All Points North – “Day” 3

Events, Stories

It was 6:20am. I couldn’t sleep. The sun was starting to cut through the darkness outside. I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling but didn’t see it. Not because of the darkness but because of all the thoughts going through my mind like a movie reel, speeding in front of a project’s light. I was tense while my mind rushed around like a goat just let loose from entrapment.

I arrive at work early because I needed to finish earlier than usual. The day passed slowly. I did what I had to mechanically, my mind mainly occupied with the thoughts running on the background. At 16h I was out and the plan I had been going through kicked in. Everything was clear in my head, to the tiniest detail and I was moving swiftly through the checklist, ticking them one by one methodically. By 18:30 everything was done. All the clothes folded, the food packed, the kit checked and loaded. Now I just needed to sleep for a few hours as it was going to be a long night.

After an hour of trying meditation, breathing exercises. turning and twisting I abandoned sleep and had some food instead while reviewing the plan for the next 24 hours again.

In my wallet there was a one way train ticket, bought a month earlier. It was getting close to the date when it would be invalid and it was the last free weekend I had, plus the weather was promised to be dry for a change. My train was to leave Sheffield for Durham at 22h and I was to spend the next 24 hours cycling back to where I started – just over 300km.

This was also one of the last weekends I had available before the Transcontinental Race as closer to the race I wanted to focus on shorter rides and making sure I was rested.

Clothes on, a last minute warm layer was thrown on and I rolled down to the train station. Once on the train I needed to distract myself, so what better thing than to warm up the new audio book I had downloaded for the trip.

Two hours later and the train slowly halted to a stop at Durham train station. “Let’s do this!” Until that point I had been in my cycling shorts, thin summer base-layer and the short-sleeve jersey, all chosen as a test for the coming race. First thing off the train that hit me was the immediate cold that just engulfed my whole body and I shivered. So stupid, why did I think it would be warm..

A fully packed bike at Durham train station
Durham train station

Shakily I put on all the leg warmers, arm warmers, waterproof jacket on top of the down jacket, hat, buff, gloves, overshoes. Barely comfortable now with the temperature I headed out of the station. Not to mention that this show won me the confused looks of the few passengers getting off from the train at now midnight.

It was absolute darkness, with a few dim outlining the road in front of the station. But that very road was blocked by construction signs and fences. I turned the other way and found myself at the taxi’s stand and a dead-end. Great start, I couldn’t even leave the station. Two guys were walking towards the entrance and I asked them for directions. The way out was through the maze of construction fences and bridges, but not long and I was freewheeling down the winding road and out of the station.

The good thing was that at that time there weren’t many cars – I loved it. To leave Durham I had to take main roads, so the timing was good. I would rejoin my planned route and continue on A177, which can be quite distressing for a cyclist on a regular week day, but it was really quiet when I was on it. Still, I wanted to get off it as soon as possible as and I did near Fishburn then continuing through Sedgefield.

Soon after setting off I found myself on a long and steady climb. All the layers I had on started to steam me up, so I stopped, took them off, packed them back in, some chamois cream and I was ready. But before jumping on the bike I looked around. It was just my front and rear lights creating a little lit world around me, everything beyond was pure darkness. The world was asleep, I was alone. I took in a deep breath and soaked the atmosphere. I love these moments, the time when you have finally found yourself amid the long awaited adventure you had planned, an idea only existing in the pool of thoughts in your head was suddenly the reality in front. I jumped on and set off again, my mind now more settled and present.

After Sedgefield my route continued on small roads between fields and farm houses. It was quiet. After a while I put my headphones on. This was the my favourite part of a long ride, when I didn’t need anything, could just soak the journey and focus on the road. However, it was bloody freezing, now out of the protection of the city and in the exposed hills I could feel the temperature being sucked out of me. In order to keep warm I had to push past a comfortable tempo. Big ring, highest gear and pushing hard, with parts standing up the hills, parts sitting down and blasting it. I was constantly a bit out of breath but it kept me warm.

