913.4 / 1000: Coast to Coast

It’s 8am and the four of us are in Whitehaven, stood in the early morning drizzle with the back wheels of our bicycles plonked in the Irish Sea. It’s gloomy, it’s dark. It’s a little bit chilly with a fairly ripe breeze on our backs. It most definitely does not feel like early July, but that’s OK as I’m hoping the sea breeze will clear the head a bit after five beers and a monster fish supper the night before, the Coast to Coast preparation of champions. We glance ahead and can see the first of many blue C2C signs in the middle distance marking out the journey ahead and we stand patiently as our support crew take a few snaps of us in our skintight lycra jerseys and hi-vis rainjackets, our bellies full of fried breakfasts which will hopefully fuel us for the 86 miles we are planning on cycling today. The drizzle and seagull shit on the ramp into the sea has made it so slimy and greasy it’s a challenge to even stay on our feet, and yet shortly we will have to somehow pedal up this modest ramp and get going. The main event of our 1000 miles for MND challenge is about to start and none of us are remotely looking forward to what lies ahead. None of us can believe this day is actually here. It’s happening.

Rewind to February 2015, I’m on a train over to Halifax to pick up a bike I’ve bought on eBay ready to ride her back home over the Pennines. One of my best friends and future usher, Jonny, calls me and drops the devastating bombshell that his Dad Neil has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. He wants a group of us to ride the Coast to Coast together and raise money for the charity that will now be helping to support his old man. Yes of course I say, let’s do it. It’ll be an honour.

WRONG GEARAnd so here we are now on Saturday 9th July, this grey, dank morning with this mammoth challenge lying directly in front of us. We begin pedalling and almost immediately Dan nearly falls off trying to wobble up the slope in completely the wrong gear. I pause barely 10 yards from the startline to check the route on my phone, already confused by the two options on the C2C signs in front of us. 200 yards later we miss one of them and have to backtrack. Two miles further on and Simon is on the deck, toppling off his cleated pedals in comical fashion trying to steer gingerly around a patch of broken glass lying on NCN route 71. Safe to say, the opening chunk of our Coast to Coast ride isn’t going entirely to plan.

Despite these early setbacks it felt good to finally be out there riding it. A late flurry of activity across our various social media platforms seemed to have caught the attention and the day before we set off we’d remarkably gone over the £5,000 barrier for our fundraising, with more pledged to go in over the weekend. We’d spent so long building up to this; worrying, planning, worrying some more. Dealing with the logistical issues associated with trying to get the four of us and our bikes across the country to the startline and back again from the finish on the other side of the country. Constantly soiling ourselves in fear as we looked at the profile of some of the peaks in store, not to mention the mileage on both the days being between 10 and 40 miles further than two of the four of us had ever ridden before in a single ride.

Through the rain we went, through the mud, through the puddles. Gradually uphill into the mist and clouds, racing back down the other side with plumes of spray rising up behind us. Shit hang on, this is a bit steep so early isn’t it? Up and over Whinlatter Pass, then flying down into Braithwaite Village heading for Keswick. It was exhilarating, it was terrifying. It was hot and uncomfortably sweaty on the way up, it was freezing cold and soaking wet on the way back down. Constant changes in elevation, in temperature, in road surface. No time to get any sort of rhythm going. But it didn’t matter: we were out there, doing it. Riding the Coast to Coast.

PenrithWe arrived in Penrith just after 3pm to refuel, meeting up with our support crew at an establishment of their choosing (at the top of a massive bloody hill, cheers!) for a pint and a pub lunch. With over 50 miles on the clock we’d already exceeded the furthest Dan and Si had ever ridden, and still ahead of us we still had another 36 to get to our accommodation including some horrendous climbs such as the mighty Hartside Pass, one of the longest climbs in England with the highest point at 1900 feet. After hours of eating malt loaf, gloopy gels and sweets it was nice to get some proper food in the tank (hot beef lasagnes all round) and then off we pedalled again, heading towards the epic moorland of the Northern Pennines looming ominously in the distance with Hartside proudly stood in the middle, its lofty summit obscured by the clouds.

