The first two days of the Tour De Yorkshire 2016 are relatively flat stages in the race that should keep the riders reasonably well together. So far we had covered 230 miles and about 10,000ft of climbing over two days. To the racing peleton these days should be pretty easy going and the tempo fairly high, especially in good weather. Unfortunately we hadn't faced that much good weather so far on our journey across Yorkshire; whilst day one was dry it was far from calm and the floods from the previous days heavy rain had meant detours had to be made. The second day was exceptionally wet and windy with even longer flood related diversions but bitterly cold meaning slow progress and cold legs hindered our progress.
All of the above meant that on day three, the final day of the Tour, we were already pretty tired and potentially more than we had anticipated. Unfortunately Nick had caught what appeared to be the flu as a result of the previous days weather so it looked as though just myself and John would be riding day three. However, our friend Richard decided to join us for the day to soak up some of the climbing.
The first thirty miles of the third stage are an undulating set of miles that allow you to roll reasonably quickly towards Northallerton and Thirsk. On fresh legs it would be quicker but we settled for a steady pace set by Richard who would kindly tow us across the flatlands all the way to Thirsk. This initial section of the route was only 'punctuated' by a brief stop to change John's inner tube but on the whole smooth and consistent.
30 miles done and time for a cafe stop. We had all agreed when planning the route that despite Thirsk being very early into the ride we would stop at Yorks Tea Cafe; a cafe we know for it's cycling friendly attitude and plethora of cycling memorabilia on the walls. In all honesty this was the perfect time to fuel up for another 90 miles of hills. Scrambled eggs on toast it turns out are pretty perfect for this. Once we'd paid up and were preparing to leave we were given an espresso and mini mince pie to get us onto the road again. Caffeine is known to reduce pain slightly and the espresso is a firm favourite amongst the die-hard cyclist. Perfect!
Once we left Thirsk the first major climb of the day would be upon us within five miles - Sutton Bank. A gruelling 0.8 miles at 12% average with a lead up warning of 25% sections of climb and large numbers of vehicle blockages in the last year as a result of cars grinding to a halt. I was feeling pretty rough by this point but apparently my legs felt otherwise as I powered my way up in 7 minutes exactly and 14th overall on Strava. I waited a short while for Richard and John before we powered downhill into the picturesque Helmsley.
a short stint along the A170 ensued before we turned left and along what is shown as a 10 miles climb of 1,000ft; not steep but certainly more of a long and steady drag up onto the North Yorkshire Moors - this is Blakey Ridge. Given the climb was quite gentle we took the opportunity to grab a three way selfie on the road as we moved along. John was suffering a little bit more by this point on the inclines but was still making strong work of the flat sections in-between.
The 40mph descent from Blakey dropped us down to some familiar territory that we had covered on a ride once before and it snaked along the valley to Limber Hill in Glaisdale; this 0.2 mile climb starts on a 33% hairpin and continues to rise at over 20% all the way to the top. Surely it had to be the only 33% climb of the day?
The answer was no, and after some more meandering along the valleys we arrived in Grosmont on the back of a nice but technical descent. Once you reach Grosmont you're confronted by what I would argue is the toughest climb of the three days. Crossing the railway you're confronted by what looks like a wall of smooth tarmac but unfortunately turns out to be the road you're riding to the top of the moor. The first section is 25% and drains the legs. The second section 33% according to the road signs - legs are drained now. Finally, you get a bit of respite as the climb levels out slightly and continues upwards towards the main road to Whitby. I expect this climb to shatter the peleton entirely and possibly decide the race. I waited at the top again for John to catch back up; his legs might be battered but the perseverance within certainly wasn't.
We rolled down to Whitby and had a quick stop for food and drink before pressing on. It was now that things took a turn for the worse as the weather closed in. Heavy rain and strong winds began to batter us once again as we passed the famous abbey. The pace slowed significantly at this point and feeling stronger than the other two I pulled us to one side. It was New Year's Eve and we had only a few hours to make the train but 30 miles to go. I knew John was struggling with his legs now and time would be tight, so I suggested either admitting defeat or pressing on faster and harder than we were. It's never easy to be excessively firm with someone so headstrong and John was adamant we would finish but Richard gave a compromise and we would miss the last few climbs to meet the train. In all honesty it was too dangerous to do the full route now anyway in the complete darkness with visibility for cars drastically reduced due to the heavy rain.
The next hour was tough. I felt strong and was attacking the wind in a bid to keep warm on the way into Scarborough but John and Richard were keeping a tight pair and a steadier pace. We kept yo-yoing along the road as I tried to keep warm and the two of them rode slightly steadier. Frustrating for both parties concerned in the end.
After an exceptionally soggy and cold hour we arrived in Scarborough and made a bee-line for the local pizza shop to soak up some carbs. 106 miles complete wasn't quite the full route but it was enough and the sensible option. An anti-climax to the three days but the extent of the weather meant the elation of finishing was still strong in-between the strong shivers from stopping to get the train.
The toughest day by far and a true reflection of the beauty and brutality of Yorkshire.
My day started with a 19km ride from home to Leeds to catch the 06.43 train for Middlesbrough. Tired legs, headwinds and an unfortunate sequence of red lights meant that I missed the train by a whisker… damn! Onto the next train north and picked up by Richard, who was joining us for the day’s ride and James (Nick, who was feeling weary and under the weather, having decided not to ride today).
