Not five minutes ago it was blue skies and warm, now the misty rain is rolling in and filling up the valley to my left, blocking out the view, and I’m getting thoroughly soaked. And cold. I can see the top of Shap Fell ahead, and the ‘Shut up legs!’ banner held aloft by the hardy Deloitte support team. I can’t stop now! But the rain is getting heavier, pinging off my helmet and stinging my legs. Rain? It feels more like sleet. In the middle of September.
Shap Fell might not be that steep, but it’s high – the highest point on the whole Deloitte Ride Across Britain route from Land’s End to John o’Groats – and, I’m discovering, exposed. It’s one of the big iconic landmarks for end-to-enders, but I hadn’t really given it much thought. I’d just concentrated on the ‘not very steep’ bit and ignored the rest. If it was easier than Cothelstone in Devon, on day two, I’d be happy.
I’m not very happy though. I'd been really looking forward to the descent! I pull up next to the Deloitte mechanic’s car parked at the top, which offers some protection from the horizontal onslaught, and whip out my jacket – for the umpteenth time that day. At least the second time on Shap Fell itself.
Sunny, wet, sunny, wet; jacket on, jacket off, jacket on…
I’m wishing I had a second jacket. We set off again, but it’s downhill nearly all the way to Penrith, some 15 miles away, and I can’t see any way of warming up. The A6 is flowing with water, there are cars and lorries overtaking, and cyclists overtaking me, and me overtaking cyclists…
My gloves are soaked, my feet are soaked, my glasses are only just about staying clear enough to see my husband Simon’s green jacket ahead, and I’m cursing that we can’t enjoy the views and what should be an enjoyable downhill reward for the climbing.
But no one said the RAB was going to be easy.
The weather forecast hadn’t looked great right from the start. Storm Aileen was pounding the Caribbean before we even reached Land’s End on the 8th, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hoping she wouldn’t make herself felt this side of the Atlantic until, say, the 17th…
That said, the first morning dawned sunny if nippy – once we got to dawn. At 5.30am when my alarm went off it was still dark. Not that I needed waking up: nerves, sleeping in a tent, and the wind off the Atlantic had all meant for a fitful night’s ‘sleep’.
Why did everyone else seem to know what they were doing? Okay, some had ridden the RAB before, some had ridden it two or three times, or even four – for one rider this would be their sixth time! – but those 700 or so others, how did they all seem to know to carry their bottles with them to breakfast, so as not to cross the field three times…? And how on earth did they manage to pack up their belongings and sleeping mats and be ready on their bikes for the start at 7am?
By the time I’d squashed my stuffed bag closed, cursed the amount I’d brought with me as I hoicked it onto my shoulders to carry to the drop-off point, fetched my bike, pumped up the tyres (oops), and made it to the start line, it was already 7.45. And we hadn’t been to visit the Land’s End sign yet!
“Oh, you’ve got plenty of time,” Mack, the organiser, assured us as we waited for our pre-ride pep talk.
And then, we were off! Under the start banner and… immediately heading the wrong way. Quick piccy at the famous signpost, then… we’re really off!
Eight months of training, worrying, shopping, eating, shopping some more, worrying a lot more, and the Deloitte Ride Across Britain 2017 was go.
Suddenly, as I’d suspected might happen, all my worries melted away. Well, most of them. Now it was just a matter of riding our bikes, for 969 miles. And the sun was shining.
Neither Simon nor I are familiar with this bit of Cornwall – or any other bit really – so it was immediately fun to be seeing a new part of the country. It was this, mostly, that had made me want to sign up for the ride. To travel the length of Britain by bike, see and feel the landscape change as we headed north.
Penzance appeared quite quickly, and beyond it the fabulous sight of St Michael’s Mount. Plenty of Rabbers had gathered to take photos – and make use of the public loos – and we did likewise. A quick munch on a banana, back on the bikes, and onwards we went. Up into Marazion, and into the depths of Cornwall. And into the rain.
Cornish lanes, eh? Short and steep hills, up and down. Tough going up; scary going down, especially after the heavy showers we kept being treated to. (After Simon came a cropper on a steep, cack-covered descent on the London Revolution, we like to take these things steady…)
Where was everybody else anyway?
