In the immediate aftermath of stage 2, the first note I made was to say how much I was enjoying this event. Both the riding and not riding - apart from maybe the annoying sections where I should be riding but am forced to walk instead! This stage was far from easy but the distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 fun was evidently becoming blurred.
This second leg was a real stage of two halves. Through Wales until Manchester was brilliant. One of my most enjoyable days on the bike of all time. I felt great physically and mentally, relishing tackling the terrain and it helped that most of the off-road sections were rideable. The day began with a splash: shortly after the 8:00am mass re-start we were faced with a river crossing where there was no other option than to wade right through. Miles (organiser/media rider from the Racing Collective) was gleefully positioned on the bank with his unfeasibly long camera-on-a-stick to capture the moment. I was slightly frustrated by my lack of technical ability on the rougher sections during this opening stretch where I could see others glide through sections I was forced to dismount to overcome. Ploughing on though, more hospitable forestry trails led to Machynlleth which presented a smoother ride and beyond lay a nicely graded climb to a couple of single track sections which I took very steadily.
I was just behind Charles and Molly at this moment and we came across Alex, stationary in the middle of the trail examining his bike which was laying on the ground. It’s often a slightly awkward moment when coming across a fellow competitor having bike issues during a self-supported event. Often a brief ‘are you OK?’ is posed to ensure they are in no danger to their safety. Otherwise, if the issue is purely mechanical there is, in my opinion, a distinction between showing sympathy and offering words along the lines of ‘I hope you get it sorted’ and overstepping the principles of self-supported racing by offering support, even if that is simply suggesting a solution. I wouldn’t expect this from anyone else towards me. If it’s my issue, it’s up to me to resolve it. In this instance the two ahead had stopped by Alex so I did likewise briefly to see what the issue was. His derailleur was damaged and it was clear it would cause him hours to get to somewhere for a fix and then inevitably replaced. This was a real shame as Alex had demonstrated himself as a strong competitor, leading after the first stage. Likewise for Molly’s unfortunate withdrawal, she was putting in a tenacious performance and would surely have placed highly.
A return to the road then heralded the run-up to the climb of Bwlch y Groes, also ominously known as ‘Hellfire Pass’, the second highest public road mountain pass in Wales. I span conservatively on the approach, keenly awaiting the occasion to overcome this redoubted obstacle. At an average gradient of 12% for two miles with pitches of 20% it was a bit of a slog but manageable, helped by a lack of motor traffic which permitted me to tack across the full width of the road to somewhat even out the slope. The descent led to the briefest of flat cruises along Lake Vyrnwy and the next lengthy climb up to the Hirnant Pass on the road and then above and beyond on the dirt. I tackled this tricky section with more confidence and was rewarded with a spectacular vista at this elevation of above 2,000ft. In a welcome contrast to the heat of the previous stage, the weather on this day was reasonably benign with mild temperatures around 20°c, little by the way of wind and the briefest of hints of rainfall on only a couple of occasions.
The next off-road climb and descent immediately after Llandrillo included the most walking of the day but much of the upper section to the summit was just about rideable. A fast down-valley run to Glyn Geirog was the precursor to an event which would have repercussions for the rest of the event. An unfeasibly steep ramp leaving the village had me again straining every sinew, using the full width of the road and giving some more wear to my already much-used easiest gear (I subsequently learnt that many others were forced to walk here so perhaps I’m learning where my strengths lay across the various surfaces and terrains!). The descent to Llangollen turned very steep very quickly and twisted its way around tight corners on a single-track road with high hedges either side. Gripping the brakes the whole way down, I emerged from one of these corners to glimpse a car heading towards me perhaps 30 metres ahead. Grasping the brakes as hard I could, it quickly became evident I would not be able to come to a full stop in time. I aimed for the non-existent gap between the car’s flank and the hedge but as I hit the bank I was still carrying too much speed to come to a halt. I’m not sure exactly how I was ejected from the bicycle but I ended up on my back behind the car with my steed settling over my legs. My immediate assessment was that was OK, but I paused from lifting myself up for 10 seconds or so just to make sure. The impact was felt at my upper left back, just behind the shoulder but there was no significant pain and I was able to raise myself to my feet and pick up my bicycle. The driver of the car seemed more concerned with whether I had damaged his precious metal box than my condition. Despite his slightly hostile and unsympathetic attitude, I was aware that the incident was my fault and there was nothing much more he could have done in the circumstances. I therefore apologised, checked my bicycle was in one piece and very steadily resumed the descent, conscious that I had been extremely fortunate and berating myself for not taking the downhill more cautiously.
