Day 1: A North Wales corker
Having made it to CP1 16 hours prior to stage 2 starting I didn’t really have an excuse for not being ready to leave CP1 for the 8am rollout. I had plenty of time until suddenly, there was no time and my camelbak was still empty. A quick scramble around and I was off about 90 seconds after the first handful of riders. Ultimately this makes no difference in a 2000km race, but mentally it would have been nice to roll out of CP1 with the others. I made a mental note to be ready to go at the next checkpoint.
The route from CP1 in Ysbyty Cynfyn to Chester was sublime. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly tough with the first 160km taking almost 12 hours, but the scenery and riding was amazing. Up there with some of the best riding I’ve ever done.
Winding gravel tracks cut into the Welsh hills took the riders from CP1 further into mid-Wales, it was mostly rideable with the occasional extra rocky section or river crossing thrown into the mix.
I stopped at a Co-op in Machynlleth after 30km which admittedly was early in the stage, but I didn’t have masses of food on me. By this point in the race I’d stumbled across Huel drinks on another riders recommendation and had decided these were going to play a large role in my fuelling for the duration of the race. 400 calories in a bottle with all the nutrients you get from a decent meal. The banana flavour also happened to be delicious. A bottle in my pocket and another strapped to the bike and I was off again.
If I’m honest there was no standout moments from the first 12 hours of the day, I just remember the whole day fondly, however this may have been because the average temperature was no more than 18 degrees.
Stage 2 was 470km long and I was determined to make it to CP2 on the second night of the stage which would give me a really good rest period before stage 3. My stage plan was to get through Manchester on day 1 after approximately 260km, leaving 200km or less to ride on day 2. Simple enough on paper.
Day 1 as a whole went pretty much to plan. I’d planned a big McDonalds refuel in Chester after 180km before pushing into the evening on the flat transitional roads towards Manchester – it was a pleasant surprise to arrive in Chester to find Bryn, George and Pim tucking into an assortment of meals inside. Alex arrived soon after, with Emily rolling in next.
At this point I’d been riding for almost 3-4 days in the same set of kit which only got a light wash at CP1 given my time of arrival. As I walked into McDonalds I felt the AC unit blow air into my face and I got a real whiff of my kit and I. Ooft.
Manchester was another 80km away and it was 10pm by this point however I was determined to get through the city centre before I slept. I pressed on into the night with more dotwatcher encouragement from a couple of guys waiting on a cycle path somewhere outside Chester.
I was pressing towards Manchester as the heavens opened, I thought the rain would ease but I had no such luck. I whipped on my rain jacket and pushed on towards the canal paths that would guide me into the city centre.
Finally, Manchester! Quite a stop start ride as I battled sleep and tired legs meant a 2.45am arrival into the pouring rain of the city centre. The city felt quite disorientating, I’d ridden from desolate untouched Wales into a heavily built up city centre with roads going off in every direction. I could see the hue of Old Trafford stadium glowing in the dark from a few kilometres away.
Cool, I wanted to make it to Manchester today. Tick. Where am I going to sleep?
I pressed on through the rain hoping to find somewhere towards the outside of the urban sprawl where I could tuck away for a couple of hours and about 8km later I found just that. If I remember correctly it was a nature reserve with a gravel track winding through a woodland area. It was gone 3am and I was ready to get down for a couple of hours. As I rode through the nature reserve I saw a couple of reflective bivvies and bikes hidden throughout the bushes and I found myself a sheltered spot a few minutes later.
Pre-race I’d thought that I would only use my tent at the checkpoints, and mid-stage I would sleep on my mat if the weather was dry and would wrap myself in the tarp style outer layer of my tent if it was wet. Sounds stupid? It was stupid. I had the Alpkit Soloist tent with me that I could put up and take down in less than 2 minutes, but for some reason I decided to sleep underneath the tarp alone to “save time”.
I slept ok, but I could hear heavy rain on the trees and while I was well sheltered, I was constantly worried about getting my sleeping bag wet. From here on I’d definitely be using my tent if it was raining.
Despite my poor sleep-related decision making, day 1 of stage 2 had gone almost exactly as I’d hoped.
Day 2: Shattered illusions
1.5 hours of sleep later and I was on the move. Admittedly, I was worried I may have underdone it on the sleep front. Was 1.5 hours enough sleep after a 270km day with 5000m of climbing?
