Again, the alarm went off far too soon and we bundled ourselves out into a soggy grey morning as quickly as we could. The beautifully peaceful empty carriageways of the early hours had been transformed into a gritty, busy, hectic scrum of Monday morning traffic and I realised the initial plan had been to ride this stretch earlier in the morning before we realised there was no point getting to Upper Coquetdale before 5pm… the road closed for firing until then.
Roadworks made the traffic even worse and we road in silence for several miles unable to talk over the string of lorries thundering past, luckily the hard shoulder left room but it was far from a pleasurable experience. Last night’s (or rather early morning) pot noodle was wearing off already and we were trying to reach Brough where we turned off onto quieter roads to get a break when suddenly a sign for a cafe appeared in my limited peripheral vision around Stevie’s lower back- we barely needed to say anything to know we were pulling in. Cafes are always a risk when you are in a rush as it can be amazing how long it can take produce some hot food. Sometimes as if it is a complete surprise to the kitchen staff that we have ordered something to be cooked off the menu and they must first acquire the raw ingredients and then build a cooker from scratch before individually cooking each item with the finesse of a Michelin starred chef… but in this case we were lucky and a full English with bountiful hot tea was rapidly produced and then consumed! There is no doubt that this took longer than eating cold sandwiches on the pavement but the boost to morale was worth it… just!
As soon as we turned off the relatively flat main road we started to climb, and this was to become the theme for the rest of the day. We had learnt from Anisa some riders were heading to Carlisle before cutting across to Upper Coquetdale and we started to wonder if we had missed a trick here but crossing the lumpy Northumberland terrain. I love this part of the country though, Stevie finds the isolation eerie but to feel so separate from civilization fills me with peace and excitement in equal measure and takes me back to our last couple of days on the Pennine Way where we were completely alone in the wilderness.
More familiar places from the Pennine Way came in the form of Grassholme Reservoir and we saw a couple of other APN riders whizzing down the the checkpoint here as we ground our way back up yet another out a back climb. One rider was planning to try and exit from Grassholme the other side as he was going the other way around from us… I’m not sure if there are solid roads there so hope he faired ok!
It is now 10:50am and we are 287miles into the ride and focused on getting to Upper Coquetdale by 5pm when the red flags will be lowered and we shouldn’t get shot!
Middleton in Teesdale felt very familiar from various cycling and hiking events and holidays and we avoided getting lured into the shops and cafes here only to cave and pull over for coffee near High Force to try and perk us up. The road was rolling flatter here, but is suspect it was a gradual climb, especially with the River Tees thundering down the falls alongside it. Then up and over again and through the Wearhead Military range which had a distinctive enough red flag to make us stop and check we weren’t “in range”, but it turns out 1 area to dodge bullets was actually enough for this ride and the road was free to ride. Time seemed to both drag and speed up at this point as every mile seemed hard won and the hours seemed to slip by, especially as the afternoon heat kicked in. We managed to hold out until Hayden Bridge before another stop and knew we must fill up and fuel up here as otherwise it would be a detour off route or close to 80miles before the next shop.
Stevie got collared by an enthusiastic bloke from Essex on his holidays who insisted on knowing the whole story of our ride. We normally stick to naming the last place we’ve been through and the next place we are going implying they are the start and end points to prevent confusion, but this gent was insistent and then incredulous and then determined we would repeat the whole saga for his rather uninterested wife! Making a speedy exit before anyone else twigged what we were up to we made our way up into the glorious peace of the hills again but for more slow progress and the aim of reaching the bottom of the road from Upper Coquetdale looking increasingly unrealistic.
Eventually reaching the old Roman road called Dere Street I had been optimistic of making up time along what a appeared to be a relatively flat, straight road and made the mistake of letting Stevie know it was now a 50miles out and back to this point. Sometimes ignorance is bliss though…
The road was not flat as of course if you build a straight road from a to b (especially in the North) it just goes up and over every incline and contour in the landscape. A steadily rolling road sapped any speed we could have hoped to have before three short sharp descents guaranteed us we wouldn’t be going any faster on the way back either. I was devastated to lose so much more time as had my heart set on clawing back time along this stretch before the final climb up to Upper Coquetdale. Our sleep deprived brains struggled to make sense of the miles remaining to the checkpoint and the time and distance just didn’t seem to add up.
