Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Etape du Dales

After travelling up to the Peak District and Lake District already this May, I was looking forwards to heading closer to home for another tilt at the Etape du Dales – a ride I’ve done twice before and which has always proved a challenge. On my first time round with Rich and riding in foul weather, Rich’s tooth fell out only a couple of hours in and – needless to say – this didn’t do anything to distract him from the fact he was riding a borrowed bike. Last year, in even worse weather, I rode around solo in a time of 7hr 4minutes – narrowly missing the ‘Gold’ standard and coming in 64th overall, but disappointingly the cold had addled my brain so much that I soft-peddled in to the finish as I thought I had blown way over the 7hr mark already…This time, with a crack team of guys from my regular training partners, I was determined that sub-7hrs should be the target.

Leaving London in the early hours of Saturday morning, we made the journey up to York in a record time of 3.5 hours, and proceeded to spend the rest of the time furiously fuelling up with as many carbohydrates as possible (think lashings of lasagne, garlic bread, and apple crumble – thanks Mum!). After this is was time to relax and get an early night to prepare for the uber-early leaving time of 5.30 on Sunday morning (who says cyclists are anti-social?)
A lesson in how to relax
 Unfortunately I hadn’t remembered to pack the 100 Climbs book, so had only a vague knowledge of the hills coming up. Somehow I had also managed to scrub my memory of most of the route, despite having ridden it twice (this probably had something to do with blocking out the memory of some truly atrocious weather) so wasn’t much use in briefing the guys at what to expect – except that it would be hard, hilly, and probably cold! As we got in the cars to head over to the Dales, TomTom was convinced that it would take an hour and a half to get there, which wasn’t in line with our schedule of being back on the road to London by 3pm. So, after finding a brick to lodge on top of the accelerator (that’s “gas pedal” for any Americans reading), we covered the distance in 40 minutes. Perhaps I should take up rally driving?
Getting revved up from breakfast
Plenty of faffing around HQ later (signing on, setting up bikes, queuing for the loos, shivering in the cold etc), we were all together and ready to go. A quick bleep of the timing chip over the start line and we were on our way rolling through the crisp summer air at a good lick (the use of the word ‘crisp’ here is similar to the use of the word ‘cosy’ by Estate Agents when viewing a 12’ bedsit). Driving the pace at the front, I felt pretty fresh at this point and keen not to lose time, which was clear by the number of other riders we passed, collected and then dropped off the back of our small group. After the first hour, the first cracks started to appear and as a group we were becoming increasingly spaced out on the climbs and inclines, and at this point we came across Laura (who had set off before us) standing by the side of the road with her bike upside down – never a great sign! Unfortunately her rear derailleur had exploded all over the road, leaving her with no option but to bail out and leave the dream of completing the ride for another year. Barry, who had been riding with us, very kindly volunteered to stay with her until she was picked up and I suggested she asked a nearby resident to use their telephone to call for help (apart from terrible weather, another hallmark of the Yorkshire Dales is zero phone reception, which means that the organisers have to set up their own shortwave radio receivers to marshal the ride). As I found out later, Laura decided instead to call from a phone box and left a message at home that she was “In a phone box” and would be dropping out of the ride. Not surprisingly, this didn’t create a sea of tranquillity from base camp, and many frantic calls to the Yorkshire Dales Tourist Board later trying to track down this phone box, Laura was picked up by the organisers’ broom wagon and taken back to the HQ.

All of the above happened at the base of Fleet Moss, the first of the categorised climbs of the day, and as everyone was already looking pretty puffed out we decided to forget about achieving a target time and rather simply ride together and see what happened. Fleet Moss is a long climb which deceives you into thinking you can see the summit, only to punish you for being so optimistic by continuing devilishly around the corner not once but twice! That said, once you’ve gotten into a rhythm, it doesn’t ramp up to any unmanageable extremes and overall is a very rewarding hill. Something about the day’s ride wasn’t feeling great in my legs and although I am normally able to climb with the best of them, I really didn’t have the same snap as I’m used to so had to settle for seeing Andy dance away from me uphill as I sat back in the 25 and made my way to the top.

We re-grouped at the summit and then flew down the amazing descent into Hawes – just one of the brilliant downhill sections to come that day. Daring to look down at my speedo, I glanced speeds nudging above 50mph before once again gluing my eyes to the tarmac and riders ahead – probably for the best when all that is protecting you from severe road rash or worse is a thin covering of lyrca and some polystyrene on your bonce… Buzzing from the adrenaline of that, we stopped briefly at the feed-stop to refill bottles and stuff down the odd banana or two and then pushed on.

