The “Old 240” 400km Audax is the hardest bicycle ride I’ve done to date, and I’d do it again without hesitation.
My wife and I had combined a family walking weekend with my plans for the Old 240 and we booked a room at Mankinholes YHA. On the Friday afternoon it was raining and the valley around Hebden Bridge felt oppressive, dark and dank. The YH didn’t open until 5pm and a drive into Todmorden wasn’t lifting our spirits. But as we started to explore Todmorden we discovered lovely little organic and vegetarian cafes and shops and we started to relax. When we got back to the YH we met a couple who’d been sat near us in one of the cafes and they made us feel right at home. The family room at the YH was nice and there was a bike shed for me to lock away my tourer.
I woke up just before my alarm at 4am and managed to switch it off before it raised the kids, I had packed the night before so all I needed to do was dress for cycling and head to Sowerby Bridge for the start.
Twisty and steep from Mankinholes to the A646
It is about 16km (10 miles) from Mankinholes YH to Sowerby Bridge and I rode fairly briskly in order to make sure I was with everyone in time. Unfortunately – pop/hiss – I punctured on the rear tyre. It deflated so fast I must have run over a tack. Within 5 minutes I’d checked the tyre and replaced and inflated the tube, but I was a tiny bit worried I’d missed the cause, so it might happen again.
Chris Crossland is the organiser and he lent me a track pump to bring my tyre up to 100psi, I collected my Brevet Card and was ready to leave. Looking round there were maybe a dozen or so riders and as we rolled the 100m to the first lights, several went the wrong way. It turned out they were doing the Spurn Head 400 and that there were only 9 of us doing the Old 240.
The Old 240 is reputed to be one of the hardest 400k Audaxes in the UK and was based upon a CTC route of 240 miles which was supposed to be completed in 24 hours. To make it an Audax, it was topped up to 400km (407.3km to be precise, equivalent of 253 miles). The road takes us north and west from Sowerby Bridge through Halifax, Dent, Sedburgh, Appleby, Hartside, Alston, before turning south and east to Barnard Castle and Scotch Corner. Turning back south and west we come back to the beginning via Richmond, Leyburn, Kettlewell, Keighley and back to Halifax and Sowerby Bridge. The route is absolutely massive and climbs across dales and Pennines in a loop which showcases the beauty of the northern England countryside.
Leaving Sowerby Bridge we immediately ascended to pass Warley Moor Reservoir, the home of Halifax Sailing Club and about 430m above sea level. Of the riders with us, Justin was the only person riding a fixed gear bicycle and I was amazed to see him climb the same road I was using all my gears to get up. The road surface is unmade in places which was challenging and although we couldn’t feel much of a breeze the wind turbines were spinning away as we passed the feet of them.
The route over Warley Moor and the Profile…
It had been raining in the night and the roads were wet and covered in gravel.
Home of Halifax Sailing Club – on top of a hill in the middle of England – makes sense really!
Peter and Chris on the steep descent towards Oxenhope.
Wide open views of the first few climbs to come.
We enjoyed the descent and the group split slightly at this point, Mike Thompson and Justin heading off at “fixed gear” pace and at first I stayed with Peter and Chris but although they were able to climb faster than I, my descents were more swift and gaps opened up. A minute behind Peter was another group of four.
The day was very grey but also warm. Short sleeved shirts were called for and we tackled the next mini-segment over Lothersdale.
The long climbs were interspersed with tough little jagged climbs throughout the 407km, little leg breaking 15-20% climbs. But I was thoroughly enjoying all the upwardness – especially the long gentle drags which (thanks to Touring Gearing) I was able to twiddle up at a fairly good pace. As we came over the top of Lothersdale I could see nothing but rain from horizon to horizon and decided to put overshoes, rain-legs and coat on, but no sooner has I done so than the clouds cleared and we had an overcast and muggy day. I wore these clothes through to the next Information Control and changed back then.
Peter and I matched pace for a while. Although it wasn’t raining on us, the recent rain left overflowing gutters and streams in the road. So all along the route the roads were flooded, there were tremendous puddles crossing the entire carriageway and often cars would send a plume of water towards us.
We also shared a pleasure in wildlife spotting. Some Canada Geese flew low over our heads, very large and graceful. A Heron was stood in a flooded field next to the road, fishing. And the verge was a mass of wild flowers.
We reached Kirkby Lonsdale and passed Devil’s Bridge, I had been riding with Peter for some time chatting about our families and how we’d come to different jobs. Peter is a supremely relaxed gentleman and full of generosity, I loved cycling along listening to him talk about music and singing, teaching and travelling. The weather was worsening and by the time we reached Barbondale I’d removed my glasses because it was like riding underwater with the constant soaking rain and drizzle. We’d been looking forward to the beauty of Barbondale, but what we got was amazing – the river was in a heady, dashing, tumbling flow. The road was partially flooded, there were feeder streams gushing under small bridges; it was a noisy riotous environment. The tailwind pushed me all the way up Barbondale at about 25kph.
