I tentatively open my sticky, bleary eyes. My head has a dull ache, accompanied by little stabs of sharper pain. Wearily, I open the tailgate of the van and swing tired legs around to sit on the edge while I make a coffee. I feel like I've just ridden 100 miles.
Unfortunately, this is just the hangover. The morning after the night before. The morning before the day and night after. I did exactly the same at last years #jennride. This time, I vowed not to get lured in by the ever expanding beer menu at the Hawkshead Brewery in Staveley. I failed.
Coffee consumed, I lay out my kit. New waterproof shorts... an offering to the weather gods, Morvelo sweary socks (obvs) and a battered old Morvelo cap. Not mine, but hers. Jenn would have loved this event. We rode so many of the trails on the route. She'd have liked the sense of fun... the freedom for people to follow a route if they choose, to cut it short if they wanted, to do something a little longer and harder if they felt like it as well. Having fun on bikes for a little bit longer than a normal day ride.
I wheel my bike out of the van. It feels light, and is unencumbered by luggage, save for a couple of food pouches near the bar. Most people are splitting the 100 mile route into two, camping out somewhere on the route. I plan to do as I did last year, and keep riding through to the finish... not because this is about being fast, or 'winning', but because I want to ride into the night, want to feel tired, want to step outside of my comfort zone again. I've not been riding enough recently... actually, I've been riding plenty, but they've been short bites. Every ride has been fun and I wouldn't have swapped a single one; I need more though. I need to remind myself that I can go further if I try. I need to feel fit again. I feel soft, my legs feel skinnier than normal, my head feels weaker than normal.
The official start time was 9:30, although a few rolled out earlier to get a head start and make the most of the daylight. I sat in More Bakery, ordered another coffee and almond croissant and looked out over Staveley Mill Yard as the heavens opened. Fat rain. Fatter rain. Hail. Hmm. Thanks for nothing, weather gods. It actually brightened as 9:30 rolled around. I casually pushed away, behind some, before others who were still fiddling with luggage straps and layers and GPS devices. Climbing up to the Green Quarter, I slowly rolled past individuals and groups, my singlespeed necessitating a pace a little higher than I might otherwise had chosen. My head thumped with each heartbeat, a steady 'whuuump, whuuump' replaced by a quicker 'whump, whump, whump, whump'. 29+ tyres make a bit of a racket on tarmac, rhythmically echoing my cadence. I think there was a point where heart and wheels were beat-matched. God isn't a DJ, she's a mountain biker. It didn't last long as my cadence got lower and my heart rate raced.
By the time I climbed out of Long Sleddale, past the aptly named Tom's Howe, I was alone. As the day stretched out, I would pass the odd group of early starters, or folk who had taken a shortcut in the name of continued enjoyment. I was enjoying the solitude. Last year, I rode with Rob and Stu... friends who I met because of bikepacking and whose company have made many long rides more pleasurable. Where last year chatter, stories and laughter filled the gaps between climbs, this year, I had my thoughts for company. They ebbed and flowed with the terrain. There was never silence, but there was calm.
Cranking up the last, short tarmac rise to Jenkin Crag, I was already thinking about what foodie delights I would find in Ambleside. On the top of a pedal stroke, fighting the resistance of pedal, crank, chain, tyre, road, gravity I heard a loud ping. In the split second following I processed the familiar, if rare, sound and decided it sounded like a snapped chain. As I came to my deduction, my knee impacted the stem and the bike came to an awkward halt. Fucking fuck. I knew I should have replaced the chain when I fitted a new singlespeed sprocket yesterday. At least I'd brought a few spare links worth with me. It was an inner plate that had shattered and a quick link would have left me with a frustrating walk/freewheel to the bike shop. After a surprisingly efficient bit of mechanic-ing, I rolled on, promising myself that I'd be a little more sympathetic to the chain for the rest of the ride. Less gurning, more spinning.