A couple of hours later we made it up the bugger, shivering in the soggy mist with 40mph winds raging across from the South West. The cumulative effect of all that up / down / up / down / up over the 70 miles we’d covered had taken its toll though, and as we rolled into the cafe car park we all agreed that was that for the day. After the freezing descent off Hartside we would almost immediately have to climb out of Garrigill and then again out of Nenthead to our accommodation in Allenheads and we were running on empty. Thankfully our fantastic support team able to whisk us and our steeds away from the bleak wilderness to the comfort of four solid walls and a hot shower.

Although we knew we’d made the right decision to finish early it still left a heavy weight on the mind. The supposedly “easy” second day, rolling back downhill to the eastern coast after a couple of early climbs, had now become a whole lot harder with the extra mileage being tacked on along with those two extra ascents. It was a weird morning as the four of us sort of shuffled around our bunkhouse, still tired after yesterday’s exploits and full of apprehension about how today would go. I was as nervous as before any of the running races I had done over the years, my full english sitting uncomfortably the bottom of my stomach. I knew once we actually got going it would all be good (it always is) but it was the waiting around, the packing up for the day, the drive back to Hartside over the hills we would be expected to climb over the next two or three hours that did it for me, my belly full of butterflies and barely able to make conversation.

We arrived at our rearranged startline on the top of Harstide Fell and I gazed back across Cumbria, able to actually appreciate the view for the first time as yesterday’s cloud had lifted. The first half of the country laid out in front of me, the second sat over my shoulder nagging at me to get going. Then, with barely a moments pause, it was back in the saddle and straight into a 35mph descent down to tiny Garrigill village and the first climb of the day.

Needless to say it was a bit of a bastard with probably the steepest ramp of the whole weekend at the start, before it flattened off a bit but still a never-ending grind up to the summit. We would never have got up that the day before. Si fell off again at the top after another cock up with his cleated pedals and we all had a good laugh at his expense, our spirits raised somewhat after the grim half hour slog to get up there. Another hairy descent into Nenthead followed, the 25% gradient into the village testing all of our brakes, before yet another grind back up the other side (but not before we took the wrong path and basically ended up in someone’s front garden). It was almost lunchtime and yet we still hadn’t even made it to where we would have stopped on the Saturday had we pushed on, the rolling terrain sapping our legs with barely a moment’s respite. Dan almost came a cropper on the next descent avoiding a wayward sheep stepping into the road, followed by Si realising his repaired front wheel was beginning to fail again as the spokes worked loose and it began to rub as it lost its shape. We were aware we still had a long way to go and despite getting 90 miles across the country we didn’t want anyone to have to have to drop out at this stage.

It was a welcome stop in Allenheads village as we undertook some running repairs to bike, to body, to mind. A new front wheel on Si’s bike, an above average double espresso from the local coffee shop. Too early for a pint just yet (the pub was shut) but it didn’t feel like it mattered much. The sun was out in earnest for the first time and although we knew we still had some work to do, for the first time we began to believe that we were going to make it. We had broken the back of the C2C and we were nearly home. Or so it felt, in any case. The reality was that we had just shy of 50 miles still to pedal.

The climb immediately out of Allenheads wasn’t as bad as some of those we’d faced; with fresh legs following the little break and the wind behind us it felt hard but manageable. Much, much worse was the section after Rookhope; a steep gravel incline with rocks, bricks and boulders strewn across the path and topping out at over 1600 feet, followed by a long drag across desolate moorland heading for the cafe stop at Parkhead Station. I was glad to be riding my mountain bike; it may weigh more than all the other bikes put together but the chunky tyres were making mincemeat of the terrain. Si fell off again for good measure navigating the deep, muddy trenches, his pedals clipping the banks on the side of the path. Dan nearly fell into a deep bog attempting to ride straight through it despite the best advice of all of us who went around it. Jonny was in his element though, rattling along despite being on a mid-90s road bike, his MTB skills from a former life rising to the fore and making us look like amateurs.

