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Sleeping under the stars

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Julie and I have been putting in plenty of miles over the last few months training for the Transcontinental Race. We know that we’re not going to win it, but that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because it’ll be a massive adventure and a huge personal challenge for us both. With this in mind we’re aiming to try and get to the finish in Meteora within 16 to 18 days, before the final checkpoint officially closes, which means an average daily distance of 250 km a day.

To try and maximise our daily cycling time we’ve decided to bivvy whenever and wherever conditions allow, sometimes in campsites but also just wherever there’s a comfy looking spot to get our heads down. This will enable us to cycle all day until we’re tired and then crash for a few hours without being too restricted. It’ll also help us to keep the cost down as staying in hotels for 18 nights could end up being pretty pricey. We’ve agreed that we’ll only stay in hotels if the weather is bad or when we need to wash kit, charge devices or have a desperate need for a bed!

Although we’re both experienced campers and we don’t mind roughing it, neither of us have done much bivvying before. We needed to spend money on some quality, lightweight kit so we’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months looking at different kit and carriage options, borrowing kit from other people to try out, before forking out in order to make sure that we’ve got something that works for us and that we’re happy to drag around Europe for 18 days. We’ve had a lot of invaluable help and advice, not to mention considerable discount, from Shona and Rich at Keep Pedalling in Manchester, Alex at Jagged Globe in Neepsend and Dan at the new Alpkit store in Hathersage.

After wriggling around shop floors in a variety of different sleeping bags and bivvy combos, we’ve both ended up going for slightly different options; me with Rab and Apidura and Julie with Alpkit and Apidura.

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All bagged up and ready to go. Paris-Brest-Paris 2015.

I’ve had my Apidura kit bags for a couple of years now as I first bought a small set to carry my kit on the PBP in 2015 and I just love ’em. Although they’re showerproof, I’ve splashed out on a new fully waterproof bar bag after learning the hard way last year when all of my clothing got very wet in three days continuous rain on a trip to the Outer Hebrides. The waterproof versions are a little bit heavier but as it’s going to house my my down sleeping bag it’s really important that I keep it dry and even though we’re going to central Europe in July, the likelihood of us staying dry for the full 18 days is slim.

Bulk and weight were the premium considerations. My Sleeping bag is a Rab Neutrino 200 which weighs 580g and squashes down very small. It’s going to live inside my Bivvy – a Rab Ascent, weighing in at 625g – and will all get squashed into my bar bag along with my silk liner.

Julie has opted for an Alpkit PipeDream 200 down bag weighing in at 545g, a Hunka Bivvy and Airlok Bar bag. Both of our bags have a hydrophobic down fill but we still want to try to keep them as dry as possible – a wet down bag is about as warm as a paper towel.

The test run…

Last weekend, cashing in on the sunny spell we’ve been having recently, we decided to have a three-day dry run with two overnight bivvy stops. We took an anti-clockwise triangular route, heading south of Sheffield to the Forest of Arden on day one, north-west to Lake Bala in Wales on day two and finally heading back over the Peak to Sheffield on day three. To make it slightly easier we opted to stay in campsites rather than camp wild.

Originally we’d planned to ride over 200 km every day in order to try and emulate our expected TCR conditions and see how we’d cope with camp set-up when we’re tired. Normal life events conspired against us last week though and we had to set off a bit later than planned which meant trimming the first day down to 180km. Our route headed south through the Peak, past Carsington Water, toward Burton-on-Trent. Once we were out of the Peak the route was fairly flat and even though our bikes were loaded up we were able to keep to around 22km an hour without much trouble.

The route was almost due south, although we made little detour to cycle through Meriden, the centre of England, which is a pleasant but fairly unremarkable little village. The most interesting discovery for us was the cyclists war memorial on the village green. It was really touching to see cyclists’ contribution recognised in this way and we wondered who’d paid for it to be erected and for its upkeep.

Our final destination for the day was the the Island Meadow camp site in the village of Aston Cantlow and as we’d cut down the distance we ended up making good time and arriving just after 6.30 pm. We got ourselves booked in – a fiver each a night – and had the usual kinds of conversations that we have with ‘normal’ people in the camp shop: “Where did you set off?” –  “What?! Today?” – “You’re cycling all the way to Wales tomorrow?!” – ” Are you mad?!” That kind of thing.

The campsite had great facilities: free showers and a free hair dryer plus plenty of plugs in the washroom to charge devices. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for me as I have an Igaro USB charger that attaches to the dynamo on my front wheel but unfortunately a bit of it had broken off and it wouldn’t hold the charge so I was in need of plug points to charge up my Garmin. We washed out the kit we’d been wearing that day and used the hairdryer to dry it off a bit before heading off to the local pub for tea.

The Kings Head was a quintessentially English country pub and restaurant with a rather fancy, but not particularly cyclist-oriented menu and slightly out of our price range for a budget bivvying weekend. The food coming out of the kitchen looked fabulous but we were after piles of carbs rather than fillet steak. There was, however, a childrens’ menu with pasta on it so I had a word with the waiter to see if they could possibly prepare us a large portion of the kids’ meal. We were in luck and the chef made us a lovely carb-rich dinner of pasta with a tomato and garlic sauce, focaccia bread and olives.

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Aston Cantlow adventures… Don’t worry, we didn’t sleep in the graveyard.

Back at camp we set up our bivvys under a willow tree and were tucked up for 10.30pm. Both of our bivvys are big enough for us to put our sleeping mats inside. My Neoair XLite is very rustly and sounds a bit like I’m sleeping on a giant crisp packet but it’s very light and does the trick. Julie was out like a light but it was a warm evening so I stayed up for a while staring up at the sky and waiting for the sun to go down. I contemplated whether I’d need to get into my sleeping bag at all and just sleep in the liner but I decided that I’d probably wake up cold in the middle of the night and got in it anyway, which was a good move in the end. Earplugs went in around 11 and I didn’t stir until 6.30 am the following morning – a bit later than we’d planned.

Day two

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We just can’t resist a garage forecourt and takeaway coffee

After a quick pastry breakfast that we’d purchased from the campsite office the evening before, we were off for 7.45 am. We’d hoped to get away a bit earlier but my Garmin needed a bit more charge so I wasn’t rushing to leave.  The roads were very quiet and we made good progress passing south of the Birmingham conurbation. We had a quick 15 minute stop at a petrol station forecourt for a wake-up coffee before pressing on to Bewdley on the River Severn for our first proper sit-down stop. The cafe setting on the river was lovely but the queue was long and the service was slow and we ended up spending almost an hour waiting for our order. It was a popular spot with other cyclists and we had a few conversations while we were waiting but it made us realise just how much time can be wasted at cafe stops and decided that for the rest of the day we’d try to stick to shops for supplies in order to keep good time.

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Riverside cafe at Bewdley. Really great as long as you’re not in a hurry.

Today’s destination was Lake Bala in Wales at just over 200km and the biggest climbs at the end of the ride so we needed to try and keep on schedule to arrive at the campsite for 8 pm. From Bewdley the route took us into the Shropshire hills, over Wenlock Edge, skirting past the edges of Shrewsbury and through Welshpool. We arrived on the outskirts of Shrewsbury around 2 pm and were expecting that we’d find a village shop somewhere on route but none materialised. By 3 pm we’d run out of snacks, were both starving and still had around another 20km to go until Welshpool, so when we passed a pub in Yockleton that was still serving food we piled in.

