Tour de France Stage 1 – North Yorkshire
Next Saturday, 5th July 2014, the Grand Depart of the Tour de France arrives in the UK and the first stage travels 191km through North Yorkshire. The peloton will start in Leeds before heading up into the Yorkshire Dales and then turning south to an exciting sprint finish in Harrogate.
On 3rd May, I took on the challenge to complete the first stage. Previously, my longest continuous ride had been the 85 km from London to Brighton with about 800m of climbing. With nearly 3000m of ascent this was likely to be a seriously tough day in the saddle – and so it proved! My route would be slightly different to the official stage as I was staying with a friend in Bishop Monkton, north of Leeds. I decided to skip the train journey and avoid the traffic of Leeds city centre by starting in Bishop Monkton, then head east to join the TdF route at Skipton. From there I would follow the stage all the way through the Dales before finishing back in Bishop Monkton. In total, my route would be 199km so I didn’t feel too bad about not doing the exact stage, and it would still include the three major climbs!
I set off feeling confident that I was fit enough to complete the challenge, that I had enough food and drinks to last me most of the day or at least until I could top up, and in a generally positive mood. The first 40km to Skipton took me along a route that I was unsure of, so progress was a little slow as I kept checking directions. I expected this section to be fairly straightforward as I hadn’t yet entered the hills of the Dales but my ego was soon to take a serious reality check. Firstly, I managed to fall off. The classic cleats mistake and one that I hadn’t made since my first day wearing them. I had taken a wrong turn and unclipped my left foot to stop and check directions. I then attempted a U-turn, had no speed and my balance shifted to the right. We all know what happens next! Thankfully the only damage was a few grazes but it was a less than auspicious start. Secondly, and much more concerning was the climb out of Birstwith. This had barely registered as a blip when looking at the overall route profile, but it was a very steep, albeit relatively short climb, that immediately put some serious pressure on the legs. This uphill slog, combined with the long steady Blubberhouses ascent on the A59, meant my energy was already waning and my confidence shaken by the time I reached Skipton. I realised that finishing the route was going to be an achievement in itself and I was far from certain to achieve this.
Heading north from Skipton towards the heart of the Dales, I joined the main route of the TdF stage. There were some short sharp ascents and descents towards Grassington but overall I really enjoyed this section. The hills were generally rolling and the sun was out, the views were simply stunning and a bit of energy drink and gel made me feel a lot more comfortable as I passed the 50km mark. All this was soon to change, as the first of the three climbs categorised on the TdF website loomed, shortly after passing through the village of Kettlewell. I must admit that I hadn’t realised that this was coming so soon. The legs quickly began screaming! The gradient became pretty severe heading towards a sharp turn near the top but a surge out of the saddle dragged me up without stopping. The following downhill was a real reward with some flowing bends to negotiate and get the pulse racing. Coming across the first climb unexpectedly early meant that I hadn’t had time to worry about it, and it was over before I knew it. As I continued north towards Aysgarth however, I realised it had taken a lot out of me.
Another short but extremely steep ascent into Aysgarth itself left me feeling awful. At this stage I began to seriously doubt my ability to complete the challenge. I had covered 90km with 1300m of ascent. At this point the TdF route follows the main road west towards Hawes. There was also a sign showing that if I followed the road east I would reach Leyburn in about 15km. From there I would have a pretty straightforward 35km or so back to Bishop Monkton. I was seriously hurting and very low on energy; I had only completed one of the major climbs and was panicking slightly about how long it had taken me so far. I reasoned that 140km was still a good achievement and at that point, every part of me wanted to take that road east. Thankfully there is a café in Aysgarth and I was able to pause and take a break from the bike. They sold two of my favourite things in the world; Coke and Millionaires Shortbread. I have yet to find any drink that can give me the same lift as a can of Coke when I’m exhausted and the shortbread was honestly the best I have ever had. The brief rest and the sugar influx allowed me to look at the situation more rationally. I hadn’t actually been that slow and had plenty of time to finish, I was able to restock on food and drinks and I knew the route well from here, so I could turn off my phone and conserve the battery for an emergency. I decided to head west. I’m extremely proud of myself for this decision; it would have been so easy to go east and avoid the pain but I decided to push on and test myself.