The first feed stop came at 34 miles, and though we’d both had plenty for breakfast (perhaps another reason we weren’t the earliest on the start line…), the Cornish countryside had sapped our reserves. Time to top up.
I’m not normally much of a pork pie eater, but two (or was it three?) halves hit the spot. Topped off with a finger of Fudge. And a packet of crisps, and a Perkier bar or two, and bananas, and High5 gels. Another Fudge? Don’t mind if I do… We weren’t going to go hungry.
A passing RAB chaperone gave us a tow along a fast section next to the A30, and helped us negotiate our way off the dual carriageway and back onto nicer smaller lanes, then we wheezily bid him farewell as we slipped into our lowest gears to grind our way up out of Lanhydrock.
The second pit stop was welcome as much for the shelter from yet another heavy downpour as for providing sustenance. Could it get any wetter? Yes, as it turned out…
Although we weren’t exactly last, we realised we probably shouldn’t hang around for too long if we were going to complete this ride on two wheels and not four. Maybe insisting we stop for a cup of tea in the delightfully named village of Minions, after skirting the edge of Bodmin Moor, wasn’t my best idea…
We eventually reached Okehampton basecamp not long after six, staying ahead of the broomwagon and just ahead of the gathering storm. A huge rainbow sat over the campsite as we rushed around, showering, walking backwards and forwards to our tents as we forgot bottles, and towels, and things to hang in the drying room…
Eventually, stomachs full of delicious food from Lulu’s kitchen, we could relax over a pint of beer and listen to organiser Mack tell us how the earliest finisher had arrived at 1.30… We were also joined by a celebrity: Radio 4 funnyman Hugh Dennis would be riding with us the next day, to Bath, our home town.
Then it was time for another cosy night under canvas, trying to ignore the rain, the aching legs, the slight soreness from sitting on a saddle for 10 hours…
Cheddar Gorge was going to be one of the highlights of day two. Living only 20 miles or so from it, we’d climbed it before and knew it was quite ‘doable’. What we had no idea of, though I’d been given an inkling by my boss Dave that it was “yeah, quite hard”, was Cothelstone climb, up into the Quantocks. Dave’s a very able rider, so for him to describe it as hard was quite… worrying.
And so it proved. The first 50-odd miles of the day, taking us through Devon and into Somerset, were great. The roads seemed more rolling than in Cornwall (okay, easier); the landscape softer. Whizzing along by the river Exe, this was more like it – our average speed rose into double figures and actually stayed there for more than five minutes. And there were longer breaks between the rain showers.
There were some gorgeous villages too, full of thatched cottages with roses round the doors. I could happily retire to Coleford. And Bishops Lydeard looked rather lovely, too, quiet and unassuming, with its steam railway and ‘Quantock Hills’ sign…
And just a couple of miles further on, there was another sign: Cothelstone. How hard could it be?
A straightish bit to start with, which cranked up quite steeply. “Grippy” in routemeister Andy Cook’s terminology. He breezed past us on the lower slopes with a cheery, “Everyone okay?”
I thought I’d done well as I approached the first corner, maybe the worst was over… But around the bend and up it went, and didn’t look to be getting any less steep. People stopped talking, there was just the sound of heavy breathing, and somewhere up ahead some bells being rung. Way up ahead. Still the road climbed. And more.
“I am still bloody moving!” I cursed my Garmin, which kept auto-pausing and beeping. Auto-resume. Auto-pause. Grrr!
Eventually, the road started to flatten, the cowbells rang out, and we were assured by the Deloitte team supporters that we’d reached the top. Phew.
A long descent with a much more gentle gradient took us to Bridgwater and beyond, to the second pit stop of the day ahead of Cheddar – after a grippy little climb off the main road, to help us earn our Perkier bars and rice pudding pots.
We’d been fairly lucky with a bit of a tailwind for much of the day, but as the rain rolled in (again!) across the Somerset Levels and we made our way to the foot of the gorge, we were exposed to whatever the weather was up to, and it was doing its best to slow us down with a headwind.
The spectacular gorge was as breathtaking as ever, in fact more so, literally – because even though I’d climbed it before I still got caught out by its one particularly nasty bend.
“This must be it,” I assured Simon as we toiled our way round a slow and ‘steady’ hairpin. But no, worse was to come and I was almost at a standstill. It might be perfectly doable in the middle of a day-ride from home, but after a previous day of 106 miles and 9,000ft of climbing, and a warm-up of 70-odd miles and who knows how many feet of climbing, it felt a lot harder.
