I stopped at the bottom of a rooty and rocky trail threading its way up through some woodland. It was too steep to ride. I prepared to dismount for yet another push, but my mind challenged me before my body could repeat the now familiar ritual of the next bit of hike-a-bike. Just how far, from this exact point, would it be to ride the road back to Keswick?
I was near Elterwater, west of Ambleside part way into the Lakeland 200 ITT route. The sun shone, but everything was dark. I’d been riding since 3:33am and it was now 3:00pm. I was just past half way and I’d had enough. I’d lost count of the number of climbs I’d pushed. Over 60 miles of Lakeland trails lay behind me, mostly hewn from large lumps of rock that provided no respite. I still had to do a distance equal to what I had already covered, and over more difficult terrain. Sunset was 4 hours away.
The answer to my question lay not in the shortest distance back to where I started, but the feeling of regret and failure that would result from an uncompleted challenge. It would gnaw away at me until I returned again. The thought of having to repeat the passage over Longscale Fell, across the Old Coach Road, through Martindale Common and over Bedafell to Hartsop, and then the brutal carry up the western flank of High Street, the push up Garburn Pass and the intricate bridleways that followed down to Staveley and on to Ambleside; they would all need to be repeated. I would still find myself at the bottom of this rocky and rooty unrideable climb. I resolved that this route must be completed on this attempt. It will take as long as it takes.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, the first half of the route was full of great riding. The descent off High Street was a proper white-knuckle helter-skelter of steep swoopy grass and short rocky chutes and steps. Garburn Pass presented a different challenge – a rock-fest that commanded your attention from top to bottom, carefully threading the bike through and over the rocks to avoid a ripped tyre, or worse, a crash. To guard against the former, I had a spare in the my rucksack. But the counterpart to these great descents were the punishing climbs that preceded them. Over 400m of vertical ascent in one long carry to the top of High Street, or the push over the marble-like gravel to the top of Garburn Pass. None of these trails, either up or down, yielded even the slightest bit in terms of difficulty.
In my mind I had the various bench-marks of other riders’ attempts in my head. Chris Hope, record holder – 16 hours 45 mins. No chance of beating that, but I frequently marvelled at how fast he could traverse this rough and unfinished landscape of rocks and boulders through which the trail would weave. The next target was 21 hours 57 mins, set by Alan Goldsmith – route master. Basic maths told me if I could maintain an overall average of 10 km/h, I would be done in 20 hours.
After 18 hours, at 8:40pm, I descended into Seathwaite. The first full on night time descent since I’d started first thing in the morning. The map was marked PH, which hopefully meant warm food. Thankfully I’d made it in time to order a coffee, coke and lasagne and chips, which were quickly dispatched. Leaving the pub at 9:30pm, I had 4 hours left to cover the remaining 45 km to finish within Alan’s time. I figured it couldn’t be done, so the next target was to come in under 24 hours. That left me 6 hours. That should be enough, right?
Wrong. The problem with riding for 18 hours and then having a big meal – even with a double dose of caffeine – is that all you want to do afterwards is go to sleep. I felt OK for a while, navigating over the top to Eskdale without too much problem, though this section seemed to consume two hours in itself. The next section over to Wasdale Head was the challenge. On top of the moor itself there was little to keep my mind occupied as I pushed my bike along an indistinct and occasionally boggy trail. I stumbled several times as I appeared to fall asleep or zone out while pushing. I sat down on a rock and closed my eyes for a few seconds as waves of sleep kept coming over me. I ate some more food – I can’t recall what I had now, something sugary or a gel of some sort and tried to press on. Whether I’d slept for seconds or minutes I couldn’t tell, but after snapping out of a few cycles of nodding off, I felt marginally better. I negotiated the descent into Wasdale, where the cold valley air gave me a proper wake up. Another two hours had passed since Eskdale.
The crux of the route is undoubtedly the carry over Black Sail Pass and Scarth Gap Pass. I was beginning to question the logic of starting this route in Keswick and having to deal with these two at the of the ride. Black Sail started off reasonably well, and I even managed to get on the bike and ride for some short sections to relieve the effort of pushing. Eventually I came to the inevitable carry, lifting my bike over my head and placing downtube and seat tube on my shoulders to spread the load, which though an awkward maneuver in itself, was better than trying to push/ drag the bike over the rocks. I stopped for a rest a couple of times to marvel at my surroundings. The peaks of Kirk Fell, Pillar and Red Pike surrounding me, their black profiles set against the moon-lit sky.
At the top of the pass I was presented almost immediately with the carry down the other side. I rode a few bits but it was barely worth the effort of getting on the bike. I arrived at Black Sail Hut at 3:30am, 24 hours after leaving Keswick. Another target missed. I tried the door to see if it was open. It wasn’t, so I pressed on to Scarth Gap. This carry, both up and down, was dispatched quicker than Black Sail, mainly for the reason that it had half the amount of climbing involved, rather than some miraculous recovery on my part.
Honister Pass presented the last substantial climb of the ride, and at least it was tarmac so the pushing was easier. It was also mind-numbingly boring, and sleep attempted to grab hold again. I think I nearly mastered the art of sleeping while pushing as on a few occasions I found myself in the middle of the road having started at the edge, but not really sure how I’d got there. Part way up this climb the other notable time target passed; that of the singlespeed record by Phil Fraser-Thomson in 25 hours 33 minutes.
The last section of off road to Keswick follows a bridleway above the western side of Derwent Water. It was getting light now, and though I probably should have delighted at the pinks and reds of a new dawn the desire to get this damn ride finished was overwhelming. Yet the trail continued to grab hold. The descents were tough; large rocks strewn on the ground over which to pick your way. It was just relentless.
I arrived at the van 27 hours and 10 minutes since leaving it. The Lakeland 200 was done, and so was I. Any sense of triumph or achievement on finishing was muted. This route stood as the singularly most difficult ride I’d attempted. It’s also the longest I’ve been on the bike continuously. I didn’t expect the route to be this hard, and I had perfect conditions. Some of it owed to my choice of start point, the time of year and amount of daylight, and my choice of gears (or lack of). While the concept of such a route calls out like a Siren to any hardened adventure seeking rider, the reality is that many of the trails in the lakes present such challenging riding even in isolation, to stitch them all together into a 200 km loop creates an utterly preposterous route.
I ate some olives, downed a recovery drink and stripped out of my stinking cycling kit and crawled into my sleeping bag. It was most definitely time for bed.
Ride stats available here: http://www.strava.com/activities/195015195
[edit: added 19 Sept 2014] I would like to clarify my use of the word “preposterous”. This should not be construed in the negative. It is not to say the route is invalid or unsuitable in any way. It is supposed to be a tough route. Preparation for it, attempted as a single loop, rather than the original two-day challenge that was Alan’s intention, should be meticulous and thorough beyond any you would normally do for a challenging UK “day” ride. The route itself will provide a test of mental and physical endurance above any other route of this distance in the UK. Its completion therefore provides a high reward of personal achievement and is, without doubt, my biggest accomplishment this year.