Preparing for imminent cross country coast to coast ride

I have been looking forward to this ride for a while, but was unsure whether my broken collar bone would be sufficiently recovered in time. The ride starts this Sunday, the 10th August, from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay, comprising 250 miles of mainly off road riding and 25,000 feet of vertical ascent.

Decision made, and bike prepared in readiness.

I would normally carry water, clothing, spares and tools in a back-pack, but have opted instead to load the bike. Fortunately, as an organised holiday, a support vehicle will be on hand to carry most of our gear, but, riding some wild country through the Lake District, over the Pennines, through the Yorkshire Dales and over the North York Moor, our small group will need to be relatively self sufficient.

Bike Packing 012 Bike Packing 013

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Wildside at the Spring Classics: Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2014

The Challenge!

First half up, second half more up!

How it Began

It’s a classic stitch-up, send out the email on Jan 2nd, at the peak of post-Xmas Holiday depression. “OK guys we’ve done Tour of Flanders for the last 2 years, time for something different, how about Liege-Bastogne 100th anniversary it will be good N.B. its 276Km don’t worry there’s a short option too. Just sign up and i’ll do the rest”. And 11 of us did. Gary, Neil and Peter from the previous Tour of Flanders, alongside James, Marcus and Jonathan from last year’s Granfondo Roma, and new boys Gavin, James, Dan and Fraser.

Liege-Bastogne is the last event in the Spring Classics season. The Sportive is on the Saturday, followed by the Pro race on the Sunday. Unlike Roubaix and Flanders, there aren’t many stretches of cobbles to negotiate, instead the challenge surrounds the huge distance to be travelled and the sudden dramatics inclines of up to 25% on 10 climbs scattered around the course, mostly in the second half.  And what a course it is….

Not too many shortcuts here!

Not too many shortcuts here!

None of us had ever ridden such a distance in a day. With constant rain soaking the UK and ripping up the roads, training before the event was a tough and dangerous prospect. But as the rain subsided, gradually the updates came in on Strava and Email of 100-mile rides ridden, sneaky training weeks in Mallorca, and long hours on the turbo.  Fair to say that the prospect of 165 miles of cycling was sowing seeds of fear and doubt into the Team.

So it was with mixed feelings that we gathered on Wednesday evening to load bikes and make sure all was ready for an early Thursday departure.  We’d booked shared rooms at the Chateau de la Neuville, which turned out to be perfect for cyclists, having lots of space, useful cellars for storing bikes, and easy to ride out of and to get to Liege for the event. And of course good value!


A grand place to stay


The Chateau was located just by a town called Huy, which coincidentally is the end point for the Fleche Wallone race, raced the day we left and won by Alejandro Valverde.  Our first experience of what to expect in the Ardennes was a quick try-out of the Muur de Huy, a short sharp shock which rises straight up from the town passing 7 Chapelles while it works hard how to knock you to your knees! In the hot sun we were soon panting hard and needing a solid rest at the top, before heading out for a short ride round the local area, which proved to be quiet, relaxed and very rural, despite the nuclear power station down the road.

The Muur de Huy hits 25%

The Muur de Huy hits 25%

Friday afternoon was spent in the traditional way before a big bike event: general panic and downplaying our own fitness, chasing around town trying to find a bike shop for last minute spares, and hunting for Registration. Remarkably, no-one took the opportunity to change to the Short 100-mile distance. It was a sunny day, we’d all been feeding and beering up fairly liberally, what was there to worry about! The bikes were prepped, snacks and kit prepared, bikes loaded and locked, breakfast organised for 5.30am. Game on!

The LBL Travel Guide became my bible for the day.

The LBL Travel Guide became my bible for the day.

The morning of an event is always memorable. The tenseness over breakfast, subtle games of one-upmanship over what to eat, stressing to leave on time, where will we park, commitments to ride together soon instantly broken! Despite our nerves we hit Liege on time and joined the mass of cars parking up and riders panicking over how much to wear in the semi-darkness. The weather forecast was fairly good and no way did we want to be carrying loads of clothes.

Every event starts with a bit of chaos, which we achieved by all heading for registration and the ‘official start point’, only to realise there wasn’t really one! The organisers decided just to let everyone go and so we passed loads of people heading the other way, got lost in the crowd, before turning round cussing to follow everyone else. An unnecessary extra 2Km ridden! It was 730 in the morning, we were off!