The cheapest thing on the menu was a tenner but there weren’t many customers so we were hoping that we’d get served quickly and on our way. While we waited we’d spied two plugpoints in the corner so we took the opportunity to get some more charging done. The hope of a quick turnaround didn’t materialise and 25 minutes later, despite only one other table of customers, our food had still not arrived. We both stared hard at the waitress, sending out super-hungry vibes and finally, 35 minutes after walking in, we got our meals. Both were substantial and tasty but by the time we’d eaten, another hour had gone by and we still had 80 km to cycle – through Wales, up a very big hill, with no snacks.

Our 20 km to Welshpool was tough. We’d taken the singletrack roads up and over a very big hill with a steep descent and also manage to fit in in a brush with death as the driver of a 4 x 4 coming in the opposite direction decided the he wasn’t going to bother slowing down, or even attempt to move slightly out of the way to pass us, preferring instead to run us both off the road into a gravel bank. We were both pretty shook up and had to stop for a few minutes to calm down. Selfish idiot – I really wonder what goes on in people’s head’s to make them think that’s an acceptable way to treat another human being.

Welshpool was shut when we got there, save for a convenience store, so we had to make do with packet tuna sandwiches, yoghurt and a packet of crisps for the evening’s tea, all stuffed into our saddlebags for consumption at the campsite later. From Welshpool we were supposed to be taking minor roads over to Penybontfawr but the main road was quiet enough and would save us some time, event though it would cut some mileage off the route.

After Penybontfawr the route began to steadily climb over the Burwens. It’s not steep, just steady, but it’s a long one. As we climbed could see the road cut into the hillside, stretched out like a ribbon in front of us to the head of the valley. The views across the valley were spectacular but we were both pretty knackered by now and just wanted to get down the other side. We also had a lot of of daft sheep to negotiate with and no matter how much room we gave them, they were still startled, dashing in front of us at the last minute, but at least we were climbing rather than descending.

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Climbing over the Burwens

Eventually we made it to the top and stopped to layer up before our descent to Bala. We accidentally managed to herd another five sheep into the path of an oncoming Range Rover on the way down but luckily for all involved he was a little more courteous than the previous 4 x 4 driver we’d encountered and saw the funny side.

We eventually made it to the campsite for 8.30 pm where, after hearing of our epic day (only 195 km though) the warden took pity on us and made us both a nice cup of tea. The campiste at Bala has a prime lakeside spot so it was a bit more pricey than the previous night’s at £9 each. Showers were 50 pence for 8 minutes (more than long enough) but there were no plug points in the showers so we had to use Julie’s big power brick to charge up all of our devices. We’d been saving it for emergencies but I guess, with no plug points to be had, this was that kind of an emergency.

The camp facilities were very modern and clean though and the super-friendly warden offered to get up early at 6.30 am to make us another cup of tea so you couldn’t say fairer than that. By the time we’d got our bivvys set up and ourselves showered, the sun was beginning to set over the lake. I sat and ate my packet tuna sandwiches, having a paddle and watching the sun go down. This really was a beautiful spot to spend an evening and a few fellow campers were having open fires on the lakeshore.

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However, with lakes come midges – lots of ’em. I’m very lucky that I don’t react much to midge bites but they’re still annoying little critters and soon enough I was starting to feel a bit like that character from Charlie Brown who always has flies swarming around his head. The warden was selling bottles of Skin So Soft in the camp shop but we really didn’t need to buy another thing to carry and decided to just put up with them. Julie had brought along her little mozzie headnet to wear as her bivvy has an open face so she needs to wear it while sleeping. My bivvy has a built-in zip-out mesh panel that allows ventilation while keeping the midges out but I’m sure a few of them sneaked in there with me. There’d be no ‘out-of-the-bag, gazing up at the stars’ moments happening tonight.

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Lake Bala sunset, what a beauty

Day three

We both woke up at 6 am – and cold. It hadn’t rained in the night but everything was very damp and we’d both woken up feeling too cold around 4am, before layering up and trying to get a bit more sleep. I had a couple of little slugs on the outside of my bivvy – maybe they’d mistaken me for giant slug and had come along to make friends – needless to say I was glad of my mesh ventilation panel again.

True to her word, the warden got up to make us a cuppa before we left and, after getting packed up, we were back on the road in search of breakfast just after 7am. Thanks to Sheffield CTC’s residential weekends to Llangollen I’ve spent quite a bit of time on my bike around this bit of Wales and I was armed with prior knowledge of good cafe stops, so we headed the 10 or so miles to Corwen on the back roads for a fry-up.

Originally we’d planned to ride the 200km back to Sheffield today, but I needed to get my Igaro charger fixed at Keep Pedalling and as the route went to close to Manchester it seemed more sensible to head there and get that sorted out as a priority. This little trip had demonstrated how much I’ve come to rely on it for getting everything charged up when I’m on the move and I needed to make sure I had it repaired in time for the TCR.

After a fairly leisurely breakfast we headed off north-east in the direction of Chester. We’d decided to try to cut out as many of the main roads as possible as we were a bit worried about Monday morning traffic but the minor roads were very hilly and poorly surfaced so we decided to drop back down on to the main road at Lllandegla and just put up with the cars. After another little detour up a really steep single track hill at Coed Talon we crossed the border back into England and the roads flattened out towards Chester.

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Chester lunch stop. Great view but it cost us quite a lot.

We arrived in Chester at lunchtime and had an overpriced lunch in a cafe by the river, but at least the service was quick and we were on our way within 40 minutes. Our route through Cheshire took us along the Whitegate Way cycle track to Winsford and over the River Weaver by the salt mines on the Sustrans trail. The track here is very poorly surfaced and I ended up with a rear wheel pinch puncture which meant taking all the kit of the back of my bike and stalled us by 15 minutes. We needed to get into the centre of Manchester before 6 pm and I was keen to avoid hitting the outskirts at rush hour. We’d also detoured from our planned GPS route and were navigating our way by memory and road atlas maps which slowed us down even more.

By 4.30 pm we were already stuck in horrendous traffic in Wilmslow. It had taken us over ten minutes to get through three sets of traffic lights and I was worried that we wouldn’t make it. Even though it was only 13 miles into the city centre, I didn’t want to chance it and miss my opportunity to get the Igaro repaired so we decided to call it a day and jump on the train to Piccadilly. We made it to Keep Pedalling in good time, device handed over for repair and we had time to catch up with Shona and hear tales of their recent short-lived exploits on the Highland Trail 550.

Julie’s heading off to France next Sunday so this weekend was our last training ride together before we meet up again in Belgium a couple of day’s before the TCR. On our final day we’d ridden 50 miles less than we’d planned to but the overall aim of the weekend had been achieved. Our kit had been tested, strategies discussed and we both now knew how it felt to spend a long day in the saddle after a night’s kip in a field.

The next ride we start together will be on the Muur in Geraardsbergen on July 28th and I think we’re as ready as were ever going to be. Bring on the adventure.

Are you sitting comfortably?

 

For most of my cycling life I’ve ridden a bloke’s bike with a bloke’s saddle but that changed  back in 2014 when I tried out a Fizik Arione Donna saddle. All of the previous women’s-specific saddles I’d tried were either too wide at the nose and too padded at the rear for my liking but the Arione Donna was based on Fizik’s men’s race saddle, the Arione. It was stiff rather than spongy but it flexed instead, it wasn’t too wide and it had a channel down the centre to relieve soft tissue pressure. For the following three and a half years my Arione Donna and I did a lot of miles together – over 22,000 in fact – and, cycling shorts issues aside, we’d been fairly happy together.

However, in an ideal world, saddles need replacing every couple of years and I decided that before the TCR I should invest in a new one and get it worn in in good time.  So imagine my dismay when I learned that Fizik had discontinued the Arione Donna and replaced it with their new women’s specific Luce.

