Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A Day in the Lakes

Too quick off the mark

Don’t answer an email when you are drunk.  The email I answered was an invite to take part in an event titled “A Day in the Lakes”.  Baz, living in the Lakes, had this on his doorstep and told us “this is going to be my crazy challenge this year” and threw out the invite for the rest of us to join.
Being drunk, I replied to the email with a snapshot of my confirmation of entry from the organiser.
This was in December.  As we ticked into January of 2015 the blood in my veins turned cold.  I had signed up for this quaintly named event in the Lake District which was actually a half Ironman or 70.3:

If you have followed the adventures herein you will know that despite being an avid and almost professional drinker I can also turn the pedals of a bike.  My love is for the dirt, tree and rock that threaten to smash my bones when I fail to respect them, like a slightly suicidal but healthy mid-life crisis.  I have also dabbed more than a toe in the world of the Tarmac T-Rex. 

It has always been my ability to endure “pain for the pint at the end” which has seen me through the road jaunts and also my love of being with the Wolf Pack, but here there was an issue.  Baz had signed up, Dan had signed up, Paul was now living in Seattle and Mark wisely refused.  The pack was reduced from the start.  So was I to have two comrades?  Not even, because these events are about you against you, trying to defy your own limits.  The fact that you are in a crowd is neither here nor there.  Not that I would see the crowd because Baz and Dan were already supremely better than me at tarmac cycling and the rules of no drafting made it impossible for us to ride together anyway.  Baz also ran like a Gazelle, so I was on for the hardest challenge I would ever face and it was for all intents and purposes, solo.

Solo was not new of course; Prudential Ride London was solo, Mitie London Revolution was solo and the Gorrick cross country races were solo but these were all on bikes.  What I needed to do was learn two very important things.  I had to learn how to run and how to swim.  I also only had 6 months left.    

Forming the Man

Readers should know that I am not the source for training advice or kit recommendations and that trend continues.  I looked at apps on the iPhone that coached a person from couch to 5k or 10k in a 12 week programme and decided that was a little too long into my journey, so on the 4th January I stuck on a pair of shorts, trainers and shirt at work and ran 5k in a lunch break. 

I couldn’t walk up stairs for 3 days without wincing.

Once the legs worked again I ran another 5k at lunch.  I kept this process going until it stopped hurting and support from my colleagues led to a running group on Wednesdays which kept the miles rising.  After a short while I tried a 10k at lunch.  This hurt a little, but nothing like the first 5k.  Then I found a morning that was free on a wet weekend and I ran a half-marathon on the heath behind my house.  I had gone from couch to half-marathon in 4 weeks, but more importantly, I had completed the distance that was required of me.  A mental wall tumbled down.

As for swimming, the furthest I had ever swum was 1k and this was in a lunch break at college.  I used to go once a week to the pool next to the grounds and I could knock out this distance in just over 20 minutes, but at the time I was 19, thought smoking was the devil’s weed and was too poor to drink to destruction.  Much had changed over a decade, but I hoped swimming was like riding a bike and booked a day off work, calculated the distance in lengths of the 25 meter local pool and swam 1.2 miles in just under an hour.  More of the wall came down.

All the advice to train for this distance in both run and swim is opposed to what I did, but getting my body ready for it was not what drove me.  My body has been abused enough to recover from most things, but the key I needed to turn was whether or not it could get through it at all in order to then repair rather than fall apart during.  I was fighting fear, not fitness and although my legs took a beating in that first month and my eyes looked as if they might bleed because I had no goggles when I swam, I knew the distance was possible.  The bike was never an issue as I knew how to winch up a climb and I knew how to descend to make up time.  When you stop cycling you roll for a while to get your head back in the game, but when you stop swimming you stop.  When you stop running you stop.  Now I knew I didn’t need to stop and I was brave enough to start!

Only after the wall was down did I start investing properly, buying running clothes, joining the Garrison 50m pool to cut out half of the turns and to utilise the dead time between 9pm and 10pm so I missed no time with the boys and gave my wife quiet time to watch “Home & Away”.  The fear was dead and I had benchmarks of known ability.  All that was left was to improve them and to string them together, scouring websites for form advice, but more importantly, believing I could do it and to do it well.

As a man of finance this became a spreadsheet, but the plan was rather simple.  First I copied a Personal Best Iron-man training plan that spanned 12 weeks.  I halved the distances of each workout and added a new set of columns I named “Reality Plan”.  This was every week I had left, so in my first batch of weeks there was no Personal Best plan to compare it to, but that didn’t matter to me.  I was interested in the distances rather than the intensity and once I had booked out all the days I knew I couldn’t train on, all the weekends where family time trumped all, stuck in the few lad’s adventures that had been talked about, I finally had windows of opportunity.  In these I stuffed a little more distance in each discipline than the Personal Best plan had.
It was basic, but I lived to it with only a 20% slippage in Swimming and Running (whereas cycling fell to the wayside often)

·         Monday lunch                  -              5k
·         Tuesday lunch                  -              Weights
·         Tuesday evening              -              2k swim
·         Wednesday Lunch           -              5k
·         Thursday Lunch               -              5k
·         Thursday evening            -              2k swim
·         Friday Lunch                   -              Core and stability (almost Pilates, but not)   
·         Weekend                          -              Family time but with a monthly Half marathon thrown in

Weekends were my place holder for when to cycle in the plan, but it wasn’t happening.  I took the bike to work a few times for hill repeats but probably made no real difference.  I also had a trip to the Ridgeway with Mark for a 50 mile off-road blast and a Peak District two day epic on Mam Tor with Mat and Mark, but cycling was the middle child – forgotten.

The other disciplines received great focus and the Goddess also saw fit to look after her own again.  As a family on an outing to the Guildford splash pools we passed posters advertising cold water swimming at Guildford Lido.  This was February and my adventure there was the first swim in a wetsuit.  It may also have shortened my life a little; such was the cold that penetrated my soul.

Through work I also found a friend who was a GB triathlete.  He encouraged me to join him one Tuesday night at Reading Lakes, introduced me to methods such as drafting and also took me for a run which killed a little bit more of me; such was the pace he set.  I simply trusted fate and took these chances when family life allowed and every little piece of experience was something new, bolted onto the man like pieces of armour.

Sadly we lost Dan during the training process leaving just me and Baz in the running. Strava told me I was on for a loss against him, but that would be decided on the day.

The drive up

The day was as quickly upon me as I had feared it would be, but in another way it felt a little later than I had wanted.  I had felt for a few weeks that I was ready and then entered the tapering stage, but rather than being able to convince myself that this was helping, the loss of the constant training set a fear growing in me that I was losing my best.  Whether true or not, I could do nothing about it and set about my usual routine for any event, with multiple lists of items required, allowed my son to decorate what would be my transition box, wrote down what I intended to do in transition to commit it to memory and set about packing, ticking off and preparing to drive.

