The Roof of England Sportive (a.k.a. The Winking Sheep)

Since the demise of the Etape Pennine last year (which I’d ridden in 2013 and 2014), the North Pennines was lacking a premium bike event. Step up Cameron Gordon and the Chatterbox Café, and the Winking Sheep Sportive was born. This has been a huge effort from Cameron and friends, and Sunday 30 August was the big day.

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I’d signed up months ago, on one of my regular trips to the Chatterbox Café, probably primarily to stop Cameron hassling me. In reality I thought I’d probably drop out. However, yesterday I saw myself driving up Weardale to register and getting myself ready for an early start.

Parking was on the field next to St. John’s Chapel, and the start line was a banner stretched between two tractors. We had the usual safety briefing, and then off we went up the dale. Eventually past the Killhope lead mine, Weardale runs out and we follow the river Nent all the way to Alston, with a descent down the cobbled high street.

A brief stop at the feed station, and then onwards to Garrigill and a stinker of a climb out to the B6277 Alston to Middleton road.

The surfaces of all the roads around here are excellent, and given the volume of traffic on a Sunday morning, it might as well have been on closed roads.

Getting much billing in the pre-ride publicity was the Descent from Harwood Common (and the ski tows – it can get quite grim up here) to Middleton-in-Teesdale (20 kilometers, and all downhill in spectacular upper Teesdale countryside). Despite still having the cross tyres on my new bike, I was racing down the dale, catching a few of the speed merchants.

Middleton was a good place to stop for a bacon and egg sarnie, and then back in the saddle. The downhill was now officially over, and there was some meandering up-and-down, before a left turn off the main road onto a brutally steep section from Stotley Hall upto Stotley Grange. This had always been the first “wake up call” on the Etape Pennine. Once up high, it was time to turn towards Eggleston Burn (and home ground, just outside Hamsterley Forest). The climb up to the top of Bolihope Common is not too bad in this direction, but the long day of ascents was starting to tell on me. A group of girls I’d been chatting to earlier in the day overtook me on the hill, with us spending a few minutes chatting before I realized there was no way I could keep up with their pace.

Then the descent: great road surface, excellent visibility ahead, and no sharp turns. A blasted down the hill (passing the girls), and into the quarries at Bollihope Burn.

What goes down, must go up, so back into bottom gear and spinning, getting passed by the girls (telling me they’d see me on the next descent). However, the next descent was the sharp switchbacks of Unthank Bank; no place for high speed riding. Landing beside the Wear, I meet the girls to say “cheerio” just before our routes diverge: they’re on the super hard 90 miler, whereas I’m on the middle distance 56 miler.

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From here it is our normal short ride on the back road to Chatterbox Café. However, with lots of miles and hills in the legs, this is a real struggle today. Eventually it pops you out on the main Weardale road, one kilometer short of St. John’s Chapel.  (Route)

Riding into town, Cameron shouts a greeting, I ride under the banner and pick up my celebratory Sportive Beer. (What a great sportive to give finishers beer rather than a medal or similar).

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Having a post-ride drink in the café, I come across Karl from the Cycle Hub in Newcastle. He’s just completed the 90 miler and had a great day out.

OK, it was hard, but the weather was great, and the general banter around the route was the best I have ever experienced.  Thanks Cameron and friends for all your hard work.

Looking forward to next year already…

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