Muckle Ride of The Year 2019
I've dropped the ball a littlle bit with the Stinger Report haven't I? I know there's not really been anything to write about with all racing, and even group rides cancelled, but I started lockdown full of positivity and ideas about keeping this blog going regularly. I envisioned little features and interviews with some of our quirky club members, or maybe a Muckle history as 2020 is our 5th birthday. What happened was that in reality, I was sucked into a vortex of seemingly never ending zoom meetings going on round the clock.
Anyway, I'm about to hoy up a report of the Everesting I did in June, but by way of compensation here's the write up I did of the 'Coast to Coast to Great Dun Fell to Coast' I did last year. A write up initially inspired by the sort of descriptions Lee Cuthbertson would use for 3.5km commute recorded on Strava...
I had unfinished business with the C2C2C. 2018’s ride with long distance master Dean Madden was cut short when we called it a day passing Dean’s house about 5km from the coast. The will to continue was not there. I wish I could be more like Dean and have nothing to prove. I wish that once I had an idea fixed in my head it could sometimes be easier to get that idea dislodged.
I decided to go solo this time – I’d lose the benefit of having an occasional wheel to draft behind but would be able to keep at my own pace all day. I also did not want to subject anyone to the 5 hour silent treatment Dean had last year, (I did ask along a certain person who bottled it last minute – they will remain nameless because I’m sound, but you know who you are!)
When my alarm went off at 03:00 I had a brief moment of not remembering what was happening or why I was getting up so early. I went downstairs on autopilot. My house mate Dave had just got in from some sophisticated social amusement or other so we sat together whilst I fired into a massive bowl of porridge, and Dave into the Mc Donald’s he’d dragged back. I informed Dave what I what I had planned for the day and he politely inquired into the status of my sanity. As Dave took himself off to bed, I put the bike in the back of the car and drove out to the coast – I knew that this would be the best tactic in order to avoid the temptation of bailing out when cycling back through Newcastle on the return leg.
I arrived in Whitley Bay, unsure of where to park, and wanting to avoid permit only zones, I left the car outside of the flat of a girl I’d been seeing briefly last year. She was great, but I just hadn’t been feeling it. It was 04:00 when I got on the bike and set off. I sort felt a bit sad in way. I reflected on breakfast with Dave – the situation had been wryly amusing and I was grateful for the moral support he unwittingly provided.
The sun was rising as I was approaching the western outskirts of Newcastle. Memories and regrets of failed relationships drifted away as, to use a standard cliché - I ‘settled into my rhythm’, and focussed on the endeavour ahead. Days like this were lonely ventures, but in that solitude I always feel more connected to people than at other times, and I suppose I’m grateful that I’m actually able to spend a day with myself these days anyway.
That solitude was especially welcome during a roadside shit just by Chollerford. Sometimes in cycling, a degrading episode in a field is par for the course, but I have learned a few hard lessons in this subject and had planned for this contingency. I was delighted with how it went. Like a well drilled F1 pit team. Apart from a little bit of ‘number one’ on my speed suit, it was a good omen, and the next few hours passed without incident. The only thing troubling me was the horrendous fleece I had put on over my cycling gear. It had been pretty cold when I set off, so I resorted to an ill-fitting Regatta monstrosity that I could cast aside as soon as things warmed up. Unfortunately this wasn’t until after 9am and over 4 hours of cycling in fear that I could be seen, and shamed, by the Kit Police. Eventually it had to go, and I folded it up neatly and placed it by the side of the road. I felt a lot better about myself now.
I reached the coast at Siloth (the place in the UK that most sounds like a monster from a fantasy novel) at the 155km mark and continued down to Maryport. I had a woeful chicken and bacon sandwich outside a Garage in Maryport then turned back inland to start heading East through the Lake District past Cockermouth, up Whinlatter Pass, down to Keswick and onwards. The fatigue was setting in along with a couple of niggling aches and pains. I needed to be positive. I was appreciative of the beautiful countryside after the relatively unremarkable Cumbrian coastal road. The problem had not really been with the sandwich – it was my expectations that had let me down.
Arriving in Penrith, I was about 9.5 hours in and had covered 235km. I’d decided Booths in Penrith would be my main food stop, so dashed in and grabbed a selection of stuff to eat on the bench outside. I was joined by an elderly woman who seemed to take in interest in me. We began talking and it was clear she was in some way cognitively impaired, some kind of dementia maybe. I thought about time, aging, and memory, and the inherent sadness in all of them. Then I thought about how great sausage rolls are.
Not long after Penrith I approached Skirworth at 250km in – this was the turn off point for the icing on today’s cake - the Great Dun Fell detour. GDF is widely accepted as the toughest climb in the UK – over 7kms at average 9% gradient with max gradients over 20%, as well as being the highest road in the UK.
I had a feeling I could be making a mistake. As soon as the road ramped up, I knew I was making one.
