Riders Delight at doing The Heb
I don't usually start stories with incredibly tenuous references to the Sugarhill Gang (and likely never again) but fortunately for you dear reader, club members David Holgate (riding for Hardie Bikes) and Alan Affleck (riding for DCC) give a far more intelligent account of their epic results in the The Heb, a gruelling race through the Outer Hebrides. Handing over to David and Alan then...
"The Heb is a two day adventure race in the Outer Hebrides for pairs and solos, travelling 120miles through 5 islands (Benbecula, North Uist and South Uist and the tidal islands of Vallay and Orasaigh). It combines on and off road cycling, trail/hill running, kayaking and navigation. Thrown into this mix is the famous fast changing Hebridean weather of sunshine, wind, rain and more wind which plays a big factor into any event there.
The race started on the Saturday morning from Shellbay campsite on Benbecula with a Le mans style 1mile run along the beach to the bikes, (some folk just ran with their cleats and helmets on) then a quick transition to get riding along the road with a tailwind and 21mph average, even on the MTB. Sitting behind a pair for a fair bit I glanced behind to see the state of affairs and spied the yellow DCC jersey of Alan making rapid progress, jumping on his wheel as he flew past. After 25miles we were on the sand for just over a mile to the beautiful & deserted tidal island of Vallay, the tide thankfully being lower than last year where it was approaching bottom bracket level. Here you leave the bike and hit 4 checkpoints running around the island for 5miles. The lead pair was already gaining time and it was obvious they were far superior to the rest of the field. I gained a fair bit of time on the run to those behind me, following the lead pair’s footsteps in the sand. This was the most northerly point we would reach (at the top of North Uist) meaning the remaining cycling for the day (and weekend!) would mostly be into the 20-25mph headwind.
After a lonely cycle where I pushed on a bit, the next stage was a short kayak and arriving at the transition alone I was advised to take a time-out until the next competitor arrived as the conditions weren't suitable for a solo kayaker on the 2 man sit on top kayaks. This was brilliant, the sun was out and I ended up with 10mins to refuel, sort out my kit and grab a quick rest. The next competitor in was Alan and this was the start of the rest of the race together for us, as we ended up working tactically and tirelessly together. We were sitting 1st and 2nd Solo and 2nd and 3rd overall in the race but I had my 10min time-out to take off my total race time at the end of the day.
After the kayak, The Heb way walking route which is more an annoying technical ride/hike a bike section, was steadily and eventually dealt with, the tarmac a welcome sight before the big Eaval hill run. The long run/trek section over the saturated and boggy ground was at the end of the day rather than the start as it was last year to tie in with the low tide to Vallay. The main goal of the day for us was to make it there, hit all 3 checkpoints, and get back to transition before the 1800 cut-off time. As it happens we made it by 5mins and only 5 people did, including someone that caught us towards the final checkpoint, running with his cycle helmet on the entire 2.5hrs. Obviously a very good hill runner, he'd be someone to watch out for on day 2.
The final cycle back to the campsite was left, fighting into the wind on tired legs but still working together to put 12mins (22mins overall for me) into the tall helmeted running man. We passed dozens of other cyclists , all struggling in the wind but no one really showing the gumption to work together, so we both just cracked on, chain-ganging, swapping over every 60 seconds. Back at campsite it was a case of sort out self, bike, kit then refuel and sleep. Not before securing tent pegs and guy ropes for the forecasted windy night ahead and following day (45mph to 50mph gusts).
On Sunday morning you break camp and vans take your kit down to the Kilbride campsite at the bottom of South Uist. Due to the weather conditions (45-50mph gusts at ground level) the race route was adjusted with the kayak stage not going ahead and the big run stage being reduced from 5 checkpoints to 3 to miss out the 2 highest peaks. However the cut-off time to be back in transition after the run was moved forward from 1430 to 1300 making it no less testing, especially given the weather conditions. The start on Sunday is staggered by 30secs to stop a mass peleton scenario forming. Last year it was done by the leader going out first but due to the results not being available from the previous day (the organiser having their hands full with the logistics of rearranging the days stages) we were out on a first come first served basis. I knew this could be crucial as although your race time gets adjusted depending on when you dib in and start the day, the cut-off isn't adjusted. So I was on the start line first with Alan behind me, braving the elements to get started quickly whilst the rest of the racers preferred the shelter of the campsite toilet block. After a mile Alan caught me and the plan from the previous day continued, taking 30secs shifts side by side and overlapping to try and keep out the wind and rain. The exposure to the sidewinds on the causeways was particularly scary and it was a fine line between being close enough to shelter but far enough away to avoid crashing into each other as the winds made it impossible to ride in a straight line.
On the run we made decent progress on the hills, despite not being able to stand at the top of the 2nd checkpoint due to the wind, and Alan's navigation kept us in the race. Up ahead the lead pair were flying and were racing along with a solo who had started as a pair the previous day but who's partner had withdrawn after the kayak stage. We were overtaken by another pair and solo but they weren't our concern as they hadn't cleared the course the previous day and had taken substantial penalties because of this. I kept expecting the tall helmeted man from the previous day to catch us at some point, but he didn't until we finished the run route and arrived back to the bikes, which suited me just fine as I knew he wasn't as strong a cyclist as the 2 of us. The only concern was the time he started in the morning. Although he'd caught us on the course he could well have started 10mins after. I thought we'd be fine especially working together into the wind.
We left him behind pretty promptly at the start of the final cycle, on mostly farm tracks and after being collected by a strong Dave Harcourt for a while we hit the beach where he took off ahead of us. The headwind was unbelievable, I've never cycled into a wind that strong and at the end of the day and weekend it was seriously hard going. I was killing myself to top out at 6mph, Alan managing 7mph when leading out, obviously going stronger and feeling a marginal benefit from the narrower CX tyres over my MTB on the sand. We were still overtaking people (most being ahead of us on the course as they hadn’t done all the run checkpoints), some of who had understandably taken to walking. A re-route off the beach through the golf course gave a brief respite, stopping in the sand dunes for a quick refuel and to get out the wind, before hitting the beach again. My back was in agony, I just needed the end to come but was still aware that we needed to keep pushing as much as we could. After a quick beach checkpoint where you run up a small hill on a tiny tidal island, the cycle was more or less over before arriving back at the campsite with a final sting in the tail. A quick as you can run up the hill at the back of the campsite then everything you've got left coming back down to the finish line on the beach, you never know every second could be crucial.
An utterly shattering race but incredible experience. Of course the real sting in the tail is that you then have to put your tent up when all you want to do is collapse somewhere warm and stuff your face (the cafe at the campsite did help with this), not be fighting a tent canvas in the wind and rain.
Onto the results. I finished 2nd with Alan 3rd. The winner had started off as a pair and finished as a solo. I didn't realise he was in the reckoning because of this but it wouldn't have made a difference as he was far superior on bike and foot and a worthy winner, completely out of our league (as were the lead pair finishing over an hour and a half ahead over the 16:16hrs I took over the 2 days). Alan finished the 10mins down on me, a fantastic effort. I wondered if he ever thought about making a break for it to get that time back?! At one point before the beach he said "If you're feeling strong just go ahead". My response, "There is no way I'm riding along that f'in beach by myself!"
The attraction of the race, is not just the wildness of the outdoors but the great camaraderie of the fellow competitors, everyone comes with an open and friendly attitude which makes the celebration at the Sunday night party all the more enjoyable as tales of woe and adventure are shared over a few beers.