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'd 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.
Heading for St Bees in the car with friends Dave and Charlotte, my fragile optimism took a big kick in the shins. The sky was 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 rose-coloured glasses came off and the adrenalin was flowing faster than the rain down the windscreen.
Reserved confidence returned as we hit the coast at St Bees. White horses whipped across the Irish Sea but the cloud was broken and there was some warmth in the sun. A 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. Cruising up the valley I prepared myself for the hit of Black Sail Pass. It's my least favourite part of the Lakes, a misshapen contorted ascent that has no redeeming features even on a nice day. Just as I started to climb 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. The crags below Red Pike looked far steeper than I'd noticed before. They were inky black. 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, its inertia making it hard to make the fine body movements required on such a technical descent.
I felt something give on my bike and slid to a precarious nose down halt. The bracket on my saddle pack, which held the bulk of my energy bars, had snapped. 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!
At this stage I was completely unnerved. 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.
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'. 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. It gets mostly rideable down to the river Duddon but with my confidence on the floor I was making a real meal of everything, overcompensating for the dead weight on my back that 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 felt like pulling out after just three and a half hours. Then I got the boost I needed - 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 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, deserted bar one person sitting on a bench. 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 part of my logic for choosing this particular 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 fool them!
Jenkins Crag was a grind and again my head went down… What was happening? My negativity confused me. Onto Garburn - 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?" 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. 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. I dragged my bike through knee-deep marsh and thigh-deep freezing black watery peat. The spectre of submerged barbed wire, fence posts and rocks swam in front of my eyes as I hauled myself through the quagmire. Even going downhill proved impossible as the bike just dug into the gloop. I pushed and dragged for a good few miles, and just before the descent towards Shap it started to go properly dark. The gloom was accelerated by an incoming black wall of rain. 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. My Exposure light went on and its 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 GPS tracker by accident, so nobody had known where I was. I wolfed down a lovely bag of compressed M&S pasta, but I was shaking and freezing - I 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 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 and it was pitch black. My Satmap unit saved the day - I just whacked up the scale and followed the dots!
Climbing past Crosby Ravensworth my pulse quickened as I headed towards Woofer Gill and the dreaded Back of Tan Hill. 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, barbed wire fences, angular rocks and cunningly disguised ankle twisting holes. 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 was half way. I was two hours behind my predicted schedule.
After what seemed like an age, I popped out on the road that led to Tan Hill. Again the relief of Tarmac gave me a boost and this was a bit of a turning point. Positivity returned. The rain stopped. Still calm descended as I rode down towards Keld. The ground was soft, but it hadn't rained here as much as it had in the Lakes. 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's no way you would ever usually take this route! A remorselessly steep grass bank riddled with molehills and short greasy sheep-sheared grass followed by a precarious boulder field and a 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 fast descent and then over and down to Fremington.
Enthusiastic Coast to Coaster, Stuart from the Dales Mountain Bike Centre, had decided to wait up to cheer me on. Dave and Charlotte were also there, simply to keep an eye on me. They'd spent a few hours in Stuart's good company as I was way behind my predicted time. Quick hello and off…
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. I wsa twenty hours in, there were some brutal climbs to come and the hurt was happening.
Fortunately, the ground was pretty firm across the Moors but even so 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 again, a high followed a low. Traversing Skinner Howe Cross Road and Cut Road were probably the best parts of the ride. Boulders embedded in dry peat, kind of trialsy. My pulverised body allowed 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 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 motorbike ruts. I wondered if my head could deal with balance and accuracy needed, but 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 ruts like I had stabilisers! I rode in them without even clipping a pedal. I started to get cocky, bunnyhopping in and out of ruts and crossing lines just for the fun of it. I could have stayed out all day! 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 on to 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 always knew I was going to - 28 hours and 31 minutes of non-stop pedalling.
Char and Dave looked worse for wear though! 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 24hr Solo 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!
Perhaps the most amazing thing in the whole escapade was that I didn't 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 barbed 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...