Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Mille Pennines 1000KM Audax ElliptiGO ride (7-10 July 2017)

The sun was beating down late into the hazy afternoon; I’d been riding since 3am this morning and still hadn’t even covered half the required distance on Day 2. I was tired, exhausted, and hungry having got through 165 of the toughest kilometres I’ve ever ridden on the ElliptiGO. I faced a choice: do I turn left and check-in to a B&B I’d passed or turn right and head on up into the hills and deep into the night….

Tim Woodier and Stuart Blofeld at the start of the Mille Pennines Audax ride in Blackpool

This is my report for the Mille Pennines Audax. A 1000 Kilometre three day cycle tour of the very best of the north of England (and a bit of Scotland). Of course I was doing it on my trusty steed ~ ElliptiGO-GO!! The tour was split into three loops ~ Day 1 was a 251KM loop of the Lake District; Day 2 was a 330KM loop of the North Pennines; and Day 3 was a 340KM out and back loop to Robin Hood Bay across the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. The event started and finished in Blackpool with a total time limit of 75 hours, and 13,600 metres of climbing (one and half Everest’s!). It looked really tough on paper, so imagine what the stark reality looked like out on those hills!!!!

I registered for this ride last year and in that time have probably decided at least three or four times not to even start. Training was not going very well (read: non-existent). I didn't have the time to get the miles in, due to work, or do any kind of specific training in the hills. Nevertheless in the end I decided I would start the ride but because I almost didn't start this showed a lack of total commitment to the ride which probably pre-determined my mental state for the ride. I say this because a ride of this intensity and toughness requires 100% commitment to finishing; anything less than that will immediately reveal any chinks in your armour and numerous reasons to slow down, stop for longer at controls, change plans or strategy or simply quit.

The Mille Pennines requires 110% commitment to succeed and going into this ride it was doubtful whether I had that. I think the other reason for doing this report is that many times we only blog when we are successful in our endeavours with social media posts of ‘smashed it’ and photos of shiny medals. Yet we shy away from speaking of our failures for fear perhaps of being seen as weak when things don’t quite go to plan. Yet I think the opposite is true. People want to understand and learn from others mistakes. That’s where the real value is in this process. We are all guilty of sugar-coating our experiences in life and on the road. This report is not one of those, I want to simply state the facts and provide some real insight into the reality of Audax.

I also want to draw particular attention to the Elliptigo. I think many people probably don't appreciate how much harder it is to compete in an Audax in a multi day event on the Elliptigo. We are seen alongside cyclists in these events and have been for many years now. We have been very welcomed into the fold by the Audax community whom welcome all types and all contraptions no matter how diverse. Yet I think now that we are established and have had many successes in long distance Audax that there may be an expectation that once you've committed to a ride and you turn up you are expected to finish, barring a disaster. But the reality is far from certainty, and you are on the absolute limits of Audax most of the time when competing on the ElliptiGO especially on a course like the Mille Pennines which was extremely hilly and very technical.

So what did this ride require to finish it ~ in simple terms it had to be completed in under 75 hrs which for a course of 1007 km meant maintaining an average speed of 13.4 kilometres per hour. Easy right…. Errrrmm no not really. If you factor in stopping time and also time to sleep over the three days, then in reality our moving speed had to be at least 18kph or higher to allow you enough time. And if your moving speed reduces, (because for example it’s bloody hilly!!!) then obviously you have less time to stop and less time to sleep! So that was the challenge that lay ahead.

Day 1 ~ The Lake District (251KM)

So Friday morning (7 July) at 10 a.m. Tim Woodier and I set off from Blackpool with 80 or so other cyclists to complete the first 251KM loop around the Lake District. Day one was a fantastic ride. It was tough, there was some big hills; famously ~ Hardknott Pass in the south of the lakes with its 33% gradient which shares the accolade of being the steepest road in England (Rosedale chimney was on Day 3 which is the ‘other’ steepest hill in England). This was the second time that I’ve tackled Hardknott Pass and it's the first time that I was able to successfully ride up every inch of it without having to walk. Tim breezed up it with a massive smile of his face. Lunatic!