Fizik’s UK distributor, Extra, very kindly gave me a Luce (pronounced Loochay – Italian for ‘light’) to try out. Fizik have spent a lot of time developing and testing the Luce, consulting women riders of all types throughout the process, and it is aimed at a much wider ‘all-round’ audience compared to the Arione Donna which was primarily aimed at the racing market.

When the Luce arrived my initial thoughts were a little sceptical as the shape is quite a radical departure from the Arione Donna. The Luce comes in two different widths and I’d been sent a regular but it is still wider than the Arione Donna and has much more pronounced, angular ‘wing flexors’. It also has a narrow nose and a thin central cutaway area. However, I was pleased to see that the overall stiffness of the Luce is very much the same as the Arione and it is also very light, weighing in  at 230g for the alloy version.

I fitted it to the bike and tried it out on indoor sessions for the first two weeks in order to make sure it was set up correctly before venturing out on a longer outdoor ride. Despite my reservations about the different shape my first impressions on a 100km ride were very positive. I was especially happy with the narrow nose and cutaway and I found that I didn’t need to keep repositioning myself very much at all to relieve soft tissue pressure toward the end of the ride.

After a few more successful shorter distance rides it was time to up the mileage. I had 300km and 200km back-to-back audaxes so this would give me the opportunity to try out the Luce on two consecutive long days in the saddle. As expected the first 100km were very comfortable, in fact the first 160km were, but beyond this distance I started to encounter a bit of soreness just under my bum cheeks where the very angular wing tips kept digging in. This slowly built up from a mild annoyance around 200km to full-on chafing at 300km and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the wing tips seemed to line up perfectly with where the pad was stitched into my bib shorts causing the stitching to rub against my skin.

The last 50km of the ride was a very wriggly affair as I squirmed around trying to prevent the tips from digging in and doing any further damage. Needless to say I was pretty disappointed to discover that the saddle that had been pretty much perfect for 160km was no longer fine at 300km, especially considering most of the riding I currently do is over 200km a day. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to getting back on it to ride another 200km in the morning.

The next day, a decent shower, a liberal application of Doublebase cream and some fresh bib shorts made all the difference and getting back on board was nowhere near as bad I as I was expecting it to be. In fact I began to wonder if I’d imagined some of the pain as everything was feeling pretty comfortable in the rear end department. Again all was good for around the first 160km and then the discomfort started to set in again as the wingtips started to dig in. Thankfully, the ride was hillier than the previous day and that enabled me to spend a bit more time out of the saddle so that things didn’t get quite as uncomfortable.

I spent a bit of time readjusting the saddle angle slightly (tipping the nose down slightly seems to help) and have since been out on a few other 200km plus rides but the pattern keeps repeating itself and I never manage to get much further than 160km before those angular wing tips get me squirming around to find a comfortable spot.

For me personally this really is a saddle of two halves. The nose and cutaway area is amazingly comfortable – much more comfortable than my trusty Arione Donna was in this area –  but the Luce’s wide, angular wing tips at the rear are, well, just too wide for my sit bones I think. Although I’ve got fairly chunky thighs I do have narrow hips compared to many women and I think that a narrower saddle – at least one that sits within the confines of the pad on my bibshorts – would suit me better. I’ve tried numerous pairs of shorts with it and the edge of the pad always seems to line up with those pointy bits! Unfortunately the Luce only comes in regular and wide and the regular seems a bit too wide for me.

Maybe I’m expecting too much to find a saddle that is both light and comfortable over very long distances. A saddle that’s comfortable for 100 miles isn’t necessarily comfortable at 200 miles and because the majority of us don’t ride 200 miles in one sitting it’s probably not something that a saddle manufacturer takes into consideration too much – women’s saddles (and probably quite a few men’s) just aren’t designed to be ridden ultra-endurance distances.  I guess if I’d never have ridden on the Luce for more than 160 kms in one go then I too would still think that it’s a great ride.

In short, if you regularly ride distances less than 160km and / or you have wide sit bones then the Luce will probably be an excellent choice for you.

As for me and the TCR, It’s now less than a month away so I’m going to stick with the Luce and grin and bear it. I don’t have the time to try out another saddle at this late stage and the Luce’s front end is still so much more comfortable than my Arione so I’m not inclined to put my old saddle back on either. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Other Fizik Luce reviews:

Total Women’s Cycling

Bikerumor

Up and down on the Downs

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Around 300 riders at the start of the Ditchling Devil 200

If you’ve been keeping up with previous adventures you’ll know that Peter, Julie and I successfully made it to Teddington earlier this month on our DIY 300km ‘Sheffield to London’ Audax. After a short but restorative night’s rest at Peter’s sister’s house we were up early again the following day, back on the bikes and on our way over Richmond Park to Wimbledon Common and the 8am start of the Ditchling Devil 200km audax.

The 205km audax route takes riders through South London and over the North and South Downs the outskirts of Brighton, taking in Ditchling Beacon along the way. From Brighton the route climbs back up over the South Down to Devil’s Dyke before descending into West Sussex and Surrey before climbing over the Surrey Hills and following the Thames into Richmond.

With a £15 entry fee the Ditchling Devil is a little more expensive to enter than your usual audax, which is usually around six to eight quid, but for the additional entry fee the organisers provide food, with the help of local community groups, at three village control stops along the route.

 

Getting over to the start of the audax was enough of a challenge in itself as rather than pedal all the way around the Common we decided to try and take an off-road ‘short-cut’. When I lived in London I used to run with Belgrave Harriers and their club house is based in Wimbledon. Every Saturday morning my club mates and I would run across the common and over to Richmond Park for training, so I knew which direction we needed to head in, but let’s just say that it’s much easier to get up to the windmill in a pair of trainers than it is on 23mm tyres.

After our wibbly-wobbly detour through the woods, we finally emerged at the top of the Common and into the Windmill cark park to be greeted by literally hundreds of cyclists. The three of us were a bit taken aback by the sight of so many riders at the start of an audax as we are accustomed to seeing around 50 or so riders at the starts of most of the events we take part in. There had to be well over 300 cyclists milling about, eating donuts and waiting for the 8am off. We started to get the feeling that the Ditchling Devil 200 might not be quite like your usual run-of-the-mill audax events.

We parked our bikes and took our place in the line to sign on while each stuffing down a donut. We were a little disappointed not to have coffee at the start but I guess providing coffee for this many riders at an outdoor sign-on would’ve been pretty hard work logistically. After picking up my brevet card I took my place in the queue for the ladies toilets. Yes, that’s right, a queue, for the ladies. All female audax cyclists will know that we never have to queue for the ladies toilets, there just aren’t enough of us usually taking part – in fact we usually have to kick the blokes out of our toilets at most events. However, the Ditchling Devil had a lot of women entrants, which of course is great to see, except that they all seemed to be in ahead of me in the toilet queue.

We decided to hang back at the start to avoid the crowds as we sped away from the common down Wimbledon hill and started our journey through the suburbs of south-west London. This audax definitely had the feel of a sportive to it and despite trying to hold back the three of us inevitably got sucked into a few of the big groups of riders on the road as small groups jockeyed for position, getting bunched up at red lights then trying to out-sprint one another on the green signal.

The sheer number of riders led to a few uncomfortable moments at junctions, especially when a lot of cars and buses were also queuing to get through, but as we left the suburbs behind and headed to the hills of the North Downs the bottlenecks soon settled down as the stronger riders pushed on up the first couple of hills and riders started to spread out along the route. The first big pull came at Chipstead and despite riding on tired legs from our 300 the day before, the three of us were climbing pretty well and did our own fair share of overtaking other riders on the hills.

