This ride was also known as “The Taking Lindsay to Whygate 200” in recognition of her previous ‘epic fail’ at the Chevy Chase calendar event. The Chevy Chase is a well-known Audax event which loops twice around Northumberland, with the second loop climbing up into the Otterburn Military Ranges. The ‘military firing ranges’ are open to the public at this time of year but not to give Soldiers something new to shoot at!
During the Bank Holiday Monday at the beginning of May, I was able to enter the Chevy Chase route as a DIY-by-GPS and was delighted to have three really good friends to ride with; Aidan, Lindsay and Dean. We left Kirkley Cycles at about 8am with a projected 11 hours cycling ahead of us. In the event we were just shy of 12 hours out riding.
The skies were overcast, but the most significant weather feature was the strong westerly wind gusting to 40mph (60kph) – we were heading almost directly into it for the most part of the morning, but to offset this slog was the wonderful scenery we rode through. I’d seen the forecast and deliberately left my over-large yellow rain jacket on, because I thought that the chances of missing a rain shower were slim and I’d just put up with the wind flapping it around.
While we’d stayed together reasonably well, once we hit the top of a set of hills known locally as ‘The Ryals’ – we split on the descent. My superior weight dragged me down the slope at high speed, and the advantage of ‘not riding fixed’ made that easy. Lindsay was running slightly deeper rimmed wheels, which gave her an attack of the heebie-jeebies as the wind gusted around. Dean’s ability to spin a high cadence was useful – I believe he hit 180rpm at one point during the day. Aidan was carrying all the cake for the day in a set of panniers, which meant he was also flying on the descents. Cake – it was Lindsay’s secret weapon to slow us all down. Fill Aidan’s bags with cake and keep us all topped up with flapjack.
We took a breather in Wark, which was just short of our first ‘control point’, but the rain had been fairly persistent for a while and we chose to shelter and try to reduce Aidan’s cake related burden.
The road climbed constantly from Wark, and all the while we were battered with wind and rain. Dean and Aidan fell into a pattern of riding together, as did Lindsay and I. The prevailing wind can be seen in the way the trees grow along the road, they feel like they’re reaching across the hedgerows; almost looming. If it was dark, perhaps they’d give in to temptation and snatch an unwary walker. My camera was suffering from the weather and my sweaty back pocket. My promises to replace it with a tough-camera haven’t materialised.
We were really struggling along, but in a cheerful way. Lindsay related the story of why she’d never been to Whygate before – despite entering and starting the Chevy Chase Audax: She’d been riding with Chris who’d really not been enjoying himself much, and probably wasn’t going to complete the event – he valiantly told Lindsay to leave him – which she did. This meant that Lindsay was now catching slower riders, notably two in the distance – around about where the looming trees were. The route includes an out-and-back to Whygate, but Lindsay’s attention was on the hazardous cattle-grid. She took a turn too early. Instead of going to Whygate – she was now heading for the control at Falstone. So today we were ‘taking Lindsay to Whygate’, while narrating the route with innocent questions such as, “Have you ever been here before?”, and “Do you recognise this place?” It’s a good job Lindsay has a sense of humour.
We reached the turning point in the pouring rain and beseeched two drenched walkers to take a group photo of us, which the rain on the lens totally spoiled.
With the wind behind us, the 7km back to the cattle-grid turning was over in double-quick time, and the rain to our backs was much less troublesome. We then had to contend with some over-confident sheep grazing beside the road – which Aidan managed to chivvy out of the way. However, there were now also breaks in the rain and intermittent sunshine, so our spirits were quite high. We’d ridden together very well, and when we took the junction into the headwind once again, we took short turns on the front, peeling away and dropping to the back of the group. It was almost like we knew what we were doing.
The cafe in Falstone offered us rather good food – I had a nice bowl of warm soup and an exceptionally long ‘jelly snake’ sweet which seemed to amuse my companions.
We left into the rain again, but this time with it to our backs as we rode at a strong pace back towards Lanehead, crossing over the River North Tyne and then climbing over Hareshaw Common. As we climbed the clouds were really clearing and the weather brightened up significantly – enough for me to shed a layer or two. We were still riding as a close-knit group even now and enjoying each other’s company.
As the road continued to climb though, the differences in our climbing ability became apparent. Aidan and Dean headed off, Lindsay and I pootled along. Cycling and suffering sometimes go hand-in-hand and we talked about whether long distance riding is actually a form of self-harm. As we turned onto Troughend Common, the wind was to our backs and suddenly we were climbing like heroes. The ups and downs of mood sometimes, but not always, reflect the ups and downs of the road. On the descent from the top of Hareshaw Head through Wetshaw Hope I hit a new personal best high speed; glancing down at my cycle computer I was doing 85kph (53mph). The grin on my face lasted pretty much all the way through Otterburn to Elsdon.
We were halfway round the route, with about 100km covered and 100km to go – only now the really big climbs were about to start. I know some riders are happy to ride directly to Elsdon and then do the Military Ranges and skip the first Falstone loop – but really I think that’s a mistake as the first part of the ride is wonderful in a contrasting way to the second half, and it also gets your legs warmed up perfectly.
