Tuesday, 19 May 2009

English Coast to Coast. 7DS5.

First up, I want to clarify my route. I followed the unabridged Coast to Coast designed by Tim Woodcock. 210 miles of Great British Mountain Biking: warts and all. It’s an incredible route but far from ‘the perfect ride’. On a normal day, you would avoid many of the sections like the plague. But this wasn’t a normal day. The idea was to ride what I consider to be the toughest mapped version of this classic challenge, come what may.

I have investigated accounts of ‘The’ Coast to Coast being ridden in one hit in under twenty hours and found them to be variations on Tim’s route (and other coast to coast hybrids). I have still not found any evidence that anybody has ridden Tim’s route in one hit and unsupported. If anyone knows differently please let me know. If you would like a copy of the GPX file, please contact me and I will pass it on. This is the Seven Deadly Spins 5 challenge.

As things turned out, I don’t expect my ride time to present a great problem for the ‘usual suspects’ who may take this challenge on (and I hope they do; it’s a fantastic experience). Conditions were not conducive to a fast time. The weather played an ace by hitting me with a South Easterly headwind and plenty of rain; the absolute worst case scenario. However, with the 24hr Solo World Championships being so close, a postponement would have involved months of waiting and I had an insatiable urge to just get out there and get it done. So I did. It was a ride I will never forget. Put the kettle on, I want to tell you a story…

It was necessary for me to wake up and get up quickly on Saturday morning so Dave and Charlotte could drive me from Morpeth to St Bees. For me, this is one of the most stomach wrenching feelings involved in a day / night / day ride; knowing I won’t be reunited with my bed till Sunday night. At 7am on Saturday morning, bed felt a long way away…. The weather didn’t look too bad but I could see the high cloud still flowing in exactly the wrong direction.

As we cruised South on the M6 my now fragile optimism took a big kick in the shins. The sky went black, the rain lashed down and wind buffeted the car. I finally resigned myself to the cold reality that this was going to be far from perfect. The rosey coloured glasses came off and the adrenalin was flowing faster than the rain down the windscreen…

Reserved confidence returned as we hit the coast. White horses whipped across the Irish Sea but the cloud was broken and there was some warmth in the sun. We pulled up at St Bees car park with twenty minutes to spare. Quick scramble to get ready, and off!

Through the lanes and tracks towards Ennerdale I started to relax and remember I was out to enjoy this. How many people have the chance to do something like this? Recently, some friends and relatives have suffered some shattering health problems. I would absorb every minute good or bad, just happy to be fit and healthy. Did I want the ride to be ‘perfect’? What’s perfect? Did I want an Experience? Hell yes!

Cruising up the valley I prepared myself for the hit of Black Sail Pass. It’s my least favourite part of the Lakes section and I just wanted to put it behind me. But it was in front of me, a misshapen contorted ascent that has no redeeming features on a nice day…. Just as I started to climb, a weather front passed over. Suddenly the wind blew up and seemed to hit me from every direction at once. The rain came down in vicious swirls. It happened so fast I didn’t even have time to reach for my waterproof. Dragging my bike up the tussock ridden slope I felt pretty low. This was not a fun start. Over the top I dropped my saddle and stared straight down the now slick and steep rock steps. Gulp. The crags below Red Pike looked far steeper than I’d ever noticed before, sheer in fact. They were inky black and ragged swirls of rain clouds skittered around the horseshoe. Deep breath. And down… The heavy bag on my back lurched and tried to pitch me over the bars. Not only this, but it also seemed to ‘stabilise’ my weight, making it very hard to make the fine body movements required on such a technical descent. I felt something give on my bike and I slid to a precarious nose down halt. My saddle bag bracket had snapped. It was a big saddle bag which held the bulk of my energy bars. My back pack was packed to bursting. My pockets were full, but it’s amazing how creative you can get with space when you have to! Up my top, jammed hard into my backpack and down my shorts! I must have looked like some kind of deformed Michelin Man! Onwards and downwards…. I must admit at this stage to being completely unnerved. I was shaky and nervous. My arms were trembling. I fully expected to crash. Past the rocky gully and some semblance of belief returned. I popped out at Wasdale Head and felt a wash of relief to leave Black Sail behind me.