Cruelly, pretty much straight out of the feed station was the climb up Buttertubs. In terms of climbs that just seem to go on-and-on, Buttertubs must be up there - as soon as you think you might be at the top, up it goes again at double-digit gradients, over cattle-grids and narrow, broken roads. Yet again, I couldn’t keep pace with Andy and got to the top behind him where we regrouped with the other guys. After a quick false descent, we reached the main downhill section, where we were casually reminded by a chap leaning out of his car window to “watch out for loose sheep”. Sound advice, if ever I have heard it, although given the open grazing throughout the Dales, I can only imagine that the back side of Buttertubs is rife with suicidal/cyclist hating sheep on the prowl for their next victim.

Grouping up, we pushed through the next rolling section before the road headed up the incredibly steep road to Turf Hill. Weaving through riders on their way up, my legs started to feel a bit better on the steeper stuff and I was pleased to be leaving more and more people in my wake. After the steep section, the road over the moors to Langthwaite levels off before dipping down over a cattle grid, climbing back up only to dip down over a ford and back up again. By this point, the sun had come out and I waited before the descent to regroup with the other guys. After 10 minutes or so of basking in the sunshine, Barry rode past reporting no sign of Clive, Rich or Andy – surprising given that Clive was sporting a bright yellow Saunier Duval jersey and was pretty hard to miss even from a distance. Fortunately, just as I was about to go back down the climb to look for them, Andy emerged over the summit having repaired a puncture he suffered after he jammed his front wheel into a hole in a cattle grid. Not sure my legs would have taken another several hundred feet of steep incline after all the EdD had to throw at them.

Turf Hill out of the way, it was time to tackle the third categorised hill of the day: the road up to the Tan Hill Inn. Rated only 3/10 in the good book, this climb isn’t challenging for its gradient, but rather for its length and, I would imagine, battling the elements in inclement weather (according to that bastion of accurate news, the Mail, revellers celebratingNYE in 2010 were stuck there for three days after snow landed). Tan Hill Inn is the highest licensed premises in the country, topping only the Cat & Fiddle (which I climbed up to in this ride) and the climb is very similar if only on a less busy road. It’s not the kind of climb I really enjoy as it tends to drag on for a while and I get a bit bored – it’s not as if the views can match similar climbs in the high mountains. That said, the feed station was a welcome relief, and we spent a while there regrouping, stocking up on food and drink, and complaining about how bad our legs felt (well, except Andy!).

Just off the other side of the hill, I stopped for a quick pee and gave myself the challenge of catching the others on the descent. I’m not the fastest of descenders at 65kgs, but a lot of this can be made up for with good technique, tyres, and a bit of guts, and all of the ascent gained in climbing the 100 climbs has had its benefit in giving me plenty of practise in going downhill. With that in mind, I bombed down the fantastic descent and was back with the others by the time we left the moors towards Nateby (which, incidentally, is just one of a series of brilliantly named towns on the route, including Blubberhouses and Crackpot). Guess what happened after this? Yep, that’s right, some more climbing – no hills of note, but plenty of stuff to test tired legs, so that by the time we reached the third feed at the Morcock Inn, my warnings of “don’t eat too much ‘cos there’s a steep hill coming up shortly” were promptly ignored/forgotten to the allure of cheese and pickle sarnies and the odd gel. Even knowing that the Coal Road was coming up, I couldn’t resist so gorged along with the others.

A few hundred metres after leaving the food stop, we ducked under a very impressive looking viaduct and were instructed to turn left up the infamous Coal Road. I know nothing about this stretch of tarmac, except for two years’ memory scarred into my brain and the knowledge that it’s a testing climb that gets even harder when you have 75 hilly miles in your legs. At the first hairpin, Andy and I were greeted by the scream of a rider succumbing to leg cramp and the sight of a road that only went one way – upwards. In previous years, there has been a photographer here to capture the agony on the faces of people crawling up this climb – but not this year. Instead we were left to suffer alone, with no record of the pain except what our minds would not let us block out for years to come. Sounds too grand? Well, that’s probably true – it’s only a hill, and this is only riding bikes – in that scenario, boy is that a tough climb. The Coal Road done and dusted, in my mind the worst of the ride was done and it was now a relative ‘cruise’ home. How wrong I was.

**UPDATE** - Turns out the Coal Road is also climb number 73 - Garsdale Head. Who Knew?!

Looking fresh...

All a facade

Game face

Not-so-game face
My legs were having none of this ‘easy’ section, and I literally had no power to turn the gear – especially not up the Ribblehead climb where a photographer was well place to capture the emotions. I made a token sprint effort as the shutter clicked, but really the climb here was done at a snails’ pace and at a super low cadence. As we descended, we came back together and formed a couple of fairly decent load-sharing groups where most riders were willing to take their turn in the wind. Unfortunately as I looked back to check we were all together, I didn’t see Clive or his super-yellow jersey. As we pulled up to the side of the road to collect him, it turned out that after being dropped from the group, he had stopped to help a rider who had punctured and had no spare tube – honestly Clive, there are times where you can just be too nice (although I’d like to think that if I was in the same scenario, someone would stop for me)!



