Lakeland 200 and Lessons Learned

There’s only 6 weeks to go before the HT550 which is my big event this year—perhaps my big event of any year—and while I’ve been putting in plenty of endurance-paced training rides haven’t really tested myself by riding that much terrain of similar style to what I understand that to be. I thought about riding the Dales Divide group start again this year, but decided instead to tackle the Lakeland 200. The end result wasn’t entirely pretty but with hindsight I can only see my experience doing it as a positive thing and one that will hopefully stand my in good stead for bigger things.

I’d been a little casual in my planning to ride the Lakeland 200, with a vague thought of doing it just some weekend sometime around Easter, perhaps with a Kendal CC club mate who’d expressed an interest in doing it too. He turned out to be off skiing for the month, so my ride became a self-supported attempt. No bad thing, as HT550’s the same. I knew that a 40 hours completion time was deemed a ‘finish’ and also that the FKT was a ridiculous sub 17 hours, so felt somewhere around 30 hours would be required to complete, so setting off of a Sunday morning would have me finish Monday lunchtime. I then saw the wonderful Steezy Collective Lakeland 200 Project movie(s) and had a bit of a rethink: They looked to be really gunning for it, and are far more experienced in such predominantly off-road endurance events and came in around that 30 hour mark too. Perhaps 36 hours was a more reasonable aim. With that I decided to set off at sunrise on the Sunday to be home for tea on Monday night.

I’ve been gradually getting a bike and kit ready for HT550: A Cotic Cascade which has replaced my Bombtrack Hook EXT as my ‘northern gravel’ bike, and in preparation for what lies ahead, I’ve switched the rigid forks out for some 100mm travel ones, fitted wider bars, added a bigger cassette and smaller chain ring, and also knocked up a couple of custom bags to fit the smaller front triangle.

I got to Staveley about 6am, parked the van, unloaded the bike and headed off as soon as my GPS had booted up and the route was visible. The morning’s riding was all on trails I’d ridden before and things ticked along nicely what becoming a overcast but bright day in the Southern Lakes, but then descending towards Loughrigg Tarn I clipped a rock fairly hard with my rear wheel. I felt that horrible rock on rim thud, but thought I’d got away with it until I got onto the road section towards Little Langdale and realised the tyre was really quite soft. I gave it a good pump and carried on towards Tilberthwaite but within a few hundred meters it had lost enough pressure to feel every rock and root through the rim. I repeated this a few times before I looked again and could see a cut at the base of a tread lug that wasn’t sealing at all. I stuck a Dynaplug in which seemed to do the job and set off again.

Pressure held longer that before but the tyre was still deflating. I stopped and looked to see sealant down near the rim which would bubble when the tyre was prodded. It was the other half of a snakebite with the hole I’d plugged earlier. I’ve found plugging these holes by the rim to be hit and miss in the past, but reluctant to put a tube in decided that an old-school anchovy might work, using the smallest screwdriver on a Leatherman to push it into place. Fingers-crossed, I cautiously pushed on.

I stopped at Grizedale for an early lunch. The club were meeting for an MTB ride there that morning and I wondered if I might bump into them, perhaps dawdling a bit too long in the hope I would. I set off again, briefly stopping to borrow the track pump at Biketreks and lust after the Pivot bikes they had on demo, before climbing up and over to Coniston and onto Walna Scar Road, the proper first climb of the route ascending to 600 meters or so. As is so often the case in The Lakes the weather had changed quickly and clouds had dropped. Above about 400 meters it was proper claggy and without the views to inspire it was tough going. Where you’d perhaps logically drop down to Seathwaite the route instead heads south. This ‘this is the wrong way’ feeling is a perhaps theme of the Lakeland 200: You know where you’re heading at any point, but you don’t seem to be going in the right direction to get there. This ‘needless’ out and back got me to Seathwaite via a good few bogs and I stopped at the pub for a lemonade, some crisps, and picked up a couple of flapjacks too. There were bikes parked up outside which belonged to three guys also doing the route but with a more laid back itinerary, looking to do the route over at least 4 days and enjoying a pint and a proper meal.

A hiss and a spray of sealant let me know that something had punctured my front tyre. Another plug was needed and I rode on.

I came round Harter Fell into Eskdale, noting the iconic red phone box at the foot of Hardknott Pass and being pleased I wasn’t heading that way today, then started a slow boggy slog over towards Wast Water and Wasdale Head. It dawned on me around the tarn just how quiet everywhere had been today I’d barely seen a soul on the trails or fells all day and right here right now I felt miles from anywhere and anyone. Bliss!

I stopped at Wasdale Head Inn to have something to eat. Conscious of time I grabbed a couple of bags of nuts, washed them down with another pint of lemonade and pushed on into the fading light. I came to regret this all too hasty stop and should really have ordered some proper food. The clag closed in as I hike-a-biked over Black Sail pass. I’ve never done this section before on foot or with bike and as it got dark things got a little sketchy. The GPS route didn’t always seem to follow a trod, and the rocky climb was tricky enough to lug a laden bike up, and then borderline scary coming down, not helped by a front brake that had all but given up the ghost. I could pull the lever right to the bar with little braking affect and trying to brake with the rear while hike-a-biking would result in it locking up and skidding round past me. Seeing the lights of the youth hostel emerge from the gloom was massively reassuring. Although there was nobody about it provided a momentary safe haven to collect my thoughts. It was only 9:30pm but with no moonlight and clag barely 50 meters above me I made the call to wait before tackling Scarth Gap Pass. As mentioned, I’d not done this before and fear of the unknown had got to me, discretion being the better part of valour and all that …

Still this was a good chance to try out my ‘sleep system’ as bikepackers are prone to describing it. I could see a wooded area on the map so rode a little way down the valley to check it out for camping. It was perfect with a mossy surface and only a few stones to kick out the way. I’d only set up my tent once before and doing so for a second time in the dark when tired took a little while. Likewise just getting my bit and pieces together took ages, and it was best part of an hour later before I set an alarm for 4 hours time and fell asleep.

