Thursday, 26 May 2016

C2C Day Two: The Wheels Come Off

It’s all in the name and we’re not called Team Pannier for nothing. Carrying our own gear may slow us down slightly but it also gives you a great sense of freedom and independence. This is never more the case than on the second day, travelling from one hotel to another with only the supplies you brought with you. It does also make you vulnerable, you have to make sure you take everything you’ll need but at the same time you have to keep the weight to an absolute minimum. Famously on our first ride Spanners brought such a large array of items you might guess he’d got his nickname from that. He brought a massive box of tools and bike parts amongst other important things such as his electric toothbrush and a pile of not-so-light reading material. Well over the years we’ve managed to get the amount we take down to a bare minimum which does result in the strange sight of Spanners going out for his evening meal in shorts and flip flops - no matter what the weather is.

Getting up that morning and heading out to The Rooster café we were just looking for weight to put in our stomachs to fuel the day ahead. After five plates of full English or sandwich variants of the sodium filled breakfast tradition, we were ready for the off. We had an exciting day ahead of us as we were about to travel across the North Pennines and all the beauty and hill climbing that that involves.
Out of Penrith we headed out straight up a hill in the sunshine, what a lovely day and what a good decision to take the correct route this time. Of course last time we took a massive detour (you can read about it on the original C2C posts) setting off from Penrith at lunch time. This time we got to experience a new section of route and Andy wouldn’t hear our “one time at band camp” comments for a while. Or so we thought, in a laughable amount of time we were at the pub we’d reached around 5 last time. The amount of detour we did really came to life and was in full view as we crossed the village green and gained half a day.

That was good because on everyone’s mind was Hartside, a hill that held many memories for us from the previous trip, Neil having a melt down, me and him pushing up the last sections (never too proud to push) and the café being closed at the top. From what I could remember at the start you couldn’t see the top or even the climb ahead and so you were always guessing where it started. This time we had a clearer idea and we knew what to expect.

As we felt we were near the start of the climb we had a quick pit stop to de-robe, take on supplies and have a final psyche up before hitting the pedals. As we crossed the road on to what we thought was the start of the climb we were hit with something we hadn’t planned for or expected – a head wind. It wasn’t a small one either, it made the lower levels a lot harder than expected and made any great effort futile. Dropping back to chat to Rich we rode side by side looking at it from a positive point of view “hopefully when we get closer to the hill we’ll be more protected” “as the climb zig zags at least we’ll get some tail wind”. With one last stop to gather together we then pushed on.
It soon became clear me and Rich were happy to battle the wind together and we chatted as we climbed up the winding road. Looking back down below us we could see clearly the bright jerseys and windcheaters of our cycling buddies. Yet despite our lower than normal tempo, every time we looked back the gap seemed to have grown. As the wind hadn’t died down I sat in behind Rich’s big frame and sheltered from the wind as we came on the main road section of the climb. The desired shelter from the hill had worked to some extent but we were still feeling a lot of wind resistance, then we turned a corner and we had the most wonderful feeling – a tail wind! Never had climbing up hill felt so easy, Hartside isn’t the steepest of climbs, it just drags on and on but now, for a short window it felt like a breeze to ascend.

Arriving at the (thankfully) open café we took on plenty of food, raiding as much supplies as possible without risking a shortage later. Being on the summit Rich and I were now fully open to the elements and quickly added as many layers as we could. Having eaten our snacks and got changed, the other three now arrived. Andy had some mechanical issues and had to stop a couple of times of the ascent to try to fix them. That explained the gap that had opened up and the wait at the top. Not questioning it any further we decided to head out of the wind and grab a hot cup of coffee. Eyeing up the tray bake we all snacked and drank, content knowing the big climb was done. Having bought our drinks through the outside hatch Rich and I headed inside for some quick warmth. Finding the last two seats in the café – it’s popular with both bicycle and motorbike riders – we shared a table with an oldish couple.

Having finished I left Rich at the table and stretching my legs, I stood enjoying the view from the window. Turning around I could see a tall attractive blonde woman asking Rich if my seat was free, looking her up and down Rich seemed quite keen for me to confirm I was indeed done. However he soon finished up as her biker male friend came over to join her.

We now had two nice steps to look forward to. Taking our team photo at the summit sign and then a long, long descent in to Garrigill. We remember the long down hill drag fondly from before as after what felt like hours of climbing we were finally ticking off the miles. However setting off this time we knew it was going to be different, Andy set off quickly and keeping up with him was a task. The headwind was making the descent a pedalling affair and not much fun. Soon however I was catching Andy up as was no longer pedalling and just taking the freewheel ride down. Passing him he shouted through the wind about struggling with traction. Spinning his legs I could see what he was on about, his legs were on but his cogs weren’t home. We all pulled over as the route took us off the main road and paused to look at the problem.

Neil, Jon and I thought about the problem and came up with two solutions:

Andy could walk for an hour or so to the nearest pub and my Dad could pick him up. He was at the football so it would be quite a few hours from now. Andy could at least watch the last day of the football league unfold.

- Andy could walk for an hour or so to the nearest pub and then order a taxi to take him to the nearest bike shop.

By the time our great minds had come up with this Spanners had taken the wheel off and had a screwdriver at the innards of Andy’s bike. Poking about at the rear cassette (the rear cog thing so I gather) we could only watch on in wonder and awe. We had no idea what he was doing and he would probably modestly say that neither did he but clearly he did. All of a sudden he had the wheel responding to the cassette again and we were very excited that he’d fixed it. However not happy with how it was then responding he took it apart again. This turned out not to be his smartest move as he then chased ball bearings across the tarmac that dropped out. Painstakingly putting them back in he put the cassette on again, only this time it didn’t work. Not knowing which way it tightened he tried one way with the screwdriver and then the other.

Next we needed oil. Who had oil? Anyone? We had enough sugar to sink a ship but nothing oil based. Or did we? Neil suggested sun cream. So Spanners is there putting one ball bearing after another back in to Andy’s bike, coated in sun cream as teams of riders road up past us. As it got on to an hour later we were finally cheering and hugging Rich as he got Andy’s bike going again. It might not have had his lower gears which may make going up steep hills but we could get going again. The only problem was that a brief look on our phones found that the nearest bike shop on route was just the other side of Garrigill, UP over the other side.