I dropped the children at nursery, did a quick shop to stock my wife up with goodies and set off for Cumbria, with the plan to collect an eBay purchase of a pram from Stockport for Baz on the way.  This should have been a 6 hour journey, but was 9 hours after the M6 and three trucks had a say in the matter.  That confirmed my wisdom to travel on Friday and not the day before as it simply didn’t matter what time I arrived. 

I actually arrived just in time for dinner and a quick meet and greet with the newest Simpson before he was taken to bed.  Homemade burgers and real ale I had picked up from Tebay services closed the day beautifully.

Saturday was a lazy day, drifting over to the staging site to sign in and receive our tags, all in glorious sunshine we both knew was not going to hold.  Baz and I could see the fells that would be the course for the run and stood on the banks of the lake wishing the buoys had already been placed, but overall we were quiet, thoughtful and if I am honest; bricking it.  

I was quick to order a pint when we stopped for lunch at the Punchbowl in Askum and I started on what was left in the house when we returned.  Mention of a quick ride out on the bikes filled me with dread and I knew there was no turning back.

That night we prepared first in silos, dealing with our own rituals and packing our own transition boxes.  Mine had been decorated by my son for luck and I spent a while collecting stickers from Baz's kitchen floor.  

Baz then cooked us a meal to put balls between our legs for the day and I wondered whether it actually had balls in it:

Regardless - it was scrumptious and while it sank down into our guts we stood together and talked each other through our race plans whilst ticking off the kit as packed when we mentioned it.  I had thought about it so many times and had now been at the lake edge so could summon the image of the race clearly.  Whereas a few hours ago I was terrified, suddenly I was ready.

Being ready does not mean I was able to sleep.

The Race

We were up at 6am and in the pre-packed car after a swift coffee and bowl of granola by 6:30am.  We were quiet in the car as we drove the 45 mins to the start, both looking at the head of a storm that had already broken ahead of us.  Views of mountains and green had already been replaced with grey sheets of falling rain.

The rain eased a little before we parked up and moved our kit to transition.  The wind did not and nor did the sky have any intention to clear.  The organisers had told us to be ready to go down to the water at 8am for the start, but during the briefing he told us that this was to be delayed.  The wind was so strong at the far end of the route that the safety kayaks were having trouble in the waves.  Instead the buoys would be moved and the course would be a two lap effort, still 1.2 miles, in the less deadly waters.

Standing in the water I looked at the amount of people waiting to start.  The first wave set off at the siren and it was a frantic foray of splashes around the purple caps.  Very soon it was time for us orange heads to move out to the start for the second wave where it was deep enough to have to tread water.  Confident in my abilities I moved to the front.  Wise to triathlon, Baz stayed at the back.

Our siren sounded.  I swam hard towards the first buoy and was in the lead group, but not far enough ahead for it to matter.  I came too close to the buoy and couldn’t turn quick enough.  The swimmers behind me began to clamber over me, pushing me down and letting me taste Ullswater’s offerings.  I tried to get out of the way and was pushed under again, coming up afterwards gagging and watching as the field of athletes, including Baz, crept away.

It was over for me at that point.  I swam behind the group, catching up with Baz, but feared getting close to people or even putting my face down into the cold water.  I felt defeated five minutes into a day’s long race.  I tried calling out to Baz, trying to convince myself that this was a fun day and his reply would make me laugh, but he had his eyes focused forward and earplugs sealing his ears shut.
I slowed down further and they crept away.  I passed the second buoy, still head up and wondering what I might do while Baz was out finishing the race.  He had the keys so I couldn’t pack the car so I would have to linger which I convinced myself would be fine.  I had money for coffee…

…but as I came to the last straight of the square I could see people exiting the lake.  The water was choppy, malicious and brutal.  The toll from one lap was hefty and suddenly I could not allow it to be me as well.  I had not trained for six months to be beaten by doubts.  So my face slipped into the water and within two clean breaths I was on the inside line of those reaching the buoy where it had started and where it had all gone wrong.

I cut around it with only a few bodies to navigate around and tried to sight the next buoy.  It was grey cloud ahead and nothing else, so I moved further inwards and used my breathing as a means for checking my progress through the water.  One head, two heads, three; I was faster than the back of the pack and didn’t belong there.  Four, five, six and more; I was catching bigger groups and I was passing them.  The third buoy was behind my shoulder and I had one more to reach before I could climb out of the water and begin the journey to completing this thing.

I swam that last stretch hard and scooped a handful of gravel in the shallows.  This alone let me know I was there and I stood up intending to run to transition, but the world tipped and met me on the left.  I laughed, gathered myself and stood up again.  People were looking at me so I called “am I winning?” to lighten the mood.  A step forward towards the laughter and I was down again on my left.  My balance was gone so I crawled to the shore, stood again and was suddenly being held by the shoulders.

A guy in a wetsuit, but not a competitor, had me.  He looked me in the eyes, checking if I was okay.  “That was a good swim” he said with a smile and I thanked him.  “You need to wait here for five minutes,” he added and I had to ask him to repeat what he’d said.  Once I understood at first I was annoyed, but quickly realised that this was someone caring for me, wanting me to be okay and wanting me to finish.

Five minutes later he let me go, insisting I walk and not run, which I did.  On route to the bike I removed the top of my wetsuit in the fashion I had learned from Gareth, my triathlete mate at work.  I also chuckled as I remembered a conversation I’d had with another work mate, David, during one of our runs.  He had said that people are affected differently by the swim and some come out of the water fine while others have no legs.  At the time I had said how I would be fine, but now I knew the truth of it and the memory removed any doubt that I could continue.  It was just how the water had affected me.

Back at the bike I saw people racing through their transition, going out in just a tri-suit into what had become a lashing cold rain.  I had hoped to finish within seven hours, but now I just wanted to finish.  I had been through my greatest battle in the water and it had been against my own mind.  Now was the time to let my body do the rest, so I sat down, dried my feet, dressed for bad weather, said hello to Baz as he left transition and set off when I was ready.

I rode hard, but the weather was brutal.  On the first stretch beside the lake where I had hoped to gain time I was faced with headwinds and rain that blinded me.  This was also going to be the story for me until I was at least half way through the route, so I backed off a little, considering staying on the bike more important that blasting against it and popping my legs.  After all, I had Kirkstone Pass, Shap Fell and a run over a mountain yet to complete.

I was not to be defeated by weather on a bike.  I had conquered the Prudential Ride London in a hurricane and that one was twice the length.  The miles just needed to be churned out and that is what I did, getting out of the saddle when I could and sitting down when I had to.

The Kikstone climb that I dreaded a little seemed to come very soon into the ride and the weather was not letting up.  I was looking forward to seeing the pub at the top which marked the end of that part of effort, but I entered the clouds halfway up and spent my time worrying more about the coaches and cars coming down the pass against me rather than the effort for me to get up.  Without even seeing the pub I was suddenly descending, with that headwind still prevailing and lashing my face with cold rain.

