On Friday 16th March 2012, myself, Chris Leeding, Tom Simpson and Steve Jones completed 149.89 miles from Whitehaven to Tynemouth in aid of Children with Cancer UK.
Our journey began from Tynemouth on Tuesday evening with an amazing(!) home cooked Lasagne from The Chandlers where i also got to meet the latest member of the family – Laurène! The plan at this end being to leave the cars here for our return trip back to Tynemouth in 3 days time.
Lasagne and ice cream polished off, a nice warm-up ride of around 10miles waited, paralleling the coast road into town where we were to spend the first night in the Albatross Hostel, no more than 100meters from the station. I’ve been asked a few times why we stayed in a hostel when I’m originally from the north east? On planning, the logistics of getting the bikes from either Hebburn or Tynemouth at 5:30 in the morning the following day, did not appeal though. It seemed much more sensible to pay £18 for a bed and somewhere close to store the bikes, wake up 5:30 and not have to worry about getting to the station. So, setting off along the coast road that night I looked forward to it; getting to the hostel, perhaps a pint and then an early night ready for a big day the following morning seemed nice. If only that was the case.
On completing the challenge, I received an email from bookings.com (or alike…) asking me to review my stay at the Albatross Hostel. Now im not normally one to complain, you could put a pillow in a wheelie bin and I’d be happy sleeping there if it was for a reason but this place was horrendous. Fair play, the mattresses were comfortable and the room decent but THE NOISE! On arriving the receptionist literally had to shout across the mammoth 30cm gap between us over the music, banging, shouting, screaming and eventually crying (from me) our terms and conditions of our stay, which, and I can only think she was getting some form of comedy kick with this one, including no banging, shouting, screaming. I shouted at her to repeat what she said…
1 and a half hours of sleep later we awoke, fresh as a tramps pocket and set off 100m to the station where we collected our tickets and looked for our platform. The next hurdle was getting our bikes on the train to Whitehaven. Pre-planning found that Northernrail only allow a max of 2 bikes on a train at one time and that there is no pre-booking option available, unlike other parts of the rail network. Just turn up and hope you’re the first there. This goes back to why an earlier departure was chosen. The train ride being around 3 hrs to Whitehaven would see the first pair of us arriving at around 10am with the second pair arriving at around midday. Should it all work out as planned and we are lucky enough to beat anyone else who may have a bike, we could all set off around 1pm with 4-5 hours cycling to spin out. This then had an impact on the mileage available that day and as I wanted to complete the challenge in 3 days, it meant day 1 would have to be cut shorter and the extra miles put in on day 2 and 3. So accommodation was booked at Keswick in the YHA for £24.95 including breakfast! Bargain.
Amazingly though, we all managed to get our bikes on the train and even found that there was enough room to fit 6 bikes if needed! The lady, who thankfully wasn’t a jobsworth, did say that it’s normally a max of 2 but there was no problem putting them all on. Same story at Carlisle for the leg to Whitehaven – although a little less room, they were happy to help us and as more cyclists appeared at different stops enroute, they were directed to other carriages to fit them on there. Good service!
I don’t remember much about the train journey, just being really tired and wishing I could grab an extra hour sleep somewhere, anywhere but just not while on the bike cycling hopefully.
Whitehaven – Keswick Day 1
Waterbottles filled, bladders emptied we set off. The first thing that hits you is how well the route is marked out, the C2C blue route markers appeared to be well placed and although we had a map, it certainly made navigating a lot earlier. It’s far from the nicest of rides through Whitehaven though so I think we all made an effort not to get lost so early on. Mainly canal type paths and tarmac roads flanked by black soot covered houses led the way out of the old coal mining town and into the first sign of countryside. A slight uphill gradient concealed the gradual climb uphill into the lakes and a nice constant pace was set by all. I felt awake again. This is what it was about… just getting out there and doing it. For years, literally years I’ve wanted to do something like this. For years I’ve talked about it and said let’s do it next year or next month or in the summer and never done it. So to be finally on the route doing a good decent, hard challenge, in aid of what to me, is an amazing charity really felt great! Rain clouds threatened to break the spring sunshine that day but that would have only made the smile on my face bigger!
Some of the scenery once we left Whitehaven was brilliant. Off to our right we had views of Blake Fell and Gravel Fell like check points marking our way towards Keswick. Sure enough we would have a big climb ahead. Ennerdale water was visible in the distance too, the gradual climb bringing it more and more into view.
Our gradual climbing was eventually rewarded with an amazing descent down to Loweswater. I remember shouting “Brilliant!!” as we were flying downhill in formation, the water in front of us and hillside all around! It was a great feeling! At the bottom we found a place to stop by the water and enjoyed our cereal bars and some jelly babies overlooking Loweswater. Quick scrounge for some skimming stones and a solid 9’nr thrown we checked the map to confirm that the biggest climb of today was still to come. It had, after all seemed fairly straight forward up to now, a couple sharp hill climbs but nothing too bad. We were only at mile 16 of 149 after all though.
