of Checkpoint 4. I could see the marshal, still out there huddled in his massive waterproof, trying to use his truck for shelter, two riders plunging down the hill towards him. The rearmost rider left the ground briefly over one of the tussocks and appeared to get blown quite a way to his left before he hit the ground again. His front wheel dug in, flipping him off the front of the bike, which cartwheeled a couple of times before coming to rest, I even heard his cry over the wind. The guy at the front stopped and turned, the marshal already up and moving towards the fallen rider, who sat up, looking surprised and shouting “I’m fine, I’m fine”. The lead rider set off again and I returned to trying to open my food as they all disappeared back into the fog.

Someone passed me as I crouched there, asking if I was OK. “Everything’s fine” I lied and then he too was gone. Eventually the wrapper relented and I crammed the lot into my mouth. I stuffed the wrapper back into my pocket and attempted to pull my glove back on. It was cold, properly cold, much, much colder than it had been when I removed it a minute before. Do gloves suffer from wind-chill? My fingers still wouldn’t bend and it took a while to force them back into it. Getting the glove back on made them no warmer at all.

I had stopped at the top of the hill as, despite the extra wind there, it is always much easier to get going again when setting off onto a downhill. Well, not quite always. If there is a huge head-wind it is as just as hard as going uphill. Down the hill back to Sartfell. Last year this was where the 100 mile and 100km events separated and there had been a big gaggle of people here. Today there was nothing, no-one, just wind, fog and an abandoned truck.

It was a long, hard ride over the moors, around the appropriately named Colden Hill, nearly as appropriately named as The Baltic. I even managed to catch glimpses of it as the fog was thinning slightly. As I headed down Braaid towards Checkpoint 5, the second bag-drop, something most unexpected happened.

It stopped raining.

I arrived at the Checkpoint 5 at 1532, nearly six hours since the last bag-drop, soaked to the skin and frozen, but in good spirits, it’s amazing what the slight of a small patch of blue sky can do. I found my bag and it’s precious contents of a dry base layer, a new waterproof and, most valuable of all, new gloves. It was a huge relief. I ate most of the rest of the contents, stuffing the remaining Torq bars and gels into my pockets. The marshals there were lovely, if slightly bemused by what we were all doing. One of them even gave me her cup of tea, just being able to hold something warm for a minute was a huge boost for my poor hands.

The significance of Checkpoint 5 was that it was where the 100 mile and 100km routes diverged and I had to make the choice. Opting for the 100km would mean a three mile pootle back into the centre of Douglas via a nice easy route, back to the Grandstand, tea, cakes and warm showers. Opting for the 100 mile route would mean another 40 miles of what I had just been through.

I turned right.

There was a short section of the TT course heading towards St John’s before climbing 500ft up in less than a mile to Dowse. To make it all the more fun the rain was back, although mercifully without the fog this time. I remembered the descent down into the village from last year, this was where I had performed a frontal dismount and landed heavily on my knee. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and that cowardice was the better part of discretion and so I valiantly dismounted and ran down it this time.

Riding into the village I was delighted to see Gina waiting for me on Tynwald Hill in the drizzle, the original site of what is now the world’s oldest parliament. She was carrying hot pasta, a flask of hot chocolate and some cake. I ate and drank all of this and then, feeling much warmer, set off again.

The rain returned with a vengeance as I emerged from the plantation at Slieau Whallian onto the open moors before heading back into the relative shelter of Arrasey. My front brake on the other hand seemed to have departed. I could feel, and indeed hear, the pads make contact with the disc as I pulled helplessly on the lever but this seemed to have very little effect on my speed. I had two spare sets of the Alligator pads in my pack, but really didn’t feel like stopping to change them. This was partly because this would again involve removing a glove, something I was keen to avoid at all costs after my experience at the top of The Baltic, but mainly because I knew I was cutting it very fine if I was going to make the checkpoints on time.

I had received an update from Gina when I had seen her. A lot of riders had pulled out where the route split, some just having completely lost the will to live, a greater number being pulled out as they simply wouldn’t make it round the route in time. I was now the last rider still out on the course. I had no idea how far behind I was but I knew that I had to press on to get through the cut-offs.