Celebrating like a loony at the top of 33% gradient Hardknott Pass, Lake District

 We set a target to complete day one before midnight and we rolled into the overnight control at Sedburgh at 11:40pm meaning it took just over 13 and a half hours to complete the 251 kilometres. A moving speed of over 20 km per hour and we only stopped for a total time of 45 minutes throughout the entire day which is why we are able to complete the whole course in that time. We knew Day 2 was going to be really tough (understatement!) so we planned to leave the control by 3 a.m. We had some late dinner, slept for 2 hours, got up and had breakfast, and left for Day 2. Our first goal on Day 2 was to complete 80KM by 10 a.m. so that we had the same distance left (250km) and time as on Day 1, and perhaps finish by midnight again,


I slept well and felt like I had recovered from day 1. The sun was already up by 4am and it looked like it would be a warm day. The first control was Hawes which because it was so early required a cash machine receipt as proof of passage (Audax rules). Next it was an unscheduled breakfast stop at a Greggs store around 7 a.m. Because Tim’s pace was already hotter than a Gregg’s steak bake he arrived a good 10 minute before me. Thanks for the cappuccino Tim! He was fresh. I wasn’t and I need a longer stop to get some breakfast. I told Tim he should go on as I knew our pace wouldn’t be the same from this point on and he was going to be a lot stronger in the hills. He agreed and set off to tackle the Pennines. I ordered a porridge, a bacon and cheese turnover, and another cappuccino. I definitely didn’t eat anywhere near enough on Day 1 and I already felt like I was in a fuel deficit and lacking energy. This didn’t get any better throughout the day.

Breakfast at Greggs!
Getting the nutrition right on Audax isn’t easy. And because of the speed limitations of the Elliptigo versus a cycle you don't have the time to sit in a cafe and eat a decent meal. You have to eat on the GO, quite literally, which requires planning, discipline, good solid guts and lots of reserves of flapjacks (Tim’s favourite!), sausage rolls, pork pies, chocolate bars etc ready and stashed in your pockets.

I didn't get my nutrition right on the Mille Pennines. I didn’t bring enough food with me as I was going to rely on the mandatory control stops where we had to buy food/drink to obtain a receipt as proof of passage. Why bring food with you and weigh down your bike if you have to buy stuff on the ride anyway right!.... Well maybe because the shops that you stop at don’t always have what you want or fancy at the time. On day one I didn't eat much more than a sausage roll a banana and a couple of pieces of Tim's flapjack. I also nibbled on some of my fruit and nut mix but I was shot by Day 2. I was really feeling the effects, and was in need of a decent meal. Hence why I spent a good 45 minutes in that Greggs store. I didn’t know it then (or perhaps I did) but even that early on Day 2 the long breakfast stop probably signalled the end in terms of my seriousness about completing this event. As I said before an event like this on the Elliptigo requires you to hardly stop at all and in that one first stop it had equally my entire stopping time of the previous day ~ this was time I just didn’t have.

Day 2 ~ North Pennines (330KM)

Day 2 would be tough with 330 very hilly kilometres to cover. We thought it could realistically be finished in under 24 hours although Tim was more positive that he could complete it in around 20 hours. The pessimistic part of me thought it was far more likely to be 26+ hours. I've completed Audax events in the past that also had a lot of climbing and long days. In 2014 I completed the Mille Cymru in Wales, which was another 1000KM multi-day ride, and just last year I completed a 7-day 2,100KM ride in Ireland on the Wild Atlantic Way. However the climbs in the North Pennines were exceptionally tough; they were both steeper, more severe and longer. Another crucial factor in the Pennines was that there was also next to no recovery time on the descents either as it was either sharp up or sharp (and steep) back down which required you to be on the brakes all of the time. You couldn’t relax or coast or make back any time on any long winding descents. There wasn’t a single one all day! So time couldn’t be clawed back, and that was a pattern all day long. Climb after climb after climb. It was relentless. And being honest the fast frenzied fun from day 1 was fading and being replaced by a hazy slow fog in my mind which I couldn’t kick.

