Ride #1: 8pm Sat 5th September – Sunday 6th September
Total hours: 23.58, ride time: 18.50, distance: 422km, elevation: 6260m
Check points: Leeds Pal Sun 02:36 | Malham Tarn Sun 07:08 | Dent Sun 08:54 | Silverdale Sun 11:45 | Honister Sun 16:51
All Points North, the race that been waking me up in a cold sweat, my heart beating double time and had my tummy doing somersaults for the last few weeks was finally about to start! At 8pm, after what felt like a torturously long wait, we finally lined up in the courtyard, back lights blinking, ready to go, and then we were off!
We started as a 40 strong peloton. We all had the same 10 check points to visit but had each planned our own routes (and weren’t allowed to confer) so the group thinned as riders followed their own routes in different directions. Each time someone peeled off I couldn’t help but think ‘oh no, have they got a better route than me, should I be going that way?’. And then I was on my own, darting down a mixture of urban back streets, enormous but empty A roads, plunging into complete darkness on back roads over the city, before rejoining another another A road. Every now and then I’d see another blinking red light ahead, dropping in and out of view, and would chase it down, craving some human company. But then our routes would part again, and I’d be alone. I alternated between loving the peace and the comfort and familiarity of riding my bike, and rising panic as I again thought about what was to come.
I’d spent the week before the race agonising over my route choice, I’d decided to go clockwise, riding with the prevailing wind behind me and checking off the biggest climbs at the beginning whilst I was fresh. But in the week before the race, as I finally started more detailed route planning a) I’d found out that one of the check points was just the other side of an MOD firing range where access was banned from Monday at 9am because they were firing. My alternatives routes either added a tonne more distance and elevation, or an unknown off-road route which could add hours if it got very technical or I had to turn back b) I realised that as I was setting off at night I could make much better progress by hammering it down some A roads whilst they were quiet, and maybe more importantly, quieten my rising fear about the idea of riding through the first night on completely isolated roads where if anything went wrong, I would be completely alone (and out of phone signal and away from 24 hour garages) for hours.
But I decided it was too late to change things and stuck with the original choice. That meant that I was soon riding up towards the Yorkshire Dales on tiny, deserted roads. After a bit I realised my heartbeat had settled down and the panic was gone. “I am riding my bike, I know how to do this, this is what I’ve spend most of the last year doing, things make sense when I’m on my bike”.
Sadly the other factor that I hadn’t really appreciated in my route planning was that, as it was night, I didn’t get to see any of this beautiful part of the countryside, and one of the main reasons I’d been so excited about doing this race! I did get to see lots of bunnies hopping across the road, some lovely little villages, and chatted with some sheep, who looked at me with varying degrees of surprise.
By 2.30am I turned down a little rutted lane to my first checkpoint. I passed a few riders coming back down the track towards me. Each time there was the relief of seeing someone else, knowing you were on the right route, and that other people had chosen to go in the same direction. And confirmation you weren’t the only human being riding alone through the night.
The next few hours alternated between enjoying myself, loving the little lanes and the peace and solitude, and desperately trying not to fall asleep whilst riding. I downed the cans of coffee I’d packed to get me through the night, but they wore off too soon. I was fine going uphill, the effort kept me awake, but as soon as started descending, the rhythm, the wind drying my eyes, the bent low position, all started to send me sleep. Which isn’t ideal when doing 40-50kph with low visibility.
I’ve never bivvied, I get too cold, I get too bitten by insects, I don’t have much space on my bike for extra kit and, if I’m honest, I really cant contemplate the idea of not having a shower or washing my clothes at the end of the day. So I didn’t have any sleeping kit. But luckily it was a ridiculously mild evening, not dropping below about 12 degrees, so as soon as I saw a bench I stopped, turned off my lights, set my alarm for 30 mins and lay down in what I was wearing. I probably only dozed but it was enough to get rid of the drowsiness. It felt strange sleeping on a bench right in the middle of a village but the roads were deserted so it wasn’t an issue and I took 2 more power naps that night, the final time being woken by being bitten alive by some sort of midges (reaffirming my decision that bivvying isn’t for me).
The sun started coming up as I rode towards Malham Tarn, my second check point, and lit up the hills and the lake in glorious light. This was what I was here for!
Then onto Dent, the UK’s highest railway station, before down into the town for a well-earned breakfast. The woman in the café couldn’t get her head round me ordering a double portion of porridge, and almost told me off for the request. It felt quite reasonable to me after climbing 4000m in the last 12 hours!
Next was Silverdale, a beautiful beach on the Cumbrian coast. I liked it slightly less after spending about 40 mins walking up and down it over the rocks, bike in tow, trying to find the next check point, only to find it was on a road behind the beach. Not to worry, onto the Coop and the luxury of a public toilet.
Then main roads up to and through the Lake District. I’d taken a calculated choice that on a Sunday afternoon after the school holidays had ended, the roads wouldn’t be too busy. And I was right, they were fine for riding on, and I don’t think I had a single close pass, near miss and only 2 “how dare you ride on a road that I pay road tax for hoots” the whole ride, a nice change from riding in Surrey where I would expect several of each on any ride. But they certainly weren’t pleasant. I’d planned alternatives to the A roads around the west sides of the lakes, but by this point, I’d scrapped my original plan of sleeping in Bassentwaite and was keen to push on to Carlisle and a bed and a shower, so I decided to stay on the main roads to save time.
There was a quick trip up Honister Pass (a ridiculously steep climb where I’m not in the slightest ashamed to say I walked, it was hard even pushing the bike up) for the next check point, refilled bottles in Keswick, then onto Carlisle, again bombing it along the A roads (well as fast as anything bombs after nearly 24 hours of riding and 6000m of climbing) which were pretty quiet by now.
I stocked up at a petrol station on the way into the city. By now sleepiness had been replaced by constant nausea, maybe a result of too much sugar? not enough calories? too much water? not enough electrolytes? too much heat? too much riding? too much of all the above? So dinner consisted of the only things my stomach would consider, a tin of pear halves and a bag of cheese and onion crisps, both perfect and very appreciated!
Arrr the familiarity of the Travel Lodge, always the same décor, the same soap smell, and I aced the challenge of how to make the little fan point right at my freshly washed clothes so they’d be dry in a few hours. I resisted the temptation to check any social media, other than to let my boyfriend and family know I’d arrived safely.
But I did repanic about my route choice for avoiding getting shot the next morning. Given I’d made it further than planned tonight could I possibly get across the firing ranges before they started shooting at 9am. I rechecked the MOD page and saw the magic words “Please be aware that short notice changes may be made to the dates scheduled” and a number to ring. I rang and miraculously despite it being nearly 10pm, a lovely woman answered, who told me “there will be no red flag flying tomorrow morning love” - stress over, I could ride the direct route through the firing ranges! Why hadn’t I rung before? I’d lost hours of sleep and heart beats worrying about this! But not to worry, time to sleep, I set my alarm and was out for the count.