The only encouraging thing about Pen-y-ghent is that you can pretty much see the summit from the bottom, so you know how far you have to go and that once you’ve made the turn, it is downhill, more or less, to the finish. The opening section is deceptively easy: of all the peaks, this is the most rideable, a broad track mutating into a stony path. This makes it also the easiest descent, and it is where mere mortals are passed by the gods on their way back down.
On cue, Rob Jebb comes flying by, practically airborne and looking unfeasibly fresh. I try to stay on the bike as long as I can, but make a mistake and fall for a final time. It’s more a clumsy dismount than a tumble, but I twist an ankle as I go over. Just disentangling myself from the bike and getting back up seems to take ages. My mind is so clouded I only dimly perceive how tired I am. In fact, I am in a state of fatigue-narcosis – and like a helpless old drunk lying in the gutter, I actually giggle as Chris Young twiddles past. He knew to use a smaller gear for this climb, and he had paced himself better than me all day; so now I can only watch him disappear up the mountain as I trudge wearily, dehydrated and running on empty.
Running back down, I have to tell myself consciously to concentrate: mistakes always come when you are tired. My thumb is throbbing, my ankle hurts, there are muscles in my legs I didn’t even know I had which are now threatening industrial action. I just want to get off that last hill. I remount and try to pick my way through the outcrops on the rough upper section of the path. Better descenders shoot past me. The temptation to relax my grip on the cross-top levers and follow them is powerful. But even if I had the skills and courage, it’s a vain thought – because that’s when I flat.
Cursing, I pull over and swap a new tube in. With a gas canister, I lose maybe three minutes, though it feels much longer with riders passing all the time. I set off again. Another minute down the slope, the rear goes soft again. So much for my Michelin Jets. This time, a spectator tells me there’s someone with spare wheels 150 metres further down. Rather than try to mend another puncture, I carry and run. Five hundred metres later, with no spare wheel in sight, I have to change strategy and start working the mini-pump. I feel as though I’ve lost half an hour with this messing about; in reality, it is perhaps another eight to ten minutes. But without high pressure in my rear, and down to my last tube, I have to complete the descent almost as slowly as I went up it.
On the road back to Helwith, I’m overhauled by a big lad in a Sigma Sport skinsuit. It’s all I can do to suck his wheel to the finish. Four falls, two minor injuries, two punctures, 54th overall in 3:44:38 – I’m just glad to get there. Even after the hardest road race, or the longest day in the saddle for a cyclosportive, you eat something, have a drink and soon feel better. This is different: I have never felt so totally spent as after the Peaks. For a week afterwards, my whole body feels as though I had climbed up Pen-y-ghent on my hands and knees and then rolled down it.
The Peaks is a humbling experience. If you think you know where your limits are, the Peaks administers some brutal re-education. I can understand the desire to go back again and again: to trim minutes with better training and race strategy, the right choice of tyres and gears, more support, careful pacing, more experience and local knowledge… that’s the desire to master the Peaks. I’m not sure I have it.