Throughout the day I was stopping more both too refuel and recover from the big climbs. By midday I was up against it in terms of the distance still to cover and the pending cut off times. But in reality the imposed Audax time limit on this ride was just an external factor that was completely outside my control. I couldn’t ride any faster than I was, and I was maintaining a healthy 18kph moving speed which on this terrain on an ElliptiGO was more than respectable.
By 2pm I was starving and had to stop to eat a proper meal. The previous control town which we hit around 10:30-11am was not too long after breakfast so I didn’t feel like lunch at that time, and instead I just drunk a large pot of tea. But come 2pm and after some more huge climbs I was ready for lunch. I knew I didn’t really have time to stop for lunch but I stopped at an amazing looking tea room that popped up in the middle of nowhere in a tiny village. The White Monk Tearooms are set in a former Church, and as a Christian this place such screamed out at me to stop. Decision made! The lunch was amazing (see pic). I was content, I was in control but it was also very apparent that time was slipping away too.

The White Monk Tearooms

Best quiche I've ever had!!!!
Throughout Day 2 I really questioned what I wanted to achieve on this ride and my mindset was such that I didn't have a strong overriding desire or commitment to finishing the Mille Pennines and completing the entire event distance. That was just how I felt. So my mind wandered and I started to list lesser goals that I could savage from the weekend. A strong alternative that took my attention was not to ride day 3 at all. This appealed to my self-preservation mechanism as the sheer enormity of the distance that still lay ahead over the whole weekend and just in Day 2 was simply overwhelming.

When writing a ride report such as this we have a tendency I think to capture each moment and decision in real time as if it actually happened that way. What we remember and piece back together in these write ups is often not actually how or exactly what happened, or the order it happened. My decision making in that late afternoon sun was far from clear, and I just continued to clock up the KMs after lunch. I just rode on in a daze, fixated on the distance I still had to cover that day. I couldn’t shake it and every KM seemed to take me no closer to the finish.

What become more certain to me as the afternoon wore on is that I didn't think I had the required speed, energy or strength to get through day 2 and continue into day 3  and I had to come up with another plan. But I wasn’t thinking clearly and so all I could think was I had to stop. It was that simple. So I started looking for places and rode pass a nice looking campsite/lodge called the Boe Rig just outside Bellingham. People were out playing, and laughing, drinking and eating. How could that not appeal! It was Saturday evening. I didn’t want to continue. I stopped and pulled up the ElliptiGO with the usual keen stares and looks of ‘what the heck is that thing’. To cut a long story short they were full and didn’t have any free rooms. I rang another hotel they recommended. They were full too. I ordered half a pint of Grolsh and sat there contemplating what lay ahead. The thought of riding into the night was ludicrous. It was now 5pm, 14 hours after we set off this morning and I’d covered just 165KM. I still had 170KM to go, and doing the maths in my state that would get me to the control well after daylight and beyond the cut off time. I felt completely stuck and had no idea what to do. Sounds sad and helpless now but in my state it was bewildering.

The lady behind the bar suggested I turn back down the road and head back to Bellingham where there were a couple of pubs that have rooms. And thus we come to the start of my story. Do I turn left and head back or turn right and continue!?

I still had no idea what to do as I left the Boe rig and rode over the stoney entrance track to the main road; left or right. I had hours to think about this up to this point but I didn’t genuinely want to make the decision to actively call it a day. Its far easily to let events just play out and force your hand. But now I had to make a decision. Left or right. Continue into the long hazy night, or call it a night? The handlebar twitched I hit the main road and turned LEFT.

My Mille Pennines DIY Tour

The relief of just making a decision had set me free. I still didn’t know whether I could even get a room somewhere but I had for the first time taken control and set my own destination. I went to the pub that the campsite had recommended but they were also full for the night but the chap behind the bar said he’d call a B&B which to my good fortune had just had a last minute cancellation which allowed me to get a room for the night. £45 inc full English breakfast. I’ll take it!!

