At 11pm, while cycling up the cobbled climb of Alston, a gentleman outside the Victoria Inn said to me, “You must be insane!” As I was cycling slowly I had plenty of time to agree, “The evidence is in your favour.”
I’d certainly considered stopping, having even asked at the bar of the Cumberland Hotel whether they had any empty rooms. This was August Bank Holiday Weekend and they were fully booked, but my Mum was expecting me to stay and she was only 60km further down the road in Bishop Auckland, so I carried on – into the wind, rain and hills. Surely I’d be fine.
My ride this day had taken me out of Welton in East Yorkshire, on what I hoped to be a gorgeous ride around the north of England to complete a leisurely solo do-it-yourself 600km Audax. Solo ‘DIY 600s’ can be quite simple if you plan two loops which come home for a rest in the night, but for some reason I’d planned a route which called into my parents house after about 380km – and my parents house was a long way north of home.
As I started I was inspired to say Archbishop Sentamu’s “Pilgrimage Prayer”:
It was 5am and completely dark as I left Brough and Welton, passing St Helen’s Church and starting the climb of Elloughton Wold. The sky was clear and yet it was a warm morning, so I had the moon and stars overhead and the glistening lights of Kingston-upon-Hull and the Humber Bridge keeping me company as I rode north. The beauty of these rides are the rewards of the sunrise and the sunsets, the loneliness on the roads and the huge distances covered before the world has woken up. I loved the red/orange glow of this morning’s sunrise and wondered what could possibly be a cause of warning to Shepherds in a red morning light.
I had a schedule to work to, this was the plan to help me pace myself and to encourage me later in the day. This plan included gearing down and riding slowly in the early hills in order to save my legs and knees for the hills at the end of the day. I planned to keep energy levels topped up by drinking and eating regularly and I knew what my target average speed was going to be: somewhere between 18kph and 20kph including stops. As a result, even though it felt a bit weird, I was riding extremely slowly but doing so consciously.
I passed through North Dalton and was cycling along some of the quietest roads I’ve been on in a long time. In fact I really didn’t find anywhere to eat until I reached Malton, 65km and 3 hours into my ride. My favourite memories of the Yorkshire Wolds were Thixendale and later the surprise of cresting a hill to see Norton and Malton below me. Thixendale though, I’ve not ridden along that before and despite the warm morning there was actually frost on the ground at the bottom of Huggate Hill. I was pleased to still have my arm warmers on because I hadn’t felt this cold since last winter. The singletrack road then wound along beneath the rounded hills of Water Dale in a twisty fashion, until finally climbing Birdsall Dale and rewarding me with a beautiful view of the northern end of the Yorkshire Wolds.
The weather was promising to be absolutely fantastic and the stormy weather-front was clearly staying much further south. I was delighted. After a second breakfast at Malton’s supermarket, I continued northwards along the flat roads towards Kirbymoorside but then climbing to Hutton-le-Hole and the beginning of Blakey Ridge. I love this climb because I’m familiar with it and can settle into a comfortable long term pace. Every brow of the hill reveals another brow of the hill further ahead, and then again and then again. Looking back there is a superb sense of climbing as the Vale of Pickering disappears into the mists and sunshine. To the east is Rosedale and to the west is Baysdale dropping off the edges of the ridge and covered in purple heather at this time of year. I would love to recommend this ride to anyone – if it wasn’t for the hindsight of knowing how badly wrong it would turn out later.
Eventually… I still hadn’t reached the top. I knew this because even when the Lion Inn finally appears in the distance, the road has a long way to go which includes a slight drop and climb again past the end of the notoriously tough Blakey Bank climb. ‘Ralph’s Cross’ is 429m above sea-level and is the highest point in the North Yorkshire Moors, it also reveals a fast descent into Castleton. One descent leads to another climb and this one has reduced me to tears in the past: it is the 20% ascent of Three Howse Rigg to the ‘Shawn the Sheep’ bus shelter at White Cross.
I knew that my first pass of the North Yorkshire Moors was now completed and that I wouldn’t be back until the following afternoon with my route coming back to Osmotherly – it was ‘all downhill’ to Saltburn-by-the-Sea. I’d made it to Saltburn for 11am, a comfortable 6 hours riding and I was feeling really good as I sat outside a supermarket munching on a meal-deal sandwich, apple and fizzy drink. I was bang on schedule and the weather was perfect – so onward I rode, west now with my next major goals of Leyburn and Sedbergh.
