Last year in a rush of enthusiasm I entered this sportive; and then as nobody else I knew was doing it, I hadn’t trained for a 60-mile bike ride, and I had no idea what the weather would be like, I didn’t go. I’ve also always been rather hesitant about cycling in the Lake District, knowing how windy and narrow some of the roads are, and how much traffic they have on them: including drivers who don’t have a clue about how to drive on such roads and don’t appreciate that they are used by horses and people as well as by cars (and buses, lorries, delivery vans…).
This year however I persuaded Penny to enter as well. As the day grew closer she was expressing her doubts about her fitness; but having done the Border Reivers ride and the 50+ mile ride from Penrith around Caldbeck Fell and back, I was sure she’d be OK. The day before the ride I sent her a message asking if she wanted to back out: the thought of getting up at the crack of dawn (actually it was dark when I left home) on a Sunday had lost its appeal and I wanted to stay in bed. Her response was that we should do it. I’m glad she didn’t let me back out.
We met in Stainton at about 7a.m. (I was a bit late) so that we could travel in one car to Grasmere. We had been hoping to start at about 8a.m. but hadn’t appreciated quite how busy it would be. Having parked and sorted out bikes, clothing etc., we went to the village hall where a long queue bent around the outside of the building before going up the stairs and into the main hall to register. A sticker on our helmets, a bright pink wristband (for food) and a sticker to put on our bikes, and we were ready to approach the start line.
A week earlier we had tried out Red Bank, the hill which leads out of Grasmere towards Elterwater, on a Friday afternoon. We started with a 15 mile loop and then when we got back to Grasmere tried Red Bank two more times. Neither of us made it up the hill – the third time I got about halfway and then fell off my bike. It’s a 25% (1 in 4) hill, so fairly steep. I’m determined I’ll get up it one day.
Knowing what Red Bank was like, we were prepared to walk it – and assumed that other people might also be walking, which they were, although the vast majority of the cyclists around us did manage to cycle it all. Having climbed the hill one way or another, there’s then a fairly wiggly descent into Elterwater where there was a camera filming us. Neither Penny nor I feature in that film, despite my giving them my best smile and wave.
From Elterwater we pedalled along some of the lesser used lanes and down to Coniston Water; as we turned down the eastern side of the lake we commented that so far we’d followed the same route as the Keswick to Barrow (an annual 45-mile walk, which some people run). We passed Brantwood, which was having some work done to it judging by the scaffolding up outside it; and then once we were at the bottom (geographically of course, not on the lake bed) of the lake went along a lane which was more or less parallel to the main road. It’s one we’d run a bit of before when we did our ’round 16 lakes’ runs for Penny’s 50th, but I’ve never had any reason to drive along it as it comes up the eastern shore of Coniston from Greenodd. My main memory of it from this ride is going through a long, deep puddle which soaked my feet and my lower legs with rather chilly water. I still haven’t quite worked out what to do to keep my toes warm with trainers and toe clips, as opposed to cleats.
Before long we had crossed over the A590 and were on a road which seemed familiar – I then realised it was the road that goes down past Holker Hall, which we had cycled along when we cycled from Barrow to Grange. That time we’d gone over the singing bridge (by the Greenodd roundabout) and along a very bumpy track which wasn’t particularly suitable for roadbikes; today there wasn’t anything quite so memorable, although the views across the Leven estuary are worth seeing. We started going through more places, but their names are a bit of a blur as by now my mind was on getting to Cartmel and the lunch stop: I’d had half a flapjack and half a cup of coffee for breakfast and whilst I wasn’t feeling obviously hungry, it wasn’t a lot for a 30-mile-plus first half of a bike ride.
Cycling through Cartmel and up to the Scout Hut near the racecourse was quite funny, as previously I’ve been there for the Cartmel trail race. Again, I was seeing a view from a slightly different angle and from a different perspective.