Ignoring the bemused looks outside the Rambleside Tesco, I shoved a chicken caesar wrap in my mouth, downed a Coke and cracked on, keen to get away from the crowds. Unfortunately, the following sections of trail are always busy. Rydal and Loughrigg are understandably popular with those looking to spend an hour or two outside... even more so when the weather is threatening and the high tops are in cloud. With lots of 'excuse me', 'hello', 'would you mind if I squeeze past?' I broke free of the crowds and into Langdale. After another quick sandwich stop in Chapel Stile, I found a rhythm, enjoying the contrast of rolling tarmac then technical, awkward singletrack.
Langdale gave way to Little Langdale, Tilberthwaite, Hodge Close and Arnside. Classic low level Lakeland riding – engaging, fun and cutting through beautiful woodland with the occasional glimpse of bigger hills. It is tough going on a singlespeed. The trails undulate and climb at a gradient that is just about rideable, but with 40 miles in the legs I could feel myself riding harder than I'd like to given I wasn't yet halfway. Fortunately Hawkshead came at just the right time. I was clearly a little tired as I forgot about the pie shop and headed straight to the Coop. Wandering the aisles, struggling to make up my mind what I wanted, I settled on an unconventional meal of sausage rolls, wrapped in kraft cheese slices and finished off with peanut M+Ms.
The climb out of Hawkshead towards Grizedale is tough, and was made worse by a tummy busy digesting food. Left over M+Ms rattled in my feedbag, and I was reduced to walking early on. Fortunately it didn't take long to reach the red mountain bike trail and the flowing singletrack left me rejuvenated. Parkamoor was as beautiful as always, as were the singletrack trails that carried me to Claife Heights. The sun dipped low in the sky as I completed the wonderfully pointless and demoralising loop of Claife, returning to the trail I had left an hour ago, just 200 metres further down.
My spin back to Ambleside was accompanied by the sound of a rumbling tummy, but I had little appetite. This time last year, we stopped at the chippy, ate lots and readied ourselves for the final push. This time, I once again called into Tesco, bought enough food to feed three and ate enough to feed a small child. The nausea of tiredness left my unable to finish a pasta salad, so I shoved my other culinary delights in to my pack along with a can of Red Bull.
Lights on now, as I span along the road towards Bowness before peeling off and taking the sublime singletrack climb towards Town End. Tucked between drystone walls the darkness was heavy. It sat on my shoulders and pushed me into the ground. I tried not to think about finishing. Even though the distance remaining was ticking down, there were still hills to come.
There was still a hint of light at the bottom of Garburn Pass. Now back in the open, there were no trees to cast their shadow, and I looked out at slithers of sunset shining through brooding clouds. Garburn is a slog when fresh. I was now reduced to walking long parts of it, my lights catching sheep's eyes in the darkness. The descent wasn't much better. Tired arms and mind led to stupid line choices and delayed reactions. I walked until the gradient mellowed slightly.
Reaching Kentmere was psychologically tough. It would have been so easy to roll down the tarmac, so close to home. The route, however, zig-zags back up in the Green Quarter. The gradient was mellow, but my legs had weakened to the point that it was quicker to push large chunks of the rutted track upwards. Occasionally, I'd remount only to have to dismount once more a few metres down the track. Rain hit, reflecting in the beam of my lights, quickly drenching me. Were I not so close to home, I'd have stopped and pulled on another layer, but the trail now tipped down. Twisting singletrack gave way to wider track, and finally tarmac.
There was no grand finale to the ride. Just quiet streets, signing my name back in, and avoiding the drunk, fighting men in the yard. Returning to my van, I wiped away the worst of the mud, peeled off wet layers and climbed in the back. Lying flat on my back and staring into darkness, I waited for sleep to come. It wasn't a long wait.
The #jennride was organised by Rich Munro. It raised over £10,000 for St Gemma's Hospice and Macmillan. Thanks to him for arranging the event.