In September I was lucky enough to be invited to join a charity Coast to Coast ride. The ride was a corporate challenge for a group of guys from Schneider Electric who are a client in my day job.
Obviously, I’m a fairly regular cyclist as is my colleague and friend Damien who was also on the team but most of the rest of the guys weren’t. Some of them had put in a good amount of training and some had just been for a hand full of training rides. It was going to be interesting to see how they coped with riding across the country and over some pretty “punchy” climbs.
Damien and I chose to take and ride road bikes – most of the rest of the guys were on mountain bikes and a couple were on hybrids. To be honest I wasn’t sure if they knew what they were letting themselves in for.
The challenge was to raise funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust (http://www.teenagecancertrust.org/) a charity that does some terrific and very valuable work with young people suffering from cancer, so it was an excellent cause.
There were 10 of us riding and one other team member, Dale, driving the minibus who also kindly ferried our kit from stopover to stopover. The trip was split into 3 chunks. The first section was to be from Whitehaven to Greystoke, followed on day two by Greystoke to Eastgate near Stanhope with a final push on day three from Eastgate to Tynemouth. Easy right?
We drove up from the south on the Thursday in a minibus that would have been perfect for 11 guys without bikes – but with our bikes as well it was “cosy” and that was after all the wheels had been removed.
We drove to Keswick on Thursday night and got there late – missed dinner and scratched about for takeaways followed by a pint in the pub we were staying in for the night.
Whitehaven to Greystoke
Friday morning we drove to Whitehaven from Keswick, parked in the Tesco car park and assembled our bikes, pumped up tyres, arranged energy drinks etc and generally got ready. Once organised we rode down for the obligatory wheels in the sea photo to start the quest.
The early part of the day from Whitehaven was on cycle paths – that obviously were the home ground of local dog walkers – classic Sustrans stuff on former railway lines.
I’ll come back to the paths on day three but we were off and the climbing was gentle to begin with so although we were climbing from 4km in to 20km pretty consistently on fresh legs – you didn’t notice it too much. We knew there was only one tough climb of the day up the Winlatter Pass but that came later.
Before that, we had one of the first of several chain breakages. One of the team – a Frenchman called Benoit who was riding what can most charitably be called a shoppers bike had the chain break within the first 50km (of 250). So the ride organiser Valters, bravely made a repair on the side of the road. Day one is always good humoured and they were a fun bunch of guys to ride with. The Winlatter Pass was a bit of a shock to most of them – but not one got off and walked. They all just found whatever rhythm worked for them and stuck with it. I did the same. Being on a road bike with a compact and an 11-28 cassette along with being one of the faster riders meant I just took my time up the climbs too – it wasn’t a race and there was nothing to be gained from smashing out a time. I seemed to get to the top first so I stopped and waited (http://www.strava.com/segments/723315).
Once we’d all regrouped we pressed onto the visitor centre for tea and cakes. We then rode to meet the van in Keswick. After Keswick we were back off road onto gravel cycle paths for a while – again with lots of walkers. There was another chain breakage (or two) after that on the way to Greystoke but I think it’s fair to say we all arrived relatively unscathed at the end of day one. They guys had done very well but day two would be harder.
Greystoke to Eastgate
This was going to be the hardest day climbing wise and let’s be honest, for most of us, climbing is the toughest part of riding. I knew this would be a difficult day for my team mates. The first 10km was mostly flat or downhill until we got into Penrith and turned up a fabulous climb called Fell Lane (http://www.strava.com/segments/1586509) which was a great little climb at a 7.2% average taking us up the hill to the “top” of the town. Our peloton shattered a little there but we regrouped at the top as the van was waiting with spare chains, chain links, bananas and energy gels for those who’d requested spares.
From there we rode through rolling countryside and had our only riding incident of the trip that I have to take some responsibility for. We were descending pretty quickly on a road surface that wasn’t quite dry. I went too fast into a bend, braked, locked my rear wheel, eased off, braked again but ran out of road and ran onto the grass on the outside of the bend. Lee, who was behind me, ended up running off the road (possibly having had his line blocked by me) and he went over his handlebars into the undergrowth but bounced straight back onto his feet uninjured. I apologised in case I had forced him off the road and rode a lot more cautiously on descents for the rest of the trip – Sorry Lee!
