Etape Pennines - My Ride

It was only for one day, and only on one loop of road.  But on that day, in that place, car was not king.  

Bikes ruled.
A closed road is fantastically special.  It puts cyclists first in a way no cycle-lane possibly could.
You can use the full apex of the corner, take the outside line on an uphill bend, overtake a large group of cyclists on the wrong side of a small country road, all safe in the knowledge you won't abruptly be turned into mince.  

The cars were over there, behind the cones, grumbling.  On this day, in this place, they did not have priority. Two wheels, good.

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I'm told there's a trend for new Sportives to be tougher than their predecessors - longer, higher, harder events - something to give the paying public a real challenge for their money.  

The Etape Pennines, England's newest closed road sportive, certainly fits that trend.  

As one competitor said to me in the car park after, "This was certainly the big brother of the Etape Caledonia".  

He's right, and the numbers confirm it.   

My Garmin clocked 81.65 miles and 3,500ft of ascent on this year's Etape Caledoina in May.  

On Sunday's Etape Pennines, while it ticked over just 77.3 miles, it recorded 7,784 feet of ascent.  More than double.

Was it too tough?  Some might think so.  Yet the numbers say it was easier than the Bealach Mor sportive over the Applecross pass (90mls 9,500ft).  And it doesn't come anywhere close to the daddy of European sportives La Marmotte (108 mls 17,000ft)

Most significantly, it was easier than the Etape Cymru (92 mls 9,800 ft).  So no, it wasn't too tough.  Competitors just need to appreciate the seriousness of what they've entered.

Because of 1406 starters 79 did not finish.  While riding I estimated some hills had sections of over 18%. My Garmin recorded a maximum gradient of 22.3%.  Er, wow!

That's steeper than the acclaimed 'Horseshoe Pass' gradient on the Etape Cymru.  It's even steeper than my big, local 20.7% hill, and it is like riding up the side of a house.  

Many competitors got leg-cramp on the final three hills.  

Which explains why many ended up pushing their bikes.  Pushing is almost the final indignity, only the broom waggon is worse, because it's an admission of defeat.  Those legs must have really hurt.  

How can County Durham be hillier than Scotland?  

I know both well.  While I now live and work in Scotland, I'm from Newcastle where used to be a TV reporter for BBC Look North, so I've spent a lot of time driving these dales with camera crews.  

Clearly, it's all down to the course.  Think of it as having three distinct sections and you won't go far wrong.  The toughest section was section two, and I'll guide you through them.

Section One
The route runs clockwise, with a fast start through former mining villages.  The sun was barely above the terraced houses as a few bleary eyed locals gazed in wonder at the Lycra clad clowns speeding through their village long before their newsagent had even sorted the delivery of Sunday papers.  

Look closely at the map between Crook and the A68.  
You'll see a blue circle with a mountain and a 4 in it.  
Now look at the Key alongside.  
Yep, that's a Cat 4 climb (their categories, not TdF).  
That means a hard uphill.  

In reality it must have been fine because I hardly remember it.  

It's all the others which are etched into my legs.

Major road crossings were handled superbly and safely (I'll talk about the organisation later). 

 Loads of marshals, signs, cones, tapes and giant Stop / Go electronic displays.  

Traffic on the main A68 road was held up in two crossing points and we riders, after being gathered in taped-off pens, were sent across in large groups.  

There was a third crossing point on the A689 at St John's Chapel.  

I did not have to wait at any crossing, effectively riding straight through.  

Timing mats were placed either side of the crossing point, so time spent in the holding pen would not count in the overall time.  

Once across the main road, and before re-crossing the timing mat, I used this time-out to sort clothing and pull my next energy bar out of its wrapper.

From the A68 to Langdon Beck was (mostly) lovely riding.  Here we cruised along the north ridge of Teesdale, the rising sun warming our backs and brilliantly illuminating the cloud that still filled the cold valley below. 

Competitors actually stopped (!!!) to photograph this temperature inversion.  I did not, sorry.

Within sight of Middleton in Teesdale, the route planners stuck their first knife into our legs.  

Whether it was because they couldn't close off the main road into Middleton from this side, or they just wanted to add miles and gradient, I don't know.  

But on a sharp right-hander we went up a tiny track steep enough to give a marmot a nose-bleed.

I had driven some of the course yesterday, so I was ready for this.  

I also knew not to blow-out on this climb because, tough as it might seem, harder ones lay ahead.

Until now our main spectators had been the marshals (sincere thanks to every one) and early-morning dog walkers.  

Chatting to people the day before, despite publicity and signs, I suspect a many had not really registered that this event was taking place until, one morning, there we all were.  

Gradually though, as the day wore on, more people began to turn out and applaud.  "Thank you" to each and every person. 

A gently climbing main road led from Middleton, past the feed station in the High Force Hotel car park, to Langdon Beck, where for me at least it was Gel time.  

Although the rise was just a Cat 3 climb,  we'd been climbing since Middleton and the legs were starting to go.  

