I had chosen to do too many things at once, even though they were all the same thing. Inevitably I was going to fail at something. The house of cards had been built like this;
The day did not start so well; my front-light was playing up and while stopped to fettle it, I nearly had a clipped-in fall. Then my light stopped again and my leg warmer started itching. I nearly turned round to go home.
I was now a little late for Dean, who I was meeting in Darlington. So I forced myself along a one mile stretch of the A66 to cut some of the route down and save time; I arrived at the clock tower as it struck 6am and signalled that he was waiting for me another 5 minutes away - or it would have been 5 minutes if I hadn't then become confused in Darlington and ended up meeting him at 6:20am.
Dean had made all the arrangements for this excursion which had gained the title, "A Brief Encounter": four of us were meeting in Ingleton at 10:30am. We climbed slowly from Richmond with me chuntering on to Dean that we couldn't possibly make it in time. Thanks to my delay in Darlington I estimated it would be well past 11am before we could rendezvous with Peter and Steve.
The mist hung on, I felt as though the scenery was shrouded from me and that I wasn't going to get to see the best of this countryside. Dean has a much better sense of direction than I, so we climbed out of Richmond with the castle to our backs and then took Hudswell lane to cut across the hills to Downholme. I thought it was Yellowhammers that were flitting around us, Dean named them Finches; with hindsight and google I think he was right. We joined the A6108 and then followed the quieter lanes to Redmire. The helter-skelter descent to Redmire is littered with gravel and extremely hazardous.
Ahead of us we could see some breaks in the overhead cloud and patches of blue sky; the day was brightening up and we were bowling along at a good pace. Now I was more relaxed and we talked extensively about cycling, the countryside, out favourite places to ride, and where we were going this day.
In Hawes I persuaded Dean to let me grab an espresso from the rather good cafe for motorcyclists at the end of the Market place. Unfortunately although they were open it would be another 15 minutes until the coffee machine was warm, so we jumped back on the bikes and headed up the first proper climb of the day, Turfy Hill. Dean rides a fixed gear bike, which means that he is usually ahead of me on each climb as he has no choice but to ride hard. My greater gravitational advantage takes effect on the descents, so I free-wheel past him gleefully as he spins his legs in a madcap whirlwind of kneecaps and shins.
I was treated to an iconic view as we reached Ribblehead Viaduct and the glorious arches which stretch away into the distance over the moorland. Dean stopped to take some photographs and I plummeted down towards Ingleton at almost break-neck speed. At 10:05am we arrived together at the Inglesport shop and cafe; almost to the minute that Peter and Steve rolled in. I was rather elated that we'd made such excellent time, and Dean reminded me that we had been blessed with a hoolie-tailwind, something we'd have to grind back into later in the day. I'd covered 113km (70 miles) of the planned 342km to get back home.
Peter had ridden from Rochdale, Steve from Menston, Dean and I from Darlington and Ingleby Barwick. Through the 'magic' predictability of average speeds and known distance we had arrived together. Our "Brief Encounter" was about to start, but first, breakfast. So we dallied for a solid 45 minutes talking about the plans for the day.
As we pulled gently out of Ingleton our plan was to head into the Forest of Bowland and over the bleak and isolated Cross of Greet. The wind that had been to my back all morning was now hammering me into the ground. We struggled together up the steep first section from High Bentham and out into the sparse moorland. My hopes for a scenic group ride were not going well so far, I was struggling into the headwind uphill and unable to see any of the surrounding countryside as the weather continued to be hazy. The hard work was draining us all already! Peter managed a smile for the camera though and we were all relieved when faced with only the descent to Slaidburn and our hardest riding of the day behind us.
I was unaware that the haziness surrounding us was probably related to high particulate levels; this was a Saharan atmosphere which covered the UK for a few days. In this picture it is possible to guess at the stunning views which we could not see.
The four of us stopped in Slaidburn for a drink and some food to replace the energy we'd lost. It was surprising how long that 20km section had taken us but we now had some wonderfully gentle valley riding ahead. Peter knows his routes well and led us along the Hodder Valley as we swapped places with other cyclists on the road and observed the multiple bridges as we weaved backwards and forwards over the river Hodder. This was the easiest time for all of us and we arrived at Longridge ready for a beer, or so I thought. The supermarket was going to have to suffice because my friends knew quite rightly that we'd only done a short distance from breakfast and ought to press on.