The grind and carry up towards Bulatt Bridge began. As the ground levelled I was hit by the true wind direction and it wasn’t good. This plateau gives an honest reading and it was straight in my face. The marshy ground was saturated and sucked my wheels in making me feel like I was dragging a small parachute… Surely things would get better….

Down into Boot the release of a rocky surface boosted both my speed and my spirits and I cruised towards Hardknott. Apprehension grew as knew I was traversing Harter Fell soon after. Another ‘bad bit’. Well best to get these out the way. And it was bad! A long carry and then across the flat… Sawn off tree stumps, ankle twisting rocks and unpredictable pools of treacle like peat continually tripped me up. Eventually it becomes mostly rideable down to the river Duddon but with my confidence and skills on the floor I was making a real meal of everything, over compensating for the dead weight on my back which seemed to neutralise and straighten my every turn.

Walna Scar loomed. I felt tired, weak and demoralised. Half riding, half pushing my head was down and I knew I needed something to give. I’m embarrassed to say it but I felt like pulling out (even though I couldn’t). Dark Thoughts Sir? After three and a half hours Sir? What was going on?! Then I got the boost I needed. The perfect boost for any rider; standing at the top of Walna Scar with my saddle down, not a person in sight and one of the best descents in the country snaking endlessly down in front of me! Cheeeearge! It all clicked and I nailed it; fast, furious and sketchy. Reserve went out the window. This type of descent is my strength and I wanted to make the most of it. Out and through Coniston my legs whirred away and I was in race mode. Through Tilberthwaite, down the rock fest to Skelwith Bridge and up the road climb to Loughrigg Terrace. It was deserted bar one person sitting on a bench. On a Saturday afternoon. Incredible! This is normally one of the busiest walking routes in the Lakes and rendered unrideable at any pace unless you’re up very early (or very late!). This was a common theme for the whole ride and part of my logic for choosing this weekend. The weekend before a Bank Holiday is always quieter in the Lakes as people are saving themselves to hit the place in a concentrated mass…. More the fool them!

Jenkins Crag was a grind and again my head went down… What was happening? My negativity confused me. Some kind of psychosomatic goings on I suspect… Onto Garburn and the rock was nice and dry, the spirits lifted once more and I chuckled to receive a text from a friend; ‘Fancy North York Moors tomorrow?’ it read! ‘I’ll be there’ I replied! Garburn is another favourite and again I hit all the lines. The brain was starting to engage. But again the cloud and darkness closed in. No signs of life anywhere. It was bleak. And time was getting on. I dragged my bike up Gatesgarth knowing that when the rocky surfaces ended and I hit the bad lands of Mosedale my momentum would fall once more.

It was horrendous. Like a bad dream. It’s a wet place at the best of times but this was truly awful. I literally dragged my bike through knee-deep marsh grass and at points ended up thigh deep in freezing black watery peat. One gate was virtually impossible to open because either side was three foot deep in water. The spectre of submerged barbwire, fence posts and rocks swam in front of my eyes as I hauled myself through the quagmire. Even going downhill proved impossible at times as the bike just dug deeper and deeper into the gloop. I pushed and dragged for a good few miles. Just before the descent towards Shap it started to go properly dark. The gloom was accelerated by an incoming black wall of rain and I knew this was no light shower. My waterproofs were on simply to try and keep warm but they were about to get a proper workout… The heavens opened and the daylight ended in a split second. Exposure light went on and its solid dependable beam gave me a much needed boost of confidence.

Down into Shap to a tap stop. Dave and Charlotte were there to tell me I had turned off my Spot tracker by accident! Nobody had known where I was! (Apologies to anyone who was following the early stages of my ride!) I stopped for the essential water stop and wolfed down a lovely bag of compressed M&S pasta. (Well I wasn’t slumming it you know!). I was shaking and freezing. I literally couldn’t stop for a minute longer than necessary due to my plummeting body temperature. I seriously considered pulling out for safety reasons. I was desperately cold and couldn’t feel my hands or feet. Grim. But of course Dear Reader, like a lamb to the slaughter I carried on…

The rain was relentless. I could hardly hold my head up because it stung my face and filled my eyes, even with my glasses on. I was in a maze of narrow country lanes, green lanes and bridleways. It was pitch black and unrecognisable. Thank goodness for my Satmap! I just whacked up the scale and followed the dots! There was no other way. What a fantastic bit of kit. It would have been impossible without it.

