Episode 1 – The Fabulous Mennock (Pass)
I’ve been looking back at my internet browsing history. No! Not to find those sort of sites… But to try to work out exactly when this crazy plan first entered my head – it might have been mid-August. Anyway, bottom line is that I was idly browsing the BBC News web site one morning at work, as one does, when I clicked on a link to a random Scottish story. Turned out it was reporting on something going on in the Dumfries and Galloway area (probably involving a cat – everything on the internet involves cats). Whatever the story, it obviously was instantly forgettable (and I LIKE cats) because what caught my eye was that one of the Related Internet Links below it mentioned “bike” or “cycle” (or maybe both), so naturally I clicked on that… It revealed that Lowther Hill Ski Club – who are based in Wanlockhead and Leadhills – were organising a Cycle Sportive to raise funds for a “snow groomer” (you might want to be careful Googling that). “Ski-ing? In the south of Scotland? You’re having a laugh,” I thought. But apparently the area has a rich heritage in Scottish ski-ing and curling. Considering that Wanlockhead and Leadhills are 430m above sea level (or 1531ft according to the road signs as you enter the former) I suppose you can see why.
Enough about ski-ing – back to cycling. I read on. The Snowball Sportive, as it was called, would have “lots of fast downhills, the legendary Mennock Pass, and a mountain top finish at Scotland’s highest road”. R-i-i-ght… A few clicks later and I’d found out that “The Big Wan” (as the 100mile route was named) featured the Devil’s Beef Tub, Talla and Dalveen ascents, and finished with a 15.2km ride – with 611m of climbing – all the way up the Mennock Pass and past the usually-locked gates onto the private road to Scotland’s highest piece of tarmac – making it the 3rd tallest climb in the UK. In summary “there are 6 major climbs on the course, including 3 of the toughest in Scotland, let alone just the Southern Uplands.” Was I interested? You bet I was… And then I saw the clincher – it was taking place on Sunday October 4th: one week after the Etape Royale. “As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University” (ref. Blackadder Goes Forth) I had hatched a cunning plan…
A quick geography lesson. Leadhills and Wanlockhead are a short 5-6 miles drive from the Abington junction on the A74(M), the main Glasgow-Carlisle route between Scotland and England. It was, quite literally, on my way home from the Etape Royale. All I had to do was stay an extra few days with my parents in Aberdeen and ride this en route back to Oxfordshire. Oh – and explain to my wife my intention to leave her in Didcot with only two cats and our 17-year old for company for a week more than she was anticipating… In fact, our 17-year old would be 18 years old by the time I returned, so I was in the dog-house already anyway. She didn’t say “No, absolutely not”, so I took that as a green light.
Joking aside, though, I was taking this seriously. This would be alien territory to me, with no family/friends to bale me out if I got in to difficulties, so I was going to wait until after I’d (hopefully) completed the Etape Royale before taking the decision to enter The Big Wan (shorter routes were also available, but didn’t interest me. In for a penny, in for a pound… Actually, nearer £40 in the end to be honest). If the legs felt OK; and if there were still places available; and if I could get accommodation for the previous night; and if the weather forecast was OK – this would be the ultimate end to my late summer holiday. There were 200 places up for grabs, so I was nervously visiting the Entry Central web site in the weeks and days beforehand as I monitored the sign-up numbers creep past 25. Then up to 62. Getting a place wasn’t going to be a problem.
Monday 28th September, decision day: my legs felt good. Project Accommodation started. I knew there was a Welcome Break motorway services motel at Abington. It was also bloody expensive. The event web site listed 2 options for local inns/hotels, and my second phone call – to the Hopetoun Arms in Leadhills – found me a room. The Met Office web pages and mobile device Apps only forecast 5 days ahead, but Monday-Friday were looking good, so I was prepared to give Sunday the benefit of the doubt. Back to the Entry Central web site. I was in…
Leaving Aberdeen just after lunch on the day before the event gave me enough time to drive the almost 200 miles to Leadhills, where I continued through to Wanlockhead to check out the location of the pub where registration would take place in the morning and also the starting point at the bottom of the Radar Road. Once checked in at the hotel, that left me with the evening free to watch Scotland get thumped by South Africa in the Rugby World Cup, carb load with a very good lasagne in the hotel restaurant, and finally watch Australia beat England, before retiring to bed. No diesel generators or snorers in neighbouring rooms here, and a most restful night’s sleep ensued.
