Darlington Cycling Club

Etape du Dales 2010

I meant to sit down and write this straight after the ride whilst everything was fresh in my mind, and while my legs ached.

The longer you leave it the less truthful things are. Cos' let's face it there is always a mix of pleasure and pain in riding any sportive. And if you leave it, all you remember is the pleasure.

I say there's always pain with the pleasure, but I am sure it doesn't need to be that way. It just seems to be when I ride a Sportive.

I have vowed one day I will do it differently. I will detach my computer and tootle about, stopping to enjoy the views. Maybe take a few photos. One day I will stop at a food stop, and sit down; and have a cup of tea, and few sandwiches and chat to the ladies helping. Then I'll let things digest a bit, enjoy the banter, and in the fullness of time roll on to the next feed.

But not yet. There is a demented bit of me that can't help itself, and has to push on. I blame my education. Lots of sport, and training, and "The more it hurts the more good it is doing". I just ride my bike for fun - really. But all you have to do is put on an "event" with other bikes, and other people and a whole lot of primeval stuffs rears its ugly head.

All I need is to see a bike in the distance, and something in gut says, "Catch him." Going over a climb in a group and the voices say, "Don't get dropped". Worse still, if I am feeling good, they sometimes whisper, "Wind it up a bit, go on hurt them a little. Go on, go on, go on, go on, Drop them". I should not admit this but I am one of those awful competitive people who can't help treating Sportives like races.

I am not trying to beat anyone in particular, just myself and anyone else I can.

And so it was that I came down to Grassington again last weekend, for my fifth Etape, all full of pasta, and adrenalin. As usual I was nervous. Because I think this is a hard ride. Maybe it's because my first attempt left a bit of indelible mark in my psyche.

In my first outing in 2006 I was new to all this stuff, having come to cycling late(ish), ie post 45, when my legs decided running was bad for them. That day started cold and crisp; the forecast was bad, and it turned out worse than the forecast. It was wet, cold and windy, and my abiding memory is sitting by the road, in the rain, 3 miles from the finish, trying to open a gel with frozen fingers.

When I did get to the clubhouse it looked like the canteen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There were a lot of people with strange vacant expressions and faraway eyes, stumbling about, or just sitting wrapped in blankets rocking in a mist of hypothermia and exhaustion.

This year the forecast had been good but it deteriorated as the day approached and I wasn't too impressed when I parked up, and went to check in.

rain etape start

But the drizzle was short lived, and it looked like it might become a decent day for a ride. Anyway not much to do but get on with it, and this year I was going to have company for the ride.

When I started riding Sportives I just rode off on my own and marvelled at the way groups of disciplined looking riders would periodically come floating past me on climbs, or hurtling past me in the valleys. One consistent group who usually feature near the front end of these northern sportives are the lads from Richmond (North Yorks - not down south - these boys understand hills...) You will see them out on the Fred, Etape, White Rose challenge, and of course their own excellent 5 Dales ride....(coming up Saturday!)

Gradually I have got to know them a bit. It developed from "Hi" as they flew past for me far too fast to catch their wheel; to snatched, "Hi lads...[puff pant].... you are going well today......[try to stay with them].....OK, well, see you next week.......Bye"; to starting the odd event with them, and being dropped on the first climb; to last year when we rode the Etape du Dales and I managed to stay with them until I bonked on the last climb.

Well I say I stayed with them the whole way until then. Not really true. Coming over Buttertubs I touched wheels with Big Dave (more on this colossus later) and I ended up diving off the road into the grass. I caught them again after a five mile chase down Swaledale. They seemed to welcome me back into the fold, but I did notice an interesting comment Dave put on their forum later; something about how he couldn't think of any other way to stop me talking.

Um, yes, you will have guessed from my rambling self indulgent writing style (please no comments of agreement...) that I can go on a bit.

So, back to this year. I together with a few other hangers-on rolled out with the Richmond boys and headed for Fleetmoss. It was the usual tale. Sven, and Dave drove things along the flattish roads of the first half an hour. They swept up other riders, and the group swelled to maybe 15 or so before Deepdale, and the first hint of the climbing ahead.

The road up Deepdale is one of my favourite roads in the Dales. It is beautiful. You run up an open valley cut by a stream, which can be torrent or completely dry as it drops underground to limestone caves. There's something about the proportions and light in the place which is magical. Sadly, no time to linger.

riders etape enroute It often happens that big groups form behind the big lads on the flat, and evaporate like mist as soon as things point up. But the extraordinary thing about the Sven and Dave, is they can still rip the legs off you on the climbs. I had better keep up. Don't want to get dropped yet......trying to take this photo on the hoof didn't help.

