My DNF at the TransAtlantic Way has been weighing heavily on my mind, so a few weeks ago I decided to find a challenge with comparable distance and climbing to the section of TAW that I missed. As luck would have it, Mille Pennines had four drop out spaces available and offered around 12,000m of climbing over 1,000km – including ascents of some real buggers, like Hardknott, Wrynose and Rosedale Chimney.
My chest still hasn’t entirely recovered and my right hand suffers occasional tingling and numbness, but I figured the base fitness would still be there and this was an audax, with a central base and three distinct days of 270-350km of riding. There would be no racing, no riding through the night, just shed loads of scenery and hopefully some closure from some seriously hard-earned miles.
The event began at 11am on Friday, so I decided to catch a train up first thing and avoid having to pay for a hotel. Virgin did their absolute best to scupper this plan by telling me there were no bike spaces available unless I upgraded to the £155 train. I figured it was still cheaper than a train AND a hotel and the hour and twenty minutes between arriving in Preston and the ride starting in Bispham should be just enough time if I got a shift on.
Arriving in Bispham, I just about had time to sign in and sort myself out, so didn’t bump into (or look for) anyone that’d mentioned on Twitter or Instagram that they would be riding. Once the ride started I also accidentally found myself off the front until the first control. It’s one of the very few flat sectors and I was probably still pretty amped from racing across from the train station.
The next group wasn’t far behind and Paul Alderson introduced himself, followed by one or two others that recognised my bike or face. I always love putting a face to names I’ve seen on start lists or followed as a dot, but I’m also awful with names and find myself awkwardly scrabbling around the corners of my brain trying to work out who people are.
I forced myself to take my time at the control, instead of just jumping straight back on the bike and riding off with my pockets full of biscuits. When I did eventually set off, I’d picked up some company and ticked off a very pleasant few miles into the Lakes, chatting away and riding pretty steady.
It was absolutely sweltering and despite topping up my bottles not long ago, I was already running dry. I’ve ridden in the lakes frequently enough to know there’s not much between Ambleside and Seascale, so suggested we pull into the petrol station just before Ambleside to top up. Part of me was dreading the added weight of full bottles up Wrynose and Hardknott, but there was no getting around it and it’s probably better to be sweltering than facing the other extremes of weather you normally get in the Lakes.
We hit the lead into Wrynose and my companion started asking about how difficult the climb actually was. I explained that we weren’t on it yet and that he’d know when we got there. That it kicks and then just never really eases off, with a nasty sting in the tail.
We held pace nicely until the cattle grid at the base of Wrynose where the road kicks up. I was riding 34×34 and thought that would be plenty… it really wasn’t. I’d opted not to use a drop bag and had a lot of weight on the bike, plus my fatigue from TAW… to be honest, I probably could have made it up, but wrestling the bike, watching my companion speed off with extra gears and seeing countless people already walking made it all too easy to dismount.
I stopped midway up the climb to enjoy the view and remind myself that this weekend was all about taking it easy and enjoying the ride, not racing. Rather than jump back on the bike after enjoying the view, I wheeled the bike up and resolved to ride Hardknott instead – one outta two ain’t bad….
Hardknott was conquered with little drama – I berated myself for being soft and walking Wrynose, but I suspect the ‘rest’ of walking up (and taking in the view for a good 5 minutes) probably left me fresh for Hardknott, making it feel much easier. I’d noticed on the steeper sections that pulling up on my pedals was causing my shoes to move around quite a lot in the cleats, but figured it was nothing…
The ride into Seascale was a lonely, but uneventful affair. Despite walking, I was still amongst the front runners for the time being and there was a small group forming by the benches opposite the Co Op. Once again, I took my time over the stop, being as lazy as possible and making sure to take in the sights and sounds, instead of dashing off ahead of the first riders to leave.
When I did finally leave, I was beeped and sworn at for having the temerity to ride in the road when there was a ‘cycle path’ (shared use pavement) available for my use. It’d been such a peaceful and pleasant ride to this point that it affected me much more than it should have and my mood took a bit of a hit. I was already struggling a little with balancing my desire to go slow with my fear of falling behind, embarrassed about walking Wrynose, and absolutely sweltering. I ended up stopping a few times and had to have quite stern words with myself to stop from going in hunt of a train station.
Luckily I was soon overtaken by some SWRC lads, who I was able to tag onto the back of and get some much needed companionship and conversation. The miles started ticking down easily again and by the time we hit Winlatter, the climb felt easy and I was thoroughly enjoying riding without rushing and just enjoying the experience.