Once we were beyond Reigate the hills settled out into a more gently undulating landscape as we headed toward the first control and feed stop. The control appeared out of nowhere as we were guided into a field at the crest of a country lane where a couple of people with lists of rider numbers applied stickers to rider’s brevet cards. We were advised that the first food stop was a couple of kilometres away in the village of Highbrook and with the promise of egg and bacon sandwiches ahead we were off down the road.

It was pretty easy to spot the food stop as there were so many riders spilling out of the farm garden and into the lane. We had a little chat with the farmer who told us that the whole village come together every year to help feed and water hungry riders who are in search of breakfast. After our egg and bacon roll and a cuppa we thanked him for his hospitality and were back on our way pedalling through the Sussex lanes toward the South Downs which sat on the horizon like a big green wall – a wall we needed to climb up and over before our descent into Brighton.

Ditchling Beacon, the famous climb over the Downs that features in the London to Brighton bike ride is not to be underestimated. At 1.5 km long it might not be in quite the same league as a few of the tougher climbs we have up here in the north but it’s still a formidable 16% at its steepest gradient and averages 9% overall, so on a hot day it’ll certainly make you sweat a bit and get out of breath.

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Looking east from Ditchling Beacon

Today our ascent was further complicated by  a steady stream of Sunday drivers all out for a day in the sunshine. The climb’s not quite wide enough for two-way traffic and bikes and some drivers were taking quite a few risks overtaking cyclists without giving them much room. Around half way up the traffic ground to a halt in both directions as a bloke on a bike had to pull up suddenly due to severe cramp. A concerned driver in a Range Rover parked up and jumped out to check that he was ok, which was very good of her, but her vehicle was blocking the road in both directions, causing trouble for drivers and cyclists alike.

After a few starts and stops – never a good thing on a 10% gradient – we managed to weave around the static traffic and make it to the top where we took in the fantastic 360 degree view across the Downs to the Sussex coastline and sea beyond. From here the road descended into the busy outskirts of Brighton before climbing back up a few sharp little climbs, one at least 20%, to the top of the ridge and on to Devil’s Dyke where we were rewarded with another fantastic view and an info control.

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The view across the Downs from Devil’s Dyke

After a quick breather and photo stop we were soon descending back down into the lanes of the Weald. Drivers taking part in the London to Brighton Classic Car Run were passing us going the other way and we got to see fine examples of classic vintage motors as we pedalled our way west for a much-needed lunch stop at Upper Beeding. Every now and again mini pelotons of club cyclists would speed past us and it was hard to resist the temptation to speed up and jump on the back but with 300km in our legs from the previous day I don’t think we’d have held on for long.

Lunch was being provided for us in the event organiser’s home. The whole house and garden had been turned into a giant feed station with lots of volunteers preparing and serving industrial-sized quantities of pasta, chilli, bread and rice pudding and riders were scattered everywhere inside and outside the house. The afternoon heat had picked up considerably and I sheltered in the lounge to get out of the sun after lunch while Peter and Julie stayed in the garden. We hung around a little longer than we ought – Peter even thought he might’ve nodded off for a while!

Much of the next section of the ride was on fast main roads and we had a few scary encounters with close passing traffic. These encounters seemed to increase once we crossed over into Surrey, with much swearing and hand gestures – mainly from me! Riding through Surrey was a real trip down memory lane for me as I lived in the village of Alfold for a while when I first started working in London in the 1990’s and once I’d moved into the the city I’d often return to this part of the world for training rides. The villages haven’t changed much but the drivers have definitely got more impatient.

Our final food stop was in the village of Chiddingfold at the cricket club. Once again we were supported by a host of volunteers handing out cups of tea and coffee and a fantastic selection of homemade cakes and biscuits – just what we needed to get us through the last 40 km over the Surrey hills as the three of had started to flag a bit by now. Many of the other groups of riders were also taking their time at this food stop, maybe in anticipation of the few remaining hills ahead.

Julie and I had been keeping a sharp eye on Peter for most of the ride as he can be prone to missing turns and pedalling off in the wrong direction. He’s also managed to cultivate faffing into an art form, leaving gloves and water bottles in his wake at controls. This feed stop was no exception as we handed his gloves to him again. We were starting to wonder how he would manage without us when he rides LEL this summer!

I knew that even though we only had 40 km left to ride we still had the last of the big climbs ahead – Combe Lane at Shere. It starts off relatively tame but banks up to 18% by the swtichback at the top and on our tired legs it was really tough going to drag ourselves over the summit. After Combe Lane it was all plain sailing back over the M3 and M25 into the outskirts of London and we managed to cover the flatter terrain pretty quickly by working together taking turns on the front. I managed to get all the way to Kingston before blowing up after a fairly long stint on the front and had to limp home on the back being pulled along by Julie and Peter along the Thames to Richmond and the finish at the Rose of York pub.

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The Thames at Richmond

We clocked in at the pub just a little after 7 pm, pleased with our efforts considering that we’d now clocked up over 500 kms of riding in two days.  We all agreed that it wasn’t really like any audax we’d done before but we’d really enjoyed it. The organisers really do deserve a big ‘thank you’ for the amount of organisation that went in to providing food and assistance for the huge number of riders taking part – an absolute bargain for the 15 quid entry fee. Cafe stops on audaxes can often result in quite an expensive day out but I’d only spent 75 pence all day!

If you live in the south and haven’t moved up to a longer distance audax yet then this 200 would be a great one to start with. It’s a long way to come for an audax if you live in the north but it’s definitely one to make an effort for, experience some of the best bits of the North and South Downs and make a weekend of it… just make sure you’re prepared for that toilet queue, ladies.

 

Isn’t it all downhill to London?

Last weekend I got the opportunity to cycle down to London, something that has been on my ‘to do’ list for ages but one that I’ve never managed to get around to planning.

Thanks to our friend Peter, this time all of the planning was taken care of and Julie and I had been invited along. He is currently training for LEL and, just like us, trying to get some big miles in when the opportunity arises. Peter had arranged to pedal down from Sheffield to his sister’s in Teddington in a day and then take part in the Ditchling Devil 200km audax from Wimbledon on the following Sunday, clocking up just over 500km in a weekend.

Peter designed the Sheffield to London route to be ridden as a 300km DIY audax, which is basically an audax that you plan yourself.  When you design a route you must plot the shortest distance between two points, so if you want to avoid main roads you can put in a control stop wherever you need to change direction. Peter had managed to plot a pretty straight route down through Bolsover, skirting around Nottingham, Northampton and Milton Keynes before heading slightly south-west over the Chilterns to Beaconsfield, Windsor and finally following the Thames to Teddington.

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Early morning sunshine on the lanes outside Bolsover

We met up in Nether Edge at 5.30am on Saturday morning outside the Sainsbury’s cashpoint where we picked up out first control receipt of the day. After a night of heavy rain, the weather was looking good and the wind wasn’t too strong so we expected to make good progress. The roads were deserted, giving us a pretty-much, traffic-free run all the way to Staveley for our next control receipt before heading on through Bolsover and the quiet lanes of north Nottinghamshire. Early morning rides are a great opportunity to catch some wildlife and en route we saw a barn owl and a young fox playing in the road.

The odd stretch on a busy road is often unavoidable on an audax, especially when you need to get across a river. We’d planned our Breakfast stop at Bingham, a village east of Nottingham, 75 km into the ride and our third control of the day. This meant crossing the Trent at Gunthorpe on the A6097 which is a straight, fast road with heavy traffic. Although it was only around 9am the traffic had picked up enough to make it a fairly unpleasant experience as the road is narrow in places and impatient drivers don’t like being held up by bikes, so we were all pretty glad to get to the roundabout turnoff to Bingham.