After around three and a half hours I was past Middlesborough, the darkness complete but I did now start to feel tired because of the lack of sleep for the past almost 20 hours. My focus was getting blurry and I needed a nap. That was perfect in terms of testing my sleeping kit, but also not ideal as it was freezing.

Just between Great Ayton and Guisborough on the outskirts of the North Yorkshire Moors I found the perfect spot in the a fully sheltered bust stop at the centre of what looked like a village (a few houses close together). With little doubt and a lot of fatigue I walked straight in, set my kit on the perfectly positioned bench, all my clothes on, helmet as a pillow I passed out in less than a minute (good thing I set an alarm).

The sleeping kit was a half sleeping OMM bag and a top ultralight down jacket. A setup to test for the TCR. This experience soon changed my mind and later I switched to a full-length down sleeping bag.

After a refreshing half an hour nap I got up reluctantly and started packing. The sun was joyfully starting to paint the edges of clouds and that cheered me up. It was hopefully going to warm me up as well.

It is worth noting that I also carried a spare saddle (shock, gasp, so much more extra weight). The reason was that the one I was riding on was a test saddle and I wasn’t sure if I could do 330km on it, so I had to have a backup one just in case. But yes, it did add a fair bit of weight.

Luckily for me I was soon to pass Guisborough and stopped at the first possible petrol station to grab a warm coffee and have an excuse to down a few flapjacks. At around 5am, a cyclist with five layers, two pairs of gloves and funny looking frozen face, the till guy looked a bit puzzled when he saw me but I am glad to say he served me nevertheless.

Some delicious, warm cappuccino on the petrol station floor

I felt completely renewed and was now ready to tackle the Dales and some of the biggest climbs from the route following the A171 again.

I think the next part of the ride was my favourite one. The climbs were long and I was happy with the low traffic at that time of day. But the views from the top were hundred percent worth the effort. I could see the coast in the distance as I climb higher and higher with every switchback. At to top it was a sea of rolling hills with the water and the coastline on the left far below. The sun was now shining bright and I felt like the night had been a dream and almost as if it didn’t happen. I was warm and fresh, as if I had just began.

A shot from Google street view showing the views from the top after the climbs

Whitby

My next stop was going to be Whitby. I was still following A171 but at some point my route diverged and continued onto B1266. I had barely taken a turn when my front wheel started to wobble and control became difficult – a flat. Great.

I was running tubeless (another experiment being tested for the TCR) and I could see a small cut in the tyre was leaking air. I pumped up some more air, span the wheel, got on and continued in the hope that it would seal. It seemed O.K.

Soon I was speeding down into Sandsend from high up in the Moors all the way down to sea level. It was so much fun, but by the time I reached the bottom I realised the tyre had lost air again. I seemed to be because of the fast vibrations on the way down maybe banging the tyre and forcing the cut to unseal (my theory). I stopped, pumped it again and continued.

A few more climbs would now get me back up the Moors so that I can enter Whitby. If you ever thought riding along the coast is nice, I would not be one to argue, but be warned – there are many ups and downs!

Just on entering Whitby I stopped at a petrol station to refuel with some Coke, ice-cream and chocolate.

Soon I was descending into Whitby city centre. It was my first time in the city and I had been dreaming of arriving there while planning the route. And now I was finally looking at the place 100km down and a third of the way.

I stopped, leaned the bike on a wall and took out a sandwich to enjoy it while soaking in the sunlight. The place was so quiet, just a few locals looked at me, probably wondering why I had so much stuff on the bike.

However, while I was happily enjoying the peanutbutter and jam sandwich I saw that the tyre was low on air again. I pumped it up, then adjusted the aero-bars a bit as they had moved after hitting a hole and set off to reach the dedicated APN checkpoint and take a photo there – Whitby Abbey.

The Abbey is situated on a hill overlooking the whole city and the climb up is fairly steep, but at this point all the climbs seemed the same. Eventually I found myself at the main entrance and looked for the clue set in the brevet card.