The hill out of Garigill was a hill I’d not forgotten and had in fact being psyching myself up for. I knew it was after Hartside and was the climb that had stopped us getting to the pub before it stopped serving food last time. There wasn’t a danger of us going without food at this point, it was still only early afternoon unless Andy’s bike gave in of course. Last time we’d come off the long, sweeping descent from Hartside and hit the wall that is the bottom of the climb and a wall mentally as we had to walk pretty much all of it.

As we came down towards the climb we all let Andy push on just in case anything went wrong. Andy and Jon hit it first with Neil and Rich just ahead of me. As I turned the corner in to the steep climb I could see Andy stopped ahead taking off layers. Spinning my legs quickly I closed the few yards to Neil and Rich and pushed on towards Andy at the side of the road. At first I thought we’d all be stopping with Andy but looking back everyone else seemed to be pushing on so I did the same. I opened up a gap on Rich and thought that would be it, I’d be away. However as the road continued to climb I turned and could see Rich slowly closing the gap. I pushed on, now the early exertion and steep ramp at the start we starting to tell. Again Rich closed and before we crossed the road (B6277) he was beside me. We crossed together and we were both at our limit, neither wanting to cede ground.

The previous year Rich had left me for dead on Holme Moss, asking me to come round him on a steep climb I had burnt myself out early on and never recovered. There weren’t those doubts in my mind this time, I was going to keep with him until the top. Dropping in behind him I let him lead and sat on his wheel, occasionally coming level with him as the gradient eased. Riding side by side I could see another sharp rise in the road ahead, I had to be ready to spin my legs through the climb to keep with him. As we hit the base of the incline I increased my cadence and pulled away from him, across another shallow rise to a steep section again. Once more I span my legs and I was away, the elastic had snapped and I could see the summit. Giving everything I had I finished flat out, cresting the hill breathless but happy in the sunshine.( You can view the climb and its gradients on a wonderful web site set up by a gentleman named Ben Lowe from Sheffield.)

Rich drawing up beside me only a short time later gave us time to hatch a plan, Rich would ride down to the bike shop in Nenthead and explain the issue with Andy’s bike and see if he could help. I’d wait for the others and then we’d meet him down there. It had never occurred to me that Andy’s bike could have failed again and luckily it hadn’t. I can’t imagine what that hill must have been like without the full range of gears but he certainly didn’t make as much of it as we had seven years ago. It was just a question now of whether he could make it down the steep descent to Nenthead, oh and whether a small bike shop in the middle of nowhere has the right parts for his bike.

Arriving at the bottom we were greeted by Spanners telling us the man in the bike shop could fix it. So we had no choice but to sit in the pub and have a bite to eat and a drink. This was a really pleasant experience, we could sit in the sun, eat a baguette and Andy could even enjoy a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord while wearing his cycling jersey of the same brand.

The man at the bike shop was an absolute star, a real bike lover and an old school teacher. You could tell he just loved working with bikes, talking about bikes and being around other people who liked bikes. We chatted outside and inside his shop as he worked. Parts, boxes, magazines and postcards scattered around his small shop / workshop it was a fascinating place. He’d been cycling in Peru and his favourite place was New Zealand from what I remember.

He explained what was wrong with Andy’s bike and also what was right. Turns out Shimano something or others are better than the other type you can get. As he found another fault with the bike he then overheard us talking about Viz and brought out his own copy for us to read. He charged a very reasonable rate for parts and labour to say we were in the middle of nowhere and he could have  charged whatever he wanted. We were happy we were back on the road, Andy had new parts on his ten year old bike and the bike shop man moved on to the guy next to us to discuss his bike.

As the C2C is a popular route we often pass and are passed by the same people. Often riding in groups there are charity rides and friends like us out on a ride. We’d been passed by a group of guys all riding Genesis bikes at Hartside, they were all working their way through pint after pint at the pub. Another group of Scottish riders were riding in charity t-shirts and one guy warned us the hill we were now about to climb out of Nenthead was the worst of the lot. After getting him to repeat this a few times and deciphering his thick Scottish accent I worked out that it’s 1.5 miles of climbing. Surely not, how can that be?! Of course we’d finished here on day two last time and that first climb was straight after breakfast when we were at our strongest. I wasn’t prepared for this, I’d given my all on the climb out of Garrigill and now I had to do it again.

It was now 3pm and the mechanical issues had sapped quite a bit of time out of our day. We’d cycled 30 miles and still had another 30 to go. Admittedly apart from this climb we were pretty sure it was an easier second half left and we should make good time. Jon was always a good voice in these situations, often optimistic with timings and usually not that far out. The previous night he’d been out by an hour and a half but his optimism probably stopped it being two hours.

We now had full fat coke and white carbs inside us, it was time to press on. Jukebox led the way and he was off, Rich following him. Andy and I riding side by side as team Genesis passed us on their bikes, no panniers of course but pints to carry. They also didn’t have far to go for their evening meal, stopping in Allenheads just up the road that night.

Whether it was the energy from the pub or wanting to get to our accommodation in good time I don’t know but Neil pushed on, even on the descent he was ticking the miles off. We soon passed the place where we stopped for lunch last time, astounded that we’d stopped so soon after breakfast we’d obviously either found the climb harder last time or they’d let me listen to my stomach. As Neil set the tempo in the valley (any excuse from me to make it sound like we’re in the Tour de France) we reached a café where we stopped last time (did we do any riding?) and Neil was waiting for us.
That led us on to another climb, do they ever stop coming? This was actually my favourite climb of the weekend, I’d just finished yet another fun size Mars Bar and was in the mood for it. The road out of Allenheads (I struggle typing that, I hate where an extra ‘S’ is added where it shouldn’t be, it’s Tesco not Tescos, ASDA not ASDAs and yet it is Allenheads we’d agreed before we got there). Anyway, the road out of Allenheads is a beautiful climb, snaking through trees before bringing you out on to the tops above the trees. Amazingly it has its own ski / snowboarding centre so it must be pretty high. On the ride itself I had Jukebox and Spanners chasing me and I really pulled away from them opening up a sizeable gap, more proof that I’d trained well for the ride and was doing well. Or so I thought. Having seen video footage since the ride I now know that Rich was videoing as he rode and Neil looked like he was out for a casual jaunt, sat up vertical on his seat with one arm down by his side. Still it felt good.

