08/04/2020 - Philpott's Dales Divide Adventure

Philpott's Dales Divide Adventure

This Easter weekend was due to mark the start of the Dales Divide - a 600km route from coast to coast to coast, across the north of England. Unfortunately due to the current situation it's had to be cancelled so we had Duncan Philpott, photographer extraordinaire, to write up his ride from last years event...

With all the recent developments a fact came to light, they estimate the human race could manage three days without food being available before descending into anarchy. This time last year I spent three days during the Easter bank holiday living off the food crammed in my frame bag and tried to avoid people without the government incentive required.

The Dales Divide is a route devised by Chris Ellison, who upon completing a few long distance classics, decided there should be one closer to home (Yorkshire). A coast to coast to coast, through the Yorkshire Dales and Moors amounting to roughly 600km and 10,000m of vertical.

I’d not done anything under “timed circumstances” as such before, the pressure would be on for this one since I’d be one of many dots slowly making their way around the loop available for fans (the other half and perhaps one or two family members) to watch. Coming off a month of shooting EWS races using an e-bike my own physical preparation was dubious so I set to consult some experts.

Rich Follett at Fit4Physio took care of all things bike and body fit, it helped massively that he had a solid understanding of a huge range of cycling disciplines and some minor tweaks here and there and we had a position suitable for my flexibility and composition at the time.

Tom Duncan (under the careful watchful eye of Doris the cat) took care of the bike giving it the full race prep slotting myself amongst the calibre of athletes he’s cared for such as Steve Peat, Tahnee Seagrave and Martin Maes. No more excuses now…

From Arnside moments before the 8am departure it became apparent that a) most competitors had either slept in their car or a tent and my choice to airbnb it was definitely not conventional, and b) We weren’t entirely sure where we should be starting…. At 7:58 two equally sized groups found each other. A brief glance around and there was one other person riding flat pedals and similarly only one other person wearing baggy shorts. Perhaps I’d taken the wrong approach… There was a quick photo and we were off!

The pace was fierce, I’d no real expectations other than to hopefully get round in time to meet the others in the pub Monday evening as had been casually agreed (apparently this provided ample time). Over the next couple of hours we rode bridleway after bridleway and climbed stunning minor roads, the pack eventually stretched out.

At the 50 mile mark we hit Chris Ellison’s humble abode where he set out a casual checkpoint and the only setup other than publicly available cafes, petrol station shops etc that we were to rely on. By this point in the day the temperature had soared to 25 degrees and I’d drunk the whole 3L bladder in my backpack.

The next few hours flew by, by the next time I’d checked my watch I was settling down for some tea and I showed 130km down and dusted. Slithers of singletrack, dusty tyre tracks and famous landmarks had all come and gone, body was feeling good and the bike was loving the descents which is somewhat what I had geared my setup towards. Trying to stop the bike becoming top heavy I had opted for a small seatpack and fork mounts combined with a backpack. The Solaris behaved as it would unweighted which made the riding experience far more enjoyable than the top heavy floppy conventional setups with large seat and bar bags.

Climbing with the sun setting on my back without another care in the world I could completely understand why some people get into a habit of putting themselves through never ending hours in the saddle. The odometer ticked past 150km, with my previous biggest day on an MTB passing many kilometers ago, in my mind it was time to settle down for the day and crack on early tomorrow. At 9pm, fairly chuffed with what I’d achieved so far I lay out my bivvy bag out of sight of the trail. I heard voices, one of them was familiar, Pete Crawforth, also from Sheffield and a bit of a machine was coming past with Alan Goldsmith, the organiser of the highland trail 550 for company. I’d followed the HT550 keenly for years and this was my first time meeting Alan. “Evening” I announced my presence. “Are you going to bed already?” were my first words from meeting Alan… I pondered what he said as I tucked myself in, air mat already inflated and a rudimentary camp set up for the night.

