Dales Divide 2021
By John Allan
Now in its third year, the Dales Divide has quickly grown in popularity. It’s a self-supported mountain bike race traversing the north of England, twice. Coast-to-coast-to-coast. A real mix of a route which crosses the best of the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, and the pan-flat Vale of York
The 600km route is the brainchild of organiser Chris Ellison, who returned from racing the Tour Divide (the 2,745 mile mountain bike race across the Rockies, from Canada to Mexico), and decided to host his own mini version on home soil. Thankfully, Chris left the bears on the other side of the Atlantic, so the chance of being eaten alive during the race are somewhat reduced.
This would be my second Dales Divide. I completed the event last year after a solid block of bike training and it was undeniably hard. It was my first real taste of competitive, multiday bike-packing but I was pretty fit and well organised. My bike was well sorted and everything went reasonably well. It hurt a lot and tested my resolve but I finished strong with a time of 2 days, 8 hours, 47 minutes. By far the longest ride I’d ever done.
This year my training couldn’t have been much different. The reason I’d put so many hours on the bike last year was in preparation for the Hell of the North West. Once that was put to bed and I’d finally dried out, cycling was reduced to fair-weather commuting and the shed was transformed into a gym. It’s slightly warmer in the shed, a bit drier and there’s unlimited 90’s metal banging out of the Marshall speaker. Winter was spent mostly moshing to, and lifting heavy metal, with occasional rides up to 100km when the sun came out. Strong as an ox, and about as fast.
A few weeks ahead of the Dales Divide I clocked some slightly longer rides, cumulating with the 200km Delightful Dales Audax event the weekend before. I rode fairly hard and felt surprisingly good on the bike, probably not wise to push so hard with just a week to go, but it’s only a bit of fun.
Then six days of faffing with kit and watching the weather forecast. I don’t particularly like being cold and wet. I’ve spent a lot of time outside in grim conditions and although I can deal with it just fine, it’s still something I prefer to avoid. The forecast for Saturday and Sunday looked fairly good, cold and scattered showers with little wind, but Mondays forecast was disgusting. Properly cold, properly windy and properly wet. All day kind of wet and I’m done with that life. It’s avoidable if the ride can be completed inside 48 hours, last year’s winner proved it’s possible but I’m not so confident in my own ability.
It’s a cold start on Arnside Pier as the riders assemble. There’s all manner of bikes here, from full suspension mountain bikes to more road-orientated gravel and cyclo-cross machines and everything in between, including a father and son on a tandem! Similarly with luggage selection, some bikes are kitted out with panniers and are ready for the long-haul, whilst others look more like they’re heading off for hours rather than days. I’m probably somewhere in the middle, I’ve got everything I think I might need and nothing else. The most luxury item being my bike – a fully rigid, steel framed, Stooge Speedball with fat 29” monster-truck tyres. As someone eloquently pointed out, everyone will be on the wrong bike at some point, might as well be on one you enjoy.
Chris Ellison addresses the assembled crowd and we are also joined by Alex Pilkington, the current course record holder, and Pat Hall, mother of the late Mike Hall who inspired so many. The crowd is silent whilst Alex recites a poem in tribute to Mike and asks that we keep Mike in our hearts and minds and we race. His parting words are ‘ride strong and ride long’, a mantra which stays with me for whole race.
Once the wheels are turning I’m happily trundling along. There’s no point getting dragged into a race early on with so far to go, but it’s no surprise seeing the more ambitious riders giving it the berries. I begin passing some of the fast-starters after a couple of hours and make good progress through the Yorkshire Dales. I love this sort of riding, rough bridleways, open moorland and gravel shooting tracks with some tasty climbing and rapid descending. There’s never a bad time to be in the Dales, but spring is probably my favourite. New born lambs playing happily in the fields, Curlews crying and lapwings calling, wild primroses in bloom and plentiful, delicate forget-me-nots. The recent dry-spell has left the ground conditions running fast and before the daylight fades, I’m beyond the Dales and heading to Boroughbridge and the first of my three planned re-supply points.
