Frozen Hell of the North
One year ago, the Drummond Trophy was a veritable test of endurance; a hard wind, and constant rain made for a miserable event. This year, the weather leading up to race day had been positively decent with lots of sunshine and unseasonably high temperatures. However, all that was to change…
I would swear that the weatherman had said that the rain would hold off, and that the Drummond Trophy Road Race would be generally dry (though possibly on damp roads). It was raining when I headed off from the Race HQ over to the local Sainsbury’s car park where the race briefing was being held. Most of the riders stood in the light rain, shivering slightly, while one group was huddled under a large trailer-cum-portacabin that was sitting nearby trying to stay out of the rain. I briefly chatted with my teammates, Craig Adams and Andy Auld.
With race briefing over, we set off onto the course – seven laps of the 20.5km course, on rolling terrain, with just one reasonably sharp, but short climb to tackle on each lap.
With plenty of standing water, there was ample spray being kicked up, mixing with the light rain, ensuring that we were soaked pretty early on into the 145km race. I’d taken the precaution of wearing my long sleeve top with arm warmers and a merino wool base layer underneath. My gilet had been an afterthought, but I was glad I’d grabbed it at the last moment. Garmin was saying that the temperature was already just 3°C, so I was keen to get moving and try to warm up.
Within the first half of the first lap, my brand new waterproof gloves were drenched inside, and the icy water felt like a cold, steel vice on my hands when I went onto the drops. This was going to be a tough day.
A few attacks went in, but nothing too serious. I was more concerned about riding tight in the bunch as the water was playing havoc with my brakes again, and all the spray made visibility awkward – no way I was taking my glasses off though – I’ve learned from past experience that I’d rather have all the spray hitting my lenses rather than hitting my eyeballs!
We headed south from Strathaven down to Drumclog where the road was reasonably wide and the surface OK. The rolling terrain was not challenging, and nor was the pace.
Left at Drumclog onto the B745, and we were on a glorified farm track. The surface was reasonably smooth, but there was plenty of mud strewn around, and the road was a good bit narrower as the full bunch of around eighty riders headed eastwards towards the only real climb of the day.
A sharp left, over the wee bridge over the Glengavel Water, then a sharp right (where I crashed in the Anderside Classic 2015) before we hit the climb up to the B743.
I was bracing myself as I had expected the push up the climb to be vicious. Either my training over the winter had been good, or (more likely) the bunch wasn’t quite in aggressive race mode. That’s not to say the climb was slow; it wasn’t, but it wasn’t the leg-ripping blast I expected.
We passed the feed point where Martin Lonie was standing on the left on bottle duties (he’d kindly offered to take one of my bottles to hand out earlier on).
The peloton pressed on. As we turned left onto the B743, I was conscious of making sure I kept pace – in previous races at this junction, I’d been lax in maintaining position, only to find the bunch accelerate hard on a false flat immediately round the junction. Anyone not paying attention either has to dig deep or get dropped!
The acceleration was there, but it wasn’t harsh.
The bunch, pretty much all together, pressed on back northwards towards Strathaven as the cold rain continued to fall. My wet hands were going numb, and I wondered if I’d be any better with the gloves off…
Over the finish line, and briefly into Strathaven, we completed the first lap and took the hairpin turn back onto the A71 – the marshals were doing a splendid job of keeping us safe at that junction in particular.
About halfway down the A71, Craig moved forward up the bunch and I followed. He made some hand signals, but I’m afraid I had no idea what he was signalling. My momentum carried me past, and I found myself progressing to the front. I decided that the pace was not so high, I might as well put in a dig and attack the group. If nothing else, it might help to warm me up a bit.
Off the front, and head down, I increased my pace and started to get a bit of a gap. Some riders followed, and I was surprised to see some of the big hitters come across. We formed a group of ten escapees in total, including (I think – there may be some wrong ‘uns in this list!) Steve Lampier (JLT Condor), Alex Luhrs (Brother NRG Driverplan), William Brown (Brother NRG Driverplan), Ralf Hodgson (MTS-Rapid Engineering NE), Callum Sharp (Pedal Power RT), Steven Lawley (Metaltek Kuota Racing Team), Alastair McNicol (Dooleys), and Henry Johnson (MTS-Rapid Engineering NE). Pretty quickly, we got to work and the pace line had formed. I was instantly worried that the like of Steven and Co., would put the pace so high, that I’d just get spat out, but it didn’t happen. Steve Lampier was particularly good at getting the group organised, and we started to smoothly pull away from the bunch.
Our pace was strong but perfectly manageable as we reached Drumclog. We rounded the junction and our gap to the bunch had increased significantly. By the time we took the sharp left/right bends before the climb, the bunch were barely in sight – I remembered thinking that we must have over thirty seconds on them already, as we hit the climb, but kept the pace steady.