And there was more to come.
“It’s quite lumpy around Bath, as you know,” Andy Cook had said to us that morning – a man who rarely if ever seems to use the words ‘steep’ or ‘hilly’ – and more ‘grippy’ climbs took us through the final few miles to basecamp at Bath University.
Being in Bath and so close to home – just three miles down the road – was distinctly odd. I was exhausted and in need of a good night’s sleep. My bottom was sore, my hands hurt, and had we been camping I might well have cried myself to sleep. What I hadn't known until the Friday night was that we’d be staying in student rooms. In real beds. With our own showers and toilets. Luxury! I could have cried with happiness.
It was possibly even more exciting than the news that Mark Cavendish was our guest for the evening, and joining us on the ride the next day.
So. A real bed, in a room with solid walls. It almost kept out the noise of the howling gales and torrential rain that started as we went to bed and continued right through to the morning.
As we gathered to drop off our bags at 7am, no one could quite believe the conditions we would be riding in. Was it safe? How long could we put off starting? The roads weren’t roads, they were rivers. Or lakes. And it was rush hour, on a Monday morning. At least it’d be slow.
Despite having lived in or around the city for the best part of 35 years, I had never cycled up Bannerdown, the long, steep climb that would take us north towards the Cotswolds. Simon had suggested it while we were training, but somehow we’d just never got round to it… Which was just as well. At least we could then live in hope that this next bend marked the end of the climb. Oh no, there’s more. Maybe this one then…? Oh well. The next?
Even when the climb was over it was slow progress. As the rain eventually eased, it left behind debris on the road and plenty of flooded sections. In one spot the water was so deep and covering the entirety of the road that a Deloitte support vehicle was stationed there to direct riders through safely.
We headed out into the country north, through small villages and towns we knew but not well, and then west towards the River Severn – mostly into a headwind. The tailwind of the last two days had gone. But this was always on the cards as an easier day; we’d got the two biggest days – in terms of climbing – over with. Hey, we could almost relax! Hah.
Eventually reaching the Severn Bridge – the old crossing not the new one – boy was it windy! It’s not a steep climb over the bridge itself, but I might well have been in my bottom gear and I had trouble keeping my front wheel on the ground. How strong does the wind need to be blowing for the bridge to be closed to bicycles, I wondered, nervously, to myself… Are those side rails high enough to stop me being blown off?
The pit stop at the bottom of the hill in Chepstow couldn’t come soon enough.
Then came the ‘lumpy’ middle section. Years ago I rode a sportive up the Wye valley with my daughter and it was lovely. A big swoopy road through Brockweir and Tintern, heading towards Monmouth… We didn’t go that way. Once over the Wye, we headed up. And up. And up some more. Occasional glimpses of the Wye were great. But it was a long way down. And on the wrong side of us… In fact, isn’t that the Severn?
We did hit the Wye again, north of the Forest of Dean, and it kept us company as we passed through Ross on Wye and up towards Hereford, on a delightful stretch of little country lanes where we were on our best behaviour, as requested by Andy Cook, who’d had to placate locals not keen on having 800-odd riders cycling through ‘their’ neighbourhood.
It was almost a relief to be able to relax on bigger, busier roads as we rode through Leominster and on towards Ludlow, basecamp. There was less climbing on this day than the previous two, but the wet start, the headwind, the long climbs out of Bath and Chepstow were all making themselves felt. And this last section was mostly up. A general feeling of going ‘up country’.
The route took us right through Ludlow itself, a gorgeous historic town, then we finally arrived at the racecourse, home for the night, and it was actually dry and actually quite warm. It was almost like we’d seen in the documentary of the previous year’s RAB – with people sitting around outside, enjoying food and beers in the evening. Okay, it wasn’t quite that warm, but it was DRY!
We even got ourselves organised: carrying a toothbrush to dinner meant you could clean your teeth on your way back to your tent, without having to go to your tent first, then back again… And if you carried your soggy kit to the drying room, it was only a short detour… Hey, we were almost getting the hang of this RAB thing!
