Cycling coast to coast (in the chilly season)
In an extract from his new book '12 Months in the Saddle', John Deering relives a frozen bike ride on the Coast to Coast route from Whitehaven to Tynemouth
Wednesday 10 April 2013
It was one of the first days of the brand new year. I was riding my bike around to Phil's house. It was a blueish-purple Raleigh Tomahawk I'd had for barely more than a week; it had been waiting for me under the Christmas tree when my little brother and I had finally been allowed into the living room. Despite us having been camped outside the door for hours, it was still before dawn. And there it was. Like a smaller Chopper, without the gears, perfect for the eight-year-old me.
Thirty-six years later, possibly to the day, I find myself on the way to Phil's house again. We're on our way to Cumbria and Northumberland for the weekend to begin our year-long odyssey. We can't shake off domestic commitments and swan off for a solid year, but we can manage one short, great bike ride every month. Our first challenge: the C2C, Coast to Coast, or, if you prefer, Sea 2 Sea. That's what our map calls it, anyway.
Snow is forecast, and by the time the Renault Espace creeps out of Phil's driveway, it's groaning under the weight of two road bikes, two mountain bikes, a lot of cycling kit, a lot of camera kit, and three middle-aged men of varying sizes. With us is Mark, old friend, cameraman and, on this occasion, photographer's assistant.
By lunchtime, as snow begins to fall, Mark and Phil will be trying to push the Espace up a slip road from the M6 near Warrington, which is where the cam-belt has decided to snap and completely trash the engine.
The Espace is soon on its way back south as a guest of the AA. We three intrepid heroes, however, have shrugged off the misfortune with a wry grin and a manly gesture and are continuing north, this time in a Transit van hired specially for the job.
Whitehaven is the sort of place that could be a cold and shivery spot on a summer's day. At 7am on a Saturday in January, it's been ramped up a bit.
In theory, you can do the C2C in a day, as it's only about 100 miles, depending which start and finish points you choose. In practice, with the roads being somewhat on the heavy side, most people choose to do it in two.
With it being the middle of winter and officially The North, we've plumped for the populist two-day road version. That is why I am dipping my tyre into the water at the regenerated harbour, as is traditional, and getting swan poo stuck in the cleats of my road shoes. We wind our way out of the curious town on a well-surfaced railway path and head for the hills. We can see a dusting of snow on the heads of the nearest peaks of the western lakes. Before long, we'll meet the day's big challenge, Whinlatter Pass.
It's a long, long way up, with some very steep bits, but they are thankfully quite brief and before long we're dodging icy patches on the way down to Derwentwater and Keswick.
The light is pinkening when we reach the wonderfully unheralded splendour of Castlerigg Stone Circle. These rocks were carefully manoeuvered into place 4,500 years ago, for reasons nobody can yet be certain of. A parliament of rooks skulks around the far side, eyeing us suspiciously.
Penrith, Day Two. I'm not sure I've ever ridden a bike in colder weather, but at least it's not windy. The only bit of me exposed to the elements is the bottom half of my face below my Oakleys. And that bit hurts really, really badly. When we do a short downhill, just as dawn is breaking over the vale between the Pennines and the Lakes, it feels as though my jaw is splintering in the cold.
In front of us is the wall of the Pennines. The colour of this huge edge of land changes about a third of the way up from grey-green to white. The back roads that form the bulk of the C2C are impassable this morning, so we're on the A686, but we haven't seen a single car yet. The temperature, the ice and the temptations of a Sunday lie-in have given us glorious solitude.
For perhaps the first time in my life, I'm approaching a major climb with something more positive than apprehension. Hartside Top is a five-mile drag across barren hillside, today heavy with snow, and 1,600 feet of vertical gain over those miles, but it's a steady gradient all the way, ideal for my size and the extra effort will warm me through. Plus there's a café at the top, though no guarantee it will be open.
The dry-stone walls lead us up through a dark wood and on to the open moor and the vistas to the west begin to open up. Beyond the icy green open fields of Inglewood Forest, the Lakeland Fells rear up in a startling white mantle of snow. High Street, the oddly named peak above Ullswater, is the nearest, 20 miles away, with Blencathra's brooding gable just beyond it. The Munro-bagger's summit of Skiddaw peeks over the northern shoulder of Blencathra, then the flat plains of Wigton and Aspatria (this is actually in Cumbria although it sounds like Ancient Greece) give way to the Solway Firth and the North Channel.
As I roll up the last few hundred yards of snowy mountain, I can see that the car park at Hartside Top Café, normally such a popular spot with motorcyclists, is deserted. A pang of disappointment shoots through my cold bones, until I see a light in the window. Result. They open at 10am, and it's five past. I'm straight in there, shoes off in front of the wood burner and a full English on its way.
Later, shooting down the larger road towards Alston past frozen abandoned mine workings, we're glad to see hard, wet Tarmac below us instead of the skating-rink conditions we've been getting. I'm frozen stiff by the long, chilly descent when we finally hit the buzzing little town, and a little cobbled climb up through the middle of the pretty Pennine oasis is just the tonic for shaking my cold-deadened limbs.
Soon we're dropping into Consett. My legs are hurting now. My bum hurts too. My fingers are wet (wrong gloves) and stinging. I don't even want to talk about my feet, and I'm sure you don't either. Fortunately, it's in Consett that we pick up the rather lovely railway path that follows the Derwent Valley all the way down into Newcastle.
We've picked Tynemouth as our finishing point rather than the alternative of Sunderland, largely for the ride along the River Tyne under all the beautiful high bridges of Newcastle, but the unexpected delights of this easy traffic-free stretch do just as much to convince us that we'd made a good choice.
There's something special about Newcastle: it's a proper city. The way the big buildings are drawn from so many different eras and styles, yet are wedged in tight gives it a cosmopolitan feel even before you've begun to experience the warmth of the locals.
Out the other side of town, you can smell the North Sea on the air as the Tyne widens. As is traditional, we bump down the cliff to the beach to dip our tyres into the North Sea, symbolically to complete the trip, and are rewarded by a rising yellow moon. The bikes will feel rough with sand tomorrow, but I don't care; my legs will feel much the same.
This is an edited extract from '12 Months in the Saddle: the story of how two cyclists tackled a dozen epic rides', by John Deering and Phil Ashley, published by Carlton Books (£25).
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