I’ve never done Ironman UK either in Sherbourne or now that it is virtually on my doorstep in Bolton, for some reason it just hasn’t fitted in with my plans. I’ve supported at Bolton every year bar one since it came up to Lancashire, and our little COLT Alley in Addlington is now quite an infamous part of the lumpy bike course. Confession time, I’ve never actually ridden the course before either, but after watching last year and being inspired by the efforts of the competitors I knew that Bolton would feature in my Ironman future. I want to do this race, I want to experience COLT Alley and I want to enjoy racing Ironman again. I fully intend this race to be my return to Ironman.
So when the opportunity to ride round the new course came up I jumped at the chance. There had been a lot of speculation that the organisers would reduce the 3 loop format to a 2 loop course and they confirmed that earlier this month. Thankfully though the riders still get to come through COLT Alley 3 times ( the 2 loops and the way to T2 ) so I will get the same opportunity to lose my voice again this July as always.
What started out as being just me and Gaz turned into 9 COLTs going round the course. I was up at 5.30am on Saturday and met Gaz who had cycled the 5 miles or so to Andy Fellows house. Gaz was stood in the bus stop in full lycra eating porridge when I met him. We all piled into Andys van and set off to the start point at Bamber Bridge ( jnct 29 of the M6 just off the course ). I don’t think Gaz will ever look at me in the same way again as Andy ( a geography teacher ) and I were talking about our appreciation of strata ( not strava ) and rocks. It certainly made a change from carbon, splits and nutrition. Poor Gaz.
We met up with the others, including several that had cycled down to get some extra miles into their legs and we were led out on the road by Chris ‘IronHippy’ Wild, who was looking race fit lean with only weeks to go until Ironman Lanzarote. I was nervous and excited at the same time. This would be my longest ride of the year so far, I was a lot slower than the others, I would get dropped on each and every climb ( as fat lads do ) and I had heard horror stories about the two major climbs on the course. Starting at the Northern end of the loop we would face them in reverse order to race day. The new kid on the block, Hunters Hill would be first for us at around 20 odd miles and then the infamous Sheep House Lane would come about 20 miles later. It was supposed to be a leisurely training ride but as always when you get a group of testosterone fuelled Ironman together a primal urge to beast one another kicks in and at times on the flat we were averaging 25 mph. It took a lot of effort to hang on to the back but I was determined to give no ground, concentrating on a high cadence to save my legs for the climbs to come.
Two things struck me initially about the course as we went through the villages of Brindle, Little Le Woods, Clayton Green and Buckshaw. The first being that the road surfaces were some of the worst I have ever encountered on a bike, and I’m used to riding some shocking roads around Lancashire. And secondly that it was a slow course because of all the turns and junctions, it seemed that every time you were just building up some momentum and speed you were having to brake to take a sharp turn. IronHippy and John Towse both veterans of Ironman UK remarked that they thought it was a slower course by at least 30 minutes because of this.
The forecast hadn’t been good but the weather gods were kind to us that morning, it was certainly chilly but it stayed dry. On a wet and windy day riders would be exposed to the elements quite a lot on this route, hopefully for those racing in July the weather gods will play nice again. It would have been extremely grim if it had been pissing it down, and that was the biggest surprise of the day, I was actually on my bike without having my own personal raincloud following me.
Soon enough we were at the foot of Hunters Hill, and this in my mind was the toughest part of the course. It’s a long straight climb that kicks up again as you round the corner at the top. Maybe 400m maxing out at about 17%. The kicker with this is that you’ve been gradually climbing before hand but just ever so slightly, which encourages you to put the hammer down. I guess if you are a mid packer like me and you do this on race day then when you hit the main climb it could take more out of your legs and lungs then you can afford to give up. It was an effort, the others rode away but I just sat and span my legs, I aired on the side of caution and dropped the Giant onto the granny ring and used the biggest cog ( 25 tooth ). I got to the top smiling because it didn’t seem as bad as I had been expecting, I had expected that given my lack of bike miles that I may have had to get off and walk but that was not the case. On race day with Sheep House already in your legs this one could hurt, especially the second time around. If you treat it with respect you’ll be fine. Remember I’m probably one of the worst climbers in the UK on a bike.
Thankfully we regrouped at the top and headed onwards through the lanes, a sharp, nasty little climb near Charnock Richard services woke up the legs and before we knew it we were heading into the metropolis of Addlington. I must admit that as we waited at the red lights I got goosebumps, a sharp left and we were cycling through COLT Alley. Granted it was dead at that time of the morning on a normal Saturday in March but I could sense the crowd, the cheers and the electricity as I pedalled slowly upwards towards the reservoir and the start of the bad boy of the course. Sheep House Lane is the climb that every Ironman UK finisher remembers, it is the one that hurt, it can be the make or break point for many an athlete. On race day it is like a scene from the Tour de France, those crowds can give you the extra energy to make it up the climb.
Chris Wild dropped back and paced me up the climb, I decided to properly test my legs and leave the bike in the middle ring on the 25 gear. I was working hard, next time I will try this on the Roo which has a 11-28 gearing on a compact, a range of gears which should be fine. The climb was long and tough but we managed to hold a conversation all the way up without getting breathless. The worst part is near the top when you reach the tree and take a sharp steep left. I was grinning from ear to ear when I met the others who had waited for us. It was a tough climb but in reality it wasn’t a patch on anything I’d faced before in Lanzarote or indeed at the Big Woody. Again second time round with double the miles in your legs would certainly hurt a lot more but Sheep House certainly wasn’t the stuff of nightmares.
The descent into Belmont is fast and fun but very technical and if there are strong winds you could end up going off the road if your bike skills aren’t the best. Another sharp left in the village and then a long steady climb that doesn’t feel like a climb that again saps your energy. There then follows a fast stretch heading down to the M65 before you double back uphill again and head towards where we joined the loop.
I loved riding the course, and I can’t wait to do it again and again. Hopefully in the coming months I’ll build up to doing two laps as I keep my club mates company. I had 51 miles on my cateye computer ( stopped the garmin and forgot to restart it, muppet ) and I had done that in 3.16 which was pretty good as it included 2,357 feet of climbing. So realistically I could be looking at 7hr – 7.30 for the bike leg, I had expected it to take me almost 9hrs like it had in Lanza. Bonus!!
The route can be found here and downloaded: Official IMUK Bike Route
So yeah if you are doing IMUK hits the hills on your bike, you’ll need them in your legs for race day but it isn’t the monster you were maybe expecting. Treat it with respect but don’t be scared of what lies ahead. If you are trained and ready then you’ll be successful on race day. This reccy just made me want to do this race that much more, an incentive to be fit for 2015.