So I got up early… Or so I thought… Turns out everyone else didn’t stop until 11:30pm at least AND they had started moving about half an hour before me. I’d accrued a deficit that I probably wouldn't make back and although my first day riding pace was fair my sleep dependency put me out of any hypothetical contention. It also became apparent that my choice of stopping point had left me with the crossing of the flat Yorkshire plains into York to be done entirely in one go. Flat path and flat road, the only bit of the route where my mind began to resent things ever so slightly. Others had managed to make good progress into this section last night. Head down I mixed with the Saturday morning road riders and made it to York at peak tourism time, the route is pretty central through the city and there was nothing for it but to get off and walk through the crowds.

It was head down all the way, into the night, arriving at Scarborough. The seafront was alive with boy racers and members of the public who were well into their merry celebration of an Easter weekend. Quizzical looks to a bike with bags and then on with their evening. Departing Scarborough and having learnt from the previous day I knew I had a couple of hours of pedalling yet, it was only 9pm. Farm yards with squeaky gates aren’t my favourite places to be at night but fortunately with no dogs alerted I made it to FC woodland and set up my bivvy, another 220km down, bringing the total to just shy of 400km, 8am in Arnside seemed a long time ago.

Waking to the beautiful sight of the sun rising behind boxing hares I was rolling up my bivvy when all of a sudden there was a cue to hurry up. It seemed someone was taking this Sunday morning pre-6am to slyly fire off a few rounds… A few mere meters away. Not wishing to be an unfortunate accident or mistaken for anything moving deep in the undergrowth where I had stowed myself away I said hello to an unseen recipient and got out of there. Once the adrenaline subdued I noticed my knee was beginning to show its tell tale signs that it was getting fed up. An amalgamation of scar tissue courtesy of a few trips to the hospital has left scar tissue irritating normally smooth moving parts of my knee which likes to let me know when I’m overdoing it…

Haphazardly applying a bandage and tape to ease it I pedalled on, enjoying blue skies and pristine gravel through the Yorkshire moors. Carlton bank singletrack came and went, steep rowdy and loose riding (a highlight for me) and the passage of time was getting all the more distorted. It was at this point that I stopped for Pizza, I was contemplating pushing through the night, maybe making the finish before Monday or breaking the 3 days mark. All these endurance racers that you follow seem to have a tack for being able to muster herculean final day effort. As I placed my order for two large pizzas I sat down to witness the walls of the room pop and wobble around me. Perhaps it was exhaustion, perhaps it was the heat and lack of hydration or more likely a combination of the three. Whatever it was it made the prospect of pushing a potential 30 hours straight on the pedals seem entirely daft, and unsafe. After this stop began the great leapfrogging for the remainder of the race with Andy Bennett. On a section of road I noticed someone ahead that I was very very gradually catching. Never riding together for more than a short chat or so I hit the hay for the final night at midnight. I’d had to push on a bit further than anticipated given 20kms of riding had been through MOD land / bordering MOD land and that didn’t seem the wisest place to bivvy. A check of the dots in the morning and I could see that Andy had pushed on to nearly 4am.

Waking to a steady climb the sun rose to illuminate beautiful singletrack, there was a buzz inside and the finish line didn’t seem too far away. I passed Andy, sleeping off the track behind the wall where his dot had settled, surprised that my bike noises and gurgling hungry stomach didn’t wake him. The knee was giving me a fair bit of jib at this point, it seemed unfair, the rest of the body, bum included, was feeling incredible. I tried stretching for 20 minutes to see if easing off my quad or massaging the iliopsoas would help, fruitless exercise and Andy appeared on the horizon, looming behind. I descended to a breakfast sandwich and coffee, an absolute treat on the route and Andy shortly joined me to talk of how fast some of the other riders have been, looking at the names that were back at Arnside already.

From here on in an incredible surge of adrenaline spurred me on to the finish line, the body felt amazing head to toe and Andy and I took it in turns to drop the other on a climb and then make a navigational error or pause for another reason. Andy would beat me in to the finish line after a particularly vague trail through a field (which proved a nightmare for those tackling that section at night). 3 days 8 hours on the clock racking up 611km and an insulting 9998m of height climbed (had I noticed at the time I think I may have just gone a little bit further). Pub food and pints passed the time as we waited for Chris, the organiser, to arrive. We shared stories of dry trails with the bikes not even needing a clean after so many hours in the saddle, where we slept each night, avoiding frosts or finding food. It was an incredible few days, made all the better that it was only a few hours up the road!

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