Thursday, 23 May 2013

Etape du Dales

Some years ago a friend mentioned that she was doing the Etape du Dales. Having not heard of it I looked it up and felt somewhat in awe, basically if there was a big or steep hill in the Dales then you rode over it.

Back to the present and with a year of cycling as my main sport I felt ready to have a go. Except I didn't. Breaking my ankle in January put training back by a couple of months and I didn't feel as if I'd got the miles in my legs. Still I'd entered. My get-out clause of wind and rain failed to materialise so at 6:15am on Sunday morning I turned up at the event HQ at Threshfield Rugby Club. There was a posse from Skipton CC doing the ride but I thought I'd better start off a bit earlier as they were all fitter than me.

My basic plan was to get round, I'd set myself a target time of 9hrs, I'd be ecstatic with 8hrs and a time of 7hrs would lead to a trip to doping control :-) The weather was cool and overcast with no wind, ideal.

Timer attached to bike, there was little to do except get in the next group of ten or so to be let loose on the route. And then we were away, the first objective was to get warmed up before the foot of Fleet Moss so I ended up in a group of about six or seven pedalling away nicely along the back lanes of Wharfedale. Come Fleet Moss there were only a couple at my pace so either I was going OK or they knew something I didn't. Fleet Moss from the south side is relatively straightforward if long and you get  a breather after each steep section. (1hr mark: bridge over beck at Yockenthwaite)

On Fleet Moss, looking fairly happy

The first food stop at Hawes was gained in 1hr40 which I had in my mind as being around 8hr pace. There was just one of the original group with me so we continued over Buttertubs pass together. Now I'd never cycled any of the roads north of the Hawes - Garsdale road so other than looking at the map I didn't really know what to expect. Again, the reality wasn't as bad as I thought it might be, all the steep bits are low down and once you've passed the old mine workings at about quarter distance then it's a pleasant ride so it wasn't long till we reached the summit. (2hr mark: mine workings on Buttertubs ascent)

The drop down to Swaledale was a blast and even the first mile or so along the valley didn't require pedalling. Then it was a bit of roller-coaster road to get to Low Row and the next big climb. This is one of the steeper sections of the route, getting to 25%, plus it's a narrow lane in trees so you can't zig-zag around if you get tired. Then there's a cattle grid! Fortunately it's past the steep stuff. My companion was falling behind - I found out later he'd dropped his chain and his legs were tiring. The section over Reeth Moor is a bit undulating with two big drops, the second is to a ford which can be tricky but it was OK today. Finally there's a great, open, descent down to Arkengarthdale and the start of the next climb - Tan Hill. (3hr mark: Ford on Reeth Moor)

Any conversation about the Etape inevitably turns to the climb to Tan Hill. It's not steep, in fact there are quite a few descents and it only gains 150m in 13Km, but it's open and is in to the prevailing wind. Today with no wind, it was still a grind and by the end I could feel a bit of cramp coming on in my right thigh. Fortunately this started about 100m before the top of the last climb so I was able to drop down to the food stop at the pub and get replenished. 3hrs45 to here.

I took a good twenty minutes getting in some proper food rather than gels and power bars at Tan Hill before setting off again. The descent back in to Swaledale is open and fast until the last little bit which is a series of tight switchbacks before the turn right to Lamps Moss. (4hrs mark: Crossing the Swale - note this is riding time)

This was one bit of the route I didn't enjoy, basically it was my bad patch and the whole climb just felt hard work and a bit of a drag. The descent though was brilliant! It had been described to me as being alpine, open and fast, you can see round pretty well every bend so there's not much need for braking. All too soon it was over and I was faced with the one bit of road that I didn't really look forward to: the climb up to the Moorcock Inn. I've driven it and it's always felt as if there's more up than there should be.

As it turned out, it wasn't as bad as I'd made it out to be and I got to the Moorcock about ten minutes up on what I was expecting. (5hr mark: Pendragon Castle & 5:33 at the Moorcock) What I knew was coming up was The Coal Road, I'd done this on a recce a few weeks earlier but not with 70 miles in my legs. As you approached the base you could see a long line of cyclists slowly inching their way up the climb. Again, the steepest part is at the bottom so basically once you get past that you know you can do the rest. It's still pretty steep but there are easings to allow you to recover.

Still looking OK on the Coal Road

The mist was still down for the lumpy road over the top and then you dropped out of the cloud as you pick up speed for the descent in to Dentdale. I thought I was going quickly at about 40mph but a group shot past me. One of them obviously overdid it as I heard a scraping sound on the first sharp bend and he was just picking himself up as I went past. (6hr mark: Dent station)

Typically the sun chose to make an appearance on the most sheltered part of the route, the climb up to Newby Head. I've done this several times so it wasn't too bad as I knew what was coming up. Then another blast, down to Ribblehead and then on down through Horton to the final foodstop at Stainforth (7hr30) I got passed by Sean just before the stop. 7hrs12 to here.

