In 2014, the first year of the Grizedale Grizzly Adventure Cross event, our editor at the time, Simon Collis, decided to pop his 'organised group ride' cherry. Here's his account of how it went.
Call me antisocial, but I loving riding on my own. I’m not in this for the chatter. I don’t want to struggle up a hill while everyone waits for me at the top, and I don’t want to stand around getting cold while someone fiddles around endlessly with a multi-tool and a shock pump. I go to the pub to talk, and I go to the trails to ride. The fewer distractions, the better.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that I’ve never tried a big organised ride. Hundreds of people riding the same route? Sounds like a good time to hit the trails elsewhere. I’m aware that lots of people — thousands of them every weekend, in fact — would disagree. Sportives on the road keep on growing, so is there something to be gained from solidarity? From camaraderie? Once I’ve stopped shuddering from even typing those two words, I’ll put the theory to the test.
The event I’ve chosen is the Grizedale Grizzly, part of the Adventure X series that’s a kind of on- and off-road sportive designed primarily for cross bikes and hardtails. And it’s not the number of fellow riders that’s likely to cause the biggest problem — more the length of the route, which at 75km is the biggest ride I’ve ever tackled. And that’s the so-called ‘Mini Massif’. The full-blown ‘Massif’ is over 100km with more than 2,500m of ascent. There’s a fair portion on tarmac on both routes (that’s where the cross bikes come in), but it’s still likely to be a shock compared to the shorter, sharper rides I’m used to.
I seek advice from the mbr team before I set off. Bike test editor Muldoon, never short of wisdom, gives me a three-point plan that he says will ensure I “at least make it to the finish”. Eat before you’re hungry. Drink before you’re thirsty. And go at your own pace. I do all these things on a normal day in the office, so it shouldn’t be a problem to do them on the trail. I feel a surge of confidence.
As the big day approaches, my bullishness subsides. If I’m going to collapse into a quivering mess at a Lake District roadside, I’d rather not do it in front of a procession of 200 strangers. I know it’d be memorable for everyone to have a good laugh at the mbr editor’s expense — a bit like reversing into a caravan and then realising it belongs to Jeremy Clarkson — but it’s not the kind of amusement I’m looking to stimulate. Matters aren’t helped when I meet up with some mbr and Cycling Weekly staff for a last orders pint the night before the event. Our art editor, Ben, points at my pint and sniggers darkly, “Are you sure you should be drinking that?” He doesn’t need to know that I already had two with my dinner in a pub around the corner. Drink before you’re thirsty, that’s what Muldoon told me.
The morning can’t come too soon, and the bright sunshine brings with it a new sense of optimism. The car park at Cartmel Racecourse is filling up and riders are milling around, pointlessly cycling forks, glancing at each other’s bikes and occasionally stripping off. There’s more Lycra than I’m used to, but so far, so trail centre. I’m in my element.#
I line up alongside six strangers for a pre-ride briefing that’s straight to the point. “The Adventure X isn’t a race,” says Cheryl from organiser Rather Be Cycling. Cue sniggers from our group, who have clearly been talking about who’s going to be fastest.
And then we’re off. Within 100m of leaving the racecourse we’re on picturesque, gently winding country lanes. I’m no roadie, but I might be if it was more like this and less like high-speed car dodging for suicidal sociopaths. I’ve borrowed a rather beautiful Canyon carbon hardtail for the weekend (did someone say ‘all the gear, no idea?’) and it feels amazing. Straight away we’re riding at our own paces — a couple of guys have already streaked into the distance, another group are sticking together at a quick but sociable speed up ahead, and myself and a chap in an orange jacket are hanging back at the rear. No matter how slowly I go, he’s staying behind me, so I figure he’s identified me as a sensible pace-setter to guarantee reaching the finish. This is definitely not a race, but we have set off at the same time and he is clearly a similar level of fitness to me. He’s my benchmark, and I resolve to streak away from him in the last few kilometres or die trying.
The road is surprisingly pleasant but it’s not why I’m here, and soon we reach the first off-road section, the so-called ‘A taste of things to come’. Sure enough, the pattern is set, not just for the terrain we’ll encounter — amazing views, mainly dry, picturesque bridleways and some slightly loose, rocky climbs — but the way we’ll ride them. A few of us overtake each other regularly as we stop to faff with clothing or mess up a climb and push to the top, and we gradually get to know each other as we go. I’m now on nodding terms with ‘Mr Benchmark’ in the orange jacket, who I will slay before the day is out. There’s a running joke with another group about how many pints we’ve sweated out from the night before — seems some people are here for an enjoyable weekend without bringing along a sarcastic art editor to spoil all the fun. (Oi, I’m reading this too — Ben)
I’m starting to get into this. I drink before I’m thirsty, eat before I’m hungry. Off-road sections give way to tarmac just as they’re starting to get tiring; road gives way to off-road before I get too bored. There’s a real flow to the ride because we never have to stop to check a map — plentiful route arrows along the way take care of that. I don’t need to think about pacing because I’m surrounded by people who seem like similar riders to me. Though they aren’t especially technical, the climbs call on a combination of the granny ring and gritted teeth, but I’m pleased to see that some of my rivals — on both cross bikes and hardtails — are pushing up where I’m inching past on my pedals. Maybe I’m better at mile-munching than I’d thought.
