Words and photos by Chris Ellison
I was buzzing when I got back from the USA in July 2018. I thought the UK should have a ride that would give people a small amount of the feeling of being on the Tour Divide. Being in the UK, there would never be that sense of isolation, nor of being away for weeks on end, but there is still the sense of pushing yourself at 11:00 at night, and of course opening your eyes early in the morning in a tent when you’d rather just turn back over to sleep! I wanted it to have as many of the elements of the Tour Divide as it could, such as Trackleaders live tracking and a broad range of riders, such as the ‘racers’ putting in very fast times, to the ‘wish-I-was-a-racer’ types like me, just plodding as hard as I could.
For most people, just getting round the course should be the primary objective. Then other things: a circular course (for easy logistics), an Easter weekend (giving four days), easy access (on the M6 motorway), etc., all came into place. It should have some interesting riding, but not 600km of technical riding that would make it too difficult and inaccessible to many. So the course was set, kind of.
Alex Pilkington and I rode 180km from Harrogate to Scarborough in February, which led to some changes, and Gary Hill and I rode Cam to Arnside to Highbark after that. I’d ridden most of the course at some other time in the previous 20 years, so I was comfortable. On the Thursday night before the start, Craig McGhee and Steve Heading took up the offer of beds at Highbark and at 6:30 a.m. we set off for the 40-minute drive to Arnside. The weather was stunning and set to be so for all four days. It was great to see so many people turn up. Loads of room on the prom meant easy parking and a relaxed setup as we assembled on the ‘pier’. Stu Taylor joined us, being the only person to have ridden the course prior to the grand depart, to wave us off. I suspect he was jealous of the great weather we were about to launch off into.
As I set off, a disaster! My GPS wouldn’t read at all. How embarrassing, the guy who set the course, not able to find his way. I was in a panic. All the way up Arnside Knot, for about 10 to 15 minutes it would not read, it just had my arrow at home where I had it last. My only plan was to follow the rest to Masongill, from there I knew my way home, and I’d pick up another GPS. Suddenly, at Silverdale it started behaving itself. I was so relieved. It surprised me how long it took to get from Arnside to Highbark but the riding was great, scooting along the edge of Whernside along Scales Moor then up Cam. I overtook a few stopped to snack at Ling Gill and eventually I made it to Highbark. Plenty of snacks and water, then off again.
Malham Tarn, Mastilles, and Boardley were all looking fantastic, I was with someone for most of it, usually Tim Roberts or Alan Parkinson. When I got to Hetton, Alan had stopped, to feed/rest but I hadn’t realised he was suffering. I set off alone over Bardon Moor and pushed up some of the steep climbs. At the summit I went over the bars on the moor in slow motion managed to entirely wreck my shades. The same shades that came off on Fleecer Ridge in Montana, then were found and posted back to me by two US riders. I was gutted.
The ride down to Bolton Abbey was a dream but on the climb up out of there I hit a wall. I was crawling up the tarmac climb when I got overtaken by Sean Belson and Andy Bennett. They were so cheery! Going across the moor I put my lights on and suddenly the temperature dropped. Lots. Sean and Andy could be seen by their lights going off into the distance. I just couldn’t keep up. That would be the last I would ever see of any other riders. On the road, I was now at the limit of my knowledge. Next was a rough bridleway that didn’t make sense in the dark and had terribly maintained gates on.
Eventually, I dropped into Dacre/Summerbridge where the air got even colder. At about 10:00 p.m. I’d had enough. I searched about in the cricket / tennis club area for a place to sleep but eventually pitched my tent in the kids play area. I ate some energy bars and fell straight asleep. It was freezing (in my 400g bag) so I woke up to put my down jacket on. Later, I found I should have ridden another 10 minutes, to a pub, where there might have been food, but more importantly the cold valley air was replaced by warmer adiabatic air. A good lesson.
In the morning I got up to a tent soaked with dew, packed up, and was on the bike again by 6:00 a.m. Soon warmed up, I was shedding layers at such a rate that by 8:00 a.m. I was back to my normal shorts and top attire. From here the riding got much faster, but my bum was getting quite sore. At the A59 there was a new bit, I’d never tried, on a BW through a paintball war-zone. Bizarre! It did save two miles of riding on the A59 that was terribly dangerous when Alex and I rode it.
