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.

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