Black power?


Up and down and up and down...
Story of the day
Once again after a feed stop, the road ramped straight up and it’s fair to say that we all suffered up this one. With another 600 or so feet of altitude gain under our belts, we had had enough. Taking it in turns to drive the pace, we formed a good chainline and powered down through the ‘10’ and ‘5’ mile to go signs – only being disrupted by missing a junction and having to retrace and regroup. At 1 mile to go, the traditional sprint for the finish revved itself into line, as we all jostled for 2nd wheel and tried to sneak up a gear without anyone noticing. Somehow, I managed to get the jump on everyone and win the unofficial sprint – although it was probably a sign of the fatigue that no-one else was anywhere near me, and also that I got anywhere near winning a sprint!

Rolling across the line at a disappointing (though expected) 8hr7, we found Barry already in his civvies and ensconced in the pub HQ. A great ride by the mountain-biker to beat 4 self-confessed roadies, and an indication of just how challenging the terrain out there is. Superb greasy egg and chips was my recovery food de jour and as we jumped/hobbled into the cars, I tried my hardest to ignore all of the flyers for the second ‘100 climbs’ book which seemed to be spread ubiquitously around the area.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Fred Whitton

More busy weeks at work, more long drives to far reaches of the country, more riding bikes uphill - this blog is starting to sound like a broken record.

This week's ride was, however, no ordinary occasion. The hardest ride in the UK, massively oversubscribed and revered by cyclists from around the world, I was lucky enough to have an entry to the Fred Whitton (you can judge for yourselves whether this was good or bad luck). It’s a ride that takes in all of the hardest passes in the Lake District, and has a wait-list of more than three times the 1700 riders who are drawn from a ballot by - charmingly - Mrs Whitton.

Selene and I had driven up to our B&B in Windermere the day before the ride, and I took the opportunity to sign-on at the start in Coniston in advance. The number of cyclists converging on the tiny rural town was quite amazing and gave me a scale of quite how many people would be taking to the roads the next day. Unsurprisingly, this required military-esque precision by the organisers, and the sign-on process was uniquely rigorous: requiring photo ID, signature, and being tagged up with a 'dibber' (electronic timing chip) on a wristband which was "in no circumstances to be removed"! That said, we were all given a bag of freebies on the way through the process, so it's clear that the organisers knew what they were doing - I'd say 90% of people will put up with pretty much anything if there's free stuff to be had (just look at the hullabaloo in the field of spectators when a pro ditches a bidon on the side of the road).

Having been given a pep talk by our very-friendly-but-noticably-overweight B&B proprietor (who “would have loved to ride, if it wasn’t for this back injury”), we headed out to find out just what was happening in the market town of Bowness-on-Windermere at 5.30pm on a Saturday. The answer? Not a huge amount. After a while spent staring through the windows of closed shops (even the Beatrix Potter Experience was closed!), and dodging unfeasibly drunk and very out-of-place stag and hen parties, we decided the bite the bullet and go for an early supper at the recommended Italian restaurant. Mountains of value-for-money carbs later, we stumbled out into the daylight, looking for something else to do while the clock ticked down to bedtime (alcohol was unfortunately off the cards). Luckily, the local cinema was opposite the restaurant so we popped in to catch the Avengers – shown in a tiny screen with reverse camber (the seats at the back were lower than those at the front...) – before heading back.

The profile - not so much saw-tooth as shark-tooth
Knowing that we had a 5 hour drive home, I was keen to set off early and aimed to be on the bike for 6.30. Unfortunately, that meant missing out on the full English served by our hosts, and instead I had to make do with dry muffins and a banana, which was absolutely no consolation. Doubly unfortunately (for Selene), it also meant that Selene had to drag herself out of bed before 6a.m. and drive the car home from the start line so she could have it for the day – she did get to go back for the pucker breakfast though, so I didn’t feel too bad. By the time we arrived, there was a long queue to get into Coniston, so we parked up on the side of the road and I got everything together there – although I had forgotten to pack the track pump, so I was stuck rolling along on under-pressure tyres.

