The HONC genuinely deserves it’s “classic” status, having been inspired originally by the “Hell of the North” Paris-Roubaix bike race, which takes place on the same day in Northern France. The challenge ride starts and finishes in the picturesque town of Winchcombe and uses a combination of tarmac, “white” roads and bridleways. Now in it’s 21st year, the event has grown in popularity year on year. The first event had only 13 entrants and Mountain bikes had not then been invented. This year, for the first time in it’s history, advance entries topped 1000, and had to close a week before the day. It’s a mass start event, with riders on everything from vintage bikes to brand new full suspension MTBs, with tourers, cyclo-cross bikes and more MTBs in between.After a neutralised parade through the town with a police escort the, the ‘event proper’ starts, and although the HONC is not a race, it’s every man for himself. I done this event a few times now, and I always make a point of being as near the front as possible, and giving it all I have up the first climb to avoid bottlenecks. After the first half hour the stream of riders thins, and small groups start to form. As we headed up and over Cleeve Hill, with the early morning sun on our backs, and a brisk tailwind, I found myself in the company of a small group containing Jack from the Numplumz team, Jack was to be our saviour.
You see the thing is that the route for the HONC is not waymarked, you have to navigate, and although each rider is given a map, and a route card, I always manage to get lost somewhere. But Jack, he had a GPS device attached to his handle bars, and he had downloaded the route from the organisers website. Jack was also setting a cracking pace, probably a little bit faster than I had planned to go, but I decided to try and keep him in my sights for as long as possible. As I said, riders tend to form up into small groups, and the size of our group was about 10, most of them had twigged that Jack was the main man, and as we struggled to keep up with his relentless pace someone quipped “GPS waits for no man”.
The miles (kms) flew by, although it was hard, it was a good hard, we blasted along singletrack, hammered along the road sections, and reached the halfway food stop in no time. No rest for us though, a quick refill of my bottle, a mouthful of flapjack, a squirt of lube on my chain, and we were off again. Total stop time probably less than two minutes.
The second half of the route was very tough indeed, endless ups and downs as if we were riding against the grain of the land, and that wind, a real pace killer. I was starting to feel a bit tired by now, and having to really dig deep on the climbs. However, I wasn’t the only one, riders started to yo-yo off the back of the group, then they would crack and disappear. We were down to 5 now, and still GPS man waited for no one, nor did he ask for any help, and to rub it in he produced a bag of jelly babies and offered them to everyone in the group!
With 20kms to go I was just about cooked, I had almost run out of water, eaten the rest of my food, and could feel the first signs that cramp was not far away. I queezed one of those energy gels into my mouth in the hope that it might revive me. The only thing I had left to fall back on now was some painkillers that I had brought along in case of trouble from my dodgy shoulder. As we ploughed on up endless drags into a stiff headwind I grovelled on wheels in the gutter for what felt like forever. We were down to three now, Jack, our leader, Kurt an old road racing friend from Mycycles days, and me.
We got our cards marked at the last checkpoint. We had about 10kms left to do, some of the paths and roads started to look familiar, Winchcombe could be seen below us in the distance, we were almost home, I started to feel pretty good. The organisers gave us a treat, a super long, super fast off-road descent all the way back to the outskirts of the town. Jack sped off downhill, he was riding a full susser, and looked so comfortable, Kurt and I gave chase on our hardtails, hanging on by the skin of our teeth, vision bluured by speed and bumps. Jack waited for us at the bottom (Yay!!! GPS waits for two men), and we rode into town together congratulating each other on a great ride. All tiredness forgotten, to feel this good at the finish, first you have to suffer.
We had completed the 100kms in 4hrs 45mins, that’s a full half an hour faster than I did it last year. What a great day.