There’s no denying that the weather so far this year has been a bit cruel to us cyclists. I can count the good weather weekends we’ve had so far since January on one hand. So it was with some trepidation that Julie and I pedalled off from Sheffield train station early on Good Friday to get three days of riding in over the Easter weekend.
The plan was to get a few days back-to-back riding in our legs in preparation for the Normandicat race we’ve entered as a pair in May. Despite my training indoors all though the winter at Skyhook and Julie’s month of rebuilding her strength in Spain, the combination of lousy weather and Julie’s broken arm taking much longer to heal than expected means that we are both a long way from where we’d like to be training-wise.
When we originally signed up for Normandicat last November, neither of us thought that we might be pushing it a bit by entering a race in early May. I think that last year’s incredibly mild winter, where we trained outdoors, riding long miles all through the early months of the year, lulled us into a false sense of security.
Although my indoor training sessions have been a huge help in keeping my base fitness maintained over the winter, it simply cannot replicate what your body goes through sat in the saddle for 200 km when it’s three degrees and you’re pushing on into a headwind. I’ve also put few kilos on in weight, which makes absolutely no difference to my power output when I’m sat on a bike indoors, but it sure makes a difference back out on those hills. In short, I’ve gone a bit soft.
To make life a bit easier for ourselves over the weekend we decided to stay in youth hostels rather than camp or bivvy, and had booked up a couple of beds in advance at Arnside and Helmsley. This meant we could carry less stuff on our bikes to reduce the weight a bit. Our three routes were plotted in advance, quite a lot of it on roads that we’d both cycled on previously. As we were both out of practice with sitting in the saddle on consecutive days, we decided to get the biggest day out of the way first and decrease the daily distance over the following two days.
Day One – Sheffield to Arnside: 186 km
So much for packing light! The weather forecast for the Easter weekend was looking pretty changeable, with a bit of everything thrown in, including snow on high ground. This meant that we both had quite a bit of kit with us as we didn’t want to chance getting caught in the middle of the Dales without enough stuff to keep us warm. I like to spread the weight all over the bike so I’d opted for my small seatpost pack and waterproof handlebar pack, with most of my clothing – including four pairs of gloves – on the front and spares, tools and food on the back. Julie just had the one large seatpost pack with everything stuffed in.
We were off just after 7.30am, the first part of the route taking us out of Sheffield via Penistone Road and up over Grenoside to Wortley. The roads were pretty busy considering it was early on a bank holiday morning and we were glad to get off the main roads and start climbing. Getting out of Sheffield in any direction is always a bit of a slog as there’s no escaping those hills but we had all day to cover 180km. No pressure, as long as we made it to Arnside before the pub stopped serving food we’d be just fine.
It’s been a while since either of us have pedalled with a loaded-up bike but we pretty soon settled into a steady, comfortable rhythm – no point in pushing too hard as we had a
long way to go. Our route kept us on mainly quiet roads over to Emley Moor for a quick cafe stop at The Tasting Rooms, then across the hills above Huddersfield before descending into Dewsbury to pick up the Spen Valley Greenway – eight miles of traffic-free tranquility that transports you all the way to Bradford through one of West Yorkshire’s most congested urban corridors. It’s a route I know very well as it’s the one I take to visit my dad who lives in Denholme, which just happens to be around halfway on our route to Arnside, and a good excuse to call in for a cuppa enroute.
We arrived at Dad’s, on schedule, at 12.30, popped the kettle on and a pan soup on the hob. Work commitments and snowy weekends meant I’d not seen my dad since Christmas so it was lovely to catch up with him if only for a flying visit. My dad was a big cyclist when he was younger and still is, but to a much lesser degree, so inevitably our conversation turned to the route we’d be taking over the Dales and which hills we’d be climbing. 45 minutes later we were out of the door, with a huge bar of chocolate each – flat-pack Easter eggs – flying down the hill into Keighley.
Despite the cloudy grey skies that had been with us all day, we’d managed to avoid getting wet and the further west we travelled the more the weather improved. As we pedalled along the Aire valley the day was really brightening up and we had an easterly wind gently pushing us along. North of Gargrave the route started to get a little lumpy again as we headed into the Yorkshire Dales National Park and picked up the Way of the Roses route from Airton to Settle. Travelling east to west it’s a long steady ascent up the back of High Hill Lane, far gentler than the 16% average that rises up out of Settle in the opposite direction.
Neither of us are a fan of steep descents so we both took it fairly easy down the hill into Settle, making the most of the stunning view that had now opened up ahead of us. We passed a couple of cyclists travelling in the opposite direction who had already resorted to pushing up that killer gradient.