Sheltering from the wind on the top, we worked out we just had one climb to do. An off road section that took us up to an old railway type station on the moors. As we dropped down in to Rookhope we knew that this was it. Signposted off the road we took a quick comfort break and set off uphill yet again. Only it wasn’t that easy, the surface was not suited to our thin tyres. We may have been riding hybrids and mountain bikes but everyone was on thinner tyres for the roads. Slipping everywhere we went from side to side trying to find a better line. Spanners led the way and I tried to follow. Faltering on the surface Jukebox passed me and Jon and Andy closed in. With no other choice and unable to continue Andy, Jon and I pushed our bikes. As the other two pedalled they kept the same pace as us on foot, the conditions not allowing them to pull away. 13% gradients and rocks don’t make easy riding.

As the gradient eased so did the surface and they started to pull away. Jumping back on (it was easier to ride than push) I set off after them. As with other climbs, the top never reveals itself until you get closer. Riding up Neil and I were struggling, I was trying to keep going as long as he did. Agreeing we only had to get to the pile of rocks we could see at the top. Thighs were now burning as we fought our bikes and the hill. Still a rocky surface it was the hardest I'd had to push and with the summit so close to our grasp we couldn't stop. With a consistent 12% gradient on an uneven surface there was no surprise we were on empty when we got to the top of the climb. Collapsing with an Aldi or Lidl version of a Snickers bar (swaps are great in these situations) I knew we were pretty much done for the day.

Heading down from that high point, we were on a rough, raised stone dirt path / road. Bone jangling and concentration sapping it was hard going. Jon, Rich and Andy made good headway and Neil and I steadily followed, struggling to maintain a fast pace that the descent should have served up. After a short while we crossed a road and we were now on a surface more akin to a goats trail than a cycle path. With our pedals catching every so many yards it was all we could do to stay on and keep progressing. Constantly choosing the best track and regretting it twenty yards further on. It started to get wetter and soon coming around a corner we were faced with a big puddle to get through (I'd make it sound more manly but it was just a puddle really). Going through half of us managed to end up with a wet foot or two. It didn't seem to matter. We knew it was downhill all the way to Consett now and soon we were on proper cycle paths. Riding all together the conversation turned to food and Chef and I discussed the prospect of a Chinese that night.

Not much later we were getting text messages saying my Dad was at the accommodation, it couldn't be far now. Getting this close to stopping always made the last miles hard, every turn you're longing for it to end, it wasn't challenging any more, just a drag to the end. We reached the point at which we needed to turn off the official route and what a treat we were in for. All down hill in to Allensford, a great long ride downhill hitting some great speeds, down, down, down. Wait a minute, what's this? Uphill? Steep uphill? Right in to the accommodation? That's not on! Still within minutes we were at the front door of our luxury accommodation, all booked at a bargain price - thank you AirBnB.

With the "love bus" and our chauffeur now with us we had the choice of any Chinese restaurant. We chose the one with the best reviews and headed out. However seeing the prices inside we ate our complimetary prawn crackers and got up to leave. You can take the boys out of Yorkshire... The hostess quickly called us back with a 30% discount for takeaways and we were happy! Two pints later and plenty of the best prawn crackers (ever) we had our takeaway. Wanting to grab some takeaway beers on the way back we stopped at a Tesco Express and ended up with discounted hot cross buns and cookies we didn't need - you can take the boys...

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

C2C Day One Again - Some Things Never Change

So you've met the Team Pannier Six before but now one of them has got a bit older, thinner on top, considerably taller and wears a 'tache. Or more accurately, John AKA Dancing Bear put career ahead of enjoyment and we were a man down. Quicker than you can say "grave", "jump" and "in", we offered up his prepaid accommodation to our chauffeur for the weekend, my Dad, Ced.

Off we set at a ridiculously early time. Well 8am. That would have been considerably early back in 2009 when we last did this ride, only this time we were doing it a little differently. Older and a little wiser we were hoping to not get lost and do it in two and a half days this time. This was compared to three and a half days last time and they were well packed days with twelve hours in the saddle on two of them!

So our early departure this time was not on the bike but was in the love bus, our mini bus hired with trepidation, hoping we could fit 7 people and 6 bikes in. As you now know, Dancing Bear's absence gave us extra room and the panic was over. Vanilla and Jukebox stripped out the seats and the bus and Team Pannier were a perfect match.

Trekking up north, we had no idea how we would fair this time. What we did know is that some things don't change and I was thinking about my stomach and planning food stops on the way up. What kind of pit stop strategy would we be engaging, a one, two or three stops?

I'd like to say, "soon we were in Whitehaven" but we weren't. We had many miles to cover and travelling the route in the opposite direction we'd be cycling didn't help either. Arriving at Penrith having still not cycled a mile and knowing we had to be back there that night was not ideal. Neil and Ced had been sharing the driving and as Ced did the last leg he gave us the option of getting out early at Penrith and saving ourselves some pain. We joyfully turned him down and headed to the start of the C2C.

Unloaded and no doubt breaking some traffic laws by parking in a pedestrian area, we were ready for the photoshoot. That was after we'd hunted for a toilet (they'd got rid of the public ones since we last were there) and spent a long time getting ready for departure. With our back wheels in the sea, 3-2-1 we were back on the trail to Sunderland. That's right, this time we were going to the original end of the C2C, no visit to Newcastle and Tynemouth this time. Yet some things never change, within minutes of leaving we were stopping for one thing and then another - including toilet breaks, having still not found a public toilet.

There's always something 'technical' that's not quite right at the start, a seat too high, a squeaky wheel, a faulty phalange etc. Well Andy (AKA Vanilla Stripe) had issues with his new pannier bags and pannier rack. He had been singing the praises of Aldi's gear on the way up but soon we were riding back towards Whitehaven looking for a missing bracket at two miles an hour. After not finding the needle in the haystack, Spanners came to the rescue with what is the cycling's equivalent of Blue Peter's sticking back plastic - a cable tie.