The next major waypoint was Hawes, which in itself is a lovely town, but is more significant to me as the start of the Buttertubs Pass. This was the big climb; the long, steep test that would prove the biggest obstacle. It bares its teeth early on with a few sharp sections that require you to get out of the saddle but the real examination of your fitness and desire begins as you head up above the town and cross the cattle-grid on to a bleak and windy stretch of road. Very soon there was a procession of people pushing their bikes up the side of the road. I can only apologise to the lady who was left rather startled as I shouted at myself, “Luke, you are not f***ing walking!” I pushed on and was cheered up the last, incredibly steep stretch by two girls who had come seriously close to making it all the way themselves. This wasn’t quite the top but from here the road undulates slightly and it’s possible to pick up momentum ahead of the remaining steep uphills. I made it, and had kept my word to myself by not stopping or walking at any point. As I paused to take photos the girls passed me and I was able to thank them for their support and for the next hour of mostly (but far from entirely) downhill riding I saw them another couple of times as we each stopped at different points for drinks and food. I left them at Gunnerside as they finished for the day but their shouting and encouragement had come just at the right time.
I had broken the back of the ride and felt like I was heading for home, despite there being about 70km still to go! The next section follows the general Yorkshire cycling trend of there never being a flat section of road. Energy spent on the uphills was now not being replenished as easily, and the downhills were feeling far less rewarding. I knew that one final effort was required to get over the Whipperdale Bank, the final major climb, as you head out of the village of Grinton. I know this section of road and thankfully, I was able to break it down in to steep parts, requiring me to get out of the saddle, and shallower inclines, where a slight recovery could be had. I covered this stretch of road with a guy cycling from Skipton to Leyburn with his 70 yr old father, who was only a short distance behind. I have to take my hat off to him for an incredible effort and it just shows what is possible. I left them at the top but it certainly made things easier having someone to talk to on the way up. As I rode away I was mightily impressed and slightly humbled.
I have seen the last 60km described as pancake flat, but to anybody other than a professional cyclist this is a ridiculous claim. The stretch over the top of the moor, passed the Army shooting ranges to Leyburn, is relatively smooth, but the final 35km still had some short, horrible hills, especially with my incredibly tired legs. For most people, the village of Middleham is idyllic, with a lovely square surrounded by several pubs – but I hate it! The ascent in to the town nearly finished me off and having to stop and then start at the traffic lights near the top was really not what I needed. Thankfully, this was as bad as it got and I pushed through the stretch towards Ripon and then home. On the day of the TdF itself, the bypass out of town towards Harrogate should provide an excellent route for the Peloton to form up for a sprint finish and hopefully we will see Mark Cavendish claim the Yellow Jersey. However, I was delighted to turn off short of Harrogate for the final ride back to Bishop Monkton. I had made it. After more than 9 hours in the saddle I rolled in to the village and even managed a small spurt past the pub to home. I was delighted, utterly exhausted and so, so proud that I had been able to push myself so hard towards my limits and ultimately, to succeed.
I had discovered an awful lot about myself and my character but also how important it is to keep oneself correctly fuelled. I physically couldn’t eat or drink a thing at end and I really don’t think I could have gone much further. This will be an extremely valuable lesson to have learnt when I’m in remote parts of Australia, away from easily accessible food, and will also help me through the various races I have planned over the summer. I spent the next half an hour shivering, unable to get warm or really move. Some hot coffee, jam on toast and a warm bath finally got me feeling better and I was able to reflect on the day. It was without doubt the toughest physical challenge of my life so far and it had stretched me far more mentally than expected. I made the difficult decisions, took the considered risks and pushed myself further than I had previously realised was possible. The respect I have for the guys in the Tour de France has increased even more; they are truly astounding athletes. And though I may not have a Yellow Jersey to show for it, I really don’t care. I did it!