One last climb over to Halton Gill and I was going OK, if slowly. Then it was just the ride down the valley to the finish. Somehow I managed to find some energy in my legs and made good time, even managing some Jens Voigt like "keep going" messages to my legs.

Finally I crossed the line with an official time of 8hrs27, my actual moving time was 7:45.

Surprisingly I didn't feel too bad, certainly not as bad as after the White Rose ride last year which was 30 miles shorter. I'd actually gone out with a drink/food strategy that I pretty much stuck to and this probably made a big difference. Could I have gone faster? Possibly though I might have suffered a bit more during the latter part of the ride.

All in all a good day out, I certainly slept well that night.

Saturday, 11 May 2013


After last year's trip to the outer isles that finished by crossing Ardnamurchan and Mull we decided to have a week touring round Mull, Iona and head out to the end of the Ardnamurchan peninsular. Rather than B&B it, we decided to camp for the first half of the holiday so packed a Terra Nova Laserlight mountain marathon tent.

Of course since the last few years had been fine weather when we visited, this time the rain started about two minutes after we got off the train at Oban. Due to having to book an earlier train (0615 from Skipton!) because there were no bike places left on the final leg for later trains we were able to get out to the island and camp at Craignure.

The weather was awful and we were soaked by the time we got the tent up. We weren't able to use the astroturf pitches(!) that the site use as the pegs with the Laserlight are, shall we say, light. Think of a five inch nail with all the weight and strength removed and you'll get the idea. Let's just say it wasn't a pleasant night. The following morning was just light drizzle when we set off but after about an hour it was pretty heavy rain. At least the wind was on our backs.

There was another group touring just ahead of us though they had car support so didn't have loaded bikes. Because we were camping we'd gone for panniers - Ortlieb classics to be precise - and they take a bit of getting used to, not so much the extra weight but the general handling of the bike. In my case it was getting on and off the bike that caused most problems, nearly putting my foot through a wheel in one instance. We caught up with the group at a cafe in Penyghael run by a quite eccentric couple. The group were esconsed in the main room so we ended up having our lunch in the kitchen!

The weather was little better when we left and by the time we got to Fionnphort at the end of the road I was ready to find a B&B for the night. A couple of beers sat by the fire in the pub and I felt a bit better so we headed down the road to the campsite at Fidden Farm, reckoned to be one of the best in Scotland.

Here's the route we took.
Cath and our expansive tent at Fidden Farm campsite.

In better weather I can see it being brilliant but even in the conditions we had it was a lot better than Craignure. We both spent a while in the showers getting warmed up!

The following day we had a wander round the Isle of Iona. I'd last been here in 1978 and Cath had never been so it was fresh for both of us. We managed to bike every bit of tarmac on the island plus a few tracks to beaches.
Heading down to a beach past the golf course.

Apart from Tobermory, Iona is probably the most tourist orientated place on Mull and there are lots of coaches heading to and from the ferry terminal at Fionnphort. With a bit of planning you can get away from things though.

Day three was to be our longest day riding (we'd planned on doing about 10 - 15 miles less each day than last year to accommodate the extra load of the camping kit), of course it was raining again but once again the wind had changed direction so was on our backs once more.

Heading back from Fionnphort on the main road.
Once again we stopped at the cafe in Pennyghael, still quite bonkers, but it's a cracking little place. It's also decently priced being nearly a third of the cost of what we'd paid on Iona. After an hour we decided it was time to move on and once again headed out in to the mirk.

After a couple of miles we got to the junction where "The Scenic Road" began. We'd intended to come the other way on this road last year but Cath's knee was playing up so cut the ride short. Now we were heading in to the wind and it was decidedly hard work, fortunately the open section didn't last too long and we were soon on the main climb of the day which was nicely sheltered. This couldn't be said for the descent on the other side where at one point I was in bottom gear pedalling to go downhill!

The southern end of the coastal section is dominated by waterfalls.

The descent was quite tricky as you couldn't let the bike roll freely as the wind was so gusty. Eventually we got to the bottom where one of the most amazing roads in Britain finds its way between shore and cliffs. The most spectacular part comes at the end (when heading north) where there hardly seems room for a road.