A reviving afternoon cuppa and bun at the Old Man Cafe set us up for the last leg of our journey to Arnside. There were no more big hills to worry about but lots of little energy-sapping ups and downs, which never feel easy on tired legs, but the sun was shining and with a tailwind to help us along we made good time.
We left the Way of the Roses route north of Gressingham and pedalled the final 20km to Arnside. The little town is built into the side of a hill on the south bank of the River Kent where it flows out into Morecambe Bay. Our destination for the night, Arnside youth hostel, is situated near the top of the hill so we finished off our first day with one final climb to finish us off. We rolled in a little after 7pm, too late to grab a meal at the hostel but in just time to watch the sunset rather spectacularly over the bay.
We walked into town for a huge plate of fish and chips at the Albion pub but we were both struggling to stay awake and were back at the hostel for 9.30pm. Although we were tired, we were both pretty pleased with how the day had panned out. We’d been lucky with the weather and the tailwind and both of us accepted that Saturday’s ride across the Dales to Helmsley would probably be a different story.
Day Two – Arnside to Helmsley: 160 km
We woke at 6.30am to drizzle and grey skies and polished off a pretty meagre breakfast of packet porridge and day-old bagels that we’d carried with us from home the day before. After a quick photo stop down at the bay we were back on the road for 7.45am, this time pedalling into a headwind – setting the theme for the rest of the day.
We knew that Saturday would be the toughest of our three days as we had a few big climbs across the Dales and would be pushing on into the wind without much of a respite. It was also considerably colder and we were both wearing more layers than the day before. We’d had a conversation earlier in the hostel about whether we’d really need all the spare gear we’d brought with us, but a couple of hours in to the day’s ride we already knew we’d made the right decision.
The morning passed relatively swiftly as we wound our way north east on undulating minor roads, under the M6, and back into the Yorkshire Dales national park. By the time we arrived in Dent at 11am we were both ready for a second breakfast and were pretty thrilled to discover that the cafe we’d chosen, Stone Close, had a lovely log fire on the go to greet us as we walked in. After polishing off two cappucinos and a plate of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs I was as ready as I was ever going to be to tackle the climb up Newby Head Gate.
Even in bad weather the road through Dentdale is very beautiful and the scenery helped to take our minds off the ever-increasing headwind as we made our way up the valley to start the climb at Cowgill. This route is the easiest climb out of Dentdale but becomes more exposed the higher it gets and by the time we reached the junction at Newby Head it was blowing a proper gale.
Once at the top we had a seven mile descent but thanks to the wind we never had the chance to freewheel and had to pedal downhill all the way into Hawes. The rain had set in properly now and low cloud covered the tops of the moors. The plan was to push on through to Leyburn on the eastern edge of the Dales where we’d stop for a late lunch.
We arrived in Leyburn just after 2pm and, cold and wet, dived into the first cafe we saw. Julie was so cold that her hands wouldn’t stop shaking and she had to hug the teapot to steady her hands before attempting to eat the soup and chips we’d ordered. It was really hard work mustering up the enthusiasm to get back out there but we still had 60km to go to Helmsley and needed to get on with it.
After Leyburn we left the Dales and the roads smoothed out across the Vale of York. We were both now riding on roads that we knew well and although the landscape flattened out we didn’t have much shelter from the elements so even on the flat it was still quite tough. At least in the Dales we had the scenery to look at but the vale of York can be a pretty featureless affair when the sun’s not shining so we had very little to take our minds off the wind and rain.
The minor roads were also pretty churned up with mud and potholes so by the time we rolled into Thirsk at 5.30pm we were mud-splattered and feeling pretty sorry for ourselves. Every time we ride through Thirsk we always seem to find ourselves in Tesco and today was no exception. The security guard took pity on us and let us stand under the heaters by the doors to thaw out a bit. Julie was shaking again and put on every item of clothing on that she’d brought with her while I swapped my very soggy gloves for two pairs of dry ones.
There’s a sting in the tale when you approach Helmsley from the east as you have no choice but to climb up to get there. There are two choices, Sutton Bank or Wass Bank, both a grind, especially at the end of a long journey, but Wass Bank is the easier and quieter of the two traffic-wise. I’m really not sure how we both made it up there without pushing to be honest, especially at the top where it steepens to 16% – it’s safe to say that neither of us will be posting any QOMs from today’s ride.
The long, straight descent into Helmsley was a welcome relief to us both despite us both having to pedal downhill for the second time today, this time with added sleet. We arrived at the Hostel soggy, muddy and cold to the core. After dumping most of our kit in the drying room we had to hide under the duvets in our dorm for a good 15 minutes to try to thaw out before even attempting to think about food.