I had been passed by one and gained on three by the time I hit the bottom of Shap Fell, but I had expected this climb to be on a narrow winding road.  Instead it was a wide, boring and monotonous beast.  It was so different from expectation that I was completely shocked at the top when a man stepped out of the mist applauding me, saying “you’ve got 100 meters of Shap left and then it’s all downhill.”

It wasn’t all downhill, but it wasn’t climbing like I had experienced to that point.  I also had reached a point where the wind was now with me rather than against me and I started to clip along nicely, taking another three places and losing one when I needed to stop for a pee in a bush.  By the time I reached transition again the sun had broken through and I was smiling, knowing I was a run away from being a half ironman.

I treated transition the same as I had before, changing into dry jersey and socks and being comfortable before I set off.  Meanwhile a city type was throwing a fit about his time, screaming at his wife or girlfriend to go home because he was going to be hours before he finished.  She ignored him and although I had the urge to advise him to calm down I kept quiet.  That was his race and mine was mine.

Due to the weather at the start we were told we had to carry safety kit with us, so I was carrying a bag into the run with full body cover, a map, a compass, a whistle and rescue blanket despite the dramatic change in weather.  Rather than raincoats it seemed we were more likely to need sun cream!
I set off at a gentle pace and ran the small section of tarmac to the start of a steep climb into the fells.  Here I caught up with a lady called Helen and as she walked beside me up the rocky slope I shared out the wine gums I had in my bag.  At the top of the climb we ran together but it became apparent that my pace from ability to descend on loose rocks and shale was a touch faster than she was happy to hold.  I left her behind and before long reached the cut-off point and drinks station I had feared not getting to in time.

After all that had happened I was there in ample time and started off on the true climb of the run.   This took me up a broken trail, beautifully way-marked with small red flags at every hint of a junction.  I passed through streams, cut around broken down stone shepherd huts that had long lost their roof and then was directed over a bridge away from the mountain I thought I was going to climb.

Perplexed, I kept going and soon realised that there was a tremendous ridge joining the two.  I passed along this and then began the proper descent back to the drink station I had passed a while ago. 

I skipped down the side of the mountain with a flow that belied what I had already been through.  Six people fell behind me as I descended and these people had not even been in sight when I started the climb.  I was flying and so much so that one woman stepped aside and cried out “go on Mountain Goat!” as I passed her.

Back at the drink’s station I was led along a road for a short time, back up onto the fells for a little longer along a false flat and then down onto the road beside the lake.  A sign marked 5K to go and I plodded along, overtaking another two people before seeing the turning back into the field after what had seemed the longest 5k of my entire life.

My plan had always been to cross the line running and I stuck to this, but I did so wearing a stitch in my ribs that decided to strike in those last 10 meters.  Baz was stood waiting, having finished an hour and a half before me.  

We hugged, laughed, helped ourselves to the free offerings and then I grumbled that I had not been given a medal!  You get a medal nowadays for crossing the line on a fun run and I had already promised it to my eldest son to put in his dressing up box. 

It is surprising how small things can mean so much after trauma, but there it is.  I was annoyed for the whole time it took me to change into civvies in transition and to walk my stuff back to Baz’s car.  Once I sat down in the passenger seat the gripe had flown and our chins wagged as we shared each other’s stories.  

That night I packed the car and we ploughed through a reward of spicy pizza and expensive specialist beers before having one of the best nights sleep ever, partly because I think I died a little after making a good go at my beers on top of all we had done.

The next morning was an early start and  long drive home for me while Baz went to work.  I feel I had the better deal as I was able to collect the boys early and take them to the pub to enjoy the splendid sunshine.

So it was a long time coming and then over in eight hours and twenty four minutes.  I had been almost drowned in a lake, cycled through gale force wind, lashing rain, climbed two of the top 100 climbs on a bike and completed a half marathon on my first experience of fell running.  All in, it was a rather bold event to jump into without having any experience…

…but I am glad I did.  It wasn’t a race; it was a journey that started on the 4th January and it is a journey that will now continue.  It was lonely at times, brutal at times, exciting and fabulous.  It was an experience shared with Baz even if he did have more than an hour between us by the end.  I knew the pain he had experienced because I had weathered it too.

So we were half ironmen and Baz is already talking about the full ironman status.  I am tempted, but I also learned that commitment to such a task requires sacrifice somewhere else.  A lot of training and a sprinkle of bloody-mindedness got me through this Day in the Lakes, but a full Ironman commanded a little more so maybe my journey will stray a little from Baz next year.

But there is always a mountain marathon to consider…

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

2013 - A short life of Maggot - Afan and Bike Park Wales

Coed-y-Brenin and the group set my mind whirling on the importance of kit.  The speed at which Jim and Milo moved could not be matched on poor Crank and I put this down to suspension (rather than the more likely reason that the two guys were in fact more skilled than me).  Therefore I turned to ebay.
A beautiful metallic brown 2007 Enduro was listed for £600 as collection only and was located in Penrith.  I was happy to pay £600, but not much more, knowing that too much spent would cause me to worry about how I rode the thing.  I needed something with durability and with the E150 forks the Enduro ticked all boxes.  My bid went in last minute.  The bike was mine.

This happened in November and I asked Baz if he could collect it for me.  His buddy Stan that had joined us on the Seven Stanes made the collection from Penrith and delivered it to Cockermouth.  At Christmas time Baz transferred it to Mark in Bedfordshire and in January, on a bitterly cold day, I drove to Woburn to collect it from Mark.

There was something very fitting about the bike coming off Mark’s car and touching down on Woburn’s dark peaty earth because it was also the first place I had ever ridden Crank.  On that occasion I had crashed plenty, with the infamous over the handlebar head slam into dirt when learning the power of hydraulic disc brakes.  This time I was not wet (or muddy) behind the ears and looked forward to a fine ride.

The geometry was crazy.  When on the saddle and holding the grips it felt a little like I used to on the Honda Shadow which was part cruiser and part street fighter.  Then I set off behind Mark down our first trail and realised the claim that this was “the only downhill bike that can be ridden uphill” failed to mention that you needed to bust a gut to make this happen.  Man, it was tough going and for a moment I regretted my decision.

That was until I turned it to face downhill and experienced something altogether new.  It was like floating on a cloud, only this cloud was being thrown along by a Hurricane and just wanted to get faster and faster.

It was a good day, with awfully tough climbing, a few wobbles as I tried to adjust to the new geometry and a couple of crashes as a result of almost bald tyres.  Then later the front break failed after having unscrewed itself from the frame and later still the chain developed a need to jump from the front cog.  We called it quits at this point, partly because the Enduro seemed to be coming undone, but also because the snow had started to fall.

Back home I inspected the bike properly.  It needed a lot of help to get back to good health so I replaced the battered triple with Blackspire, replaced the XO cassette like for like, put on Nukeproof flats, Jagwire cables, Lizzard Skin grips, Continental 2.3 vertical Protection tyres, replaced the disc brake pads and bled the system.  I also spoiled it with a gold chain which then coined the name “Maggot”.

