Now, where were we? Ah yes… two stages down, and enjoying some feed station refuelling…
Halfway-ish around, and we were feeling good. The weather was still baking hot, so we gulped water and topped up bottles again before heading back out. The next section was a short loop in the forest. Starting on more fireroad, we ducked down a snaking piece of singletrack, which quickly became the lesser frequented no-track. Were it not for the occasional piece of tape, we’d have sworn we were off course. Tussocks and bog meant that parts were completely unrideable and knowing how close we were to more gravel added to the frustration. Fortunately the bushwhacking was short lived and we were spat out back on to the forest road and onwards to Stage 3. It wasn’t our favourite piece of the route, but at least I had the entertainment of James’s swearing to distract me.
Pausing to shovel a couple of sweets in my mouth and swig some water, I took a couple of deep breaths, clipped in one foot, and pushed off over the timing mat. It took a little more effort to get up to speed now than earlier. While I was perfectly happy spinning along at a steady pace, the old legs were beginning to complain a little bit when I tried to push the pace. I needn’t have worried too much. As soon as I was rolling, the course dived off to the left and back into tussocky no-track. Seeing as I was against the clock, I kept riding, line hunting, thrutching and track standing, trying to maintain some momentum. The inevitable happened as my front wheel dropped into a boggy dip, and I had a beautiful slow-mo over the bars. Plenty of time to contemplate my fate and pick a landing spot as I majestically took flight. Fortunately my landing was as soft as the ground that the front wheel dropped into. I span round, grabbed the bike and continued on foot. I could see the track a hundred metres away or so. A quick remount was performed once back on hard ground, and the tortuous process of regaining speed began again. As I pushed hard on the pedals, driving into the gentle uphill, I could feel muscles begin to complain more vocally. Small twinges of cramp tickled the edges, threatening to materialise. It felt easier to just keep pedalling though. Cresting a rise, I hit a crossroads in the trail. Fortunately an arrow was zip-tied to a post. Unfortunately the strong winds had blown it until it was pointing into the ground. Hmm. I stood at the junction contemplating which of the three options in front of me looked most likely. As I wondered (and hoped that someone who had had the foresight to download the GPS track would arrive), a rider appeared on the trail directly ahead of me. It wasn’t that way then. Then a pair appeared to my right, doubling back. Via some Sherlock Holmes like deduction, we set off on the remaining option, completing a final long climb to the timing mat. We all rode with slightly less urgency than before – some of the riders had wasted 10 minutes having taken the wrong option. To make matters worse, the timing mat at the end wasn’t working. We found out later that a passer-by had switched it off. One of those things, but frustrating for racers and organisers when others seem intent on ruining our fun.
The following kilometres are blurred in my memory – forest roads, more back lanes and twisting tarmac, a hike-a-bike climb through dense woodland. Both James and my legs were feeling pretty empty when we crested a gravel climb to find the final feed station. All of the food and drink were consumed (including more whisky, natch) in readiness for the final stage and a mere 20km to the end. It was disappointing to find out that the timing company had struggled with access to that part of the route though, so there would be no last hurrah. After, oh, 30 seconds of disappointment our tired legs breathed a sigh of relief as we realised that all we had left to do was a gentle roll back to the start. Maybe we should celebrate with just a little more whisky?
This being the North York Moors, there were a couple of stings in the tail, but we were mostly trending downhill the whole way back. High-speed freewheeling down the kind of tracks that gravel bikes were designed for, popping little jumps off lumps and bumps, whooping around wide and loose corners, we had the sense of elation that comes from knowing that you are close enough to be done to simply enjoy the process and savour those last few miles.
And that was the Aggregate 100. Back at base, we tucked into enormo-portions of chilli dogs and shared stories with fellow competitors. There were tales of torn mechs, many, many punctures; smiles, sparkling eyes and battered bodies.
The whole loop was superb and one that I’ll look forward to riding again next year, and it can only get better, once a couple of the 1st year teething problems have been resolved.