As with many of these events, it’s all of the run-up to the event that creates the stress (“What did I forget to pack?”, “How early do we have to leave to make sure we get there on time?” etc.) and for me it’s not usually till I’m in the saddle that I can relax. In the peace of the early hours, riding through the dappled sunshine in the forest along the North shore of Coniston Water, this was the perfect start to a ride and in an instant I had forgotten the all the stress of a week. That’s not to say the going was easy though, as the road basically went straight uphill – having been ill during the week and without doing a jot of exercise, it probably would have been good to do a warm-up, but by then it was too late. As normal with sportive events, most riders are filled with exuberance in the early miles, and there are normally people who think they have the form to race round (but inevitably don’t). I’ve ridden quite a few sportives now, and try not to get caught up in the high pace starts, as it is usually a recipe for disaster later on in the ride – but the competitive side of me normally wins out when some fat old chuffer on an expensive bike flies past. The straight uphill start did favour my strengths, meaning that this ride wasn’t as bad as normal in that regard, but even so I did find myself sitting on wheels and forcing splits almost without thinking about it – in the end things settled down a bit with a group of about 10 who could handle the higher pace.

The first climb of the day on my list was Kirkstone Pass. A long climb (about 6 miles from bottom to top), it never gets too steep and was a good appetiser to the day ahead. With views on the way up over to the West, it was another reminder of what lay ahead as well as a preview of the weather for the day, which was to be very blustery with the threat of rain all the way round. Again I set a good tempo on the way up the climb and this thinned out our group out even further, and on reaching the highest point of the ride at 1,500 feet there were only 5 of us left. It was amazing to see spectators out so early and so high, I really couldn’t believe that so many people had braved the weather, but this was only a fraction of the support that we were to have all of the way around the course.

On the fast descent down the back of the Pass, I was given a reminder of some of the dangers that I would be facing during the day as I saw a rider’s back tyre explode and shred underneath him, leaving him to crunch down on the tarmac at 40+ mph. He looked in a bad way but was fortunately with friends and suffering *only* skin abrasions rather than anything more serious. Amazingly, after getting medical support and a new tyre, I saw him climb out of one of the marshal’s cars and back on to his bike after Keswick – what a trooper!
On the way past Ullswater

Luke passing Ullswater
Skirting the South end of Ullswater, the route turned off and up and over Matterdale End, before descending and heading West into Keswick. In the process of working together to keep the pace high, I ended up chatting to another rider and after introducing ourselves we worked out that we had similar aims for the day so would try to stay together around the course. It’s always nice to meet fellow riders at these events, and even better when they are riding at a similar pace and are happy to chew the fat on the way round. As it happens, Luke grew up in the area, and his knowledge of when to work in groups what climbs were coming up was very valuable – particularly on the windy run-in to Keswick where, even in a large group and going downhill, it was a case of pedalling hard just to keep up some momentum.

The second climb on the list was Honister Pass. Knowing that the first feed-stop was just over the top in Buttermere, it was another long-but-not-too-steep climb with an Alpine feel. With my legs still feeling strong, I shot out keeping a good pace around 10mph at the front, all the way to the slate mine at the top before dipping down the other side into the very welcome sight of the fantastic spread of food at the feed. I’d made a pact to drink both bottles by this time (45 miles in) as I’m usually very bad and suffer later on through dehydration. Needless to say, this meant I was feeling better for it, but was also dying for a loo break. Not wanting to lose the group or queue at the stop, I held on for as long as possible before the next climb of Newlands, and then stopping in a field by the roadside for a pee as I knew I’d catch the others going up the hill. This did mean stopping right next to a bunch of spectators, but needs must, and I’m sure they’ve seen worse!

Newlands went up at a steady rate and, with the backdrop of a several-month’s-worth of steep climbing, really didn’t seem so bad despite getting 8/10 in the book. So far, so good, as that meant the ride had already taken in 7, 8 and 9/10 climbs in with less than 50 miles on the clock, and the lack of ├╝ber-steep roads meant that this hadn’t taken too much of a toll. Off the top of Newlands was the first timing point, complete with rows of marshals shouting “dib, dib, dib” before asking where your “dibber” was to be inserted into the chip reader – all rather bizarre and seemed to be a little more hassle than necessary (most events make do with timing mats).

Pushing on, we rode through Braithwaite and up the spectator-lined climb of Whinlatter. With hairpins, through a forest, and with a mother and daughter combo offering jelly-baby hand-ups, Whinlatter was an amazing climb on smooth tarmac and a real sense of achievement in getting up and probably my favourite of the day even if it only gets a lowly 5/10 from Simon Warren.

Next came the most testing section of the ride (besides the final two beastly climbs) which was the South-bound leg, down the Cumbrian coast and straight into a wind that had been picking up all day, developing into a howling gale. This coincided with the exposed tops of Cold Fell (where riders had be taken off the mountain with hypothermia last year) and constant undulations – suddenly my legs really weren’t feeling so fresh, and the cumulative ascent was really making itself known in every uphill section. Battling together, Luke and I swapped turns and made decent progress, although at the time it is always demoralising when you look down at your speedo when going into a headwind and knowing that the effort you’re putting in isn’t being translated into the normal kind of speed you expect. By the time we had reached the second feed station, we dived in to the food on offer, trying not to think about what exactly lay ahead.