And so to Sunday’s ride… It was overcast and still as something like 50 riders assembled at the foot of the Radar Road in the early-morning chill for the start of the 100 mile ride, going off in 3 waves a couple of minutes apart. With the advice of Alan, our starter (a cheery bloke with a bushy goatee beard and a bright orange pom-pom hat), that the first 20kms were basically all downhill and that we ought to keep in our group until the road started to go up again at Greenhillstairs ringing in our ears I set off in the second wave of 20 riders. 12 miles or so in as we rode alongside the motorway, and with the first wave of 20 riders in our sights up ahead, a bloke pulled up alongside me and said “You’ll be Ron, then?” I didn’t know him from Adam. He introduced himself as Paul Davison, and told me he had ridden with DPCC in the late 90s (anybody remember him?). He’d seen my DPCC affiliation in the rider numbers list, and with “Didcot Phoenix” emblazoned across my arse (I was wearing my “old” style bibs) and back (“old” style jersey too) and down my thighs I suppose I was relatively easy to spot… The two of us must have spent the next 10 miles or so idly chatting, until we turned on to the Edinburgh road for the ascent of the Devil’s Beef Tub (where DO they get these names from?). I learned afterwards that this climb is fairly unique in the UK in that it is a constant gradient all the way up, and certainly the slope of the sections I could see as it snaked its way round the hillside did look remarkably consistent.
Reaching the most northerly point of the route at Tweedsmuir we turned east to ride past first the Talla and then the Megget reservoirs. At one point here I was chatting to a bloke whose bike not only sported full mudguards, like mine, but also had a rack on the back! And he knew where Didcot was. Turned out he had come up from Oxford and had used this event as an excuse to visit some family in Scotland for a few days. Running alongside the banks of two artificial bodies of water you’d expect the roads here to be pretty flat, and they were. However, between Talla and Megget there’s a significant elevation difference. Unfortunately for us, the engineers who designed the dams also saw fit to design the “Wall of Talla” segment between them. 20% – what more can I say? Climbing that put a bit of a shine on my larger sprockets… Regrouping at the top we were now a bunch of about 10 riders.
We’re now at our most easterly point and turning south along the banks of St Mary’s Loch which, after a couple of miles of gentle climbing, took us to place known locally as Grey Mare’s Tails. We were now rewarded with a glorious 12 miles high speed swoop down to Moffat. We had to stop for a set of traffic signals at Craigburn where (get this…) you have to push a button to trigger them – like a pedestrian crossing. That must be interesting for cars? Although the stop was brief, it was long enough for a number of us to indulge in a spot of alfresco peeing (I think that’s the technical term de rigeur…).
Reaching Moffat, the group consensus was for a stop at the feeding station. This didn’t go altogether smoothly… The folk manning the station had set it up next to the War Memorial, which upset some of the Royal British Legion people there – and, let’s be honest, justifiably so. After all there were several signs up asking for the fence and immediate surrounding area to be kept clear. We all moved our bikes away – and I’d like to hope that the marshals moved the refreshments table a few yards down the road after we’d gone. On the bright (literally) side, the cloud cover broke up around this point and for the next couple of hours we cycled along in pleasantly warm sunshine… Leaving Moffat on the same section of road to Edinburgh that had taken us up the Devil’s Beef Tub almost 50 miles back, we now had a long steady 4 mile uphill drag as we retraced our route parallel to the motorway past Greenhillstairs and Beattock Summit. Crossing over and under the motorway another couple of times saw us arrive back at Elvanfoot and the start of a final 30 mile loop to the finish.
By this stage the group was down to about half a dozen riders. The first 20 of these miles were basically flat or downhill, although the last 3 of them were made a bit more interesting as a road closure (for resurfacing, by the looks of it) diverted us off the main (and wide and smooth) A76 and on to a narrow single track lane. This spat us back on to the main road a quarter of a mile or so from its junction with the western end of the B797. Strava OFFICIAL 100Climbs aficionados will, of course, instantly recognise this as No 63 Mennock Pass – and this was the road we were about to take. Today Mennock Pass was stunningly scenic. Even with 90+ miles in my legs it was still stunningly scenic. It’s not a hard climb, as such. I only recall one ramp where extra effort was required. It just threads its way up the valley for the next 6½ miles, the gradient increasing from ~2-3% to ~5-6%, until the segment ends just as you exit the far end of Wanlockhead.