Morrisons provides a decent meal from the salad bar, but you’d be hard pushed to call it a salad. Various pastas, boiled eggs and falafel are bulging from the box, to be washed down with chocolate milkshake and topped off with a slab of rocky road. I pull on some extra layers before it gets dark whilst simultaneously stuffing my face and filling the bags with a selection of wraps and snacks. It’s about 7pm and we’re roughly 110 miles into the ride. There are 100ish miles between here and Scarborough, but I’m planning to stop for a bit of shut-eye in Driffield, and then arrive in Scarborough when the shops open in the morning.
It gets very cold, very quickly. The route is now extremely flat for hours on end and it’s difficult to keep warm. I’ve got aero bars fitted and with my hands out-front and no need for shifting gears or braking they soon go numb, despite the thick winter gloves. It’s the same story with my feet, shod in big winter boots and thick merino socks but my toes are painfully cold. I can deal with it because there’s no other option, I’d probably moan about it if anyone was within earshot but that’s not an option either. It’s just me and the bike, pressing into the night on an intricate series of quite county lanes and bridleways.
At some point I roll through York, another key resupply point for a lot of riders but I’m just passing. It’s busier than I’d like but I make a little time to admire York Minster, arguably one of the most magnificent cathedral’s found anywhere in the world, take a quick photo, then get out sharpish, back into the quiet solitude of the night.
I know there are a couple of decent hills coming up at Great Givendale, and I’m looking forward to getting the blood pumping a bit on the climbs. I slept in a ditch around here on last year’s race so I’m pleasantly surprised to find I’m a few hours ahead compared to the last ride, despite purposely riding with less effort.
Over the hills, back to the flats and on towards my planned stop in Driffield. The route skirts the edge of numerous fields growing crops and occasionally a vole or field mouse will catch the light of my lamp, and then quickly scurry off into the thicket. A barn owl glares at me from a low hanging branch overhead and I imagine it’s a bit miffed that I’m scaring its supper. I’m faced with a bit of a predicament here. Progress has been faster than expected and I’m probably going to hit Driffield at about 1am, two hours earlier than I expected. I could carry on riding but there’s little point arriving in Scarborough before 8am on a Sunday as everything will be closed and I want to go to Greggs. In the end I decide to stop where I planned after 173 miles, and take a solid break in a cricket ground.
Discretion is the key to sleeping in public places and there are a number of houses nearby, so I turn off the bike lights and roll quietly towards the veranda to find shelter, then catch a PIR sensor and the whole place lights up like a theatre stage, with me looking shifty in the middle, Oops. Still, it’s a pretty good spot and looks to have received a fresh lick of paint. There’s also some sort of rubber matting on the floor and it feels very luxurious compared to the ditches and bus shelters I’ve used in the past, although not quite on par with the heated disabled toilets found on the Hell of the North West, now the absolute gold standard of ‘Audax Hotels’ against which all others shall be judged.
It’s just below freezing point and the faffing to set up camp isn’t doing my body temperature any favours. I change into dry clothes, put a down jacket on and climb into the sleeping bag on my air mattress. I’m shivering quite violently and realise I’ve not changed out of my cold, wet socks. I don’t want to get back out of the bag so I leave them and hope they warm up. It doesn’t work and although I stop shivering after a while and finally drift off, when the phone starts beeping my first thought is how dead my feet are. They’re like two blocks of ice and it only takes me a minute to change into the dry pair from the bag next to my head but it’s a bit late now. A lesson learned for next time.
4:30 alarm and back on the pedals at 5am sharp. My toes are still numb but its minus 2 degrees so it should warm up a bit, otherwise I feel pretty good. I take a look at the GPS tracker link and find I’ve lost quite a few positions on the leader board but this is a long game and I’m not halfway yet.