From there we headed to the largest climb of the day up Hartside. The rest of the group split off from Damien and I on our road bikes and they took the mountain bike route to the top of the hill. This was the largest climb either of us have done to date – 394m according to Strava (http://www.strava.com/segments/1064008). Frankly it’s a fantastic climb – I absolutely loved riding up it and watching the scenery. Again I just picked a pace and a rhythm that suited me and took my time. Some guys passed me at the bottom, but I picked them back off on the way up and passed a few more riders as well and watched the view get bigger and bigger. After just under 5km you join back on the A-Road, the gradient flattens out and you can pick up some speed pretty easily for the last bit. Reaching the top brought a tangible feeling of exhilaration as you looked out across the big views. The café at the top is your reward and there was a cold wind up there, so it was good to get into the warm after the obligatory photos for hot food and drink. It wasn’t long before we were all there and very happy about it too.
After food there was a long and fast descent of the hill towards Garrigill. We had “lost” a couple of our riders at that point and spend a few minutes waiting and backtracking. Being confused as to where they were and having no phone signal we decided to ride on and went straight onto the much tougher climb of Garrigill (http://www.strava.com/segments/4549149). This starts at over 20% gradient and was very hard to begin with. After about 750m of steep climbing you cross a fast b-road. I got there first and stopped to cheer on everyone past me and to watch the traffic to tell them if they could safely keep riding across the road without stopping.
Once they were all across I got back on and rode up the rest of the climb – a bit faster to see if I could catch those at the front after giving them a couple of minutes headstart. I couldn’t, but I did ok and was pleased to get to the top of that one for more photos and another rest. Fortunately our missing two riders were at the top of the climb waiting for us. Once again, not one rider got off their bike and walked and by now I was hugely impressed with the guts and determination of the riders on the team as this was turning into a hard day that wasn’t finished with us yet. I also thought they were mostly mad for not riding road bikes – heavy, fat tyred, mountain bikes don’t make a lot of sense to a roadie like me on this ride – but each to their own.
From here we had a nice descent down to Nenthead and then another climb out of the village and out of the county into Northumberland at Coalcleugh. Cue more photos and another stop after the climb to regroup. Strava calls this climb a Category 3 climb (http://www.strava.com/segments/723314) at just under 200m of climbing.
The next pub stop was in Allenheads and we met Dale with the van at the pub where he’d been chatting to the locals whilst waiting for us all to arrive. Sitting in the sunshine out of the wind outside the pub was lovely.
We got back on our bikes and rode straight onto a category 4 climb, up and into County Durham (http://www.strava.com/segments/1064034). It was another terrific climb. From there it was only about 15km until the end of our day and mostly downhill to our very fancy (but bargain) hotel for the night – Horsley Hall (http://www.horsleyhall.co.uk/) which is one of the nicest places I’ve stayed in during my time in Britain. It was an almost perfect end to probably the most fun day I’ve ever had on a bike.
I love to climb and it was a day of touring pace riding over some stunning countryside with some excellent banter and laughs along the way. It was a big moment for the guys on the ride too as it was the hardest bit. Day three still wasn’t going to be a cake walk but this had been the hard day and they guys had done brilliantly. A fine meal in the hotel, a hot shower and comfy beds were a great end to day two. Honestly, I can’t recommend Horsley Hall highly enough.
Eastgate to Tynemouth
The wind had been picking up the previous evening as we rode into the Hotel. The weather forecast for the final day had been for 40mph+ winds and heavy, heavy rain. For a bunch of guys in lycra who were pretty tired by now, this wasn’t a tremendously exciting prospect for the final morning but we were going to ride on regardless of the weather.
The wind was certainly very strong – bang on the weather forecasters estimates I would say but as we left it hadn’t started raining.
We started by riding back to Rookhope as there was an off-road section, the guys on mountainbikes were keen to ride.
