This was the inaugural running of the Mille Pennines. It was entirely Andy Corless’s idea and all his own
fault work. Only Andy Corless could have come up with the Mille Pennines. He has a well-earned reputation for routes that are scenic (in both senses of the word) and challenging. In other words, You Have Been Warned. The overall climbing figure wasn’t terrifying, at 10,000 metres for 1000 km. Not outright terrifying, but quite enough, thanks, and it obviously met a demand for rides of this distance, as there were around 120 entries, of which 90 made it to the start line.
However, the climbing was later upgraded to 13,000 metres, and of the 90 starters, only 38 finished. That’s quite an attrition rate, and someone on YACF (Yet Another Cycling Forum) commented that the successful finishers should share their stories of success, like shamans who go off into the wilderness to wrestle demons and commune with spirits for the good of the tribe. As one of The 38 – and I think some sort of commemorative statue would not be inappropriate to mark the achievement of The 38 – I share with you here my tale of how I went up into the hills and came back changed.
1. First of All, Are You Experienced?
I’m sure there are riders who completed this having ridden no more than a 200 (or whatever). However, this was my third ride of 1000 km or more. A 600 is generally one night on the road and one night’s sleep deprivation to deal with. Once you get into three and four days, the accumulated fatigue and lack of sleep really start to tell, and unless you’ve done it, it’s hard to know how you’ll deal with it, and the hills make the time limits tight. Generally, sleeping between 1 and 5 in the morning works for me, and that was what I aimed at, though day 2 didn’t shape up. At all. I got enough sleep on the ride (about four hours on night one, about two and a half and four hours on nights two and three respectively) and never had any hallucinations. I did see some ghostly white shapes in the road one night which I thought were hallucinations, but turned out to be a couple of cows on the run from a local farm. We shooed them back into their field.
Experience helped in other little ways – for example, I hung around to wait for a fellow rider who was slow in the hills on day 2 so I had some company into the 80-kilometre long headwind slog from Kielder Reservoir to Lockerbie. I ditched him the next day, mind.
2. Eat Y’Self Fitter
- Chestnut Hill, Keswick. Typical Lakeland summer.
I rode lots of hills – this really was as simple as it sounds. I took my bike up into the hills at every opportunity in the months leading up to the ride. Not hill reps. I detest hill reps. If you want to turn a pleasant bike ride into the on-road equivalent of a session on a turbo trainer, be my guest, but I’d prefer just to go for a bike ride. I planned my own hilly routes and rode lots of hilly events, including the Dales Grimpeur. There’s nowhere to hide on that thing, so it at least gave me confidence that I could manage loads of hills with time in hand.
Owing to geographical difficulties, I didn’t ride many of Andy’s events, which would have been ideal preparation. In fact, the only ride of Andy’s I’d previously ridden was his Tan Hill 600 in June 2016, which I packed when it was cold and dark and very, very wet. I spent a blissful night in a warm, friendly hotel, pointed and laughed at the riders carrying on into the rain and the dark and the cold, and had no regrets.
I didn’t lose as much weight as I’d hoped, but on the start line I was around 80 kilos at 5 foot-eleven (and a half). I didn’t give up the fags, but I did make one concession by not drinking any alcohol during the ride. Mind you, at least one rider took a hipflask of whisky around and there were a few riders who had pub stops, so I don’t think you need to be super-mega-fit to complete this. Despite the climbing which made the time limits tight, it was still possible to treat it as a tour. For some, anyway.
- Toby and Paul in Little Langdale
3. Thou Shalt Bring All of the Gears
I ride mostly on fixed, but not, not this ride. Three lads did, and I take my hat off to them. Nutters. For the record, I had a compact with a lowest gear of 34-30, which got me up everything except Rosedale Chimney and a couple of the other climbs on the North Yorks Moors. If I’d had a suitable bike with lower gearing, I’d have taken it. Full disclosure: I deliberately missed the 33%er at Littlebeck, as I knew a better route and knew it was an absolute bastard. Which leads me onto…
4. Terror Cognita – Know the Terrain
Not an option available to everyone. However, apart from the first 60 km or so and a couple of other spurs, I knew every inch of the ride. It’s my local terrain. I thought this might have been a disadvantage, as I was really close to home for a large amount of time and I thought I’d be in danger of going “Sod it” and going home, but it was a huge advantage, as I knew the hills and what they took out of you, I knew there were tougher routes than the one Andy had chosen*, and I’d ridden in far worse conditions on the same hills and survived. The ridiculous schlep up to the moors from Newcastleton to Langholm was no surprise, and I knew exactly how hard the start of day 2 was going to be, when we crossed every single major valley on the eastern side of the Pennines from the Yore to the Tyne. I believe this section came as a surprise to some people, as a) there were riders still in bed when I set off on the morning of day 2 and b) someone commented that it was an easier day than day 1, just longer. I doubt they were saying that after riding up Fleak Moss, The Stang, Bollihope, Crawleyside and the rest. That lot might not have the allure of the Lakeland passes, but once you line them all up together, it was a harder section than anything in the Lakes.