We followed the well-surfaced B6341 from Elsdon heading north through Billsmoor Park and alongside Grasslees Burn until we’d nearly reached Swindon and Hepple, but we turned onto an even more quiet unmarked road to Holystone and beyond. We were riding next to the River Coquet all the way to Alwinton, where we crossed the River Alwin before continuing along the banks of the Coquet upstream. Beside the road warnings had been posted about the potential danger of finding unexploded munitions.
The scenery around us was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The closest I’d come to it before was in Dentdale, where the narrow well-surface road follows a valley upstream – but this was one hundred times better. The valley twisted and turned and all the time we were overshadowed by luscious hillsides and I was snapping photographs all the way up.
By the time we reached Barrowburn we were ready for some food, and the cafe was open thank goodness. I treated myself to a massive plate of cheesey-beans on toast, shamelessly copying Dean’s order. Chris S had travelled out to meet us and it was brilliant to see him – for the next few miles after the cafe he leap-frogged us taking photographs of our suffering.
As we left the cafe our group riding disintegrated. Not only was the climbing particularly difficult, but Aidan also suffered from a broken spoke. I wouldn’t have known how to fix that – I think it is time I learnt.
As I rounded one more beautiful bend in the river I saw the road disappearing over the top of a huge climb, and I could see Chris parked at the top ready to embarrass us. So I dropped to a low gear and tried to keep a reasonably smiling face all the way to the top. It was a steep and tough climb, so I waited at the top for Dean who was wrestling his fixed gear bike to the point of stalling. As Dean came past me he said, “Don’t stop here, it’s not the top yet.”
Not the top?!? I rode on wondering what suffering lay ahead and was about to find out first hand. The climbing kept coming, but each climb was just a prelude to the final tough leg-breaker of the ascent onto the Military Ranges. We knew we’d arrived when the signpost indicated that we were entering the Otterburn Training Area for the Ministry of Defence.
The last climb was lung-busting… thankfully the weather chipped in to keep me cool by blowing a steady and stinging stream of hailstones into me from the north. I could barely open my eyes as I crested the 502m high point in the road and stood looking around, we were right on the border with Scotland. North was Brownhart Law, cut across the summit by the English/Scottish border, and west was Coquet Head also in Scotland.
As I looked east I was aware of the huge clouds drifting across the landscape giving me bright sunshine and occasional hail. Behind me was a memorial to Marines who’d lost their lives during training on the Otterburn Ranges. I felt so small in this vast landscape, and vulnerable too: people die up here. I put all my spare clothing on, my extra gloves, an extra jumper and my big flappy yellow rain coat and then rode alongside Lindsay for a little while, until the stinging icy hailstones separated us again.
Dean caught up with me beside a cattle grid. I know he has done this ride numerous times – I can see why. This countryside was awe-inspiring and I’d been riding along lost in thought and prayer for ages. Up ahead though was a brilliant and slightly silly treat… we were coming up to the military runway Dean had been promising me. The four of us arrived within minutes of each other and played like silly kids sweeping backwards and forwards across the width of the runway as we rolled down it. The runway is fairly short, so perhaps only used for fighter jets which can accelerate exceptionally fast.
The weather had another bout of hailstones waiting for us as we climbed over the next hill. The sky had turned pitch black to the east of us and we could see a distinct vertical line where the dry air stopped and the downpour began. We hoped to get off the ranges before it hit – but no such luck was coming our way. Lindsay sheltered behind a bank of trees; Aidan hid in a ditch. Dean and I got utterly blasted with needle sharp hailstones. We were not laughing… not until later.
The clouds finally parted just as I left the Ministry of Defence area, and so did the super smooth road surface – suddenly I was bumping along a potholed road surface hoping to reach the main road into Elsdon as soon as possible.
As I sped down into Elsdon for the second time in the day I was utterly frozen: my drenched gloves were not keeping my fingers warm and I was struggling to pull the brake levers. But then we saw Chris parked up in his van. Elsdon was an official ‘control point’ and he had a van full of sweet foodstuffs. I sat and shivered, and even had to ask Lindsay to pull my gloves off my fingers I was so cold.
But the ride wasn’t over yet. The four of us had another 32km (20 miles) to get back to Kirkley Cycles and complete this 200km ride. So, back out into the rain and straight up the climb of Winters Gibbet.
The evening was drawing on and I was riding with Lindsay once more, the roads undulated back through the Northumberland landscapes back to Kirkley Cycles where Chris was waiting for us one more time – with drinks and sugary snacks. Dean and Aidan rolled in behind us, after fixing a second lost spoke on Aidan’s bike.
The Chevy Chase route is totally fantastic. 200km of jaw-dropping scenery. There is some really tough climbing but it’s worth it for the awesomeness of isolated moorland, right on the border with Scotland. The Military Ranges are not open all the time, so the Chevy Chase event gives the dual assurance that the ranges are open to the public, and that there are other cyclists around to help if you get into difficulties. Would I do this again? Absolutely!