I still loved Crank and knew the bike was sound, hence why I chose to attack the South Down’s Way on him rather than on Maggot.  I still believe the entry for South Down’s Way would have ended very differently had I not decided this, but Maggot was slowly earning a place in my heart with a few trips up onto the heath where I had honed my skills on Crank.  Sometimes my son would ride on the crossbar and on others it would be just me and the dog, but nothing too strenuous.  A trip later in the year to Swinley forest to sample the new designated trails that had been put together showed that Maggot really was a capable trail bike and a trip to Chicksands really let it shine, but I knew it needed a real test.

When winter set in I sent out the email inviting the guys to join me in Wales.  The wolf pack were in as soon as it was offered and I also invited along an old pal from my days of living in Manchester.  Matthew was a hard core mountain biker and had recently completed the Great Divide trail so I knew there wouldn’t be anything that could phase him where I had planned for us to go;  Afan Forest and Bike Park Wales.

Friday 15th November

This trip was another of my planned babies and so detailed for the group down to the finest detail.  I had booked us into The Farmhouse which is as it sounds and placed on the edge of a Golf course and a 15 minute drive from Bike Park Wales.  Afan forest was almost an hour away, but with Bike Park Wales being scheduled for the final day of the weekend when we would have limited time it seemed to make sense to put lodgings in that neck of the woods.

My plan started out flawlessly:

·         Up at 6:00 am.
·         Dropped Henry off at nursery at 7:30 am
·         Had an eggnog latte from Starbucks by 8:00 am
·         Car valeted by the local Polish by 8:40 am
·         In Costco to buy consumables by 9:00 am
·         Back home with a car packed and dog walked by 11:30 am

From here it involved me meeting Matthew at the Farmhouse by 2:00pm so we could get our kit over to Bike Park Wales for some sneaky runs, but as I came to the M4 at Reading and saw cars reversing back up the slip road I knew plans were about to fall apart.

Unfortunately I had no alternative route to take and had to crawl down the slip road onto my route.  It was painfully slow and 2:00pm came and went.  I pulled over at a service station to let Matthew know and as ever he was totally chilled.  I didn’t reach the Farmhouse until almost 4:00pm, but there was no way we could let the day be a complete waste.  A quick unloading of the car, transfer of Maggot onto Matthew’s car, change of clothes and we were away.

We pulled into the car park to find it almost empty and no-one on the road to take payment from us so it was a free ride.  We took the road route rather than the “Beast of Burden” to the top and Matthew kindly curbed his pace on his brand new Whyte t1-29 Works which was a true beauty to look at.  My climbing pace was determined by the giant Maggot beneath me, but I assured Matthew that the return to the bottom would be a completely different story in terms of pace.

At the top we surveyed our options and rolled out onto the start of Sixtapod.  This started out in the open on beautiful packed trail and then swooped off into the woods where a series of jumps, rollers and berms caught us by surprise, mainly because it was pitch black beneath the trees.  However, regardless of the danger we let our machines fly and did not pause as we popped out at the end and charged straight into Willy Waver. 

Willy Waver was yet another blue run, but the amount of flow it offered enabled our speed to increase so much that it almost upgraded to a red.  Jumps and berms, with corners that could be tail whipped and jumps that encouraged more and more height.

This popped us out on a sort of road where the uplift station stood empty.  From here we took Norkle which was by far the fastest so far and concluded with a huge berm that spat us out near the car, but also at the mouth of yet another run.  It seemed rude to end it there, so we took what was offered and hurtled down through the series of berms and compressions until we reached the lowest point of the centre and started the short, but steep climb back to the car.

It was getting seriously close to dark now so we headed back to the Farmhouse.  We both cleaned up – the shower room on the ground floor seeming like it belonged in a sports centre due to the size of it – and started drinking.  Not long after the rest arrived, popped their bikes in the garage and started tucking into the pizza and beer I had sourced.  Introductions were smooth, as I knew they would be and so had begun the final adventure of 2013.

Saturday 16th November

We woke up full of beans and Baz got the Costco sausages going in the pan while we dressed for the day ahead.  Fed and full of coffee, we set off on the long drive to Afan with me riding shotgun with Matthew and Paul bringing the rest in his new Q7.  What struck me was the difference between the north and south of Wales.  Our trip to Coed-y-Brenin had been on long winding roads through the national park, but here in the south the roads dropped deep into the earth and then climbed up and up to run along rugged mountainous peaks before falling again to hell.  It was almost as if the south had tried to fit as much land in as the north had, but was given less room in which to place it, creating these enormous folds that gave a little, if not a lot, of warning as to how the day would be at Afan.

The carpark at the trail centre wasn’t entirely deserted, but it certainly wasn’t humming like Coed-y-Brenin had been.  After lifting bikes down from cars and slipping on shoes (I had reverted back to clipless pedals after a few scary moments on the heath riding Maggot too fast and too hard), looking at the sky and adding a layer or too to our bodies, we pedalled up to the bike shop and café to get some advice.

“Riding all day?”  The question from the guy standing there was simple.
“Yes”, we replied.
“W2", he advised with a nod.  “It’s epic.”

Trail: W2
Distance: 30 miles  - 3,199 feet of climbing (and descending!)
Grade: Black

30 miles doesn’t sound much, but off-road and gradient certainly make it feel a lot.  Afan’s W2 trail was structured perfectly as a game of two halves.  For two hours we climbed and climbed and climbed, working our way on a mix of technical forest single track with switchbacks, root and rock  as well as blessed sections of wide fire road.  Now and then a short descent linked parts of the trail, but the sense of climbing was always there.

This split the group of course.  Maggot had not made it any secret that he refused to climb at speed and to make matters even worse he now decided to refuse me the use of any except the middle ring.  Any attempt to change down to use the Granny Ring proper was greeted with a grinding and then a clunk as the chain spat off onto the bottom bracket.  I was overjoyed, of course, but thankfully not climbing alone like I might have been in the past.  Matthew and I had not seen each other for a long time and he thankfully matched me on those slow climbs so that we could natter like old ladies.

Finally reaching the top of the climb we could see that the centre was structured around a valley.  We were now on the ridge and managed to regroup, following an open trail around the valley below, soaking in the breath-taking views.  We passed a wind farm on our left and climbed a little more on rocky, technical tracks past relics of old stone buildings, now abandoned.  Then there was nowhere up left to go…

Descending at Afan on Maggot was like catching the wind beneath wings and soaring towards the sun.  Despite the order of climbing involving me being at the back, when it came to descending I was allowed to push through to near the front.  Baz took the lead and Matthew followed.  I came after on their tail, snapping at Matthew’s back wheel, while Mark, Paul and Dan came behind at a far more sensible speed.

The trails were thin and twisted, rocky, rooty and undulating with peril perched in every inch of it.  On one side if one dared look it was down into the belly of the forest while the other side reared up with biting rocks waiting for you to make the slightest error so it might taste the flesh of your arms and face before spitting you out down the opposing drop.  But there was no error as we flew over boulders, kicking up spray of stones and mud on natural berms and putting way too much trust in our wheels as we passed over rock bridges on ill cambered corners crossing deep drops into ruinous rivers.

