All 38 rider’s bikes were loaded onto a couple of trailers at Sage’s Newcastle office, North Park, and we all set off just after 5 pm on Friday. I jumped into a 3rd minibus carrying all the kit with 2 other Manchester based riders; JP and Howard. The 2 ½ hour journey passed quickly as we chatted to friendly fellow riders Nick and Kate and it was interesting to hear their backgrounds: Nick had only decided to ride in the last couple of weeks and was admittedly a little rusty on a bike that he had bought off a friend in the pub. He had some form, as a former tri-athlete and ½ iron-man competitor, but with a 3 month old son there had been little time for any training recently. Kate had intended to join JP and me for our Hartside training run in March, and although she kept playing down her ability, she had ridden 200 miles from Edinburgh to Newcastle over a few days quite recently.
At Workington we all checked into the Waverley Hotel and on the way to my room I spotted a painting of the Clyde based paddle steamer that the hotel shared its name with. This ship was once Captained by Catriona’s father, was this some sort of a sign? It certainly made me feel good. We ate late and managed to limit ourselves to 3 pints – just to help us along our way to sleep you understand. I had quite a good night’s sleep as I didn’t hear anyone snoring in our room ;o)
After a hearty breakfast the main group assembled at 8:30. It was drizzling and a strong easterly wind was driving the local wind turbines around at speed as we rode to the lighthouse and monument that marked the starting point of our Coast to Coast adventure. After a mile of the route there was some confusion as we encountered a new path that wasn’t there for last year’s ride and didn’t appear on our maps. We paused again at another junction that wasn’t on the map and guessed the correct direction. Then after another half mile Howard was very unlucky to pick up a puncture through his normally bulletproof Schwalbe Marathon tyres. We let the rest of the group go on as progress had already been painfully slow and since I had a map we were confident we could catch up with the main group.
The inner tube replacement took 15 minutes and we set off to try and chase down the pack. In our haste we overshot a turning and this mistake was compounded by seeing further signs for the NCN 72 which didn’t alert me, the self appointed navigator, to any error. Admittedly I was struggling to match some of the turns in the road to those on the map but we kept seeing 72 signs so we must have been going the right way? We were directed by route 72 signs back onto the former railway line out of Workington except we were now going back towards it. There was a nice downhill section, the wind seemed to be behind us for a change and cruising at 22mph I was delighted that we would soon be catching the main pack. Wrong! I noticed the sea on the right hand side (but didn’t want to worry anyone about it) and then JP spotted a discarded Stella can that looked strangely familiar. It then dawned on us that we had gone 2 miles in the wrong direction. We returned (a further 2 miles) to the turning we had missed and sure enough there was no C2C sign from the direction we had correctly approached the junction. Damned Sustrans Rangers – that would never have happened on my manor!
The next few miles were hard work as I had little faith in the signage or my map reading ability. The route wasn’t straight forward and there were lots of little stops to confirm we were going the correct way. I texted the organiser, Tony, to tell him of our, or rather, my mistake and to assure him we were making progress. We chased through Cockermouth but Howard was struggling with the pace and in particular with any hills. To compensate we transferred his frame and panniers to my bike which seemed a suitable punishment for me taking him 4 miles further than necessary, but he was still struggling. After 21 miles on former railway lines and quiet roads we hit the first bit of off road which took us on a quick and very uneven descent through Wythop Woods. The map warned us of the hazards of this section which had been further accentuated by the steady rain. This was the only section of the whole route that really needed mountain bike capabilities, the other tough off road sections were optional (and we didn’t take any of them). After the woods descent I decided we should get on the A66 trunk road and make our way directly to Keswick to join the rest. We succeeded and actually got ahead of a number of riders who had suffered punctures and falls in the woods.
We stopped for a coffee and met another 15 – 18 riders who intended to keep together to Penrith. However, some people were struggling; JP & I stayed towards the back with Howard who had already decided he would be catching the train from Penrith but there was another slower rider, Stephen, who had taken a tumble in the woods and hurt his knees. Stephen was determined to finish the day and was being supported by Tom, but it was going to be very tough for him. The rest of the pack got tired of waiting for the 5 of us and in the end we tired of stopping for Stephen to walk up any inclines so the three of us tried to push on to Penrith for a late lunch.