I enjoy a beautiful sunrise after a short while and feel grateful for the added warmth whilst trying to get my GPS unit to charge from the power bank; fortunately I’ve got a spare cable which seems to sort it. The route is easy going as it gently winds along quiet tracks, through bright yellow fields of rapeseed and pretty villages with spring flowers in bloom. Certainly not the sort of mountain biking I’m used to, but progress is brisk and it keeps the distance manageable. There’s a blue-grey raptor hunting just to my right but I can’t quite identify it, I’d love for it to be a Hen Harrier but given the grouse shooting industry has persecuted them to near extinction in this county, the chances are slim.
Passing through the village of Rudston, a huge standing-stone in the church yard catches my eye, towering at 25ft it’s the tallest monolith in the UK and quite an impressive sight. There’s not much time to admire it unfortunately but I take a quick photo and get on my way towards the alluring baked goodness of Scarborough.
A roe deer bounds into sight on the bridleway to Oliver’s Mount, then in the same frame, the largest fox I’ve ever seen. I could’ve done with a bushy tail like that to wrap up in last night, I bet the fox wasn’t as cold as me and it’s certainly not been going hungry. I wonder if it’s been snaffling all the leftover pasties from the back of Greggs? I hope it’s not had the fresh ones, not all of them anyway.
Rolling into Scarborough at 8am on the button, the roads are quiet and almost everything is shut. Sainsburys Local has just opened though and provides chocolate bars and fresh cookies for the day ahead, then around the corner to the nation’s favourite bakery. Breakfast is a double portion of porridge, large coffee, pan au chocolate and a cheese and onion pasty, plus a filled baguette strapped to the bike for later. I love eating and by my own admission, I’m bloody good at it.
Down to the promenade for a quick photo on the east coast, 24 hours after leaving the west coast, then change direction and head west again for the return journey. Another pearl of wisdom from Alex Pilkington has stayed with me since the start – take it easy to Scarborough, then wind it up a bit on the way back. Time to put some effort in.
The climbing starts as the route heads towards the North York Moors, and brings miles of gravel forest tracks. The temperature rises quickly and the sun shines from a clear blue sky, so I decide to stop and strip off some layers, legs out for the first time and short sleeve jersey. It looks set to be a stunning day and I’m in my happy place, winding uphill through the trees with the sun kissing the skin. All the positive vibes.
Five minutes later it’s absolutely bouncing down and I’m huddled under a tree, adding all the earlier layers and then some. Waterproof jacket zipped to the top and full leg cover again. I had considered just riding through and getting wet, but I thanked my decision to wrap up when the hail came. Ah well, can’t win them all. Ten minutes later the suns out again and the jackets off but its staying close to hand. That’s pretty much the weather pattern for the whole day – glorious sun and icy showers.
The riding is excellent now though – Steep, steep hills, wide exposed Roman roads, high-level disused railway tracks and tight wooded single track. There really is a bit of everything and the Stooge handles it superbly. Crossing a few fields on the Cleveland Way there are signs warning of cows with calves, always best to give these unpredictable beasties a wide birth and not hang around, but these are adorable! There must be 50 little fluffy ginger highland calves all to the left, then 50 massive fluffy ginger highland cattle with long, sharp horns to the right. I sadly decide to not cuddle any of them and pedal on towards Northallerton, over more stiff hills and through several heavy downpours.
I’ve been looking forward to Northallerton for a while. It’s the home of Adams Pizza and I’m ready for a good feed. I call into a Mc.Colls first for supplies and fill my bags and bottles for the last 100 mile pull back to Arnside, then visit Adam, Northallerton’s pizza supremo, and order the largest vegetarian pizza on the menu, plus a can of Dr.Pepper.
Its 5pm and I’m about five hours ahead of where I was during last year’s race. It’s a key point for me now, I’ve been on the bike for 12 hours already today and covered 100ish miles (275ish in total). I feel better this time though, much better. During the last race I was ready for another night’s sleep but although I’m cold and wet, I’m confident I can ride all the way back to Arnside through the night without stopping.
