What is the Mille Pennines?
It’s 1000kms. It’s got a monstrous 13,500 metres of climbing. It’s got a time limit of 75 hours. It’s in the North of England where the weather is generally terrible. It takes in pretty much every national park between Yorkshire and Scotland, including the Lake District and the North York Moors. And it’s 1000kms with 13,500 metres of leg busting, stupidly steep at times climbing.
And it was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.
Andy Coreless (the organiser) has a reputation for putting on some pretty bloody tough audaxes, and this one appears to be in a league of it’s own. Having spoken to a fair few riders who DNF last year, I knew it was a serious undertaking, and lots of riders I spoke to during the event said it was harder than any other on the calendar (I’m sure I’ll get some flak for that but I’m just repeating what I heard), so I knew it was going to be something special.
My goal in 2017 is to complete a Super Randonneur Series (doing a 200, 300, 400 & 600km ride within a year). I thought that was going to be enough for me. I can remember looking through the audax calendar at the start of the year and seeing the Mille Pennines. Quickly dismissed as “bloody ridiculous” I focussed my energy on winter training and working out how the hell I’d be able to ride 600 kilometres in one go. And then when the first 200km audax of the season rolled round, I had a chat with Magnus and Pete (Magnus was riding MP this year, Pete attempted and packed it in last year) and before I knew it I was emailing the organiser to find out if it was fully booked or not. It wasn’t. I’m in. No going back now.
My thinking was that as I had booked a 400 and 600, and MP was a month after the 6, I would be in top form for it and would have the best possible chance of getting round. That and plenty of very hilly rides leading up to it, including a week in the Welsh hills, would set me up nicely.
I had heard a lot of different tales about last year’s Mille Pennines. They were tales of horrible weather, headwinds and rain, and even worse hills. The “brutal second day” was something to be feared by every rider, and it was what forced half to two thirds of the riders to quit. “Pray for no rain” as Magnus said.
I’d had a terrible week before the event, totally different to the relaxing week off at my parents’ house before the Pair of Kirtons 600. A job change at work into the workshop, not a great deal of sleep, stressing over whether I’d been tapering for too long and if I was losing fitness (ridiculous, but all part of the pre-ride anxiety) and a bad back from either messing about with my bike fit, a lot of moving furniture and bikes around, or maybe just worry. We managed to get the saddle adjusted back to roughly where it had been before I started faffing (attempting to put aerobars on), but I was still concerned if I’d be able to finish the first day, let alone the whole ride.
Day One: The Lake District
I stayed the night before in the Travelodge in Blackpool, which was an eye opening experience, and had me hiding out in my room timidly watching the car in case the hubcaps went missing. Up early and not as tense as on previous start days. Maybe it was the 10am start, maybe I’m just getting used to all this.
Chatted with Phil, Steve and briefly with Magnus and John (who was riding this off the back of 1000 miles in Italy in 38 degree heat, chapeau). The ride out towards the Lake District was fairly uneventful, except for attempting to keep with Magnus and John for all of a minute before realising that they were far too fast for me, something I’d had prior experience with. Phil and I rode together into the lakes towards hills, rain and a very angry driver somewhere by Windermere. Luckily he was the only one of the weekend.
The first two controls passed quite quickly, a chocolate bar at Arnside, falafel and hummus sandwich at Keswick, a stamp at the Whinlatter Pass visitor centre after a steady climb up there. As we got further into the Lakes, the rain got harder and harder. Visibility plummeted and it was a case of gritting your teeth and getting soaked. There was a section on the run down towards Seascale where we only had 100 or so metres of visible road ahead, and we seemed to be climbing inexplicably without really knowing when it would end. Seascale and a Coop. Crisps, melon and other bits to keep me fed and try and stave off the cramp that had been building up in my calves.
The most bizzare half an hour I’ve had on a bike:
Hardknott Pass had me scared on the first day. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until I’d looked into what I’d already signed up for that I realised the UK even has 30% gradients. And I did not realise until too late that we would seem to be riding all of them. With no concept of what it’s like to ride 30%, especially with a loaded bike, the run down to the bottom of Hardknott Pass felt like going to the gallows.
