Splendid, the number three is back!

At the weekend I completed my third Tour de Ben Nevis (TdBN) and I finished third despite being the fastest rider up hill and around the revised course.

Revised course? Well Fort William well and truly epitomises the weather on the Wet coast, sorry West coast of Scotland. Rain, rain, rain. The forecast leading into the weekend was rain, rain, rain and I drove over from a relatively Saharan Aberdeenshire on Friday night, it got cloudier, windier and wetter. Usual story.

There was so much rain, in very little time, that the organisers of the event, No Fuss, had no option but to re-route the classic circumnavigation of Britain’s highest mountain to an out and back trail as the river crossing at the half-way point before the Stage 3 hike-a-bike section was pretty much impassable.

Out and back? Sounds like a time trial to me, not a multi-stage mountain bike race. I like time trials. Ooh focus has gone up a level.

Up to this point I was strangely indecisive. At the start of the year I had this down as an “A” race. With a new short travel frame carbon purchased early summer for this type of race (and the Strathpuffer 24) and having learned valuable lessons from the previous years I really wanted to put myself in the mix this time. My go-to strength is climbing and with being much fitter this year I should also be faster around the course. The chink, no dent, no gouge in the armour though is descending and that’s where the new bike would come in handy – short travel suspension.

Unfortunately though I hadn’t spent much time with the bike and still getting to know it. An end of season time trial, the prestigious Tour of the Trossachs appeared on my radar and distracted me enough to focus on one last hurrah before I put the TT bike away for the year, so I downgraded the TdBN to a “B” race and decided to use it as a test race instead as the fourth incarnation of my Stages power meter seemed to be behaving itself of late.

And then the Tour of the Trossachs TT race got cancelled. Now what to do? Answer, stop thinking, drive to Fort William, hope for rubbish weather (I love rubbish conditions) and just ride your bike – fast and hard.

And that’s pretty much what happened. The weather wasn’t that bad, but on the approach to the dreaded Stage 1 descent into Kinlochleven we were greeted with a strong headwind. At this point I was starting to catch eventual winner and endurance MTB stalwart, Keith Forsyth, having dropped most riders at the steep start, but the time trialist in me was conscious of the flappy jacket that was slowly braising me internally but more importantly slowing me down. Oh and I needed a big wee. Too many mugs of tea pre-race.

Jacket off, long call of nature and lungs fired up, I had some time to make up and try and catch Keith. And so we met again at the top of Stage 1 and being at the front of the group we didn’t have to queue. But there were walkers everywhere. On a day like this too, why?

Thankfully the dreaded Stage 1 descent seemed pretty tame. Was it the new bike or just another year of enduro type riding with the Monday Muppets mountain bikers that had improved my skills. Probably a combination of both, but I was pleased it was over and I could now concentrate on my strengths for the rest of the race.

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Stage 2 is a lofty climb that takes you to the bleak shores of Loch Elide. I could see Keith and Neil Scott up the tarmac road that climbs out of Kinlochleven towards Mamore Lodge and decided to keep my powder drier than normal for the actual timed climb. I even ignored the feedstation en route to Stage 2, this was going to be another race where no food and water would be required.

The legs were feeling good and even better as I passed Neil and then Keith on the climb. Now time to chase down the person ahead of me as I knew Keith would be coming for me, particularly with his descending skills. At this point I was expecting to see riders coming back from the dead turning point, but it was just me. And then after the turning point I got a lead out from two trail motorbikes for the rest of the race. Eh? Oh hang on, I’m in the lead! Where are all the kids and faster guys?

On the way back along Loch Elide the headwind kicked in as the rain continued to fall. With a couple of rises to come I was in dreamland. Perfect. This literally was my perfect storm and time to light the afterburners and treat this like a time trial to the finish. As the race went on I felt like I was going faster. Negative split strategy working again. I started to think that I could actually win this race, but had I gone fast enough on Stage 1?

One final stage was looming. A new stage on the West Highland Way. A fire road descent. Not technical. My eyes lit up. Having spent a week road racing down and become fairly adept at hairpin bends on Alpine roads, this was pretty much the same, just on a different bike with a less forgiving surface, but the principles were the same. So I totally gunned it. But I was too fast for the marshals and ended up going the wrong way before one of the trail bike riders caught me, told me to go back and dib my timing chip.

My heart sank. I must have lost at least two minutes and I’d put everything into this descent taking quite a few risks (I was lucky to still be upright after one tight corner) in order to give me a buffer and make up inevitably lost time on Stage 1.

The motor bike rider reassured me, don’t worry I’ll vouch for you and we will revise your Stage 3 time back at race HQ.

So after 3 hours of river riding it was off to race HQ (Ben Nevis distillery) to hand in my electronic tag to Spook, one of the No Fuss founders, who was in agreement that time needed to adjusted. So after a shower I bumped into Neil Scott who told me I was lying in third position. A bit of Garmin/Laptop/Strava/TrainingPeaks faffing and it was plain to see I had lost two minutes on Stage 3. But I was a little uneasy about this. I didn’t feel right, but then unlike last year where I forgot to dib my tag, I argued with myself that this time it wasn’t my fault and a race is a race.

So after adjusting my time I was now in first place overall and 5th fastest on Stage 3 and I was sitting pretty at the top of leaderboard. And then Stage 3 got scratched from the race as it was deemed too dangerous as mountain bikers had to weave around the walkers. Fair enough I guess, but I wondered where that left me position wise?

Still first. Phew! But now only 11 seconds separated me and Keith between Stages 1 and 2. I was starting to believe that I’d actually won as opposed to my Stages power meter which was yet another disappointing DNS.

But in this race points make prizes. You are awarded points for your position for each stage. So whilst I got max points for the whole race and being the fastest climber of Stage 2, the (now) not-so dreaded descent into Kinlochleven had me back in 39th. Keith was 7th. A little over a minute separated us, the same margin going uphill, but Keith was 3rd on Stage 2 and second for the overall race time despite me being just under 12 minutes faster.

And that’s how I got third place. And that’s why it’s called the “thinking (wo)man’s race”. Points make prizes. It’s not a time trial unfortunately.

Fair enough. But I’m chuffed. I’ve progressed from 17th to 3rd in three races. My Strava segment time for Stage 1 is vastly improved (I knocked 100 seconds of last year’s effort) and I have a new bike that justified its purchase after only one race.

Onwards and upwards in terms of strengths. Onwards and downwards when it comes to weaknesses. Overall, progress.