The 15-minute wait whilst the pizza cooks is well spent. Adding extra layers, sorting my bags so I know exactly where everything is (most important being sandwiches and chocolate bars), then a quick call to my fiancé, Kirsty at home so she knows I’m OK. She’s great is Kirsty, totally understands this sort of thing and doesn’t question it all. She’s doesn’t flinch when I mention riding straight through the night, but we keep that bit of the conversation short. Kirsty is keeping herself busy by building some new horse stables from six-inch concrete blocks, and I’m more interested to hear how many more courses she can lay before needing a scaffold to raise the lintel into place over the door. Yep, she’s a bit special. Once the pizza comes, we say our farewells and I shovel it down as fast as possible. It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten off the top of a bin and although I’m still feeling damp and cold, I’m happy and full. Always happy when full.
Back in the chair for the big last push. A nice mix of quiet lanes and gravel tracks winds through farmyards and a large deer park, leading to Catterick Garrison, the largest British Army garrison in the world. There are compounds full of military vehicles along the roads and I’m wondering if I’ll see some Tanks on the streets (Confronting police, Bleeding the Plebs, Raging crowd, Burning cars, Bloodshed starts, Who’ll be alive?!!!). Unlikely in this sleepy corner of North Yorkshire, but I keep moshing out Sepultura lyrics in my head to pass the time.
There’s a loaded mountain bike propped against a wall outside a shop and I remember I’m supposed to be racing, click another gear and make sure they never catch me.
Pressing on a bit harder on the fast rolling lanes through Swaledale, I’m feeling good. The sun is setting and the sky looks dramatic, the rain has stayed off since Northallerton and the pizza power has worked its way into my legs. I know the route gets properly lumpy again after Grinton so I’m keeping it strong but controlled. Ride strong, ride long.
I catch and pass one rider just before the real climbing starts, then shortly after spot the rear light of another, flashing away on the brutal gravel climb up to Harkerside. He looks to be pushing his bike and it’s no surprise. Its steep and loose, a long way from the valley floor and we’re all heading into the second night of the race. I’m in my element now though, this is my kind of riding and exactly what I’m here for. I pass him with a wave and a cheery ‘ey-up’, then grind it to the top and make sure I never see him again.
Lights on, quick one-handed cheese and onion butty and send it over the moors. Miles of perfect cross-country riding now, deep into the night. Along well-maintained shooting tracks, past numerous bothies and onto more technical moorland paths. Mostly steep, rough and loose, and I’m thankful to be on the Stooge. This is the fun stuff for me, and I wonder how close the nearest riders are in front. If they’re on gravel bikes I recon I can catch up.
I’ve rode this next section many times and it’s a real gem. Off the moors, through the village of Askrigg, then onwards towards Bainbridge. A good time to stick a Double Decker in the cakehole before the magnificent feat of Roman engineering which is Cam High Road. When it came to roads, the Romans didn’t mess about, so when Julius Caesar heard about the upcoming Dales Divide race, and the riders need to pass efficiently from Bainbridge to the top of Sleddale, he commanded the legions to make it as efficient as possible. They did a cracking job. The first 5 miles of walled rocky track is absolutely die-straight and gains 1,500ft of altitude at a near-constant gradient. Built 2000 years ahead of the race and it’s still in better fettle than Leeds Road on my commute to work.
It’s a proper pull to the top but it rewards in spades. A nearly pan-flat traverse of Dodd Fell along the highest point of the entire route, followed by an absolutely stonking decent down the Pennine Bridleway to Newby Head. Most probably taken faster than is advisable on a fully loaded rigid bike in the dark, but I’m having all the fun. Popping off the drainage humps and drifting through the bends
The rider notes sent out by Chris Ellison prior to the race are, for the most part, extremely useful. There is a little misleading text here though, for while Chris points out that from the top of Cam High Road, “the last 60km to Arnside is predominantly downhill”, it doesn’t mean that it’s actually all downhill, far from it.