I took the timestamped photo and sent it in the Whatsapp group where we had to post them during the event with the words “Better late than never”. A sense of achievement came over me, I didn’t want to quit during the race and now I was proving to myself that I don’t leave things unfinished.

The Abbey was closed and since I had a long way to go I set off again.

The routing hick-up 

The next checkpoint was Flamborough Lighthouse, some 65km away. I was running a bit behind the schedule I had in mind, but it wasn’t a problem.

Now, after having done a third already, the weather smiling on me and the beautiful views, my spirits were the highest they’ve been so far and I felt more like being on a holiday, cruising for enjoyment rather than chasing a distance. This was soon to change.

Between Whitby and Scarborough there were two main routing options. One was to take the main road A171 and the other one was through a combination of small roads and paths. I had created plans for each option, but in my final stitching of the route had mistakenly put the second option but didn’t know that was the route I was now following.

That meant I had now added a series of unnecessary, very heavy climbs to my route along with some slow gravel paths. Great. (I still didn’t know it at that point)

The first mistake was dropping into Robin Hood’s Bay for no good reason. If anyone is familiar with the area they would know that the bay is at the bottom of some very steep descends and there is no way out unless you climb one of them back out.

I should have just continued straight on the main road without doing the diversion
Descending into Robin Hood’s bay

It was a beautiful view nevertheless. However, as soon as I found myself at the bottom, having just realised what unnecessary turn I’ve made in my silly route planning, I saw that my front tyre was flat again. Already starting to lose my good mood I got off, pumped it up and set off again tackling the climbs to come so I can gain back the elevation I had just lost.

When I climbed out of the bay the road continued on a beautiful small lane.

At the end of it I found myself at the Bridge Holm Ln car park. Things turned to worse here. 

My tyre was flat again but not only the front one this time, the rear too. I had to keep stopping and pumping the front one up until now, then the rear one decided to join its brother, combined with the stupid routing mistakes – I was furious. I was also tired as I had only slept half an hour in the last 30 hours. I lost my composure and just threw the bike on the grass at the car park and started pacing around.

That’s it, no more bloody tubeless! It was time to strip the sealant and put in regular inner tubes and be done with this.

There was so much liquid! It went everywhere! I tried to wipe it off on the grass, using some tissues that I had packed, some wet wipes. It just didn’t end. My hands were completely covered in this mess and I only managed to do the front tyre. I put the inner tube, pumped it up and put it back on. One done. I lost the energy and desire to do the rear one, but also had nothing to clean the sealant off with. At that point there was a group of sheep surrounding me at the fence, saluting my efforts in a choir. People parking their cars would just stare and walk away with their heads keeping an eye on the mad cyclist mumbling angrily covered in white sticky stuff.

For the rear one I decided to just go all out and hoping the sealant might work for that puncture, added some duct tape on top for good measure (not sure if it would work, but it was less of an effort than all other options).

It was time to go, I lost close to an hour in this mess and faff. Hopefully, things will get better from here. I got on the bike and followed my route, which oddly enough went… downhill, like… really fast downhill ๐Ÿคจ. That was not what I would be expecting, but I went with it. Well, soon the route ended like this:

Great, now what?!

On closer inspection I realised I had missed a turn on my route while going downhill fast. So, I started pushing back up the hill. There was no option of me riding, because it was over 22 degree incline and I simply couldn’t even sit on the saddle and start pedalling.

After close to five minutes I found myself at the turning point. No wonder I hadn’t noticed it, it wasn’t even a road, it was a… hiking trail with stairs. In that exact moment a few hikers came down the path and a bit confused greeted me and watched as I dragged my heavy bike up the stairs.

After approximately 200 meters the stairs gave way to a path and I was walking/cycling/pushing close to the end of the land. The views at least were beautiful.

Some more stairs and I found myself at the bottom of another bay. You can see by the photos above that I was quite a bit above the water. Soon I was to drop at sea level and would begin a long climb to the top of the hill visible in the distance.

