An account of a recent multi-day ride from Glasgow to Manchester, using either the GBDURO or Second City Divide routes by a pair of ‘first-timers’…
(310+ miles/18,000’ climbing over eight days)
Entering the pandemic period it soon became clear that normal behaviours were going out of the window. Regular cycling activities that came and went previously were now off limits. Instead a stew of negativity to bathe in, with inevitable consequences irrespective of circumstance. It became essential to build up some hope for a recognisable future, so an event planning phase was entered into with no actual expectation of being able to fulfil. Indeed, this planning period came with a bonus guilt-free get out clause that rendered potential humiliation redundant!
There are always oft-talked up plans to do LEJOG etc. – but those epic rides are the preserve of leisure time rich, family-commitment-lite individuals who class themselves as ‘cylists’. We hadn’t previously fallen into these camps prior to the pandemic – but now?? I proceeded to tempt a few potential ride companions with the merest whiff of an idea to see who sniffed the air. Kean, an expatriated Australian, was the first to have his nasal hair twitch…
The silver COVID lining turned out to be a moment time for both Kean and I – a combination of a radical enforced domestic re-arrangement and serious stint of over (Kean) and under (I) working meant we both needed and could afford a rare break of substance.
After tapping into GBDURO 2019 hoopla and meeting a few passing riders (I’m looking at you #dogschaseme !), I was drawn to tackling some of the offroad route without the sense or pressure of competition (or even completion). It made initial sense to pick up the route from Manchester and ride north – maybe we could target Glasgow and get a train back? Kean thought it better to start up north and ride back to Manchester – at least each day would bring us closer to sanctuary. Such common sense gave me confidence in my ride partner – another risk-averse brain would be useful on this trip.
The early sketches became labours of love – copious combing over routes and satellite imagery of terrains (all mysteriously ‘flat’!) – step-by-step building confidence and commitment. This would be our first multi-day trip – I needed it to succeed. I guessed at a 50 miles a day average with nothing to gauge it on – no terrain experience, no fitness data, no idea about accumulative tiredness or my colleague’s condition. The mapping was showing over 4,500’ of climbing per day for 5 days – what did that feel like? What would recovery be like?
Six to seven weeks later the plan could be refined no more – the jagged rock had been polished to a smooth pebble. It was sh*t or get off the pot time! The pandemic’s tentacles hovered over regional lock downs – who was to know when we might get another chance?
Several video-calls over cheese and choice Belgian beers assessed state of readiness; kit levels and commitment. A spat about new poncho’s and a weigh off with our respective titanium fireboxes suggested we were overdone in the preparation department. Were we to be bikepacking or cycletouring? I’m still not sure if there’s a difference… A start date was set and a one-way car hire booked (negating the health risks of trains but more importantly, a surety that we would actually get to Glasgow).
Kean was due in at mine on Friday afternoon and we planned to motor through the evening to camp outside Glasgow, return the car early Saturday morning and be on our way before any train could have delivered us. Friday afternoon became the wee small hours of Saturday morning when he rocked up to my house – his bike building hadn’t gone well and work threw in a few rogue spanners of its own.
The Plan was shaking before we had started, however Kean had a solution that he’d been developing in the car en route – it was called ‘Day Zero’.
‘Day Zero’ meant we travelled up to Glasgow in the morning as though we were ahead of schedule, not behind, and merely tack an extra day on to the end of the trip. Genius! At 0230hrs, after two large bottles of Leffe and a basic cheeseboard, it made perfect sense – we retired to bed rather relieved that failure had been diverted.
Saturday brought with it a hot spell – Kean pulled together the fundamental elements of his bike, which lay in jigsaw-like pieces in the lounge, together then we loaded the hire car and hit the motorway north. By 2pm we were outside the car drop off point in Rutherglen unloading and assembling our machines in 30 degree heat. This process took over an hour and a half and, with the benefit of hindsight, was portentous. But hey – with the Day Zero concept, any miles covered today were bonus miles, as we weren’t due to start officially until tomorrow!
The previous night I had cobbled together a Day Zero route that warmed us up for the main event, so to speak. Meandering in a southerly direction with no real purpose we tiptoed out of town to Eaglesham for a late lunch (NB. Placing a scab of pastry on top of some steak in gravy is not a pie!) and then on to Strathaven for an evening chippy tea – we had only covered 12 miles but carbo-loaded like we had done 1,200 already. Dusk was falling fast now, so it was time to find an idyllic wild camp that Scotland is so famous for (sic).
Out to prospect Kype Resevoir and the surrounding forest – but no joy. The area was festooned with new wind turbines (not shown on the aerial scoping I had done a few hours prior) and threatening no access signage and death by CCTV. An increasingly frantic 8 miles of riding up and down the quiet local roads looking for a sanctuary – there were none to be found and now it was properly dark. A scramble ensued over some remote field gates to a hopefully obscured spot in which to set camp. We sat and waited in the gloom – no cars passed in those 30 minutes, so we set up with nerves jangling a little on the first night.