Braving the headwind

What exactly lay ahead were two of the hardest climbs in the UK – Hardknott Pass and Wrynose – both of which come in quick succession over the space of about 5 miles. Having not seen or ridden either of these climbs before, I had a sense of trepidation about getting up these two monsters, which had not been helped by almost every person I spoke to reporting back war stories of quite how bad they were. In the back of my mind was the knowledge that I had suffered up enough climbs (including the fearsome Rosedale Chimney and Porlock) to be in the best possible place to judge my own ability, but actually doing them I didn’t know whether these were on the same scale. This wasn’t helped by a chap who – on his way steaming past to a sub-7 hour time – started chatting about his failure last year with the gear setup I had (lowest gear of 39x25) and how he had come back with a miniscule 34x27 to make it up without walking this time. In his opinion, I was bound to fail – well thanks a lot mate!

With all of this in mind, the towering mountain ahead with its meandering road to the top seemed even more daunting; but there was little I could do except resolve myself that I would make it to the top and try to forget about the 100 miles of fatigue already built up. One consolation to the unfaltering gradient was that the change in direction meant that the wind was now behind us and in effect presenting a helping hand up the hill – bonus! Now I’m not going to lie: it was hard. Not only was the gradient 1 in 3 or more, but the road was incredibly bumpy – this meant that standing out of the saddle meant that the back wheel lost traction, and sitting down meant there wasn’t enough weight on the front to keep it from lifting off the top of the bumps. It was just a case of gritting my teeth, crossing the gradient as much as possible, and grinding up at a ridiculously low cadence (around 30 rpm). This tactic worked, and with a suitable amount of gurning, grunting and grinding (must have been a treat for those watching) I summited Hardknott to the view of Wrynose only a few hundred metres away.

Fortunately, after getting up Hardknott, Wrynose seemed like a relative piece of cake, if you like your cakes in an incredibly-steep-rugged-bleak-and-beautiful-countryside kind of format. I even had enough in the tank for a final sprint to the top to overtake the rider I had been going toe-to-toe with the whole way up, although I did have to stop by the side of the road after that to make sure my legs and lungs weren’t about to fall off.

The descent off the back of Wrynose was equally as steep as the way up, and the road surface and tightly packed turns made it treacherous for everyone – I can’t imagine doing that in the wet. One rider ahead came a cropper as his brakes melted away and he lost control, but fortunately he did not seem too bad and was quickly attended to by helpers. After that is was ‘merely’ a case of riding the last 10 miles to the finish, which seemed like agony every time the road even approached a positive gradient – my legs had well and truly gone by this point and I was just holding on for home. Using our last reserves of energy and adrenaline, Luke and I powered towards the finish, talking ourselves into the times that might be possible – probably the exhaustion talking when we thought we might be able to ride the last 5 miles in 15 minutes, but we tried our best. Salt encrusted and seriously hurting, we crossed the finish line at the same time and proceeded to devour everything in sight, which was a particular joy as Selene had brought a massive spread of delicious deli foods that got hovered up at a rate of knots.

Looking back at the results, I’m quite pleased with getting round in a total time of 7 hours 25 – this puts me inside the top 200, and an achievable distance away from the magical sub-7 hour mark. I now have unfinished business with this ride…

110 miles, 10.5k feet of climbing, average moving speed of 15.3mph - that'll do I guess :-)

Photos to follow when uploaded by the official photographer

Friday, 11 May 2012

What sunshine? Peak District riding day 2

Late on Saturday night, after a few-Sloe-Gins-too-many, a conversation was held between myself and Barry about the next day’s riding. This was a real meeting of cycling cultures, and at one point when an 8 a.m. departure was mooted, the mountain-biker’s response was “that’s even earlier than I set off to ride trails” – clearly the early-morning roadie mentality hasn’t made it across the hairy/non-hairy leg divide. After a fairly fitful night’s sleep (including, bizarrely given the amount of salt-ridden food consumed on Saturday evening, a cramp in my left calf), we ended up having a fairly sleeping 9 a.m. start, and made our (quite circuitous) way to Chapel-en-le-Frith in the car.