I was experiencing a fair amount of pain in my ankle and knee, and could hardly put any power out at all. As always though I knew it was not the hill I must conquer but myself. I crawled up as best I could and arriving at the top, I put the chain in the big ring, and put a brave face on for a selfie. I was F’d.
I dropped down off the hill and briefly got held up by a farmer herding some cows on a quad bike – grateful for the delay in facing Hartside Pass it provided. We exchanged some friendly words. I think they were friendly, I can’t actually remember now. I was firmly in monosyllabic mode at this point anyway. I contemplated the road ahead. This was the sort of thing you should have specifically trained for really. Oh well. In desperation I dropped the saddle 10mm, hoping it would help relieve some pain. It did nothing.
Hartside Pass was grim, not just because of the usual motorbikes smashing past at 100mph. I’ve never got on with this climb – It’s exactly the sort of climb that I like, but it’s normally just presented itself at a point in a ride when I am ruined and trying to cling on to the wheel of a Dean Madden or Ian Stanners type character grinding away. Toward the top I passed two guys who were on day 2 or something of a C2C. Soon they would be arriving at wherever they were staying for the night. They seemed like they were enjoying themselves. Bastards. When they asked if I had been far, I avoided the question.
At the top of Hartside Pass I was greeted with the burned out shell of the Café. I think it was the first time I’d been up there since the fire. I always thought it was a bit of a dump anyway really. My friend Stu from work (aka Bastard Face) and I, used to amuse ourselves when we probably should have been doing something related to our jobs, by talking about buying the place and what we would do with it. It would be transformed into a multipurpose facility which would include, just to name a few of the features, a cycling café and bike shop, Michelin starred restaurant, photography gallery, spiritual retreat centre, 5 star boutique hotel, artisan bakery and farm shop (but no farm), outdoors activities centre, cinema, coffee roastery… The list would go on until we would decide we should get back to some serious business - like discussing liquorice or Shirley Bassey. These conversations always reminded me of Rambo’s powerful monologue in the deeply emotional final scene of First Blood, where he explains the plans he had to drive a Cadillac around with his friend who eventually got blown up and died, and whose legs they couldn’t find. ‘Like boys whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up’, we knew our dreams would come to nothing, providing mere temporary comfort from the mundanity of day to day office life.
GDF and Hartside had finished me off. The fatigue was immense. The logical, rational part of my brain was closed for business. Because of this though, as I dropped down over Alston Moor, I was able to fully appreciate the emotion of the landscape. Days like today are really a journey inwards, and there is nowhere else in the world I have experienced yet that is like the North Pennines for truly being confronted with the far interior of yourself, where that part of my nature so often drowned out by worldly clamours is reflected back at me in that solitude and isolation. I heard Auden’s words in my head - “within your loneliness, companionship – your weariness a sweet content”.
Bollocks. I needed to snap out of this quick and give my head a shake. “You’re The Stinger, you’re the man”! I decided on getting an ice cream at the Alston petrol station as a little pick me up. It was 14 hours since I left Whitley Bay and I’d cycled 300kms. Yes, ice cream and some positive self-talk would do the trick. There were some local youths congregating outside the garage, I observed them as I tackled my Ben and Jerries’, ice cream cookie sandwich thing. They seemed like a decent bunch of kids, I hoped none of them would grow up and get into any of the stupid things that I did with my life. I briefly wondered where going for 400km solo bike rides sat in the pecking order of stupid decisions I’ve made and found a grim solace in realising it is in actual fact pretty low down.
The final few hours seemed to last forever but are now just blur in my memory. After climbing up out of Alston the fatigue was such that I could barely get my heart rate over 90bpm and my average watts were even more pathetically low than usual. I stopped for a final time in Hexham to fill my bidon and try to eat something. There were about 60kms left to the North Sea coast, and I was absolutely wrecked. By the time I passed through Newcastle it was starting to get dark, and seemed to be a cool evening, this combined with my inability to generate enough warmth for myself meant that I was getting seriously cold. I longed for a warm reunion with that ill-fitting Regatta fleece. I briefly thought about calling in on someone to get some layers, but deep down knew it would be too tempting to bail out. My bike and body were in Tyneside but the rest of me had arrived in that mythical place where you are stripped of ego, where self slips away, where you are just instinct, reduced to the animal level, everything going into just moving forward. I am never riding my bike again I thought to myself (for only the second time this year, which isn't that bad for me actually).
Around 18 hours after leaving Whitley Bay I got back to the car. I was pleased that it had not been vandalised in any way or had any defamatory statements painted on to it by ex-lovers (I had visions of some slanderous graffiti, à la Alan Partridge scrawled over the bonnet). What was less than pleasing was that it was reading 399.7kms covered on my Garmin. Looping on for 300m up the street and back to round up to 400kms was a cruel blow to inflict upon myself, but was of course, absolutely necessary. I had done it. I put the bike in the car, urinated all over the road, wrapped myself in the foisty blanket that lives in the boot, drove home, and went to bed. The end.