A mass of riders snaked through the backstreets of Liege as dawn came up. Peter had clearly got team orders to kick off a breakaway, as he headed off at some pace, leaving the rest of us a bit surprised but convinced we would see him later. We’d all studied the route and could see the key factors of the early course: a fairly stright ride to Bastogne of 100Km, all on an incline. Despite the hour, the route out of town was really well marshalled and we soon settled into a rhythm of working round the group, having 1:1 chats with the other group members, discussing tactics while we ate up the miles. Most of the early part of the course was on wide quiet roads where large groups could form and split with ease. Early credit must go to James, Gavin and Neil who spent long periods on the front while the rest of us hid in large groups of riders. But it was clear they were faster than the bunch we were in and after a few hours they were stretching ahead. The field thinned significantly at the split of the Short route, no surprise there, and we finally reached Bastogne without any crises.

The locals come heavily armed!

The locals come heavily armed!

But this was still early days: the first of the major climbs was coming up, and as we headed down into Houffalize we passed a Tiger tank sitting in the town square, took a sharp right and hit one of the toughest climbs of the whole race as we headed up past an avenue of houses at a gradient hitting 20%. One feature all these climbs has is sudden kicks and extensions, so that you give all to get to the corner, then see there’s another stretch to come and its even worse. That said, if you’re a roadie you love climbing anyway, ignore the pain and carry on.

Horribly steep!

Horribly steep!

At 172Km we hit the first timed climb and the Tryptych, 3 evil climbs (2.7Km @ 7%, 1.1 Km at 10%, 3.5 Km at 6%) including the Cote de Stockeu, viciously steep, appalling surface and horribly narrow, in a wooded section with a statue to Eddy Mercxx at the top – its hard to know what to make of it, hardly complementary to the man!

1.1 Km at 10%, then the shock of this statue!

1.1 Km at 10%, then the shock of this statue!

The second half of the race if a completely different and surprising beast.  Your expecting a lot of climbing and hard riding, but actually the majority of the distance feels like fast flat and even faster descent. Yes the evil hard climbs do come, but the long miles between them are some of the best riding you will have, beautiful rural areas with few cars and you hare along in a peleton. I’d done my best to hide in the various peletons during the day but now there was nowhere to hide and I took a long turn at the front with my head down and gave it everything for about 20 minutes.

And that’s how I ended up doing the last hills on the course in a bit of a blur and without the earlier panache. On the Cote de Haute-Levee, 3.5Km at 6%, I tried to drop the fast boys with a break at the bottom of the climb, they caught me half way up, I broke again and they gave me 100 yards before catching up and finally dropping me behind for the summit.  Agonising!  And I needed longer and longed rests at the last food stops. Psychologically the pressure was building too, getting to 4pm we’d been in the saddle for 9 hours and we still had 100Km to go. Thoughts of getting back in darkness start to weaken you. The route started changing though from countryside to industrial as we go closer to Liege, but the biggest heartbreak is when the route goes past the Liege signs and heads back to Bastogne, you really think your going around again for 10 miles before you start to loop back again to the City.

Despite all, we still look sharp!

Despite all, we still look sharp, even Mr Rapha!

The last hour was tough as hell. Your pace slackens, all you can think of is two really tough hills on the route map, they start to figure high in your mind. At the bottom of the last climb Red Bull had thoughfully supplied a last drinks stop. Gratefully I swigged a can down but half way up the climb this proved to be a mistake, causing stomach cramps. Somehow we got to the top and the last 10 miles swings in and around the Steeltown suburbs of Liege. The final climb of 1Km at 11% swings through what can only be described as ‘The Street of 1000 Gypsies’ before getting even steeper. To make matters even worse, the organisers take you past the official race finish and you end up doing a circuit around the northern end of town before a fairly low-key finish back at registration, a full 175Km ridden over 12 hours! We finished about 7pm as the evening started to darken. Peter came in a few minutes later, clearly he’d found reserves, and Gary came in almost an hour later, having dug deeper than the rest of us.
Some of our group didn’t even look tired, congratulations to them for their fitness and resilience. I was dog-tired and thankfully beer was on the way. There was a great feeling of achievement and thankfully it was a simple task to get back to the car and pack up after in the semi-darkness. Dry clothes and showers set us up for a decent dinner, but unfortunately that wasn’t on the agenda. We were too late for dinner at the hotel, and most of Huy was shut by the time we got back. A sad evening meal of kebab and chips has to go onto the wall of shame!