I’ve yet to mention the music. At Land’s End we were in the purple zone, which generally seemed to mean camping further away from the marquee than everyone else, and I don’t remember hearing any wake-up call. Okehampton, though – my alarm was about to go off, I was waiting and watching because there was no way I was going to oversleep, or not be awake to be awoken… and then there was this almighty noise from the sound system: Let’s-Get-Ready-To-Rumble!
Ludlow was Freddy Mercury belting out ‘Bicycle! Bicycle! I want to ride my…’ And we really did. Despite the tired legs, the developing saddle sores, the not-quite-dry-despite-being-laundered kit…
I’d been told by one of the Threshold chaperones, Sean – who also happens to be a product reviewer for road.cc and whose feature on riding the RAB back in 2013 had partly inspired me to sign up – that once you get the first two days over, as long as you have a good base level of fitness, it all starts to feel a bit easier; as if you’re getting fitter as you ride.
That’s what I remember from a London to Paris ride I’d done a few years ago. The first day was the most tiring, the second long but you get into your stride, the third day you could go longer, and the fourth was just far too short – no, I don’t want to stop in Paris, I want to carry on!
I can’t say that by the time we reached Haydock, 107 miles later, I wanted to carry on, but it was a really great day – possibly because it was the flattest. Cornwall to Devon had been over 9,000ft of climbing; today it was meant to be just over 3,000ft (though my Garmin clocked nearly 4,000). And it hardly rained.
Shropshire is another part of the country I don’t really know very well, and the day started on lovely lanes that weren’t too narrow, weren’t too steep, weren’t too busy, through idyllic open countryside.
The highest point of the day came within 15 miles of the start, as we climbed up over Wenlock Edge, then it was pretty much downhill to the Cheshire plains and some well-paced (for us) riding – quelling my fears about the first pit stop being nearly 45 miles in. This was easy!
I might have started hallucinating before the second pit stop because I was imagining the floodlights I could see up ahead probably belonged to Haydock racecourse… Er, no, there’s another 30 miles to go, Whitby. Concentrate!
Silly me. But it was 30 fastish and flattish miles, and the pit stop at Middlewich had hot tea and coffee alongside the usual Perkier bars, sandwiches, crisps, bananas, Mini Cheddars, Twix bars, fingers of Fudge, Mueller rice pots, teacakes…
Rush hour was approaching, and despite following what seemed to be the least built-up route between Warrington and Manchester, the roads were getting busier and busier. We were certainly glad to be on our bikes as we passed queues and queues and queues of cars going nowhere.
Up over the Manchester Ship Canal, a brief section of the A57, then we were back onto B roads, and eventually there was the welcoming sight – and site – of Haydock racecourse, about a mile after my Garmin had started telling me it was running out of power. We arrived in the nick of time.
A great day! Good, fast riding, and mostly dry (faster riders had caught up with the storm and got a thorough soaking just before arriving at Haydock – sometimes it pays to be slow…). And tonight the massages were for the purple and yellow groups! My first, after missing the opportunity in Bath (I’d had a more pressing engagement with the medical team – the bum doctors as they became known).
I lay down happily while the young masseuse teased the knots out of my hamstrings, my 10-minute slot flying by.
My shower turning cold halfway through threatened to spoil my mood, but it improved with food and drink inside the warmth of a brick building, chatting with friends we’d met only days ago but felt like we’d known for years.
We’d covered more than 400 miles in four days, and it felt brilliant. It was the most extreme bike riding I’d done, but we were managing it. All the months of training were paying off.
Then Storm Aileen gave us a lashing of her tail, blowing a hoolie and turning the racecourse into a swamp. My tent flapped ferociously throughout the night, sounding like it was trying to take off.
Gary Barlow’s dulcet tones singing Greatest Day couldn’t come soon enough.
Squelch squerch, squelch squerch. We trudged to the toilets; we trudged to breakfast; we trudged to the bag vans and we trudged to pick up our bicycles. And then, as on day one, we started to ride and all was good again.
Trying to get through the major conurbations separating Cheshire plains from Lancashire fells wasn’t the most relaxing of experiences, especially as it was rush hour/school-run time, but it was soon over, and there was safety in numbers. That’s another great thing about the RAB: you’re in the bubble, part of a big, friendly group; though you might not see half of them, you know there are riders ahead of you, riders behind you, people supporting you through hard times, slow times and painful times, as well as sharing the fun times.
