As most of us are aware, the mind is a powerful thing. Ironically, just how powerful it is depends on how open minded you are. And conversely, if you are too open-minded, your view of how powerful the mind is could easily stray off into ‘Yuri Geller’ territory. In short, the mind and its power is a complicated business.
(Incidentally, my description of Yuri Geller as ‘open minded’ is by far the most polite term I could have opted for. You should take it as a euphemism.)
As anyone who has ever had a big day on the bike will tell you, a spot of mind power is essential in cycling. This is particularly true if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or are worried you might have done, or are riding with a friend who is egging you on to do so. The nearer you head towards your physical limits, the more you need your mind to back you up. But once you get the hang of it, you can play a few mind games with yourself.
I decided recently to go and have a ride up Great Dun Fell, in Cumbria in the north of England. It’s a climb that has been picked up by the cycling press in recent months and is widely held up as one of the toughest climbs in the UK; the English Mont Ventoux, no less.
Which it isn’t quite, but I get the comparison. More of that later.
First, I read all the reviews of the climb I could find. This left me with the feeling that this 7.2km long stretch of tarmac, with its average gradient of 9%, long sections at 20% and more, and vertical ascent of 632 metres was going to cause me a level of physical suffering that would leave permanent scars. Possibly physical, definitely mental.
“Well, never mind,” I thought, “It’s got to be done.” And off I went.
I parked the car at Langwathby, ten miles from the climb, so as to ride in and get the legs and lungs up to speed. And that’s when the Ventoux comparison became apparent. There I was, ten miles from the base of the climb, and on the highest point of the distant fells I could make out the radar station. Just like the observatory at the top of Ventoux, it was there.
Peering at me. Daring me.
But I was ready. I had mentally prepared myself for the toughest forty minutes of my life. If I were the type to have a ‘game face’, I’d have had it on.
After the warm up I turned off at the sign for the Christian centre, taking that to mean divine intervention is available for those who really haven’t got the legs for it, and began the climb proper.
The unusual thing about Great Dun Fell is that the last two thirds of the climb are largely closed to traffic; at the top is an air traffic control radar station to which vehicle access is restricted. Cyclists, though, are seen as less of a threat to national security. The pristine tarmac is smooth and unmarked, the sheep are belligerent and reluctant to get out of the way, and the road is, as advertised, steep and fairly unrelenting.
I headed upwards, and dug in. Sure, there were sections where I found myself bent over my bike at a 6mph crawl, but I was expecting that, so I just mentally changed the subject and kept it rolling. On the easier sections (8%, or so) I got a nice little rhythm going. The views, which opened up as the road rose, were a nice little distraction.
After around 35 minutes I hit what appeared to be the top section; a sweeping, Ventoux-esque section of steep curves up to the radar station. “False summit,” I assumed, having no way suffered what I considered ‘enough’ for this beastly climb. But no. A fellow cyclist rushed past on the way down, with a friendly “nearly there mate…”, and I was nearly there.
And then I was there. And that was that.
Had I not pushed myself hard enough? Was I even on the right road?
It was hard, but it was no Hardknott Pass, and nothing like as bad as I’d expected. It’s true that the wind often blows a gale up there (the Ventoux connection again), and I’d had still conditions with barely a breath. A headwind, at any point on the climb, would certainly have upped the ante.
So it was that, but it was also the mind games.
I had built Great Dun Fell up to such an extent in my mind, and then accepted my own challenge, so that however hard the climb was it would be easier than I expected. Which is a nice little trick to pull. It’s not a trick you can repeat twice on the same hill, though.
How will it feel to climb it next time, on the assumption that it’s not too bad? That it’s over-rated? That the pain and suffering is no more than moderate? With a headwind? I’m going to have to up my ‘mind game’ game. I might even need a ‘game face’.
Or maybe I should just let Great Dun Fell be? I’ve done it, ticked it off, no need to push my luck.
But where’s the fun in that?
Has anyone got Yuri Geller’s number?