Admittedly, it didn’t last all that long and I ended up dropping the guys on the run down to the main control for the weekend. It’s a fast A road and I just sort of slipped off the front… it wasn’t intentional, promise! One final bugger of a climb and it was time for a shower, some food and an early night.
Despite the rough patch, I was amongst the earlier finishers for the first day and managed to get a good 4 hours or so, waking up at a pretty sociable 5am, with a view to getting on the road for 6.
I’m always pretty weak first thing in the morning, so I trundled along gently and got overtaken by the occasional rider (and to be fair, caught a few myself). Setting off into the Dales and North Pennines was absolutely stunning. The sky was clear, the sun was warm and the views were epic. The climbs, while never ending, were also much gentler than the Lakes and progress was steady and relatively easy.
I was, however, beginning to struggle with my shoes jumping out of my cleats. It had begun the night before and gotten steadily worse. Andy, the organiser, looked up some bike shops for me, but I would be passing through everywhere just a little too early for them to be of use. As long as I kept the pressure constant, my feet largely stayed where they should, so I decided just to get my head down and hope I saw a bike shop at some point.
Unfortunately there was nothing and we were already entering Kielder, where there would definitely be nothing for a very long time. Compared to the rest of the ride, Kielder’s pretty flat, but it’s also very exposed and the heat was pretty oppressive. I found myself praying for downhills just for the added breeze and decided to keep pushing on to Lockerbie rather than hanging around.
Heading through Newcastleton I remembered that the local Co Op had a little stand of bike bits last time I was there, so popped in on the off chance they might have some cleats… they did! SPD-SL cleats… which after much Googling turned out not to be compatible with Look. So close, yet so far!
Luckily, the climb out of Newcastleton is one of my favourites and no amount of accidentally kneeing my handlebars was going to ruin it for me. It’s a beautiful climb that starts pretty steep, but quickly eases off and then teases you with about 5 or 6 false summits. Once you’ve reached the top, you quickly realise there’s another big climb coming as you dive down into a valley and have to climb back out and over. For a big unit like me, long gradual climbs like this are so much better than the 30% bastards we’d be facing the following day.
Once finally in Lockerbie, I pulled up outside a shop to hear a local telling someone to ‘get tae fuck’. Welcome to Scotland, eh? I stuffed my face with donuts and other junk food, then jumped back on the bike hoping the tailwind I’d been expecting all day would materialise.
Up to this point, I think my average speed had been about 22 kph… bombing back down to Sedbergh, I finished the day on nearly 24! It was definitely a quick section and a really good way to finish off such a long day. I was home earlier than expected and had time for a really luxurious shower, several helpings of dinner and another nice early night.
When I woke up the following morning, my right knee was giving me bother. My right knee never hurts, it’s always the left. Having to keep my feet lined up with the pedals and having a ridiculous amount of float (i.e. zero clipping in at all to hold my feet steady) had clearly done some damage.
I had a wobble, told Andy I was a DNF and went back to bed to sulk. 30 minutes later, bored out of my mind, I sheepishly told Andy I wasn’t going to DNF after all, but would ride to Richmond or Yarm and wait for a bike shop to open. It was 7am, I had plenty of time and the bike shops were pretty much down hill from here.
I eventually rolled out dead last, but still early for getting to the bike shops that would open one hour after I hit their respective towns.
All started well enough – some gentle climbing toward Hawes, some lovely scenery and nice easy descents. Only my knee was pretty quickly deteriorating and got to the point where I had to keep stopping pedalling to manage the pain, but then starting again felt like being stabbed behind the kneecap. I kept consoling myself with the fact that it would be down hill to Richmond and I could just keep gently rolling until I hit a bike shop.
Only, it’s not all down hill to Richmond. There’s a bastard steep hill first and Richmond itself is perched precariously on the side of a sheer cliff face (at least, it certainly felt that way at the time).
On the first climb, I spotted a rider and an up-turned bike, so took the opportunity to stop and rest my knee before attempting the remainder. He’d had a nightmare – dropped something into his rear mech, tore it to shreds and knackered the bike. I mentioned the bike shop in Richmond and offered my spare brake pads and various other bits, but his ride was done. So tempting to join him in bailing out to the nearest pub!
I got back on the bike and fought against the gradient for what felt like hours. It wasn’t helped by the halo of flies buzzing around my head. I wasn’t moving fast enough to lose the buggers and something vicious had bitten my hand earlier, so I was waving about trying to get rid of them whilst also trying to keep my feet on the pedals and stamping on the bailout gear.
In Richmond, it was clear I was going to be too early for the bike shop, so I stopped at Costa and grabbed some hot food. I had convinced myself the shop opened at 10, so set off shortly after to hopefully get some cleats. Only, after climbing for another age, the shop was still shut and wouldn’t open for another 40 minutes. I wasn’t about to sit around for 40 minutes on a dreary industrial estate, so I figured I’d cross my fingers and roll into Yarm.
