11 September 2013

The Old 240 audax report

7:30 am on an overcast Sunday in August, at Sowerby Bridge. All I want to do is grab some food and get in to my little tent to instantly fall asleep. I had been riding for almost 26 hours, shivered like never before, ate way too many sausages and bacon, drunk more then 10 cups of tea, and departed from this very same place at 5:30 am the day before. I had finally, after two years wanting to do it, finished the Old 240 audax.

This event is one of those which comes with the must-do tag in Audax UK circles. It features super quiet roads, nice scenery, a challenging distance, and is organised by Chris Crossland, whose reputation amongst AUKs is second to none. A cheap ticket on a late Friday evening would place me in Halifax, and then Sowerby Bridge at 11 pm. Chris was waiting for me, and kindly offered to sleep indoors, but being a warm night and after having carried tent and sleeping bag with me, I declined and pitched in the dark. Alarm set for 4:45 am.

5 am, my tent is the little one at the very bottom. Sowerby Bridge, and Halifax in the background.
 I woke up to a warm morning, and was surprisingly fresh after only just about 5 hours sleep. I ate a couple of muffins, and crawled out of my tent to meet a few of the other riders who had also camped in Chris' garden. Being the usual faffer I am, I managed to get 5 min late to the start...so quickly grabbed my brevet card and joined a few of the other late starters on the High St. The little group I was in did not last long - most of them continued on straight whereas my GPS indicated a left turn up a hill. I was in for the hilly ride, the others were out on a 400 that headed out past Hull and back.

The ride promised plenty of climbing, somewhere between 5000 and 6500 m depending on what program you use to plot your route, and leaving Sowerby Bridge was just the very first hill of the day. I soon spotted a couple of riders ahead of me, and soon afterwards, the familiar faces of Justin and Joel from London. Together, we climbed up to around 450 m where we got to enjoy a beautiful sunrise. I love the good spirits and excitement of the start of a long ride!

Leaving Sowerby Bridge for the hills of the North
63 km into the ride we hit the first control, at Settle, where we decided to stop for some food. It was before 9 am, and we worried there wouldn't be much opened offering hot food. Even though my initial plans were not to stop at least until Dent (the second control, at 120 km) or even Alston, the welcome sight of a massive full English breakfast for £4.50 beckoned.

We left Settle with a full belly and pressed on to Dent, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The weather had behaved so far, and I was still hopeful that the forecasted heavy rain and wind moved East quicker than predicted. We rode the next section along relatively flat roads through scenic valleys. Once in Dent we had another tea and a slice of cake, and then the rain started. As we were retracing Dent, we passed Lars and Peter. Another rider, Nigel, sporting a Beverly jersey, was a little ahead of us, and we caught up to him.

Every time I come up North I always encounter some difficulties with the accents. But Nigel's was to be one of the hardest. Nigel's strategy was to stop little and not at cafés, certainly a wise idea when the (crap) weather approaches you and you want to save time. He also managed the whole route (or at least until he dropped us!) in short sleeve, despite torrential rain, high winds and low temperatures that we were yet to encounter.

From Dent we had a little climb up a pass called Hartside. I'd never heard of it before this ride, but Chris assured me it was very gentle and featured a few hairpins typical of Alpine climbs...so was quite keen to see it. When we hit that road, I realised we were in for a long and steady climb, where we averaged about 15 km/h. It was so gentle and pleasant, that I even managed to speak to Lucy on the phone (yes, I know, bad on me!) who was leaving for the US in the next half an hour. The weather was still warm and dry.

The last 3-4 km to the top of a pass were a whole different story. We had had a tailwind all the way from the start, but we were now turning into a very stiff headwind and torrential rain. It was here when I started to realise we were in for a tough ride. Atop the pass we were totally drenched, starting to shiver and the prospects of a quick descent into Alston did not look too appealing. My glasses were completely covered in water, so I could not see much either. Justin and Joel stopped at the top of the pass, where there was a conveniently located café, to warm up and eat something. They had been feeling a bit weak, surely due to the lack of food intake earlier on in the ride, so we had a quick break before heading out into wild.