Along more beautiful spring hillside and through along the valleys we reached High Lorton marked with a few cottages and a farm hiding nicely the accent up to Whinlatter. It certainly was a challenge this time, a solid 2, maybe 3 miles looking back at the map, of climbing up towards Whinlatter, with backpacks full but thankfully lighter than at the start from drinking water – it looked steep! Hill climbs like this always remind me of Lance Armstrongs book and it’s one of the reasons why I wear the yellow “Livestrong” band too. There’s always the point on a climb like this one (or on a run, or when you think you can’t be bothered or cant do it) where you think “that’s it”, you need to stop and push for a bit or even just take a breather and go for it again. As cheesy and clichéd as it sounds (throw up if you want…) I always look at the arm band and think “Really! Really is it this hard?! What he went through and the millions of people across the world battling cancer and other illnesses and I can’t make it up this hill?” Gets me going every time. Mind over matter and all that I guess. I appreciate in this example it not quite cycling the Alps or at mile 22 into a marathon (yet) but its relative to our own personal goals at the time and own fitness levels and just pushing that little bit more makes you believe you can do it/more when something/someone/goal gets difficult or hard.
It was a good feeling on reaching the top of this climb, the first of many more, bigger and harder ones to come! From here we were rewarded with some great downhill off-road mountain biking through Whinlatter forrest. Almost lost if once along the edge of a drop when I tried and almost failed to “jump” a ditch with rocks at around 30mph – was good fun though. From here it was less than 10 miles into Keswick and we discussed how the route had gone. One thing we all agreed was that we were glad of our choice of tyres for the route given we were about to attempt all the off-road alternative sections and given day 1 had non of these yet, it was still quite abit off-road. Semi-slicks would have been OK, at the least in hindsight – it would have been pretty ropey on those downhills through Whinlatter though.
Our arrival into Keswick was from Newlands Valley around up through Portinscale first, then down into the town. A good days riding complete the only thing on my mind at this point was hope for tonights hostel to be better than last night’s monstrosity! The thought of a quiet good night sleep and a hot shower really, really appealed and on arriving we were nicely surprised by how nice the hostel was. Comfy beds, hot showers, a drying room, the river outside running quietly past our window. Bliss. It wasn’t the Hilton but for tonight it felt like the Ritz. Hot showers all round, change of clothes and into town for an evening meal and a pint at the Dog and Gun. I was a happy man. We were in bed by 9pm that night ready for a big day tomorrow – our aim for the town of Nenthead, approx. 50miles away not including the off road options. It seemed ambitious but with a good nights sleep in I reckoned we would be fine!
Day 2 – Keswick to Nenthead
On the map it looked abit silly really. Our aim was to complete this in 3 days and at day 1 of 3 in we were only one fifth of the way to the end. Big miles were needed today. I tried to edge on the side of optimism in the hope that it would rub off on everyone for this. If we were sticking to the C2C route, “as is” I would have had no doubt, but to include all the off road alternatives and only be at Keswick with our backpacks full and one injured member of the team was going to be a lot harder I suspected. People do the route in a day on a road bike and I genuinely don’t think that would be too difficult sticking to the roads (I’m planning on doing this soon to see which is harder, so I’ll put my money where my mouth is, don’t worry!).
The trip out of Keswick is all uphill taking the “Old Coach Road” option. It’s a good solid climb to the top starting off on roads up to the Castlerigg Stone Circle then off-road around the north side of Clough Head. There was a real sense of remoteness along this section, the climb was hard but brilliant and both Steve Jones and I were determined not to push our bikes up any part of this climb after reading that “most cyclist have to admit defeat and push at some point”! We did not push one bit. Stops were inevitable given the terrain and bad choice of line, hitting large bricks and boulders that at our climbing speed, just stopped you dead! I loved this climb. It was hard, beautiful scenery, good lads to enjoy it with and a real challenge! At the top we sat along the ridge to enjoy the view with some well-earned jelly babies, knackered!
A great off-road descent followed this climb and at speed, we enjoyable some loose single track and great views down to Greystoke where we would re-join the standard route up towards Penrith for lunch. Time at this point was getting on and the climb out of Keswick appeared harder than anticipated so we didn’t want to stay too long in Penrith. There was definitely some concern as to whether we would reach Nenthead now. Although what was considered in the book the hardest climb of today, up the old coach road, was done, the map still had the biggest climb to come! A climb to 1903ft up to Hartside. We discussed our options and looked at possible accommodation between Penrith and Nenthead. The weather also was beginning to worsen with time and given the altitude of Hartside’s summit we would be sure to be in the clouds at the top with strong winds. The decision was made to go for it.
A jacket potato and marsbar cake consumed the climbs ahead felt mentally like Everest for some reason. It was freezing in Penrith and I think all bodies felt a little worse for wear to put it nicely so this definitely contributed to it. We were all in abit of a dip too I think… too many jelly babies and energy bars to blame earlier on maybe? We needed to get back on the bikes and warm up again. The second half of this day was hard. The climb out of Penrith to Langwathby was bland, through streets with cars passing that I definitely don’t think helped but soon we were back into the countryside and enjoying what could be seen through the mist and low clouds in the distance.
