Thanks to Karl Moseley for writing this.
The day of the Etape dawned dry but very chilly. The weather forecast indicated that the rain would hold off until about 4pm which meant we had every chance of staying dry throughout the ride. Or so we thought.
Nine of us (Karl, Pete, Alex, Nick, Duncan, Paul, Mark, Dave and Darrell) set off accompanied by 2 of Alex’s friends – Mike and Andy, and Duncan’s mate, Justin. This meant that we had a “mini peloton” of 12 of us setting out from Grassington all looking forward to the 110-mile challenge that lay ahead of us.
The first few miles of the Etape flatter to deceive as they are basically flat, sheltered, and picturesque so we sped along at a fast pace led by Mike. The Gods of Cycling however sent us an omen for the day ahead when they struck Mike’s derailleur dead and thereby ended his ride early. This did however result in the group’s overall speed dropping slightly and it was about to drop even more as the first major climb of the day, Fleet Moss loomed ahead. With the lower section of this hill reached, Duncan suffered from his usual rush of blood to the head and charged the hill at top speed to a chorus of warnings from the rest of the bunch. The length of the climb slowed him and everyone else down and so Fleet Moss was ticked off at a steady pace and we were greeted at the top by our support team of Malcolm and James who captured for the first and last time photos of smiling DRY riders. A fast descent into Hawes also signalled the start of persistent drizzle.
Buttertubs Pass was the next hilly challenge and although it had an initially steep section the rest was a lot gentler. Confidence amongst the remaining 10 in our group (we had lost Mike and Justin) was very high and we covered the ground quite quickly in 2 by 2 formation even overtaking a number of other riders. This confidence carried us on through Muker, Gunnerside, Healough and onto Reeth where we turned off for the long climb up Tan Hill. I’ve read that this climb is 13 km but today it felt even longer than that! The wind really started to blow hard, the temperature dropped and the drizzle turned to rain. Unsurprisingly, this lowered our speed, the number of riders in our group and morale. The final kilometre up Tan Hill was a grim war of attrition – us versus the elements. We battled on, kept together in formation and were greeted at the top by the sight of a feed stop, shelter, and the grinning faces of James and Malcolm in the team car. We were all suffering from fatigue, Duncan’s face was grey and we all needed a boost to our morale. Step forward sports psychologist supreme Malcolm Yates: “You’ve only done 40 odd miles. You’ve got another 70 to do!” Thanks for that.
Having warmed ourselves up and refuelled, the descent from Tan Hill was a shock. Strong gusting side winds and slick wet roads meant that 100% concentration was required. We got back to full strength in terms of rider numbers and ploughed on. I must admit my recollection of the stretch up to Nateby and then down to The Moorcock Inn is virtually non-existent. It was a matter of keeping up a constant rhythm and trying to ignore the fact that by now we were all properly wet. The feed stop at the Inn was welcomed by all – not only to take on more fuel but also to put on additional layers. James had picked up 2 retiring riders whose bikes were now on the roof rack. One was from Darlington and had broken his finger making an unsuccessful crossing of the ford at Low Row. He clearly hadn’t understood the meaning of Rule 5. The other rider had no apparent excuse other than a broken spoke. He clearly hadn’t heard of either Rule 5 or Gaffa Tape. Food eaten, drink drunk and extra rain jackets donned we all felt a lot better and morale was high once again. Step forward for the 2nd time sports psychologist supreme Malcolm Yates: “It’s just the Coal Road next then boys. You’re all going to die.” Thanks for that.
I generally don’t mind steep climbs too much as they tend to reward you with a fantastic view from the top and a fun descent. This one didn’t. After a long steep climb we were rewarded instead by emerging into low lying rain cloud, and visibility went from poor to bugger all. It was a good feeling to reach the top though as you knew that the last of the day’s major climbs had been conquered. I am sometimes overtaken on steep descents by riders with more more balls and less fear than myself but this wasn’t the case with the Coal Road as the zero visibility, wet roads and steep switchbacks meant everyone came down very carefully and on the brakes. Pete had warned me that the climb out of Dent Dale would come as a nasty surprise coming so soon after our previous climb, but by now we had become a little hardened to riding up steep bits and it passed by without too much comment from the group.
The next section down to Ribblehead Viaduct and then left to Horton in Ribblesdale and Stainforth is a lot less hilly and is a welcome relief for tired climbing legs. The Cycling Gods however were really not in a good mood today and they turned the water tap on full. By now our default setting was strict 2 by 2 formation, and so it was that we ploughed through the sheets of water facing us, once again overtaking a lot of other riders. At one point I looked behind me and saw a large bunch of fellow Etappers all hitching a ride on the black and white Cappuccino train. As we started our run into Stainforth it was clear that we had really increased the pace and once again our bunch had broken into two. In our front group of 6, morale was good and Dave even suggested that we ride on straight past the next feed station and head on to the finish. Fortunately a combination of bladder pressure and hunger meant we stopped for a pee and a cake. Another quick hello to James and Malcolm (who had by now run out of things to scare us with) and we remounted our bikes for the home run.
Last time I rode the section up to Halton Gill (on a training ride) I remember being surprised at how hard I found it despite it not appearing to be too steep. This time I was surprised all over again. After 90 miles this section really does burn your legs and seems to go on forever. Up onto the moor land and a right turn down to Halton Gill we were all feeling a sense of relief as the last 10 miles from here are essentially flat or downhill. Our support team was there again and James was already cheering us home. Even Malcolm got a bit carried away with the moment: “You’ve all done very well.” So with Malcolm’s blessing ringing in our ears we pointed our bikes towards Grassington and hit the gas. It was great after grinding our way round so many hills, to be hitting speeds in the mid twenties. The rain eased very slightly, everyone seemed to be enjoying the blast back to the finish line, and for the 2nd time today I looked over my shoulder and saw not just black and white shirts but also a an array of other colours as the riders we overtook promptly hitched themselves to the back of the Cappuccino train.
Our group crossed the line 8 hours and 44 minutes after setting out with two other groups of CCC riders following at 9.04 hours and 9.12 hours. Whilst none of us came anywhere near the Silver standard our Bronze times reflect the fact that for many of us this was our first Sportive of any note and the day was more about riding well together as a group than racing the clock. I think it would be fair say that we did ourselves proud on one of the toughest Sportive rides in the calendar and on a day where the elements were set against us. It was certainly a tough day in the saddle but it was also a very enjoyable one – not least because of the team spirit that saw us all through.
So, who fancies trying to beat 8 hours next year?