My face hurt from smiling.  My eyes watered from the cold air rushing over them while I dared not even blink, but what I remember most of all is the ultimate control and grace that seemed to be gifted to me through this battered old machine beneath me.  Maggot was a coin, with one side as heads on descending, filling me with electric fiz and infectious insanity.  The other side was a dirty, fat arse that represented the climbs.  Despite this, the sides were by no means equal and Afan ensured this with how it was put together.

On the final run of the first half the group split.  We had reached a point where works were just completed on a new descent and the options were to take the old route named “The Darkside” which once served as a climb or to travel up a little further to take on a route full of berms and jumps.  An elderly chap arriving at the same time recommended the Dark Side “if you don’t mind hanging on for dear life” and me and Matthew followed his advice.  Tempted by jumps and brand new berms, the rest of the group moved up a little to the alternative.

The Darkside is unequivocally the most challenging and exciting descent I am yet to experience.  From the moment maggot tasted the slop he accelerated and kept on doing so.  I was leading the way and didn’t want to be holding Matthew up as there would be no chance of passing with the steep drop less than half a foot from the trail so I pushed past what I believed my limit and discovered my limit was still somewhere further out of reach.  Rock and stone littered track bucked the bike as it skipped on the brink of disaster and then one jagged rock reared out at my pedal throwing me off.  How I managed to launch my weight to counter it, to twist the bars back onto my line and lose no speed is still beyond me.  It had all been instinctual and one of those moments that slowed down in the minds’ eye, saturated with colour and emotion to brand a lasting memory into my genetics.

We were down quicker than the rest of the group and I was still chuckling when they arrived.  The old man who had followed us hung around for a chat while we regaled the others of the experience and they confessed that the new route was a touch tame.

From here we rolled to the café that marked the halfway mark, ate a slightly heavy meal washed down with a bottle of stout and came back to the trail to start a brutal climb.  Maggot was indeed back on the side of tails, limping up the highly technical ascent like a wounded bear, pushing through rim deep slop and skittering over large wet slabs that rocked as you passed the middle.  The group waited for me at the top and were waiting a while, but a short ride back around the ridge, past the wind farm again, led us to the final descent of the day.

Tight packed forest again thrilled us and gaps opened between the group as much for safety as it was a symptom of descending prowess.  Then with clear space between me and Matthew and bravery creeping too high I thought to take a natural jump off a slab of rock to add spice to a trail that really had enough flavour already.  I flew from the ridge, releasing the compression perfectly but only realising whilst in flight that the path turned a corner.  Extending my legs and arms I tried to ground Maggot in time to take the turn, but gave it too much beef.  The front fork, all 160mm of it, bottomed out and Maggot went down beneath me, slamming me into the curve between trail and drop.  My knee opened up on the stones and Maggot, still attached to my foot, travelled down the slope taking me with it.

I was lucky to get my claws into a tangle of roots to stop the drop, but I was winded and could feel the heat of my open knee as the blood began to flow beneath my clothing.  I hauled myself up, dragging Maggot on my foot, back to the trail.  Once it was safe I twisted my ankle to snap my foot free of the pedal and dared look at the knee.  It was a proper hole and Mark arrived as I took to my feet.  He asked if I was okay, having heard my cry as I slammed into the ground and with true Elliott bravado I confirmed I was fine and remounted.  Despite knowing I was being untruthful, he allowed me to take the lead and I let Maggot gather speed like before, but confess I was now avoiding jumps instead of seeking them out.

Back at the trail centre we had a quick lunch and then returned to the cars to kit the bikes out with lights.  The plan had always been to ride a trail at night, but the mood for this was low after the exertion of W2.  Regardless, I pushed them into following the plan and we set out on the small blue, fooling around for a while in the pitch black on a mini skills area and then called it a day.

There was talk of finding a pub on the way back, but the one place that seemed like a civilised stop seemed less so once we stepped out of the cars.  Our bikes were all too much of a temptation for idle hands and we could not find a pub that allowed us to keep them in sight.  We therefore ditched the plan and returned to the Farmhouse where we cleaned up and Barry cooked us a splendid Carbonara before we started laying into the beers.

People drifted off to bed at various times and I continued drinking.  After a while I was alone downstairs and started cleaning up the devastation from a Baz Chef session in the kitchen.  Beers slipped down easily and the kitchen again started to shine like new.  By the time I walked up stairs in was 5:00am.  For some strange reason I patted Matthew on the head as I passed him as if he was a pet dog and then climbed into my bed already knowing it was nearly time to get back up again.

Sunday 17th November    

We were up at 8:00am and finished off the Costco supplies.  I had packed my car the night before…  or was it morning… so very little required other than getting dressed.  My efforts in the kitchen were gratefully received, but then Mark clocked the depletion of real ale.  Talk began of me potentially being over the limit still and plans were being made for me to leave the car behind, but I remembered that I had a breathalyser in the door from a previous trip to France.  Cracking open the kit, I took the test and passed – ending any more nonsense talk (although it was touch and go if I would pass and I did so by a very small margin).

Issue put to bed, I handed back the keys and we took the short drive to Bike Park Wales.  This time someone was waiting for our money on entry and already the place was buzzing.  Vans littered the car park, emblazoned with MTB brand names and team logos.

We congregated at the cafe and I said I wanted a cup of coffee before we began, but Mark, Barry, Paul and Dan were concerned about how much time they had and wanted to push on.  This seemed okay as they wanted to climb on the Beast of Burden and because me and Matthew would take the road climb again we were likely to meet and regroup at the bottom of the first run.

The reality is that we didn’t get to ride together.  Me and Matthew got to the top and followed the route down we had enjoyed so much on the Friday when we had first arrived and this took us deep below the car park.  The rest of the group on the other hand had taken two runs down and then returned to the top, putting the two factions at opposite poles from that point onwards.

Me and Matthew took another long ride up and came back down to the very bottom a second time, this time on different blue runs than before -  Melted Welly, Blue Belle and Bush Wacker - and received a call from the others telling us to meet them at the café.

We watched Baz on the sections closer to the café as he nailed a section of berms and rolled over to us with a big smile.  Mark and Dan came a little while after at a more sedate pace and joined us, but Paul was nowhere to be seen.  At last, when we did spot him, he was trickling along a trail and finally joined us, but without a smile.  He was in fact shaking his head, looking down at his bike and claiming it didn’t feel right.  A little inspection revealed that the wheel was not actually attached to the frame and it was a wonder he had made it down at all.

We had lunch together and shared our stories of the trails we had taken down, but my suggestion of us riding together after lunch was quickly shot down.  People needed to get on the road to home and they felt that after lunched seemed a logical time to disband.  I was disappointed, having missed the chance to follow Baz down a run to witness how close a person can push his luck without dying, but knew distances were great and families demanding.