After a quick pit stop for soup and toasties at the cafe, we rattled off the final 33 miles in around two and a half hours. The difference in anything we had cycled to that point was remarkable with the gradual descent constantly seeing us cruising over 20mph, along wide fast paths away from all traffic. The epic hills and sparse, barren moorland had been replaced by lush green rolling landscape as we rolled downhill, heading for the North Sea.

We could ride two abreast, we could chat. We could (almost) relax. The sun was out. The pace was swift but the riding, compared to what had gone before, was easy. It was probably the best part of the entire weekend. OK so we nearly killed a loose dog running across the path on a blind bend but other than that it was fantastic. We were feeling strong, we knew the finish line was getting closer by the minute. We began to recognise landmarks – the Penshaw Monument high up on the hillside, the Stadium of Light. Spinning along the banks of the River Wear, the salty estuary air telling us we were close to our goal.

15 minutes ahead of our 6pm target, we rolled up to the C2C monument at Roker Beach to applause from our support crew and an enormous sense of achievement. We had done it. We had organised and ridden the Coast to Coast challenge, a grand total of close to 135 miles travelled entirely under our own steam. All that was left was to dip our wheels in the sea and then a well-earned beer on the seafront.

MechanicI’m not quite sure how we made it if I’m being honest but one thing I do know is that we couldn’t have done it without our support crew. I dread to think what would have been the outcome of attempting those final 16 hilly miles in the pissing rain on Saturday evening but it wouldn’t have been pretty. Everything we needed at the each stop magically presented itself, and everything we didn’t think we needed (but ultimately did) was there as well and it was brilliant. Mechanical support, transport, foodbank. The lads were all this and more they helped make this daunting challenge so, so much easier.

Seeing all the donations ramp up helped too as we knew we had to crack on and justify the faith everyone was putting in us. Hitting the £5,000 mark on the morning we were all setting off for Whitehaven was a wonderful boost and then watching it creep up towards £6,000 as we pedalled across England kept our spirits up no end. It really is a mindblowing total now so thank you so much to all who have donated.

What helped the most though was the spirit amongst the four of us; a never-say-die attitude to drag ourselves and our steeds over the line. We couldn’t let those down who had backed us, and we couldn’t let Jonny down after he’d asked us to do this in honour of his old man. We were all in it together. Each of us had our share of hard times over the course of the weekend (especially the Saturday) but the fact that it was a shared struggle, all aiming for a common goal, got us through it.  When I’ve been finding it difficult in various running events in the past I’ve had to summon the strength to finish from deep within; here we had to do that too, but we also had each other. A friendly face waiting at the top of each hill, encouraging us on with a fistful of malt loaf or a handful of jelly babies. The second day on the early climbs, riding alongside each other in pairs on the quiet roads and chatting about all kinds of unrelated nonsense to take our minds off what was happening to our legs. Laughing at Si every time he toppled off his cleated pedals at 0.5 mph, so many times we actually can’t remember the final total. It all helped and it was an absolute honour riding together, all of us finally out there, cycling the Coast to Coast in memory of Neil Scott. Exactly how Jonny wanted it when he asked us back in February 2015.

Recent father Jonny has this to add: “I really struggled for time with our new arrival keeping me and Jill busier than usual but have been determined to write a little entry to the blog this time around. Reason I was so keen to contribute is that I’m sure Joe will be too modest to give himself or the other lads the credit they deserve in this leg of the 1000 miles challenge.

“This one was the main one for me. It was the original plan we had back when all this started. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have finished it and to have had my best friends do it with me. I will never be able to make them understand exactly how much it means to me for them to all have wanted to take part in honour of my dad. He loved the lads and always spoke really highly of all of them. I think he would be really proud that we did it and a little peed off that he didn’t get to do it with us.

“Joe, Dan, Si, James, Gaz and Lee, thank you so much for everything you did in the run up, over the weekend and that you’re still doing. In making this years fundraising such a massive success.”

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