Neither of us fancied the idea of leaving the hostel in search of dinner but after a fruitless search for a local takeaway with a delivery service (all collection only – I’m sure there’s a business opportunity to be had there), we had to reluctantly venture back outside. Neither of us fancied the pub so we and headed over to the local Italian, only to find that the restaurant was fully booked for the rest of the night so we ended up with our takeaway after all.
Day Three – Helmsley to Sheffield: 165 km
Our ride home should’ve been a fairly straightforward ride of around 140km. As it was a bank holiday Sunday we’d decided to avoid going through York, which is the most direct route, and instead planned to stay east through Pocklington and down to Howden before crossing the River Ouse at Boothferry Bridge. However, thanks to a Garmin failure and my lousy memory, things didn’t turn out quite according to plan.
With less kilometres to cover, we decided to have a later start and order a cooked breakfast at the hostel. The forecast looked like more of what we’d experienced on Saturday but with a strong north-easterly wind we were looking forward to having a tailwind all the way home.
We dodged showers throughout the morning as our route took us through the lumpy landscape of the Howardian Hills and the walled grounds of Castle Howard. The Stray, the impressively arrow-straight road that runs through the estate, provided us with a few decent photo opportunites as well as a couple of run-ins with drivers who just couldn’t resist the temptation to put their foot down on the long, straight drag. The lumps flattened out as we approached Pocklington, our first coffee stop of the day, and thanks to the tailwind we were making great progress.
We’ve both ridden the rest of the route via Howden to Sheffield plenty of times as we often use it on DIY audax routes so when the second half of the route wouldn’t load on to my Garmin we weren’t too worried. However, we should’ve been a little less complacent because on the way out of Howden we missed the left turn to the Boothferry Bridge and continued straight on to Barmby-on-the-Marsh, following the NCN65 cycle route signs.
At Barmby village the road stopped but the cycle route carried on over the barrage bridge where it morphed into a muddy single-track across a field. Just one more reason why NCN cycle routes are never to be trusted! By this point we were already 8km down the road from our missed turn and decided to carry on along the track rather than double-back to Howden.
By the time we’d reached the village of Cliffe I realised that we were heading north up to Selby and in completely the wrong direction. We were trapped on the north side of the Ouse without a bridge to cross but seeing as we’d come this far off-route it seemed pointless to turn around so we decided to carry on up to Selby where we could cross the river, get some lunch and then pick up the road to Snaith, more-or-less back on to our original route. By the time we’d arrive in Snaith we’d added and extra 25km to the day’s distance.
At Snaith there are two options to cross over the M62, both lead to the village of Sykehouse but one route stays on the road while the other slightly shorter route takes in an unpaved stretch of the Trans-Pennine Trail for a couple of kilometres. Now you’d think that we’d have learned our lesson taking shortcuts for the day but this is one that we use a lot in the summer so we were fairly confident that it would be a safe bet – how wrong were we? Thanks to the heavy rainfall the route was very waterlogged and muddy and we kept having to weave around huge puddles. Our slick road tyres had little traction in the mud and it was such hard-going that we decided get off and push for most of it, all the while laughing at our daft decision, unaware of the final surprise waiting for us at the end of the trail.
Towards the end of the route a little humpback bridge flows over the River Went. As soon as we crossed the bridge the trail completely disappeared and we were surrounded by water. The little river had burst it’s banks and the last section of the trail was completely submerged. We couldn’t risk riding through it as we didn’t want to fall off and get completely soaked but neither of us wanted to double-back and retrace our route either as the trail rejoined the road, and dry land, just 50 tantalising metres ahead.
As much as I didn’t really fancy the idea of riding the final 40km home with wet feet, they were already a bit damp from riding in the showers all day, so continuing with our ‘let’s just keep going’ theme of the day, we just got stuck in and waded through it carrying our bikes in one hand and holding on to the bushes with the other – thankfully it was only shin-deep with no surprise ‘Dr.Foster’ moments!
Wet feet aside, we managed the final 40km back to Sheffield without further incident, making it back into town by 7pm, two hours later than planned, a bit tired and very mucky, but both really pleased that we’d got some long-overdue back-to-back days in our legs and another little adventure to remember.
Our rides very rarely go completely to plan but that’s just part of the ‘fun’. I’m glad that we are able to just take it all in our stride and adapt to the situations we find ourselves in. We always have a laugh – and occasionally a little cry – but we always have a story to tell at the end of day. After all, it’s just a bike ride.