I pedalled through the bustling town and flicked up through the gears as the road once again headed skywards. As I went to engage the biggest cog a crunching sound shot out and I glanced down to see that the chain had fallen off the inside of the cassette. Stopping by the side of the road, I couldn’t immediately retrieve the chain and my stomach sunk as I thought I may have seriously damaged the derailleur in the crash. Letting out an expletive at just the moment an elderly lady was walking by, triggering much tutting (sorry), I gave myself a moment to calm and re-posed the bicycle on a flatter surface by a bench. I was then able to remount the chain, spin the pedals and all seemed to be functioning somewhat correctly. I tentatively remounted and changed through the gears, bracing for any repeat mishaps. Happily, the chain remained in place when back in the easiest gear but when descending back through the range there was a clicking as the gear changes were having difficulty engaging. The indexing was out but, with some back-and-forth with the shifting, it was workable. I tweaked the barrel adjustor (the first of many times I would do this) and resolved to ride on and re-assess if the situation deteriorated.
Almost immediately after this scare a young chap (sorry, I’ve forgotten your name!) on an MTB descended past me from the opposite direction, offering a cheer of support. He soon re-emerged from behind and asked if he could ride with me for a while. I was grateful for the company and the timing was impeccable – giving me something to take my mind off fretting over my sloppy gear changing and the 9km hill to tackle. His MTB was far more suitable for the paving-slab section at the top of the moor and he parted just before I bumbled my way down another MTB trail at Llandegla. The ensuing never-ending descent to the Cheshire Plains was a stonker and I prepared to settle in on the aerobars for an evening of (mostly) flat roads towards Manchester.
My first re-supply stop of the stage was on the approach to Chester at 180km/7:00pm but the Coop I chose had somehow run out of every size and form of bottled water. I replenished my food supply and pushed on, resolving to find some road-side source of water on the way to Manchester. I was joined by another bicycling Dotwatcher on this stretch, who was very keen to tell me all about his cycling exploits. I’m not sure I had the opportunity to conversate much in return but the attention was very flattering and not something I’ve often experienced in other events. Incidentally, this reminded me of something I recently read in Mark Beaumont’s book ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ where he recounts that the people who come out to ride alongside him are often more interested in talking about themselves than asking him about his experience!
Almost depleted of water, I spied the lights of a store just before joining the Manchester canal and swung in to top up. With immaculate timing it was 9:59pm and I sneaked in just as the shopkeeper was preparing to close up at 10:00pm. Hopping back on two wheels, Christoph swept past and we exchanged a brief ‘Hey’ before he shot off as I stumbled over clipping in. His light hovered ahead in the near distance as the route followed the canal towards the city centre. I’m hesitant at the best of times cycling on towpaths, fearful of ending up in the water, so erred toward the edge of the path furthest from the canalside in this darkness. Central Manchester came at around 11:00pm and provided some stimulation, a fascinating contrast to the remote rurality of much of the route, but thankfully incident-free. I spotted Christoph pausing at a Coop in Spitalfields but it was my intention to make it through the urban sprawl and stock up for the nightshift at Bury. The trails dissecting the north side of the city were a welcome diversion from the stop-start traffic light strewn streets but appeared to turn to slop in places with no warning, bringing me to a sticky pause on numerous occasions. These dominated the route through to Bury where I emerged alongside the 24-hour Tesco Garage I had planned to visit.
I knew this already, but there are 24-hour garages are there are 24-hour garages. This one was of the petrol-only variety. Maybe this was an oversight in my planning, or maybe it wasn’t evident from the online map. Either way I needed additional sustenance to make it through the night so whipped out my phone and identified a 24-hour Spar garage around 1km off route. Spar garages are often the best 24-hour option – they unfailingly have their doors open all night so avoid the need to use the irritating night pay window. As I headed towards the garage, a lady in a car pulled alongside at a set of traffic lights and asked if I was lost as she had seen me looking confusingly at my phone a moment ago. Of course I knew where I was going. She then asked if I was doing an event. ‘GBDURO’, I replied and she said something about being a police officer, whilst showing some acknowledgement that she understood what I was doing. Pulling in to the garage behind me she explained that she was on night shift and was a member of the local cycling club, Bury Clarion, which is renowned for producing the Yates brothers. I tried to make awkwardly polite conversation whilst stuffing my face, filling my pockets and preparing my milky-coffee fix and sensed an odd blend of admiration, pity and perhaps mild disgust emanating in response.