The climbing began again. It was simply impossible to cycle it, again because of the gradient, the fact that the rear wheel would slip and I would end up… in pain hitting the top tube of my frame.

This whole “detour” was also combined with having to pump the rear wheel again as it lost air. You can imagine how at this point, I was sleep deprived and let’s say slightly upset.

After hike-a-biking for fifteen minutes I finally managed to get on a good road surface. I almost felt like kneeling and kissing the tarmac!

Following a farm road I enjoyed the smooth rolling of the wheels and hoped that I had paid for any sins with the previous couple of hours. I was wrong. The road I was on beautifully ended into a river.

You can see my finger pointing to where the road became normal again

As if all of this was to be expected, now completely drained of emotions I just rode through the water and continued. The elevation quickly picked up and I had to get out of the saddle.

It was a long a climb, and very steep one. I didn’t know what the grade was, but it certainly was one of the punchier climbs I had done. But it wasn’t over, switchback after switchback I lost one gear after another, finally trying to switch to a lower one and realising I had reached my limit.

Sweat was running down my face, I could feel the weight of the saddle and though of how stupid I was to have a spare saddle in there and though of all the stuff I would happily just throw away right now.

I knew one thing though, I was not going to put my foot down, if it was the end of the trip, but I wasn’t going to give up to a stupid climb. The coming TCR was constantly in front of me, and I was thinking how on Earth would I attempt something of that calibre if I couldn’t even do a puny little climb in the middle of nowhere.

One last turn and I could see the end of the climb. I closed my eyes, slow pedal strokes, swinging the whole bike left-to-right, I had to really give it everything I had. At the top I stopped and looked back. My legs were pumped, I was drenched in sweat, but had a grin on my face. Funnily, this is the sign I saw when looking back: 

33% gradient! ๐ŸคฏI couldn’t believe I just rode something graded at 33%, but having dragged myself through it I could believe it was indeed that much or at least un the high 20s.

The last sip of my water and now I could enjoy some more even gradients and dare I say some downhills.

After an hour and I was at Scarborough. First thing was to re-fill with water and grab some much needed sugar and caffeine. Those supposedly easy 60-70km were some of the hardest I had ever ridden, if not physically then mentally for sure. And I think the fact that I was tired played a huge role in how I took the experience and also the decisions I made. Nevertheless, it was perfect training for the TCR.

Flamborough lighthouse was now very much in sight. Just over 30km to go and after an hour and a bit I was there. In between the roads were enjoyable, a few more climbs, but nothing out of the norm.

And there it was, the long awaited timestamped photo. This was the last checkpoint. Now, all I needed to do is ride straight back to Sheffield, a route I had already ridden before. I was at the half-way point having done 166km, it was just past 11am and I had all day to do the rest. I was behind schedule, but it was understandable and reaching this checkpoint gave me a boost. I posted the photo in the Whatsapp group and rode on with a newfound energy.

Hay fever and the final stretch

The last “dash to the finish” was going to prove a lot more difficult than simple statistics of distance and elevation could describe. The weather forecast was for clear skies and dry weather, which it was. Great! But it was also for record high pollen levels. I suffer from a very bad hay fever between May and July every year. The rest of the route was mainly through fields and farm land. Hay fever is also usually made worse with lack of sleep. The scene was set.

It is difficult to describe in words, but anyone that suffers from hay fever could imagine. Where normally people see green and bask in its beauty and delight in its sight, for those that suffer from the allergy it becomes the equivalent of seeing hell fires. Every breathe fills up the nostrils, the inside of your mouth and airways with tiny pollen particles which layer up. Your throat and nose, your eyes swell up and become as itchy as the nastiest of mosquito bites. On top of that your eyes naturally start running with tears and your nose with water trying to flush out the irritants.

