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.

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