Looking at the start of the route it was a steady uphill for the first ten miles and yet with our enthusiasm and our services Greggs inside us we didn't even notice. By the time we hit High Lorton however we were ready for some refreshment and a village store sign pointed the way. Walking in to the most perfect village store in a wood log cabin style building we saw the idealistic rural village setup. Money on the counter left from the previous customer as clearly the shop owner was on the phone. We took some of the home-made cooked goods on the counter and did a runner! Not really, we left our money, motioned to the owner what we were doing and stepped outside. As we filled our boots on the most wonderful chocolate brownie / rocky road / tiffin we could even fill our bottles up at the signposted tap around the back. Not content on just one piece, Spanners nipped back in for a further two bricks of sugary explosion. It turns out the whole village were addicted to the stuff and it was made by the 'chef' at the school - clearly the shop keeper was off the phone when he went back in.

We knew from there it was on to Whinlatter Pass, the first climb of the ride so far and just one of the two that we'd heard about before we did the original ride back in '09. From somewhere we'd heard that it compared to Hartside as the hardest on the whole route, yet we'd found it fairly easy last time despite having had a drink at the time (I'd only had a pint, some of the others were riding on two pints and a whiskey chaser).

One thing that the two climbs did have in common was that they snook up on you, you started climbing before you knew you had reached the bottom. Little 'undulations' that added up and before you knew it you were out of breath and fearing the main event. Yet that's the thing, that's what makes these climbs hard. Steady and sapping. Looking at Strava I make it out to be 3 miles of climbing.

On the officially diverted route due to unstuiatable surface it started off sharp and steep, followed by some false flat and an endless, breathless, wait for the climb to start. As we finally headed off the main road on to the off road track we felt like we were properly hitting the climb. A rough track made up of stone that had clearly seen lots of HGVs rolling over it, it was fine for their big wheels, a bit trickier for ours. Spanners attacked the climb, spinning those big old legs of his, I (Little Horn) chased with Jukebox not far behind. Slowly I closed the gap and eventually edged ahead just before the steep climb flattened out. As we dropped the tricky surface certainly wasn't straight forward and Spanners bombed pass - clearly his bigger balls giving him more speed on the descent. That and his better bike handling.

As it lifted again I thought "I've brought him back once, I can do it again". How wrong I could be, I managed to start bringing him back but Spanners better bike handling again gave him an advantage as we hit shoe deep mud. How do I know it was shoe deep? Because I was pushing through it as Jukebox pulled up behind me. We all gathered at the end of that section with only Spanners having got through it without pushing. Andy had taken a hit, we're not really sure how big as he had what appeared like tractor marks on his back. He never did really explain what happened to him when he came off.

Andy's Tyre Marks Shown Clearly On His Back

It was very much a case of checking our brakes after that before a descent in front of us. We hadn't been through a car wash but we definitely needed to check those pads and discs before leaving the green light. This was even more evident as we went past the point where Spanners went over his handle bars last time. We may have been laughing about it but we all concentrated on the decent - an off road section which was more suitable to mountain bikes tyres than the slicks we were riding on.

It was now after 4pm and we still had half of the day's miles ahead of us. However, apart from an unknown detour towards the end we were pretty confident the hardest climbing was done. However we hadn't eaten anything substantial since the services on the way up and entering Keswick we knew just where to call.

Ever since we'd started the ride we'd been saying "last time we did this", "last time we did that", it had started to become "this one time at bandcamp" and poor Andy was probably tired of it. He'd been polite, listened to our stories and nodding despite having heard them before. However I think he liked our knowledge as we led him to a pub with a decent  pub garden, real ale on tap and FOOD! We had a small bar snack ("Mega Lasagne"/chicken burger/chips) and a drink. This time we knew this pub wasn't our last stop and we certainly weren't round the corner from our bed for the night. We'd save ourselves for our curry later.

Coming out of Keswick there was a little kick up to a stone circle, something I'd got used to seeing in the south-west but didn't realise how many there were in the north. Always glad to have an excuse to stop at the top of a kicker we had a mini photoshoot by the stones before pushing on.

And push on we did, the next fifteen miles were pretty tough. As we got closer to Penrith we needed to deviate for a couple of reasons. Firstly there was a bridge out of action and a diversion would be in place any way. Secondly our accommodation was based the other end of town from the cycle route so in theory it made more sense to take a direct route to the hotel.

After a period of off road paths and fields (often shared with ewes protecting their lambs) we started to zig zag around roads to keep off the main road. They were sapping to the legs but they were doing a lot more damage to our minds as time after time we turned away from the direct route and hit another hill. Jukebox kept us going with a rendition of Lump by The Presidents of the United States, think it was something to do with a "boggy marsh". Chef and I chatted at the back as we hit another gradual climb, a conversation of what would we have at the curry house later keeping us entertained for another mile or two. I was now very jealous of his mega lasagne and wish I'd gone for more than just the chips in Keswick.

Neil (Jukebox) had warned me that we needed to travel down to Pooley Bridge first before we could head on to Penrith. This, I gathered was a bad thing and something Neil was not keen to do. Not that there was an alternative but a mental block I think. It was now getting harder by the minute as our energy reserves were running down and time was ticking on.

Back home it was the kid's bed time and I was keen to call home before it was too late. Spotting my opportunity I pushed ahead on a climb to buy myself time. Panting and sweating at the top of what turned out to be the last, tough hill I grabbed my phone quickly. *no service*. Thankfully my phone came to its senses as I dialled. It didn't matter though, all I got was an answer phone. So leaving what can only have sounded like a heavy breathing pest message I jumped alongside everyone else to try to bash out the last however many miles.

The problem with going off route means you can no longer rely on Sustrans to have planned the route to not be too undulating. It also means you don't know exactly how many miles are still to go and have to keep stopping to check Strava to make sure we're on route. This, the lateness in the day, and breathing difficulties had worn Neil down completely. Whether he was just trying to give Vanilla his own bandcamp moment but Neil flashed-back to our first ride and proclaimed he couldn't make the last 7 miles.

As always we're a team, Team Pannier leaves no man behind and we all struggle at some point. The back seat is taken up by all of us at some point and no one bitches about waiting as we know around the next corner it might be us. So again we pulled together, Andy with his medical training gave Neil some steroids (AKA he let him use his inhaler). And that seemed to do it, Neil was soon off the front guiding us to the meca that was Travelodge.