By the time I got to Yarm it was still 30 minutes until the shop opened, but it was the last option before things started getting hilly, so I sat down outside and killed time, gently starting to worry about how much mileage was left to cover and how much of the day had already passed.
The shop opened a little before 12, but by the time the owner had hunted for Look cleats (none in stock) and then SPD-SL pedals (hidden somewhere obscure) I’d already lost 30 minutes. It was nearer 1 by the time I was back on the road, but I did at least have new cleats (and, unexpectedly, new pedals!).
It was presumably a total placebo, but instantly my knee felt better (and I had taken some paracetamol…) and I was so full of the joys of summer that I actually took a detour in Stokesley just to grab a quick selfie outside of a client’s HQ to send to the account team back in London.
I started reeling in the occasional rider and by the time I hit the North York Moors, I was feeling really good. The 20-25% signs and brutal climbs felt easy – being able to pedal properly was clearly paying off! It was far too hot, but I was having the time of my life, hammering up the climbs and drinking in the views.
Even the run into Robin Hood’s Bay (a busy A road where I was close passed endlessly) couldn’t take the shine off my mood and I arrived at the control just as a SWRC lads and Jack were getting ready to leave. I figured I’d have a proper break, enjoy some fish and chips (I’d been daydreaming about them all morning) and try to chase them down in the afternoon.
I don’t think I’d taken into account just quite how unforgiving the next section was and it didn’t feel like long before I’d caught back up. Coming out of Robin Hood’s Bay, there’s a 25% climb that just goes on and on… and then an impossibly steep descent, followed by another wall and more descents. One ascent warned of 30% sections and the road surface was terrible. I just about wrestled my bike to the top, but was seeing stars and absolutely drenched in sweat.
Chatting to the SWRC lads, one seemed convinced we’d already done Rosedale Chimney – surely nothing could be steeper than the climb we’d just done? I wasn’t so certain, but held onto the hope that he might be right.
It all went out the window when Rosedale Chimney came into view though. I remember thinking it didn’t look too intimidating from a distance and by the time I’d hit the bottom I was gaining in confidence. Sure, it was steep, but it was totally bearable and quiet enough I could take a wide line at the hairpins and flatten them out a little. But then it straightens out… and gets steeper… and steeper… then my bars started making ominous cracking sounds… ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’. I jumped off and walked the next hundred or so metres, before jumping back on and riding off as if nothing had happened.
From there it was a much easier run back in to Ripon, albeit with some leg-testing lumps en-route. I caught a couple of riders on the road and then a big group at the petrol station in Ripon. The sun was already very low in the sky and I was still feeling good, so I grabbed some food and jumped straight back on the bike. I sort of expected to get caught on the run back to Sedbergh and be able to sit in with a nice group, but I never saw them again.
As it started getting dark, the local bugs showed a preference for hanging out over the roads and I spent a pretty miserable hour fighting my way through clouds of tiny winged things and trying desperately not to get them in my eyes or mouth.
The climb back up to Hawes should have been pretty enjoyable, but in the dark it was full of full beams, weird noises and rapidly dropping temperatures and I made very slow time. Even when the road headed back down, I didn’t find the speed boost I was expecting. There was a gale blowing up the hill and it felt like it took forever for Sedbergh to appear. I knew I had a very short day ahead of me and could have a lie in, but I was getting tired and grumpy and just wanted to be in bed.
I think I finally arrived around 1-2am, ate a lot of food and promptly threw myself in bed. I figured someone else’s alarm (or the organisers packing up) would wake me in the morning. 80km before 2pm shouldn’t need too many hours…
The next morning I rolled out near the rear of the field and made a point of stopping regularly to enjoy ice creams, cakes and soft drinks. I don’t think I really wanted the ride to be over. I was still feeling pretty fresh – long sleeps and being off the bike for so many hours meant my contact points were in good condition and I felt like I could have kept going for a few more big days without too much bother.
I settled instead for riding back to Preston instead of catching the train. A symbolic victory of sorts.
It’s a shame the event won’t run again for at least a couple of years. I can see how, in bad weather (typical northern weather), it has earned a reputation for being brutal… heck, the heat made it brutal in its own ways, but the climbs, the views and the way the ride is set out so you can get a good kip every night makes it much more enjoyable than just jumping on a bike and slogging it out for 40-70 hours straight.
Still haven’t quite made up my mind on the balance between racing and touring though… I loved riding without pressure, but looking back know I could have been quite quick. I think there might be an ultra race or two left in me…