The shipping forecast was on Radio 4 as I drove from Hull to Ripon: I was glad that I wouldn’t be at sea in the wind and the rain, and hoped that the inland weather wouldn’t be too wet either. The beginning of September is at that interface between the warmth of summer and the wet of autumn which can generate a soaking mugginess to the atmosphere. On top of this I knew I had a lot of climbing to do: Dave Atkinson’s ‘Dales Dales Tour Plus’ 200km audax has 3500m of uphill-cycling. Although the ride is scheduled for the 9th September, I was doing a pre-event route check the Monday before. As the route is circular, and with Dave’s permission, I was starting in Ripon rather than Richmond – this would save me an unnecessary 50 mile round trip by car.
I parked up at the long stay Cathedral car park in Ripon and set off to find the route where it passes through the Spa Gardens.
The ‘Sun Parlour Cafe’ wasn’t open this early in the morning, but I was intrigued by the wooden sculpture of Alice in Wonderland – celebrating the city’s links with Lewis Carroll. It all seemed a bit creepy to me, but then Alice in Wonderland is a bit creepy too.
Leaving Ripon along the A61 briefly, the route winds through Nunwick and Wath, northbound to Theakston and Excelby, all the time parallel with the A1(M). Radio 4’s weather forecast had spoken of ‘leaden skies’ for the day, and although it was overcast and slightly wet in the air, I didn’t feel weighed down by the heavens – there was more of a duvet feel to the clouds. The clouds had kept the country warm overnight, perhaps Yorkshire was simply looking for a lie-in this morning, having sneaked a look at Autumn and decided it was too early to get up.
Instead of choosing my own directions between the controls, I was following Dave’s route sheet and making sure that it made sense. I was also interested in whether there were any planned road closures. At Excelby the route backtracks slightly to cross the A1(M) and arrive in Londonderry next to RAF Leeming. Sometimes there are low flying helicopters around here, but today there was only the background noise of traffic on the motorway and nothing seemed to be in the air other than mist and drizzle. In terms of the actual ride, these would be the last roads of the day as riders head back to Richmond. I found the gently rolling hills presented no problem, but I wondered how the hills might feel to riders dragging themselves the final 45km to Richmond, with 160km of ‘Dales Dales’ in their legs.
It was 9am when I approached Richmond and started to try and find the ‘Swaledale Outdoor Club HQ’, but I was distracted by a Sicilian Cafe and the hope of some decent coffee. Alessandro did a mighty fine cup of black coffee and I sat outside wondering if the sun would break through the clouds.
Dave’s route takes riders down a 25% steep drop of cobbled goodness which had me out of the saddle, intermittently on the brakes all the way down, and hoping that an errant cobblestone wouldn’t throw me sideways and off the bike. I still didn’t find the HQ though, instead I continued downhill, over the River Swale (just outside the city walls) and through the ‘gateway to Swaledale’. I was now into the first dale of the ‘Dales Dales’ audax.
As I inched my way up the next climb I was grateful that I’d chosen not to wear a raincoat. The water-resistant leg and arm warmers were keeping me dry enough, but I was beginning to get hot. Had I brought a coat I’d have simply boiled in the bag. There was an eerie sense of isolation on the tank road out of Richmond, with only the woolly jumpers to keep me company. There was a sign beside the road which read, “Parking 300m” however, instead of pointing up the road it pointed out across the soaking moorland. I hope nobody follows those parking instructions without a tank.
The heavy duvet of clouds continued to hug the hilltops, so the wonderful views failed to open out before me. I could hear the call of curlews in the long grass of the moorland; this time they weren’t complaining about me, they were warning each other of the hawks that were hovering overhead. A nearby Kestrel managed to combine the energy of flurrying wings with the poise and stillness of a hunter stalking prey through the undergrowth. While the Curlews sounded warnings, the MOD also made clear that there was danger around me in the form of unexploded ordnance, but the red flags of live firing were hanging limply in the wet atmosphere.
As I followed the road sharply downhill into Wensleydale, the clouds seemed to be lifting and the sky became brighter, hinting at the sunshine above the morning’s duvet. It was easy cycling to Hardraw and Hawes as the scenery kept me entertained and I had room for my mind to wander. The rain had stopped completely and I was able to enjoy clear views all the way up the dale.
After an inappropriate bacon, egg and cheese toastie in Hawes I headed for the signature climb of this ride; Fleet Moss. With a heavy stomach I started along a road that gains nearly 350m over an 8km stretch, 20% in places and today the top was buried into the cloud-cover. I would make sure I smiled at every passing motorist and I received regular smiles and waves in return. Climb. Climb. Climb. Riding solo removes the shame of ‘not being as good as others’, riding solo allows me to be as good as I am on this day and in this place. I merely ride over the hill – there is no sense of ‘owning’ or ‘smashing’ anything. I’m not the King of anything – I’m a puny human in the face of this mound of earth.
Dodd Fell looms over me on the right, and Fleet Moss surrounds the road. In the hill-fog I’m utterly alone. A sign comes out of the mist. 20%. Up. Seriously? How can there be any more ‘up’ from here? The tumbledown stone walls are crumbled in sections letting me see just green and grey beyond.