Minor disaster struck on the climb as I had changed to the biggest cog at the rear whilst still on the big dog at the front. The chain decided to try and slip off the outer ring, but the front derailleur wouldn’t allow it to engage on the inner ring, resulting in constant slipping, and, more significantly, no power – I slowed down dramatically as I tried to sort it out.
In any other race, I’d have been left to my own devices, but I felt a strong push of a hand on my butt to keep my momentum going as I sorted the gearing problem – it had been Steve. He recognised that keeping all ten of us together kept the group stronger, so he helped me out as I got the chain settled and got the power back down – what a gent!
Past Martin (with a big grin on my part), and we rounded the junction onto the B743 for the return leg towards Strathaven.
Photograph by Peter Collins.
Shortly afterwards, the Commissaire’s convoy was reorganised, and I realised our gap must now be very healthy – NEG came alongside and confirmed – we had over 1 minute 20 on the bunch. It was early in the race, but I was delighted with the way it was going – I was still feeling fine, albeit cold, I was in a very strong break, and it sounded like the bunch was not up for a fight…
As we progressed down the B743, my hands had become so cold, they felt like I was wearing boxing gloves. Holding the handlebars was hard enough. Braking took a serious amount of concentration and effort. It then dawned on me – how am I going to drink from my bidon? I already realised that the gels and banana in my pockets would likely stay where they were – absolutely no chance would my hands enable me to get them out of my pockets, but I hadn’t considered hydration until now.
A few times, on straight sections of road, I tentatively reached down to the bottle on the down tube. I could wrap my hand around it, loosely, but my fingers lacked the strength to grip the bottle tightly enough to actually pull it out. I then considered that, even if I did manage to pull it out, I’d probably just drop it straight away. This was grim. A 145km bike ride with absolutely nothing to eat or drink – a harsher test of endurance than I had expected…
As we crossed the finish line to start the third lap, my hands were the worst I had ever experienced. I was so glad for the eTap groupset on my team bike. Despite the shifters being simple buttons, it was all I could do to try and press them to change gear – I had to look to see what my clubbed-hands were doing as I certainly couldn’t feel the shifters.
I was now having to corner the bike very gingerly. The lack of feel and grip in my hands made every turn somewhat precarious, and it also meant losing far more speed in the turns than my compatriots, and I had to work harder and harder to stay in contact.
Around the junction, back onto the A71, and our group seemed to have a small flurry of mini-attacks. I couldn’t understand what was going on – as far as I was concerned, it was far too early to break our group apart…
A couple of miles later, we were back together as one unit, and continued to work once again. I was now feeling a little hungry and I knew I had to try to get some fluids in me, but, once again, my hand simply wouldn’t work, and I had to resign myself to carrying around one kilo of useless carbohydrate sports drink for the full distance.
We turned onto the B745 and pushed on towards the left/right turns at the wee bridge. On the left turn, I felt the bike slip a little, so I slowed a bit more for the right turn. Unfortunately, I was at the front of our group, and someone was not happy with me slowing down so much into the turn. I’d scrubbed quite a bit of speed, and I was feeling the effects of lack of fuel. Into the climb, the group started to go past me, and I ended on a line that went right over a patch of slimy mud. Thankfully, my front wheel held its line, but the back slithered and slipped through the sludge, and I lost a bit of pace. By this point, my glycogen must have been used up, and I found that I simply couldn’t put down enough power to stay in contact with the group anymore. Scott Johnston and Martin shouted encouragement as I passed them at the feeding area, but there was nothing I could do to coax the legs into action. I was on my own.
It was a strange feeling, getting into time trial mode as I eased my pace back up along the B743. It felt as though I had been chewed up and spat out by the bunch, yet here I was, sitting tenth at this point in the race. This wouldn’t last long on my own, and I could see me being swept up and dropped by the bunch as the come haring up from behind. I was determined to stay away from them as long as I could.
Up ahead, I could see two other riders from the break that had clearly blown. I was slowly catching them, and now I had a goal. Get back to these two, and see if we could work together to survive this frozen hell a bit longer. I slowly reeled them in. One rider had blown big time and was struggling even at my solo pace. He sat in while the second rider (Brother NRG Driverplan, but I’m not sure who) and I took turns on the front. The wind was not especially strong, but was coming slightly from the right, but the Brother NRG rider kept on riding over to the left. I shouted a few times for him to move over to give better shelter, but my face was so cold that my mouth wasn’t really working very well! Eventually, he understood.
Photograph by Peter Collins.
About 3km from the finish, there is a fast short descent onto a green bridge over Avon Water. The bridge is, in effect, a chicane (thankfully covered with shell-grip, so plenty of traction). With my hands barely working, all the fun of these types of bends was cruelly stolen from me. Worse than that, the exit from the bridge is onto another short climb back up. Having to slow down more than I’d like, also meant having to work harder on the climb up the other side…
Up the climb and down to the finish, I realised that both of my compatriots had slipped off the back, and I was on my own again.
