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all points north

The first edition of a new multi checkpoint, route-yourself unsupported cycling adventure race around the most beautiful and savage places the North has to offer. Myself and TCR pairs partner Adrian thought this would be good practice for 'the big one' in July...


"I think we can win this"


I'd just caught up with Adrian after a quick stop to plug in my Wahoo before it died. I found him excitedly prodding his phone, showing me the tracking map with our dot just behind another pairs team. "We're slightly behind them but we're on a quicker road to the finish line". I spat on the ground out of sheer disgust at our rivals, then in poetic unison borne of hundreds of hours together on the road, we exchanged a silent nod, swung our legs over our bikes and set off at top speed.


70 hours earlier we were sitting in a pub bathed in evening sunshine, tucking into tacos as our pre-race fuel. These were the good times, and we were consciously lapping them up, aware that things would only get worse from here. The atmosphere in the Healy Institute that was serving as race HQ was a potent mixture of nervous excitement and a calm, warm camraderie. The first few people I bumped into were either old pals I'd met in other races, or cycling celebreties I watch on YouTube, making it feel like a surreal ultra-cycling reunion.


Everything was exceptionally well organised, which is reflective of the personalities and hard work of the organisers, and it instantly put us at ease. With sign-in and bike checks ticked off and goody bags looted, race director Ange took us through a quick briefing before everyone assembled outside in a rough starting grid. A countdown from 10 rudely interrupted a nice catch up with fellow racer Peter Boynton and suddenly in a frenzy of clicking cleats and squeaking brakes the hi-vis mass was in motion. It was 8pm and we were racing.


The format of the race is simple: starting and finishing in Sheffield, riders must hit 10 self-validated checkpoints in any order, allowing the potential for different tactical approaches. As a native northerner, Adrian had planned our route. Our friend Nick who navigates ships for a living told us to go anti clockwise so our route had us heading out East to Flamborough Lighthouse as our first checkpoint.





The first hour was spent at a surprisingly gentle pace, chatting with a group of anti-clockwisers including pals Jenny Tough and fellow pair Alex and Michal. The group was gradually whittled away as riders darted off on their own routes until it was just the two of us. "We can make it if we try" I mentally noted as we finally left the urban sprawl, having survived the gauntlet of boozed-up locals.


As the sun set over the glowing Yorkshire countryside we settled into a rhythm, enjoying the perfect conditions; flat, tailwind, not too cold. Adrian knows what's important when it comes to routing, and casually mentioned a 24hr McDonalds at 75km, which instantly upped our pace by about 2km/h. In no time at all we saw the Golden arches glowing like a beacon. We executed a Formula 1 style pit stop and were back on the road with full water bottles, full tummies, evacuated bowels, and fully caffeinated within 15 minutes. Before we knew it an eerie flashing light pulsing over the horizon signalled we were approaching the lighthouse. Arriving at our first checkpoint was a magical experience; under a starry canopy the lighthouse's beams calmly swept across the sea, revealing waves crashing against the rocks down below. It was a peaceful scene that you felt you'd intruded on, like you're not meant to be there.


All that existential pondering left us feeling sleepy. With our brevet cards marked up and time-stamped selfies taken, our next objective was to find somewhere to sleep for the night. We'd opted to go for lightweight bivi setups to simulate what we'll be using on TCR. Luckily it was a clear night so we didn't bother looking for shelter. We left the main road and struck off down a lane that hugged the cliff edge to a spot Adrian knew was a popular sleeping spot for local surfers. It turned out it was a popular spot in general as we were treated to a continuous stream of visiting cars throughout the night, including a curious Police van. In hindsight it was the perfect dogging spot.



DAY 2 3 or 4 hours of broken sleep later we were deflating our sleeping mats and rolling up our bivis looking out over a steel grey sea. It took a while to get cold stiff legs moving freely again, and a coffee and pastry stop helped matters immensely. Some questionable routing took us down a chamois-soilingly steep cobbled descent coming into Whitby - fortunately there was a public toilet at the bottom. By 9am we had ticked off our second checkpoint: Whitby Abbey, and now faced a long haul up to the next one at Kielder Forest, luckily we had the prospect of a visit to Middlesborough as an incentive. It was a long and at times quite boring drag up to the Scottish border with only a battered sausage and a ride through a music festival to note, but we would soon be yearning for some uneventful riding.


The approach to CP3 was stunning. A perfectly smooth road dove into dense forest skirting the vast Kielder reservoir until finally we found the small castle-like building that constituted the checkpoint. In order to prove our visit each time we needed to take a time-stamped photo of both bikes and find the answer to a question about the location. In this case, we scribbled down the colours of the Forestry Commission crest which was hanging above the castle gate.