I must be at the top. The road has flattened a bit. I still can’t see anything around me. Do I remove my glasses? They’re covered in tiny water droplets so I can’t see through them.
It takes time to carefully pick my way downhill through the clouds. I don’t want to meet traffic or a sharp bend. Eventually I begin to be able to see again; I’m in Upper Wharfedale and the route profile suggests that the next 45km will be downhill or rolling. The only problem is that the route profile has been flattened out by the immensity of the Fleet Moss climb.
Upper Wharfedale is amazingly beautiful. The River Wharfe runs along a channel wide and deep enough to hold winter meltwater as it surges downhill. Today it is a meandering dribble in the bottom of the riverbed and if I didn’t know different I’d wonder why the bridges are all so tall above such an innocuous stream. Along the soft verges are mossy banks and rocks. This looks like an idyllic place to picnic and play in the stream on a summers day. I reach Kettlewell in time for another cup of coffee, but this time I choose a scone with jam and cream to replenish my energy levels.
With my mind a million miles away, I continue along Wharfedale until a beep from my little sat-nav device reminds me to check the route sheet. I was about to miss 10km of Littondale – that would have been a terrible shame, and a disaster for the audax. Skipping bits of the route inadvertently might be known as “doing a Lindsay” in remembrance of her joy at missing parts of the Chevy Chase a few years ago.
Dave’s route takes a 10km diversion from Wharfedale up Littondale and back down to rejoin the B6160 just the other side of the River Skirfare. It was about this time that I realised the ride had the word ‘Tour’ in the title – and quite rightly so. As audaxes go, this one was proving to be a gem of a sightseeing tour of the Yorkshire Dales.
After returning to Wharfedale and riding through Grassington, I found myself heading for Pateley Bridge. I remembered Pateley Bridge from a cycle-camping holiday Carol and I had shared. I was at the bottom of a huge hill and there seemed to be only one way out of Pateley Bridge… up. However, I’d forgotten the huge hill to get into Pateley Bridge in the first place, following the B6265 past the Grimwith Reservoir. This is Greenhow Hill.
Thankfully I finally had a bit of wind assistance and found the climbing a lot easier than the last time I’d ridden this way. Last time I was weighed down with a bicycle full of camping gear. I was also weighed down with the guilt of dragging Carol along the road too. We were supposed to be enjoying a cycle camping holiday, and Carol really embraced the word ‘holiday’ while I had embraced the word ‘cycle’. It took a couple more adventures after that before I finally understood that ‘cycle camping holidays’ are all about the ‘holiday’.
In Pateley Bridge I threw myself wantonly into the first cafe I could find and ordered Crumble and Custard. I expected that from here I would have another extremely hard climb to get out of town. I had entered this ride thinking that the climb of Fleet Moss was the big one and that everything else would be easy after that, so I hadn’t really looked at where the route went.
So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that leaving Pateley Bridge for Lofthouse the road was flat alongside the Gouthwaite Reservoir and the River Nidd. I was now into another dale: Nidderdale.
As the water levels in all the rivers were low, I had expected the reservoir to be low too, but not quite as empty looking as this. There were rings of dried earth surrounding the edges, much like rings around a bathtub. I rode along slowly allowing my crumble and custard to digest without demanding any energy in my legs. I guessed there would be a climb from Lofthouse to reach Ripon, but it couldn’t possibly be as tough as Fleet Moss or Greenhow Hill.
Reconnaissance. Something I don’t do enough of. I saw the writing on the hillside as I approached Lofthouse and realised that I was going to be in trouble. Visit Yorkshire call it a ‘Killer Climb’. It featured in the 2017 Tour de Yorkshire and reduced professional cyclists to a crawl. Look away, watching me climb isn’t going to be pleasant.
Let a veil drop over my deathly slowly climbing. Climbing to the soundtrack of a garmin beeping ‘Activity Paused’ due to how slowly I cycled.
At least I was warm.
Many days (even weeks) later, as I crossed the top of the climb and headed for the end of the ride in Ripon, I could see heavy clouds of rain in the distance. I wondered if they would welcome me to the end. Instead I was fortunate that the rain was moving away from me faster than I was catching it. I found myself on wet roads, but in warm sunshine as I got closer and closer to the end. It was a wonderful moment to discover that the last 13km would be all downhill.
I don’t know how I would have struggled back to Richmond after Fleet Moss, Greenhow Hill and Cote de Lofthouse. Starting and finishing at the Sun Parlour Cafe in Spa Gardens was perfect – despite being closed when I left and closed when I got back. It just felt like the best way to end the route was with a 13km downhill section.
Dave’s route sheet had been really easy to follow and I hadn’t made any mistakes, however, the garmin’s beep had prevented me from missing Littondale which would have ruined the ride validation. I can’t imagine how disappointed I would have been to get home with only 190km on the clock.
Dave’s “Dales Dales Tour Plus” runs at the beginning of September. May I heartily commend it to my brothers and sisters of the audax world.