So it was the first two that arrived on that Friday who would be closing the weekend with a final run and the last climb to the top told my body that this really was the last run down.  We set off down melted Welly but switched from the blue to the red once in the woods.  This red was called Vicious Valley and the transformation from well packed and wide trail to tight, twisting and fast natural track took me a little by surprise.  Add to that the unexpected presence of rock step ups and root sprawls and the easy going speed fest of earlier became a game of rapid thought and technical mastery.

Just before entering another red Matthew finally remembered that he had his Go Pro with him!  After all the riding we had done, he remembers now on the last run, so we paused to let him set up and then continued on.  Bonneyville had a very natural feel to it, with loose dirt bomb hole-esque switch backs and long paths littered with humps that became jumps as our speed increased.  Bush Wacker took us back to the cars and we packed them away before having a final coffee and cake to close the day – chuckling at the very short piece of footage captured because the memory card was utterly choked full.

Maggot had truly proved his worth, but as I drove home I began to think of Crank and whether or not the experience would have been any less joyful had I ridden him instead.  This thought continued in my head for some time and after a couple of runs out with Maggot on the heath, a cracking all day visit to Swinley with Matthew when he was down south on meetings with work (a ride hindered a little by me losing my wallet and it then magically appearing in the pocket of my camel pack) and a crash as I attempted to descend a long woodland stairway…  my mind settled on an answer.

I loved Maggot for descending, but the type of riding we did was more than that.  I also remembered harrowing Baz’s wheel on the Seven Stanes, particularly on the Spooky Wood section of Glentress so Crank wasn’t unable to descend at speed.  The difference was in the comfort offered by full suspension.  It was an element of the bike that actually took away the need to be agile and responsive on the pedals because it offered greater forgiveness whereas a wrong move on Crank offered none.  The truth was clear; I wanted to ride a hardtail.

Maggot therefore received a cheap makeover to improve his battered image when posted on Ebay and he sold for £180 more than I had paid for him.  I also sold Crank (which broke my heart) to a young lad just starting out and pooled the money together to buy the new 650 MTB Team hardtail Boardman.  A couple of rides out have given a glimmer of hope for future events, but a real test is yet to be had.

Whether it was the right move or the wrong move really doesn’t matter, as long as we continue to ride. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

2013 - Going Full Circle (C2CR)

Summer of 2013 saw us going full circle, returning to where it all began with the Coast to Coast, only this time we were cyclists rather than bumbling fools on bikes.  Already this year I had conquered two cross country races, the South Down’s Way and MTIE London Revolution (I am amazed still that I got this many passes) so felt totally ready.  The very idea of slamming a route that had previously broken us and then riding back to the start on a partially off-road route called the Rievers may as well have been the plot for a Hollywood movie for me.

I was actually not in control of organising this one, but I did book us Southerners – Me, Mark, Paul and Dan – into a wonderful place outside of Cockermouth called Grayonside Inn for both the first and last night of the epic adventure.  I had stayed there with my family for Baz’s wedding back in 2012 and then shortly after returned for a family holiday.  Jeanette who ran the place is most likely the friendliest and loveliest B&B host I have ever encountered.  As for the remained of the stops, this was left down to Mark. 

He delivered his outline plan:

Fri 26th July:  Congregate in and around Cockermouth ready for off
Sat 27th July:  Workington to Alston (Day 1/2 C2C)
Sun 28th July:  Alston to Tynemouth (Day 2/2 C2C)
Mon 29th July:  Tynemouth to Bellingham (ish) (Day 1/3 Rievers)
Tue 30th July:  Bellingham to Carlisle (ish) (Day 2/3 Rievers)
Wed 31st July:  Carlisle to Whitehaven (Day 3/3 Rievers)

All in this was a 313 mile romp over some of the most challenging climbs the country has to offer, but we would be travelling light and staying in B&B’s instead of camping like we had on the first attempt.  So when we checked into Grayonside on the Thursday night (and cracked open the first bottle of Lakeland) spirits were deservedly high.

Baz had to drop out of a couple of sections of the route for reasons that were unavoidable and the first section, travelling from Whitehaven to Cockermouth, was just for the Southerners.  We parked up in Whitehaven on the driveway of Mark’s university friend and rolled down to the start at the waterside, feeling a little strange.  We had been such different creatures heading to the same place in 2008 and as Dan would concur, far less sober at that point in 2008 as well.  On this occasion I felt like a coiled spring waiting to unleash and once we set off that is exactly what happened.

Whitehaven to Alston – 80.2 miles with 6,546 ft climbing

The wonderful 5 mile false flat cycle path out of Whitehaven was polished off in a matter of minutes rather than slogged out over the space of an hour requiring a break midway to catch our breath.  Then we were into the fangs brow and descending into the shadowy foothills of Winlatter before the morning had even had a chance to realise we were on our way.  This is where we met Baz, kitted out in his King of the Mountain Jersey and looking fit as a fiddle despite being referred to as “Mr Blobby” by his wonderful wife.  We hugged out the emotion we all felt at being back together and set off up Winlatter at our own pace which for Baz, Mark and Paul was breakneck speed. 

I was wearing a heart rate monitor up until this point and tracking the ride on Strava.  I was not so much struggling with the climb, but for some reason could not handle the strap around my chest.  The restriction was just too much under the scorching summer sun so the stats when viewed afterwards look like I died, with heart rate peaking at 196 and then flat lining as I ripped off the sensor.  The truth is that I found Winlatter hard, but manageable.  The top came much quicker than it had in 2008 and although our route back then also incorporated some of the off road sections, by being on road there was still worthy challenge to note.

The descent down the other side became a flat out race between Paul and Baz and was very nearly the death of one or both of them.  With a speed clocked in the realm of 60 mph by Baz on the twisting lane it was no wonder that the rest of us fell back.  Then Dan and I lost sight of the leading three when we needed to get out of the way of a van and took a completely different route from the others down into Keswick.  A few phone calls later and a pub was decided upon as our lunch stop and place to regroup.  This was also the place we would say farewell to Baz until later that week.

It was strange to think that we were having lunch on day one beyond the point it had taken a whole day to get to in 2008.  Our plan for the rest of the day was to get to the point we had reached after two days riding and we all knew what stood between us and there; Hartside.

Having said our goodbyes to Baz, the rest of us set off for Alston.  We passed through Greystoke and Penrith without pause and straight into Renwick where we did stop.  This was not to rest, but to stand on the corner where Dan and Mark had surrendered previously.  Paul, who had not been on the first expedition, could not connect to the bewilderment the rest of us felt and he was also lacking in the knowledge we had of the climb ahead.  When we finally rolled out he got it in his head to put pay to his brother Mark and so the battle began.

As for me and Dan – we went at our own pace.  Mine was a little faster than Dan and a lot slower that Mark and Paul, but regardless, it was rocket speed compared to 2008.  My main focus was to not put a single foot down until I reached a café at the top and attempted to ignore the local riders dancing up past me, looking me up and down as they did.  I fought the urge to shout out “did you start the day in Whitehaven?” because the miles preceding this were my justification for the speed at which I climbed.  What held me back was the very real possibility of one of them replying “yes!”

