I’ve been thinking a lot about Joe Applegarth’s legendary Lanchester 400. It was a tough old ride, much like its organiser (apart from the past tense – he’s still around). Someone once said it included every hill in the North, and a few more. It first ran in 2010, when there were four riders. All four completed, and two returned to ride the second and final edition in 2011*, but the other two never rode another audax**.
I wrote up the 2011 edition here, and after looking back over it, I remembered what a well-thought-out route it was, with incredibly quiet lanes, gorgeous views, a good night section with lots of access to services – and best of all, minimal exposure to the b-road to hell (that’s the B7076 which parallels the M74, for those not in the know). And I miss Joe’s events, which were hard rides but great rides, and imaginative rides, taking you to roads and places you’d probably never otherwise see.
However, I don’t live in Lanchester, and it’s a 40 km bike ride, or a train and a 20 km bike ride away, so I re-plotted the route to start in Darlo. Not the Lanchester 400 was born: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/17876218
I recruited a couple of other takers – Uncle Mark and Uncle Roy, and we met in Cockerton for a 12 noon start.
The weather forecast was gruesome, and we spent some time comparing bike weights, which was mainly extra clothing for wet weather and cold nights.
Starting and finishing in Darlo eradicates at least 2,000 metres of climbing, and gave us a long, steady climb up Teesdale and over Yad Moss to Alston. This being Yad Moss, it deluged at the top, and we were all soaked. And this being Yad Moss, it was another world when we descended into Tynedale. The clouds had retreated to lurk menacingly at the horizon, and the buildings glistened in the sunlight.
We called into the Cumbrian Pantry in Alston (75 km) and slightly annoyed the proprietor, Jack, who really wanted to go home and relax a bit before his evening shift. But he does the best coffee in Alston – and, it turned out, the best coffee of the ride. I managed to talk him into making us some toasties and all.
The route then took us the familiar way along the A689 towards Brampton, but then the bit I was looking forward to – the lanes around Featherstonehaugh and the Tyne Valley, which set the tone for the next 120 kms – constant ups and downs. Sometimes steep, sometimes steep and long, but consistently quiet. Seeing a car was a shock.
After all the rain, though, they were gravelly as. On a couple of descents, I went quicker than I really wanted to, as I knew hard braking would have left me skidding. Later on, and not to be parochial, but it was on the Scottish side of the border, the roads were shite. We had two snakebite punctures, both from hitting the edges of unseen potholes. Along with my comedy mechanical, we probably lost an hour. Erm, my seat post was slipping, and I ended up riding along with my knees around my chin until I re-shimmed it with a bit of can found at the side of the road (Excelsior lager, which was totally the wrong colour for my red frame).
The rain held off, however, and the evening was gorgeous. The moortop road from Newcastleton to Langholm, above the Solway Firth and the Border Hills, was more beautiful than I’ve ever seen it. It nearly took my mind off the midges which had assaulted us while we were scranning our Spar goodies on the green in Newcastleton. Roy complained that fixing a puncture was quite tricky when you were BEING EATEN ALIVE, but I doubt the midges at the top of the hill were as bad as they were down in Langholm, where Mark and I were waiting. As Mark’s patented anti-midge dance didn’t do the trick, we eventually hid in the campsite toilets to wait for Roy, and Mark dried his socks under the hand-dryer.
We were too late for the takeaways in Moffat, and aimed our wheels towards Johnstonebridge Services. Your basic McDonald’s, it did the job.
Away, away from the B7076 after Johnstonebridge, hurrah and huzzah. I appreciated Joe’s route anew, which was a flat, decent nighttime section towards Dumfries, across the A75 pseudo-motorway and back into Carlisle via Gretna Services. Just a coffee, second best of the ride if anyone’s counting.
It was a short night, and daytime by the time we left Gretna, but I was feeling quite dozy. Roy had already had a catnap on the sofas at Johnstonebridge, and Mark was managing without sleep as part of his TCR training. But I needed somewhere to kip, and spotted a handy bus shelter. I told the other two that I’d meet them at the last service station at Southwaite.
It wasn’t a bus shelter, but a commercial estate. Still, any port in a storm, and there was a handy bench, which just-about held my torso. There was a wheely bin next to it, and I lifted my legs onto the top of the bin to brace myself. I was surprisingly comfortable, though while I was adjusting myself, one of the security guards came out to scowl at me before quickly returning to his screens, obviously having decided I was a harmless nutter.
I can’t have slept for more than five or ten minutes, and I was woken by a wagon trundling out of the estate. I decided I’d had enough sleep, and waved goodbye to the security guards when I left.
I caught up with Mark and Roy just south of Carlisle, but it turned out they’d been dawdling as I hasn’t actually told them where Southwaite Services could be found. The non-motorway entrance isn’t advertised, or easy to find.
It’s arguable whether it’s worth finding, as the beans have scarcely improved since 2011. I quickly calculated that their mark-up on the toast was 4,500%, and generally grumped about the whole place. The coffee was weak and nasty. There is a Gregg’s outside, which is where we probably should’ve gone, but there was a substantial queue – and now we know why.
I entertained myself by warning the other two about the next bit of the ride – this had more-or-less been a theme of the day, but there was no denying that the next section would be tough. Down and up the Eden Gorge, across a few more valleys, and up the steep side of Hartside. But I also pointed out that here was where we bade farewell to the tailwind – no more than crosswinds all the way home now.
There were a few other cyclists going up and down the pass, including one Blakey-from-On-the-Buses*** lookalike who went for a massive sprint as soon as he saw me. Presumably Reg Varney was over the other side of the pass.
At the top, Hartside Cafe was a shell, after a fire in the winter, but it was pleasing to see the local ice cream van had spotted the main chance.
I warned the others not to go mad down the descent of Hartside, as we turned off for Garrigill, much as I’d once warned Bunbury not to miss the turn-off to Renwick at the other side, and they were there waiting for me, as I was keeping my gear spinning at not-too-high a cadence on the descent. I took the opportunity to warn them about the absolute bastard of a hill out of Garrigill – which it was. But after that, there was just Yad Moss. and Toby Hill. And Folly Bank, let’s not forget that, plus the little clicks on the way back to Darlo.
Yad Moss is the last big obstacle, though, and it went past quite swiftly with a helpful cross/tailwind. When rain started to fall and I saw Cross Fell vanish, I commented “how can the same shit happen to the same ride twice?” But it was heading north, away from us, and we remained dry – or at least, no more wet, as we’d never completely dried out from the thorough ducking on the same hill the day before.
A quick Co Op stop in Middleton saw us back to the finish in Cockerton, though the amount of traffic and the dickish behaviour of the drivers on the Teesdale b-roads took us all by surprise.
I’m sure Joe will be disappointed that we missed out so many hills, but I reckon we stuck to the heart of his route, and what a route it is.
**Not entirely true, but I doubt anyone’s seen either on an audax recently.
***Kids, ask your parents. Or possibly grandparents.