There are few sportives in the UK that will push you further than the Coast to Coast in a Day. I was lucky enough to take part in the inaugural race, writing about it for Cycling Plus magazine. I’d never ridden 150 miles in a day before, let alone a sportive. It was a baptism by fire, but one of the most fun days out I’ve ever had.
12 + 1:3 + 39/52…I’m trying to do a mathematical equation, but I’m having difficulty concentrating. Which is not surprising, because at this particular moment, I’m precariously swaying from side to side, whilst a bead of sweat irritatingly swings from the end of my nose like a stalactite made of jelly. I look down at my feet for the umpteenth time to see if I’ve got an extra gear, but my glasses have conveniently misted up. I want to remove them and at the same time wipe my nose, but if I take either of my hands off the handlebars, I’m almost certainly going to fall over. ‘No, I must go on. After all, I’m supposed to be good at climbing’ I mutter to myself modestly along with a few expletives.
With a grunt that Maria Sharapova would be proud of, I push down hard on the pedals, only for my rear tyre to spin uncontrollably on the wet tarmac. I go back to the maths again: 12 miles down + 1:3 gradient + 39/52 chainset + 4600m total ascent + wet tarmac + 137 miles = walk of shame! Curses!
Except, there shouldn’t be any shame in walking. It’s actually quite sensible considering the circumstances: I’m half way up Hardknott Pass – the steepest road in England – sweating like Andy Murray at Championship point in the Wimbledon Finals, I don’t have a compact chainset and I’ve still got 138 miles to go until I have a glimpse of the sea.
From one coast to another
It’s one of the most iconic routes in the country and thousands do it every year, mostly over several days. Yes, you’ve guessed it, I’m cycling the Coast to Coast (C2C), but I’m not doing the one you’re thinking of. And if you had been wondering why I’m on Hardknott – no, I’m not lost. In fact, I’m cycling the inaugural Coast to Coast in a Day Sportive, which at 149 miles and 4600m of climbing, should make it arguably one of, if not THE, toughest sportive in the country.
Before you read any further and develop any preconceptions that I’m an expert, I should be honest and tell you that until recently I wouldn’t have exactly called myself a cyclist. In fact I’m really a runner (boo, hiss) who’s developed a penchant for cycling, tough challenges, bucket lists and adventure. And with a couple of nights camping thrown in, three national parks to traverse, a ferry crossing and a multitude of hernia inducing climbs, the Coast to Coast in a Day is the perfect place to find all four, especially if it also happens to be your first sportive!
The hub of Penrith
If you’ve ever attempted a C2C on your own, then you’ll know that logistics play a major part in the planning process. But the only real planning you need to do for this event is figure out how to get to the Cumbrian town of Penrith, because the rest is organised for you by the very capable James Thurlow and his team from Open Cycling.
Now, the cunning amongst you will realise that Penrith is not on the coast. And you’d of course be correct. But after having stared at Google Maps as though it was a stereogram, it became clear to see how Penrith, with its convenient road and rail links, was the perfect place to operate a park and ride service from. Indeed, unless your name’s Prince William and you have a helicopter conveniently to hand, Seascale isn’t the most accessible of seaside villages on the Irish Sea coast. And nor is Whitby – the fish and chip Mecca that is our destination on the other side of the country.
So, with no chopper available and not keen on driving the 300 odd miles to Penrith on a traffic heavy Friday afternoon, I sensibly took the direct train from Euston. Three nervous hours later (after sitting in a reserved seat that I hadn’t reserved!) and another compulsory glance at Google Maps, I cycled the few miles over to Penrith Rugby Club, where several coaches and a lorry would transport us and our bikes to the start at Seascale.
To ensure that we didn’t bring the kitchen sink with us, we were restricted to bringing a bag no heavier than 10kg. I’m assuming that unless you’ve been living in a nuclear bunker for the past 4 months, it won’t have escaped you that the weather in the UK has been, well, fairly crap. Indeed, my winter cycling wardrobe has never seen so much use. Which is why, despite it being the last weekend of June, I had packed for every eventuality.
Carb light, stomach empty
Once I’d registered and attempted to erect my tent in a Force 10 like gale that was doing it’s damnedest to hinder my progress, I wandered on down to join the other 215 odd cyclists queuing at what appeared to be Seascale’s one and only takeaway restaurant. ‘Do you have any pizzas?’ ‘Nope, I’ve run out’ said the jolly owner. ‘Any lasagne?’ Nope. ‘Anything at all containing carbohydrate?’ I ask with desperation in my voice. ‘A kebab?’ he replies. One hour later, I return to my damp tent clutching the next best thing – a burnt burger and chips, which was impressive considering he had secretly used a microwave.
I had set my alarm clock for 4.30, but I needn’t have bothered. Having forgotten my roll mat, I had to make do with some cardboard from a bike box. Feeling like a sporty tramp, I lay awake listening to the outer tent sheet flap in the gale, pondering upon whether this was more annoying than my growling stomach.
Bicycles at dawn
As the sun attempted to display some semblance of dawn, I headed on down to the beach at 5.30, where the official start was held. The first riders had set off at 5am – probably those who’d actually managed to sleep in a B&B – but with a three-hour window in which to leave, and the ferry at Windermere not working until 7am, there was no rush.