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The Picture House Cafe, Bingham

There are a few cafes to choose from in Bingham and judging by the amount of cyclists we saw arriving in the village square it’s a popular meeting place for local cycling clubs. Our cafe of choice was the Picture Cafe on the square, lovely decor, a good menu and, most importantly,  good, strong coffee. We were all impressed enough to consider planning a future day ride from Sheffield.

Keeping an eye on the time we were back on the road for just after 10am and on to the quiet country lanes that run parallel to the A46, through Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. At Market Harborough we headed off-road on the Brampton Valley Way. This 14-mile cycle trail runs from Market Harborough to the outskirts of Northampton along the track bed of a disused railway line and is part of National Cycle Route 6.

Traffic-free route always sound like a good idea – and they are for leisure cycling and family days out – but when you’re covering big miles, often the surface can be a little hard-going on a road bike and they can slow you down quite a bit so we all found the 14 miles pretty tedious. We also encountered some unexpected tunnels – long, muddy, unlit tunnels that were pretty impossible to ride through on skinny 23mm tyres so we had a bit of pushing to do too.

This was also the first long ride on my new Fizik Luce saddle and before hitting the trail, the first 100km had been a comfortable ride but the new saddle has quite angular edges on it’s ‘wingflex’ system and, jiggled around on the bumpy trail surface, I found that the angular edges on the saddle’s ‘wings’ were starting to rub on the back of my legs when I sat back in the saddle. As I still had nearly 200km to go, this was a bit worrying.

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All Saints Church, Northampton

The route spat us out on the outskirts of Northampton, our fourth control of the day and destination for lunch. We’d lost a bit of time on the trail and were around half an hour behind schedule, arriving in town just after 2pm, but we were all pretty hungry and ready for a spell off the bike. We headed up Gold Street to All Saints Church and settled for lunch in the All Saints Bistro which is part of the church building. There’s plenty of covered, outside seating which was good for keeping an eye on the bikes locked up in the church square.

The route out of Northampton took us south, just skirting the edge of Milton Keynes, We were heading into commuter belt and the villages were starting to look a little more well-kept the further south we traveled. The village of Stewkley stands out as a lovely example with some fine old houses and thatched cottages. The cars were also getting bigger and more expensive but unfortunately the drivers’ manners weren’t improving any  and we had a couple of near misses with people taking crazy risks to overtake us rather than wait behind.

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Enjoying a drink at the Half Moon Pub, Wilstone

The fifth control of the day was The Half Moon at Wilstone, a traditional english pub with friendly staff who were interested to know where we’d come from and where we were going. We were met with the now fairly familiar cries of  “Where? Sheffield? Today!”. It was 4.30pm and we were hot in the afternoon sunshine so we ordered large, cold drinks all-round. Peter pushed the boat out with a lager shandy. We weren’t quite ready for a pub meal and there wasn’t a shop so we had to make do with the emergency bagels we’d been carrying around with us all day.

For the most part, once we were away from Sheffield, apart from the trail, the route had been pretty flat and fast but we were now heading into the Chilterns and that meant a few hills. Nothing by Sheffield standards but when you’ve already got 200km in your legs even the smallest incline can be a be a bit of hard work. Peter had done his best to keep the route off the main roads which meant that we found ourselves on some very narrow and not very well-kept country lanes. Some of them were so badly potholed that we gave up trying to negotiate the holes and got off to push for the second time in the day.

The sky had been growing progressively darker and by the time we got to the outskirts of Beaconsfield the heavens opened, and boy, did they open. We were absolutely soaked through to the skin in seconds. The force of the rain hitting the hot roads made the surface water frothy and visibility was poor. It rained solidly for a good 15 minutes but we pedaled out of it and by the time we’d reached the next control point at Dorney the roads were completely dry.

We definitely got a few funny stares from the early evening diners as we entered the Palmer’s Arms in Dorney. We were soaking wet and bedraggled and the rain hadn’t reached the village yet so outside it was still a lovely summer’s evening. We didn’t plan on stopping around long but we needed a control receipt so we ordered drinks and crisps and made good use of the facilities before heading through Windsor and on to Staines.

Old Will the Conqueror certainly knew what he was doing when he chose Windsor as the spot to build a castle. As we pedaled away from Dorney, across the plain of the Thames, the castle was the focal point of skyline, shining gold in the setting sun. We paused for a quick photo stop over the bridge at Eton before climbing on up to Windsor town centre, full of tourists and people partying on an early Saturday evening.

Next stop Staines. We were all pretty starving by this point as we’d not eaten anything substantial since we’d polished off the emergency bagels. On long rides Julie and I have gotten ourselves into the rhythm of eating something small every hour even if we don’t feel hungry, in order to keep blood sugar levels as even as possible to prevent bonking out.  It seems to work well for us but relies upon us topping up our food supplies whenever we get the opportunity. Peter doesn’t seem to need to eat as much as we do and was managing ok by just eating at controls but we were unanimously thrilled to see a Sainsbury’s petrol station the minute it came into view.

Peter’s sister had dinner waiting for us in Teddington as we’d planned to arrive for 9.30 but as it was already 9pm and we still had 20km left, we needed something to tide us over. I opted for a bag of popcorn to fill me up and a carton of iced coffee for a caffeine hit while Julie and Peter shared a sandwich. The cashiers were pretty impressed by our achievements so far and wished us well on the final leg of our journey.

Staines on a Saturday night is quite a rowdy affair so we were glad that we’d not needed to stop in the centre of town. We were hitting the outskirts of greater London now, roads were busier and traffic lights slowed us down quite a bit making the last 15km pretty slowgoing as we rode through the suburbs of Ashford and Feltham.

By 280km the back of my legs had pretty-much had enough of those angular edges on my saddle and I had to keep continually repositioning myself, which was a real shame because the nose of the saddle really was very comfortable.

We finally made it to our destination on Teddington High Street at 10.24pm. We needed to make sure that our arrival was documented so we immediately found a cashpoint to validate our journey of 301km before heading over to Peter’s sisters. We were given a  very warm welcome by Alison and Michael, along with plenty of food and a lovely, hot shower.

By 11.30 we were in bed as we needed to get a few hours of sleep in preparation for our next adventure, the Ditchling Devil 200km to Brighton and back on Sunday… but that’s another story.

Pedalling over the border

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Hanging out with the flock in Lockerbie

Over the weekend Julie and I decided to give our Transcontinental bike and kit set-up a decent trial run on the Hot Trod 400km Audax which starts north west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and heads out west into the Scottish Borders and over to Lockerbie, before heading north east to Moffat and along the Tweed valley to Peebles. Finally heading back into England via Cornhill-on-Tweed and down to Morpeth.

It was Julie’s first 400km audax and, understandably, she was a bit apprehensive. 400s are never easy, even after you’ve got a few under your belt and you know what’s coming. A 300 can be completed in a (long) day, even if it’s a tough one and you’re a slow rider but with a 400 the time allowance is 27 hours, so unless you’re a super-speedy rider, you’re almost certainly going to be riding into the dark and possibly all the way through to the following dawn.

The Hot Trod starts at Kirkley Cycles, a farm that also happens to be a great little bike workshop and cafe around 10 miles north-west of Newcastle. It’s a 400 with a few differences and it bills itself as a great ‘first time’ 400 event.

