Updated: Sep 6, 2020
"Where are you heading" asked one of the Triumph motorcycle guys as he watched me put the bags on my bike. "Alston" I replied. "I hope you like climbing" he said and called his mate over so they could both have a little chuckle together. I decided not to share this story with Rachel until much later in the day after we had already passed the 1,000m mark.
Over breakfast we had met Dave and Joe, two young guys cycling together to Edinburgh. Dave had started in London and picked up Joe in Durham. This was his first ever long bike ride, not tour, just ride. He had prepped by riding 15km on a Boris Bike in London and then buying a new touring bike. After Edinburgh Dave planned to go all the way to John O'Groats and Joe to Inverness - that's the kind of crazy shit you can do in your 20's and get away with it (Look what they are wearing on their feet!). It's a reminder to me of why I'm doing these rides now: I didn’t appreciate my health and fitness when I was younger and there will plenty more years to come when I'm no longer capable.
The route today did not disappoint us. The first hour from Alwinton to Elsdon was simply magnificent. The scenery was stunning, the roads were quiet, the sun was shining. I was enjoying it right up until we hit the 2km Blissmore climb which averaged 6% but topped out at 15%. It is now clear to me that 15% is the limit for man/machine/luggage on the trip. Any more and I'm getting off.
I've ridden over 8500km this year to get in shape for this year's Long Ride Home, but all the training never prepares you for the reality of the relentless up and down of the past three days and the days to come. I may have done Alpe du Zwift 12 times with plenty of other indoor climbs, but it's just not the same thing. Zwift is to cycling what masterbation is to sex: it can give you a result of some sort but no one is kidding themselves it's anywhere near as good as the real thing. Plus it normally takes place indoors in dark sweaty rooms with people glued to a small screen.
Once we had dropped down into Elsdon Rachel sniffed out a tea room, the woman has a sixth sense about their location. The Inpromtu Cafe is like no other you have visited. It's basically in the dinning room of a bungalow of an elderly couple, Marion and Alan, but what a story they have. Bear with me, it's worth it. In the 1930's the village had a bike mechanic working out of the cottage next door. Local cyclists would drop in frequently, but when he died his widow started serving tea and biscuits to club riders and her cafe became a destination for Sunday club rides. She kept it open like that for almost 40 years before she died a year after Marion and Alan had moved in next door. Cyclists kept turning up at their door asking where the cafe was. They decided to have a go at opening a cafe of their own using their dining room. At first it was Sunday's only. Then it became every day of the week and 43 years later is something of an institution in the area. They even have their own special cake named by cyclists after a local hill. Gibbet Cake was so called because it fueled people up Gibbet Hill. Their dinning room is now like a shrine to cycling with the walls covered in photos and memorabilia including a yellow jersey from the Tour de France. Neither of them has ever ridden a bike.
After an extended stop we moved on towards Holtwistle through the Northumberland National Park. This included another long 15% climb and near the top I had a close pass from a 4x4 driver who couldn't wait or simply didn't give a shit. If there's one thing that drives me mental on rides it's people who have a 4x4 but can't drive them. On the other side of the hill I started chasing the car down just so I could offer some 'advice' to the driver (obviously). They sped off when I got with 20m, but just 1km later on the same road we came across a sheep that had clearly just been hit by a car. I can't prove it was the same driver but there was no other traffic. We stopped at the farm at the top of the hill to let them know and they didn't seem surprised.
Once at the top of the park we entered the Keilder forest. I had been looking forward to this as it was a chance to ride on fire roads for the first time. I shouldn't have bothered, it was horrible. 10km of rocks rather than gravel. Huge, deep waterlogged sections and more double digit climbs. Every bit of us ached by the time we hit a B road on the other side of the forest. We had yet more climbing to do to get up to Hadrians Wall, I messed up directions and added another 5km to the ride. Not a big deal normally but on this trip it felt criminal. It was bound to cost us later because by this stage, every climb was taken in bottom gear we were so tired.
After yet another food stop we set off on the final 25km of the day from Holtwistle to Alston. Almost all of this was on a another disused railway line, but one with views. We ignored the route 68 signs for once and followed the Komoot directions and were rewarded with a crossing over an aqueduct with beautiful views. The final 5km added a few more climbs before we reached our overnight stop at The Angel Inn which Rachel loved because it was full of "characters". We all know this is a euphemism for nutters, but we did get to hear the publican tell us about appearing on Bullseye (a British TV show based on darts from the 1980's).
She is doing brilliantly. Over 300km done with over 3,700m of climbing on a new bike with barely any training. I don't know about you, but I call that (fucking irritating) sorry, impressive. We do it all over again tomorrow.