- Joolz and Brian descending to Swaledale
I remember Adam from AC Hackney commenting that riders experienced a sense of collective failure at Kielder when they saw the empty shelves or closed doors at Kielder News. Local knowledge meant I knew where the good scran was to be found – the Copshaw Kitchen in Newcastleton rather than the Inconvenience Store at the End of the World in Kielder, Castleton Tea Rooms or Kirklevington Grange Prison Cafe rather than the Shell Garage at Yarm, etc. Local knowledge isn’t the only way to overcome this – Mark Gray from Derby Mercury and entourage arrived just after us, and grabbed tins of rice pudding. I asked if he wanted to borrow my spoon, but he already had one, then I asked if he had a tin opener, and he replied that he always carried one – there’s preparation.
- Second breakfast in Barnie
- Third breakfast in Stanhope. What’s wrong with mince pie and gravy for breakfast?
Being so close to the start meant I could ride down to leave a tent at the campsite over the road from the sleep stop at Askrigg. This was overkill as Andy had organised proper beds and airbeds, but it didn’t do any harm, and having my own little space was lovely.
- on manoeuvres in Wensleydale – delivering my tent to Askrigg
4. Respect Thy Bike
Steve and I had a pleasant interlude at Hexham while I fettled Joolz’s disc brakes. Joolz, if you’re reading this, I hope you know how to fix them yourself now, and may I take this opportunity to remind you that you promised me a pint. I can’t be too smug about this, as I found a crack in one of my seatstays during the ride. Since it was only 40 flat kms from the end I just carrried on, but I’d have had no confidence dancing up the hills out of the saddle, let alone descending Lakeland passes at approaching 80 kmh. I was lucky.
- layby near Caton – cos garage forecourts are just getting too middle-class nowadays
This is the key factor. Maybe the ignominy of my soft DNF on Andy’s Tan Hill 600 was playing on my mind more than I’d admit, but I had more reasons to carry on than to quit. I’d passed up the chance to see a friend being ordained at York Minster on the same weekend, and missed a chance for a weekend’s debauchery while a friend’s partner was away. Different friends, I should stress.
This wasn’t Just Another Ride that I could toss off and ride something else the next weekend. I was aiming at 100 points and couldn’t afford to lose 10 points, especially in my battle royale with Lindsay Clayton for the VC167 points championship**. I’d been thinking about this ride since Gordon Panicca first mentioned it after PBP, and not least, I’d paid £50 to ride it. Lots of little things.
There weren’t any real low points, but lowlights included vicious side-gusts at the top of the Pennines, being refused service at McDonald’s drive-thru in Penrith***, and suicide bunny watch in the Wensleydale dawn, when the rabbits were dashing heedlessly across the road in front of our wheels. Oh, and the horrendous queue at Whinlatter Tourist Information Cafe – I should’ve eaten in Keswick.
6. Thou Shalt Have a Schedule
- time for ice cream before the finish
…But you shouldn’t stick to it too strictly. It’s a guide, not a prescription – the only absolute time limit is the one on the brevet card and any extra is a bonus. I found it useful to know where I expected to be and how much sleep I was likely to get – my schedule was mainly based around sleep, and having two-to-three hours in hand at all times. It kinda went out of the window on day two, but I made the time back on days three and four. Steve and I took 7 hours to cover the 90 km from Askrigg to Hexham, with two cafe stops and some photo ops. Slow as that is, we still made up time.
The schedule was based upon experience, likely times in the hills, general overall speeds on similar rides and guesswork. Other, more sophisticated, methods are available.
7. Thou Shalt Not Fit Mudguards
Well, I didn’t and nor did Steve, and we both finished. I would’ve quite liked some mudguards in the Lakes, mind.
- me n Steve on Dunmail Raise (photo by Bill Robertson)
8. It’s Still Just a Bike Ride
I was only joking about commemorating The 38 and I’d be mortified if anyone commissioned a statue – cash contributions only, please. It’s a bike ride in the hills, and an enjoyable one – as routes go, it’s a challenge but not a complete killer, and it goes to some fabulous places. Some of my favourite places, in fact, and clearly some of Andy’s favourite places, as an event like this is a labour of love for any organiser. I’ll be pleased to see you somewhere on the route in 2017, as I’ve volunteered to help Andy.
- me at Sandside (photo by Bill Robertson)
Postscript: I wrote this back in 2016, and I’ve only just found it again. I did go and help at the overnight control at Sedbergh in 2017, where I had more alcohol and less sleep than when I rode the event.