Sunday was a trip to revisit one of last years rides – The Etape Pennines – a closed road sportive in the North Pennines, and just on my doorstep. Last year was a round alone, as I had a lingering chest infection, and wasn’t able to keep up with my team mates. This year, no chest infection, but also no mates to ride with! Another change since last year was the route: from above Stanley the original went east towards Consett, and then through the hills near to home before heading (into the headwind) past Hamsterley Forest towards Barnard Castle. This year, a more direct route via Stanhope, but more hills.
My starting time meant a 5am start, and I was seriously thinking of rolling over and having a sleep-in. However, I found myself at Barnard Castle, parking up and getting the bike together. Organisation at the start was fantastic, and I was chatting to a guy from Lichfield CC in our wave, and before you knew it, we were off.
We set off down the road; well metaphorically, as actually we’re climbing from the start, however, it’s gentle, we have fresh legs and things aren’t too difficult. Like most rides I seem to go on, I’m being passed by lots of people. It’s important on this one, though, to play the long game. The later climbs are brutal, and I’m determined not to burn out. That said, I’m still regretting not having a sleep-in, and it takes a few miles, the great descent to Eggleston (blanking out that we’ll have to climb back up it later on), and the climb above Middleton-in-Teesdale until I’m feeling warmed up and enjoying it.
Upper Teesdale is excellent, as ever, and the miles roll by.
Leaving Teesdale, this is the first of the “big” hills, and we will ultimately reach 627m above sea level. First, however, is a small climb by a worrying sign, and then a descent to the base of the climb. In the past I’ve had that (literally) sinking feeling by losing unnecessary height, but more recently have got over it by realizing its all distance towards the finish.
Anyway, onwards and upwards, and the climb is never too steep, but relentless, climbing from 440m to 627m over 2.3km, so 8% all the way!
It tops out near some quarries and spoil heaps, and the view ahead is of the valley where we live, spectacular Weardale. This is where the closed road event comes into its own. The descent is searingly fast, but there are still folk passing me. Being able to make full use of the width of the road certainly helps, knowing there isn’t a car behind that next bend. Also, unlike last year, there look to be no casualties on the descent.
Just as we look about to enter the bottom of Weardale, the route heads back upwards, avoiding St Johns Chapel, then descends steeply to Ireshopeburn, before another climb to the Burhope Reservoir. We traverse along the top of the dam, and I have the most surreal experience: I have a police motorcycle catch me up and just conversationally ask if he can pull me over… to allow an ambulance to pass. Of course, I comply, and the ambulance drivers wave their gratitude. It seems someone ahead of me has crashed. Getting started again, it’s over the Wear at Cowshill, and eventually to the crash at Filmford Bridge, where there’s a steep couple of sharp bends. Things look to be in hand, so I carry on, and before long things head, again, upwards…
Black Hill, White Edge
While these two “little hills” don’t rate as the highest category on Strava, in my mind these are the ones with the most sting in them. As last year, many people are caught out by the sharp left hander, where it goes from a nice descent, straight up the hill at 24%. Last year I got away with a potentially chain breaking gear change; this year I was ready for it (and they had a marshall and sign saying “lowest gear now!”). A handful of people rode up here last year, but this year there were only a couple, and my ride got plenty of admiration from the walkers: it wasn’t all ability though, as local knowledge and a 34/32 gear ratio helps too!
Over the top of Black Hill is a quick, short and steep descent to the bottom of White Edge, where there is another very steep climb until the road turns right and the gradient eases. Many walkers on this section too, but more riders as well. All the efforts are repaid, as from the top there is a short flat section, then the long descent to Rookhope, scenic views over the valley, and a beautiful bendy section around the trees at Lintzgarth Plantation. At the bottom, the second feed station, which as the temperature is now well over 20°C is welcome, as the waterbottles are empty.
Out of Rookhope
The climb out of Rookhope is categorized by Strava as grade 3, so the worst we should see en-route. However, again some local knowledge tells me that it’s only the first section up to the right hand bend that is brutal, and after that it levels off. I also know that at the bend I can get off and take a breather; except I can’t because there’s two locals camped out on chairs, cheering every biker along, so pride means I have to ride on, and use a low gear on the easier gradient to recover.
Over the top, another beautiful Pennine vista, and as the slope eased up to the top, it gradually steepens on the descent. Off to the right I can see the chimneys from the old lead mines on the moors, and also the road heading up the moor; a road I’ll shortly be toiling up in the heat. Dropping off the moors, there’s a steepening descent through the trees (and damp roads) almost to Blanchland.
Blanchland to Stanhope
About a kilometer short of Blanchland and just by the River Derwent, the route turns right, and, you’ve guessed, steeply upwards. More walkers, but again, it’s a North Pennine hill, so the hardest bit is at the bottom, so if you persevere, things will get easier. At the first false summit (Old Man’s Grave) there is an excellent mountain bike descent to Edmundbyers, but today I must press on to the next summit (Dead Friar’s Bank) before coasting along Meadow’s Edge and meeting the Coast-to-Coast cycle route. No time to stop at Park Head café, so onwards with the steep(ening) descent into Stanhope. The organisers have set up a contraflow system to allow the C2C-ers access to the climb, while we whiz down on the other side of the road.
This is the new bit of the route, and the organisers say “reduced from 80 to 60 miles by popular demand.” What they don’t say is they’ve added the double-hilled ascent of Bollihope Common to the route, where the initial switchback had been looming large in my mind all day. I’d reccied this section some weeks ago, and on fresh legs it was an ordeal. I was sure I’d be walking, but amazingly managed to ride up it. Zig-zagging across the full width of the road to take the sting out of it really worked, and I stopped for a breather at the top before continuing upwards onto the moor tops. There’s a steep descent to the old quarries at Bollihope Burn, a short steep section, and then a feed station – the last one! From here it’s about ten miles to the finish, and only one major climb (up Bollihope Common) to complete, and we’re already about a third of the way up it. Depressingly, the whole climb is in view ahead, so I decide to keep the pedals turning and stare at the tarmac below; the views can wait for another day. Over the top, we descend via some of the back routes into Hamsterley Forest that I sometimes take on the mountain bike, and zoom down towards Eggleston. At the bottom, plenty of the villagers are out and cheering us on, which is just what we need at this point.
Back to Barney
The first big descent we had early in the morning is now the last real climb of the day. Again, I’d thought I’d be walking, but it turns out to be rideable. At this stage of the day, a counter-flow system has been put in place to allow cars access to Teesdale. At the top, we’re back onto fully-closed roads, and five miles of mostly downhill, with the odd uphill kicker just to stop it being too easy. I still have the energy to get on the drops and get a big gear spinning. I sweep up half a dozen riders who are freewheeling in to the finish.
Just under six hours on the road, and a great day out, but I’m not sure I’ll be doing it next year… Let’s see!