Damien and I were joined by two others team mates on the road that morning – Matt and Loyd who decided the road option might be preferable than off road. We split up at the start of a Strava segment called Rookhope to Stanhope the hard way, which is aptly named (http://www.strava.com/segments/2741948) it was hard – steep at the beginning, easing off, then steep again – not helped by 40mph crosswinds and the drizzle began as we got toward the highest point. It wasn’t pleasant riding but it was kind of awesome being out in nature like that – the scenery was still beautiful. The descent down to Stanhope was great fun though! It was a tough start to the days’ riding though. This was then followed by the much, much harder climb from the village of Stanhope to the café at Parkhead in foul weather – the rain had joined the wind now. It was a steep climb out of the village and Matt was finding it tough as he was having knee problems. I waited for everyone to get up the first bit and then pushed onto where Damien was and waited again. It was a hard climb in difficult conditions – but again, no one got off and walked.
By this time we were again seeing groups of riders who we’d seen on both the other days – battling their way along this early part of the day. Us roadies got to the café first (again!) and were pleased to get out of the rain and the wind. I had a very welcome hot chocolate but the great news was that this was the last difficult climb of the journey – it was all downhill from here – relatively speaking.
After the café though was the part of the ride I found most difficult and couldn’t keep up with the others. I’m pretty light and I found riding in the big winds on the gravel cycle paths on my road bike very difficult – I very nearly got blown completely off the road at one point and fell a couple of hundred metres behind. It wasn’t until we got some shelter from the wind in some trees that I could pick up my speed to catch up with the others again.
From here for me anyway, the ride deteriorated and really started to disappoint. The cycle paths towards and through Newcastle are just awful. Terribly designed – downright dangerous for cyclists in places and actually more nerve wracking than riding on the road. Lots of steel barriers, sharp corners, being spat out into roads and baffling if any signage. This is the awful cycling infrastructure Britain is sadly famous for. Riding on the National Cycle Network – reading signs that say “Cyclists must give way to Horses and Pedestrians” – an absolute joke. If I do the Coast to Coast again – I think I’d ride another way just to avoid this frankly awful part of the journey. The infrastructure could and should be so much better but ideally save yourself from the danger and the hassle of the cycle paths and find a road route.
However we did find our way into Newcastle, stopped for burgers in a pub on the river and then rode on to complete the journey at Tynemouth at an innocuous sign – not exactly next to the sea and not in a particularly scenic point that was labelled the end of the Coast to Coast. It was an ending that felt “flat” and not worthy of the effort involved in getting there.
Fortunately we rode a little further and got down onto a beach for photos and a laugh. We rode from there directly to a Morrisons with a petrol station to jet wash the bikes and carefully repack them into the van for the long trip south.
After a fantastic three days riding, it seemed a bit weird to be out in Newcastle on a Sunday evening with the town in full big night out mode. We had dinner in a restaurant before heading off to a club. My heart wasn’t in it by then and I was happy to head back to the hotel relatively early.
My issues with cycle paths aside – it was a fantastic cycling adventure and one that I wholeheartedly commend to you. It’s a great thing to put on your list of rides to do – you’ll chat to some great people out there riding it too on all kinds of bikes, with all kinds of kit and support vehicles (or no support at all). The scenery is fantastic (mostly) and you get to see all kinds of the sort of vistas that Britain is world famous for. As our team showed, 3 days is achievable for even those with moderate cycling fitness (especially if you have a support vehicle carrying your bags). Two days would be perfect to me – a proper challenge and doing it in a day would be awesome if you could do it! (check that out here if you’re keen: http://www.opencycling.com/).
My team mates from Schneider Electric were an absolute delight to ride with – I didn’t really know any of them well before hand but thoroughly enjoyed all of the their company. They have raised over £5,000 so far for the Teenage Cancer Trust and deservedly so. They rode with camaraderie, spirit, panache and with guts and determination. I salute each one of them and am very grateful they let me come along to play too.
If you like the story and are as impressed by the determination of the guys as I am – you can still donate here:
Of course, we’re now suggesting they step up their cycling challenge for 2014 to do something bigger, better and much more challenging – next time on road bikes too. I hope we do convince them as that would be a great story to write too (assuming I get invited back!) Maybe via the cycle paths of the Netherlands where they design and build them properly. Maybe.
Thanks to Damien, Valters and Dale for taking the photos. Here’s a short video:
Thanks for reading