One thing I learn is that I can no longer blame faffing on my riding buddies. I am capable, it seems, of the solo faff. Energy bars sink to the bottom of my pack and require endless rummaging to locate. At one point I convince myself I’ve acquired a puncture and have to stop to prod my front tyre (it’s fine). I spend 10 minutes searching for more sachets of energy drink; guess I’ve left them in the car where they’re utterly useless. Mr Benchmark disappears over the crest of a hill in front, but I know I’ll see him again before the finish.
By the time we reach the halfway feed station, I’m convinced I’m in my element. Simple mathematics dictates that if I’m feeling 95 per cent fit at halfway then I’ll still be at 90 per cent when I get to the end. I top up on energy drink, cram a few Jaffa cakes in my gob and push on. At the back of my mind, despite everything I told myself before the ride, I decide that just making it to the finish might not be enough — perhaps I should be aiming for a time I’ll be proud of, too.
The climbs seem steeper as we leave the feed station, and they’re mainly on tarmac. I know I’m pushing too hard, trying to keep in touch with riders up ahead rather than sticking to my own pace. But gradually we stretch out, and for the first time I feel totally alone. Sheep bleat at me on the way past; I bleat back. Why the hell not? Loneliness and dehydration do strange things to a man.
The climbs take us into Grizedale Forest Park and the trees close in around us. This feels more like the riding I’m used to, but surprisingly — a little bit disappointingly, to be honest — we don’t cash in our hard-won altitude by blasting down some rooty, rocky, foresty singletrack. Instead, we career down the fire road, though I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. It’s eye-wateringly fast, on loose gravel that’s just begging you to overcook the corners. I accept the invitation while chasing some flash Harry on a cross bike and skid straight on as the trail bends away to the left. Luckily no one’s behind me and no one needs to know (except 20-odd thousand readers… damn).
Feeling the Burn
Into the final third, what really strikes me is the solitude. I expected this group ride to be sociable and a bit crowded, but instead we’re strung out along the whole route, each rider barely visible to the next. Occasionally a serious-looking, surprisingly un-sweaty man streaks past me in a blur of Lycra and hollers ‘’ow do?’, but for most of the last portion of the ride it’s me on my own. My eyes barely move beyond my front wheel as tarmac and rocks roll unnervingly slowly beneath my knobbly tyre. At some point in the last hour, all thoughts of who I can ‘beat’ have drained away, replaced by a build-up of lactic acid in my thighs and an ache in my backside that feels potentially life-threatening.
Then out of nowhere, a sign tells me there’s 5km left. I’m going to make it. I’m overtaken by a chap on a hardtail, and it’s gratifying that when we try to exchange jokes it isn’t just me panting and slurring like a drunkard running for the night bus. We’re each in our own little worlds, but we’re also sharing an experience. If this wasn’t a group ride I might have stopped by now, but deep down I’m glad I haven’t. We’re sweating and suffering, but there will be smiles at the finish line. What we’re aiming for is a sense of achievement, that warm glow you can only get from knowing you’ve dug deep to complete something that could have been beyond you. It’s not a question of ‘if’ now — it’s just about when we get to the finish, and I know it’s so close I can almost taste it.
It seems the organisers won’t let us off the hook quite so easily, however. The last off-road section, ‘Final Fandago’, is only 1.6km long but ends in a steep climb that’s the very definition of a sting in the tail. The views are amazing but I’m focused on what I’m told is the final kilometre. Yet the finish line keeps itself surprisingly hidden, only appearing when I’m virtually on top of it for a final right-hander and — at last — the chance to dismount. I snatch a medal and collapse onto the grass, staring up at the sky and waiting for my thighs to stop burning.
There’s a good buzz about the place at the finish line, and I imagine we all feel much the same: we’ve pushed ourselves and had a really good day on the bike. Then I spot Mr Benchmark sitting next to the food van chatting with friends. He’s drunk most of a cup of tea. He’s obviously been here for ages. I feel like I’ve been had.
The big group ride wasn’t entirely what I’d expected. It was more solitary than I thought it’d be, though the direction arrows and feed stations mean you get the peace of a solo ride without the risks inherent in setting off into the unknown. And the fact that you know you’re in a group, even if you can’t always see them around you, means you inevitably make your stops shorter, your climbs and descents faster, and you can’t countenance not completing the route. It was a brilliant challenge, and I felt real pride at the finish. I’m definitely up for another go — and next time I’ll do it faster.
Top tips for Adventure X
We asked Gav from Rather Be Cycling for some tips on nailing a long-distance, off-road/on-road group ride.
- It pays for mtb riders to think about their bike, and especially their tyres. A hardtail will be more efficient than a full-susser. The best tyre will take a fairly high pressure and roll well on- and off-road, but we wouldn’t recommend slicks.
- Pay special attention to your fuelling on the day — eat little and often and stay hydrated. Supplement your own food with what’s on offer at the feed stations and eat a mix of ‘real’ as well as sports-specific nutrition.
- The Mini Massif (shorter) option gives a great ride, so try that first. The experience you gain, along with some endurance training, will serve you well when you step up to the full-on Massif routes.
- Look after your points of contact. Adventure X is really a secret roadie plot to convert mtb riders — make your butt comfortable by using good quality Lycra and chamois cream. Keep your feet and hands comfortable and protected using quality kit that fits.
- Don’t miss the Lakeland Monster Miles (Keswick, October 16). This is the Daddy of Adventure X events, and the long, steep climbs and technical nature of the route make it an equally tough challenge for mtb’ers and cross riders.
- Consider building up a Monster Crosser — a 29er with drop bars, rigid forks and 40-45c tyres. That really would be the perfect Adventure X bike.