The joy of the valley was soon over, as we turned right and hit the first of the hard ramps that lead you up to the highpoint of the route. My legs were protesting, but I was encouraged by Mark Bayne (also Richmond) who said he never got into his riding until he had been going 2hs 45mins. An interesting (and strangely precise) observation.

The climb was a bit Macho. I don't think anyone in the group wanted to get dropped so we all just went up a bit too hard......at least that's my story and I am sticking to it.

Eating on top of Fleetmoss, always seems a good idea. I have been riding for an hour or so, and should top up my energy. But, until my heart rate calms down after climbing with this lot I can't even think about it. Anyway food was the last thing on my mind a minute later as we bowled over the top and onto the poker straight dive down to Hawes.

Oh, I love this descent. 54mph this time. Clear road, good visibility. Small tuck, big smile. Here I demonstrated what Galileo was on about with his gravity experiments. Being heavy does not mean you fall faster. [You can hear me rant on the subject of bad cycling science some other time.......]

Buttertubs passed uneventfully this year, as I kept my mouth shut and my wheel clear of Dave's. It was fast down into Swaledale, and along to Low Row with the wind behind. It felt good, but didn't bode well for the slog west to Tan Hill. Still being in a good group of ten or so bikes, the lane out of Low Row was tricky. It is steep, narrow, gravelly and a bit of a shock after 20 minutes of cruising. We were all over the road in seconds. It was out of saddle, head down and try to turn the pedals smoothly. It is too steep for me to ride seated, but out the saddle if you put a tyre on the gravel it spins.

I also got a bit confused by a car that wanted to drive down the hill. (Possibly not a good day for a drive in the Dales?) I didn't see or hear her until I was nearly on her bonnet. My rasping chest must have deafened me to her approach. Actually she might have been stationary for all I knew. I must pay more attention.

Over this climb there is a ford, and getting through it safely is always nice. I came off once, which was inelegant to say the least. I had foolishly decided I would be best unclipped and freewheeling with my legs out, ready to put them down if there was a problem. Bad choice. Unsettling the balance of the bike, and not being able to pedal through any wobble meant when a wheel started to slip I could do nothing to correct it.

Oh, and by the way, carbon-soled-cleated- shoes will not stop you ending up on your bum in the stream.

So, through safely and down to Arkengarthdale for the left turn to Tan Hill. Now this was odd. Where was the group. All we had left was me, Dave, Mark (Bayne), and another lad whom we didn't know, but I didn't know we didn't know him. Well I knew I didn't know him, but thought the others knew him, but they didn't. Anyway he was also called Mark (Jacobi), not that I found out until the end, otherwise I might have got confused. Clear?

Dave mentioned we had dropped Sven. (Not a concept to which I could relate). But he and Mark didn't seem inclined to wait up for him, (they are his friends you see) so off we went. Maybe he had a puncture, because he was there a minute ago.

So we were 4, and we just worked away together into the wind. Not a bad wind by Tan Hill standards but still taxing enough. Of course I was a bit flummoxed by Dave, who said how much he liked this road. But this is his terrain. He is well over 6 foot, and weighs in at a healthy 15.5st. [ie about 50% more than me] Not an ounce of fat on him, he can grind a big gear away into a headwind all day long.

But we did take it in turns - honest. I am not really sure how much it helps Dave to sit behind me, but it is great for me to shelter in his wake. And so to Tan Hill for a quick munch and bottle fill.

The run down from Tan Hill to Keld can be great, but somehow the niggly wind still seemed to be knocking us back, and when we turned directly back into it to go over Birkhope, I was feeling a bit worn down. After the first steep mile or so this is a long open draggy road. If it's windy there is no hiding place. Nothing to do but get on with it.

On Tan Hill we had picked up another rider, whom I would call young. The other four of us are not what I would call young. Fit but not young. Anyone who is more than two decades younger than me, is expected to be fit, and strong, and able to go to the front when we, more mature riders, are getting a bit knackered. So Danny was welcome.

Unfortunately Mark B had been struggling with a post-Fred chesty cold, and without us noticing he dropped off the back, somewhere before the dive down to Nateby. So, down to 4 again, and so it stayed over Mallerstang, past the Moorcock, and over the Coal Road from Garsdale to Dentdale.

As always the Coal road was challenging, but the wind seemed benign, and thankfully neither Mark, nor Danny, seemed keen to push on the climb. I employed one of my patented, "Don't drop me" tactics as we climbed; namely, talking. Or more precisely asking them questions. (My talking can have the reverse effect - they can accelerate [or worse Dave] to stop the noise) But it is rude to ride away from someone who is sincerely enquiring about your life, job, family, interests.