Having before mocked Mark’s love of climbing as sadistic, I started to actually understand it as I progressed along the zigzag road.  Each pedal stroke seemed to be a reward and badge of honour, while each session standing up and putting down a little more juice before sitting back down and maintaining the new flow sang of personal ability and a little bit of validation for the effort that had gone into becoming this much better (I dare not say “good”).  My focus was still on  looking fluid and comfortable, with good form over speed, but speed was a consequence and before I knew it I was at the summit.  Here I sat with Mark and Paul and listened to the tale of defeat Paul had suffered against his brother and not long after Dan was with us too.

So day one ended with a roll into Alston and checking into the YMCA hostel.  We showered and ate in the same place we had eaten back in 2008 – this time not needing to beg the kitchen to stay open because we were not arriving near closing.  We also drifted into the supermarket and I purchased a bag of ale that I shared with the owner of the hostel beside an open fire while the other three went to bed.  While they snored I was regaled with stories of the Great Divide – a trip that may one day become a reality for me too…

Alston to Newcastle Upon Tyne – 57.2 miles with 3,902 ft of climbing

My one set of casual clothes hummed of wood smoke as I repacked them into my panniers.  Breakfast happened quickly and we rolled out of the hostel onto the cobbled road climb.  Starting any day with this would hurt, but with 80 miles and 6,546 feet in the legs from the day before it really hurt.  However, it was a sign of our new fitness when soon enough we had loosened up and were eating miles.  We dashed up Allenheads, offering nods of respect to the immensely steep section at the top, before racing like men possessed down through Northumberland on roads that were clear for mile upon mile as they stretched like black ribbons through wilderness.

A few minor mechanical issues forced us to stop in Rockhope which had been a most welcome stopping point in 2008.  What could be fixed was fixed and we set off again, but from here our route would change.  Before, we had walked our bikes up the steep bank and eventually picked up the Waskerley Way, but this time we would stick to tarmac and push up and around the moorlands.  One might be forgiven into believing that this was a blessing, but after setting off we quickly realised that it wasn’t.  With a 20% climb greeting us and road works at the top forcing us out of the saddle to work our way through, none of us came away with fresh legs.

Beyond this climb it was all downhill to Newcastle.  We kept a cracking pace going onto the Derwent walk which resulted in a puncture for me and then a quick stop at the Derwent Walk Inn for old time sake.  We passed over the suicide bridge which had now had the sign removed and beyond was just the urban route to the blinking eye, a couple of sprint challengers against Mark despite not really having the legs for it and a sneaky pint of continental lager at the Pitcher and Piano on the waterfront before dipping the front wheel in the water.

Two days to complete the C2C was a massive achievement.  140 miles and 10,448 feet of climbing done and still three days of cycling left to enjoy, but first a night in Newcastle Upon Tyne in a B&B Mark had booked for us with a host that considered himself a comedian…  but wasn’t.  We met our host in the nearby pub that looked like it could get nasty very quickly and then followed him to his house where our bikes were chained together for safe keeping.  With the sky open above them and a wooden gate between them and the road I wondered what we might be using to get back to Whitehaven.

We followed Paul out to a curry house and met a couple of his friends who lived nearby, but this was not the night for a drink-fest.  The next day we would be starting on the Rievers route which was new ground for all of us and not without its climbing to get us to a pub in Bellingham where we were staying.  For this reason it was a brief visit to the scary local and then off to bed.

Newcastle Upon Tyne to Bellingham – 76.2 miles with 3,370 ft of climbing

We rushed breakfast and were all relieved to find we still had bikes.  It didn’t take too long to get out of Newcastle, but we were now on strange tracks through areas of industrial history which completely jarred with the surroundings of the two days before.  We picked our way along the Reivers route through a rabbit warren of bridleway and cycle path and it was impossible for me to ignore the odd drop off and kicker regardless of riding a bike not built for such games.  Before long I had an annoying click deep inside my bottom bracket, but because the wheels were still turning I simply ignored it.

When we finally did step off these gritty tracks onto roads we were blessed with a complete absence of traffic.  Our pace remained good and we took the hills in our stride.  What really sung to me on this day was the descending which at one point got so fast as to throw my cats eye tracker into failure.  A check later on Strava revealed my top speed as being 57.6 mph and put me as 7th in the rankings for that section.  I am still yet to beat that speed and believe I have also now been removed from the rankings by locals, but what Strava does not show is the utter joy of those sections. 

A slight headwind played a part towards the end of the day, but knowing there was a pub at the end pushed me on.  I had a touch of pain in my foot (presumed by the group to be gout from my love of real ale) but the two days riding before this one had set my body into work mode.  Paul set off on a break with 5 miles to go and I gave chase.  It had been a game we had been playing throughout the day and never got tiresome (except for the game between Mark and Paul which involved being at the top of every single little bump in the road).  I managed to keep him in sight, but never to catch his wheel.  I met him in the car park of the pub and was sat with a real ale in hand as Mark and Dan entered not long after.

Once checked in our bikes were locked in a secure outhouse and the rooms we were shown to were beautiful.  After chowing and changing into my smoke scented clothes we gathered in the restaurant and devoured thousands of calories.  During desert a real treat arrived at the table…  Baz! 

We fed back on our last two days without him, including the tale of Paul’s slaughter on Hartside against the almighty legs of Mark and waxed lyrical about the open roads of the first day of Rievers.  The next day we would be passing through Kielder, which we were all excited about, but I was also excited about the night ahead.  We had the full group back together and were in a pub that served quality ale and quality scotch!  A room key tab was all we needed to get going and although Dan and Paul retired to their comfy beds, me, Mark and Baz went at it like men possessed.  

Bellingham to Carlisle – 69.9 miles with 3,543 ft of climbing

I had been carried back to the room the night before and woke up with a little apprehension for the long ride ahead.  A great breakfast served only to sit on the sloshing grog in my guts and make me feel worse.  Stepping out to get the bikes in the pouring rain and realising that I had a puncture on the rear wheel before we even set off added to the negative mood.  But I had been here before (as heavy drinkers often are) and had a strategy.  This was to take the lead of the peleton and to sweat out the sins of nights gone by and the route ahead offered many opportunity to sweat.  Long climbs followed by long descents straight back into long climbs helped me zone into the riding, although I detached myself a little from the group.  The rain worked hard to wear us down, but we managed to keep going.

The road above Kielder water was absolutely stunning.  The drifts of misty rain coming through the firs and the dark, still waters below made us feel utterly remote and the air we breathed was crisp and cool.  Any sign of hangover melted into the histories.  We then came down to the water on a long swooping road and crossed over the dam.  By the time we rolled over the border into Scotland and down the high street of Newcastleton all I could think about was coffee.

It was not an ideal stop, being stood on the pavement outside of the coffee shop because we were all too sopping wet to sit inside.  Our average speed also took a dent and began to stress Mark out, but for a moment I had to be selfish and get my fix.  I knew that the void in my head was self-created, but I also knew that ignoring the need for caffeine would just roll into the rest of the day.  It really wasn’t as if we were going to get any wetter.