Climbing past Crosby Ravensworth my pulse quickened as I headed towards. Woofer Gill. This is a section I had been dreading from the start. After a few miles of gradual road climb I hit a track that petered out into soft grassy field, which disintegrated into waist deep marsh grass, broken gates, barb wire fences, angular rocks and cunningly disguised ankle twisting holes. The dreaded Back of Tan Hill! I pushed and dragged my bike across this army style obstacle course and felt the energy literally being sucked out of my legs. It was 2am. I realised I was half way. I was two hours behind my predicted schedule.

After what seemed like an age, I scrambled out of the steep grass bank and popped out on the road that led to Tan Hill. Again the relief of tarmac gave me a boost and to be honest, this was a bit of a turning point. Positivity returned (apologies if my account has been depressing reading so far – I am just telling it how it was). The rain stopped. The centre of the low pressure was obviously above me. Still calm descended as I rode down towards Keld. The ground was soft, but it had clearly not rained here as much as it had in the Lakes. A watershed. Down into Swaledale the descent is a classic; swooping and fast with some steep switchbacks to berm around. I was enjoying myself now!

Across the valley floor to the next killer hit; Low Houses Bank. This is one of the ‘warts’ I mentioned! There is no way you would ever usually take this route! A remorselessly steep grass bank riddled with mole hills and short greasy sheep sheared grass followed by a precarious boulder field and a classic steep marble strewn Dales bridleway up to Whitaside Moor. The sun was just coming up and the still calm air was freezing but clear. A brief and uncharacteristic moment of ‘Ah, aint it purty’ and it was head down once more. A fast descent and then over and down to Fremington.

My ride was unsupported but being an enthusiastic Coast to Coaster, Stuart from the Dales Mountain Bike had decided to wait up to cheer me on! What a gesture. Cheers Stuart! Dave and Charlotte were also there, simply to keep an eye on me, and they had spent a few hours in Stuart’s good company as I was way behind my predicted time. Quick hello and off….

Now I like wildlife and stuff but riding a bike in the early morning in the Dales is just plain hazardous. Rabbits flew like pinballs across the road at three second intervals or less. Animal collision is the cruellest fate… Besides that, it just made me jump every time! It’s the randomness that got me…

There are nearly as many gates in Yorkshire as there are rabbits and that is saying something. Rusted gates, jammed gates, immovable gates. My months of press-ups stood me in good stead as it was time for my upper body to take a bashing. As for the wall passes through Applegarth, don’t even go there….

Out through Richmond, the early sun disappeared and the fog came down. I was cold and damp again. My feet and fingers started to tingle and seize as the mist penetrated. The roads snaked their way towards Osmotherley and again I sensed the low pressure shifting… The South Easterly wind was picking up again and it blew the mist away. I knew this did not bode well for the North York Moors because much of my route headed into the steadily increasing gusts. Another deep breath. This was the final eight hour stint. I was twenty hours in. There were some brutal climbs to come and the hurt was happening.

Fortunately, the ground was pretty firm throughout the Moors. I say fortunately because even with decent ground the push out of Scugdale put me on my back foot, struggling to keep moving forward. This four hour stint was grim. Dark thoughts crept in again as I pondered over what I still had to do. My appetite had gone and I was desperately trying to force food down my dry and sore throat, knowing that if I didn’t eat progress would halt altogether. I dragged my bike up yet another bouldery, grassy and unrideable slope and onto flat moor top. The full force of the wind hit me and I had to stand in my pedals just to keep an eight mile an hour pace… the surface looked innocuous enough but the sandy base peppered with small angular rocks beats the hell out of you and saps energy.