First up, it starts at a very civilized 9.30am which, on the surface, sounds great but starting late start also means finishing late. The 27-hour time limit equates to a cut-off time of 12.30pm the following day. As it usually takes me around 23 to 24 hours to finish a 400, that meant a finish time of around 9.30am the following morning, riding all through the night, and with heavy kit on the bikes it could be even longer. However, the second difference is that the Hot Trod provides a rest stop with an option to sleep at the 314km mark in Cornhill-on-Tweed Village Hall. Most 400s don’t provide a sleep option because they start at 6am and riders are expected to push on through to finish in the early hours of the next day.

The route is very straightforward to follow as it sticks to major roads for much of the time. This could be a problem in many parts of the UK but up in the Borders there aren’t really that many roads to choose from and most of them are pretty quiet. The route has also been very well thought out so that the A-roads that are likely to carry more traffic are tackled early in the morning or late at night for the majority of riders.

We travelled up to Newcastle by train on the Friday afternoon and rode the 15km to our overnight bunkhouse accommodation at Houghton North Farm in the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall. After a quick wander around the village to find the eponymous ‘wall’ we retired to The Swan for a bit of carb-loading with a giant sized portion of fish and chips plus pudding.

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Fully loaded bikes outside Houghton North Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall

After a very early night we were up early to pedal the 10 miles up to Kirkley. We’d arrived with a good 45 minutes to spare and the cafe was open early so, after signing in, a couple of strong cappuccinos were ordered to help us start the ride with a bit of a caffeine kick.

Around 50 riders had signed up for the event and we bumped into lots of friendly faces. John Rowe and his mate from Stocksbridge CC were riding as well as John, Ian and Gordon who I met when we all rode the PBP with back in 2015. Audax, especially the longer distance events, is quite a small world really so you’ll often end up bumping to the same bunch of people throughout the year.

At 9.30 we were set off by the race organiser and the 50 or so riders were soon dispersed along the B-road that led us over to the A696, so Julie and I were pretty much riding alone from the off. After around 20km we were caught up by a group of riders from the VC167 club including my mate Gordon so we had a bit of a chat with them (mainly about our new Rapha bib-shorts and comparisons with Asos!).

Julie and I had a bit of a game plan as our bikes were fully-loaded with our TCR kit and were very heavy, so we wanted to pace ourselves at a steady 20km an hour, limiting our stops to 30 minutes, and ride alone rather than get caught up in a group and ride at someone else’s pace, so when the group stopped to put on rain jackets we carried on down the road although they soon caught us up and passed us on the steady climb up Carter Bar and the Scottish border.

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It had been drizzling slightly all the way through Kielder up to the border, where we stopped to take the obligatory stop of the bikes by the border stone, but as soon as we crossed into Scotland and turned on to the A6088 to Hawick it was like someone had turned the hose on and the rain came down hard, stinging our eyes and causing us to be more cautious on the descents. Thankfully my old and slightly worse-for-wear Endura waterproof did what it does best and kept my core dry but hands and feet were not so lucky. I’ve really put that poor waterproof through it’s paces over the past three years but it’s never let me down.

Eventually the rain eased off but not before we were completely soaked.  By the time we arrived in Hawick, the second control and first major stop at 89km we’d more or less dried out except for our very wet and cold hands and feet. I’d decided not to bother with bringing any overshoes as it was just more weight to pack but I was starting to regret that decision.

Morrison’s supermarket cafe had been suggested by the race organiser and as we pedaled into the car park and saw all the bikes leaned up against the shop window it looked like everyone had followed his advice. We arrived at 1.30pm – the height of lunchtime for hungry Saturday shoppers – so the queue was long and service was pretty slow-going but we managed to get fed and out within 45 minutes.

After Hawick the route took a turn on to the scenic and deserted B711 and despite the overcast skies and on-and-off showers the landscape was beautiful. Eventually we turned south on to the B709 and climbed steadily, following the the course of the river Ettrick Water upstream to the village of Ettrick. As we started to descend into Eskdalemuir I noticed lots of brightly coloured flags fluttering in the distance by the roadside. As we got closer we were greeted by the very surreal sight of a golden buddha sat in the middle of a pond. We learned that was the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. This was the first Buddhist monastery to be set up in the West and it’s pretty easy to see why they chose this beautiful, quiet valley to host their retreat.

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At Eskdalemuir we turned onto the B723 which was to take us into Lockerbie and the next control stop. We got caught in yet another rain shower on the way down and by time we arrived in the town it was 6pm and we were wet, cold and hungry. We stopped at a cashpoint to get a control receipt and Julie’s hands were so cold that she couldn’t manipulate her fingers to use the machine. The recommended food stop, Lockerbie Truck Stop, was still another 7km up the road.

We piled into the warm and welcoming truck stop cafe and ordered two massive portions of food and steaming mugs of strong tea. A lot of the other riders were in there so we all had a good old moan about the weather and lined our gloves, socks and buffs across the radiators. The lorry drivers didn’t really bat an eyelid but I bet they all thought we were completely bonkers.

We left around 7.15pm and headed up the road to Moffat which wasn’t an official control but was our last chance to stock up on nibbles before the climb up and over the Devil’s Beef Tub, or to use it’s far duller name, the A701, to the next control at Peebles. The sun was starting to set as we reached the top of the climb and started the long descent along the Tweed Valley and the sunset through the stormy rain clouds reflected up from the puddles making the roads glow with pink light.

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Climbing over the Devil’s Beef Tub

By the time we reached the valley bottom it was starting to get dark. I often find the time between dusk and proper nightfall the hardest time to ride through. It’s not completely dark but not light enough to really make anything out. My eyes don’t seems to adjust very well and it’s harder to see the road surface ahead even with good bike lights. My pace always slows down at this point and this night was no exception. Peebles never seemed to get any closer and we finally arrived in the town at a few minutes to 11pm.

We found a group of riders huddled outside a McColls which was planning on closing at 11pm. We quickly leaned the bikes against the shop window and rushed in but once in there we were both so tired and disoriented that we didn’t really know what to buy. It didn’t matter really, I just needed some sugar and a receipt so I bought a packet of Jelly Babies and a large bottle of Coke. Outside I realised that Julie had decided to leave without buying anything and by then they wouldn’t let her back in to get a receipt, so while I fumbled with my supplies and downed half the Coke, Julie went in search of a cashpoint.

Peebles and the 18 miles to Galashiels was probably the low point of the ride for me. I had a real dip in energy, Julie was riding a good 200m ahead and I just couldn’t muster the energy to try to to catch her up. I rode with a friendly Welsh guy for a while and he spurred me on to Galashiels where we found an all-night garage with a toilet and a Costa coffee machine – heaven! It’s amazing just how much a warm building with a toilet and rubbish coffee can perk you up at 1 in the morning.

Now it was proper dark and we had around 30km to go to the rest stop at Cornhill. The route out of town was well-lit on a main road with street lights almost all the way to Kelso which made the going a bit easier. The coffee had perked us both up and we were doing alright. After Kelso the roads were unlit again but by now in the total darkness my eyes had adjusted to it and I’d settled into a good rhythm. We were joined for a while again by the VC167 group and we hung on the back for as long as we could before their red tailights disappeared into the distance.

At the village of Cornhill it took us ages to find the control as the village hall was tucked away on a side street and we were getting a bit flustered in our tired state and kept missing the turn. The sky was just starting to get light again when we eventually arrived at 3.15am. Once inside, we had our cards validated and were offered a macaronie pie and baked beans. We sat down at the long table with a big group of riders, most of them from VC167. We were all in good spirits considering we’d all been awake for a very long time and were kept entertained by Gordon and his banter. Wet socks, shoes and gloves were removed and piled up on the radiators to dry.