I got into York and to the Sainsbury’s and filled up on sandwiches, chocomilk, and loads of other such stuff. I sat on the steps of the Minster eating it all. York Minster is a fabulous site. Then lots of flat, quiet roads and a steel climb up to Huggate and endless off-road downhill across crop areas to eventually get to Driffield. I made it into the Subway there to see the girl who entertained Alex and I and wasn’t disappointed by the reception this time! Two footlong wraps and I was off again. I knew I had an hour’s tarmac to do and would hit the off-road again just as dark fell, which was really bad timing but there wasn’t much I could do about that.
I started to think that I could get to Scarborough and find a bed there. I got to the BW that crossed the salt marsh at Flixton to Grove Farm and what had been easy in the daylight, in January, was nightmare in the dark! Finding the way across with the labyrinth of sheep trods was hard enough but then the farm seemed to have all the gates locked, the farm in darkness and abandoned. I eventually got through by climbing several gates, followed by inquisitive groups of cattle, and horses, in the dark. Through the estates of Seamer and the chip factory, I descended into Scarborough at 12:30 a.m., just as the clubs were getting lively and drunks were everywhere. The Wild East, if not the Wild West.
I carried on through the town hoping to find a good sleep spot, but didn’t find one until up at North Bay, when at nearly 1:00 a.m. I found a burger bar that had a glass enclosure. I moved tables and chairs and laid out my mat and bag with a get-up time of 5:00 a.m. I guessed I’d beat the owners. Oh no; the chip-lady turned up at ten to five! She was really cool about it and by 5:20 I was on my way. Now my but was properly sore. Bleeding on the two seat-bones. Add to that my LHS knee was giving a lot of pain. I took some Ibuprofen and magically that knee pain reseeded. Maybe it was psychological?
The ride through Langdale forest was sublime and eventually I got to Goathland. I saw the garage there that didn’t look great, so I went another few hundred metres to a tea shop where I was served and looked after by a fab woman. After filling my water bottles for me I was on my way again. The steep road sections were killing both my bum and my knee by now. It was survival now, rather than speed. At the Lion Pub, on the moor, I refilled with water and went straight on. I wanted to get to Osmotherly before dark so as to take advantage of the road and hope to get to Grinton for the night.
I really loved the riding across there to Osmotherly. It felt like my bike was the only mode of travel that would have possibly got me there. At Osmotherly I filled up with water and checked Trackleaders. There were two guys, together, and hour in front of me. It was dusk and I was about to make the most of the tarmac. But then the track swung off-road. I had forgotten that there was off-road from Osmotherly / Northallerton / Catterick / Grinton-moor. AGGHHH! By 9:30 I was just beyond Northallerton, this time on road when a pair of deer ran across the road. I only had minimal lights on and one glanced my front wheel. The next thing I was on the floor, knocked off! I was OK. I got to Catterick and again I was knackered. At 10:00 p.m. I saw a pub so called in to see if they did rooms. They said no, but as I was back outside getting my bike together the woman came out and said she would make me up a bed. The chef had finished but he fried up some chicken nuggets and two pints of orange juice and the woman said call it £50 for the lot. A bargain to me. I could see the other two had pitched up near Grinton so I resolved to be up at 4:00 a.m. and on the bike for 4:15 to catch them.
I was on my bike at 4:15 a.m., riding in the dark through Catterick Garrison. Across the tank range, daylight came up and apart from my ailments I was doing well. The ride up and over to Castle Bolton was great, but my bum was so sore. At Askrigg I got loads to eat at the Humble Pie Café there and checked where the other two were. They were well up the Roman road, still nearly an hour in front of me so I guess they had a really early start too. I set off up the long Roman road but my bum was able to put up with it no more. I had to walk part of the way because I was just so sore. I know though when I got to Cam, then up the climb above Arten Gill, there was not much more climbing to do. I enjoyed my ride down Dentdale, and the fast ride through Endmoor and to the coast. I got to Arnside at 7:00 p.m., followed in by Stu Taylor who was cruising with his kids, just before he flew out to Italy and I caught up in the pub with a few other riders, still hanging around, including the two that were always an hour in front. Well done, guys!
Looking back, I had a fabulous ride. Being on my own for those days is something special, something that only bikepacking really ever gives me. I know opinions vary greatly but I really liked the route. Some technical bits but some good long stretc,hes where it felt like you could make some good mileage. Towns I never go to like York, Driffield, Scarborough and Northallerton. I do worry though about how hard it would have been if the weather had been against us, but thankfully it wasn’t this time.
Congrats to all of the 2019 Dales Divide participants, and stay tuned for details on the 2020 event. Interested in a race, group ride, or bikepacking workshop to attend this summer? Make sure to check out our events calendar!
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.