Dales Divide 2020 Race Report
I’d been looking for another bikepacking race to take part in since Race Around Rwanda and the Dales Divide, due to take place over the Easter weekend looked perfectly timed. Long enough away to recover, but soon enough to carry some fitness through. It also started and finished in Arnside, less than 20km from my home, negating the need to make any travel arrangements. COVID-19 screwed up that plan and I’d not really thought much more about it until seeing it re-listed on dotwatcher.cc early in August. So, with very little training and very little time to rectify that, I decided to enter anyway. What’s the worst that could happen?
As a lockdown project, I’d build up a new bike which having read a few recce reports of the Dales Divide route seemed like it would be a better choice than my Fugio. This one, a Bombtrack Hook EXT, will take up to a 2.1”/53mm width tyre, which seemed like a wise move. It was on this recently completed ‘parts bin special’ that I rocked up to Arnside with 10 or so minutes till the off.
Keeping socially distanced, I chatted to another rider—the obligatory gearing and tyre choice discussion–and then rolled along to the jetty which marked the starting point. Mike Hall’s mother gave a welcome speech which was unfortunately out of my earshot, there was a round of applause and then riders hopped on their bikes and headed out.
I knew some of this first few hours of riding’s lanes and trails and made good steady progress up towards Whernside and down to Ribblehead, before the route looped back vaguely towards Settle.
~80km in and there was a café with outside seating. A handful of riders had stopped and I joined them. Custard tart and a bacon bap eaten I rolled onwards. Very shortly beyond this we passed nearby to event organiser Chris Ellison’s house where he’d stashed a supply of water and snacks. Nice touch!
There’d been a handful of fellow riders coming together and drifting apart for a few hours. Some terrain suited the mountain bikes better than the gravel bikes, there was even a bloke on a Dawes Galaxy who’d come flying by when the terrain worked for him, and to be honest, also where it didn’t seem possible to maintain such pace on such a bike. Proper Rough Stuff Fellowship-like stuff and well impressive to see.
We rode as a group of four down to Bolton Abbey were we’d hope to find a shop open to replenish water and perhaps grab a bite to eat. No such luck though as it was closed, and we pushed on. I ended up riding with a guy called Harry as the other two riders peeled off the route in search of an open shop. We pushed on into the evening as we hoped to find somewhere to get something proper to eat. I asked a dog walker if he knew of anywhere nearby and he told of us a pub serving pizza ‘just down the road’ …
We called ahead to order and rode on. It turned out to be a good few miles off the route, but given the absence of anything else we carried on and stuffed our faces as it became fully dark outside. Fully fed, we rode back onto the route and encountered a group of riders outside a shop stocking up on food and drink. As a bigger group we rode on along boggy paths, through fields, and along lanes until we’d strung out again, with riders calling it a day and setting up camp for the night. Still fuelled and warmed up by our earlier pizza feast, Harry and I rode on further as we looked for either a suitable camping spot or shelter we could use: a doorway, bus stop, open shed or whatever. We passed through a few promising looking villages to no avail, before noticing a church with an open porch.
It had been a tough day’s riding, lots of mud, lots of bog, and having a little sheltered space to spend the night was a blessing. My late decision to enter the race, and related lack of any real race plan meant that I’d only half-considered where I’d be after a day in the saddle. Looking just at the distances involved though, I’d felt that somewhere between York and Scarborough would be reasonable. I’d not even made it to York. Doubt set it about completing the route within the 3 days I’d allowed myself. The terrain had been far slower going than I’d banked on. I mulled over contingency plans for bailing out and set an alarm for 5:30 to get a few hours sleep.
Harry and I were on the road again by 5:45, rolling immediately into a National Trust property’s grounds. There was a rider bivvying by the gate, and 15km or so later, having ridden along small lanes and cycle paths and stopped at a Sainsbury’s store in York to have breakfast, he joined us. He’d taken another couple of hours to get to where we’d spent the night, and was basing his schedule on 200km a day. We agreed that the previous day’s riding had been far tougher than expected, but also remembered that we’d been warned that this was the worst of it. There was another rider just finishing his breakfast, riding a single-speed. He hadn’t been fazed by day one’s efforts at all and sped off towards the city centre and beyond. They’re an odd breed these single-speeders!
The route between York and Scarborough was rather non-descript, if I recall correctly predominantly made up of rutted bridleways alongside vast arable farmland and grassy trails. The rutted surface made for a jarring ride on my fully rigid gravel bike. I considered the benefits of those re-ramped suspension stems that are available. There was a headwind too. A relentless headwind. We overtook single-speed as he spun along a county lane, crossed more farmland and eventually spotted the sea. Part one of our coast to coast to coast was nearing completion and we set our thoughts on grabbing a proper warm meal before starting our journey back west.
Scarborough was a shock to the system, although given it was a holiday weekend perhaps not surprising how busy it was. The lack of social distancing and mask wearing made me a little anxious though. Pizza was opted for again, but it transpired that no pizza places were open until early evening, and we had to settle for a Subway (I refused to end my arbitrary 20 year old McD’s boycott although in hindsight could have killed a cheeseburger or three.) Their card payment machine was out of order, they didn’t sell ‘full-fat’ drinks, and they’d run out of cheese, but it was still food. We sat outside and devoured our foot-long subs while warding off thieving gulls. The Dawes Galaxy and Single-speed riders each came by.
