A rugged coastline, medieval castles, rural landscape and a mountainous centre. Just some of the features that lay ahead of me on this island. I had arrived on the Isle of Man for the sixth edition of the Manx 100; a 100 mile single loop mountain bike event featuring no less than 16,300 feet of elevation.
I had done long distance rides and various events in the past but nothing comparable to this course had in store. Billed as ‘possibly the toughest single day mountain bike event in Europe’ with 29% of entrants failing to finish the course last year, I knew I had to arrive with improved fitness, strength and a good base of endurance to see me through. In the lead up to the event, I’d been on the bike at every opportunity, particularly in the final 12 weeks where I followed a loose training plan featuring tough weeks, shorter recovery weeks and a MTB marathon event in Exmoor three weeks prior to the Manx.
And so it began… 30 July 2017, 6:30am, on the start line. I had performed a last minute bike setup, met up with my riding buddy Terry and was ready to go. Due to the large amount of bag drops throughout the course, I carried minimal supplies – two bottles and enough food for the first 30 miles. Following a few words of advice from the organiser, we set off with a police escort until we left the tarmac. The riders at the front were racing in the National Mountain Bike Marathon Championships over a shorter (100 km) route so set off at a rapid pace. It wasn’t long before we hit the first off-road climb and riders started to spread out. Although I lost distance over Terry, it was going to be a long day and I knew I had to go at a pace I was comfortable with.
I met with some very rocky terrain quite early on and once the opening climb was done, the descent that followed didn’t allow for recovery. Rocks turned to boulders and both me and the bike were taking some punishment. I should point out that I was riding a hard-tail (bike with front suspension) whereas many other riders had more comfortable ride and better handling on a full suspension bike. That being said, the bike was handling the rough stuff surprisingly well and I kept up with others on the descents and picked up places where I could.
I arrived at my first bag drop in the village of Laxey where I topped up on water, grabbed some more energy bars and was on my way. My wife, Caroline, offered some words of encouragement and then I was on to the next off-road section. As I spun my legs up to Windy Corner, the surface changed again and we were greeted with marsh land. While I pushed on feeling pleased with my progress, I started to sense something was not right. The trail became less obvious and there was uncertainty amongst the riders ahead. I checked my GPS trace to see that we were off course after missing an arrow further back; we had lost 20 minutes on our time.
The trail went steeply down, brakes were screeching and some riders opted to walk instead. More rocky trails greeted me and set the tone of things to come. We were either going up or going down on this ride and there were very few stretches to recover. At bag drop four, I got some food in me (jam sandwiches and jelly babies!), giving me the mental boost needed for big rides.
Just after the halfway point, I’m faced with one of the longest climbs of the day. Selecting my easiest gear (30:42 if you’re interested) I pushed up this absolute brute of a climb. I adjusted my position on the saddle and looked for the smoothest possible line up the heavily rutted track which wound up the mountain. By now, I was seeing fewer and fewer riders and felt very much alone in the remote landscape. I dropped down a rocky descent where I could see the shorter 100 km finish line ahead of me. I crossed the line and was offered a hot drink but as good as it sounded, I was keen to keep stoppage to a minimal and pushed on.
Down the road, as I turned off for the next climb, Caroline popped up again with some more words of encouragement and informed me that Terry had decided to call it a day at 100 km. I was well aware the day was not over yet but I had got the most intimidating climbs behind me and I found myself flowing around a stunning, natural single track path in the many plantations the island has to offer.
Out of the woods and down yet another rocky descent, I met a road. Looking at the distance covered on my GPS, I thought it could be tarmac to the finish but there were two more sections of track to go. Knowing the end was increasingly closer, I began to put pressure on the pedals as the adrenaline kicked in. I remember hammering it through a ford crossing, knowing at that stage, getting wet wasn’t going to bother me! I finally crossed the finish line where marshals informed me to ride back to the Grandstand (the finishing time was recorded at that point so I took my time making my way back to the race HQ).
Back at the Grandstand, Caroline, Terry and his family were there to see me in. I felt made up to have finished an epic day’s riding with no mechanical issues, no crashes and only one minor navigational error. It was such a great feeling to have conquered the mountainous island knowing all the training and logistics had paid off. I headed inside the HQ to receive my finishers medal, some hot food and a well-earned beer. I later discovered my finish time was 13 hours and 10 minutes, putting me in 16th position overall and 3rd in the senior’s category.
It was such an epic ride with breathtaking scenery, I’m still soaking it all up and considering returning next year to try for a quicker time!