The first 50km of the route crossed flat and gently rolling farmland, interspersed with villages and market towns; Richard setting an even effort (200 Watts on his power meter) into a stiff South Westerly headwind. With progress just briefly interrupted by a puncture, we were fairly soon at the wonderful Yorks Cafe in Thirsk, where a warm welcome and complimentary espresso shots and mince pies awaited. Following the short stop we turned east and towards the first big climb of the day.
The escarpment of the North Yorkshire Moors rears up from the flat expanse of the Vale of York. Gliders soaring in the blue skies above, but there were no thermal updrafts to carry cyclists up the ‘Côte de Sutton Bank’ (1.4km at 12%). The A170 ramps up gradually at first before 25% sections are reached as the road takes a hairpin line up the bank. James and Richard soon disappeared into the distance as I began to labour; legs leaden, heart thumping and head spinning. After the second steep section of road I took advantage of the crash barrier, leaning stationary against its handrail for a minute or so, to allow my breathing and heart-beat to settle. Onwards to the top where Richard and James were waiting and soon I was feeling recovered enough for a brisk tap across the moorland plateau and to enjoy an exhilarating descent with long-distance views across the Vale of Picking to the East. Through the pretty market town of Helmsley with its bustle of tourists and shoppers (and the very tempting aroma of frying bacon…) and briefly East on flatter roads.
The theme of empty legs and distressed breathing on any sort of incline steeper than a few degrees would become a recurring theme for me throughout the day – the cumulative effects of the previous two days no doubt, and perhaps a shortage of sleep and quality recovery time …and there was no shortage of significant inclines ahead.
The long steady climb North back onto the moors via the ‘Côte de Blakey Ridge’ (4.8km at 4.5%) was one of the highlights of the route, superb moorland scenery with open views to both East and West, as we ascended the ridge and then took the free-falling descent to the village of Castleton (at 108km).
An undulating 20 mile leg Eastwards towards the coastal town of Whitby followed; the short, but very sharp, ‘Limber Hill’ near Glaisdale, I remembered form the ‘Coast to Coast in a Day’ sportive earlier in the year. Ouch! But the real climb of note on this section is the ‘Côte de Grosmont’ (2.2km at 10.8%), which is the larger part of Climb No. 147 ‘Sleights Moor’, in ‘Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs.’ In that book, Simon Warren expresses doubt that its two steepest sections quite reach the 33% claim of the roadside signs, but it felt desperate to me. So much so that I had to stop to allow my breathing to settle and my head to stop spinning. As the road reaches open moorland and almost completely levels out, instead of relief I was met by an icy blast of wind from the South West. I’m reminded of a quote from Barry McCarthy, ‘wind is just a hill in gaseous form’; so here I was riding seamlessly from the resistance of a solid hill to the equal discomfort of one in its gaseous form!
A quick ‘smash and grab’ style raid on the Co-Op store in Whitby (Richard had eaten his pasta salad before he reached the checkout, but we did pay!), and into the failing light , cold headwinds and rain, for the final 50km section to the resort of Scarborough, further down the North Sea coast. This final part of the #TDY500 challenge was always likely to be the biggest test to team working, morale and collective decision-making. I was moving a lot slower on the hills than James and Richard and suffering quite a bit.
A couple of miles after Whitby it became apparent that progress was going to be slow, especially into strong headwinds and driving rain and a brief conversation about options arose. Do we press on to Scarborough or take the only viable escape route, to retreat to Whitby to catch a train from there? Well, I knew that I was the slower rider, but (being fairly determined or quietly stubborn …call it what you will) I was going to Scarborough regardless. We pressed on and just a little further South, at the village of High Hawsker, Richard (Our Super-Domestique pace-maker and level-headed moderator), suggested a compromise.. It was 27km to Scarborough if we kept to the A171 main road. Knowing that I would increasingly struggle on the remaining climbs of the Tour de Yorkshire stage (the Côtes de Robin Hood’s Bay, Harwood dale and Oliver’s Mount), this was good enough for me. A sense of disappointment in not completing the full route was offset by the knowledge that the flood-detours and additional riding of the three days would mean that we would have exceeded the 518km total distance of the 2016 Tour de Yorkshire route, during our three-day challenge. Also, at the back of my mind, were the family and social responsibilities of getting back home in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Tiredness, cold winds, driving rain and differences in rider’s physical shape can begin to expose tensions, frustrations and even resentfulness. James, a more slightly built rider and faster climber than me, who probably suffers more from the cold, expressed some frustration that I couldn’t climb more quickly and always stay attached to our three-man train. I felt an equal and reciprocal creeping frustration towards James for riding off the front, as I think he did for me dropping off the back. As cyclists, most of us have experienced one (or both) of these aspects of collective group riding.
The above factors and arriving into Scarborough in the dark, cold, rain and traffic of the main road, to head for the refuge of the railway station, gave a small sense of anti-climax to the end of our #Festive500 #TDY500 challenge. No sprinting for the finish banner on Scarborough’s promenade to the accolade of crowds of spectators for us.
Sat in a take-away pizza place after getting off my bike; the floor still seeming to be moving under me like the last 172km of tarmac; my head dizzy and floating; attacks of the shivers coming on; it was too soon to fully reflect on the experience or the sense of achievement.