We rode alongside the seafront and then headed inland a little as we headed up towards Whitby where our journey west would begin. The 200km a day plan seemed sensible, and I planned to get past 400km so as to broken the back of the route and feel like I was really heading home before calling it a day. I wasn’t really paying to much attention to the tracker, but seeing where other riders where and how my location compared gave an idea of how quickly ground was likely to be covered.
As the day drew on, we’d headed up onto the moors. Harry was on a mountain bike and our paces ebbed and flowed as our individual bike choices took turns to better suit the terrain. There was another long section of bog to ride, stop, start, and wade through, before the trails became more ridable again and we passed a pub just as it was due to close but still serving bar snacks so ate pies and pasties as we agreed to get past that 400km mark then seek somewhere to get some rest. Just shy of 400km though we approached a bothy. That would have done nicely, but there was a bike blocking the doorway. It was the Dawes Galaxy and as I stopped a voice from within a bivvy bag laid out in the doorway called out ‘it’s locked’. There was no more space to bed down so I wished him a good night’s sleep and we pushed on.
Shortly after 11pm we found an isolated moor-top inn. They had a walled beer garden which I asked if we could bivvy in for a few hours and they were fine with that. This offered some shelter from the still relentless northerly wind and we set up camp: Me in my hooped bivvy and Harry under his taup. It was a bitterly cold night and I regretted not having a sleeping mat with me while I considered how embarrassing it would be to develop hypothermia in a beer garden.
It was still bitterly cold as we headed out into the gradually brightening day, along some roads and then back out onto the moors. It was stunning. The wind had dropped and the views incredible as we rode along proper gravel tracks: There is genuine gravel (TM) in the UK if you know where to find it! It was still slow going. Looking at the tracking map I was surprised how far east we still were. We were still very much in the Moors, with a traverse over to the Dales and then those still to cross required. Still being able to see the North Sea was somewhat disconcerting.
Rolling off the moors and into a pretty village there was a store open to grab some breakfast. Due to COVID-19 restrictions they had a counter at the doorway and you had to request what you wanted, second-guessing what they might have in stock: Chocolate milk? No. Banana milk will do. Pork pie? No, steak. Flapjacks? Oat biscuits. Another rider rocked up and we got chatting. Her husband was the guy on the Dawes Galaxy. She’d cut up to the westerly leg from near York and was hoping for him to catch her here. She’d spent the night in a school’s doorway before being woken by the caretaker at 5am. It’s always nice to compare notes and to validate any gripes.
I pushed on, making good progress across the country and getting a physiological lift on passing over the M1. This had me feeling as though I was on the ‘proper’ side of the country again despite there being a fair way to go. We headed into the Dales. It was still a little further east than I areas I know well, but the views were looking more familiar as we rolled over military land and grouse moors.
Dawes Galaxy guy caught us as we climbed towards a stunning fell top hunting lodge, with us then pulling ahead on the descent and him passing us again while passing over grassy trails that followed. We stopped at another pub to re-hydrate before pushing onto the climb that had been looming on the elevation profile. The roman road out of Bainbridge was like nothing else I’ve ever ridden. Straight and straight up on gravel that offered little traction nor any comfort. It was relentless, but after what seemed like an eternity it was done and the beginning of the end was in sight. The descent from here was amazing, perhaps made for mountain bikes rather than a fatigued gravel bike rider, but I pushed as hard as I dared, knowing that I’d catch Harry again as we next started a climb.
The final fell proper had us riding into the sunset towards Dentdale. We’d seen the sun rise over the east coast and now we were seeing it set over the west. Coast to coast to coast almost done, and we upped our pace as we hit roads I knew well. I hadn’t really reviewed the run in at all but knew it wasn’t more than perhaps 20km to the finish. I’d not banked on the slightly convoluted 30km+ route that were were taken on, and did rather bitch and moan as we were taken on bridleways I usually actively avoid as they’re a bit nasty to ride. We passed Galaxy guy who was having a tough time on one such trail. There were more ruts, bogs, and now cow shit too, before hitting the roads again for a final sprint to Arnside.
We drove each other on, passing another rider a few KM from the finish and finally rolling onto the Jetty just after 11.30pm: I actually overshot the turn onto the jetty, with Harry beating me fair and square to the finish, despite what the official tracking says!
So job done, 600 mainly off-road kilometers in 60ish hours, including rests and stops. It was far tougher than I’d expected but a proper experience, and plenty of good memories to counter any pain or misery felt at the time. Riding with Harry was a pleasure. He’s a top bloke with experiences, ambition and drive that belies his relatively young age—I’m easily old enough to be his dad! Check out his range of bikepacking bags at SpokedUK.
‘Bike’ and ‘kit’ posts to follow shortly. Errors in recollection of what actually occurred during the race cannot be ruled out!