Now ready to head back to the hills and an area I am reasonably familiar with (this can work both ways), I sensed an abrupt turn in the weather conditions. The wind had picked up menacingly, blowing uncommonly from the north east, which would be a pain as the route generally headed north or slightly north west. The first climb had me slogging up on two feet for long periods, summiting at a wind farm with the hug turbines overhead swishing eerily and adding to the threatening atmosphere. At higher elevations a drizzle turned in to fine rain and my rain jacket was deployed. The next few hours passed in a dark, damp, wind-hindered funk. Much of the route followed the Pennine Bridleway, over surfaces and terrain which would be difficult to navigate on a fine day, let alone in the dark with sideways rain. Progress felt painfully slow, with ample walking both uphill and down-dale and the rain persisted, although the conditions never became too unbearable. The idea of sleeping never really stuck in my mind. There was always the next hill to get over and if I were to stop, it would be difficult finding somewhere comfortable enough without the faff of getting out extra layers. Soon enough, the sky began to turn a tinge of blue to signal the arrival of a new day.
The early part of the morning was equally miserable, the wind bringing a chill which was even commented on by a local farmer I passed on a hillside. If even a tough Yorkshire-woman thought the conditions were unpleasant, it reassured me that it couldn’t just be me being soft. This stretch was additionally characterised by the sheer quantity of unavoidable sheep and cow pooh on the trail, plus the challenge of opening/closing gates at unwelcomingly frequent intervals. Further to the annoyance of having to dismount and re-mount there was the puzzle of figuring out the varying opening/closing mechanisms and the fight to budge open those which were stuck firm.
The sun made its welcome return as morning progressed but it took some time for me to properly warm up. The headwind was particularly thwarting on the slightly uphill road to Newby Head, forcing me to put in an effort to maintain 10-12kph. I was now concerned how this wind would affect the upcoming run-in to Kirkby Stephen and ensuing ascent to Great Dun Fell, both tackled in a north-easterly direction. Thankfully, descending from the moortops offered calmer meteorological conditions in the following valley and beyond. I made a final pitstop at Kirkby Stephen for a couple of rice puddings an a restock of flapjacks. It was now around 1:00pm and I only had 45km to the checkpoint, but 20km of this comprised getting up to Great Dun Fell and descending via the redoubted ‘dark side’. I was now more settled in my mind about the remaining task – I would relax on the spin to the base of the hill and was confident that, as this was a road climb and I had tackled it before in an equally fatigued state 500km+ in to All Points North 2019, I would be able to heave myself up. The descent would then take however long it would take.
The road to Great Dun Fell was one of those pesky stretches with constant short, sharp rises offering little prospect of retaining a constant rhythm. I had finally warmed up in the sunlight with jacket removed and pins out to pre-empt over-heating on the climb. Great Dun Fell is the highest paved road in England at 848 metres (2,782 ft) and is essentially a dead-end road with a gate half-way up supposedly prohibiting access to motor vehicles apart from those requiring access to the radar station at its summit. It is a challenging ascent but I found it somewhat enjoyable on this occasion, conscious that this was the final major effort before reaching the checkpoint. Once at the top, ignoring the box of brownies left roadside by a Dotwatcher (I would view accepting this as outside assistance), it was all downhill to Garrigill and the promise of a well-earned rest.
It may well have all been downhill, but not exactly a smooth or fast downhill. There is supposedly a bridleway at this point but evidence of it on the ground is barely discernible. I bumbled my way down, more often walking than wheeling, trying to follow the mal-defined trail which largely tracked one bank of a river but would then suddenly disappear and resume on the other side. Conditions underfoot were variable; at one point I was half-knee deep in a bog but managed to pull my foot out without losing a shoe. It could have been far worse if not for the recent dry spell. My feet were beginning to hurt, likely due to the onset of trench foot from having damp feet since the river crossing at the start of the stage. After around 45 minutes of this palaver, I noticed Christoph charging down the hill behind me and he swept past just as we were about to gratefully hit a paved surface appearing out of the blue. Although I wasn’t going to push myself too much for the sake of a couple of minutes the reminder that I was in a race gave me a boost of energy to press on and keep him honest for the final stretch. The village hall at Garrigill again offered an impeccably generous welcoming and I finished the stage in far higher spirits than I had been in at times earlier in the stage. In addition, as it was still mid-afternoon I was afforded ample time to eat, clean, eat some more, pitch the tent, eat again and get 10+ hours sleep. An assessment of the bicycle suggested that the derailleur hanger was slightly bent, causing my issues with indexing, but it probably wasn’t worth risking doing anything drastic as it was still very much rideable. I’d just have to put up with dodgy shifting for the next 900km…
Distance: 464.68km / 288.74mi
Speed*: 10.41mph / 16.74kph
Elevation: 7,848m / 25,751ft
Power*: 131w (173w WAP)
Avg Heart Rate: 97bpm (136bpm max)
Elapsed Time: 32:28:01
Moving Time*: 27:47:21
Sleep Time: 00:00:00
Flapjacks Consumed: a lot
*note speed, power and moving time all distorted by auto-pause and hike-a-bike sections.