I met up with Mike at the top of Barbondale and we descended into Dent together for a control at the Meadow side cafe. This cafe was warm and the carrot cake/coffee was delicious. The service was speedy and therefore this was a really good control. I didn’t stop very long though, even in the rain I didn’t need much rest and I was itching to press on to Hartside.
Leaving Dent and leaving most people in the cafe, Mike and I joined conversational forces as we rode on together in the pouring rain. We were getting sodden but good conversation takes your mind off this and so Mike explained to me about his accident and the associated memory issues. Mainly we talked about our mutual love for cycling. We climbed from Sedbergh on the A683 next to the river Rawthey and into Ravenstonedale and as we did the rain stopped. This was another long gentle gradient which didn’t stop us breathing or talking, but there was one moment – visually stunning – which took my breath away. It was the waterfall near Low Haygarth which was splashing down the valley side dramatically.
At the head of the valley we were stopped by a lorry driver transporting hay on a narrow road. The usual gob-smacked conversation took place;
“Where are you going?”
“You’re going the wrong way!”
“We’re going to Alston first and then Scotch Corner. We’ll be back in Hebden Bridge tomorrow at about 3am”
(An open mouthed) “…” followed by the obvious, “You’re nuts!”
On the way down to Appleby we experienced more flooded roads and had to use the slippery footbridge next to the river where the ford was so deep there was no chance of crossing safely. In the middle of August you might expect the river levels to be lower and here you can compare the google-streetview with our experience:
Google Streetview of the ford near on Beck Lane out of Smardale
Our experience of the same location!
Just as we rounded the bend away from the ford, the road was covered with water and an orange-brown sludge. I found my wheel spinning and had to put a foot down to prevent myself toppling. Mike was surprised I had managed to prevent the fall at all. So now we were being extra careful due to the slippery road surfaces.
A quick Information Control stop and I snapped Mike smiling.
Riding just west of the Pennines I noticed that the tops were shrouded in cloud and knew that we’d be climbing into that soon. I couldn’t pick out Hartside much as I tried.
The descent into Appleby was nice, I’ve never been there before and it is a bustling town with a lot of shops and tourist shops. I can’t imagine what it will be like during the Appleby fair.
Approach to Appleby
Our next target was the climb from Melmerby over Hartside and down to Alston. The road ramps up immediately as you turn onto the A686 but the gradient is a very consistent and gentle slope so picking something in the middle ring I sat in the saddle and span the pedals round and round without much effort but kept about 14kph right to the top.
The skies had cleared moments before we started our climb rewarding us with wide views of the Lake District and Eden Valley. Here are a series of pictures taken as I climbed…
Followed by a photograph of Hartside cafe and the view down over Alston Moor, with the fast descent to Alston town. The road surface was generally smooth and Mike tells me he was overtaking cars on his descent!
I had a slap up late breakfast. It was lunchtime but I chose bacon, beans and blackpudding! Mike taught me that the best “fast” food is beans and fried egg on toast – very quick and easy to cook with an instant protein fix.
As we left Alston up the cobbled main street Mike was obviously feeling very strong so he powered away and I watched him disappear slowly into the distance.
Which left me alone to play with my camera and take silly photos.. most of which have been deleted, but I also got some views back to Alston from this climb, known as “Yad Moss”
As I passed over the top of Yad Moss I saw the sign welcoming me to Teesdale. I was home! I could see the Cleveland hills of the North Yorkshire Moors in the very distance and I was cycling next to the Tees which runs in between Ingleby Barwick and Stockton-on-Tees. I started to sing at the top of my lungs without a care in the world for tune, melody, notes, rhythm or words (which anyone who knows my singing will recognise instantly).
The climb was another long gentle gradient, but the descent took me all the way to Scotch Corner! It really was “all downhill from here”!
So far this story is one of, “cyclist rides up gentle hills”, “it rained”, “it was sunny” etc. But there was a problem developing which I hadn’t really expected. For breakfast I had two ham rolls. For lunch I had carrot cake and coffee. For early afternoon tea I had bacon and beans. But at Alston I’d covered 200km in 9 hours; I was about to begin to pay for my lack of dietary regard. I was about to start to get very tired. I didn’t notice at first because I was cycling downhill through wonderful scenery in bright sunshine…
…and the road did keep going downhill which with a little tailwind meant I kept a great pace. I started to feel quite thirsty. This had been a long section and I’d finished my two water bottles by the time I passed Cow Green Reservoir, so I was looking forward to finding a pub. The first pub was full of tweed and shotguns, I moved swiftly on until I swept down into Middleton-in-Teesdale and found this brilliant licensed cafe, “Cafe 1618
” where I ordered a half of lager and a pint of VPA (Very Pale Ale). I knocked the half back immediately and persuaded someone to take my photo a la beer.
