Unlost on the 2022 Dales Divide

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The Dales Divide is a 600km bikepacking race across the UK’s Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. 130 riders lined up in the village of Arnside for the fourth edition of the event, and just over 60 would finish. Find a reflection from Bobby McNicol with photos from Dan King here…

Words by Bobby McNicol (@bobbymcnicol), photos by Dan King (@breakawaydigital)

The UK has shot to prominence in the ultra-distance cycling world in recent years. It’s an island that’s blessed with an assortment of terrain and gives people the right to explore it freely, lending itself to some of the toughest, most varied, and most beautiful mixed-terrain bikepacking racing in Europe.

2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide

Placed in the middle of April, Dales Divide opens the season of domestic ultra races. Its place in the calendar poses the first challenge because of the volatile weather conditions at that time of year and the fact that most riders would still be building fitness after the winter months. Those unknowns add an element of mystery to the race which, paired with the eagerness of heading into the first race of the season, makes the energy at the start line palpable.

  • 2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide

What strikes me most about these events is the mix of characters at the start line. The diversity in gender, age, shape, bike setup, and approach to the race is what makes the ultra cycling community so special. It also distinguishes these unique races from other forms of bike racing. Everyone was there to challenge themself, and whether that was at the front or the back of the race was irrelevant, everyone felt the same suspense.

2022 Dales Divide

Pat Hall, whose late son Mike Hall helped launch British ultra-distance racing, joined us at the start line to send us off. She recalled a tale that Mike had told of someone asking him what they should do if they got lost during a race. His response, “Get unlost,” may have been in jest, but at some point over the next couple of days, it would manifest into a profound piece of advice that would help me through some dark periods of Dales Divide and will stick with me long after.

“Get unlost”

With that, we were on our way. The 600-kilometre route would take us from Arnside on England’s west coast to Scarborough on the east coast, then loop back to Arnside, amassing 10,000 metres of elevation in the process. What those details don’t tell you is how testing some of the terrain was. That assortment I mentioned earlier – it had the lot.

  • 2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide

Having set off at a decent pace, I punctured 50 kilometres into the race, which meant I lost touch with the top 10. I spent the next 100 kilometres trying to claw my way back, but those 100 kilometres were brutal. There was no letup in the challenging terrain, and I was pushing as hard as I could, which absolutely battered my body (cue regret choosing my gravel bike instead of my hardtail). As a result, I fatigued much sooner than expected, made an early call to kip later that night, and hit the road fresh the next morning. It wasn’t part of my initial plan, but after going into the red too early, I was thinking about damage control.

After a couple of hours in my bivvy bag, I hit the road again at about 6 a.m. I had some lunch in Scarborough and headed into the spiky North York Moors, which is where I came across fellow Divider Ben Yarnold, and together we slogged our way through the Moors. During that slog, we noticed a theme: nearly every time it came time to descend, the route would deviate away from a perfectly rideable, hard-packed gravel or tarmac road in favour of a boggy moorland trail. It felt like we were throwing away descent credits all day, which was really grating on me.

2022 Dales Divide

I didn’t let on to Ben, but it was in one of those moorland bogs somewhere along the 100-kilometre stretch through the North York Moors that I hit my first dark period. The difficulty of the route began to break me, I got frustrated with my lack of resilience, and then more frustrated that I was behind schedule due to my unplanned stop on the first night, and that negativity started to spiral. I was lost, not physically but mentally, and then I remembered Mike Hall’s advice: “Get unlost.” I stopped in my tracks, feet submerged in mud, and began laughing to myself. Ben stopped, we both looked back at the (lack of) ground we’d made on this moor, and both broke out in delirious laughter. It was a simple moment, but it was the shovel that dug me out of the hole I was in. It was a hole I slipped into again 80 kilometres from the finish, and again I managed to talk my way out of it with the help of Mike’s jestful advice, probably given with a smirk and followed with a laugh. That was the way I imagined it, and it was that charm that helped lift my mood each time I needed it.

  • 2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide
2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide
  • 2022 Dales Divide

Badlands will headline my season later this year, and I’ll be looking to hit peak fitness around the end of summer, so I was going into Dales Divide slightly underdone and using it as something of a fitness builder. That said, I still had ambitions of finishing around the 48-hour mark, which I predicted would land me somewhere in the top 20. In the end, the rigours of the first day cost me the 48-hour result, but I managed 18th in a time of 52 hours.

I want another crack at this race, another lap around the beautiful north of England, so I’ll be back next year. I’ll take the hardtail next time.

Bobby McNicolBobby McNicol turned to cycling when he moved from Australia to the UK in 2014, primarily as a means for adventure and exploration of my his surroundings but also to regain some fitness after a post-football-career down period. His inclination to push himself physically, paired with a passion for adventure, led Bobby towards ultra-distance events.

2022 Dales Divide Results

  • 1st Place (Men’s/Overall): Angus Young (1D:11H:43M)
  • 2nd Place (Men’s/Overall): Chris Hinds (1D:12H:46M)
  • 3rd Place (Men’s/Overall): Harry Walton (1D:13H:52M)
  • 1st Place (Women’s): Meg Pugh (2D:2H:20M)
  • 2nd Place (Women’s): Lorah Pierre (2D:2H:28M)
  • 3rd Place (Women’s): Nicky Shaw (2D:4H:12M)

You can see more from the event on the Dales Divide Facebook page.

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