On 23rd June, a group of Brighton Excel riders took on one of the country's toughest sportives. Alan Coom, Alan Redman, Claire, Domino, Jimbo, Mark and Richard Marjoram tell the story.
RM-Who'd have thought that it was nearly a year ago that we'd started discussing the Open Cycling Coast to Coast in a day Sportive. Well at some point an email from the club came round and I signed up for this epic 150 mile in a day ride. Couldn't be that hard could it? Over the (horrible) winter, money was paid, accommodation booked, transport sorted and a training plan put in place (Alan Coom this didn't obviously mean you!) Richard Nunn doing a fantastic job in making this happen. Roll onto June 22nd and I was heading, bikes and gear loaded, north to The Lakes with Richard N.
After a reasonable journey, we arrived in blazing sunshine, who said it always rains in The Lakes? Checked in, went to see Alba travel who were taking us to the start at Seascale, back to hotel for evening meal and bed early ready for a 3.30am departure from Penrith on the Saturday Morning.
"Believe me, it was horrid. I am more than likely going back next year it was so bad!" Domino
The Night Before
AR-The evening before the ride, the group came together to eat, drink, and play the traditional pre-event competition of ‘who’s least ready for the challenge?’.
It’s hard to pick a clear winner from the discussions that evening; there was some highly creative and skilful use of the ‘wrong chain-set’ manoeuvre, the ‘persistent, niggling cough’ stratagem, and the perennial favourite ‘I’m not looking for a fast time, I’m just going to enjoy the ride’ double-bluff.
Naturally, I endeavoured to compete at what was clearly the very highest level of this game; but to use a football analogy, I found myself in the “group-of-death”. I fell back on my well-worn, but occasionally effective ‘I’m no good at early starts’ technique but lost badly in the face of overwhelmingly strong lowering of expectations from what were clearly veteran players of the game.
We retired, having all got tomorrow’s excuses in early, to a fitful night’s sleep; filled with fevered dreams of near vertical stretches of tarmac reaching into doom-laded skies; the silent hills gazing balefully down on the rusted skeletons of abandoned bikes strewn across the landscape, as monuments to riders who had tried and failed to best the climbs.
CB-Knowing the coach was picking us up at 3.20am the next day was tough, particularly after a huge dinner. Would I get enough sleep? Had I got everything I needed? Had I done enough training? What the hell am I doing here?? I must have got up and double checked my kit three times during the night. Worrying about not sleeping meant I was definitely not sleeping. I must have dozed off eventually because before I knew it, it was 2.50am and my alarm was beeping. Oh dear God, here we go. Heading down to the coach in the dark, people were still turning in from their night out. We tiptoed past a very drunk man who could barely stay on the pavement. Safe to say it was an odd start to the day.
AR-The morning was, in actual fact, still the night before. An even earlier departure than the advertised 4am had been negotiated just to make sure that nobody squandered their time by indulging in spells of quality sleep. The night-owls among us huddled in the pre-dawn chill, conserving precious energy, peering suspiciously at the darkness through gritty eyes. The early-birds or ‘bastards’ celebrated their premature start to the day with lively conversation and the general air of good humour you’d normally associate with a small lottery win.
CB-We carefully loaded on our bikes and piled on board. I don't think I said a word to anyone. I had a belly full of porridge and butterflies. Would I be able to keep up with the boys? Would I fall off at Hardknott or Wrynose? And so on and on. Leaving Penrith for Seascale the sun rose slowly, painting the morning sky pink, revealing some epic scenery and a glimpse of what was to come. Nerves soon abated, this was set to be a day to remember.
D-The start was possibly the worst part of the day, up at 2 in the morning and sharing a bus with 11 smelly blokes, note Claire’s not included in this, as she's not a bloke and not smelly. Anyway, it was just weird and wrong to have to do so much stuff in a rush - sort bike, bag drop, back to bag drop to get forgotten Oakleys, get food sorted, back for bloody bike shoes! I think at this point I was pretty much in headless chicken mode. The walk to the start is surreal - down the beach on plastic matting in your silly bike shoes and up onto the wooden pier jetty thing, and more walking, then click click and we’re off! The joy of turning the pedals as the Excel Amigos rode off on glorious winding roads into the sunrise.
Hardknott and Wrynose
RM- The biggest discussions through the year revolved around our first test at around 12miles in. Hardknott Pass, 30+% gradient in places... many places...As the route turned left onto the approach, a pretty York stone walled lane, my apprehension grew. We were soon over the cattle grid and on the start of the climb.