As we climbed, the scenery changed from lush valley, watered by the River Tees, to high open moorland.  We'd been warned about this.  40-60 miles were 'mountainous'.  Quite.

Section Two
This is the toughest because it runs against the grain of the land.  Imagine valleys arranged like the fingers of a hand.  Now we're riding from thumb to little finger over the knuckles, going up down up down up down without respite.  

There was no high-level ridge cruising or gaining miles along a valley.  We were either headed up or down.  

Both directions were brutal battles with gravity.  

Leg, arm and core strength was either used to force the pedals down, or to clinging desperately to the handlebars, hoping the rough roads wouldn't burst a tyre at 50mph (my max speed).

That's why this was tough.  In this section, there was no respite.  None.  Were the moor views spectacular?  Dunno.

We were blessed with good weather.  Had it been bucketing down and/or high wind, those rough-road descents, polished cattle-grids, and tight turns right at the bottom would have been a lot more dangerous.  Bad weather could easily have added thirty minutes or more to my time.

However, I was utterly, utterly amazed at how many spectators made it up to these moors.  

These could not have been accidental spectators, or irritated drivers.  Each had made the journey to watch perhaps one competitor, or perhaps all of us.  It didn't matter - the applause was a huge boost, albeit slightly embarrassing. 

Section Three
I knew the worst would be over when we hit the moor road which strikes north from Stanhope, a road I know well.  

Never mind the miles still to go, or the two categorised hills, twenty miles out I could smell the food at the finish.

I mistakenly thought I'd ride the whole event in under five hours, so underestimated the quantity of bars and gels I carried.  

Fortunately I could replenish stocks with Zipfit products, free of charge, at the feeding stations.  

Mind you, the first Zipfit gel I tried nearly caused me to choke!  It was like inhaling a giant Jelly-Baby!  It's a much more viscous product than the SIS I prefer.  

The villages had woken up by the time we returned.  Again, a remarkable number of people were watching the show roll through town.  

Then it was all over.  There was a beep as I crossed the timing mat, music, a water bottle, and a medal.  

Oh, and legs that, had they been able to speak, would have asked for a few days off, please.  

Quickly changed, I tucked into a baked potato and chatted to complete strangers about their day and their ride, which is where I heard the quote which started this piece.

Almost everyone I spoke to agreed the organisation was (almost) utterly superb.  

Signs warning local people about the road closures had been posted well in advance all around the course.  

Every single potential vehicle access point to the closed roads, from driveways to rusty farm gates, had a cone in front with an explanatory note.  

Motorbike marshals patrolled the course, although one stopped abruptly and, I understand, caused the crash which resulted in this damaged wheel.  

The Mavic roving service vehicle loaded a replacement wheel and the rider completed the course.

So why write (almost) utterly superb?  Parking.

Long before the event, I looked at the entrance to the parking on Google Street View and formed the opinion that such a small road wouldn't handle the volume of traffic which would all try to arrive about an hour before the event.  

I decided to get there early.  Woken at 3:45m by drunken party-goes returning to my hotel, I was the first competitor in the car-park when it opened at 4:30.  The crew actually gave me a round of applause for being first.  

For me that was fine, because I like to eat two hours before an event.  I cooked my porridge and brewed coffee in the passenger foot-well of the car, keeping warm in the cold dark morning.

Two hours later, not long before the first wave was due to start, there was still a line of headlights stretching into the distance of cars trying to park.  Some people left their vehicles in neighbouring villages and rode to the start, many without lights.  

It must have been a stressful start for many folk, and then charging them a £5 parking fee on exit was an added insult.

Our start time was pushed back, but only by a few minutes.  

Late arrivals joined whatever wave they could, meaning some fast riders started quite late in the day and had to pick their way past us snails.  

Organisers must sort this for next year, and you can express your interest in Etape Pennines 2013.

Me? Well, 1406 started, 79 DNF, and I was 411, 41st in my age category in a time of 5hr 50min 8 seconds, and I'm pleased.  

I did the my first Etape Caledonia last year in 4hr 55mins, whch I wrote about here, and this year did it in 4hrs 35 minutes.

But let's be clear.

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If you're not a regular cyclist and you're just looking for a challenge event to push yourself and / or raise money for charity, please think long and hard before picking the Etape Pennines.  Unless you're coming from a strong level of general fitness, you're going to have to put in lots of serious training time to get around the course.  

You might do it, but you'll have a much nicer time with little brother, the Etape Caledonia.


Anonymous said...

Nice story Simon, you tell it well. I was a few hours later in the day, me thinks.

we had a great day out too.

rider 147

Simon said...

Hi Rider 147

Thanks for the kind comment


Anonymous said...

Great account of your ride and great time. I'm a local so I got to ride the route beforehand but still it was super tough. Definitely needed another gear. Made it in 6.14 and delighted with that. I will say as a middle aged, overweight amateurish amateur that people CAN do it even without full time dedicated practice... Just expect pain!
Number 2256

Simon said...

Hi 2256
Very well done and I hope you encourage / warn others!
Thanks for the comment.