But The Big Wan didn’t end there. Oh no… This was what made today’s ride special. Today we had the opportunity to take a right at what had been our starting position 99 miles ago and ride up the normally closed-to-the-public (motor vehicles at least) Radar Road to the “Snowball”/”Golf Ball”/”Big Round Thing” at the top, which is – as you’ve probably guessed – a radar! Not sure if it’s military, civilian, or even meteorological, but in any case it rendered RF timing chips pretty much redundant, meaning that lower-tech bike frame and helmet sticky labels and an iPad App powered by human digits constituted today’s official timing! So, back to Mennock Pass, because you see I’d done my homework and had noted that if I turned up the Radar Road at this point I’d fall short of the end of No 63, which actually carried on for another couple of hundred yards to the top of the rise to end just before a cattle grid. (Remember when I wrote above that Alan told us the first 20km were basically downhill? Well he lied. The first 200 or so meters were definitely in the opposite – i.e. “not downhill” – direction, to the top of this rise…). So as the marshals stepped in to the main road to wave me enthusiastically off and up towards the radar, I had to weave straight ahead through them, while trying to explain that I knew what I was doing and would be back in a minute…
NOW it’s time to tell you about the Radar Road. It’s, what, 2.5 miles long. And from the cattle grid at the bottom, at the normally-locked gate, you can look up and see the snowball/golf ball/big round thing. And remembering you’ve 99 hard miles in your legs you can’t help but think to yourself “For the love of the wee man! You’re expecting me to get up THERE!?” To which the answer is “Yes”. Like I said, it’s barely 2.5 miles in distance, but it climbs almost 1000ft at an average of 7%. Lower down it goes up in a series of relatively long and straight ramps, in the region of 7-10%, with some shallower slopes in between and after which there is a section of respite where it even goes slightly downhill for a bit. But even so, you quickly lose sight of exactly where the road is up ahead, so you really are going in to it blind. All I could see was the constant presence of that bloody great round thing way up above me, and looking down at my cycle computer I couldn’t believe how interminably slowly even the tenths of a mile digits were ticking over. My 631-framed bike may be a wee bit heavier than your lightweight carbon fibre jobbies, but it is equipped with a 30×25 bottom gear, so even though I was probably going slower than walking pace at least I was able to keep my legs pedalling at a comfortably high cadence.
Credit where it’s due to the organisers here, there was plenty of encouragement for you as you went. A number of portable PA speakers had been placed along the roadside blasting out thumping 80s and 90s tunes; and there were a number of high-viz signs: “Every mountain is climbed one step at a time”, “Almost there…” were two that I remember. There were more, but my vision and memory were getting disturbingly blurred the closer I got to the top. I’d like to think it was the altitude, but let’s be honest – it was exhaustion! But I DO definitely remember the one that mocked “You’re not even half way there yet”… That was cruel.
For the last half mile or so, though, the road really starts to kick up, with some sections approaching 15-20% and the only relief coming by taking a wide arc round the switchbacks. It was now only sheer bloody-mindedness that was keeping me going – I was determined to ride all the way to the top. Finally, with The Big Round Thing now very much just up ahead, I rode over a final cattle grid, where the road levelled out and a “Riders Dismount Here” sign gave me the only excuse I needed to put my feet on the ground and collapse over my handlebars. Finished! But I still had the presence of mind to dig my phone out of my pocket and Stop, Finish and (most importantly) Save my Strava recording. Then put on my showerproof jacket to act as a wind barrier to prevent me getting cold – I was definitely going to need this for the way back down. But first over to the feeding station.
The sausages being cooked over a camping stove didn’t look that appetising to me, but I gratefully helped myself to a Mars bar and ladled several spoons of sugar more than I would normally take into my piping hot cup of tea. Feeling more human again I could now take a few photos to adorn my Strava Activity Feed for this ride before descending back down to Wanlockhead and my car.
And thus my late-summer Scottish cycling expedition came to an end (with the weather being so exceptionally good, I’m not going to label it the technically more correct “early-autumn”). After getting showered and changed in the Community Centre it was now time for time for me to hit the road south. My car has automatic transmission and cruise control, which undoubtedly made the 300+ mile drive back to Didcot much more relaxing than it might have been.
Incredibly, within just a few hours the first “draft” times were posted online, and it looks like I finished with the 7th best time of 5h 41min (although I was showing as 8th on the list the last time I looked the top, unfeasibly low, time is obviously an error in the merging of data sets from the various timing iPads…).
Once again, an enormous “Chapeau” to all the Lowther Hills people, and the locals. An absolutely cracking event, and all put together in the space of about 7 weeks. Hope your fund-raising hits your target quickly – you thoroughly deserve it…
For an alternative write-up on the Snowball Sportive by a rider from Ayr, see:
To finish off, just a little aside which may interest Simon McG… These Lowther Hill people also organise the 3 Pistes Cycle Sportive, another 100+ mile event. It’s best if I just quote their words: “It passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. The route is an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the Cairngorm plateau, so on your left there’s the highest mountain range in Britain to gawp at. As well as one of the most remote bike rides, it’s among the most glorious.”
They add: “The course, which features eight eye-wateringly tough categorised climbs, heads north from Pitlochry towards Glenshee, taking in Braemar, The Lecht, Tomintoul, Nethy Bridge to Cairngorm.”
Or, to put it into MY words, you could do OFFICIAL 100 Climbs No 65 (Cairnwell), 66 (The Lecht) and then 67 (Cairngorm) in order in a single ride on one day. Anybody up for it in 2016…(I was)?