TransEngland 21

The TransEngland Trial: a circuitous coast-to-coast, through the night, starting in Morecambe and taking in the Forest of Bowland, Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire Moors, checking in at a combination of classic and cruelly obscure checkpoints and finishing in Scarborough. The checkpoints are fixed, you choose your route between them. Many checkpoints are positioned to be both challenging and the tempt you into opting for a gravel shortcut to significantly shorten the overall distance. I’m not much of a gravel rider and I didn’t fancy taking this up in the dark after two weeks of rain so the route I plotted was almost 100% roads. I ended up planning a route that was longer than it needed to be: 321km with 5730m of climbing (according to Strava at least); many riders managed to keep the overall distance < 300km, but I was wanting the ride to count as a DIY entry for a AAA SR attempt this year. The Racing Collective’s Trial events are reliability rides rather than races, completely unsupported and, although people will push themselves to be as quick as possible, ultimately non-competitive as there are no awards, no prizes, etc.

Booking a bike space on a train to Morecambe for the start had been an absolute nightmare, but eventually I found a space that would put me in Lancaster about 17:00, time for a decent dinner and then a short ride to the earlier than usual start of 20:00. I inhaled a fine vegan pizza at Aquila in Lancaster and then took a leisurely route down the cycle paths to Morecambe. The early start (usually it’d be 23:00) meant the amazing views over Morecambe bay to the Lakes were visible. I arrive to find two other riders early to the start being accosted by senior member of Morecambe’s community who has clearly had a fair few cocktails and was very enthusiastically interrogating the riders awaiting the start. A steady trickle of riders arrived for the 20:00 start; a small pack of about 10 set off but after just a few hundred meters differing routes resulted in our paths diverging. I followed John Baston through the Trough of Bowland and was enjoying a good pace through the hills, finding myself on familiar roads from the first 200km ride I’d ever done a few years back. This was rudely interrupted as just 30km into the ride I hit something hard in the road at the bottom of a hill resulting a punctured side-wall and a loss of the tubeless seal on my rear tyre. This was the first time this had happened since taking up tubeless tyres, so 30 minutes were spent faffing around with sealant before I realised things were going nowhere and with darkness fast approaching I decided to put a tube in, only to find that one of the two tubes I’d brought with me already had a hole in it (likely worn thin by being carried around in the back pocket of a jersey for nearly 18 months since I last had a puncture the sealant couldn’t handle). I fitted the remaining tube, put my mind at rest with the thought that statistically I was highly unlikely to get another puncture that, if it had been in the front tyre, may well have meant the end to my ride and carried on to checkpoint one. It was heartening that ever single rider that passed stopped to check I was okay and to offer assistance; while there’s no support on these rides and you have to be self-sufficient, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on your own, something that would keep me motivated throughout the ride. Belatedly I arrived at checkpoint 1, St. Hubert’s RC Church, after two hours and three minutes. A quick photo at the gates of the church, a quick natter with the only remaining rider and on into the thickening darkness. At some point on the way to checkpoint two I was descending fast in the dark, I noticed a gate to a field swinging open and it seemed odd, I looked up just in time to notice a black horse against a black sky and break suddenly. After a brief and futile attempt at herding the horse back to the gate I had to admit defeat and with the relief of not having hit it and seeing it saunter to the side of the road, continued on to checkpoint two.

The route out the checkpoint two, the obscure Cam Houses Only sign, was largely easy going until the climb to the checkpoint, steady climbs and undulating roads, a contrast to the gravel shortcut on offer. A sharp right turn at Hawes announces the beginning of what is a relentlessly steep climb up to the checkpoint. Having been delayed by the puncture there was a steady stream of riders descending in the opposite direction. By this point it was pitch black and the only visible indication of the length of the climb was just how high the white lights were appearing above me in the blackness. A steady climb in bottom gear to the top for the necessary photo, a small group of riders attempting to light the sign for each other to document their presence, a sudden realisation that it was only about six degrees and we were beginning to shiver, brief words exchanged and then a cautious descent back down the hill dodging oncoming riders, looking forward to more pedaling on the ‘flats’ and the heat this would bring.