Continuing along the Pennine Bridleway brings another proper climb, straight up Dent Fell and then along the shoulder of Great Knoutberry. The beam from my front light reflects the dew on the grass and I can clearly see a few sets of tyre tracks. I’ve been following these for some time but two sets are looking increasingly fresh. I’m also getting increasingly frustrated that whoever is riding in front has left almost every gate unlocked for miles. It’s disappointing behaviour, hardly riding with integrity, and perhaps I’m being a bit harsh but I feel if you can’t look after the countryside, maybe you should stay at home. Oh, and don’t worry, I locked them all for you.
Plummet down the steep road past Dent train station, the highest main-line station in England, back to the valley floor and follow the lovely winding lanes and sharp rises through Dentdale. I spot the strangest looking short, fat, cat waddling down the road towards me. It stops so I slow down a bit as it turns to run away, then realise it’s actually quite a large badger. It warms my heart a little and I’m surprised by its agility as it runs up a grassy banking and hops over a wall. I’ve not seen a badger for years and the last one charged straight at my feet whilst running through the local woods at night.
For the most part, my brain has stayed fairly stable thus far. I had a few mild hallucinations earlier but nothing too outlandish. Bushes that appear cow-like in the shadows, stones that look like sleeping lambs, and just things that you might generally come across in the countryside at night but aren’t actually there. The wet patches on the floor are starting to look very much like petroglyphs now though, all manner of ancient, contorting rock-art and I’m quite enjoying the experience. Then winding down a narrow, shrub-lined track, my light is causing the hedge tops to gently glow. The leaves take form of hundreds of fairies, dancing in the soft halo. It’s magical and I’m having a great time until my front wheel crashes into a load of rocks and jolts me back to reality. Wake up John, not long to go now, don’t mess this up.
Occasionally I think I catch a glimpse of a red light in the distance but then it disappears, then a white light, then nothing. I can’t work out if I’m gaining on another rider or just going a further down the rabbit hole. It could even be a far-off car, or light from a farmhouse, but I keep the pressure on anyway. Through a gate and into a boggy field and there’s definitely another rider ahead. In fact, there are two of them and I can’t quite believe my luck. It’s a race after all, so I wind it up a bit more and catch them both at the top of a hill, trying to work out how to get through a gate with boulders placed at either side to prevent it being opened. Quite ironic really, can’t leave it unlocked if it can’t be unlocked. I don’t have any words so I throw my bike over first and get back on the gas. The GPS says its only 10 miles to the finish so I ride it as hard as I dare. ‘Predominantly downhill’ but with plenty up’s, all narrow tarmac lanes and no traffic at 4am. It feels fast and I’m in TT mode right through Sandside and all along the coast road to the finish at the far end of Arnside Pier. 44 hours and 39 minutes.
Naturally, there’s nobody else here. I step off the bike, lean it carefully against the flag pole and gently lower myself onto a bench. My heartrate drops and breathing settles as I gaze off the end of the pier. The Lakeland fells are silhouetted against a gradually lightening pink sky as the new day dawns. Time seems to stand still for a few minutes as I reflect on the past two days. What just happened? Whatever next? Looking towards the distant fells I remember running the Bob Graham round a few years earlier and having similar feelings afterwards. Perhaps I’ll run on the fells again? Or maybe follow the tyre tracks of Mike Hall and Chris Ellison, to race across continents rather than counties? Or maybe I’ll just go back to lifting the weights in the shed at home.
I’m not sure exactly where I’ve positioned in the race, and honestly don’t care. I’ve finished faster than I ever expected, beat the coming storm and had a great ride. I live a quiet life anyway but the solitude of these long rides is dream-like. I decide to move before the next riders arrive, it’s nothing personal but I’m enjoying the peace.
I take a quick photo and head back to my van to warm up with brew before the rain starts. It’s set to be a miserable day for the riders still on the course and I quietly wish them luck as I finish my pot, lay back on the bed and drop into a deep sleep. I think I’m content. For now.