There comes a time in a cyclist’s life when they have to face their demons. Mine, like many others, is climbing. I turn into this devil-woman cursing every pedal stroke, willing harm on whoever’s idea it was to go up that stupid hill. Of course, I also relish the feeling at the top and think “that wasn’t so bad” until the next hill I have to get up.
Sunday 15th May was Etape du Dales day – a 175km route from Threshfield in the Yorkshire Dales taking in iconic climbs such as Fleet Moss, Buttertubs Pass (of Le Tour fame), Tan House Hill and the wall that is Coal Road/Garsdale Head. These climbs, nested in among a plethora of other smaller, often steeper climbs made it a tough day out from the get-go. I was so nervous as to whether I’d complete it or how many sets of cleats I’d go through from having to walk some of the vertical roads I’d be facing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to take many photos, mainly because I was too busy chewing my stem up vertical climbs so apologies in advance if you expected to see some wonderful Yorkshire scenery.
Josh and I arrived at Wharfedale Rugby Club at bang on 6am with about 5 hours’ sleep in me – not brilliant, but when the alarm is set for 4am, there’s not much that’ll make you sleep like a baby. With hesitation, I got out the car to figure out the air temperature and make my kit choice. It was a brisk few degrees, a fair bit of cloud cover but the sun peeped through in the distance.
I’d watched the weather forecast in the days leading up to it and I knew the sun was due out at some point and the temperature would reach double figures. Not given myself much choice, I went for merino arm warmers, RCC jersey (represent!), insulated gilet (to combat the chilly morning and some cooler descents) and souplesse bib shorts. I had packed some merino knee warmers but I was a tough girl now and I went without.
As many opened up their car boots and sat around coyly applying chamois cream (yes, I saw you!) and assessing their own kit situation, I heard mutters from a guy a few cars down who’d driven up from the south. He had forgotten his helmet and shoes. Not a great start there, mate.
As soon as I’d signed on, we met up with Cath and Ross to form a team of four ready to take on the Dales. The briefing warned of a sketchy cattle grid situation at the bottom of Fleet Moss so almost immediately I was on guard waiting for this cattle grid. 6:45am and we were off in what was probably the second of third wave of the day. The melody of Garmin beeps and cleat clips started us off on the right foot.
The cattle grid chat from earlier was necessary but in reality it was underwhelming: I just rode on the grass around the grid and thought nothing of it. I knew that Fleet Moss was around 25km into the route so I was braced for the worst. I won’t deny that it’s a steep 2.8km with an average of 8% frequently rising above 10% in certain stretches. Admittedly though, I think I had expected worse so it was a relief to get to the top and realise I’d conquered it without losing too much sweat.
Next up was Buttertubs Pass, the name of which I always giggle at. Who calls a hill Buttertubs?! Classic Yorkshire, in my opinion. This one was a steep one (I think I’ll be saying that about many of the climbs I’m about to describe) with a horrible hairpin at the top which, from just a short distance away, looked like a wall. I quickly disregarded anyone on my wheel and took it as wide as I could and swept back in to take advantage of a much-needed break as I crested.
Low Row was a real stinker of a climb. “If anyone said ‘attack, attack!’ to me right now, I would attack them” I said and two onlookers laughed as I granny geared from the very bottom. I think at its most gentle it’s 9% and it’s an average of about 11.5% for 1.2km. Many were zigzagging (including me) but given it was a single track road, there was still no respite.
After that stinger, it was just a matter of a long rolling climb up to Tan Hill to the next checkpoint. As Ross said, you don’t see the pub until you see it and I know that sounds silly but when you’re climbing a hill, usually there’s a peak you can see from a distance that you can aim for. With this, you’re looking for the pub and until you go around a corner at the very top, you won’t realise you’re there. Had a proper sit down at this checkpoint and sank about 10 boiled potatoes. The only thing they lacked was some salt but no complaints, really.
The descent off Tan Hill was a bit nerve-racking, especially near the bottom with two very tight hair pins and traffic coming towards us. “SLOWING!!” I yelled to my comrades as we approached. Thankfully the drivers were understanding and waiting for us to take the corners before heading up. It was quite amusing at times when you’d get to a descent and there’d be a St John Ambulance waiting for the casualties that would inevitably misjudge the corners.
The best descent ever was just one long climb away: Nateby or as it’s called on Strava, Lamps Moss. It was such a rewarding descent with sweeping roads in near-perfect condition and I lapped it up. I might be slow on climbs but I’ll be making best use of some downhill even for just a few minutes before the next climb.
The absolute stinker of a climb came not long after this in the form of Coal Road or as it’s known Garsdale Head. I managed the first corner then unclipped for about 20m because I don’t know why. A guy just up from me casually exclaimed, “I’ve had way too many heart attacks to cycle up this hill!” after which I promptly clipped back in and finished the climb. YES GRACE! It’s easily the steepest climb of the entire route and I don’t care that I walked 20m, I smashed most of it so I consider that a victory.
After Coal Road, I felt like I’d completed the ride and knew there were just two or three much smaller climbs to contend with. Coal Road’s descent was awful though and we basically had to stick to the middle of the single track road to avoid the attempts at repairing major potholes. As usual, the St John’s Ambulance paramedic was having his butties at the bottom of the hill waiting for his future patients rolling down.
At this point, there was a fast undulating main road where we managed to chip off quite some miles. I got my second wind and lead us out until we turned left at the Ribblehead Viaduct (stunning, by the way, but no time for photos when you’re busy dropping about ten cyclists trying to jump on your train). It was the sort of road you could cruise along in your big ring and jump out the saddle for the little ramps – POWER!!
The final checkpoint was just off the main road so after I’d eaten my 12th slice of fruit cake for the day (I never eat fruit cake, but on a bike ride, it’s mine!) I pedalled off chasing the others, naively thinking there were no lumps left. How wrong I was! The climb out of Stainforth was a kicker and appeared to go on and on. Not only was I boiling hot (my Garmin read 18°C) ruthlessly stripping my arm warmers off but the climb just kept on giving. I had Pen-y-ghent on my left, a ribbon of patchy undulating road in front of me and sparse moorland to my right.
After this bad boy, it was a case of “point and shoot” as Cath said. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the last 10km because I was too busy watching the wheel in front hoping I would stay upright. It was a fast, long slightly downhill section all the way to the finish and I barely even lifted my head to see what was going on around me. The best thing about that section was my total ascent ticking over to 3,000m. In that moment, I felt invincible on my bike.
We did a Team Sky and rolled over the finish line as a team. Thankfully, none of us did a Richie and we happily dismounted and eagerly ordered some savoury delights from the clubhouse.
I had the best day out on Sunday despite the early rise. The weather was perfect, I knew I’d trained for it and thanks to some wise words from Ross, I feel confident I can do most climbs I face even if I’m slow, rocking around on a 30T sprocket and compact cranks.
I’m now accepting ideas for my challenge of 2017 so throw me some ideas. I might even entertain them!
P.s. shouts to all the women doing this event. There were so many and you’re all my idols. One lady in particular walked quite a few of the climbs but she was considerably older than me and I took my proverbial hat off to her every time. If I can get out and do a day like that when I’m her age, I’ve made it.
Link to Strava