Sitting in the sunshine drinking a beer after a fantastic descent; it was like being back in the Alps! But I knew I needed to move on so I drank promptly and moved on. Passing Barnard Castle there was a brief climb to the Buttermarket roundabout and then a right turn to Whorlton.
Weak Bridge in Whorlton
Lowering sun on the Tees
As I moved through the quiet country lanes I noticed the sun getting lower and my shadow lengthening and I captured this picture while gathering an Information Control in Cleasby.
As I cycled towards the Control at Scotch Corner I was really slowing down and was below 15kph on a flat road – it dawned on me I’d “bonked” (run out of energy) and was in serious need of nutrition. Middleton Tyas has a couple of gastro-style pubs and they were much more mouthwatering a prospect than a Buffet Bar from Scotch Corner.
I chose to stop properly and have a good meal and a beer (or two). I rested my knees which had started to niggle, I rested my feet and wrists and arms and I ate a delicious freshly cooked Gnocchi with peas, spinach and cream sauce.
Another conversation took place… “You’ve been where!!!” and “That’s what CARS are for!” I laughed along and enjoyed an early evening meal and beer on a Saturday not very far from where I live. Coming back outside it was dusk so I sorted out lights, arm warmers, leg warmers etc. I also still had to go to the Scotch Corner Control where I picked up plenty of anti-bonk food to get me over the climbs to come. The girl in the petrol station asked if I was a crazy cyclist… it didn’t take much to confirm she’d met Mike an hour earlier.
I know the roads from Scotch Corner to Kettlewell and was feeling much better as I arrived in Richmond ready for the climb over Middle Moor on the tank road. There are numerous warning signs about tanks turning along here. This road is the shortest route from Richmond to Leyburn. As I left Richmond I noticed the castle illuminated.
It is not too bad a climb but the road is straight and you can see cars bearing down towards you for ages, usually with lights bright enough to blind you.
I had been trying to keep Carol up to date with text messages and stopped in Leyburn to send one more before disappearing into the wilds of Wensleydale and the climb to Kidstones Bank.
In the dark the road really is as steep as it looks in this elevation profile. I was out of the saddle for most of the climb and this put a lot of pressure on my knees which were complaining more and more about my demands. Once over the top, the Dinotte went onto full-beam so I could make progress on the narrow twisty lanes down to Kettlewell. There were bats flitting around me and my light reflected off the moths surrounding me. This climb and descent were the hardest so far and had taken their toll so I stopped in Kettlewell at 00:16 for a breather and to get a photograph in the dead-of-night.
From Kettlewell to Gargrave the B6160/B6265 was easy to navigate and only undulated gently and although it was deep nighttime I was not cold and I had plenty of energy. I selected the lowest possible gear on every climb to preserve my knees and get me home. In Gargrave we were met by a lovely couple, John and Charlotte, manning the control at the bus stop. There was hot tea and coffee, sandwiches, chocolate, crisps, pizza and tonnes of encouragement. Mike was here when I arrived and he waited long enough so we could ride the last leg together. There was now only 46km remaining! For some of this we blasted along well lit town roads as we watched the kilometres count down. Both Mike and I knew that there was going to be a sting in the tail and it was the return leg over Warley Moor.
Although there was more descent than climbing, the climbing was leg breakingly steep. It was painful how slowly I crawled up – but I did it, all in one go… but it hurt. A lot. As Mike and I crossed the brow of the moor, Mike Thompson and Justin caught us, which resulted in a helter-skelter descent to Sowerby Bridge, not racing but not holding back. The brakes were almost glowing by the time we managed to stop at the bottom. All that remained was the climb to Chris’ house and the warm welcome which awaited us. Justin broke open a couple of beers and we chatted about the great route and the things we’d seen. Everyone was back within an hour or so; all nine riders were pretty evenly matched given we’d covered a vast area of the Dales and Pennines.
As my fellow riders started to fall asleep I headed back up Calderdale through Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge to the final climb back to the YH at Mankinholes. Carol was waiting for me at 7am and after a shower I got the hug I’d been looking forward to.
I left the YH at 4:30am on Saturday 18th August and arrived back at 7am on Sunday 19th August; 26hrs and 30mins out and about and I covered 440km (273 miles) in that time at an average moving speed of 20.1kph. The total saddle time was 21hrs 49mins. I’m over-the-moon that I managed the “Old 240” in under 24hrs. I had that as a quiet little goal for myself given the history of the ride.
Knees. They hurt. I had a 30 minute nap after the ride and then we went for a walk to Hardcastle Crags as a family. I struggled with that!
Right foot – lost the skin from the top due to rubbing between my shoe/sock and foot.
Wrists – ache.
Neck – tired
Skin – dry and I’m feeling weather beaten.
This was the longest distance I’ve done without sleep and I enjoyed every minute of it. I would love to do it again – but I’d like to have a couple more 400s under my belt first! If you think you could do a 400km ride I would heartily recommend this one – the climbs, views and descents are truly magnificent.
Thanks to God for a wonderful 24 hours!