Having caught up with a group at checkpoint two the ride to checkpoint three, Tan Hill Inn, felt much more like a collective effort. The company of other riders is highly motivating, the pace picks up a bit with the spirits. A sparse string of blinking red lights stretching out into the darkness. I’d been on many of these roads just a few weeks before on the Delightful Dales 200km audax, it was odd knowing how beautiful the landscape hidden by the darkness was. Despite cycling in the void, the descent down Fleet Moss was wonderful, a group of three or four flying down the hill, the edges of the road sparkling brightly due to amazing reflective safety barriers meant a safe descent at speed. This was in stark contrast to having climbed this hill in the opposite direction into a screaming headwind on the Not All Points North ride last September. The group thinned as the climb to Tan Hill kicked in, although this didn’t seem as demanding as I was expecting, and the notorious hairpin on the way up is easily managed by sticking to the edge, so no need for concern if you’re attempting this climb. A gentle tailwind made for a great pace up to the top of the hill in pursuit of blinking red lights. After brief pause at the checkpoint for a hand full of chocolate covered coffee beans and a photo, the realisation that it was already 02:50 and it wouldn’t be long before the sun began showing itself gave rise to to a steady trickle of excitement. The flashing light I had been chasing disappeared over the hill not to be seen again, but with the return of the solitude came the slow return of daylight, the edges of the road becoming visible again, the sleeping sheep, eventually the sides of the hills and the valleys. This stretch between 03:0 and 04:00 was amazing with the sun clearly rising but still dominated by the moon, an odd half-light, neither night nor day. At this point I began talking to myself, I don’t really remember what about but it helped. I flew down out of the Dales into the only flat section of the ride before the Moors. As the sun continued to rise so did the mist and wonderfully hazy whites, pinks and reds emerged, sometimes punctured by animals starting to move. Energised by the light and beauty of the landscape I pedalled fast towards the Moors.

I’ve ridden in the Moors before and knew how difficult they could be. In planning my ascent to the remote (even by TransEngland standards) checkpoint four, St Nicholas Church (Bransdale), I’d opted for climbing Boltby Bank rather than Sutton Bank as my introduction to the Moors, my thinking was that this might be the tougher climb but it’d be car free. By far this was the hardest climb of the ride. Anticipating (always a mistake on long rides, always focus on the present, never think ahead) the climb I kept thinking it’d started, just to turn a corner and find another climb waiting. Eventually I found myself on Boltby Bank, a relentless 20+% climb, straight, no corners to hug to reduce the gradient. Bottom gear, leaning over the handlebars, deep breaths. A couple of times I thought I might fall off sideways. I finally arrived at Helmsley and my imagination reconnected with the maps in my mind as I began the longer but much steadier climb up to the checkpoint. Despite the reduced gradient I needed to stop for rapid sugar intake. Sat on the grass face filling I saw Nick Barnard climbing the hill, “It’s getting tough” he shouted; this was a hilarious understatement. Motivated by the presence of another rider I caught Nick up and enjoyed some company out to the checkpoint.

Leaving checkpoint four a few other riders who’d opted for the gravel routes started emerging from behind bushes and dusty tracks. At some point after Gillamoor mine and Nick’s routes split and it was a hot and characteristically stabby ride through the moors the checkpoint five, Robin Hood’s Bay beach. I’d decided not to descend the Rosedale Chimney, I’m not too confident descending 30% hills and having climbed the chimney before I decided I preferred the thought of going up it to down. I plotted a longer route dodging Rosedale altogether, taking a beautifully remote road up through Stape, dodging the 33% climb at Egton Bridge and taking on the comparatively mild climb out of Grosmont that on any other ride would appear near vertical. Various gates and fords interrupted the pace here, not to mention the frequent short but stabby climbs out of the fords that by this point I was passively soaking up at a leisurely pace. This definitely wouldn’t have been a good choice for anyone seeking a fast time on the route, but it was beautiful.

Robin Hood’s Bay Road was dreary, a rude shock the system after the solitude and wilderness, but I still had snacks and the end was almost in sight. The final checkpoint, Robin Hood’s Bay beach, is hilarious. Down the 30% hill filled with tourists (sintered brake pads howling) to the beach, a quick photo at the checkpoint and then back up the hill attempting to place every part of your body except your legs over the handlebars in a desperate battle against gravity. From here I opted for the cinder track and the old road over Beacon Howe, a challenging climb at this point in the ride, but the worst thing about cycling is cars so this was preferable to a return to the A road. The cinder track was passable but tedious on a road bike, even with 32mm ‘gravel kings’. Slow, full of holes and dog walkers, baking in the heat. It was a relief to find myself back on a quiet road for the final 15km descent to Scarborough.

This was the first sunny weekend since lockdown had begun easing, so Scarborough was like a festival of candy floss, bikers and ice cream. Pedestrians spilled into the roads as I weaved through them spotting the odd red eyed cyclist, exchanging hollowed out yet still ecstatic affirmative glances and congratulations. My Dad was waiting at the finish, The Diving Belle, a fine sight after a beautiful and challenging ride through the night. Before the ride I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on without sleep and had spent a long time dithering about sleeping bags and bivvys (in the end I just took a silk liner and bivvy, they weren’t used but as a novice I was glad for their company) but oddly I found that the 2–4am slot was probably my favourite: empty roads, except for the odd black horse against a black sky and the blinking lights letting you know you weren’t entirely alone, a strange time with both the moon out and the sun starting to rise. Fleeting company throughout was great.

321km, 5730m elevation, 16H 22M elapsed time. A great night out with the racing collective.

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