Buoyed by my successful circumnavigation of the island a few weeks ago, I decided to bite the bullet and finally enter the famous End2End mountain bike race, only to find that entries had closed weeks ago. But as luck (fortitude?) would have it, we were just passing Bikestyle in Douglas on the same evening as riders were signing on for tomorrow’s event, and after a bit of queueing I’d snagged a spare spot … among the top 100 riders. Ouch. Looks like it was going to be a day of being relentlessly overtaken. Back home I fished the Camelbak out from the bottom of the bike cupboard and started the fruitless hunt for a spare 26” tube – nothing like being prepared, is there? At least I had a puncture repair kit and some luminous isotonic concoctions to see me through the day.
An early start on race day, two large cups of coffee and half a pound of porridge, and we were off to the Point of Ayre in the very north of the island for a 09:30 start. Riders numbered 1 – 100 were segregated in their own little pen ahead of a much larger crowd of impossibly fit looking athletes, and would start 5 minutes ahead of the pack. I took my place at the back of the professionals and just two minutes later we were off, heading west along a sandy beach which immediately made me glad I’d treated my chain to a wet lube the night before. At least nobody heard the cursing – they were long gone and the next group hadn’t been released yet.
The first part of the course was fairly flat and boring until we reached Ballaugh and climbed a rough fire road into our first plantation. Soon the gradient became too much and all about me riders were dismounting in order to push their bikes uphill rather than wasting energy struggling with the rough shale and occasional boulders. Only the occasional eBike whizzed past preceded by shouts of ‘On your right’ and a quiet whirring. I’m not sure why they had to share the same course as us human-powered entrants. Even if they’d only go as far as St. John’s, and even if they were all polite and courteous, there’s something slightly annoying about being overtaken by a battery-powered vehicle whose rider probably isn’t working as hard as everybody else. Why not stretch the rules altogether and allow motorcycles? At least that’s what I thought, jealously, on more than one occasion, missing my DR-Z.
Not having ridden in a cycle race before I made a conscious effort to conserve energy and resist pushing too hard, reminding myself that I’d entered this event in the hope of finishing, with everything else being a bonus. Consequently I tried to keep my heart rate in the low aerobic zone (2) on flat sections and not exceed the high aerobic zone (3) on climbs, but with the best will in the world I occasionally crept into the threshold zone (4) now and then, backing off immediately and telling myself that I’d reel in some of those that streamed past me later on.
Something else that became painfully obvious as the day wore on was that my bike is starting to show its age, and that I need to practice not just my riding technique but also my cycle craft in general. I’d started out with my tyres pumped up to 45 PSI to prevent pinch punctures on the many sharp rocks, something I thought would be necessary since they’re also fairly narrow with deep tread – great for speed and boggy ground, but utterly treacherous on rocky descents. After the first 20 km I couldn’t take it any more and had to lower the pressure by about 30 percent. My suspension was set up to deal with jumps and technical sections so all the small bumps and vibrations were being sent to my wrists instead of getting soaked up in the tyres. The improvement was immediate, but I knew that punctures were more likely now, especially since I’m still running 26” wheels and apparently that makes me something of a rarity.
Other areas where I wished for a more modern setup were the technical sections, especially downhill. Again the small wheels proved to be tricky over roots and steps, but the real danger was my lack of dropper post. Most half-serious racers have a control to instantly lower their seat-post at the touch of a button without taking their hands off the bars, so when a sudden steep downhill section looms they don’t have to stop and lower their seat-posts manually. I didn’t stop to lower my seat-post at all, and nearly ended up being catapulted over the handlebars into the gaping geography on more than one occasion.
Finally, although this was my first ever formal event, it has to be said that the Manx mountain bike scene has got some pretty scary sections by anyone’s standards. Today we saw everything from fast singletrack, technical trials-like climbs, pebbles, sand, mud, wet grass, boardwalks, and the occasional blissfully soft plantation path. All served up along with stunning scenery, friendly volunteer marshals, and great support at regular intervals.
Oh yes, those tyres. Somewhere near The Sloc I noticed that the back end had become soft and imprecise, and sure enough I’d picked up a flat. Thinking that it was probably a pinch, that it’d take several instant patches, and that I was quite near the finishing line in Port Erin I decided to throw some air in and press on, figuring that one or two more inflation breaks would see me home. Unfortunately I underestimated just how much more distance we’d have to cover, and by the time we’d taken in Fleshwick and Milner’s Tower I must have stopped a dozen times, not to mention endured a few butt-clenching cliff-related moments. I rode the last 3 or 4 km on the rim and finished in the low 200s, just over 5 hours and 20 minutes after setting off from the other end of the island.