Darkness was slowly setting in, as was an ominous looking bank of cloud. We knew our route included a 10km long gravel shortcut through the forest that saved us doing a long detour into Scotland, but neither of us knew what the surface would actually be like - a cause for some anxiety given we were both on 'all-road' bikes with 28mm-32mm slick road tyres. We left the safety of the main road and set off down the trail as it disappeared into the dark woodland. Senses were heightened as we cautiously edged onwards, quiet as we constantly assessed our surroundings. The surface wasn't as gnarly as we were expecting and we were making steady progress across the loose gravel, resigning ourselves to our new 10km/h pace. Just as we got comfortable, the storm hit. Leaving the sanctuary of the forest we found ourselves crossing a desolate wasteland, skeletal branches silhouetted against a backdrop of misty rain. Gusts of wind started clawing at us and the rain intensified as the light faded to nothing. I braced myself, switched on my backup light and tried to ignore the feeling of vulnerability and panic that was starting to creep in.


After exactly an hour we reached the end of the gravel. The relief of returning to a paved road was muted by the fact we were now wet through and starting to get cold. It was earlier than we'd planned to stop but we decided to take the next shelter we could and sleep through the storm. 2 hours later we were still looking. We'd traversed a desolate moorland, hurriedly investigating every cow shed and electricity substation our headlights revealed, but to no avail. Even when we finally came back down into civilisation, every town was inexplicably devoid of any bus shelters - normally a safe bet for an emergency bivi. Finally we decided to leave our route for the nearest large settlement and found a church doorway just big enough for two men and two bikes - salvation! With locals coming out of the pub next door, it felt a bit exposed but we'd run out of options. Relieved to be out of the rain at last, we wrung out our soggy kit and dossed down until morning.





DAY 3


I woke up to the sound of rain still pounding on the steps of the church and reminded myself that ultra endurance rides are all about perseverance, mental strength, discipline, never giving up. I got my phone out and Googled the nearest train station. I reported my findings to Adrian and he'd been thinking along the same lines, we'd had enough. With our race over and the pressure off, we had a lie-in, watching the local dog walkers wander past.


Joining the dog walkers was an increasing stream of All Points North riders, emerging from improvised shelter they'd found in the town. We chatted with a few of them, including our pal Michal until we were guilted into braving the rain and 'seeing how it went'. First port of call was the local supermarket where we equipped ourselves with marigold gloves and plastic bags inside our shoes. The three of us rode together, distracting ourselves from the conditions by chatting about cycling escapades past and future until we realised the rain had eased off and there was even the suggestion of some sun breaking through the clouds.


After yesterday's trauma, the morning pace was sedate and we indulged in a long cafe stop where we bumped into fellow rider Jack Peterson ordering multiple pastries. None of us really wanted to leave the warmth of the cafe but eventually we prised ourselves away and back into the picturesque lanes. We were closing in on one of the highlights of the race: Great Dun Fell - the second highest mountain in the Pennines and featuring a road closed to traffic that leads up to a spectacular radar station at the summit. Not that we saw it - a thick layer of cloud had settled about half way up the climb, reducing visibility to almost zero. The unsettling conditions were made worse by constant warnings from riders coming back down reporting severe gusts at the summit. I was particularly concerned as it was the maiden voyage for my new Spin On These 58mm deep wheels which I suspected would not react favourably with that kind of wind. I braced myself as I left the cover of a rocky gulley and waited for my bike to be blown off the road.


The first gust hit and I veered two metres to the right. Fortunately it eased up before I went over the edge, and by the time the next gust hit I'd worked out how to counter it. Leaning over at 45 degrees and putting all my weight onto the crank arm I levered myself diagonally up the steep slope, balancing out the power of the wind. This process was repeated until I reached the top, feeling shattered from the mental concentration, but pleased with how the wheels had dealt with the wind. Doing anything at the summit was impossible. Anything that wasn't secured in a pocket or strapped to the bike was a gonner, and I spent about 5 minutes trying to wrestle myself into my jacket, terrified it was going to fly off into the ether at any second.


A teeth grinding, nerve shredding, shoulder burning descent later and I rejoined my pairs partner Adrian happily finishing off his breakfast in a cosy little cafe. Earlier in the day I'd punctured and left him to start the climb assuming I'd catch him up, but the repair took longer than expected and therefore so did the 're-pair'. This part of the course saw the checkpoints coming thick and fast and next on the menu was Tan Hill Inn - famously the 'highest pub in Britain' at 528m above sea level. The approach was a wild rollercoaster across the rugged expanse of the Yorkshire Dales, and we arrived to find the bar bustling with a rag tag bunch of travellers including a healthy contingent of APN riders. Mihal had set his heart on a hot meal at the pub and was brutally disappointed to find out the kitchen was closed, resulting in some impressively aggressive crisp ordering - a racer has to be adaptable!




Our next target was Arnside, where we would hit the West coast, completing a roundabout coast to coast traverse of the North. We rode with Mihal and another cycling pal Nick for a long section along beautiful valleys as the sun started to set. The day's two big climbs were taking their toll and we cruised along at touring speed, lapping up the dramatic scenery and mentally planning a fish & chip banquet when we got to the seaside. The valleys gradually flattened out until we were riding down a wide estuary on the final run-in to the checkpoint. We passed through a town thick with the aromas of takeaway and eagerly pressed on for the carb feast we'd pictured in so much detail. We rolled into Arnside triumphantly, quickly dealt with the checkpoint admin then set about the serious task of choosing from one of the many seaside chip shops.