Having ridden through Chapel on my way back from the Peaslows climb the day before, I knew that the terrain was only going to head one way as we went straight into High Peak – not something that filled me with joy as I would have preferred to have a bit of time to warm my legs up again. As it was, we headed almost straight up 600 feet of climbing and onto the tops of the hills; so much for an easy start…Once up there, though, the ride became a lot more pleasurable as the route picked its way down tiny lanes, barely touched by cars and with plenty of time to take in the scenery. After just over 10 miles, we were back down at riverside level, and travelling through a narrow valley on the way to Monsal Head. As an abandoned railway viaduct, it’s very pretty to look at, but there is a very steep looking ascent up the ‘wall’ at the end to keep things in perspective. As it turned out it, the climb was fairly nicely paced and, although hard work, the fact that it kept at a similar gradient of about 15% all the way up meant that your legs didn’t burn out through the changes in pace. At the top, there was just time for a quick photo op before pushing on:

Knowing the distance and hills left to cover, we reluctantly decided not to stop in Bakewell, and fortunately didn’t pass any pudding shops as that might well have seen us making an extended stop. Coming out of Bakewell saw a fair chunk of climbing the hills again, before descending into a horrendously busy Matlock. For some reason, all the tourists in the world had decided that Matlock was the place to be for the Sunday Bank Holiday, and the place was heaving with traffic and pedestrians. Having earmarked the town as a decent place to grab a bite to eat, we were a bit disappointed to see all of the local sandwich/coffee shops closed. Instead we were presented with a choice between greasy Pukka Pies and the Co-Op, and although it would be a lie to say that Barry’s eyes didn’t light up when someone crossed the road carrying sausage and chips (with associated aroma), I did manage to persuade him that this probably wasn’t the food he wanted to be carrying in his stomach while trying to ascend some of the steepest hills in the country. Missing the turn the first time, we looped back to head up Church Street. Starting out at a fairly modest lick, this climb weaved up through some residential streets (complete with lots of traffic, roadworks and speed-bumps) before turning off to the ominously signposted ‘Not Suitable for Large Vehicles’ Riber Road. It was here that the climb started to get fearsome, with tightly packed switchbacks, loose gravel surfaces, and forested on either side so you had no idea of how close to the top you might be. A great climb, though, and well worth the 9/10 rating, even if the tough-stuff is fairly short lived.

Probably should have gone down
to get a better picture...

Having descended Riber, there was to be no rest for the wicked as the next climb, Bank Road, came only 3 miles later. Apparently one of the steepest residential roads in the UK, it’s also dead-eye straight and there is no way to take your mind off what lies ahead. It’s remorseless double-digit gradient was tough, but as it’s only a little over a kilometer long the going soon gets easier and it’s one of the few hills that you can look down on from the top to get a good sense of exactly what you’ve just ridden up. That said, I didn’t stop to take a picture because I was hungry! By now, we were officially out of the Peaks, but still high up on the hills and in exposed moorside. The wind had started blowing, and we were definitely ready to chow down on whatever might be open and selling food – annoyingly everything seemed to be shut down (perhaps not surprisingly on a Bank Holiday Sunday, but certainly not very entrepreneurial). After a great twisty-turny descent into the town of Rowsley, we saw a corner shop advertising sandwiches and jumped at our chance to re-fuel. Essentially buying them out of lunch stock, I was surprised that the change from a £10 note included a lot of pound coins – I have clearly become too London-ised, and feeding two hungry cyclists for a fiver is just the norm for the North…

Bargains left right and centre

With Barry being powered by a gummy snake, and myself by some exceptional flapjack, we rolled out from the lunch stop raring to go. Once again, it was straight uphill from cold, this time up the 6/10 graded Rowsley Bar. Steep and fairly long, it wasn’t a particularly memorable climb, and I’m surprised that the descent we had come down before lunch wasn’t the climb listed in the book. Once up and over the summit, we looped back to where we had come before. One of the annoying things about trying to string the climbs together is that there isn’t always a good route to and from the climb in the right direction – so you might notice some of the route maps have strange circles in them; this doesn’t necessarily mean that we were lost (although it is a possibility..). One the first pass, I had remarked to Barry that the GPS track looked to be leading us down a rocky looking bridleway, and surprise surprise this was yet again one of the ‘Google special’ route-mappings. As we headed down, the terrain got worse, going from gravel to mud to large broken rocks. There were some pretty bemused looks from the walkers and mountain-bikers on the track, but with a touch of skill (and probably a lot of luck) we both got down in one piece without puncturing or breaking anything. In fact, I think we were both so tickled by the fish-out-of-water nature of our equipment at the surroundings that we giggled like little girls most of the way down – even bunny hopping off the top of a couple of jumps that had been built up. Pretty sure Google must have just bought shares in an inner tube manufacturer though…

Looks much more benign in the picture

Inappropriate fun!