It’s a mad climb with the 30% sections coming towards the bottom, so you’re already working very hard through the middle, and as you work your way up into the clouds as we did, you’re hit with another couple of 30% ramps. It was here that my head went, and I foolishly stayed seated turning a corner onto a steep section. I should have unclipped and accepted my fate, but I didn’t and the front wheel lifted off the ground and I found myself acquainted with the tarmac. A banged elbow is not a problem, but the way my calves cramped up, leaving me totally unable to move had me concerned. I’d been feeling them twinge all day and the effort of getting that far up the climb had sent them over the edge. Luckily pushing the bike uphill was stretching them out, as steep as it was, and as I got towards the top I jumped back on ready for the descent.
It was breathtaking. This was one of the ‘four moments’ which I’ll come to later, but the way the road twisted down, and then back up Wrynose Pass was incredible. Made even better by the low hanging cloud giving a feeling of being separate from the rest of the world, with just a glimpse of sunshine breaking over the top of Rhino’s. What a sight.
The descent, however, was special for a whole host of other reasons. Sore legs, sore arms from descending with locked out brakes down stupidly steep turns. Sore pride from an innocuous fall. Then, towards the bottom of the climb the wildlife changed from the customary sheep roadblocks to a full blown herd of cows with calves. One such cow was in the road, staring me down as I edged past it, and, as concerned as I was about that, it was nothing compared to what lay behind her. A bull stood at the side of the road, the ring in its nose and its staring eyes left me chilled. It was mental. I very quickly had to make a decision about how to navigate and rolled steadily past, and once clear, thanked my lucky stars and wondered what the hell had just happened.
Once down from Wrynose, the rest of the Lake District ticked away without drama. A stop at a garage on the way out, a sharp climb 10 miles from Sedbergh and we rolled into the village just as it got dark. We knew the control was in the school, but what I wasn’t expecting was that the school looked more like a country house, and was so big that we had to spend ten minutes just looking for where we needed to go.
The control was nicely stocked, beans on toast and bread and jam always goes down well at the end of a long day. A shower goes down even better and I managed to wash my kit ready to put on for the third day. It quickly became apparent that I’d messed up the bag drop, and brought a lot of things I didn’t need (massage ball, far too many socks etc) and not enough of the essential things like a sleeping bag or a pillow. So I attempted sleep on an airbed in the school gym, with a jersey for a blanket and a bag of clothes for a pillow. Two and a half hours. I woke up with Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon in my head which hadn’t left since Thursday, and wouldn’t leave until well into the following week. Still sore from the cramp. Shaking from cold/tiredness. To breakfast…
Day Two: The Pennines and Scotland
(5am leaving Sedbergh)
The scenery was stunning all weekend. It’s the most amazing part of the country, and each national park has its own feel, but none of them are devoid of hills, they’re just varying degrees of difficulty. But hills make the scenery interesting and there were four moments that absolutely took my breath away: three crested hills looking at descents and one magnificent forest.
The second day was the section I had earmarked as really bloody hard. It was the bit that blew the field apart last year, and on paper it looked mad. Four of the biggest climbs we would be facing, one after the other with little in between except a breakfast stop in Barnard Castle after two climbs.
This was a little further down the descent off the top of Buttertubs Pass. Considering I’d left the control after 2 1/2 hours sleep, feeling generally terrible, the climb was relatively unremarkable aside from being quite steep and quite long. But the view at the top, with the recently risen sun, was truly magical.
Proper Yorkshire scenery at the bottom, with lovely lanes and dry stone walls. I had started to get a bit sleepy again as the light through the trees would flicker and make my eyes tired. Pushing on I took the second of only two wrong turns overall, unfortunately this wrong way was steeper than the right way. A sharp climb next, shorter than Buttertubs but opening out into a long straight, moorland type road. I stopped briefly to put my jacket away as the sun was up now, and saw a few riders behind me. It’s always nice having a bit of motivation to press on and not get caught even though it’s not a race. Up here I rode into County Durham which signalled the beginning of the Northern section for me.