Also if they are talking they get distracted, forget they are going really slowly, and use their breath for answering you instead of pedalling.

If things are getting really tough, ask them something technical, which requires brain function. Brain function requires oxygen, so they slow down a bit more. Now it is tricky thinking of a suitable techi question when your own brain is oxygen deprived. So here are a few examples you might want to have up your sleeve and adapt as appropriate. Make sure the question is short and answer long.

Ask about their kit eg: I see you have the Campag 11 sp group-set, how do you find it compares to the 10? How do you find those R-sys wheels? How does that compression and tension at the same time thing work?

Ask something that involves doing maths: What's 7 miles an hour in kilometres per hour. How far have we got to go? How long will that take? Have you any idea how many vertical meters per hour we are climbing at?

If they have a Garmin, you have hit the jackpot, just ask them anything about the ride so far. They will fiddle about from screen to screen getting the info, and basically slow down. Job done.

So by hook or by crook I managed to keep Mark and Danny close. Dave lost a bit of ground on the steeper bits of the climb, but by the time we hit Dentdale he was back with us, and we rolled on together towards Stainforth. Once under the viaduct out of Dentdale and onto those fast rolling roads, the group came into its own again. We were hammering it.

I don't know how the others felt, but I was getting pretty tired by this point. I had managed to eat couple of clif bars (highly recommended by the way...choc chip..great) during the ride, but not much more. And, although I could do with more instant energy, I was feeling a bit queasy, and I knew from experience I wouldn't get anything down while I was working this hard. So I just ploughed on.

At the Stainforth feed I just checked in, and decided I'd better not stop for long. Anything to upset my delicate equilibrium and I am not sure how my tummy would have coped. So I headed up over the last climb of the day.

This is a nothing climb really - a bit steep at the bottom, but then it just rolls up in steps. Fresh legs and it would be one to fly over. But with 90 miles in the legs it is hard. Last year, the group of 6 of us, who had ridden together from the start, hit this climb together. But only 5 went over the top together. I was out the back. After painfully yo-yoing off the group, unable to find the right gear or position on the bike, I let go and drifted away. I had bonked, and that was that.

I wasn't at all sure the same thing wouldn't happen again this year. I knew there wasn't a lot left in the tank, but thought that if I just tapped away. I might be alright. Of course since I didn't feel up to eating I didn't see much point in waiting for the others before I started climbing. A little head start wouldn't do any harm, would it?

As it transpires it wasn't bad, and I got over with no big issue, and was caught by Mark and Danny just at the right time - when we hit the valley again. No Dave though. He had been suffering too, dropped off a little before the feed and waved the others on when he got in. Bad news.

In the valley we soon caught a bunch of 8 or so regrouping after the climb. Good news.

This group seemed to have a couple "testers". These machines sat on the front and drove us along at an incredible pace. The wind was more or less behind us, the road gradually down hill, and we were being dragged furiously. All I could to do was hold the wheel.

It was more like a road race then a sportive. [But, "No, officer, we did not spread across the road, or ride in a dangerous fashion. There was due care and attention at all times."]

Well, actually, there was one dodgy moment when our train came across a camper van coming the other way. He took up most of the narrow lane and the remaining gap was too narrow to negotiate at warp speed. Amid much shouting, precipitous breaking and concertinering, we all got through safely, and were chasing the tester's wheels again. Had they really ridden the whole way, or were they ringers, sent out to tow their mates home? I can't say I minded; they were towing us home too. Thanks boys.

I did feel a little guilty about being dragged along and not helping out, so about 2km from the finish there is nasty little rise on the main road into Grassington, and I thought I would go to the front, give it a bit of wellie and drag them up. So I did.

Unfortunately my effort to help went wrong, and next thing I knew I was at the top of the bank, Mark and Danny were rolling past my shoulder to do a turn, and the group that had pulled us for the last 20 minutes was about a hundred yards back. Glad I couldn't hear what they would have been saying about, us "Wheel sucking *******'s, who just sit in for miles and then attack at the end" - Sorry lads.

And so, the three of us rolled in together. Dave who had soloed over the last hill, and all the way in from there, was just a couple of minutes down. Chapeau, and thanks Lads.

What a grand day out.

Garmin download

PS I still think that overall Etape du Dales is harder than the Fred.

PPS Shouldn't it be Etape des Dales?

Figure out who's who from the subtle clues hidden in the text above.

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© Nick Millar