Rolling out of Newcastleton, the rain stopped and we crossed back into England on truly remote roads that took us through Bewcastle and into Mollen Wood, here roads seemed almost out of place and we monkeyed around with small sprint challenges and hill climb races with no fear of needing to share the road with anything more than a couple of sheep.  That was until Baz and Paul raced up a hill and were almost swallowed up under the wheels of an Asda delivery van that came hurtling over the ridge and down to us.  It seemed he had as little expectation of seeing us as we had of seeing him.  I still do not know how Paul managed to stay on the road rather than flying off into the fields below.

We encountered some incredible climbs through this stretch, with switchbacks that increased in gradient so quickly as to feel like slamming on the brakes.  The only way up was to bench-press the pedals and at the top of each of these we would find ourselves surrounded by trees and engulfed in a world were only we existed.

How strange it felt when this slowly slipped away and transformed into the outlying urban sprawl of Carlisle.  Following traffic heavy roads into Carlisle proper, past industrial estates and shopping centres was like losing something special.  In Carlisle we were booked into a university dorms and I was struggling to keep pace and had been for a while.  The stretch through Mollen Wood with those incredible climbs had combined with the excessive drinking of the day before to allow weakness to return.  When the group finally stopped at a crossroad to allow us all to regroup I took up one of my water bottles and squirted Baz and Paul's their legs in a mini protest only to see their faces transform into utter shock.

They had been pushing hard and always leading the group for this last stretch of many miles.  This pace had barely allowed me to keep them in sight let along ride with them, therefore I had no way of knowing that they had both exhausted their water a long time ago and were gasping for a drink.  In their eyes, me wasting the precious drop on their shins was akin to punching them both in the face.  I admit I didn’t care too much.  If nothing else, it was a lesson in the benefits of group riding and certainly a reminder to communicate.  As a side note, it was also evidence that I am not very skilled at staying hydrated which might also contribute to my inability to keep up in those final hours.

We had a quick beer in a local bar and then checked into our dorms.  With local knowledge in hand, we followed Baz out onto the streets, played a few games of pool and again drank a little too much before treating our weary souls to a hefty Nados.  We all refused to think or talk of the simple fact that only one day remained of our adventure.       

Carlisle to Whitehaven – 61.1 miles with 4,391 ft of climbing

We breakfasted in the local Asda and it was a most unsatisfying meal.  Our route from this point would take us back onto the C2C which was partially shared with the Rievers, but Baz suggested a slight amendment so that we could experience the infamous Newlands Pass.  It was quickly agreed that we hadn’t come all that way to shy away from a challenge, so accepted and geared up for the off.

Our first hill out of Carlisle was a monster and Skidaw grew and grew on the horizon beside us.  It didn’t take long to step back into more rural zones, but more often that before we found ourselves drifting back through small towns.  This proved a good thing when Dan’s brakes packed up altogether because we were able to slip into Keswick and see the genius crew in the bike shop.

Then there was the pass; a long road that would end with a wall of gradient which was enough to break the most skilled cyclist if he was not having a good day.  Even miles out from this giant we talked of going our own pace which meant Baz, Paul and Mark vanishing from sight almost instantly.  Dan then dropped back a little from my pace and it was back to how it usually was, cycling on my own through the silent Lakeland wilderness.  I do not mind this as I’m aware it is my own lack of fitness that creates the situation.  One day maybe I will be the king hill climber, but right now I have to accept my limitations and the situations it creates.

Right there and then I was not worried about speed.  I had not yet put a foot down on the route (excluding those moments when we had all stopped to either lunch or regroup).  When I speak of feet going down I mean in terms of legs giving out on a climb and forcing it.  This was something I wanted to maintain and I pushed on hard over the ever climbing route towards the wall.  One corner beside a farm, hooking at a right angle and ramping up to what had to be nearly 30%, very nearly ended this but through pure grit and determination I kept the bike moving.

The run up to the wall was a long open road along the side of the mountain and off in the distance I finally got a sight of Mark, Baz and Paul as they crested the wall.  From where I was they were just dots.  By the time I reached the beginning of the slop my legs had already taken a battering and the very sudden increase in gradient had me out of the saddle in seconds.  I pushed down on the pedal, one after the other with all the force I could put down and yet moved in almost minuscule increments to a top that was 200 yards away but seemed a mile.  As I began to weave from one side to the other of the road the fire set into my thighs.  My lungs burned and I felt control slipping away.

My foot went down.  I slipped off the bike.  Considered getting back on and pedalling.  Thought better of it and walked up to the top.

Dan reached the bottom of the slop a little after me and seemed to have made a deal with himself not to walk up any hill, therefore he pedalled to the top of Newlands pass, but it was a game of many sections, with his gears set very low and his legs spinning like roadrunner to make a score of yards before stopping to recharge.  SPIN, stop, SPIN, stop, SPIN, stop in a method that looked a little insane from where I was sitting, but I had to applaud him because he never broke that deal with himself and made it to the top without walking.

The Newlands descent was a beautiful reward for efforts made.  We had to dance around a few cars coming up the other way, but the exhilaration from the speed and twists of the route filled us with joy.  We then entered country lanes and we nearly lost Mark and Paul as they carried their momentum from a downhill into a climb, barely avoiding the little silver Micra coming down and giving the poor old woman behind the wheel a heart attack.

Baz left us here to return to Cockermouth and we pushed on to complete the run back to Whitehaven.  This was of course on the designated cycle path and although my legs had reached a point of no return, being able to spin but apply no real power, Dan’s legs were at the opposite end of the spectrum.  I watched in wonderment as he took a place at the head of the group and pushed on like a man possessed.  There was no way I would keep pace with them so drifted on at my own speed, solo riding safe in the knowledge that I couldn’t get lost.

Soon enough it was all over.  We dipped our wheel for the third time (having refused to dip the back wheel when setting out from Newcastle) and found a pub.  Without any pride left to lose, I passed my keys over to Mark and asked him to climb the awful hill back to the car.  I cannot express how grateful I am that he said yes to this.

After driving back to Grayonside we cleaned up and drifted down the hill on foot to have a BBQ at Baz’s house.  It was not as late a night as it could have been, partly to reduce the inconvenience five big blokes cramming into a house can cause for Baz’s wife.  There was also a large desire for most of our group to go to sleep and a cab was called to assist us back to our lodgings.

From then on it was just the logistics of getting home, which always seems to add a tone of depression for me.  I know it is not possible, but I always wish for the adventure to continue.  Life and the trappings of work and responsibility have a strong influence on it not continuing, but as long as we keep dreaming maybe one day we could just keep pedalling.  Until then it is back to the planning of the next adventure and treasuring the memories and self-pride of not only doing the coast to coast better, but smashing it out of the park and then riding all the way back.

To most I am sure we are just a group of weekend warriors, but amongst ourselves we are legends.