Hartside pass, taken from drivingroads.co.uk (my camera was safely store in a dry bag!)
I really did not want to stop, cool off, and then go down the hill. On the other hand, I could not see much with my glasses all fogged up, so took the opportunity to dry them and somewhat warm up a bit. When we opened to cafés door it wasn't pleasant: strong winds, and horizontal rain to accompany us. I just wanted to get down to the valley, where I hoped for warmer temperatures and less rain, so started to pedal down the hill.

Luckily, the descent was very gradual and did not pick up much speed. The brakes did not work well, so that was another advantage. The tarmac was good also, which prevented unnecessary scary moments avoiding potholes. Alston was only a few km down...I was also starting to get very hungry, so was really desperate to get there.

Chris had suggested another café in Alston, but were a bit late for it - it was close to 5 pm. Fortunately, the owner must have felt sorry about us, and let us in. We made a big mess, spreading tons of rain water all over the place, but he was only too happy to serve us - he had been a suggested control of the Old 240 for many years and was keen to show us previous years signs. Even though I fancied pizza--the quirks of long distance riding--the café only offered cumbrian sausage, eggs and chips, which we were quick to order. I attempted to communicate my missery to Lucy, but there was no signal at the café, and was pouring with rain outside.

Cumbrian sausage (from foodonabudget.com)
The prospect of another 220 km in the rain and wind started not to appeal that much. We started to consider packing, and look at maps and asked for nearby stations - it did not seem particulary easy to pack at this place, so there wasn't many options left but to carry on. My shivering started to kick in as soon as I went out to get the bike ready, and was so bad that I had difficulties standing up. Justin and Joel felt the same, so I suggested we got going quickly to warm up, which seemed to work. No packing for now, and the forecast said thunderstoms were to clear in a couple of hours, so we risked it.

Alston had some cobbles up a hill, which did the trick and got me warmed. The next big climb of the day was the infamous Yad Moss, rising up to 600 m. The rain eased a bit, but never stopped. Before we even noticed, we were once again climbing steadily up Yad Moss, in some sort of light rain that gets you completely wet without much bother.

Getting up to the top was good, but again were faced with shivers, fogged up glasses, and a scary descent ahead. It was so bad that I asked Joel to go in front of me to signal potholes. My visibility was reduced to maybe 25%, it was just guess work and try to follow the Joel's bike in front of me. Joel's rain jacket had not been up for the torrential rain we were enduring, and he was feeling it. On the way down the hill, we saw a cozy pub that advertised rooms, food, and beer.

Top of Yad moss, in the winter that is. Only sky lift in England apparently...
I couldn't take any photos as it pouring with rain
In no time we three got in, ordered hot drinks, and cuddled up to a fire. This was mid August, and all I could think now was the ridiculousness of the situation. People stared at us with confused faces, which did not help when we mentioned our departure time, distance covered, and distance yet to be covered. Fortunately though, the landlord was a keen cyclist himself, only just getting to know audaxing, and had seen the LEL riders come through this very same place a few weeks ago. He checked the forecast for us, distances to nearby train stations, and offered some conversation.

Half an hour later, still wet, but much warmer, Justin and I headed back out into the first spells of sunshine. Joel had decided to stay at the pub, get a room, and set off in the early morning for a nearby train station to catch a train back to the start. I was very tempted to do the same, but then thought of the difficulties of getting back, the extra expense, and complications. We were still doing ok with time, so put our heads down and carried on with the descent.

The following section was very pleasant, in perfect temperatures, no rain, and beautiful roads. Barnard Castle was the next (and possibly last) place where we could stock up with food for the overnight section, and so we stopped at the local Co-Op. Rain had returned though, but it was light and because of the low altitude, it was not too bad.

Barnard Castle as we saw it (from manorhousecottage.com)
We left Barnard Castle at around 8-9 pm, with our saddle bags full of food, and into the dark. I was feeling a bit tired and thoughts of getting some sleep started to appeal. Having Justin company helped keep me more awake, so we made good progress. We went through and info control near Darlington, and then headed back into the Dales. We caught up with Lars, who, along with us, was the lantern rouge of the event.