"The thought of a 1-in-3 gradient, three times, was terrifying. The day before the ride Richard Marjoram did nothing to ease our fears by stating he was terrified going down Hardknott in a car! I barely slept that night." Alan C
Anyway, the day came and we were riding as a group of 13, and then, 1 mile from Hardknott a whoosh of air came rushing from Potter’s tyre; a flat, 17 miles in. Ouch! I decided to go back and wait with Mark whilst the others, knowing the two hardest moments of the day were upon us, moved forward. Puncture repaired, Mark and I made our way to the bottom of the hill. It looked relentless. It was relentless! Stupidly steep, deadly hairpins and riders punching out of the saddle. Those not punching out of the saddle were walking, we’re only 300 meters in!
D- The first thing that struck me was how many people had given up before it started! The second was how many people had no idea of road craft or courtesy for those of us trying to have a go. Thirdly, the bloody front wheel keeps coming airborne! Sorry Richard, your wonderful training rides couldn't prepare us for this monster. So, while the "kids" raced off up the hill I felt a bit like Gulliver being assaulted by the Lilliputians.
RM- My word it is steep, and goes on and on, up and up. Quickly I slipped into my easiest gear and straight away I felt my front wheel starting to lift! “Calm down Richard, relax you can do this” I told myself. Shifting my weight forward further I tried to settle into the climb. At the first hairpin it ramped up again, I got out of the saddle and steadily started to battle the climb. Just me, the bike and the tarmac, don't focus on anything else. This was fine until the last section. I happened to look up and all I could see is the road disappearing up over 2 steep hairpins and over the top out of sight.
D- Wherever you rode some damn fool was trying knock you off. The net result was 3 restarts, large rocks are great for the back wheel when you can't get going 'cos of the gradient but the assault was completed, eventually. The photo taken at the top isn't one of my best. My face not showing me to be knackered but hacked off with the "pedestrians". Hey ho another day soon for a rematch! The descent - now that's another story.
RM- I kept going until the final 20 yards when I started to wobble, no speed; foot out of the pedal... so close! Then it was a few steps to remount, get back in and up to the summit, meeting up with the mountain goats; Jake, Jim, Alan and Alan.
AR (Mountain Goat) Climbing Hardnott is much the same as riding up Box Hill, except there’s no café stop at the top.
AC- You needed a rhythm and you needed to be on your top game. 15:20 later I had made it. I was at the top of Hardknott Pass, relieved, but I knew I had a deadly descent ahead followed by another 1-in-3 climb. Some guys like Jake and Matt bossed the descent with no fear, I was much slower. I wanted to get home in one piece. Marjoram had terrified me, the sight of the descent terrified me. Thank god it was dry!
RM- The descent into the valley was scary as Hell for me at least. What goes up..! Very carefully I made my way down, finding my own line and gliding safely into the valley and onto Wrynose pass.
"Wrynose is like walking across a dark room and stepping on an upturned 3-pin plug left on the floor (Harknott), recovering briefly from the shock and pain, only to step backwards and stand on a Lego brick." Alan R
AC-Wrynose was much the same but a bit shorter - terrifying but beautiful. We regrouped at the end and rolled on for a bit more - a group of 13, a grupetto in Blue and Yellow, proud to be representing our club, proud of conquering possibly the two hardest climbs in the UK.
The Big Middle
RM-The ferry crossing was closed this year, so we headed down and around Lake Windermere on the rolling roads into Kendal for a refuel. 39 miles done. It seemed everyone was there and we spent longer than planned filling water bottles and eating all the good stuff available. Then there was a climb straight away, not pleasant, then onwards through the Lakes and into the Yorkshire Dales as the weather warmed up.
We were in 2 groups now and were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery including Dandry Mire Viaduct. With 64 miles completed we rolled into Hardraw Feed Station where the first group were enjoying their refreshments. We joined them for some delicious leek and potato soup and a roll plus a few pieces of malt loaf- we were well catered for on this ride. It was a complete blast riding the next 25 miles together. Great organisation from Jake and Alan C made this section fly by in a rolling chain gang. Past Bolton Castle and out of the dales to Tunstall Village hall feed Station. 60 miles left now.
We rolled on fine, knocking the miles off, past Catterick Race Course, until we came to Northallerton. There had been an accident and our route was closed. More cyclists on the ride were coming through now. Alan C reported the problem to the emergency support number whilst others spoke with the Police. Jake managed to plot a way round and we headed off. This threw me for a while until the route markings appeared again. Heading into the North Yorkshire Moors we encountered a lot of climbing and as a consequence, we were spread out en route. Ed and I ended up riding together and were beginning to wonder if we’d missed the final feed station at Ingelby. I was just about out of water as we saw the Ingelby sign. Feeling mightily relieved we rolled in and I took the time to get myself together for the last 28 miles. It was hot by now so plenty of water, a cup of Coke and a delicious pork pie got me ready to go again.