After Langwathy there would be no accommodation until we completed the climb and descent from Hartside into either Nenthead or Garrigil both within 3 miles of each other but still about 20miles away from Langwathy with a 1903ft climb and off road sections to compete with on top of the distance. It was around 3pm when we set off from Penrith too so daylight was beginning to take its toll (3 of us had lights fitted though so it didn’t concern us too much at this point). The climb was hard but we all agreed (I think!) that it wasn’t as hard as the old coach road, although higher. The alternative off road section was un-rideable though, the short downhill was fine but the ascent up was unreal. Both Steve and I had to carry our bikes over our shoulders up the hill it was so steep. My legs were on fire but I felt amazing at the top! The plan was to race Chris and Tom to a join in the road where the off road section met up with the road but we were beaten. The wind was blowing pretty badly at the point too and temperatures dropping fast so they continued up hill while Steve and I climbed helplessly slow to the top of our section. We had the option here of following the other two up along the road to the summit but noticed that the hill over the road looked rideable again and so went for it! What a climb. We reached the top at 17:49 that night. It was almost dark and pretty cold but we were pleased! There was one problem though and that was that we had nowhere to stay yet!! I managed to call around and find a B&B in Garrigill that said they could take us and that there would be no signal in the village so we would have to find him ourselves. Quick phone calls to girlfriends done at the top of the summit done, we descended about 10 miles in dusk! All on road the descent was brilliant! Averaging around 35mph down it made that uphill climb seem so worthwhile. It felt good to get that hill out the way on day 2 and in hindsight I think day 3 would have been less successful had we stopped early. It also proved that we would do it – we pushed when we thought it couldn’t be done. It was a good 50 miles of riding that day, it was cold and I think everyone was stiff and sore from day one too. We enjoyed a cold pint and some amazing food in the George and Dragon and hit the sack early that night again. Its worth noting that the B&B we found was amazing, £26 a night with breakfast included was an absolute bargain. Highly recommended – Eastview B&B, Garrigil.
Day 3 – Garrigil to Tynemouth
After a hearty full English breakfast we set off again into a cold, misty, strong wind for the off road section out of Garrigill. Prior to Garrigill most people we met laughed when we said we were planning on doing it in 3 days with our off road options and current mileage and even the lady at Eastview looked at us with a smile when we said we were aiming for Tynemouth that morning. I assured everyone several times in sheer blind optimism that the route should be mostly downhill after we cross the Pennines. I think this got abit old though so by mid-day so I stopped and hoped I would be proved right later. Out of Garrigil we did our climb up and up again in the clouds to the highest point on the C2C at 2043ft continuing to work up enough heat to stop the wind chill from the strong wind freezing us stiff! My ears were so cold that morning so I thanked myself for packing a Buff to pull over my head and ears! Although it didn’t rain, I was also thankful for my new Sealskin gloves that stopped my fingers freezing up too.
After our initial climbing out of Garrigil we were rewarded with some long and fast downhill stretches from the highest point down into Allenheads where we stopped for a tea and cake in a really nice coffee shop along the route! Chris almost killed himself braking at the bottom of the hill into Nenthead where I think we all thought he was coming off! He didn’t so we laughed instead. We met a few cyclists outside the café in Allenhead from Durham who informed us we had a hard sharp climb ahead but with a rewarding long downhill stretch after. They were right. From here we had one more big climb left out of Rookhope on an off road section. This was helped somewhat by the sheer force of the wind at the point blowing us literally up the hill. At the top we stopped to admire our climb in the immense wind. Chris couldn’t stop so he continued on! This was the last big climb I remember from the trip. There was a lot of riding with a strong side wind from this point towards Consett but from here it was mostly downhill (thankfully!) all the along what was almost certainly an old disused railway track once we passed Consett.
Into Rowlands Gill mile 117 by the map, we were getting more and more into urban landscape and as the Tyne started to appear we knew we were getting close. Time was good and we had massively improved our average speed after the last climb. I reckoned we would be at Tynemouth before it got dark!
The Tyne was definitely a welcome sight at this point and on cycling along through the Quayside we stopped for a photo on the Millennium Bridge. It was plain sailing from here into Tynemouth, or so we thought. It was actually quite surprising how far it felt riding from town. The signs at this point started to put the miles remaining on to the end but all appeared to just keep saying 4miles then 5miles then back to 4miles… 3.5 miles… 4 miles… it got a bit tiresome as we felt so close! Then a sight of the royal quays came and then the priory. We were there. Odometer on the bike said 149miles. The last sea mass we seen was the Irish sea at the other side of the country and here we were at the North Sea.
It was a good feeling to finish it. Rewarded by fish, chips and mussy peas, we were happy lads! It felt mad that we had cycled so far and cover such good mileage!
Day 1 – 33 miles
Day 2 – 49 miles
Day 3 – 67 miles
Just need my legs to mend themselves for next week when I go back to the Lake District for Challenge number 2 – The Helly Hanson Adventure Triathlon. Off to get a new pair of running shoes now a training run this evening at some point!
Thanks for reading! Pictures to follow! http://www.justgiving.com/smithschallenge2012