I stumbled across a McDonalds for a quick breakfast and headed off with less than 200km to go, I was confident of making CP2 today like I’d hoped. My ideal race plan and stage timing estimate was that I could make it to CP2 by 3am on the second night.
I rode through Bury and as I began to climb out of the sheltered urban area I noticed the wind. An absolute ripper of a headwind. It must have been 50kph and I was riding directly into it. Climbing up this draggy road at about 7kph being pulled apart by the wind. I could see Bryn a few hundred meters ahead of me making similar progress to me and was relieved to see it wasn’t just me in the hurt locker.
I caught Bryn as we turned off the main road onto a gravel track that took us up to what was a perfectly located wind farm. It was steep and bumpy and when paired with the headwind, progress was incredibly slow. Bryn was grinding the gears up the climb as I hopped off my bike and began to push. I don’t mind pushing my bike, but this was relentlessly hard. Bryn soon jumped off and we hiked our way up to the wind farm at the top.
Thankfully the track dropped swiftly back down to a small village and we found George outside a small shop waiting on a double breakfast bap order. I rolled on from the shop alone and soon found the Pennine Bridleway. I’ve only heard good things about the Pennine Rally from friends who have ridden it before, but I can assure you the Pennine Bridleway sucked.
In hindsight, the Pennine Bridleway didn’t suck, it’s a very cool route. But on that day with the constant climbing and horrific headwind, it was dreadful. George had caught me and ridden ahead, those breakfast baps had him flying along as he gradually rode out of sight.
This was one of those days where all of my illusions about making good progress are shattered, and I was left thinking how could I ever make it to CP2, let alone get there tonight. The first 80km of the day took 8 hours. It was so hard.
I got to the Co-op I’d earmarked and refuelled, sitting outside on a bench as I tried to mentally reset ready to crack on. It couldn’t continue to be that hard, right?
Thank god the terrain eased off from here. It was still hard going but it was definitely faster and the kilometres began to tick themselves off. I found myself in a funny limbo situation where CP2 wasn’t all that far away in distance, but it was a long way in terms of hours left to ride. Would I press into the night to get there, or would I end up sleeping less than 50km from the stage end? In all honestly I had no idea, but I ultimately kept coming back to thinking how could I sleep less than 50km from the checkpoint?
I was still a little undecided as afternoon turned into evening after more spectacular riding. Following an awesome off road climb up to an isolated farm I picked up what I believe was a section of the Dales Divide route and dropped down a stunning descent seemingly on top of the world. I was definitely tired but I was feeling ok.
For the previous couple of hours I would catch the occasional glimpse of Bryn who couldn’t have been more than 1km or so behind me. Shortly after as I climbed up another never-ending pass I stopped to clean some gunk from my chain as my shifting wasn’t quite as sharp as it had been. I was struggling to keep my chain in my top two biggest sprockets. Bryn caught me and we hiked to the top of the climb through a handful of gates.
This climb really did go on forever. The scenery was incredible, but surely we had to start descending soon. We were chatting about plans for CP2 and had both come to the same realisation that sleeping so close to the checkpoint seemed counter-productive and both planned to refuel at the Co-op in Kirkby Stephen before kicking on into the night to make CP2. My plan was to ride through and if I got so tired I had to stop, I’d put my jacket on and take a 15 minute power nap in the grass at the side of the road or trail and carry on.
Finally, the summit of the climb. 30km from here to the Co-op, refuel, then less than 50km to the checkpoint. The finale of stage 2 is a real killer. First you climb Great Dun Fell, 6km at 9% average gradient takes you up to 800m, the highest paved road climb in the UK. That’s where the smooth tarmac ends and you hit the off road descent. It’s not really a descent, you pretty much walk all the way down crossing boulder strewn rivers and marshes. It’s going to be awful, but that’s still 40km away.
Bryn and I push on down the descent, touching 70kph on the pristine tarmac before finding the valley road dropping down slightly towards the Co-op. We’re side by side often in silence, putting the hammer down to get to the shop to refuel. We cover that 30km in just 50 minutes.
Let’s be honest, Co-op’s the best supermarket going. Everything you could ever need, decent value, and they’re quite literally everywhere. All the small towns in the middle of nowhere seem to have a Co-op. I should have setup a members reward pre-race, maybe next time.