The start line was on a small, but charming wooden pier that stretched out into the sea. Feeling like a parody of Meryl Streep in the French Lieutenant’s Woman, I posed for a photo with my bike as I stared into the distance. Realising that I was essentially faffing, I dibbed in at the control point and promptly set off on what was already feeling like a proper adventure. Ahead of me lay three national parks, the first being the Lake District.
Caution, caution and more caution!
However, due to my blind enthusiasm to get on the road, I had to turn around within about five minutes, as I had set off in completely the wrong direction. Once on the right course, it didn’t take long though, for me to catch up with Ray Milligan, a policeman from York, who thankfully had a much better idea of where we were going, and indeed what lay in store for us a few miles down the road.
This being my first sportive and potentially the longest time I was to have ever spent in the saddle, I was careful not to go out too hard. As we trundled along the quiet country roads, passing through the quaint villages of Holmrook and Eskdale, one couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the Lake District. It’s easy to see where Wordsworth got his inspiration.
Twelve miles in to the ride, I came around a bend in the road to be met with a scene that could have been lifted from Lord of the Rings. Before me, like some ominous Mordor-esq Mount Doom, was Hardknott Pass. As I passed the 30% sign, I was already in my smallest gear. I’m not going to labour again on what it felt like going up that hill, but like many cyclists before me, I paid homage to its greatness.
On reaching the top of the Pass, I was met by a Mountain Rescue team who warned me to take it easy going down the other side. I would have been better off on a mountain bike for the amount of gravel, pot-holes and the like, as I painfully held onto my brakes whilst sliding down the hill, passing Ray in the process who had unluckily got a puncture.
What’s harder than Hardknott?
Feeling as if I was on a roller coaster, I crawled my way back up Wrynose Pass, which ironically after Hardknott, didn’t feel as arduous in comparison. It was probably because I was looking forward to reaching the first checkpoint in Kendal at mile 35 and tucking into some food. My breakfast until this point had consisted of tea and Cliff Shot Bloks.
They say that any good journey should at some stage cross a body of water. Well, bearing in mind that the Lake Windermere Ferry has been operating for 500 years, it’s as good a reminder as any that we’re in the Lake District. Reaching the ferry with seconds to spare, I dibbed in (our time stops on the ferry) before leaping on to join another 30 cyclists who were busy swapping stories of how they all fared on Hardknott.
The wages of gluttony
I arrived in Kendal after 3 hrs of riding. I was so hungry that I promptly gorged myself on several baguettes, half a dozen brownies, 3 flapjacks and a cup of tea. It was, without doubt the most gluttonous tea & cake stop of my short riding career.
Refreshed and full, I got back on the bike, joining forces with a pleasant chap called Stephen who was sporting a jersey proclaiming that he was a recent finisher of the Fred Whitton Challenge. We headed west out of Kendal along the Old Sedbergh Road. Moments later on the outskirts of the town, we were faced with 730ft climb that dragged on for a couple of miles. Bitterly regretting the second baguette and now feeling a bout of indigestion mixed with the annoyance of cleats briefly touching tarmac on Hardknott, I made my way up the climb like Thomas Voeckler trying to cling onto the Yellow Jersey in Stage 19 of the 2011 Tour de France.
Go like the wind
There is a reason why any C2C journey is done from West to East. It’s the beautiful tail wind. With it gently pushing me on, I travelled with relative ease through the collection of river valleys and hills that form the majority of the Yorkshire Dales, excited about the homemade soup that awaited me at the second checkpoint at the Green Dragon Inn of Hardraw.
On passing through Catterick Garrison and another bout of baguette chewing at Checkpoint 3, I began to reminisce about my time in the Army. The weather was almost perfect in its usual British schizophrenic way of not knowing whether to rain or shine, having me in and out of my rain jacket more times than I stared at my feet going up Hardknott. And then it changed.
We could see a portentous cloud hovering in the far distance, but a flash of lightening closer to home gets our attention. We count the seconds, waiting for the inevitable clap of thunder to indicate the distance from the lightening. Five. ‘Bloody hell, it’s not even a mile away’ I say to Stephen. We quickly don our rain jackets, only for the heavens to open moments later and hit us with a freakish hailstorm that made us wince with pain.
Where’s that man suit?
You’d think that signposting a 150-mile route across the country would be a recipe for error, but not once did we take a wrong turn. It was brilliantly marked. And because it went like clockwork, we could almost be forgiven for thinking we had it in the bag when we reached Checkpoint 4 in Ingleby. With a tummy full of delicious hot chilli stew, we were just leaving when a friendly marshal warned us that it got a ‘bit hilly’ over the North York Moors. ‘What do you mean hilly?’ I stammer, as my mind harks back to Hardknott, ‘It’s not like the last 120 miles have been flat.’
I wish he had been joking. ‘Hilly’ just doesn’t do the North Yorkshire Moors justice. Zipping up our suits of courage, we ploughed on, desperate for a glimpse of the sea that indicated the end was in sight. Finally, a break in the trees reveals a panoramic view of Whitby awash in sunlight, our destination. The end is nigh.
As we amble down Whitby’s esplanade, I cross the finish line 11hrs and 1 minute after I set off this morning in Seascale. With a smile on my face, I couldn’t help but do some more maths: My first ever sportive + affordable race entry + the furthest, longest and most climbing I’ve ever ridden + delicious food + brilliantly organised + not getting lost + friendly marshals = one massive tick in the box for a fabulous sportive adventure.
You can learn more about the Coast to Coast in a Day on Open Cycling’s website.
This article was originally published in Cycling Plus.