Ten Minutes Of Hell

This was a special report by ‘Spanner’ Murphy on the 2012 Ten Minutes Of Hell cycling event – an incredible Mersey Tunnel time trial. We also had a feature on the event in Issue 2 of the magazine.

Male and female national time trial champions, Commonwealth games medal winners, world record endurance holders and young guns from the home nations, were all lured to the banks of the Mersey last weekend, where they joined score upon score of adventurers and cycling mercenaries in an heroic attempt to win one of the most unique challenges in the cycling world.

Vita Cycles, a dynamic cycle company based on Merseyside had had the audacity to approach Merseytravel with an outlandish suggestion: a cycle race time trial, through the Queensway tunnel under the river Mersey. Incredibly the travel giant agreed. Sponsors came forward to offer support, generous prizes were offered and the tunnel police threw themselves behind the project.

The object of the challenge was simple enough. From a standing start at the entrance ramp of the Queensway tunnel on the Birkenhead side, riders would propel themselves as fast as possible down into ‘Hell’ towards Liverpool. The geography of the tunnel means there is a long incline to a flat middle section 170 feet below the level of the Mersey, then the inexorable long, exhausting climb to the summit on the other bank at Liverpool. The riders, lungs bursting from lack of oxygen and with the relentless cadence filling their thighs and calves with burning lactic acid, would decelerate sharply at the Liverpool exit and turn back towards their starting point at Birkenhead,to repeat this madness. Amusingly the organisers had christened this event the ‘Ten minutes of Hell’. This was the presumed fastest time a rider would take to travel the distance: it was underground and it was going to hurt. How long a rider could survive in ‘Hell’ was a different matter: any normal human’s metabolic system would find it impossible to cope with the incredible demand this ordeal would inflict.

To say that this event was ambitious slightly detracts from the magnitude of organisation, logistical complexity and sheer bloody determination on the part of the organisers to close down the longest road tunnel under water in Britain and attract the country’s top time trial contenders. It was, however, to be a flawless event and they were able to maintain a clockwork precision, ensuring all riders set off to the second on their appointment with Fate.

And so the day began; glorious sunny weather with a sharp bite in the wind welcomed thehundreds of spectators at Liverpool and Birkenhead. They had come to worship and marvel as the speed kings of the cycling world launched themselves at unbelievable velocity through the ‘Tunnel of Pain,’all desperately attempting to conquer the ‘Ten minutes of Hell’ barrier.

Time after time, one after another, the speed demons, sacrificing personal safety and utilising every ounce of energy, threw themselves at the ten minute barrier, but they were repulsed and broken by a seemingly impossible target.Suddenly and without warning a young rider, James Coleman, broke through: a time, incredibly, of 9 minutes and 35 seconds was posted, the ten minute barrier was smashed and the accompanying roar from the huge crowd raised the spirits and broke the sound barrier. Still the ten minute barrier proved too tough to beat for the majority of the riders and though many came close, few could better it. Roy Sumner, the popular Wirral rider and national veteran road racing champion, could only achieve 10.03.The field was thinning now. The best of the women had posted times of 11.32, then Rebecca Slack incredibly had blasted out a time of 10.31. Surely no female could outdo that. Up stepped Julia Shaw, born on Merseyside but now resident in Hampshire. Unbelievably she smashed the ten minute barrier by a whisker to log 9.59 dead.

The women’s champion was decided, now all attention turned to the last few remaining men. James Radcliff had already posted 9.13 when one of the last of the big guns, Andy Wilkinson, arrived at the start. A lot of optimism was riding on Andy, the world record holder at distance and endurance, but this vicious sprint was too much and he dipped to finish in 9.16. The cheer that surrounded the lithe youthful figure garbed in green heralded the arrival of Ryan Mullen, Planet X’s prodigious Irish rising sprint star. Determined and deep in the zone, the starting marshals pointed him at his target and at the beep the gun was fired and the Irish rocket was off. The joy of his supporters was apparent when he emerged from hell and tore over the finish line exactly 9minutes and 12 seconds later to take the lead. The crowd roared their appreciation.

Only one man remained, one man who could change the destiny of the victor’s laurel. Dowsett, Team Sky speed king and national time cycling champion arrived at the start line, and a hush descended over the excited crowd. Could this son of Hermes do it? Photographers clamoured for the best position, all hoping to catch ‘the shot’ of the missile exploding from his battery. He perched on his carbon fibre machine, held in place by the start marshals and balanced on exquisite racing wheels whose super thin rims barely kissed the tarmac with a millimetre or two of rubber. The clock ticked down, his head, sheathed in an ultra modern silver racing helmet , was bowed in silent benediction, no-one breathed, not a bird sang, A youngster broke the silence and shouted encouragement, “Good luck Alex”. He slowly raised his head and gave an almost imperceptible nod. Three… two… one…GO!…The place erupted as Dowsett exploded out of his inertia and his bike sprang forward as he began his attempt to claim his place in history. On he raced into the gaping chasm of the Mersey Tunnel.

This enormous tunnel, burrowed beneath the mighty river, is still a monument of engineering skill; its massive gaping 44 foot wide mouth dwarfed the brave rider as he disappeared into the gloom on his journey to ‘Hell.’ Minutes passed and far above in the turbulent waters of the river Mersey, silent gliding salmon, perhaps stalked by the occasional hunting grey Atlantic seal, knew nothing of the drama unfolding 170 feet below.

His chest felt on fire when he heard the roar of the Liverpool supporters at the approach to the half way turn The subtle relentless climb was turning his legs to jelly, but the cheers of the crowd rose when they caught a glimpse of him as he first emerged into the bright sunlight, and with a shake of his head he tried to block the pain. He caught a glimpse of the time: 4.04. A tumultuous burst of applause, but surely he was too fast, he had consumed too much energy. He turned the bike, the relief momentary as he slowed; then again the pain came as he pushed down hard on the pedals, driving the bike forward. Momentum increased, he sped down the hill away from normality, away from human contact, onward on his quest for speed and glory, alone, accompanied only by the roaring wave of noise created by the racing wheels reverberating and rolling after him, sounding like a Roman charioteer charging into battle.

He sensed a change in the light far ahead around the bend: this was it, surely the end to his torment was in sight. With blood pounding in his ears and every muscle screaming in agony, Dowsett pushed on. The crowd knew he was near – a photographer’s flash far inside the tunnel heralded his arrival – and seconds later he literally shot out of the darkness like a bat out of Hell. The crowd erupted, willing him on, and like a tomahawk missile he blasted up the ramp from the tunnel and over the line in a blur.At times reaching 48 miles per hour Dowsett had covered the distance of 6.5 kilometres in an unbelievable, incredible time of 8 minutes and 28 seconds.

The awards ceremony was held (very generous prizes, including a £3.500 TAG watch were awarded) and the crowd slowly drifted away. A brilliant event and Merseytravel , the tunnel police and in particular Vita cycles and their sponsors deserve great credit. Dowsett, now in a tracksuit, buffered up against the cold overcast evening, was looking fragile as he made his way through the stragglers, carrying the bike, wheels and other essentials vital to a champion’s preparation. “Any chance of an autograph mister?” asked the same boy who had shouted encouragement. He stopped, and for a second the sun broke through the clouds and flashed on his noble brow, as a smile broke across his wearied but still handsome features. “What’s your name kid? Are you a cyclist?” he asked as he stooped, unloading his baggage, took the proffered pen and scrap of paper and wrote a note that would inspire a child.

There are still heroes out there but like Orpheus they sometimes have to go to Hell and back before we can recognise them.

All photos by Paul Markey