My friend Lindsay was out riding a 400km DIY audax and planning to call into my home for cake later in the day – so with me passing less than 50m from her home I popped in to see Chris and say hello… but instead of stop I just had a quick chat and then pushed on – I had a schedule and it was becoming the focus of my attention. I knew I had the Dales and the Pennines to cross and I’d promised Mum I’d be with her by midnight. Oh how foolish.
Every road from here on was familiar – and that was somewhat reassuring while I cycled alone. The little garmin gps device had a comforting black line to follow and I knew the way. Northallerton was busy and I found myself being patient with impatient drivers. I just had to shrug my shoulders and ignore the lazy and careless overtaking, because I was soon back into the countryside and the beauty of the world and the absence of over-wrought town drivers in their enclosed boxes of metal and music. I did however stop for a banana and some fizzy pop on the outskirts of Northallerton, and refilled my water bottles.
I followed the A684 towards Leeming and then took the new bypass just because it was there. This new section of road looks like it will be popular with local time trial groups and I think my pootling speed will be one of the lowest Strava times for the segment!
I was now over the A1 and enjoying passing through the villages of Little Crakehall, Patrick Brompton and Constable Burton before – exactly to schedule – I arrived in Leyburn. It was 3pm on Saturday afternoon and I’d ridden exactly according to plan. I was delighted and headed for a pub I knew did good food and a nice pint: this was a planned refueling stop!
In the afternoon sunshine I was looking forward to a pie and a pint – only to discover that they stopped serving food at 2pm. It was now 3pm. I’d been cycling for 10 hours, covered 200km and climbed through the Yorkshire Wolds and North Yorkshire Moors. I was ready for food – and I was let down by not checking that a pub might stop serving food in the afternoon of a Saturday on the busiest Bank Holiday Weekend of the year. Okay – my bad planning. I do think of this as the moment my plans started to unravel though, because I wasted too much time here wondering what to do – and wasted more time stopping at other Wensleydale pubs which were not serving afternoon food.
I set off into Wensleydale and followed the twisty quiet Redmire, Askrigg and Hardraw road on the northern bank of the River Ure. The weather was getting even warmer now and in my tiredness and exercise I started to feel I was riding through a sauna. Wensleydale is beautiful though, and I rode along here with a gentle tailwind really enjoying the scenery. The time wasting was frustrating me, as I stopped to check each pub I passed to see if I could eat. By the time I reached Hardraw I’d decided to just head straight to Sedbergh for food, and anyway I was about to ride a favourite section of road – the rolling tarmac that takes me up to Garsdale Head.
The wind was starting to pick up, which was making this section a lot easier and I almost flew the whole way down to Sedbergh and finally arrived about an hour behind schedule at 6pm. I was now very hungry and hoping I hadn’t messed up my energy levels by not eating until now, having skipped lunch in Leyburn and eating much later than planned. One impact of eating later was that my empty stomach ordered for me, and I ended up with a massive Carbonara of cream, bacon and pasta: this was going to take some digestion!
It was 6:40pm before I was able to leave Sedbergh and I still had to take it really easy because my stomach was full and the road climbs a lot before reaching Tebay and the easy Eden Valley. This section from Sedbergh to Tebay runs alongside the River Lune and the M6 under the eves of Tebay Fell. It is amazingly beautiful, and being on a bicycle rather than steaming through along the motorway gave me plenty of time to enjoy the immensity of the hills.
I stopped at Tebay services to prepare for the night section of the ride – it was now past 7pm and getting darker. I put leg and arm warmers on and checked my bike lights, then I made sure I had some food to take me all the way to Bishop Auckland (if necessary). The evening was drawing in fast and before long I was cycling along very dark lanes with only my glowing garmin screen to keep me company. I do love my dynamo bike lights though; the front and rear make me very visible and the addition fibre-flare light across the back of my Carradice makes me stand out for miles.