I woke up with a banging dehydration headache and not feeling massively rested but I quickly packed up and started the next climb over to Gatesgarth which is another long slog of a hike-a-bike on rock steps, both natural and ‘fix the fells’ created. The cloud base had lifted a little and the pass nowhere near as extreme as Black Sail had felt in the dark. Pushing on last night perhaps wouldn’t have been so bad …

My lack of front brake was still an issue. I already knew I couldn’t fix it en route, but stopped at the head of Buttermere to double-check, and wasted far too long trying to adjust the lever reach with too short a multitool hex key and subsequently random sticks before giving up and heading up Honister. My front tyre had started losing air too, so topped that up.

I started pedalling but couldn’t clip in. I stomped my foot to clear whatever was stuck in the cleat to no avail, so stopped. I’d lost a cleat bolt, and checking my always-there-but-never-used spares pouch found nothing. I’ve (evidently not) carried a spare for years without needing one. Oh well.

Honister Pass of a morning makes for quite a rude awakening even without one foot half-on half-off a pedal, and I don’t mind admitting I walked that final ramp, before topping up my front tyre again, and enjoying the descent and turning off down onto the bridleways that run towards Keswick. It was nearing 10am and the thought of breakfast and a bike shop to sort out that cleat and brake lever spurred me on. Another front puncture slowed me down en route, but Whinlatter Cycles sold me some cleats and I borrowed a full length hex key to give me a fully functional front brake again. I grabbed some food from Co-op and rolled back onto the route when my back tyre rapidly deflated, right outside Biketrex’s store. It looks as though the plug I’d put in early on had failed. I put another in and used the store’s track pump to get up to proper pressure.

I try never to look at the distance covered while riding, preferring only to see the route and and time of day but happened to check and saw 150km recorded. Excellent! But wrong. Oh so wrong. In my mind, and not having studied the homeward leg in detail, it was really ‘just’ High Street and then Garburn Pass and I’d be home, which tallied with my ~50-60km to go notion. I should have thought that this was a nonsense, but it wasn’t until having done the out and back between Skiddaw and Blencathra and being halfway to Pooley bridge that I realized what had happened: My tracker was recording the track from home rather than Staveley and so I had no idea exactly how far was left. Anyway I should have remembered that this route doesn’t take any direct route so was never going to be straight-lining it back to Staveley.

The Old Coach Road is unridable at the Thelkeld end, thanks to the dumping of scalpings on it, but once that was out the way I felt I was making good progress. Rolling towards Pooley Bridge on a fast road descent I suffered a huge front tyre blow-out. Luckily nothing was coming the other way as I veered over to the far side of the road and just about stayed upright. There was a large puncture hole in the tyre but a ‘megaplug’ sorted in in one. A quick lunch stop and then the climb onto Askham and Barton Fell.

I knew High Street was going to be be the big climb but hadn’t banked on what came before. Looking now at the map, Martindale Common and Beda Fell don’t look like much but the climb near finished me off.

There’s another horribly re-dressed climb towards Hayes Water before what had been the only tricky river crossing of the route. High Street is a long slog, long enough for water purification tablets to work on water grabbed half-way up, but is a ‘nice’ gradient over smooth terrain making for a relativity easy ascent: still hike-a-bike, mind. Once the slope becomes gentle enough to pedal, the ride across the ridge is ace. I had little view, thanks to the low cloud, but the occasional teasing glimpse all around of all the Lakes has to offer. On a clearer day this would surely be the literal and metaphorical high point of the route, but even today reaching the beacon brought about a sense of ‘job done’.

The wet grassy descent wasn’t fun. Wolfpack Speed tyres are awful on that surface and I had to walk a fair section, but once in the valley I made quick progress to the foot of Garburn, and I was back onto known trails. Halfway up the pass I had a text from my friend, and far speedier rider than me, Verity asking ‘how did it go?’. With my longer rest stop, handful of mechanicals, and general faffing it was getting dark, my optimistic hopes for 30, and more realistic 36 hours were long since out the window and I was battling to make it back under 40. I laughed. It was still going, and I couldn’t stop to let her know. The Garburn descent can be nasty at the best of times, and thanks to re-surfacing is horrible right now. I had my only off of the ride coming down here. And a second too for good measure.

At Kentmere the route takes you back up and then down the well known (and once loved) Three Rivers descent. I’d say this was the sting in the tail, but the Lakeland 200 has stings all the way round. I arrived back in Staveley with a Strava elapsed time of 39 hours and 48 minutes: officially that’s a finish time and I’ll take that, but lots to think about before HT550.

Lessons Learned

  • Pay attention to where you might be given any start time: Starting a few hours earlier would have had me riding trails I knew in the dark, and those I didn’t in the light.
  • Check your tools fit your bike. Not being able to fix my front brake was a rookie error as was … 
  • Check you have the spares you think you have. … I now know I have spare cleats.
  • Organise your kit. With more thought, I could have been stopped and set up camp far quicker than I did this time round.
  • You’ll never regret having lower gears. I was way over-geared for this at 34:44.
  • Test your components. Gears as stated, but I’d been relatively happy with my tyres until now but need to rethink that. These were far too fragile.
  • Eat and drink. And then eat and drink more. I’m not the best at remembering to eat and know I lose time each time fatigue kicks in before refueling.
  • Less faffing, more riding! My moving time (AKA the Ross Barkley 10k time) was only 25 1/2 hours so plenty of faff to work with.