The Struggle Dales

There’s been an arms race over the last 5 years or so, with sportives vying to become the toughest, most demanding, and pain-soaked day out you can spend on your bike. I blame triathletes, who have historically conspired to make cycling less enjoyable by combining it with a swim and a run. Iron Man events simply extend this unpleasantness over a greater distance with an even worse kind of people. Really, if triathletes want to focus their energies, it should be by getting good at one activity rather than more mediocre at three.

Triathlon prejudice aside, this battle to become the greatest ordeal has also infected cycle sportives. No century-length ride is demanding enough without including at 17% climb right near the end. The Dragon Ride gran fondo (210km miles, 3000m of climbing) was apparently not unpleasant enough. So, we have the Dragon Ride Devil (304km, 4351m ascent).

The Yorkshire Dales Struggle is an event whose name is very much in this tradition. Possibly designed for riders who tried the Tour of Yorkshire route and enjoyed it a little too much. The Struggle tacks on some extra miles to take it safely north of being a feeble century-length event. It sticks in a 24% climb moments before the end because 17% doesn’t really touch the sides as a hill. I felt that the name was a bit much; how hard could it be?

I am chastened to report that it is quite hard; it is definitely a struggle, if not an agoniser.

I was due to attempt the Struggle in May 2020, but then, well you know… So, it took place a year later and was the first event I’d ridden in 18 months or so. I was therefore braced for a bit of a shock to the system. There was 108 miles and 12,000ft of climbing to do. The preceding week, I had kept a weather eye on the, well, the weather forecast and it the picture kept shifting from sunny to rain. I did not fancy a wet ride.

As it turned out, it was dry but cold as I rolled up to the start line just outside of Harrogate. There were five categorised climbs to beat, with the first one, Bedlam, just 10 miles in. I did my best to get my legs warmed up, but Bedlam turned out to be a pretty straightforward, orderly winch up nothing much of consequence. No struggle at all. This was of course a trap to lure the unwary into burning all their matches far too early in the day. I thankfully ignored the siren call to be that rider who is all spit and vinegar in the first 30 miles of a ride, only to need towing for the remaining 70. I would have paid a deep price later in the day.

The next climb tried to spring a similar trap. Hartwith Hill started with an abrupt righthand turn from the main road, straight into a 14% ramp. The unwary rider, who perhaps is accustomed to short, steep, South Downs ramps may have launched himself up at a fair clip, demonstrating maximum effort. In that case, he would’ve been dismayed to discover that the top of the steep ramp revealed even more steep ramp, vanishing into the distance. The same rider would also have been astonished to discover that around the next bend it got steeper still.

Hopefully, the unwary rider should’ve learned from this error and adopted a more circumspect approach to the next climb: Greenhow; a long, long climb with steep bits interspaced with marginally less steep bits. By this point I’d cooled my heels a bit as the realisation dawned that while I was inching nearer the first feed-stop, there was a lot more work to do before the end. And a lot more to climb…

At the 38 mile mark comes the first big one; Malham Cove. Only a mile long but with some 20% hairpins thrown-in for good measure. The overall pace of the ride seemed to have slowed at this stage, with riders generally digging in for the long haul. The weather had stayed dry as promised and the day was warming up, making the climbs more wearying in the heat. I’d been warned about a false summit to this climb, but to be honest I was too busy concentrating on keeping my line around the hairpins and unbelievers pushing their bikes on the walk of shame to the top to be distracted by notions of an early end.

Malham was an engaging, enjoyable climb, but it was marred by the fore-knowledge of what was to follow – Park Rash. In my day, Park rash was something you got when you fell over on the school playground (or perhaps something you pick up on Clapham Common after dark). In the Struggle Dales it marks the 50-mile point with a real ordeal of a hill. A 10% average grade and a nasty 25% switchback in the middle. I’d been offered some local knowledge that once I passed the caravan I was nearly finished. There was no caravan. I still search for it in my fever dreams of the event. At this point my legs were starting to suspect that this ride wasn’t going to end soon and that more unreasonable demands would be placed on their good nature. They had started to complain.

I was able to mollify them somewhat with the promise of a longish flat section to the ride, with only two more hills. Sadly, the reward of the downhill from Park Rash soon evolved into a 15 mile into the wind grind. With some frankly unnecessary hills. At one point the road brought me back to the foot of Greenhow hill and for a fleeting, horrifying moment I thought we were being taken back up. Tearful gratitude overcame me as we instead turned left. Burning resentment followed by learned helplessness that replaced it once we again settled back into the headwind as we followed the banks of a reservoir.

The gentle, penultimate climb was the ‘easy’ side of Trapping Hill. At this point an average elevation of 9% and distance of less than a mile seemed like a reprieve compared to what had preceded it. However, the route had one more gut-punch to deliver. Two Stoops, at 94 miles in, was insane. Its advertised, average gradient of 7% disguised the reality of a long, unrelenting fight to the top, over 1.6 miles, with shredded legs.

The remaining 12 miles or so to the finish was undulating in the Yorkshire sense of fluctuating from somewhat flat to unnecessary uphill. It felt good to finish, not least so that I could stop pedalling and fighting my losing battle with gravity. The thought that I need never do it again was a source of comfort; up to the point when my fatigued mind tugged at my sleeve to remind me that the Struggle North York Moors ride was only 6-weeks away. And that’s regarded as the harder of the two struggles.

I can recommend the Struggle to any club member for whom slamming their fingers in a car door all day no longer brings them sufficient suffering. I should warn the unwary that there are three climbs not listed in the event road book, or this review, that really twist the knife, I would hate to ruin the pleasure you’ll experience when discovering them for yourself.