In retrospect, making the decision to ride the Pennine Bridleway, unsupported and as fast as possible from one end to another with just five (working) days to plan it, may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Nevertheless, a frantic week of emails exchanged with previous riders and some hawk-like weather forecast watching brought me to the start line at 5pm on Saturday May 4th.
My brief research told me this about the north-south route I had chosen to follow: It runs from Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria to Middleton Top in Derbyshire, through the Yorkshire Dales, around the eastern part of the Mary Townley Loop, then on through the Peak District to the finish a few miles south of Matlock. It would be between 170 and 180 miles, with around 23,000ft of climbing and almost entirely off-road. As there wasn’t an existing record to aim for on the north-south route (Steve Heading holds the south-north record at a weather-affected 35 hours 11 minutes), I decided that a 24 hour target seemed realistic enough to be aiming for. The catch of course was that prior to this ride my longest single day in the saddle was 15 hours, and I’d never ridden any of the Pennine Bridleway before. For this ride I also opted not to take any sleeping gear…it would be a case of ride-it-in-one-go or bust! If nothing else, this was going to be a learning experience…
I rolled out of Kirkby Stephen railway station at 17:10 on Saturday and started my gps timer with those mixed feelings of excitement and nervousness one gets at the beginning of something that promises to be as painful as it is fun. Within 30 seconds of starting to ride I was laughing to myself and shaking my head. I’d made the decision to go north-south mostly for reasons of logistics, but having watched the weather forecast closely for a few days prior I knew there would be a price to pay. The strong headwind made itself known right away, and within less than a minute of starting I was already having to pedal hard out of the saddle (on a flat road) just to make reasonable progress. Of course, my legs were fresh and I was too busy admiring the stunning hills all around me to really care about the wind, but I suspected it might become more of an issue later.
The first 25 miles brought the most striking scenery of the route, and some of the biggest climbs (though not the hardest). I was hoping my late afternoon start might have afforded me a nice sunset over these hills, but sadly the cloud cover got in the way. When the sun did occasionally appear though, the views were stunning. At around 21:00, daylight had faded enough to require me to switch on my headlamp. The reassurance of having a 24-hour run time on my Exposure Maxx-D light is priceless for a ride like this. I also put on my windproof jacket & cold weather gloves as I was feeling the chill from the combination of losing sunlight and the strong winds high in the hills.
The eight or so hours of darkness passed mostly without incident. At one point my front wheel slipped on a wet stream crossing resulting in my left knee hitting the stem that left me with a dead leg for a few minutes and a bruise for the rest of the ride. One of the most memorable stretches was around midnight, riding between Stainforth and Settle high up along the side of the hill with nothing visible but the lights of Settle far below. It’s moments like that when you’re reminded just how lucky you are to be doing something like this.
At around mile 52, the hills between Settle and Long Preston gave way to the “linking” section of the trail, much of which is made up of new access routes through grassy fields. For the most part, these fields do not have defined paths through them that are visible on the ground so you’re simply meant to follow a straight line to a gate at the other side of the field. In the darkness, and therefore unable to see the gates at the other side of these fields, I was reliant on following my GPS track. It wasn’t always accurate though and I did waste a bit of time riding aimlessly around dark grassy fields during that period of the night. Some extra motivation provided via my headphones was most welcome over that stretch. Overall, I really enjoyed the night riding I generally made good progress and was able to find water easily, first at a river in the hills, then at a camp site near a brief stretch of road.
After around 12 hours of riding I was 86 miles into the ride. Over the previous 30 miles or so my average speed had dropped from around 8mph to closer to 7mph. I knew for a sub-24 hour finish I needed to keep well into a 7+ mph overall average. Despite feeling fine in myself, the hills were getting steeper and thus slowing my progress. At this point I was just about to join the Mary Townley Loop & I made an extra effort not to waste any time, put my head down & got on with it.
Unfortunately, the hills had other ideas! From around Hebden Bridge at mile 94, they became steeper and more frequent. Time and again I found myself pushing up an impossible slope, only to lose that height in a matter of a mile or less, to then face another steep climb again. It became a routine and the next 24 miles took me four and a half hours…which (I had lots of time to calculate) was just about the slowest progress I’d ever made on a bike over that kind of distance.
At 16 hours into the ride, whilst I was holding up ok physically, mentally this is where I started to break down. I knew my sub 24-hour goal was no longer realistically achievable, and if these hills continued in a similar fashion I could be looking at another 13 hours of riding to go. Could I physically cope with another 13 hours of this kind of hard work? Even if I could, did I want to keep going for that long? By now it was raining & the familiar headwind had picked up speed again. My stomach was also starting to crave proper food. I felt like I was in a cartoon with a cloud (literally and metaphorically) above my head that I just couldn’t shift. I decided I had pretty much had enough & started to consider bailout options.
By now it was morning and the occasional early riser was out, despite the rain. It was around this time that I met another rider along the trail. I had a brief exchange with him, and explained how I didn’t think I’d be able to finish and would probably bail soon. “Well I’ve only done 9 miles and you’re still beating me up this hill” he called out as I took off up the climb (a rare ride-able one at this point). “I suppose I am” I thought to myself. This flicked a switch in my head & prompted me to start repeating to myself a simple mantra that a great friend & athlete told me: “All will be most well“.
“All will be most well“
Say it enough times and apparently you can program your brain to believe it. Well, I’d said it on many occasions already during this ride and I was repeating it almost constantly by this point, and I think perhaps there may be something in it. I decided I was damned if I was going to quit on this and let myself and all my family & friends down who were following the painfully slow progress of my Spot tracker. If it would take another 13 hours of pushing up hills, then all I’d need is some decent food in my belly.
So at mile 119, determined to see this thing through, I headed off the trail at Uppermill and spent an hour in a cafe. I phoned a friend for a chat, ate some real food, drank some tea, and just relaxed for a while.
This marked the turning point in the ride for me. I’d started well but fallen behind on pacing during the middle stretch. I decided I’d just take things as they came from here, push when the hills were too steep, and ride when they weren’t. Appropriately enough, the weather also improved after the cafe stop. The clouds thinned, the sun appeared, and for the first time I actually got out the sun-block.
It didn’t take me another 13 hours to finish the ride, but seven and a half. The climbs were still hard at for a while, but they got easier and I was even able to enjoy the warm sunshine on the last push of the route up Chee dale.
The final twelve miles of this north-south route is quite a shock to the system: a flat, smooth graveled disused railway. After nearly 26 hours of hard riding and pushing, I had a final 40 glorious minutes of flat-out crazy cadence singlespeed spinning with the sun on my back & the end line in sight. It’s funny how your mindset can change so quickly, and certainly this ride has taught me that. I hope next time I’m in a mental hole on a long ride, perhaps it might be a little easier to dig myself out of it.
I reached the finish line at Middleton Top 26 hours and 32 minutes after leaving Kirkby Stephen, which is now the time to beat on that trail. The current south-north record holder, Steve Heading, was kind enough to meet me at the finish line to show his support & take pictures. Steve had also helped me out considerably during my few days of planning before the ride. Thanks Steve!
Huge thanks to my family & friends who were following my progress and, despite perhaps not knowing it, providing a great deal of motivation for me to keep going. Sorry about forgetting to switch the Spot tracker back on after it shut down at 24 hours!
Finally, in addition to Steve Heading, I must also thank Rob Lee, Steve Wilkinson and Rob Dean for their help & advice on the route as I really would have been completely clueless coming into this without it. Next time, I’ll make sure I have time to look at the gradients and prepare myself for what’s to come :-).