Nearing the end of the section below Creag Mhor

We were intending to camp at Killiecronan but it's really exposed to south westerlies and when I pulled on to the site I was pedalling but not moving forward! We made an instant executive decision to bale to Salen on the other side of the island (only about two miles at this point) and find a B&B. In the end we stopped at the Salen Hotel which has seen better days. We did eat very well that night at a mediterranean restaurant. Here's the Strava trace:

Next day was again dank and dull. We'd only to get to Tobermory so rather than take the main road along the coast which is only nine miles or so we headed inland to Dervaig. There's no real difference between the main roads on Mull and the minor ones: they are almost all single track with passing places, it's just that the main roads link larger settlements or the ferries. At Dervaig we decided to visit the heritage museum which was rather sad to be honest, it must be hard in places like this to make a living so they are making an effort. We were the only customers when we visited. Here's the trace:

We'd got two nights booked at the Tobermory youth hostel. This meant that we could head over to Ardnamurchan without the panniers - yippee! Last year we'd got to Kilchoan just as the ferry was coming in to dock so we hadn't gone out to the lighthouse on the western tip (this is actually the westernmost point on the British mainland). Our aim this year was to remedy this and do a bit of exploring. Fortunately we had fine sunny weather (it was the only fine day of the holiday as it turned out), so once we'd got off the ferry it was just a case of following the signs for the lighthouse. A bit of a hilly road so the six miles wasn't completely easy.

Nearing the lighthouse on Ardnamurchan.

After the tour of the lighthouse and a bite to eat at the cafe we headed back to Kilchoan and then took the road to Sanna. This passes through the other claim to faim for Ardnamurchan - the ring complex - a series of collapsed volcanic cones. They aren't too obvious on the ground but aerial and satellite photos - look on Google maps - show them well.

Dropping in to the ring complex from the Sanna end of the road.
The beaches at Sanna are gorgeous, usual temperature warnings apply though. Then it was back to Kilchoan again, just missing the ferry so another cafe visit ensued whilst we waited for the next one. Here's the Strava trace:

Our last day started with a trip round the Tobermory distillery - producers of one of my favourite malts: Ledaig (pronounced something like letchik) - there was a tasting session, only one dram mind. Once again the wind had changed direction, this time it was against us and the ride to Craignure was hard work. In fact Cath got blown off her bike at one point it was that gusty. Fortunately by the time we got to Salen we had a bit more shelter, plus the road was flatter. Once again we just missed the ferry so had to wait two hours for the next one. A night in the youth hostel at Oban followed by an early start saw us home by tea time the following day.

Now we've just got to get everything dry!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

A bit more like it!

For once it looked like we might have decent weather at the weekend so I planned to do the bottom half of the Etape du Dales route. This includes one bit of road that I've only ever driven over once before and felt it was quite steep even in the car - The Coal Road. In fact up until a week or so ago it was still blocked by snow, at least for cars.

Well the weather may have been fine but there was a strong headwind all the way up Wharfedale and for most of Fleet Moss, really quite depressing when you have to pedal the downhills! However I didn't need to get in to bottom gear for the climb so feel as if I'm getting stronger. On top of Fleet Moss the checkpoint for The Fellsman was being erected so I had a quick chat with the guys before the descent to Hawes. Normally you can let things fly but today there was a cross wind and you needed your wits about you.

Tea stop at Hawes - it was actually colder in the cafe than sitting outside! - then rather than head over Buttertubs (never biked this yet) I rode straight to Garsdale Head and the start of The Coal Road. All the way down the gears and under the railway then hit the first bit which is the steepest part. Once round the corner the worst is over and I was able to sit down and pedal the rest. Not as bad as I thought it would be. We'll see what it's like with 70 miles in my legs rather than 35.

The descent in to Dentdale is not one where you want brake failure, there's a lot of it and the road surface isn't the best. Dentdale itself was out of the wind and really warm. The lead runners in the Fellsman hadn't reached the checkpoint at Stonehouses when I past so I didn't get to see any go through. So it was on up past Newby Head and then down to Ribblehead and then Horton and another cafe stop - I was taking things steady rather than pushing.

Rather than head up over Halton Gill and back in to the wind I decided to head down to Settle and back via the roads to the south of the A65. By the time I got back to Skipton I'd done 78 miles which is my longest ride of the year so far. A bit on the tired side but things will get better.

Yesterday was both fine and still so took the opportunity for a ride over in to Lancashire (yay!). My strength is getting better as I got a few PRs on Strava, most by a good margin. I also seemed to be keeping bigger gears going which is good. I did have a bit of a worrying moment dropping in to Colne when my front wheel began to shake from side to side. Don't know what was going on as it wasn't loose or out of alignment but not the sort of thing you want to happen at 37mph! I got home feeling quite fresh which makes a change.

Just over two weeks to go until the Etape, let's hope I can improve a bit more in the interim.