Normally in such conditions I stay at home for pretty much the whole season in that period while taking prescription hay fever pills. In this case I had them with me. Normally I am allowed to take one per day, but today I was going to take around four or give along with hay fever nasal sprays and a whole bottle of hay fever eye drops.

This worked for the first couple of hours and as the day progress at this part of the journey they had lost their effect on my system.

I was also so tired from the lack of sleep that I started to get dizzy. Ignoring everything else, I just needed a nap which would hopefully ease the symptoms and help me fresh up a bit.

I found a field on the side of the road, walked in, set my bivy bag as a ground sheet, covered myself with the jacket to avoid sun burn and slept for thirty minutes like a log on the ground. It was not the best sleep I’ve had considering I could barely breathe and my nose was running like a waterfall, but it was glorious! The sun also kept me nice and warm.

I got up and continued. At this point I knew I could do the distance, I wanted to finish the route so badly, but doubts started to creep in. There were another seven to ten hours left including stops, realistically. I was suffering more than I could ever remember (or so it seemed at the time).

I pushed harder, trying to get speed to just get it done (as if such a short burst would do much, but it kept me focused on something else apart from my nose).

Trying to keep the pollen out with a buff and glasses

The roads keep going, it was at least flat and I pushed, trying to stay in the aero bars and to go as fast as I could.

Eventually I ran out of energy and comfortably found a Chinese takeaway still open. It wasn’t that I needed the food so much, I had some with me, but I just wanted to hide from the pollen in a vain attempt to get my breathing back.

The owners let me sit in even though it was a takeaway and I must have used half of their supply of tissues to constantly blow my nose while spilling eye drops in my eyes. They kept looking at me but said nothing.

Delicious vegetables and egg fried rice

There was not much more time to waste, back on the bike.

The views were magnificent. I love these landscapes, the long shadows and golden colours. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy them at the time while scratching my eyes, but the photos help me appreciate them now.

Around 70km from Sheffield, Carlos, my friend from the BrewDog Chain Gang cycling club met up with me. He cycled from Sheffield in my direction as I had shared my route with him and we met up.

It is strange to me as I didn’t expect it, but meeting him up really gave me a massive boost of energy. It was as if I was already back home, just needed to make it a reality.

Carlos offered to draft me, but I told him it was against the rules and I wanted to complete the ride in a valid way even though it didn’t really count. So, for the rest of the ride he would be either behind me or in parallel chatting about different things.

However, cycling I believe is not the most social of activities, it is hard on the narrow roads, traffic and other obstacles to stay constantly near each other in a comfortable, conversation-inducing distance. Also with wind and noise it becomes difficult to talk. Nevertheless, having someone there really made a huge difference.

I still had to stop another five or six times to pump up the endlessly leaking front tyre which was still with the tubeless sealant not doing its job. But it was now almost a normal thing (it helps when the pump is in a handy location though).

Carlos mentioned that he didn’t expect the pace to be as fast as it was on such a long ride, but I told him that while normally I wouldn’t rush as much, I was really suffering and just wanted to get it over with. I think that suited him as he loves to ride fast (fasted than what I ride at anyway).

At 20:30 we entered the outskirts of Sheffield and by 20:46 the ride was complete.

Final photo at the finish at the Heeley institute

I took another rare selfie, with my puffed up and red eyes, and a tired smile it was done! The sense of achievement was immense.

We went our own ways with Carlos and I rode home. Shower, food, bed! The rest of Sunday was spent recovering and I finally felt that I have done as much as I could have in preparation for the coming TCR.

A few lessons were learned on this ride in terms of gear. I changed my bivvy for a lighter one and the sleeping bag for a warmer version. Apart from that the bike rode incredibly and, all the gear was reliable and I felt very happy with my choices. The dynamo lights, the clothes. The last part was the saddle. The one I was testing on the ride was comfortable in terms of width (which is why I had it), but it was rubbing on my legs and had caused most of the skin to be almost rubbed off.

Overall, it was a hard day, but also an incredible experience and something I knew I want to do more of!

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