I can’t describe the utter relief I felt at this point. To know that I could actually stop here having completed 165 of the hardest kilometres I think I've ridden on the Elliptigo, I'd be able to stop, eat a proper dinner, sleep for the entire night and then pick up where I left off and complete day 2 the next day. Why didn’t I think of doing that before! Its sounds silly but until this point it had never occurred to me to do this to split the ride up. They say that if you plan for failure then you will probably fail. I partly agree with this statement but I didn’t ride to fail and not complete day 2. I gave it my all up to a point, but spent more time stopped than the Audax time limits allowed. At the ElliptiGO speed that isn’t even a lot of time.

In hindsight it was definitely the right decision; I really had no interest in completing the event under these conditions, and what I mean by that is that didn’t want to experience the severe sleep deprivation that I have in previous rides. I started this ride because I thought I had a chance of completing it within the limits, but it was clear by that left/right turn that I was outside those limits. Now I could actually enjoy the ride and see Scotland in the daylight.

I slept for a solid 10 hours at the B&B before tucking into a full English at 8am and setting off at 9am for the remaining 170 Kilometres of Day 2 (on Day 3). Incidentally Tim had made it back from Day 2 before midnight up with the first 10 cyclists to do so! And by the time I left the B&B and continued heading north for Scotland Tim was already across the Yorkshire Dales and half way to Robin Hood Bay!! That is an incredible ride!

Finally made it to Scotland by ElliptiGO!

I cruised up to and past Kielder Waters and Forest and into Scotland, turning west into a strong head wind. But the route also flattened out for the first time in the event which made the GOing much easier. The route came back down the A7, stopping in Longtown for a very nice lunch, and onwards along the A6 through Carlisle and back south to Sedburgh. I arrived back at the control at 7 o'clock where there was little action. No cyclists had yet returned from Day 3, but they did that coming in from 8:30 onwards!

I set this little fella free on the return to Sedburgh!! Highlight of my trip :-)

I bought some beers from the Coop for Tim and I, I ate well, chatted to those coming in and went to bed by 11pm. Tim expected to get back around 1:30am and wanted to leave by 5am to complete the last 80 kilometres back to Blackpool to finish the whole event in under 3 days (72 hours). He did it in 71.5hrs!! A new ElliptiGO 1000KM record for this validated distance on THE TOUGHEST 1000KM Audax ride in the UK.

Tim Woodier at the Mille Pennines Audax finish ~ 1000KM in 71.5hrs on the ElliptiGO!

For me I slept until 6am had breakfast and rode a very wet but flat 80 kilometres back to Blackpool finishing by 11am. I expected Tim to be sleeping at the control but there he was standing, and texting on his phone. I congratulated him on an amazing ride and his first multi-day Audax! I can’t describe just how tough this event was on an ElliptiGO and to not only finish in the time limits but to come home in the top 10 with cyclists is an EPIC performance.

Tim Woodier and Stuart Blofeld reunited at the finish of the Mille Pennines 1000KM Audax ride 2017

Overall the ride for me has mixed emotion. It was and it wasn't enjoyable all at the same time. Nothing of this magnitude is ever going to be easy but we can easily delude ourselves and even romanticise about riding on the open road, taking in the scenery and generally make it out to be all fun fun fun! It isn’t always but it’s always an adventure and in the end I was really happy with the decisions I have made on this ride and when I made them to make the ride more enjoyable. I don’t have any regrets about not finishing the event distance because it was simply beyond me and I wouldn't have completed the required distance in the 75 hour cut off.

In summary it was Day 1 in the Lakes that was the stand out day for me. The beauty of the Lake District far surpasses the brutality and bleakness of the North Pennines. Tim and I rode well and conquered some big climbs, and I’m extremely pleased to say that I’ve now climbed the steepest road in England on the ElliptiGO. Well come on you have to let me finish my report with a tiny bit of sugar coating and an enormous cherry on the top! 


Day 1 ~ The Lakes (251K)
Day 2 ~ North Pennines (166K)
Day 3 ~ Scotland (171K)
Day 4 - Return to Blackpool (80K)


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