The A684 was a pleasant road to do at this time of the night, despite the light rain. It was well past midnight, and there was no traffic, so we had it all to ourselves. We then took Ellers Lane, where apparently we would face another steep hill past Kidstones. The sound of the river running along it made for a unique experience. Once we cycled past the last information control, we hit the hill, which we were only able to feel and barely see at night. It was a long stretch of straight road, that only increased in steepness as we made progress on it. Justin (on fixed wheel) had to walk some parts of it, so I just disappeared into the night using my lowest gear of 30-27. Even then, it was quite hard work.

Half way through the last bit of hill I stopped to eat a banana. It was approaching 3:30 am when a random car went the opposite direction. My bright lights surely made him stop, as I am sure he wasn't expecting such thing at that time of the light, but the driver stopped by me and asked if everything was ok. I assured him I was good, and he carried on. Justin caught up to me shortly after that.

The descent was interesting, very steep and narrow, but luckily the rain had finally stopped, so I could get decent braking power. Even though I was feeling quite energetic and my sleepiness moments were a thing of the (recent) past, Justin needed a nap just as we finished our descent. Lucy and I have been joking about the well known "audax hotel" term by which audaxers define the bus shelters that are scattered around the UK. They do provide a decent shelter apparently, most important when it is raining, but also, sometimes, provide even a bench. In almost two years of audaxing, I had yet to try one of these and right now seemed the appropriate time. I could do with a nap also, so we quickly pulled into a luxury bus shelter, with a toilet block attached to it, in Threshfield We set the alarm for 5 am if I recall correctly, so a bit over 30 min.

Stopping at a pub in the middle of the night to check the routesheet
I carefully laid all my items around me, and quickly fell asleep to be woken up by my mobile phone's alarm. Pressed the snooze, and got another 15 min, after which we felt ready to go. Still dark, but spirits were high again, and we had a bit over an hour buffer time. Lars, the other rider behind us, went past us at some point, but we all got reunited at the next info control and then shortly after that at the garage control in Gargrave.

A very expensive coffee did the trick, and so we set off for the last stage of the event, in daylight, while Lars stayed indoors for a little longer to rest. The remaining km of the route promised to be relatively easy, some on major roads which, at this time of the morning, were totally empty, so we made good progress. Once back on the same bits of road we started some 22 hours earlier, I felt I was going to finally achieve my first and only 400 km ride of the year. We were still on time, with about 1.5 h to spare, so we took it easy and made sure we ate our provisions every now and then. With less than 15 km to go I relaxed and assumed we would be back in the comforts of Chris' house and my tent very shortly...but I was wrong.

Getting back to Halifax involved some ridiculously hilly sections over the ridge to the North of the town. One of them looked seriously unpassable after so many km, but I put all my efforts into it and succeeded. As of today I haven't walked any hills on the road bike in the UK - not sure if something to be proud of or not, as on many occasions people have walked them faster!

The steep hill at the end, a sting in the tail as they call it...
The downhill into Halifax was terrifying to say the least. My rims were covered in grit from the pouring conditions we had endured during the last 12 hours, and I could feel the brake pads being reduced significantly from the start. I was glad it wasn't raining though, as otherwise I would have had some difficulties slowing myself down on some of the sections...disc brakes are called for in wet weather and steep downhills!

Seeing the cobbles leading up to Chris' house was a welcome sight. We had completed the Old 240, and some warm food was awaiting us, along with tales from other riders on our and the Hull event. Apparently we had the rain, but they had the headwinds. I am not sure if I would have preferred the wind or not, but this had surely been a tough ride, with a handful of times where I would have packed had the getting back to Halifax in the morning had been easy.

After a couple of hours of siesta in the tent, with more warm rain, I set off for the station and back to London. The weather had been rubbish, and I had been colder than I even remember in the UK, and this was in August. The route was fantastic though, and I really would like to make a return to the Dales sometime in the future. Chris' organisation had been great even though this was a basic event, with nearly no facilities other than his house at the start and end. The company made this ride a lot easier, no doubt, so thanks Justin, Joel, Lars and all the others that we met on the ride for that.

The stats were as below:

Not that bad, considering we stopped for more than 5 hours!

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