We finished ‘lunch’ at about 5pm. With 50 hard miles in his legs, Howard went back to the station whilst I rode on with JP trying to chase down 9 riders who had left the pub 15 minutes before us. However, such a late lunch had caused us to over-eat and the immediate climb out of Penrith gave us no time to relax and let it digest. JP was feeling sick and one of his knees was achy from a low speed over-the-handlebars tumble just after Keswick. I dragged him along some familiar lanes with no sight of the other riders ahead and then we hit the infamous Hartside climb. We did this section at the end of March and were surprised how easily we managed the climb, but with 50 miles in our legs, and in the cold and rain and against a strong headwind it was quite a different proposition. We caught Stephen and Tom who had passed Penrith without stopping and JP was happier to walk with Stephen whilst I rode up the Hartside climb with Tom who also had enough energy left in his tank and the necessary knees of steel. I was swearing at the wind as I attacked the climb with Tom close behind me and we both caught Nick and Kate. Kate would like to acknowledge Nick’s generous assistance at this point where, by her own admission, she had lost the plot on the Hartside climb. Iron-man Nick chose to forgo his chance to conquor the summit by pedal to walk up and support Kate. This was typical of his attitude throughout the weekend and both his humour and generous praise helped me through the journey too. Credit also to Kate that when we met at the summit there were absolutely no signs of any recent trauma!
At 1903 ft the sense of achievement was heightened by the challenging conditions and it was satisfying to know we had broken the back of the C2C ride. It wasn’t raining anymore but the wind was stronger than ever at this most exposed point. Tom decided to wait for JP and Stephen whilst I formed a 3 man Peloton with Nick and Kate. The peloton formation is what you see in the Tour De France when the riders form a long line. If you ride really close together the 2nd and subsequent riders do very little work. The headwind was still stiff but with the gradient in our favour Nick and myself took 2 minute turns at fighting the wind at 18 mph whilst the other 2 tucked in behind. It was very effective as well as good fun for the 6 mile descent and a real morale booster before a final 3 mile climb out of Alston to arrive at our destination just before 8:30pm, about 12 hours after setting off. I enjoyed a much anticipated hot shower and waited for JP, Tom and Stephen to arrive before getting a lift back to the pub in Alston for a couple of pints of Black Sheep and the best steak and ale pie I have tasted in my life. At the end of the day my muscles were tired but not aching too much and my only ailment was that (to use a colourful Geordie turn of phrase) I had "an arse like a Japanese flag".
Sunday was less eventful, less challenging and much more fun. After another hearty breakfast a 7 man team of myself, JP, Kate, Nick, our R&D manager Ben, his wife Penny and R&D director Ian left the bunkhouse at 8:30. It was drizzling but not as cold as Saturday and I was pleased to find I wasn’t as saddle sore as expected. I had, however pampered my nether regions with a pair of cycling underpants under my padded cycling shorts (purchased with this very morning in mind). We rode 12 miles to Allenheads where we stopped for a coffee and this section included a satisfying short steep climb up to Black Hill, the highest point on the whole ride.
The next leg included the sharpest ascent of the whole ride which started with a 17% climb out of Stanhope with the gradient gradually reducing over 2 miles to the Parkhead cafe at the start of the Waskerley way. The group fragmented at this point as some walked the hill but I dragged JP up in a determined attack on the summit. The cafe allowed us to regroup as I enjoyed a sausage and egg sandwich though I looked on enviously at a fabulous looking bean broth that others had opted for. The remaining 40 miles were down hill and the tough times were all behind us.
As we descended to Consett the weather brightened and any fear of rain disappeared. We made good progress and caught an earlier group. In hindsight we should have stayed behind them as we accurately followed the signed C2C route whilst they used some local knowledge to shave off 2 or 3 miles taking an alternative Sustrans trail through Gateshead. The final 10 miles from Newcastle to Tynemouth dragged a bit but the improving weather gave me a lift. The end point was a slight anti-climax as we overshot the finishing sign in search of a grand monument marking the end point. After 15 minutes of hunting around we returned to the official endpoint for a photo before going to Whitley Bay to pick up JPs car. The second day had been much more fun and comfortable.
I recommend the ride to anyone who is a keen cyclist looking for a challenge. You need to look through the mileage and think about the climbing and most importantly where it falls on the route. You obviously need to prepare but hours in the saddle and distance travelled aren’t the only metrics you need to monitor in training. The ability to push yourself up a steep hill that you have never climbed before at the end of a good few miles is what you are looking to work towards. Would I do it again? Yes I would, and I’d go for 2 days again with an overnight in downtown Alston, but with a smaller riding group of equal abilities and only if sunshine and a following wind could be guaranteed!
Thank you to everyone for your support, sponsorship and good wishes, and inparticular to my cycling widow Catriona for allowing me so much time to train at the weekends. The current total I have raised through sponsorship for Cancer Research UK stands at about £650 which I’m very pleased with.