Eventually reaching the turn for the Otterburn Ranges we were obviously well outside of firing times, as much as army vehicles were still out doing whatever army vehicles do. The single track road was at least pretty empty and the countryside around beautifully in that wonderful feeling of space the Cheviots have. A bit of passing traffic from some cows on the road at the climb actually went better than expected… before the typically unnecessary steep 25% descent to a carpark with a sign that was the checkpoint. We met another rider there that had gone the longer way round and then a third soon caught us up from the same direction- it seemed everyone was converging on the checkpoint at the same time! We made a quick turnaround though filling in the Brevet card with 19:50pm, almost 2 hours later than hoped, getting our photos and beating up the short climb before enjoying the long steady descent. Or at least I was enjoying it, Stevie has the job of avoiding kamikaze sheep and rabbits on the road and after a bit of “discussion” I conceded and agreed we should put the lights on which was just as well as it was pretty much dark before we reached the rolling Roman road.
It wasn’t quite as bad as expected, but not sure the prior knowledge did us any favours and we had lost more time before reaching the intersection again. A bit of flatter terrain gave me false hope of picking up speed as we road into the night but there were of course more climbs to come and one particularly stiff ascent left us rolling through Durham too late for even Dominos pizza which was open until 1am! Over 48hours of hard riding and little sleep or respite was starting to wear on me, I was just completely determined that we could stay on track but too befuddled to realise this was no longer a possibility. We stopped briefly in a carpark to stretch the legs and I started to lose the plot completely, frustrated we couldn’t raise our speed and that no matter what we did time was slipping away. Watching the speed drop to 9…8…7…6…5mph was soul destroying when we had worked so hard, the bike and us were just too heavy to climb faster. Even if we had put in everything we had on those hills we would have gained barely any speed and the effort would have been counterproductive in the long term, it was just so hard to accept that we were moving so slowly. Stevie at least would have been faster around the whole course on a solo bike, but even I would have been faster up those hills!
When the next “top of the mountain” icon appeared on my Garmin miles down the road I almost went into full-on meltdown, even considering a massive detour to avoid another time-sapping climb- I’d rather have ridden faster for longer than keep grinding at this point. Stevie convinced me to stick with it but my exhausted head became introverted and as much as I was awake I was in a dreamy state and not able to make conversation, feeling numb and overcome with the challenge. Then the icy mist descended as well and even though it probably wasn’t as cold as it felt it seemed to penetrate to my core and the next time Stevie pulled us over he found me shivering and barely coherent on the back from exhaustion. He soon bundled me up in more layers and the rest of the climb at least warmed me up, to only plunge both of us into more freezing mist on the descent. And emergency stop, down gilets on and all the layers. We then road off with Stevie forgetting his glasses were on the back rack resulting in another emergency stop and a jog up the road to get them.
We had had very little to eat apart from the snacks we were carrying since Hayden Bridge and had missed any form of evening meals, but still needed to fuel through the early hours and couldn’t imagine much better than a hot coffee to spur us on. My control sheet showed a 24hour garage a few miles up the road and I desperately hoped I’d got my facts right… the neon light eventually welcomed us in and the lovely night shift worker passed us hot coffees and hot pasties through the hatch- absolutely delicious!!
I tried not to over analyse the time too much at this point, but it was clear our schedule would need a rethink. Initially the ideal was to arrive at Middlesbrough at 2am and leave by 4am but by the time we found the Premier Inn it was 5:30am. The part of my that wanted so badly to stick to schedule wanted to push on but Stevie talked sense in that this would be false economy and we were certainly need to stop somewhere so it may as well be a comfy bed as we were not set up to bivvy. Another super quick turn around and I had passed out in bed before Ste was out of the shower, determinedly ignoring the dawn chorus starting up outside.
It was going to take a lot to swallow my pride and just admit that 8pm was no longer realistic and we would now do well to complete before midnight on Tuesday. It was not for lack of trying- my legs were in tatters, not through lack of experience- we know how the tandem rides, and not through lack of planning- although a hilly route any other would have been similar or added more distance just more about being realistic as to what can be achieved. The ride was always going to be an epic challenge and it was not our fault we couldn’t achieve more speed on our heavy machine… I just needed to get my head around the fact this was not a failure and we were still very much in the race!