More beautiful lanes and conversation followed. I was totally lost, if I had been required to navigate I wouldn't have know north from south. The hills in the distance continued to be hidden from view and I started to feel like I was on a treadmill. Travelling many miles to cycle through lovely countryside is undermined slightly by the shrouding of the views in hazy pollution.
We crossed the M6 near Garstang and hit the A6. In order to make up some time we all agreed to stay on this up to Lancaster and Carnforth. I really enjoyed this, riding in a paceline at a good speed - but we really emptied the energy reserves doing this and had to contend with the tsunami of cars in Lancaster city centre.
Behind me I heard a dog barking very aggressively and I could hear it catching us. I didn't dare look behind me because it was obviously running extremely fast. So I burst out laughing when a car passed with a huge dog sticking his head and chest out of the window frothing wildly at us.
Lancaster was a lot of fun, the traffic was tied up in knots allowing us the freedom permitted only to those unencumbered by a tonne of metal.
We all started to slow the pace as we finally reached Carnforth and looked for somewhere suitable to eat. Booths cafe presented itself and we collapsed into our bowls of soup. At this time we heard the sad news that Don Black had passed away. Don was an inspiration to many long distance cyclists and although I hadn't met him, he was well known to Peter and Dean so it was a sobering rest stop as the news sank in.
Carnforth was the 212km (132 mile) mark for me, and thanks to a bit of creative routing I had covered about 15km more than I intended. It was teatime and as we prepared to leave, our bicycle lights all needed to be switched on. Mine was playing up yet again. The connectors between the battery pack and the light were coming loose, so I needed to squeeze them tight before I could get going.
We were aiming to cover a simple 45km to reach Sedbergh where it was Steve's plan to turn back for Menston. While negotiating really beautiful little hedge-lined lanes Peter was subject to a puncture, in the muddle which ensued he tried to encourage us to leave him. We'd signed up for a group ride and didn't want to finish without Peter so agreed to get Steve to Sedbergh where he could head home. Dean and I would grab a drink in Sedbergh, and wait for Peter who'd not be far behind.
Peter admits to getting a little lost in the dark - it felt like an hour before he found us both at the bottom of a pint glass in the Sedbergh Social Club. It was getting late now and none of us were thinking straight... "you go on," he said, "I'll be fine." We left him. This was a mistake, there was no way we were going to get through the exhaustion alone and sure enough Peter later aknowledged his tiredness and found somewhere to rest in Sedbergh.
Dean and I didn't get much further! I don't know what happened; we'd ridden side-by-side all the way up Crosshaw Brow in the pitch black night, with Dean's constant encouragement that no matter how long it took - we'd get home. And suddenly he was gone. I think he had a bad pint in Sedbergh. We stopped in the absolute isolation of the darkness, switched our lights off and enjoyed the beauty of the stars, but the ride was clearly over. Dean managed the descent to Kirkby Stephen but was obviously unwell. Thankfully he found a B&B that would look after him.
So I was alone. Clearly the best thing to do at 10pm with only 100km to get home is keep going. I only had the big climb from Swinedale Beck to worry about and it'd be all downhill home. A text home to confirm my plans was instantly squashed. I was not riding home over the Pennines in the drizzly mist with pub-chucking-out traffic on strict orders. I was being rescued from Brough. I found the Golden Fleece and settled down to see what damage I could do to their stock of cheese and beer before I was plucked from the barstool and transported home.
As I sat next to my wife, waves of exhaustion washed over me and I started to hurt all over. I had been totally wiped out by this ride. 275km (170 miles) covered in just under 13 hours cycling time and about 17 hours outside.
Steve made it home alone in the middle of the night, although his wife was out searching for him when he reached his door. Peter finished his ride by cycling home the following day, and Dean must have been poorly because he caught the train.
I had a great ride with lovely friends, and I think the route is a beautiful one. I was disappointed that I hadn't seen more of the world around us due to the haziness. I was also disappointed that I'd failed to cover the 300km planned, I'd failed the DIY audax and I had missed the charity fund-raising target. I'll just have to go and try again!