We navigated a muddy track to the scout hut and left our bikes propped up against a fence. The place was, not surprisingly, buzzing with cyclists: everybody seemed to have turned up at once. Despite it feeling as if it was lunchtime, it was only in fact 11 a.m. – we’d been cycling just 2 and a half hours, which was rather gratifying as one of the things I’d been a bit worried about was whether we’d get back to Grasmere before dark. But in fact without having to stop to check the map or for photos, we’d made better time than we might normally.
The only photos we took were at the feed station, despite some lovely Lake District views elsewhere on the course. It was clear by now that we were surrounded mainly by men – we said later that the entrants seemed to be about 75-80% men. I commented to Penny a couple of times about how I’d forgotten how testosterone-fuelled bike rides can be: cyclists who had overtaken us earlier in a blaze of machismo speed, we then overtook back going uphill; and there was one old guy towards the end who then tried to overtake me after I’d overtaken him and basically couldn’t get past me – I had to shout at him not to pull in too soon, and then overtook him again just a few metres later (yes, I get competitive too – and so does Penny though in a less obvious way!).
The lunch was cheese sandwiches, ham sandwiches and cake of various types – and jam sandwiches and peanut butter sandwiches for those that like them – and there was a hill soon after the feed station. I had tried to warm up my feet, which having got so wet were like lumps of ice, and now my stomach and chest felt tight, and I was conscious that I hadn’t digested my lunch and probably shouldn’t have eaten so much. This feeling did not leave me for the rest of the ride, and even driving up the motorway to get home I felt bad and a couple of times thought I was going to be sick. I only felt better after I’d had a bath; and it reminded me of the time I attempted Kielder marathon, ate too much about half way round, and then struggled for the rest of the run and ended up with pains in my chest. This time they were in my back more than my heart area, but even so it reminded me to be a bit more sensible about ‘fuelling’ when exercising (usually less of a problem when cycling than when running).
Having crossed back over to the north of the A590 we turned to pedal along the Rusland valley, which is really pretty. For Penny this was a trip down memory lane, as she used to work at Grizedale Forest. Just before Grizedale we met her husband coming in the other direction on his motorbike – they had a brief chat before we continued past the forest, and he headed home having satisfied himself that we wouldn’t need rescuing. As we started up the hill to Moor Top a guy passed us saying ‘hills, more hills’ – I replied ‘well, it is the Lake District’. Another photographer and another smile – I was, despite feeling rather uncomfortable, basically enjoying myself.
We were now on familiar ground and as Penny zipped down the hill into Hawkshead ahead of me – normally I’m the one in front going down hills but she was ahead of me into Elterwater and on this hill – the many times I’d driven through here when the children were younger and we were on holiday in the Lakes went through my mind. It wasn’t then far into Ambleside, where we repeated the route we had a week earlier alongside the River Rothay – but with rather more people around, which meant we were dodging walkers as well as other cyclists. By now we’d been through two showers of rain and as we headed into Grasmere it started to rain again, rather more heavily. We crossed the finishing line, took our bikes to the car, and then went back to the village hall for ‘hot food’ (and to have our pink wristbands cut off), glad that we were no longer out in the rain that was now falling heavily. We had a brief chat with a nice guy who looked a little like the actor who plays Mr Tumnus in ‘Narnia’: he was wearing only socks on his in the hall and had left his shoes on a windowsill outside, where they were no doubt filling up with rainwater… fortunately he said he had dry clothes in his car.
I wasn’t feeling well enough to have any more food, which was just as well as it looked like an unappetising slop (Penny confirmed that it was pretty tasteless). There were 800-odd people to cater for, but you’d think they could have done a decent soup or soups with bread rolls. But never mind: I’ve never catered for 800 people all arriving at different times, and it can’t be easy. As ever the marshalls along the route were great and really friendly: having marshalled a half marathon in the past I know how cold it is standing around waiting for people to go past, but they do a great job and it can be really cheering to see a friendly face if you’re struggling: so thank you to everyone who marshalled.
Our final conclusions though were that although we were glad we’d done the ride, we wouldn’t do it again. But I’m glad that I now know I can cycle 57 miles in a day and feel OK, and my appetite has been whetted to do more cycling. There are various European routes I want to try out, and I’m now thinking I might save up to take two weeks in the summer to do one.