The Cornhill control was at 314km so Julie and I figured that we could get our heads down for an hour and wait for a bit more daylight before heading off on the last 90kms which we’d reckoned on covering in around five hours. And, seeing as we’d carried our sleeping bags and bivvys all the way around the route it was time that we put them to good use! Even though we were indoors I couldn’t be bothered to pull the sleeping bag out of the bivvy and just crawled inside the lot, which meant I’d totally overheated in the next five minutes and had to start wriggling around like a demented caterpillar removing bits of clothing while inside.

I’m not sure that I slept really but Julie was convinced she’d heard me snoring, anyway just being horizontal for an hour was a welcome rest. We were up again at 5am and after a bit of breakfast we thanked the lovely support crew for their help and were out of the door by 5.30am to be greeted by a beautiful, sunny morning.

The route back south was very straightforward, along the rolling A697 which skirts the edge of Northumberland National Park, through Wooler and on to Morpeth. However, to make up the distance there was a final info control at Ulgham which meant that we turned off the A-road at Longframlington and back on to the B-roads. these proved to have a sting in the tail with a couple of short 10% hills on poor road surfaces – not exactly pleasant on tired legs and one hour’s sleep. Along the route we caught up with a father and son pair. The little lad was only 13 – what an amazing achievement to ride 400km through the night at that age and what a great bonding experience to have with your dad.

By the time we hit Morpeth around 9.30am we were very glad to be on the home stretch. Up to this point the roads had been very quiet but there was a bit of traffic in the town centre and a couple of pretty impatient drivers in 4x4s made our lives a bit difficult on the climb back out of the town. The final stretch of road back to Kirkley was into a slight headwind and it felt really tough. I have to say that the Brevet shorts that we’d been given by Rapha had held up really well but no shorts are ever going to feel pleasant after you’ve had them on for 24 hours and 395km so we were getting up out of the saddle quite a bit at this point to ease the pressure points. After a quick glance at our watches we realised that we could just about get in before 10am if we picked up the pace for the last couple of kms, so we managed to find a bit of extra from somewhere and made it back to the farm gate by 9.57am, 24 and a half hours after we’d started.

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Glad to be back

We were warmly welcomed back by the VC167 crew and cafe staff, very tired but very happy with our time and satisfied that the kit we’d carried with us had done the trick. After a good hours rest with big mugs of tea and bacon (me) and fish finger (Julie) sandwiches we were back on the bikes to Newcastle and on the train to Sheffield.

We’d both had our low points on the ride, sometimes at the same time but not always. We’d battled the lousy Scottish weather and got horribly soaked but we’d cycled through some stunning scenery on deserted roads that were still beautiful despite the cloudy, heavy skies. We ate our own body weight in junk food and shared the road with friendly, supportive riders – and that’s what audaxes are all about.

I enjoyed it so much, I’m already thinking about going back to do it next year.

Heading north and back again

Denholme – Carlisle – York over two days

Day one: Denholme to Carlisle – 226km

My friends Sian and Esther are currently training for LEL this summer. Last Sunday and Monday they decided to ride part of the route from Pocklington in North Yorkshire, across the north Pennines to Carlisle and back again. Julie and I decided to cycle up to Carlisle to meet them and ride the route back with them to York the following day.

 

Leaving Denholme, 7.30am on Sunday morning

To get the miles in on day one I’d planned a route that took a detour to Slaidburn as I’m planning a weekend residential there for the Sheffield Cycling UK member group in September and it was a good opportunity to recce the last part of the route from Keighley which is pretty rolling but not too taxing.

Slaidburn

After a quick cuppa and a toasted teacake sat out in the Slaidburn sunshine, we rode up through the trough of Bowland, one of my favourite places to ride. It’s a tough climb, especially after a cafe stop, but worth it. You can even see the sea (and Blackpool Tower on the horizon) on a good day – and today was a good day.

We’d been travelling mainly west with a slight crosswind over to Lancashire but by the time we reached Caton we were heading north and riding directly into a headwind which stayed with us all the way to Carlisle, not too strong but just enough to make the journey a bit more of an effort.

By lunch we’d reached Kirby Lonsdale and as we were trying to keep stops as brief as possible, rather than head into town we pedalled down to Devil’s Bridge, a popular stop with local motorbikers, for another cuppa and a huge cheese, potato and onion cake – basically a massive carb-fest butty – while being entertained by the kids diving off the rocks into the river below.

We continued north cycling through the rolling hills of the Lune Valley, often quite steep at times, crossing the M6 twice, up to the village of Orton. The Lune Valley and Howgill Fells sit in between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Many people only encounter it while speeding through it up and down the M6 and it often gets overlooked by tourists which means lots of quiet, traffic-free roads perfect for cyclists.

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Carpets of bluebells in the Lune Valley
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The Lune Valley. This lovely, quiet road runs along the other side of the valley from the M6 and West Coast mainline.

We just made it to our last cafe stop of the day in Orton as it was closing. We had yet another cuppa (the coffee machine was being cleaned out) and stocked up on snacks. Portable food options were a bit thin on the ground and I had to settle for a slab of fruit cake which, although tasty, must’ve added an extra kilo to the overall weight of my bike.

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Climbing up out of Orton, looking across to the Howgill Fells

By the village of Morland we dropped down a steep hill to a ford with a footbridge. The local rugby club were having a bit of a party in the neighbouring field with a visiting team from St. Malo. After a bit of polite banter, and the invitation to stop for a pint, the visiting guests insisted on offering to carry our bikes across the footbridge. Julie was having none of it but my bike was whisked out of my hands before I had a chance to put up a fight.

North of the A66, the remainder of our journey took us along the Eden Valley through Kirkoswald and Armathwaite. This section following the River Eden was the flattest part of the route, which was welcome by this point in the day as we’d already clocked up over 3000m of climbing.  Saying that, I’d somehow still managed to unwittingly sneak in a couple more short 15% climbs in the last 20 km!

After 13 hours, 226km and 3850m of climbing, we arrived at the Travelodge in Carlisle just after 8.30pm, feeling tired but still in pretty good shape and definitely ready for our tea.

Day two: Carlisle to York – 212km

We caught up with Sian and Esther over breakfast to hear tales of their journey up from Pocklington the day before. They’d been following a 230km stretch of the LEL route through Upper Teesdale over to Alston – the route we were now going to take in reverse.  Battling a headwind up over Yad Moss with panniers had worn Esther out a bit so she decided to ditch the panniers at the Travelodge for the return leg.

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Leaving Carlisle

We were on the road by 8.30am and made it across the rolling hills to Alston by 11.00am for a quick cafe stop before the big climb of the day. Unlike the previous day’s constant ups and downs, today we had the one big climb across the North Pennines, over Alston Moor and Yad Moss before dropping down to Langdon Beck and Upper Teesdale.

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The cobbled climb up through Alston. A good excuse to stop for a cuppa.

Cycling across the North Pennines is just breathtaking. If you’ve not been up here on a bike then I can definitely recommend it – it’s a bit like the Dark Peak minus all of the crowds. The roads are completely deserted and it feels very remote and rugged in this part of the world even though we were only 40 miles or so from Newcastle.

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Upper Teesdale. Not a soul in sight for miles.

It was pretty chilly on the tops but for the most part we had a tailwind and were soon descending through Upper Teesdale to Middleton and on to Lunch in Barnard Castle.

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Barnard Castle

After a longish lunch we headed steadily south west across the Vale of York to Thirsk. Even though this section of the ride was flat, we were all riding on tired legs and feeling the effects of the day before and the constant pedalling required on the flat was still pretty hard work for all of us.