Coffee. Wonderful, wonderful coffee. I’m not sure you can call watery instant brown liquid coffee, it doesn’t really do a lot. Properly made, correctly timed coffee is a joy to behold when riding a longer audax. I was determined to find something in Barnard Castle but thought I was too early. One café towards the top of the hill looked nice, and more importantly looked open. I popped in and a very nice chap served up beans on toast and a real coffee. Steve and another rider rode past and I hailed them down and we dined together. I was relieved as I knew there was a lot more to go and company would be very important. The poor café owner was on his own and was now mobbed with lots of riders now ordering a full English. Slice of cake to get me up the next hill.
One more climb to Stanhope and the control. Looks like nothing on paper. It took ages. In Stanhope it became apparent that even though you can see no one on the road for hours, everyone comes together at the controls, like letting go of a tight elastic band at each one. There must have been 20 riders milling about outside the bakery and Coop. We dived in and grabbed salted cashews (lifesaver against the cramp of yesterday which thankfully didn’t recur for the rest of the weekend) and some bread. If we’d been flying we would have had a proper meal but it was so slow going we wanted to press on, something we’d come to regret later when we realised we hadn’t a proper meal for 10 hours and just eaten shop crap.
The climb out of Stanhope was arduous, leaving the town behind. I bumped into a rider I’d ridden out with that morning, he was struggling a bit I think, don’t know if he finished or packed. Once out of the town the landscape seemed to change again, and the North Pennines felt a bit more barren, slightly redder and very high up. The weekend riders had woken up by this point and would tank it past us. We pressed on towards Hexham.
(Steve is a much better descender than I am)
Café Nero (crap coffee) in a busy Hexham town centre. A couple came up and asked us if we had any injuries/illnesses that they could pray for. I did my best to keep quiet and hope they’d go away, Steve got roped in to explaining what we were up to. The time was getting on, we still hadn’t hit Scotland and an overpriced sandwich wasn’t a great lunch. Keep going, back on the bike.
Another scene change – greener, more rolling, less interesting. We were riding through a motorbike hotspot towards Kielder, they kept flying past us, always too loud. Kielder Water came first, then the forest and it was very impressive, definitely another one of the standout moments of the weekend. However the roads dragged, we slowed and the shop in Kielder village that we had to stop at for the control was terrible. Should have had a baked potato like Magnus in the visitor centre but that was slightly out the way.
Welcome to Scotland. The borderlands were windy, but flat for the first time all day. We followed a river, winding our way towards the control at Langholm. I had checked beforehand and wasn’t confident that we’d be able to find something decent to eat there as it was fairly late, so we pitched up at a hotel in Newcastleton for a veggie burger and chips, Steve had the chicken curry he’d been craving. It was here I’d decided that this far north, with this much riding and climbing to do I was going to have to let the vegan thing slide for the weekend, and tucked greedily into to the cheese and mayonnaise accompaniments.
The stretch between Newcastleton and Langholm was much longer than expected, and would have been nearly impossible without a belly full of real food. It was up and over a moor and was very isolated. We didn’t hang around when we reached the control, as we were still in Scotland and it was 6pm. A strange feeling knowing you’ve got what looks like half the day left on the map and you’ve already been at it 12 hours. It was going to be flatter however, and we were actually over halfway.
The food kicked in on the A road down towards Carlisle and we were flying. Straight through Carlisle, Magnus and John’s group caught us up and we tanked it down to Penrith. Those guys stopped, Steve and I grabbed petrol station flapjacks and other rubbish and we pressed on.
As darkness fell we climbed back into the remote Dales and had an eerie night ride towards the control. Tired and just wanting to be back by then, the last 10km took forever as we rode a winding, up and down lane watching the kms tick off incredibly slowly.
We arrived at Sedbergh around 1am and demolished the food on offer (I think it was beans on toast but it’s all a blur). Straight to bed for another terrible sleep, no shower this time as it was 2am and I wanted to be out by 6am. Another bad night, this time with a towel over me, another freezing wake up and drag to breakfast.