We both top up on espresso’s and caffeine, finding sugary sweets to nibble at into the night. We roll on together from here towards the climb which is an hours ride or so away, my shifting is getting noticeably worse and I’m having no luck with my big climbing sprockets. Bryn and I yo-yo away from each other until the bottom of the climb.
The first 3km are rideable with my limited shifting but the second half of the climb is where the slopes kick up. I consider trying to grind the gear all the way up but decide against it. I don’t really have the legs at this stage. More importantly, it’s dark and late at night. All I can think is don’t snap the chain, Tom.
3km to the top? That’s the best part of an hour if it’s all too steep to ride which I was assuming it was. Bryn slowly rode away up the climb and I’d see the odd flash of his rear light through the trees. The difference in speed wasn’t huge which was a relief, but my shifting issues were still frustrating and quite concerning. I’ll worry about that at the checkpoint once I’ve slept.
It was almost 11pm and I didn’t want to get sleepy so I called Lily hoping to catch her before she fell asleep. Thankfully, I did (just)! We chatted away for about 45 minutes until I reached the summit of the climb. The difference the phone call made was amazing, a total distraction from my tired legs and it kept me feeling sharp mentally, wide awake.
The rode flattens out towards the summit and I get back on the bike and the climb complete message pops up on my Garmin. It’s all downhill from here. It’s about 14km from the summit of the climb down into Garrigill where the checkpoint was. It’s quite a well known descent, it’s pretty much entirely hike a bike for around 6km through marshy ground with river crossings and some big old rocks. If you’ve watched Lachlan Morton’s GBDuro video then you’ll know the descent I mean!
The phone call me awake on the way up, and as almost a blessing in disguise the hike-a-bike kept me awake on the way back down. I was talking to myself at this point. Keep moving forward. Every step gets me closer to the checkpoint. A lot of people commented saying they couldn’t believe that myself (and a few others) rode this descent during the night, but I almost think this made it easier. If it was daylight and I could see kilometre after kilometre of hike-a-bike I’d be demoralised, but it’s total darkness and all I can see is the beam from my lights. All I can do is get past what I can see, and repeat that until it’s all over.
I’m making progress but it’s not fast. There’s small sections which you can ride but then I’m carrying the bike again. I try not to look at how far I’ve got to go.
I tell myself the hike-a-bike must end somewhere, I know at some point I cross a bridge and turn left (or is it right?) and the singletrack becomes doubletrack. I’ve just got to get there and I can ride the final few kilometres. I’m riding to my best-case timing schedule here and I’m determined not to let anything slip.
Suddenly the turn flashes up on my Garmin and I can almost smell the checkpoint. I run parts of the final hike-a-bike section knowing how close I am now.
The bridge appears and I’m back on the bike, almost sprinting round the bend onto the doubletrack. The track starts out quite rough but fast, but soon turns into smooth wide gravel.
I’ve seemingly picked up a massive tailwind and the track drops down more than I expected, it’s a proper descent with a proper tailwind and suddenly I’m absolutely pinging it down this track deep into the night.
If I wasn’t so tired this would have been an absolute blast of a descent but I’m suddenly exhausted and can feel my mind drifting off. It’s almost too easy. A quick descent with a tailwind where I don’t have to push my body or even think about pedalling? My head is gone. A crash here and at these speeds could end my race, or worse.
I come skidding to a halt, deciding I’m too warm and cosy with all my layers on. Plus, my musics not loud enough. I unzip my outer two layers so I can feel the chill of the night on my chest and neck, headphones are turned up to near max volume and some dance track vibrates through my eardrums.
Back on the bike and I’m instantly picking up speed, I can feel the cold and my music’s pounding through my ears. I definitely feel more awake. 7km to go, 6km to go. I’m flying along when the gravel track turns to tarmac and I start pedalling as hard as I can, sprinting up every tiny lump in the road and shouting out loud how far was left to go to keep me alert.
Suddenly I can see lights and I’ve got less than 1km to go. Garrigill village hall is just round the corner. It’s 1.30am and stage 2 is in the bag, that couldn’t have gone better.
Chris, one of many amazing volunteers at the race, takes my timestamp photo and we head into the village hall. A hot bowl of pesto soup and pasta goes down a treat and I’m into an overdue hot shower to wash myself but also my kit.
The checkpoint is the village hall but we’re not allowed to sleep inside throughout the race so I set my tent up in the field outside and get down for a good 12 hours of sleep.
Stage 2 Statistics
Time: 41 hours 36 minutes