Fraser contemplates a recovery snack

Fraser contemplates a recovery snack

The following day we were up and ready for a big breakfast and to follow the pro race. Most of us were dog-tired and were up for a pretty low-key day. But after some food spirits revived and we decided to head for Houffalize where we’d had the hellish Cote de St Roch climb the day before.  After an hours drive we found the village starting to warm up as fans appeared and crowds gathered. We took spots half way up the hill and soon enough the promotional caravan arrived, dispensing tons of tat to eager fans. The passage of the breakaway and the peleton was as exciting as ever, only they didn’t look so tired!

The Break hits the St Roch

The Break hits the St Roch

Fairly shattered by now, we all headed for a bar in town with a telly to watch the rest of the race. Luckily we fell on our feet across the road with a fantastic Brasserie where we got a great view, and great food for the afternoon, in a tremendous atmosphere.  Unbelievably, Dan Martin fell off his bike 100m from the finish, losing me 80 Euros winnings in our sweepstake, happily collected by Neil who (claimed) he had Simon Gerrans!

All in all, it was a great weekend on riding and racing. We all had a fab time and there’s a definite feeling of accomplishment now its done!  The challenge now moves on to the Morzine Sportive in June, and the Haute Route in September.


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A Great Time of Year to Ride on the North Downs


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Friday 28th March – Day 28 – Ride 28 in a series of 28

This morning I completed my personal challenge, ride no 28 in the month of March. That may seem an odd place to stop, with three days remaining in the month, but bright and early tomorrow morning I will be off on holiday.

Today I was back out through East Sutton, and heading into Kings Wood, keen to revisit the long and windy single track I discovered the other day. Happily, it all came back to me and I made all the correct turns. In fact, I have now set the trail as a Strava segment, I called it “The Stripper” because ride it too fast, and the trees will strip the clothes from your back, that and the finale will leave you breathless.

Out of the woods, along the road, then back in again for a fast descent to Fairbourne Manor, then on to Harrietsham and up to join Pilgrims Way.

Followed this all the way to Hollingbourne, chasing down and successfully passing a quad bike as the rider picked his way through the puddles, whilst I raced the clean line down the centre of the track, that made me feel good (though a little short of breath).

From Hollingbourne I headed for home along the road, up through Leeds, Langley Heath, Five Wents and Chart Sutton.

Sixteen miles today, but a more aggressive pace saw me back home within an hour and twenty.

Bike is washed and stashed (those two words really should rhyme, strange thing, the English language).

Now, time for that holiday………

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Thursday 27th March – Day 27 – Ride 27 in a series of 28

Thursday, not a bad day for a ride, warmer than yesterday, and despite the weather forecast and the sky threatening rain, it never really amounted to anything.

Today I wore thicker gloves, not wanting a repeat of yesterday’s painful set of fingers, and headed out to the east, climbing up when the opportunity arose, to enter Abbey Wood, working my way towards Kings Wood along now familiar trails.

Leaving Abbey Wood and entering Kings Wood at a new point, I thought it would be interesting to explore a few of the many trails I had passed on my previous sorties. My first couple of attempts did not really lead to much, but then I picked a good one, a trail which started as quad bike width, dwindled to single track, and just kept unfolding in front of me, frequently forcing me to duck under the trees as they leant into the trail and I weaved my way around them, forever conscious of the back pack I was wearing (it is only slight, and wraps neatly around my back, but every inch counts on trails like these).

There were a few junctions, and often the trails appeared to be equally well worn, I guess I was simply lucky in the decisions I made, as the trail seemed to run for miles. Perhaps the other choices would have been just as good, or even better, perhaps I will have a look, perhaps tomorrow.

I exited Kings Wood at Fairbourne Heath and headed through Liverton Street and Platts Heath, circling around to re-enter King Wood at the same point.