Rolling through the grounds of Chatsworth House (which must have been second on the list of all of the Matlock tourists, judging by the amount of traffic) and then further North still, we hit Calver and my old University hill-climb haunt of Curbar Edge. I have memories of this climb being pretty atrocious, but then again I was trying to hit it at full pelt in front of a crowd of supporters – which probably goes some way to explaining the strong taste of iron that I vividly recollect at the top.  Fortunately, this time round (and perhaps with the perspective of climbs like Porlock and the Rosedale Chimney in the back of my mind) it wasn’t so bad – probably the equivalent of Rowsley – so a nice little effort know that there was only ‘one’ hill left (inverted commas included as riding through the Peaks is a guarantee of continual hills, but only one of them would count for this blog’s purposes).

Top of Curbar
A brief interlude followed the ride away from Curbar, as Barry’s ever-reliable home-made wheels decided that they didn’t like their current spoke pattern. But a quick tweak with a spoke key and we were away again – Barry moving noticeably quicker thanks to being one spoke lighter on his back wheel! Finally on roads that we knew were leading back West to where we had left the car, we picked up the pace, and were also revived in spirit by travelling through the excellently named village of Shatton:

The last hill of the day is one of the beasts of the Peak District, and is as epic in scale as its reputation suggests. As we passed through Castleton, it became clear that the village was surrounded by a wall of hills, each as steep-sided as one another and with no obvious way across. Fortunately, nature had been so kind as to heave a cleft between two of the spurs of the hills and this is Winatt’s Pass – although only wide enough for a single-track road and still up a significant gradient. There is a long false flat up to the ‘start’ of the Pass, so by the time you arrive your legs are already feeling less fresh than you might have expected, and you have also burned through a few more gears than you might have liked. The road itself is very similar in feel to Cheddar Gorge – very isolated and quiet on the way up so you can hear your breathing and thumping heartbeat all the way to the top. Admittedly, Winatt’s probably felt extra difficult because it was the last hill of a long day (around 8,000 feet of climbing), but even so I would definitely say that it was the hardest climb on that ride.

Summiting Winnat's
A quick flat section and then rapid (40mph) descent down brought us back into Chapel to the car park. Both buzzing from a great ride, we headed back to Manchester to gorge on barbecued food and drink late into the night laughing at Barry’s sunburn (quite an achievement, given the lack of sunshine, and the fact it was cold enough for me to be in merino and longs all day…)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Riding with the llamas - Peak District Day 1

Been a while since I updated this blog, but riding has continued in earnest. Another 3-lap challenge (another PB for me, only to be out-performed by Selene), some riding in Surrey with Clive, and an extremely wet/muddy crit race at the Cyclopark in Kent (leading the pack most of the way round, only to be rolled on the line to end up in 6th place – bloody tactics) have meant that life on two-wheels has been as vibrant as ever.

Racing at the Cyclopark with Chris

Getting quite used to this packing-for-riding lark

Several busy weeks at work on the trot and a packed out schedule for makes Nathan a tired boy. Nevertheless, rushing to get all my work cleared down on Friday evening, Selene and I hopped in the car for a 4 hour drive up North to stay with my sister over the Bank Holiday weekend. Arriving late and pretty pooped we flopped down into bed and it's fair to say that getting up the next morning was a bit of a struggle - especially as everyone else was having a lovely lie-in.

The ride started from Wilmslow, part of Manchester's 'golden triangle' (think footballers and WAGs in unfeasibly shiny Range Rovers), so the early part of the ride was spent playing the spot-the-fancy-car game, albeit with slightly disappointing results - the nicest out on the roads early on a Saturday was an Audi R8. It wasn’t long after leaving Wilsmlow that I reached Alderley Egde – another side of the ‘metallic three sided shape’ and a place well named as the ‘Edge’ in Alderley really does rise out of the middle of nowhere to dominate the horizon. With only a few miles in my legs, when I turned a steep corner to see the cobbled ‘Swiss Hill’ rising up into the distance, I have to say that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to getting up it.

Cobbles are innocuous enough to look at (see picture below), but nothing can describe the feeling of trying to get up 20% gradients on skinny tyres, pumped up to maximum pressure and on a bike with very little put aside for comfort (let alone any suspension to help push the tyres back into the ground). Being bounced all over the place, it’s almost impossible to stand up out of the saddle without completely losing traction from the back wheel – so there is little alternative than to sit on your saddle, absorb the bumps through your arms and backside, and grind up the hill to the top. It’s not a particularly long hill, but it is cobbled all the way to the top and has enough bends in it to stop you from seeing how far you have left. All in all, a real killer!