The flat lands can get a bit monotonous – we all had our low moments but never at the same time and riding together you can keep each other going when it starts to get tough. By the time we arrived at Thirsk we were ready for another rest stop. Arriving at 6.30pm options were pretty limited and we ended up at the local Tesco stocking up on snacks and water for the final leg.

While taking a break, Julie and I had planned the final part of our route as we’d arranged to stay in York Youth hostel for the night and needed to head south rather than continue on south west to Pocklington with Sian and Esther. We agreed to part company just before the village of Coxwold. Esther and Sian headed on for the Howardian Hills and a few more kilometres. For Julie and I the route was fairly straightforward, heading down to Easingwold, avoiding the A19, and eventually on to York, arriving at the youth hostel just after 9.00pm.

With another 212km ticked off we rewarded ourselves with a right good curry in the local pub.

 

Planning your own mini bike adventure

This week I’m having a recovery week which means a few less miles on the bike and a few more hours planning the training weeks ahead. I need to start building up the amount of consecutive long days in the saddle and that means planning a few mini adventures with overnight stops.

Occasionally friends remark about how brave they think I am for taking myself off on multi-day rides and mini adventures, but if I can do it then I’m pretty certain that anyone can.

For me, especially at the moment while I’m training for the TCR, solo riding is a necessity as I need to get the miles in at a time that works best for me. Although it’s always great to have company on a ride, if I had to wait for someone else to accompany me I might be waiting a long time and could miss out on the opportunity.

It’s not really about being brave, as any good girl guide will tell you, it’s about being prepared. If I’m going off for a few days I like to make sure that I spend plenty of time beforehand making sure that I know where I’m heading and what’s in store along the way. That way I can feel confident in my own abilities to deal with whatever comes along.

However, you can’t always be prepared for everything, so I’d say that as well as being prepared you also need to be flexible. Having the ability to pull a ‘Plan B’ out of the hat when needed can often be more important than planning everything down to the last detail. The most important thing is to have a go and don’t worry too much if things go off-plan – I’ve made loads of mistakes but found a way around them and most of them were a good lesson learned for next time.

So, for those of you who fancy taking getting out there on your own mini adventure I thought I’d share a few thoughts and ideas with you to help you start planning. We all know that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and I’m sure other people will have a different approach that works just as well for them, but this is the way that works for me…

Ten tips for planning mini adventures

I could probably come up with at least another ten but these are good for starters…

Come up with a basic outline

Before planning your adventure ask yourself…

How many days do you want to ride?
How far do you want to ride each day?
How many hours do you want to spend in the saddle?
How much climbing do you want to do?
How many stops do you want to make en-route?

Once you’ve got a vague outline you’re ready to get cracking on the detail

Start close to home to begin with

If you’re a bit nervous about giving it a go then you can still have a great multi-day adventure on your doorstep by building a circular route around where you live. You’re much more likely to feel confident if you’re cycling on roads that you’re familiar with.

If I’m cycling in an area that I know very well, like the Peak District and Pennines, I rarely take a map or plot a route because I know the roads, how to get myself home from there and how long it’ll take, but if I’m heading over to an area that I don’t know well then I’ll spend a lot more time on route preparation and familiarisation.

Learn how to read a map confidently

You might think that these days when most of the routes that we plan or follow are loaded up onto a GPS device like a Garmin or phone, figuring out where you’re going on a map is less important than it used to be – it’s not.

I find it much easier to visualise the route that I’m on if I’ve initially plotted it on a real-life OS map. As I’m cycling through towns and villages there’s something very reassuring in the process of recalling that I’ve seen the name of said village previously on a map. Maps are also the best way to check out hill contours and those little ‘double-arrows’ if you’re trying to avoid steep hills.

If you need to brush up your map reading skills the YHA run some excellent navigation courses at Edale Activity Centre (http://www.yha.org.uk/edale-activity-centre). They’re primarily aimed at hill walkers but the core skills are the same for any outdoor pursuit.

Learn how to use your GPS device properly

If you’re going to rely heavily on a piece of tech then you need to make sure that you’re comfortable with how it works and that your routes are loaded correctly before you set off. There are lots of different brands and models out there. I use a Garmin Edge 510 because I like the simplicity of following a clear line and the battery lasts a bit longer. Other people prefer models with maps as they’re useful if you need to take an unplanned diversion. I have to say that although the tech is improving all the time, they all have their little foibles and the only way you can learn what they are is by getting out there and using your device.

Take a back-up map

Remember that sometimes your electronic device can go wrong, run out of juice, or for some reason you may need to take a detour, cut your journey short and take a short-cut to the nearest train station. I’m not suggesting that you cart along several OS maps with you – they’re bulky and weigh too much – but as a back-up I always take along the relevant pages from a road atlas. They don’t take up very much space (you can slip them in your jersey pocket inside a little plastic bag). If it’s a few pages, to make life even easier, I draw the route on with a highlighter pen so that i can orientate myself quickly if I need to.

Plot your own routes rather than use someone else’s

You’ll feel much more confident about the route that you’re taking if you’ve plotted it yourself. You can plot your own course with the Garmin Connect software or with a third-party app like Ride with GPS or Strava. I tend to stick to the Garmin software because I’ve had a bit of trouble with my Edge 510 corrupting after importing courses from other apps in the past.

When you’re plotting rides online always keep an OS map handy to check that the route you’ve chosen is actually a right of way. Both Garmin Connect and Google Maps often shows bridleways and tracks as roads and I’ve often ended up riding on a track that looked like a road on screen when I was plotting the route. If you want to check the surface of a road then Google Maps Street View is also a good resource. Strava also has a useful option that enables you to look at the most popular routes taken by other riders.

If you have to use a route that someone else has plotted, familiarise yourself with it and draw it out on a road map before you set off.

Don’t rely too much on NCN Cycle routes you’re unfamiliar with

NCN cycle routes can be a bit hit and miss (http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map). Some of them are great – like the on-road NCN 6 from Preston to Lancaster – but some of them are a bit rubbish – like the off-road NCN 68 between Whaley Bridge and Buxton, which is pretty impossible to ride on a road bike. Poorly-surfaced tracks and bridleways can end up adding a lot of time to your journey and unless you know in advance you can get caught out. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Make a note of the addresses and phone numbers of your accommodation on a slip of paper

Again, I’ve learned this the hard way. I used to keep all the info I needed on my phone but if you get delayed and it runs out of power, or it accidentally gets damaged, then you’ve not got any way of getting in touch with your hosts to let them know that you’re still on your way.

Take an external power supply with you

You might not be able to get access to a plug to charge your devices when you stop. A little portable power supply like an Anker Astro Mini only weighs 85g and will set you back a tenner from Amazon. It’ll charge your Garmin or your smart phone a couple of times while you’re on the road.

And finally, the last one isn’t really a planning tip but just a good bit of advice for any rider

Learn how YOUR bike works and how to fix it

Lots of bike shops run maintenance sessions where you get to watch the shop mechanic run through a few basic maintenance skills in an hour or two – what a waste of time! You need to be able to practise doing it yourself on your own bike in order to learn. Try to find a local beginner’s maintenance course where you get to work on your own bike in a supervised environment. This type of course may be longer in duration but you’ll learn so much more. Alternatively see if there’s a local bike kitchen or drop-in workshop where you can hire tools and practise maintaining your own bike.

Once you’ve been on a course, keep practising so you don’t lose your new skills. You can always keep an old inner tube at home to practise fixing a puncture on while you’re sitting at home watching telly. Even if you’re taking a few spare tubes with you, take a puncture repair kit too (a proper one, not self-adhesive patches) Sometimes you can be really unlucky – I once had four punctures in one day.