This was not the time then to get my call returned from home, riding up a slight rise in the road I answered on speaker phone. I probably sounded the same as my answer-phone message and we decided to end the call. How my wife believes that I'm away at a cycling weekend and not some deep breathing weirdo thing I'll never know.

As we questioned Rich and Strava's ability to get us to our bed for the night he came back with some sort of phrase that suggested we could spit on it, or something, from where we were. Sure enough by the time we'd got around the corner Jukebox was stood outside Travelodge. At half past eight we'd finally made it to Penrith, the same place we'd passed through all those hours previously.

The inside of a Travelodge never feels like a new experience and when we've got inside the room the only difference is where we plug in our devices. A quickish turnaround saw us in a taxi driven by a very well dressed and polite local. Agreeing with our choice of Indian restaurant he dropped us at the door. An hour and a half later and he was picking five full and tired men up and taking them back from they came. Pointing out where to go for breakfast he earned his tip and we'd earned our sleep.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Peak District Challenge: Day Three - Huddersfield to Sheffield

It was weird waking up so close to Huddersfield Town's ground but it certainly wasn't football we had on our mind. There was only one place we were going to head in the morning and that was straight to the all you can eat buffet at the Purple Palace just up the road. No matter how much you try to eat on the morning of a cycle ride you never seem to be able to put enough in to give you a new edge and that extra shot of energy you're lacking. Still with all the sugar, caffeine, protein and saturated fat we'd certainly had a good crack at it.

By now everyone was weary and we'd certainly seen enough hills in the past two days to no be looking forward to seeing what lay ahead of us. I'd already earmarked this as potentially the toughest with a terrain that went up and down so much it looked like Rich had mapped an earthquake and not an enjoyable Sunday jaunt. Still, we'd all bought in to it and we were certainly going to give it a good shot. Well that was the positive spin we put on it but it didn't last long as we hit a hill within minutes. We'd stopped discussing the beasts as we reached each summit, we just regrouped and pushed on.  Nothing like two category four climbs to get you started going in the morning!

It all felt very familiar as we rode through areas I'd often travelled in a parent's car as a kid. The local stone making you feel that Huddersfield was just going on and on and we weren't yet out of its grasp. Little, short, sharp rises like the one out of the greatly named Thunderbridge were just another step closer to home and were rewarded with another downhill before, yes you've guessed it, another uphill to High Hoyland (I guess we saw that one coming).

We were in an area well know by Spanners and Chef and apart from an abrupt about-turn in Almondbury we were managing well. We headed through Cannon Hall Country Park and took a refreshment break and shielded ourselves from the wind as Andy used the local facilities. Taking direction from the nice lady in the gift shop he headed off and we made polite small talk with the lady. We were filled in on the history of the place, her working patterns and much besides. Still no sign of Andy. We discussed the weather, the events that are held there over the year and how the farm is still a separate entity. Still no Andy. We learned it used to be owned by a family but has been owned by the council since the fifties and now is run as a tourist attraction. Still no Andy. We discussed the merits of where we should deposit our litter (in the outside bin as it's banana). Then, as everyone has become uncomfortable with the small talk and everyone's thinking he's taking his time he appears. I half expected him to turn to the lady and say "I'd give it a minute" but thankfully he didn't and we hot footed it out in to the wind and head off through the grounds.

Onwards we rode, through Thurgoland, skirting Stocksbridge and on the hunt for lunch. It was Sunday lunchtime and we were all ready for a feed. More out of necessity than anything we've had a carvery or two on these trips and as a pub was looking the most likely outlet. Settling on the first suitable establishment in Wharncliffe Side. The Blue Ball was a welcoming place, we didn't feel at all out of place in our Sunday best Lycra. We sat in a corner next to a couple of old guys who sat in wonder at how tall we all were, well most of us. "Look at the size of 'im, if he laid down he'd reach Barnsley" they quite rightfully pointed out about Rich. They'd never guess he'd got that big by sharing his carvery with Neil.

Heading out from the pub with a pint of gravy inside of us we headed towards High Bradford. A road that just kept on going up. As it did we all started stripping off as the soon came out and the effort heated us from the inside. Stretched out in a line we seemed to manage comfortably up the 1.5 mile, category 3 climb that topped out at 11% gradient. We'd come along way since the first day and a quick fuel stop was all we had to recover from the effort before we headed off again. We didn't take much convincing to head off downhill to Low Bradfield, we'd earned it. We'd pretty much crawled up the last hill, we were certainly starting to lag. After all we were in the same patch used by the Tour de France as it passed through Yorkshire. We passed through the lovely Low Bradfield barely taking it in, we were now starting to run on fumes as our past exertions had eaten up all our reserves.

We hit Mill Lee Road, unbeknown to us, a category four climb according to Strava. Having felt one of the strongest so far I was now struggling and chatted to John J as a means of distraction. We played guess his neices middle names (Beatrice and Elsa since you ask, I can even remember the Frozen clue) and he'd guess mine. It certainly distracted me from the pain and got me up that hill.

As we came down the other side we had to consult the map and then ploughed on. Realising we'd missed our turn we double backed to the private road we'd discounted earlier. It was more a dirt path than anything else but we pushed on, across the cattle grid, past the (very small) no cyclists sign. We knew there was a chance there was no way through but that was the preplanned route.

As Neil and Rich pushed on we saw them start to climb the hill to the farm. We could see ahead of them a pick-up at the farm, it jerked in to life, wheel spinning, dust flying as it swung around the yard and headed out down the road at high speed towards us. Like a scene out of a film it headed towards Spanners and Jukebox, clearly to make an impression and send a message. It pulled up beside them, we didn't need to hear them as Rich explained our route through the window. Soon they turned, dejected to give us the bad news. We were going to have to turn around.

It turned out if he let us through he'd have to let everyone through. Of course he would. Silly us. Looking back and with the benefit of Google Earth it still seems harsh that he wouldn't let us through. It is what it is. It was more that it was hard mentally. With heavy hearts we retraced our path and put it down to another two miles gained on our speedos. It was getting hard work. We were tired and supplies were running low. I was down to my last fun-sized Mars bar and it was getting so desperate I ate my Nature Valley that had been in my bag since our last ride!