But consistent with the emerging theme, a high followed a low. Traversing both Skinner Howe Cross Road and Cut Road were probably the best parts of the whole ride; boulders embedded in dry (yes, dry!) peat. Kind of trialsy. My ‘relaxed’ (pulverised) body allowed me and the bike to flow over the gritstone rocks like mercury. No dead end ‘dunks’ into angular rocks. No dabs. No messed up lines. I was riding like it was a two hour Sunday spin. When this happens after 24 hours it makes it all worthwhile. How does this happen? The body and mind are strange things.

Besides a few ups and downs, one major obstacle remained. The 33% road climb out of Grosmont. I had quite literally been dreading it from the start. It was more the humiliation of potentially pushing my bike up a road (horror!) than enduring the pain in my legs… But the red mist came down. I hit it hard. And just kept going. It was surreal. I couldn’t have climbed it any better on any other day. Weird!

My euphoria was dulled somewhat as the exposed road headed straight South. Standing in the pedals for what seemed like an age I reached the next stretch of bleak moorland bridleway. Riddled with motorbikes ruts, I wondered if my head could deal with balance and accuracy needed. Again, it was a dreamlike experience. Despite knowing deep down I was exhausted my body and mind were working in perfect unison. I balanced on six inch wide ruts like I had stabilisers! I rode in them without even clipping a pedal. I started to imagine I was playing that Operation game. You know the one; the hoop touches the wire and ‘BZZZZZZZ’!!! Your out! Well the hoop didn’t touch the wire and there was no BZZZZ! I started to get cocky. Bunny hopping in and out of ruts and crossing lines just for the fun of it. I could have stayed out all day! (Maybe I was going delirious). One or two patchwork fields to cross, a dip into a bit of slippery woodland singletrack and the last climb remained; straight East across the fells into more cold misty rain towards Raven Scar.

Onto the road, swoop down onto the railway track and on the final road stretch to Robin Hoods Bay. It looked just like an English Holiday resort should look like. Families huddled in doorways eating fish and chips, billboards flapped in the wind, rainwater streaming down the street. But to me it was Nirvana! I had made it in one hit and I realised that deep down I was always going to.

28 hours and 31 minutes of non-stop pedalling.

Char and Dave looked worse for wear though! I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again; being on the sidelines of a ride like this is harder in many ways than actually doing the ride itself. Whilst they didn’t support me in any way, they kept an eye on me (from afar, as much as they could). I can’t thank them enough. They know this.

My confidence is sky high for the worlds in two months time. My coach, Will Newton, has got it just right. I’ve never felt so strong. And after the mental battering of the Coast to Coast, I know my head can cope with pretty much anything!

The big question: Can the Tim Woodcock Coast to Coast be done unsupported in 24 hours? A good rider on a good day with a big dose of luck could do it. A lot would have to go right. It was certainly not possible in the conditions I experienced. Will I go for it on a better day? Maybe…

Perhaps the most amazing thing in the whole escapade was that I did not have a single mechanical. Not even a missed gear change. My Ironhorse Bootleg performed flawlessly. Beside the snapped saddlebag nothing went wrong. This is incredible considering that at 2am I was literally throwing my bike over dry stone walls and scrambling over and under barb wire fences in howling gales and lashing rain in the middle of nowhere… But you know what? Screw the time; I wouldn’t have had it any other way….


Ashley Green said...

Rich, first of all, congratulations. I kept an eye on your spot tracker on sat/sun and followed your progress through your biblical experience. It was exciting to see you banging out the miles as you moved east, but I could almost feel the wind and rain on the static google maps.

Your determination to keep going when things got tough is inspirational, both for my sporting efforts and my life. I can't understand where human beings' ability to regenerate mentally and push once more comes from, but making efforts like yours this weekend truly show that.

I hope you can carry your form into the Worlds 24 hour Solo, and that you get some flickers of inspiration from your c2c experience to drive you on.

Thanks for the coffee break writeup.

Ashley Green
Alaskan Puppies

carl said...

Congrats Rich,epic ride.
I would love the gps states



Blanche said...

You're my hero.
Having been there or thereabouts: it was 'orrible.