I was still feeling strong, even after nearly 300km and 15 hours riding. My knees felt good and my thighs were not too tired – I was confident that even though I was now 2 hours behind schedule that all would be okay. I texted my Mum to let her know it was going to be 2am instead of midnight and thankfully got a reply that it was ‘okay’… I knew this was a big imposition, but I was deeply grateful for her help. Mum was cooking fresh pasta with a vegetable sauce, making me coffee and getting a bed ready for a couple of hours ‘shut-eye’… the audax planning and support from my Mum was perfect. There was only one problem: I was stupid. Really stupid. My route was now taking me into the Pennines and the highest roads in England in the darkest hours of the night. It was 10pm as I started to climb Hartside pass in the pitch dark, and the friendly gentle tailwind from the east was beginning to strengthen into a strong headwind as I turned to face it.
There was nothing to see as I climbed – when a car passed I would watch as the lights climbed ahead of me – was was trying to guess where the top might be and wondering if the Hartside Cafe lights might still be on.
The Hartside climb is about 7.5km long, and rises nearly 400m. The fastest I’ve done this was 28 minutes at 16kph. This evening it took me 45 minutes at 10kph. Despite the dark night, the air was hot; there was a pre-storm feel to the atmosphere. The wind was into my face as I crested the cafe at 1900 feet above sea-level with the rain was drizzling into my glasses as I tentatively let gravity pull me downhill to Alston. It wasn’t pleasant: I arrived at the Cumberland Hotel just before closing time and order a coffee and asked about a room. I really had my doubts about the next 60km to Bishop Auckland.
“You must be insane”
The words of the Alston drinker echoed in my ears as I continued out of Alston at about 11:30pm heading towards Nenthead and the climb to Killhope Cross. With hindsight I have ridden this westbound several times, even in the dark and rain – but I hadn’t prepared myself for 16kph headwinds, rain and the seemingly endless 15% section from Nenthead itself, to Killhope Lead Mine at the top of Killhope Cross. This is the highest paved road in England, equal to Harthope Moss (Chapel Fell), at 627m above sea-level. That last climb hit me hard – the 15% section climbing from 500m to 627m in about 1.25km. The wind. The rain. It was somewhere between 12 midnight and 1am… all I could see was a tiny patch of tarmac in front of my front wheel where the lights shone directly at the road surface. I had over 320km in my legs, I’d been riding for 19 hours. Suddenly I just couldn’t do it anymore and I started to walk. I’ve felt utterly empty. “You must be an idiot”. Yes indeed. I tried to remember the Pilgrimage Prayer but all I could manage was ‘Lord give me strength.’
It took me a long time to reach the top and then I was able to start rolling again, but the wind and the rain were so intense I could barely make out the catseyes and the reflective barriers. I was on the brakes as the road turned down and slowly I started to drop out of what felt like the heart of a rain cloud.
It was all downhill from here though. Except it wasn’t.
I rode along trying to recover my sense of enjoyment and it might have worked had the rain not strengthened. As I passed through Stanhope my rainlegs had given up, my jacket was flooded down my back and my face was drenched.
As I left Frosterley, the rain gained even more strength, suddenly I found I was riding along in the meteorological equivalent of a power-shower. The rain was warm, the air was warm but I was drenched. That was when the sky flashed with lightening. Thunder crashed around me and I looked for shelter. There were only the trees by the roadside and then open countryside. I had nowhere safe to hide and simply had to ride hard to reach Wolsingham where there was an amazing bus-shelter. It was dry inside and I was able to watch the rain turn the street into a river. Lightening flashed again and I waited… but my legs were getting colder. I toyed with the idea of putting the foil emergency blanket around me but didn’t. After about 10 minutes the rain was easing so I set off again thinking that despite the rain I could stay warm. But the rain came heavy again and the lightening came again – my nerves were fraught as I rode into Crook and took the Bishop Auckland turning.
Now it was all downhill – and by 2:45am I arrived at my parents house in Bishop Auckland. Only 2 hrs 45 minutes behind my original plan and 4 hours 15 minutes ahead of the cut-off time. I’d had enough though, and sat with my Mum relating the joys of the ride to her at 3:30am, drinking coffee and nibbling some of the wonderful food she’d cooked.
I slept at 4am, and woke at 6:15am… the rain was still hammering down outside so I rolled over an abandoned my 600km DIY audax.
380km, 19 hours cycling, 22 hours elapsed, 3884m climbing.