We were now seeing signs for Sheffield, the only problem was that the numbers weren't going down and we weren't following them. We knew we'd be skirting around the edge of the city and heading right past Jon Child's house, dropping him off there. The lucky man. Andy was now aware of the area and said we had one hill left to go. I'm sure he described it as not too bad, we'd come down one side and then go up the other. We zigzagged from one road, on to another and then got ready to turn off left. As we looked to our side our gaze followed the fall of the land, upwards. Right next to us and about 8 foot above us was a tractor going up the hill. This was going to be steep.

I'd never heard of Lodge Lane before but man that was some hill, I was nearly delirious by the time I reached the top. They tend to put hairpins in to the steepest of hills and this was no exception. How we all made it to the top in one piece I'll never know as we wobbled all over the road as we battled with the gradient that maxed out at 19% at one point.

With lost time from the detour and weather that was turning for the worse we thought we'd done enough climbing for the day and decided to take the most direct route home from there. Of course this being Sheffield that still involved hills but thankfully most of it was downhill and apart from a kick back up Bocking Lane our hills were done. We just had enough time for Spanners to lose his pannier on the road but with a good bungie cord we limped home to Jukebox's abode.

The last word had to be saved for Andy though. With legs tired on the last day, nearly home we hit yet another climb, nothing new, nothing we hadn't gone through a million times. However we decided to hit it, attack it. Rich getting out of the saddle, me out of the saddle and then from nowhere appeared Andy like a juggernaut. Absolutely flying he came straight past us like we were stationery. Whether he was stuck in a gear, ran out of steam or his chain jammed I don't know but the next second he announced "I'm going". Next second he keeled over and was on the floor. We cycled up to him and cars pulled over worried. I just turned to them and waved them on, "Don't worry" I said, "he does this all the time, he's fine" and he was.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Peak District Challenge: Day Two - Ashbourne to Huddersfield

This was always going to be the big day of the three. Day one was hilly for sure and day three, going up and down hills on tired legs was never going to be easy. But day two on National Cycle Route 68 from Ashbourne to Huddersfield was going to be a "doozy" as Ned Ryerson would say...

The second day in any of our three day escapades has always been my favourite. There's something about waking up in a hotel and knowing you need to get to the next one. Neither the start or the end, it really feels like you're doing everything under your own steam - especially with a pannier on your bike (Jon and John, the rucksack boys, you may hang your heads in shame).

So to the big day ahead, a hell of a lot of feet heading up hill, 5,688 feet in fact and a massive proportion of that going up Holme Moss. I knew of its notoriety, it was one of the big climbs when the Tour de France hit Yorkshire last year after all. Plus Spanners had ridden up it from both sides before and he'd put the willies up us (not literally, chance of bumming still low) about how hard it was going to be "no matter how hard you think it will be, it will be way harder" he said during the morning of the second day.

Not only were we going to climb Holme Moss but it was also going to hit us at the fifty mile mark that day. As the whole day was going to take us from the bottom of the Peak District to the top of the national park then we certainly weren't going to have an easy time getting to those fifty miles and to the base of that big ol' hill they call Holme Moss.

Looking back to the week before we set off on our big ride we were all excited and I poured over Strava looking at the routes and in particular the big climb. In fact a few of us were looking at it and wondering how we'd fair. Jukebox, John-J, Spanner and myself in fact had a wager. Not who would be the first to the top, that would be silly - with the amount of training and form on the last ride, Spanners was a shoe-in surely. What we did place our money on was the time we'd make it up there in. Whoever got closest to their own time won the handsome pot of £4, FOUR POUNDS. Of course we could cheat and slow our ride down to meet our time, for four quid who wouldn't? However with our pride we would certainly go for our best time, after all Strava would be there to remind us forever more how we'd done. That in fact was how we would decide how we'd done, whatever Strava said would stand - even with Neil's super quick GPS that seems to give him a second or two advantage.

The bets started coming in, Jukebox stated his claim at 24 minutes, Rich hoping to beat his PB came in at 22:29 and I maybe thought about it too much. I looked at who had ridden it before on Strava and picked someone with similar stats to me and tried to beat them. So Chris Wheeler, I came after your record. At 32:19 I backed my riding ability with my hard earned £1. Unusually, fortuitously, surprisingly John-J's bet came in one second under me, with his bet landing at 32:18. What a coincidence.

We were rudely awoken that morning or at least John-J, Jukebox and myself were as there was a bang at the door. Turns out the other members of Team Pannier were raring to go and needed the key to unlock the bikes. They'd been awake an hour by the time our alarm sounded the tune of Rocky and they were keen for the off. By the time I'd carried out the final sweep of the hotel room (everyone does that, right?), where we'd had our bikes stowed in the stairwell looked like a bike workshop.

Dodging guests trying to exit the building our workshop was in full flow. John-J had a flat tyre, Jukebox's bike needed some TLC and we all gave our bikes the once over. Spanners changed John-J's tyre with big thanks to Andy for actually bringing an inner tube. Air in here, tighten some sort of bracket there, we were ready for the off. What the day was to hold, we had no idea.

What we did know is that we needed a good feed before we set off and Ashbourne was going to be the venue for our calorie race as we aimed to get as much food down our food pipes before we set off. There was an added dimension to the day, we had a deadline to meet at the end of the day. Forget all the hills we had to climb, all the miles we had to churn our pedals through, all those towns we had to tick off, there was something more important at stake. John-J, in his own wisdom had forsaken his ticket, his excitement, his chance to witness his team at Wembley just to come on this ride. Arsenal (they're a southern team who play in London village) were playing Reading in the FA Cup semi final. The problem, or incentive depending on how you looked at it, is that the game kicked off at 17:30. So we wanted to hit the road in good time and get going. But there was no hope of getting any of us, including John-J, moving before we'd had a feed. Having searched a place to eat we were in town ready for the cafe of our choice to open bang on time at eight thirty. Only for them to come out and say they're not opening until nine. Quicker than you can say "hash brown" we were up the road eating breakfast at another great establishment.

Bramhalls Deli and Cafe was awesome, as we devoured full English breakfasts or porridge followed by egg sandwiches if you were me and John-J. Caffeine infused, we were off and straight on to the Tissington Trail, a seen of many a triumph of mine as a young cyclist. When I say triumph I mean,
 the only proper cycling I did as a kid. We all took a while to get going that morning and as we tried to get the Team Pannier train going we all struggled to keep pace as we progressed on the false flat and the terrain steadily rose.  One thing we were able to maintain was our love of the countryside and the scenery before us. What a beautiful area to be riding in and with the weather to match we couldn't complain.

