All Points North: Part 1, Preparation

And suddenly I don’t know how to start, how to describe this ride, how it came about, how we ended up on the start line, how we kept our pedals turning through 617miles and everything that happened along the way. It’s 57hours after we finished, way under our finishing time of 79hrs 34minutes and there still seems so much to take in but I wanted to write something while the memories are still fresh and the emotions (and saddle sores!) are still raw.

I had heard snippets around the inaugural All Points North event in 2019 but being a through and through audaxer at this point and focused on Paris-Brest-Paris paid little more than passing attention. The following lockdowns set a different vibe of riding for us so it was only when I interview Angela Walker for our podcast “Stoked to be Here” my interest was piqued yet again. Ang is a very experienced rider in her own right and with background with the TransCon and audaxes would know exactly what would make such an event tick on UK soil. Her passion for promoting the inclusivity of the sport of long/ultra-distance cycling and helping run A Different Gear, a not for profit bike and workshop supporting the Heeley Trust and local community make All Point’s North a special event to be part of.

The ride has a unique feel with cap numbers and dot watched tracking similar to international ultra-distance events but a small field and the impression you are part of a tight knit group of single minded folk.

Having said that the chat online in the run up to the event was suspiciously quiet… until one brave soul confessed their nerves only to be followed by a stream of similar comments from those suddenly doubting their wisdom in entering such a race.

It had been several months before when I had completed the application forms, hoping we would be unusual enough to warrant a direct place. There was reportedly a large number of young/middle aged males planning on a fast route around and weighting was given to others falling outside this demograph: seeing as we were half female, a pair, planning to complete with little time to spare and on a tandem I felt this would give us the edge in the application process! There were a number of questions to answer too regarding past experience and our approach to different scenarios and as much as the question about military firing ranges seemed a bit odd, my cheeky response to what we would do about a snapped drive side rear spoke in the back end of nowhere (I said I’d get Stevie to fix it while I got the snacks out!) we still soon had an successful entry… and then it all seemed a bit too late to reconsider!

It’s not like we haven’t undertaken similar events before; Stevie’s palmares has a bunch of LELs (London-Edinburgh-London) and PBP (Paris-Brest-Paris) audaxes as well as his own DeLEJoGDe (Derby-Lands End-John O’Groats-Derby) completed in 9 days unsupported, but we’d completed the extremely challenging Mille Pennines 1000km audax in 2017 and I had finished PBP on a solo bike a few hours out of time after sickness in 2019.

But somehow APN was a different beast.

The first challenge was the planning- we are used to riding set course audaxes, or planning touring rides where time and distance are less of an issue but suddenly routing was key to success. After plugging the controls into Komoot and Ride with GPS and experimenting with different directions and controls I settled with Ride with GPS being most user friendly for a basic idea of routing- our aim was to keep distance as low as possible and we were willing to take the hit of some less scenic roads to accomplish this.

However, it was important the route was a joint decision and Stevie not being as keen on the new fangled planning apps had me resort to purchasing some trusty old (well new!) 1:250 000 OS road maps. Initially we underestimated the amount North than All Point’s North might travel so the Southern Scotland map was purchased too!

Planning meeting in progress!

A planning meeting was booked at the one place I knew I could rely on Stevie to be: the Hole in the Wall, our local micropub and they were very tolerant of us commandeering a couple of tables to spread our maps out. Being able to see the route on a scale great than that of a laptop screen was definitely a benefit and I transposed it onto RWGPS along the way.

It was certainly not looking flat, and many roads we were familiar with from audaxes covering the same terrain- there were often few road options and without making large time consuming detour we accepted that hills would feature frequently on our roads, as would a fair few out an backs to checkpoints which were obviously strategically positions to make for a challenging ride.

The real sticking point came when we realised the Upper Coquetdale was in the middle of the Otterburn Military firing range (that question in the application process hadn’t been quite so random after all…) and we would either have to hope the range was closed or make a 30mile detour. It took a fair amount of research to discover the bridleway, usually something we would never consider riding in a tandem, was in fact asphalt with parking places visible on google earth but memories from when we walked the Pennine Way the previous year and listening to the ranges firing noise through the dark isolation of the Cheviots at night left me with a sense of foreboding about this leg of the route.

Other than this, preparations were pretty standard, I felt I have a more structured training plan than I have previously had for other cycling events having trained to a structure already this year for my Coast to Coast run. Having said that I was still pushing hard to fit training around work and Stevie, despite being by far the stronger rider, was struggling to get out on the bike around renovations going on at home. We had however already completed a Super Randonneur series in typically challenging conditions this year which gave us some confidence we had the distance in our legs and riding this sort of event to finish, fitness is only a small proportion of the means to success: strategy and mindset are at least as equally important.

So for us having a strategy beforehand was key, we had an idea of what we could achieve on the tandem as we were never going to break any records around a course like this, in fact we were being extremely brave/ foolish for trying and agreed in advance that we both acknowledged there was a real risk of not finishing the event and we may have to pull out, especially as I would be back to work within a few days. There could be no rush.

The second main strategy was sleep. Firstly because being sleep deprived is the most miserable part of these rides for me: memories that still make me feel giddy and sick are day 3 of the Mille Pennines stood on a quiet Yorkshire road in the early hours getting alternatively rained on and bitten by midges whiles sucking on a pro-plus lodged under my tongue wondering how I was going to stop falling asleep on the bike and to struggling to see where to place one foot in front of the other on PBP 2019 having hallucinated giant bunnies in the bushes at the side of the road. These experiences are one I was not keen to repeat and we were also keen to enjoy the ride as much as possible- there is no point in cycling through all the most beautiful places in the North in darkness.

Shattered on the Mille Pennines 2017

We are also becoming firm believers that being sleep deprived just makes for a slower ride- your pace drops, you stop more and it takes more energy to keep going and more time lost on multiple stops when one long stint would be of greater benefit in the long term. So this is what lead us to plan our 3 hotel strategy.

This is the height of luxury for us, we are quite used to sleeping on village hall floor amongst the cacophony other exhausted fellow audaxer snores and have bivvyed already this year on our 600km audax. But in this instance planning to sleep meant: a warm cosy bed for proper rest each night and the ability to use the “it’s a whole new day mindset” upon getting up after what might be only a couple of hours, the facilities of charging points, showers and a kettle which may sound luxurious but saved on batteries/food luggage and time on breakfast, finding morning cups of tea and also getting clean is a great strategy to stave off saddle sores. Most budget hotels will let you take a bike in the room or have provisions for one so we planned to stop in these accordingly.

A rare hotel room stop- the height of luxury!

The last thing to set up was kit. By this point we know what we take and what we might need on a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km ride and on this case the only extra things we took were plugs and charging packs and toothbrushes.

So finally it seemed we were all set! The last two weeks of training were absolutely draining around a chaotic time at work but all too soon I was in my last week of tapering desperately trying to get everything ready and make sure I had enough rest and check the route and firing times and get my kit packed and ready and get the correct provisions in and make sure everything was charged up and get my head in a good place.

Not quite a kit grid…

Stevie isn’t on social media, but I was left feeling more anxious than I normally would after reading the post full of other riders’ nerves and qualms about the ride to come. Had we really bitten off more than we could chew? Were we really experienced enough to take on such an event? What had we missed with the planning or route? What had I forgotten to take?

At this rate it would be a relief to get going when all we have to do is turn the pedals!

Weather forecast, pretty accurate!

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