End in Sight
We set off in two groups towards Whitby. Up on to the top of the North Yorkshire Moors we went. This last section was a lot harder than I thought it would be. There hadn’t been so much talk about the Moors. We had some great downhill dashes mixed in with some tough punchy climbs. The hardest being just past the 10-mile sign to Whitby. Round a bend you’re straight into a short sharp 30% gradient- Limber Hill. I got out of the saddle and fought my way up. It levelled off just in time but still, an average 16% climb after 140 miles.
JM- 140 miles in and your body has had enough, the ride’s been amazing but that last food stop doesn’t have the same rejuvenating effect that the others have had and you feel drained but excited to finish, as you set off you’re counting down the miles with one last pokey climb to do. Limber Hill suddenly comes into view as you come around the sharp right corner and it hurts, thankfully it’s only short compared to Hardnott, but you still have to grit your teeth and throw yourself at it, if you’re stuck in the big ring you’re walking, if there’s a slow-moving car down in front, you’re walking... it’s steep and mentally, after all the ride, it’s a little sadistic.
"I loved the scenery which was very varied throughout and the best bits for me were seeing the sea and then the last descent to the finish and feeling of elation over the line. Definitely, recommend any keen cyclist to give this a go but only the once." Mark
RM- With the blue North Sea coming into view it started to dawn on me that we were nearly there, 150 miles on from the 5.45 am departure this morning at Seascale on the other side of the country. A fast decent meant we got to the seafront quickly and through the barriers to the finish line, cheered on by a crowd of well-wishers waiting for their loved ones. There was a photographer to snap us over the line and we were done. Personally, I found it a bit emotional. Fool! This was the biggest, hardest ride I’d ever undertaken and to complete it filled me with a great sense of pride, made even better by riding with a great group. Congratulations, photographs, hugs and handshakes were quickly passed round to the tough boys already over the line, and it wasn’t long before we were all in.
RM- My actual ride time was 10 hours 5 mins. Total time 12 hours 35 mins. I was pleased with that, 12,000 feet of climbing.
The bus was due to collect us at 7.30 so we headed over to the leisure centre to collect bags and shower. No sign of Claire or Jim?? Ah yes here they were with much needed liquid refreshment. Legends! Deciding we needed to eat, Mark, Alan and Claire headed down to the front to find the famous Whitby fish and chips for all. ”13 haddock and chips please” Think they cleared them out. Delicious they were too.
Our Minibus driver decided he wanted to load all the bikes on the trailer himself, so it gave us plenty of time to enjoy our tea in beautiful sunshine. A quick phone call was made to ensure our hotel kept the bar open for us when we got back. We had a 2 and half hour drive back to Penrith, but were kept entertained by Jim, Liam and Dan. We were all knackered but still had time for a couple of well-earned beers, and then off to bed for a better night’s sleep.
The following morning it was breakfast together, a birthday boy fry-up for me, bags packed, more congratulations and then we headed to our transport for the long journey home. The trip home was spent listening to England thrashing the mighty Panama on the radio, talking about how well we’d all done and asking how Alan Coom could ride so effortlessly without training for it!
RM- What are we doing next year BECC??
D- An awesome day of terrifying terrain, emotional highs and lows, brilliant company, and yes a tear or two when I saw the sea on the opposite side of the country!!!
MP-I found riding in a group helped with speed and progress through the flatter sections, especially pummelling through The Dales in a double peloton, a real feeling of togetherness. Also knowing the group would be there either at the next main section or aid station was good psychologically when I was alone on Hardknott pass and especially after a puncture later on.
AR- I will always remember the view from the back of a mighty BECC train of riders, in perfect 2x2 formation, a flash of blue, red, and yellow powering through the Dales. For more than a little while, we really looked as if we might know what we’re doing.
So that's the end of another legendary cycling chapter but there's bound to be another challenge next year.
Read Richard Marjoram's unedited full account below.
Who’s the Least Ready: Basic Gameplay
For those who have never taken part this game, the rules are simple. The winner of the challenge is the rider who can most significantly lower expectations about his or her performance. Someone begins by perhaps volunteering how little training they’ve been able to fit in. Another player may chip in with the ‘injury card’, whereby they describe whatever terrible medical condition will prevent them from operating at peak performance. Extra points can be awarded for any Rocktape, prescriptions, or visible scars. Minus points for a knee problem that changes leg mid-evening. Alternative gambits are the broken bike, crushing ennui, the wrong kit, premonitions of your own death, and the trump card ‘I’ve ruined my legs with too much riding this week’.