Bad news. The chip shop was shut. OK not ideal but we'll see if the pub can knock us up something quick - worst case scenario we'll be forced to have a proper meal in the pub - nightmare! Except both pubs had long since finished serving. Despondent and defeated, we trudged to the supermarket as our back up option. It was closed too. Suddenly a voice from nowhere - the fish & chip shop owner had been watching our dots and came out to greet us - totally unreasonably, he didn't offer to fire up the fryer and knock us up a meal, but he did tell us the only place we could find food - the takeaway town we'd passed through. What followed was the fastest, most focused riding of the whole race as we executed a blistering team time trial back to the town, terrified the takeaways would be shut. I'd already made a mental note of where the Chinese was and we piled in, ordering four special fried rice - the ultimate ultra distance fuel.


Fully stocked up on MSG and caffeine for the long night ride ahead, we set off accompanied by the sounds of the European election results that Adrian was transmitting from his phone. Riding as a group, while not strictly speaking in the spirit of the race really helped get through a tough couple of hours as fatigue hit me hard and I struggled to stay awake on the bike. After a while we split from the other two as we followed our separate ways of attacking the Forest of Bowland. The dark enclosed lanes opened out into a wild open expanse with vast black valleys dropping away either side of the road and occasionally we would see the red lights of the other two alarmingly high up above us. The steepest, most brutal hill of the race provided the finale to a tough day of climbing, and we were soon rolling into Slaidburn for another checkpoint and the end of day 2. I'd ridden the final few kms of the day in one gear as my new SRAM Etap electronic groupset had stopped working; I assumed the battery had died and ignored it until we'd found somewhere to sleep. Adrian and I split up to check for bivi spots and I hit the jackpot with an open public toilet block. Checking the disabled loo revealed Mihal curled up in his sleeping bag, so we opted for the suite next door - a baby changing room perfectly equipped to accommodate two adults with bikes and luggage. It was warm, dry, and clean and came with a hand dryer for dealing with wet kit, a sink and ample surfaces for organising gear. The light was even on a timer, allowing us a luxury night's sleep.





DAY 4


Emerging from our quarters into the dappled morning sunlight, there was an air of optimism - we'd broken the back of this. We'd persevered when many had scratched and we now had the simple matter of 170km and we'd be sleeping in actual beds tonight. I even had a fully charged groupset - nothing could stop us now. Just a slight hill to start the day, shift down a couple of gears...nothing. What?! I immediately threw in the towel again and bid Adrian farewell as I sought a train station, but a few seconds later the gears started working again. The priority every morning is to find a source of strong coffee and ideally some pastries as soon as possible. Today it took a frustratingly long time, a few dual carriage ways and some heavy showers but finally we were sitting in a Gregg's with coffee, sausage sandwiches and shortbread to accompany a bit of tracker checking. A lot of riders chose to rent GPS satellite trackers which were displayed on a map of the course so people could follow the action. As we munched, we spotted a message from race control saying no pairs had finished yet, and checking the tracker revealed we were neck and neck with two other pairs teams. Suddenly our mentality shifted into race mode. We downed the remaining coffee, frantically gathered our assorted charging devices and bolted out the door.


We had three huge rolling hills to tackle to get to our next checkpoint, Brimham rocks, then the same hills back the other way to get to the final checkpoint at Haworth. The whole section was tackled with a level of focus and determination that was frankly embarrassing given we were 'competing' for a meaningless title with no prize, against people that probably didn't care! But it was exciting. And we were going for it. We ticked off the final two checkpoints, by now regularly crossing paths with one of the other two pairs teams, subtly trying to extract information on their pit stop strategy each time we saw them. Eventually we edged ourselves ahead, now what about that other pair? They're probably miles ahead, they've probably finished. We had an hour or more defecit to catch up from the last checkpoint. That's impossible isn't it? Surely... "I think we can win this"


I'd just caught up with Adrian after a quick stop to plug in my Wahoo before it died. I found him excitedly prodding his phone, showing me the tracking map with our dot just behind another pairs team. "We're slightly behind them but we're on a quicker road to the finish line". I spat on the ground out of sheer disgust at our rivals, then in poetic unison borne of hundreds of hours together on the road, we exchanged a silent nod, swung our legs over our bikes and set off at top speed.


It was the kind of performance that can only be extracted from a human when there's a beer as a reward. Adrian uttered the fateful words "20 minutes of pain" as we exchanged turns on the front, rocketing down the main A-road into Sheffield. His local knowledge was the final ace up our sleeve and we played it, weaving between traffic, going the wrong way up one-way streets, and blasting straight through traffic lights until the race HQ was once again in sight. We threw our bikes to one side and bundled through the door - "Did we win?!!" "The other pair arrived 4 minutes ago". The room of finished riders burst into applause as we stepped in, just as the cumulative effort of the ride hit us. We quickly grabbed our free beers, had a hug and sat down before our legs could give way.