A wrong turn on the Mendips is no trifling matter

I’m really proud of myself.

There, I said it. I spent last week despairing at my inadequacy, and beating myself up for being afraid. Then yesterday, I clipped in and pedalled to the Mendips, and I faced my fears head on.

I’m not going to tell you that I’ve conquered everything I was afraid of, seen the light and now am a seasoned descender (or climber, for that matter). The opposite is true. I felt the fear deeply, and still feel it now. But I survived, and that’s what I’m taking from the experience.

It will be a long, long time until you’ll find me plummeting down hills without braking, feeling the rush of the wind in my hair and the exhilaration of being alive. I don’t know if that will ever happen. My fear is not irrational, it’s my subconscious telling me to stay alive, and that plummeting down steep summits on two wheels with nothing but a couple of cables and metal discs to stop, is a direct danger to me staying alive.

That aside, I’m proud. Once again I learned a lot about myself: I found new limits, pushed through some harder mental (and physical) barriers and I only got off the bike once (more on this later). I also learned a few lessons, and gained some new musings to ponder. I’ll share these now.

The route

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.38.36We set out at 8:30am, joining the Bristol-Bath Railway Path. Turning off at Saltford, we joined route 410 and retraced my steps from my first solo ride, climbing and descending some undulating country roads, through Pensford Viaduct and along to Chew Valley Lake. From there we continued over the Mendips, down into Wells and Glastonbury, where we stopped for some well earned pizza. We returned to Bristol via Cheddar, riding the Strawberry Line to Yatton and then getting the train back.

Challenge #1: Climbing Harptree Hill

If you read about my solo ride, you may remember how this hill defeated me. I know now, looking back, that the reason I stumbled so badly was because I hadn’t fuelled myself properly. I hadn’t really eaten enough, hadn’t stopped for lunch, and definitely didn’t drink enough water. By the time I reached this monster of a hill (which I also wasn’t aware was coming up because I hadn’t studied the route properly), there was nothing left in my legs.

This time, I was more prepared. I kept making short stops to snack, and ate a salad-laden falafel and hummus wrap about half an hour before we were due to reach the foot of the hill. When we got there, I was nervous, but fuelled. I’d told myself there was no shame in walking. I said I’d try and do as much as I could, but that I’d unclip and walk when I needed to.

Honestly, I probably would have still done this, had I been alone. The fact is, riding with Adam motivates me more, because I watch him get out the saddle and bomb up a hill like that, and I feel like I should be trying harder. I certainly didn’t do it out of the saddle, and I certainly didn’t climb at the same kind of speed, but I did it. Admittedly, by the time I reached the top I was wheezing and swearing and screaming at myself to keep going, and I hope no one heard me. At least the deed was done.

Challenge #2: Into the abyss (Wookey Hole)

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.39.29
That big bump in the middle… that be the Mendips

I knew there’d be a big descent into Wookey Hole waiting for me at the other end, but I don’t think anything could have quite prepared me for the full scale of it.

Think long, sharp, gravelly, blind corners, narrow, oncoming vehicles… It’s basically the stuff my nightmares are made of. It was just never-ending, whenever I rounded a sharp bend, there was another ‘horizon’ ahead with unknown territory beyond. It’s no exaggeration when I say that when I finally reached the bottom, my fingers had cramped into the shape they make when braking, and took a few minutes to go back to normal. That’s how much I was braking!

Lesson Learned #1: Get the right fit

I think I need new handlebars. I have mine tilted back ever so slightly, because my small hands struggle to reach the brake levers from the hoods. However, in this position, I can’t brake while in the drops without curving my wrists upwards, which will only result in injury. With my current set up I can only use the hoods or the drops – not both. I think it’s time to find a more suitable option.

Challenge #3: A missed opportunity

While in Glastonbury, we plotted our route home via the Strawberry Line. We found a beautiful route through Godney and Wedmore, which took us through empty roads surrounded by open fields. We’d decided to take a flatter route via Theale, which meant turning off towards Panborough:

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 12.46.03

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 12.45.47
This looks nice and relatively flat. I’m sure it would have been.

Unfortunately due to lack of signage and forgetting to check Google Maps more regularly, we missed our turning. At this point it was getting quite late, and we were determined to get home before we lost the light, so rather than turn back on ourselves, we decided to take the next turning and rejoin the main route we’d planned:

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 12.46.30

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 12.46.20
This… not so much.

As you can see, this involved going straight over a hill, that we’d originally meant to skirt around. At this point, I wasn’t feeling well. I’d been drinking water all day but still managed to develop a bit of dehydration, I had a headache coming along, I felt a bit sick from the food we’d just eaten (which I couldn’t even finish), and I’d already settled into a ‘the worst is over with’ mindset. To suddenly be faced with a short but practically vertical climb, I was extremely flustered.

Lesson Learned #2: A blessing and a curse

A few metres from the top of that climb, I was done. I genuinely had nothing left in my legs – it was the first encounter with Harptree Hill all over again, but this time I was practically climbing vertically when I came to this conclusion.

I needed to stop pedalling and put a foot down, but I was clipped in. Instantly the panic set in, because I knew that I was stuck. I needed to keep pedalling to stay upright, and I needed time to unclip to stop pedalling. Neither seemed to be an option.

I don’t think I’ve ever panicked so much while on the bike. I was literally screaming at Adam that I needed to stop, and he didn’t know how to help me. I was vaguely aware of him trying to reach out, perhaps to hold my saddle and somehow help me that way, but I was too panicked and screamed at him to stop.

While my SPDs posed a major problem with this climb, I relied on them to get to safety. The only way I made it through those last couple of metres was to pull-up instead of push-down. I somehow found my final energy reserves in my hip flexors, and I hauled myself to a spot which was flat enough for me to quickly unclip. I then proceeded to conclude my panic attack with some tears, before walking up the rest of the hill and feeling defeated.

Challenge #4: What goes up must come down

Yes… We’d incorporated an unexpected climb, which meant the inevitable descent, and my nerves were beyond frayed at this point. I have to give credit to Adam here, he was so patient with me while I was a blubbering mess on the bike. Admittedly, he told a white lie when he approached the blind corner and told me the descent looked ‘okay’. It was horrendous. But he rode the brakes all the way down and stayed with me until we reached the bottom.

Final lessons learned

I am capable of a lot more than I let myself believe. I can climb huge hills, and when I feel like my life is hanging in the balance, I can rely on my body to muster up a few more ounces of energy to get me to safety.

I need to practise descending. I may never enjoy it, but I have to learn to trust my bike. Rather than ride my brakes all the way down, I need to brake at strategic points. I also need to learn to ride in the drops to get more braking power and less finger crampage.

Check Google Maps. For the love of all that is holy… check Google Maps before you make a wrong turn in the Mendips.

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