A quick stop in Parsley Hay and we were off again and as the trail finally turned in to road we felt like we were making progress. Apart from Andy, our medic on the trip aiding me in taping up by nips from runners rash we were all in good physical condition and handling the Peak District Challenge pretty well. Jon was feeling his knee a bit but certainly wasn't showing it and as we decided to stop for a bit of pain relief in Buxton everything was on track. Jon dashed in to Sainsbury's to grab a legally acceptable drug while the rest of us started to congregate outside. Andy however felt he needed to announce his arrival by shouting "I'm going" as he keeled over right in the car park. Not many people can forecast when they're going to go down on a bike but Andy, it appears, has that knack as he slowly toppled over to our right. Thankfully it was just a case of Andy not managing to get his cleat free of his pedal and he met with a (fairly) soft landing as he hit the tarmac. Of course in modern day life the first thing you do is not help him up but reach for your smart phone and capture the moment.

As he stood up we thought we were instantly in for an easy remedy for him as a guy in a flashy car left his pride and joy sat on double yellows just as a traffic warden appeared. Turns out in the Peak District even the traffic wardens are friendly as he appeared to give the guy leeway.  A lady was also permitted "five minutes" to nip in to the shops. So as Jon returned with some Ibuprofen cream we headed off without a smug parking ticket in sight.

Buxton, the home of friendly traffic wardens and Andy's interesting dismount was also the site of the literal road names as we headed out on Long Hill. Having done my research on Strava (I've not been paid for endorsement so feel free to pay me for the extra exposure of your great app) I knew there was a big climb out of this beautiful spa town yet I had expected us to have lunch by now so when we headed out on the steady rise it still left me short of breath. Spanners as usual led the way and myself and John-J led the chase not far behind, not far off the pace set by the tall man out front. Nearly matching him pedal for pedal, maybe there was a chance we could keep up with him on Holme Moss later?

We'd half considered having lunch in Buxton, we were really ready for it now and as we headed down from the miles we'd climbed we were ready to refuel. The bumpy and rocky decent certainly tested our waning reserves, I struggled to keep pace on my narrow tyres as riders such as Chef took advantage of their broader tyres. I would cycle up next to Chef on an incline and he would call me "Billy Big Wheels" and I would retort with "Jonny Fat Tyres" - it was certainly him getting enjoyment out of the term as a skidded across the track decending in to Whaley Bridge. There we were on the look out for any pub serving food. The locals were obliging in pointing out the local establishments, even if they were still discussing which pub was closer long after we'd left them.

So as we arrived at The Cock (chance of bumming hopefully not in the name), we were already aware it was the more expensive option in the town but we were hoping you got what you paid for. It certainly was the case as they served up another feast to match the previous day's lunch and the fine breakfast that morning. This time conversation was of what we'd achieved already and what was to come - rather than Neil regaling us of how hard it is for him to find proper fitting trousers and how he'd wear a skirt if it was sociably acceptable as he had the day before. As I had done previously, I took advantage of the stop to put my phone behind the bar to make sure I could record the rest of the days miles.

So it was now hanging over our heads, even if we could could not quite see it yet. Holme Moss was definitely playing on our minds and comments of "this extra chip will power me up there" were being made. However, it wasn't to be the next climb and as we hit New Mills we really were hit with a hard climb, one that I don't think any of us were expecting. At times the climb was 11% and the team certainly took the chance to prove out motto rang true as some of us pushed as it sapped the legs. In fact we'd all faired differently so far over the two days. Jukebox as on previous rides had been slow to get going on day one, John-J by his own admission starts each day strongly but petered out as the day got longer and I tend to struggle first thing in a morning as my legs take a while to get going. We'd all been trying to tackle our own shortcomings with various success, John-J trying to eat better and I'd turned to drugs in the form of caffeine to get me going early on. However sometimes no matter how you prepare on the day you cannot overcome a climb like that. If that wasn't the big climb of the day, what was Holme Moss like?

With that climb done and the miles showing on our bike computers we knew it wasn't long now until the big last ascent in to the clouds. We looked to Rich to tell us when Holme Moss was just around the corner so we could take on snacks and prepare ourselves physically and mentally. It may sound OTT but we're just very basic, amateur cyclists and this was our Alpe d'Huez, we were going to give it all we had left. I think we were equally excited and nervous, relishing the chance to test ourselves on a big climb.

With what we felt was half an hour to go we stopped by a river and refuelled with liquids and any sort of energy food we could put in our faces. Jackets were stripped off, sugar inhaled and the camp was quiet, not downbeat, just concentrated on the 2.9 mile climb ahead of us. My Dad had sent me a text earlier in the day to tell me how he'd climbed Holme Moss in the rain when he was fifteen on a bike with only three gears, an achievement he was very proud of. This seemed to only back up my thought that this was quite a challenge ahead of us.

The route we'd taken had meant we were on a trail leading to the foot of the climb and myself and John-J found ourselves at the back of the team. Waiting for us once, we just couldn't hold pace with the rest, whether it was the head wind or the change of terrain we yo-yo'd off the back. I still felt confident of myself coming to the ride and wondered if I could keep pace with the ever strong Spanners.

At the end of the trail we came together as a group and Jukebox, the eldest in the group as he's often reminding us, gave us a talking to. He told us how we were going on a major, risky road, where many people have been hurt on their bikes and how there are markers all the way down the road of previous collisions. Feeling like a student being told off in class when it was someone else's problem I half listened. Was he talking more to John-J who had been cavalier to say the least in his cycling proficiency, often riding wide in to the road and making some of us wince. These London boys hey, not used to our northern ways. Either way I wasn't going to get told off later as I looked out for those markers as we headed down the main road. I kept in as the cars rushed past.

The turn off at the start of the ascent came and we grouped together just around the corner. At that point I sat on Spanners wheel and hoped he'd pace me to the top. Starting off at a decent rate we hit the climb. I turned to see who else was on our wheel and there was Andy sat right on my shoulder with the rest of the team not far behind. Rich asked/offered for me to come through at the front and I came through briefly as I struggled to keep the pace going. The road kept on rising and so did my heart rate and breathing. It was warm but not overly and yet the exertion made it fell hot.

