Another one from the vaults – I think I’ll keep adding these epic – no wait, epic’s the wrong word, I think we need a word that’s to epic what bathos is to pathos, and I suggest pathepic – tales as I stumble across them.
Having to pedal downhill is a soul-crushing experience. After slogging my way to Hartside Top, I rewarded myself with my last bit of food, stared vacantly at the panorama of rainclouds scudding across the Lakeland Fells, and tried to summon the fortitude to carry on. Then I re-mounted and pedalled down the pass, into the wind.
I came into this ride already sleep-deprived and suffering with toothache (the cause of the sleep deprivation), and on the climb out of Renwick to Hartside I told Alex that he could scarper if he wanted, as I was holding him up. He politely refused, but I was climbing so slowly at that point that he had little choice. The climb was steep, into the wind, interminably long, and lonely. I spent most of it eyeing up every patch of vaguely-dry grass behind dry stone walls as suitable sleeping quarters. On the descent to Garrigill, I had to stop for a catnap, otherwise I would have fallen asleep on the bike. I found the driest spot I could find in the lee of a wall, pulled my cap over my eyes and drifted off. I don’t know how long I was asleep, but when a passing car awoke me, I dashed onto the bike and pedalled onward, convinced that I was out of time.
But that’s not the whole story. Things had started well, a gentle tailwind across the tough North Pennines landscape to Alston, past the detritus of redundant industries: abandoned mines, collapsed mine shafts, ruined arches. Tea and scones and beans-on-toast at Alston, the Cumbrian Pantry does an especially fine beans on toast, which I can recommend highly. I was controlling my toothache with alternating paracetamol and ibuprofen, the moors road from Newcastleton to Langholm was a wild delight, and there was even a welcome laid on for us in Moffat with chinese lanterns and bagpipes.
However. However. Throughout the ride, apart from one downpour on the tops between Blanchland and Alston, we’d been staying just behind the rain, but when we left Moffat we rode into a cloudburst. Huge drops were bouncing off the road, water was pouring out of the drains. Marcus, Alex and I tried to wait it out at Johnstonebridge Services, while a Glaswegian driver whom I nicknamed Mr Jolly warned us of the horrendous storm with hail and gales which was moving over Carlisle. It hardly stopped raining throughout the night, but we waited for it to ease from Biblical to merely torrential before we left the services.
Of course, the other issue with turning south from Moffat was that we were then headed into the wind, and the ride increasingly became a war of attrition, or an experiment in coping strategies. At Southwaite Services, where the beans on toast were mediocre at best, I simply wanted to sleep, and wait for the trains from Carlisle to start operating, and go home, but as we were three-quarters of the way completed, I couldn’t quit, having invested so much in the ride. A ten-minute nap wasn’t enough, but it was all I could afford.
One other reason for my reluctance was that I remembered the route from last year – the climbing around the Eden Valley is steep, but unadvertised. As I said to Alex, you can prepare yourself for the headline hills such as Hartside, Bollihope and Yad Moss, but it’s the unknown ones that sap your strength. Where’s the glory in climbing an unnamed, unspectacular lane in Cumbria? The pull up from the Eden at Armathwaite felt like I was being slowly murdered, entering a grey zone from which there would be no return, and the most terrible thing was that I was doing it to myself. Since it doesn’t seem to have a name, I decided to call it Bastard Bank. The climb out of Staffield was shorter but steeper, and I’d forgotten it since last year; the less said about that the better, but to fix it in my memory and to avoid confusion I christened it Bastard Bank.
Another drenching. Then came the climb to Hartside Top, which was both the highest and my lowest point of the ride. There was no way except on and no alternative to finishing except possibly laying down on the verge and giving up, but I still only managed to get up it by telling myself that I’d have the reward of food at the top, and thought no further than that. I couldn’t use that strategy more than once, since I had no food left, but I winched myself up the steep road out of Garrigill while telling myself that Marcus would have done it on fixed, and Yad Moss was straight into the wind, and pure denial. I plugged in my earphones and pulled my buff up over my mouth and nose and ears to block the wind. It went quicker than I’d feared, but still I had tears in my eyes when I saw the County Durham sign which marked the top. Homecoming, and downhill all the way to Middleton-in-Teesdale. An old boy overtook me on his Sunday morning 20-miler, wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a cheerful grin. I was still wearing all my clothes against the rain.
I continued to count off the hills and miles after Middleton-in-Teesdale, 25 miles and 4 hills, swooped down the descents as the route turned back north and the wind was finally at my back. Bollihope Common, Hill End, Frosterley, into Weardale, and a couple of miles of flat riding to Wolsingham. One more hill. What a cruel sting in the tail; the surveyors had only measured it at 8%. 8%! However, the cruellest part was the other two hills still to come after the summit. I’d somehow forgotten about those.
If anyone from Durham Police is reading, I did not nearly fall asleep on one of the long descents, nor did I set off the speed warning sign at the bottom of the bank in Lanchester. But I did claim my receipt at the Spar in Lanchester with a luxurious 35 minutes in hand. I knew I should have had that ice cream at Wolsingham.
Explanatory notes: Joe Applegarth organised the Lanchester 400 twice, once in 2010, and once in 2011. I rode both editions, the first time with my mate Martin (who’s hardly ridden an audax since), and occasionally with Peter “Two-Coats” Coates (who nobody has seen at all since). This is the second edition.
I was riding as a qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, which put the pressure on to start with, but I also had an abscessed tooth which swelled up pathepically after the ride. Ben Taylor also rode both editions and got around fine, as did Alex, Billy Green finished out of time, Alan got a train home from Brampton, the random tri guy didn’t even get that far (relentlessly sucking Billy’s wheel was not a winning strategy), and Mike Thompson finished in a disgustingly quick time. Oh, and Marcus Yeo rode around on fixed.
And I forgot to mention that Joe and Caroline met us on the moors above Newcastleton with Tunnocks Caramel Wafers.
Finally, if anyone didn’t get it, the title is a reference to Prefab Sprout’s classic Eighties album From Langley Park to Memphis (I rode through Langley Park on my way to the start).