The countryside north of Preston was in complete contrast to the day before. Zig-zagging our way over the M6, we took in the foothills of the Lancashire fells, with testing little climbs on narrow lanes followed by wide, swooping descents and gentler gradients as we skirted the edge of the Forest of Bowland, down into the Lune Valley where we took shelter in a bus stop from yet another heavy rain storm.
The sun came out, jackets came off, and Morecambe Bay appeared to our left, while the Lake District become steadily more visible with every passing mile. Ooer.
A couple holidaying in the area, who’d ridden LEJOG themselves – “but we carried all our kit ourselves, in panniers” – also pointed out that we were almost exactly halfway. Four and a half days ago we were in Land’s End, 480-odd miles away.
North of Carnforth, even Andy Cook couldn’t avoid sending us up the A6 (and himself – Andy has ridden every stage of every RAB so far). We were under strict instructions to ride sensibly, to take extra care, and when the second pit stop of the day came, at Milnthorpe, it was welcome not just for the food and drink but also for the break from the traffic.
Again not familiar with the area, we didn’t really know how far away Shap Fell was, or what it was like other than ‘long but not steep’.
From Kendal we were back on the A6, knowing the climb was just up ahead, somewhere. A sign suggested this was it. But no, the road continued flat. Then it climbed a bit… was this it? Nope, downhill again.
Then we climb, and climb some more, and a bit more, and realise this IS it. It’s long but it’s doable. And though it's been raining, the sun has come out again and it’s quite warm. In fact, it’s time to take the jacket off, again; that’ll make it better. Then off we go again, up and up some more. And then… downhill? I don’t want to go downhill! I can see the climb carrying on up, more steeply – I don’t want to lose any altitude I’ve just gained!
Swoop down; busy road, cars and lorries and vans passing; faster cyclists passing. Then up again. It’s sunny still but there’s a coolness in the air, maybe because of the altitude. The sign said 1380ft, and we’re not there yet.
And then we are, we’re at the top, along with the rain…
Five miles of cold and wet descending gets us to the village of Shap, where we stop at the public toilets and my hands are so numb I can hardly work my zip. The hot air driers tempt me to stay longer but Simon’s outside waiting, not getting any warmer.
Another 10 miles mostly downhill and we pull up at a set of traffic lights close to Penrith with a bunch of other riders, one of whom is shivering uncontrollably. Is she okay? Yes, but the finish can’t come soon enough.
And it takes its time. It might be labelled Penrith but basecamp is another six or seven miles further on. I tuck in behind Simon as he pushes on, getting a second wind while I feel like I’m flagging. I keep having to call to him to slow down, I can’t keep up.
Eventually… eventually… we arrive at Hutton-in-the-Forest, an old estate that's home for the night, where – I could have kissed him! – a Threshold employee appears with a tray of hot teas as we stand shivering in the queue for the showers.
Clean and dry, with a hot meal inside us, it's time for a beer toast: 526 miles in five days. England, done.
And that, sadly, is the end of our ride. We hadn’t opted to only do the England leg – a choice offered for the first time this year: England-only or Scotland-only if you can’t face/don’t have time to do the full nine days – but I’ve received news that my mum is gravely ill and I need to get home.
So instead of cycling north, Simon and I take the train south, from Penrith back through Preston and Ludlow, and eventually to Bath. Scotland will have to wait until next year, when I’ll be riding in memory of my mum.
• You can enter the 2018 Deloitte Ride Across Britain now – head over to the website and check out all the options. I’ll see you in Penrith.
The end-to-end is an iconic challenge for any cyclist, and the RAB is a superb way to tackle it. Here are just some of the reasons why:
• As well as being an amazing personal challenge, the Deloitte Ride Across Britain raises huge amounts of money for charity – more than £1million last year, and approximately £4.25m in total since 2010.
Tass is our production pedant, who boldly goes hunting for split infinitives, rogue apostrophes and other things up with which she will not put. She joined road.cc in 2015 but first began working on bike magazines way back in 1991 as production editor on Mountain Biking UK, then deputy editor of MTB Pro, before changing allegiance to road cycling as senior production editor on Cycling Plus. She's ridden off-road but much prefers on, hasn't done half the touring she'd like to, and loves paper maps.