Swiss 'Belgian' Hill
After making the top, I managed to settle in to a fairly decent rhythm and started moving across the Cheshire Plains at a decent rate of knots. Yet another mix-up with Google maps led to a good stint on a cobbled/muddied/graveled bridleway, but fortunately I managed to get through upright, without any ‘p-words’ (bit like Voldemort – their name must not be invoked for fear of retribution) and without covering my nicely clean bike in grit. This was clearly a ride to increase my empathy for the professional riders who compete and Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders with plenty of ‘textural’ challenges along the way… However getting back into a decent cadence, the flat terrain meant that I made pretty good progress for the first couple of hours. Sitting at speeds of 20+mph, I did start to get a slight sense of complacency that the rest of the ride was going to be pretty easy – so much so that I started to take note of quite how many fields of llamas there seem to be in this part of the country:


More llamas! (And a plastic zebra...)

The incredible (tree) hulk

Maybe it’s something about the quantity of rain that they get here that they like so much…

Reaching the Southern-most point of the ride, it was time to get up the climb of Mow Cop. Just like Alderley Edge, Mow Cop rises out of the largely flat skyline and is crowned by a crumbling castle making for even more of a landmark. Starting off at a railway crossing, the climb rises up fairly sharply before tailing off and then kicking up viciously for the last few hundred metres. As cycling commentators say, a good way to assess the steepness of a climb on TV is to look at the angle between the front doors of the houses of the street and the road heading down from them. Although this video isn’t of me, as you can see here ( the last kick up past the pub is pretty steep.

Top of Mow Cop
25 miles into the ride and with two climbs under my belt, I was feeling great before I crested Mow Cop and was hit by a stiff Northerly wind, which I had been largely sheltered from on the flats – ahh the false sense of contentment that can only come from cycling with a tailwind! However, knowing that there was little alternative from the hard and lumpy section heading North across the Peak District, it was just a case of gritting my teeth and getting on with it. Still, it would have been nice to have a big lump of a rider to hide behind. At points like this, I often find that particular songs get lodged in my head, which is great for shutting out the external difficulties and just concentrating at spinning your legs around in time with the beat – even if you do look like a bit of a fool to passers-by as you mouth/sing the words. In this particular instance, it was Genesis by Grimes ( which worked for me, despite Selene describing it as something like her Yoga instructor would play early in the mornings!

More tiny, tiny roads and llamas later, I ended up on a farm track open to livestock and separated by gates/cattlegrids going across the tops of the hills. At this point, I spotted a couple of heffers with a new calf, as well as a very large bull sitting extremely close to the track. Slightly nervous at approaching the set of probably protective bovines, I took the ‘safe’ option of hopping over the fence running alongside the road and walking around the lot of them up to the next gate – not before taking a photo once I was on the right side of the fence, of course!

I ain't scared of no cow. But I am scared of a narked bull
(Note tactical position of fence)
Although this blog is starting to get quite wildlife-centric, the cycling did continue up to Flash – the highest village in the UK – before descending into Buxton for a disappointing greasy sausage roll and instant coffee.

Flash! Ahhhh!
(And a pirate that looks a little like Jesus)
After getting extremely cold, I headed on to Chapel-en-le-Frith without any feeling in my fingers or toes and looking forward to the Peaslows climb out of the town as a way of warming up. Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint and although not the hardest or most technical hill ever, it did rise up pretty sharply and go on for a decent mile and a half before summiting giving great views over the surrounding hills. I didn’t hang around at the top as I had only just got feeling back, so I completed the loop back down to Chapel and pushed on with the rest of the ride.

At this point, I deviated from my planned route, as in my rush to map it out I had built in the ascent of the Cat and Fiddle (the final climb) from the wrong side – meaning that I had to head West to Macclesfield before tracking back East up the hill. This essentially meant crossing High Peak, descending 600 feet, and then climbing back up to the highest point of the ride – probably not the best way to plan the ride but at this point there wasn’t much alternative! Rather than starting all the way in the centre of Macclesfield, I decided to start the climb from the steeper (but shorter) Rainow side up Bull Hill Road. After getting over this section, it was a case of sitting in the big ring and getting up the final 5 miles of climb. To be honest, although it is a much lauded hill, I found the Cat and Fiddle a pretty boring ascent, on a busy road, with not much to look at and little variation in the gradient to spice things up. Still, one bonus is that there’s a pub at the top – even if I only indulged in a Coke this time…

Pretty bleak up the tops
A long descent and a few final climbs later, I was back in Wilmslow and pretty knackered. What was supposed to be the easier of the two rides (with only 4 ‘categorised’ climbs) had turned out to be a bit of a beast with 9,000 feet of climbing and some heavy winds. Happy to have got round with a reasonably respectable average moving speed and good distance to bosh out solo, it was a great ride to celebrate with a steak back at Laura’s house in Broadbottom. Unsurprisingly, I was knocked out after a couple of beers, and as Selene and Laura had been drinking wine since 3pm, we were all in bed by about 11 – very tame for a Bank Holiday Saturday, but I think we were all perfectly content in our own ways!