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 cafĂ© 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.

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