We started to progress through the climb and soon we were to move around to our right as we reached the end of the first section that was laid out before us in the distance. Rich, back in front again, turned to say the top is just around the corner. "Yeah, right" I said but my mind thought "really?" it had been hurting but surely we weren't near the top already? Maybe Rich had made it sound harder than it was, maybe I'd misjudged how much we'd already done. I wished, I hoped that Rich was right, soon I was about to find out...

He was lying! Around the corner I saw a massive climb in front of me, I saw what looked like to my inexperienced mind a climb resembling Mont Ventoux, one of the worst climbs on the Tour de France. Oh my. I kept Spanner's wheel for a bit but steadily he started to pull away from me, I tried to keep him just in front of me but he steadily pulled away from me as I battled my pedals. There's only so many times you can tell your legs to shut up, as you fight them to give you more power. Andy taught me one cycling phrase that I instantly knew what it meant and now it was very appropriate. The Dead Man's Click. When you go to find that lower gear and, click, you're already in that bottom gear. I had nowhere else to go but pound along in the gear I had.

Soon Rich was heading off in to the distance and I was equally looking back to see who was chasing me as to how far I was off Spanners. The road flattened a bit and I tried to kick, suddenly confident that I could pull him back a bit with the swagger a Jelly Baby can give you.  But to no avail. The gap seemed the same up to Rich as it was back to whoever was on my heels. A guy on a road bike passed me (no panniers I note) and the road swung around to the left. I could see a hairpin at the top of that rise, would that be it? Pressing on, I finally managed to kick on up to and around that hairpin, alternating getting out of my saddle to push those thighs - something I hadn't managed to master enough on that hill.

Around the corner I was there, a very slight rise up to the summit sign, out of the saddle I gave it everything I could to reach Spanners and his camera. Straight off my bike I felt the cold, I grabbed my jacket and food as we both turned to see who it was behind me. John-J had climbed consistently well so far and in fact Spanners had though the guy on the road bike was him at one point making him push even harder. Our eyes fixed on the top of that hairpin. Would Andy, hot on my heels early on be the next one to claim the 'Moss scalp? With no more than the gap between me and Spanners a head appeared over the rise. It was Jukebox. Going strong we willed him on to the finish. He was followed, with a similar gap, by John-J and then came Chef and Andy - crossing side by side across the summit finish. We'd done it, quite an achievement when added to the day before and the fifty miles previous that day - especially with that climb out of New Mills.

We regrouped, had photos and then my phone died! Had I lost my Strava tracking and therefore my bet? None of us had an idea at that point how we'd done on the hill and the bet was whatever Strava said. Phone or no phone I'd made it up that hill without stopping, I was pretty happy. What a team.

Every uphill is followed by a downhill and boy had we earned it. We followed the winding hill down and headed through Last of the Summer Wine country as we appreciated heading up Holme Moss "the easy way" if there is such a thing. There were still a good few miles to go and it was hard to take as we put our all in to the climb. We still had that FA Cup deadline to hit. John was superstitious about updates and so we pressed on not knowing the score as the first half kicked off and finished without the hotel in sight.

Luckily it was mainly downhill and Chef and Spanners knew where we were going so there weren't any map delays. Suddenly I was in familiar territory and it was nice to see some sights of my childhood from visiting my grandparents as a kid and coming to watch the mighty terriers. Heading towards the football ground I started to recite some Huddersfield Town chants and my Wednesday and Gooner supporting team mates sang their own versions. We did have some inkling of what was happening in the match as John had received one text message from a friend celebrating a goal. It was starting to become clear we were going to struggle to get to the hotel and a TV screen before ninety minutes would be up. We were half hoping for extra time so we could at least witness some of the game.

Spanners taught us elements of riding that he had learnt during his time in his cycling club, he explained how we needed to ride closer together on the main road so people could pass easier and two abreast to reduce the distance to pass even further. This was added to the "car down" and "car up" shouts. This was in order to know on smaller roads if a car was coming "down your throat" or "up your bum". Terms I tried to take on and use appropriately.

There were no need for those calls as we headed up the final road to our hotel, a quiet, wide road we worked our weary legs towards rest and sustenance. We arrived to be greeted by a very friendly lady at Travelodge, a greeting we'd earned. Now we had to find a TV and luckily extra time, as the game stood at 1-1. While myself and Jukebox struggled to get in and out of the shower, to get dressed and to check-in back home, John-J was glued to the edge of the bed watching the end of the game. Thankfully our success on the road was matched by Arsenal's on the pitch and we were able to celebrate both. As planned we headed out in to Huddersfield to celebrate with food and beer. Unlike we planned we only made it across the road to the pub on site. Our tired legs and heads could take us no further. We had a slap up three course meal of prawn cocktails and pizzas, I think our tastes were stuck in the eighties rather than Huddersfield. We shivered our way back across the car park and headed to bed, the party room watching match of the day, the early night room not even managing that. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Team Pannier: The Jersey

Every team needs a jersey to be taken seriously and it was about time we took our Lycra seriously if we were going to be good looking MAMILs (middle-aged-men-in-Lycra). So we thought about what made Team Pannier, Team Pannier. All-you-can-eat breakfasts at the Premier Inn (or Purple Palace as it's become known) was definitely right up there on the list along with endless supply of sugar in the form of Maoam. Add to that our high-tech, state of the art, servicing methods using a bath and the biggest can of WD40 and our sponsorship is nearly complete. The piece de resistance is on the back, just above our well toned bum cheeks - Sudocrem - it soothes, heals and protects. E by gum do we need that!

There is the matter of the cycling club's logo (yes, we are a cycling club now, we're on Strava don't you know). Hours of design work from Jukebox went in to designing the logo and text to accompany it. A focus group was formed and it passed with flying colours. Little touches such as our nicknames and nationality flags were added to the side of the jersey - it turns out Essex use the same flag as the rest of us.

One last touch of class, our club motto, in Latin - yes you've read it right, we're a classy bunch us. Just in case you've not genned up on your second tongue recently and wondering what "superbus" means, there can only be one phrase that sums us up:
"Never too proud to push"