I crossed the finish line and started the fourth lap. Not even middle-distance, and I was frozen, hungry, thirsty, tired, and on my own. The joys of road racing in Scotland! So long as my legs would turn the cranks, the only thing to do was to carry on. I decided to see if I could stay away from the chasing bunch for a full lap…
Head down, with nobody in sight, I continued down the A71 once again. The lumps seemed to be getting bigger, and my pace was definitely getting lower. Down to Drumclog, over the Glengavel Water, and back up the climb.
As I reached the feed area, Martin could see I was in trouble, and was graciously offering me a gel as I approached – I’d have done anything for that gel. In hindsight, maybe I should have stopped to take it, somehow, but I didn’t. A shouted that my hands were not working as I rode past, gel-less.
Down the B743 and across the finish line to start the fifth lap – somehow, I had managed to stay away from the bunch, but they were well in sight. I rounded the hairpin junction onto the A71 and I estimated that I had about 20 seconds up on them. I’d achieved my goal of staying away for the lap, so now was the time to ease up and rejoin the group. This didn’t take long.
I was thankful for the company, though I hoped their pace wouldn’t just throw me by the wayside. The group that caught me was pretty small – maybe twenty riders. I commented to Rob Friel (ProVision Clothing) and he told me that this was it. The cold had taken its toll on the race, and most riders had jacked it in. Rob encouraged me to stick in – you never know what will happen and it might be worthwhile going the distance.
I chatted briefly to Sean Gordon (East Kilbride Road Club). He was looking comfortable. As if to confirm this, Sean and Rob soon decided to attack our group and head off down the road. I had nothing to contribute, so I tacitly wished them well as I just hung with the rest of the group.
The next few laps were a bit of a blur. When your body is suffering, the only escape is in your mind, so I rode on automatic, trying to ignore the pain in my legs and hands. One or two riders drifted off the front. Some were ‘softly’ chased down, others managed to get away. By this point I just wanted to finish the race.
By the close of the last lap, our group had dwindled to about eight riders: Stephen Collins (Pedal Power RT), Joe Reilly (Spokes Racing Team), Henry Johnson (MTS-Rapid Engineering NE), Jordan Doig (Wheelbase Altura MGD), Danny Grieves (GS Metro), Mark Robertson (Army Cycling Race Team), Neil Scott (Deeside Thistle). We mostly worked together to bring it home. I was trying to work out how many riders were up ahead, and whether there’d be an opportunity of any points at the finish.
We cleared the B745 climb for the last time (and not a moment too soon – the last ascent was a significant effort, with my legs screaming at me!), and we rounded the junction onto the B743. Stephen gently rode away, and nobody seemed to care. Before anyone realised, he had established a good gap, and was gone.
As the final kilometres closed in, I decided I should do what I could to beat as many guys as possible – a big ask given my state. Together, we took the descent over the bridge at Avon Water, and I was first round and into the short climb. I was conscious of pacing this sensibly, as my legs were close to giving in, and I knew that the climb turns into a surprisingly long drag. Into the last km, and I was sitting at the front. This, I didn’t mind as I wasn’t driving the pace. With a very slight drop to the finish, I decided to accelerate as hard as I could with about three hundred meters to go. It was horrible.
With about half as much power as I’d normally put down in a sprint finish, three riders came past; Joe, Henry, and Jordan. Thankfully, they didn’t come past so fast that I should hang my head in shame – it was still reasonably tight.
Finally, over the line for the last time, I continued on back to race HQ.
It’s fair to say that I don’t think I’d ever been quite that cold for quite that long. The average temperature during the race was a balmy 2°C. Even after running my hands under a hot tap for a few minutes (ouch – that really hurt), I didn’t have the strength to pull the zip on my gilet – I ended up having to pull it over my head, instead. Getting changed out of my wet cycling kit and into dry clothes was a slow, painful process, and I’m sure it took a good hour to get any sense of warmth.
The saving grace of the day was that I had managed to finish 18th – not bad, and three handy points to add to my early season tally. Then the organisers kindly pointed out that only 21 riders actually finished – cool, so I was fourth last!
The heroes of the day, in order of finishing were 1st: Steve Lampier (JLT Condor), 2nd: Sean Gordon (East Kilbride RC), and 3rd: Alex Luhrs (Brother NRG Driverplan).
It was a genuine pleasure to be in the break with Steve – what a gent he is. For me, however, the impressive ride was Sean’s. Despite missing the break, he bided his time, bridged across, and took an outstanding second place. Race performances like that do not come easily.
As for me – my hands are almost back to normal!
Next up: Dick Londragon Road Race – a new one on me…