Organisers’ Report – 2015 Skylark Sportive

Monday 13 April – 15.00 – We’ve just got back from collecting in the 200 plus route markers spread over 100km of roads and lanes around the South Pennines and, with them, probably 500 cable ties. We’ll be sifting through that lot in the next few days trying to recycle as many ties as possible and then putting everything into storage.

We think it’s really important to bring back event markers, so if anyone manages to find one of our markers (they all say Skylark on them), we’re offering a £10 bounty on each one. We don’t fancy your chances!

Traveling along the deserted lanes, a gentle Spring sunshine filtering through the clouds and an equally gentle breeze ruffling the bud-laden branches of the trees, it was hard to imagine that just 24 hours before the scene had been very different, with a gusting gale lashing across the moors and, eventually, bringing with it a torrential downpour that turned roads into rivers.

The first Skylark Sportive, last year, was blessed with brilliant sunshine, but a strong, cold wind really notched up the difficulty of a ride that has long stretches of exposed roads along the edges and, at times, across the tops of high moorland.

But the 2015 edition took things to a whole new level. We don’t actually think the winds were much stronger, but many riders mentioned that they seemed more gusty this time. It was also overcast for much of the day, with a threatening blackness gathering in the clouds as they scudded in from the West, adding a sense of foreboding that was eventually justified. When the storm finally broke, mid afternoon, the winds seemed to drop a little, but the rain that replaced them more than made up for it.

Of course, being cyclists, almost everyone, ourselves included, knew what was coming thanks to a pretty accurate weather forecast. They got the timing of the wind’s arrival spot on, but mercifully the rain was perhaps two hours behind schedule.

When we set up the course on Saturday, we encountered temperatures ranging from four degrees, on top of Holme Moss, to the mid-teens in mid-afternoon Ripponden. Hail, sleet and warm sunshine rotated about each other. It was breezy too, but it would have been a fine day for a long bike ride.

So, with a tricky weather forecast in mind, we sent out an email to all riders reminding them of the need to bring suitable clothing and also re-assuring them that the 50km and 75km routes were great short-cuts back to event HQ if they found the conditions too trying.

We did a final drive round of the entire course at 4.30am on the day of the event, with a steady breeze blowing and occasional drizzle wetting the windscreen as the first lightening of the skies heralded the new day.

Riders began to assemble at 7am and we were soon signing them on and reminding them again of the clothing needed to handle the weather and of the “short cuts” back to the start. Everyone seemed in pretty good spirits, though a few of the less experienced riders did look a little apprehensive.

Mindful of the weather, we got riders moving as soon as possible and, with a significant percentage opting not to turn up at all (we don’t blame you a bit – hopefully we’ll see you next time!), we were able to get almost everyone on the road inside the first hour.

It’s at this point as an organiser that things are well and truly out of your hands. You hope that everyone stays safe. You hope that all the route markers survive the weather and any potential vandalism. And you hope that everyone has done their bike maintenance. And then you wait for the phone to ring!

By 10am the wind was really strengthening. We also had our first mechanical issues, with a rider requiring her jockey wheels sorting at the start, another snapping his chain on the first climb and a third losing a seat bolt and with it his saddle. All three were attended to and sent on their way.

With the weather worsening all the time, we took the same decision as we had in 2014 and advised riders not to attempt to reach the summit of Holme Moss. The feed station staff at the foot of the climb were briefed to speak to all riders and fill them in on the decision. We also put out an extra sign at Holme village, the last shelter before the exposed top half of the climb, advising riders to take the short cut back to event HQ.

Our course design also reflected our experiences in 2014 in that we moved the shorter routes so that they shared significant portions of the early kilometres of the 100km route. This meant that tired and cold riders could decide as late as 25km into their route to ride the 50km option and at 70km to ride the 75km option. Cyclists are a tough bunch, but they also tend to know their own limits and when given the option to cut short their rides, many wisely chose to do so.

Indeed the majority of 100k riders opted for the 75km route and of those who stuck to the full 100km route only around a dozen took the decision to attempt to ride up Holme Moss. Of them several turned back when they encountered the stronger winds on the upper slopes, but a brave handful did successfully make the summit. Someone joked that more people had probably reached the summit of Everest than ridden Holme Moss during Sunday and they may well have been right.

So, with many of the 75km riders also opting to go down to the 50km distance, we began to receive a lot of riders back at event HQ well ahead of schedule. Simon, Kelly and Carole, our catering and bar staff back at the gold club soon had the pie and peas production line up and running.

With rain falling we were able to sweep the course up to the double feed at Baitings dam well ahead of schedule. One rider had simply run out of energy on Cragg Vale and had to be “rescued” from the Robin Hood pub half way up the climb. Another crashed and damaged his bike on the descent into Slaithwaite and also had to be ferried back to the start. We were with both riders inside 20 minutes and they were fine once they were able to warm up and get changed back at the event HQ.

We then swept the final 25km of the course and found just 8 riders left on the roads, all within a few kilometres of the finish and all going well. We offered a couple a lift, but they declined and we simply kept an eye on these “stragglers” until they were all back safe and sound.

In the golf club, the air was humid, the smell of pie and peas was almost overpowering and, amazingly, everyone seemed to have a grin on their faces. Cold riders thawed visibly with the injection of hot food and the banter began to flow as they swapped stories and shared experiences. Many were of the opinion that it was the hardest cycle ride they’d ever done.

Ironically, the fittest and fastest seemed to have dodged the rain and were safely back before the deluge. So, many of the wettest riders were the less experienced. They had endured a lot, but most will look back on a day when their cycling horizons were stretched a little and perhaps they learnt something new about their abilities. As organisers, we could only look on with admiration at the depths of determination and spirit displayed on a day truly not intended for outdoor activity.

From our point of view, the feedback from participants was largely very positive. Only a very few riders got lost, generally letting themselves go on the downhill after the Scammonden reservoir road and missing the right turn towards Slaithwaite in their understandable glee at having a tailwind to enjoy.

The changes to the route were generally welcomed, though the brutish Dyson Lane, which we introduced at about 20km, was not especially popular. It’s a horrible little climb with a liberal sprinkling of potholes to add to the steepness. We had intended to take riders across the newly refurbished Baitings bridge, but it wasn’t expected to be ready and so we had to do a last minute re-route. Typically, the bridge actually opened a couple of days before the event, but by then were committed to Dyson Lane. Hopefully it’ll not be necessary to re-visit it next year.

A small number of riders retired mid event, including the two we picked up, and a couple of locals who found the temptation of their warm, dry homes too much to bear. But by 4pm everyone was accounted for and safely back home or at the event HQ. At that point we could relax. Job done!

We’d love to hear your stories about the event and your personal experiences. Either email them to us at skylarksportive@hotmail.com or share them with us on Facebook. We’d also appreciate any support you might want to give us on the cyclosport.org website, where riders are invited to rate events.

In conclusion, we’d like to thank the small but incredibly hard-working band of volunteers who helped make the day go smoothly, including Kati, Sinead, Helen, Lone, Olivia, Julie, Chris and Wane’s mum and dad. “Kudos” too, to Rick who did a great job mending broken bikes and recovering riders and Simon, Kelly and Carole who looked after everyone so well at Marsden Golf Club. And above all else, our thanks go to the incredible, inspirational riders who come along and tackle everything that the Skylark Sportive and the forces of nature can throw at them and charm and humble us with their kind words at the finish. See you next year, hopefully.

Phil & Wane

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