It’s the start of a long race but you’re straight into the red. Your heart feels like it’s about to escape your chest and you are trying to keep your face straight in an effort to mask the pain building in your legs and back. Riders around you are having a natter but you know you could only string together a few words before you would nearly suffocate.
This is the start of the Manx 100. We have 100 miles and 16,000ft of climbing ahead of us and we’re racing as if it’s a short course XC race. This year the UK National Marathon Champs was being raced over the same course as the Manx 100, at the same time, creating chaos as no-one could decipher who was in which race, so everyone just nailed the start.
Even at this early stage of the race, it was already more successful for me than last year’s race where I had snapped my chain in the neutral zone. I now just needed to negotiate the next ten hours, riding over some of the toughest terrain the UK has to offer, without breaking me or the bike.
After the red mist had cleared and the pace had settled down, it became apparent who the leaders were in the 100km race as they started to pull away and it became a bit clearer who were the challengers for the 100 mile race. As expected, Keith Forsyth was setting the early fast pace, closely followed by Rich Rothwell. If I was going to win this race, these were the guys I would have to beat.
After the first big climb up to Slieau Lhean, the race had started to splinter and I reached the summit with Keith about 20m ahead. A manageable gap at this early stage of the race, however I knew I would be disadvantaged by the fact I was riding a hardtail over a highly technical and rocky course. By the time we hit the bottom of the descent, the gap was much wider. There is only 5 miles of flat on this race, with the race profile looking like a roller coaster. I would therefore have to push hard on all the climbs to make up the time I lost on the descents.
I managed to catch Keith over the next few miles and we rode together over the next twenty to thirty miles, never too far from each other, both trying to figure out who had the legs to maintain this pace over 100 miles. Rich was just behind and we both knew that the pace had to remain high to keep this small gap.
After an exchange of bottles at the bag drop in Laxey, I knew from last year’s race that the next climb up to Windy Corner was one of the harder climbs of the race. The legs were already starting to feel the strain of the first third of the race but I needed to make this climb count. As the climb switched from the road on to the double track, I started to pull away from Keith. The small gap gave me confidence and I pushed a little harder, focusing on my technique, trying to be as controlled as possible with my effort.
I hit the summit and knew I had now created a reasonable gap, but I didn’t look back and just concentrated on the route ahead, which was a lumpy, grassy downhill followed by another rockfest. I continued to push hard. I knew I would pay for this effort later in the race, but sometimes you have to gamble.
Over the next few miles, I managed to stretch the gap and the real pressure of the race now started to reveal itself. The nature of the route meant it was difficult to see the distance to your opponents. There are no time checks at the checkpoints, so you had no way of knowing the spacing between riders. As fatigue starts to kick in, you constantly doubt your effort level and speed. Always looking over your shoulder becomes a distraction and you become convinced that you are only minutes away from being caught and dropped by your chasers.
The climb up from Kirk Michael was torturous and slow. It was at this point last year I had to pull out of the race due to a snapped ligament in my thumb. It felt good to get past this point with no more than a few scratches from rogue bramble bushes that populated all of the narrow single tracks.
Photo courtesy of the Manx 100 photographers
The 100km finish line soon came and as I passed through, I sensed the relief from the small group of finishers of the National Champs race as they sat recovering after their hard effort. Another 40 miles lay ahead and although the harder climbs were behind me, I knew the remainder of the race was going to be tough as fatigue sets in.
A few miles further on as I passed through St John’s, the third race of the day was about to start over the final 50km of the course. This section was the toughest of the race for me. I was starting to feel the pace, my legs were stiffening up and my head started to drop. As the leaders of the 50km race caught up to me and passed by with their fresh legs and enthusiasm, I tried to keep their wheels but couldn’t muster enough energy. This was hard to take and exacerbated the mental struggle I was having with my body. I was convinced that all the effort to create a lead would be wasted and any minute, both Keith and Rich would sail by.
I ate more food, drank more and tried to concentrate on my own race, tried to be more efficient in my riding and tried to keep focus. At this point of the race you pass through a number of plantations, with fun, technical singletrack winding its way through the trees. I should be in my element on these kinds of trails, riding on the limit with a huge smile on my face. Not today and not at this point of the race. I was definitely paying for my earlier exertions and now it was all about counting down the miles. Each mile seeming to take a little bit longer than the last. Each climb feeling steeper and longer.
As I approached the 90 mile mark, I was still in the lead but I had no idea how far ahead I was. Maybe it was because I had only ten miles to go or maybe I was getting my second wind, but at this point I started to catch and pass a number of the 50km riders who had flew by me at the start of their race. This gave me the boost that I needed and I started to feel some energy returning. I could feel my pace picking up again and at this point started to believe that I could win this one.
I stopped looking at the mileage and focused on spotting and catching the 50km riders ahead. The route was now passing through the outskirts of Douglas, so I knew the finish was close. I didn’t realise how close until I turned a corner and the final checkpoint lay in front of me. Was this it? Had I finished? Have I won? The answer to all the questions was yes!
From the finish you then have a few more miles to ride back to the TT grandstand where I was welcomed by Nigel the organiser and a small number of spectators. Last minute organisation problems had meant there was no finish line banner but that didn’t matter as Nigel had a bottle of beer and a medal waiting for every finishing rider.
Photo courtesy of Mitch
This race had been my No.1 focus on the race calendar this year, so to win it and become the new Manx National Champion was fantastic. The prize presentation on the TT podium was the icing on the cake along with receiving the new champs jersey.
Thanks to Nigel and his team for putting on a great event, which was perfectly executed. This is a tough and challenging race but is a must for all long distance racers. So get it in your diary for next year and expect a tough day out.