Found this classic Fiat 500 in Kings Wood if anyone is interested, only has 52000 miles on the clock, could do with a lick of paint, but would make a nice runaround!

Once back in the woods I headed straight down towards the bottom end of the woods and, picking the smaller pathways, attempted to form a new link back to Abbey Wood; not a bad effort, but needs refining.

Back in Abbey Wood I re-traced my route until I reached Langley Heath, where I exited to return home along the tarmac, via Five Wents and Chart Sutton.

Once again, a largely off road ride, my average speed reduced by the restrictive nature of the trails I chose. My riding time was 1 hour 54 minutes, and the mileage was 16.74

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Wednesday 26th March – Day 26 – Ride 26 in a series of 28

Again, I thought I would be in for a wet ride today, only this time I was right.

My ride started out in a westerly direction today; first passing through Chart Sutton, down the hill to Lamb’s Cross, then along the bottom of the slope, below Wierton, before climbing back up to Boughton Monchelsea Place.

From there it was off road nearly all the way, crossing the main road at Linton and traversing along the hill to Yalding. Climbing the last trail up before reaching the tarmac of Yalding Hill, working my way round through Fox Pitt Farm and Quarry Wood.


I had intended to ride through Yalding, then follow the river from the wier back to Maidstone, but this view towards Yalding, coupled with me already feeling cold, changed my mind, and consequently, my ride.


The next section was largely guesswork; there is a chestnut wood on the south side of the Coxheath road, I entered this woodland on a bridleway, but then simply took every trail which felt as if it was heading in the right direction (east). There are a lot of trails, the large ones of the woodland workers, but also many carved by walkers or horse riders, and very few of them appear on a map.

Looking back at the route I chose, my guesswork appears successful, certainly it got me to where I wanted to be, near Barn Hill, and rejoining, but reversing a chunk of the route I had used on the way out. This I followed right back to the church next to Boughton Monchelsea Place, but then carried on along my easterly, off road track, rather than following the road home. Again I was off the beaten track, again in chestnut woodland, and again selecting paths made by walkers, tiny paths, wriggling my way through the trees. I emerged once more on the tarmac below Cock Street, and rode about a quarter of a mile before leaving the road, in favour of a bridleway, to cut off the corner on my way to Chart Hill, from where it was a short ride home along the road.

Today’s was a slower ride, due to the terrain I guess, but it still amounted to 16.2 miles and a travelling time of 1 hour 47 minutes.

By the time I arrived home my gloves were wet through and my fingers so cold that they hurt, it was a relief to get inside, remove my wet garments and savour the warmth.

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Tuesday 25th March – Day 25 – Ride 25 in a series of 28

Today I was convinced I would be in for a wet ride, I really have been very lucky with the weather so far this month. Not that I actually mind riding in the rain, just so long as I am prepared for it and suitably dressed, its more the idea of it that does not appeal, that, and the fact that the trails can quickly become so muddy.

But this is Tuesday, the weather forecast was for rain, the sky looked as if it had rain in mind, I dressed accordingly, yet got away with another dry ride, the morning’s rain not even having left the trails in too bad a condition.

My ride today was another unplanned route. A benefit of having ridden so much this month, on so many different trails, is that it has become such a simple task to link segments of various rides together to create a new one.

I traveled east out of Sutton Valence, picked up the bridleway that leads from East Sutton across to Ulcombe, then worked my way further towards Harrietsham, experimenting with new off-road sections until I came to Liverton Street, from where I cut north and wandered around to Lenham, where I joined Pilgrims Way.



I enjoy this section of the Pilgrims Way, the surface is good, and the short climbs are rewarded with fast, bumpy descents. I followed the trail almost all the way to Hollingbourne, but turning towards home at the last bridleway, crossing the M20, and briefly joining the A20 to skirt around Leeds Castle. I decided to ride the closed road up through Leeds village, where the road collapsed back in November, destroying all the mains supplies, leaving a gaping hole in the road, and several houses structurally unsound.


Ha, a sand dune at the foot of the North Downs?

From Leeds the journey home was a simple one, I had thought to deviate through Abbey Wood, but instead followed the straight and narrow for the rest of my journey.

Slightly shorter than my recent efforts, with a mileage of 17.7 and an ascent of 1349 feet.

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