The night passed without incident – a fantastic moon rose gracefully over the pine forest horizon and the morning sun shone brightly in our faces. The chop-chopping of night air by the distant windmills and a hooting owl were all that disturbed the silence.
It is always a shock to view your surroundings the next day if you have to pitch in the dark – and this was pretty good to be fair. No habitation within sight and just a couple of horses in the next field. We got the gas on for Kean the Barrista to wrestle his Aeropress into life and I to get some bacon sizzling. Seduced by the morning sun we were leisurely about our abluting and repacking, then, a large white van appeared at the distant gate. A surly figure got out, unlocked the gate and reversed slowly down to us – he strode toward us in his oily John Deere boiler suit and blue tinted Aviator sunglasses and proceeded to give us a balling out. He threatened to call the land owner who was, in his words “a hard man”. We grovelled apologies and sheepishly walked our bikes away to the main road, cycling back into Strathaven to regroup.
After coffee and cake on our by now regular Strathaven bench, we moved onward to intersect with the GlasChester route proper – the original Day One no less! Curiously, by the time we joined it at Stonehouse, Day Zero had time-stretched into 36 hours and 26 miles. It appears this concept is flexible in both time and distance!
It felt good to be on route at last, despite the midday heat – mild country lanes ambled over the M74 innocently enough. A brief cool beer on a bench outside a Spar then onward towards Lanark, stopping only to consume an anti-bonk Scotch pie and rough-hewn camembert sandwich. The slog up to Lanark became the first real climb of the trip, but we were anxious to get to a Halfords before closing time and made little of it.
Kean had randomly mentioned his all-time top three skewer selection only a day before – now he was eager to change his chi-chi Middleburn titanium models for anything Halfords might stock, as the rear wheel was slipping sideways when pedalling out of the saddle. Not only did the store come good but they also filled our empty bidons for good measure.
By mile 34 we were through decent scenery to Biggar and, hoping to learn from last night, checking out the possible wild camp area in decent light. It wasn’t an especially attractive proposition though, on a hard pack disused railway cutting with thorns and nettles everywhere. As luck would have it, we passed a caravan site and thought we might as well ask if they’d take a couple of tents – the manager couldn’t have been more welcoming and helpful.
Being able to relax knowing a good night’s sleep without a visit from ‘the hard man’ made us giddy with excitement. Off we went to the nearest pub to fill our bellies, celebrating as though we’d finished the route. We had a straight couple of tonics to ward off cramp then it was haggis, inevitably, cheese even more so – beer, whisky and wine flowed with relieved laughter at the day’s events.
A good end to Day One, then it was launderette time at the start of Day Two – seemed a waste not to use the facilities and one never knows what might happen next. Clean and serene we rode back into Biggar around 1015 for an all-day breakfast that stretched out over an hour, literally eating into our riding time – fast starting was not going to be a strength of this team! Calories were surely going to be used today though – our first hike-a-bike climb 1,000’ up the Old Drovers Road, opposite Stobo Castle, then through a farm and up again with the heat radiating off the hard, stoney track – another 1,300’ in 3 miles, to the transmitter tower at Glenrath Heights.
It was awful. Went on forever. Was hardly walkable, let alone rideable. Kean was in his dancing shoes, scraping and sliding his way to the top. I was reduced to taking 50 paces as a parasitical wing forward hanging off a scrum, then 50 breaths of dizzying recovery. Walk or ride? Hate walking. Hate riding. It’s just the swapping from one to the other and back again that distracts me from stopping altogether. I pitied the GBDURO or Second City Divide riders descending this section – the thought of trying to panic brake in the dark on the unforgiving flinty stones gave me shivers.
At the transmitter we refuelled and put windproofs on for the long dusty descent to the A308. Here we were lucky to find the Gordon Arms Hotel had just reopened for business – they tasered our sweaty foreheads for the virus and showed us to a window table. Outside, an unexpected squall was drenching the bikes and the open luggage – too late to save some of the electricals. We debated our next steps – it was already 1900hrs +. Kean was for camping right there if they would let us – for me, I wanted to push on to complete Day One proper, which meant at least another 25 miles in the gloom. We agreed a compromise – if we could book another campsite around Hawick we would continue, knowing we could recover from the effort.
Campsite surprisingly booked, we were thus committed and did some spirited road riding through the crepescule. We endured our first midge-mugging encounter crossing Alenmoor Resevoir, but brushed them aside, arriving in dormant Hawick after 2200hrs. Kean carried sausage and chips from the town to the campsite, which was another 4 miles out of town and uphill most of the way. Glad to be out of the saddle after 9 hours, we made full use of the hip flasks to disguise the awful-tasting cold chips and were pretty smug to be hanging on to the GlasChester schedule at this point.
Heavy rain did not wake me during the night, however the sodden tents needed drying out at the start of Day Two. We showered, brewed and porridged whilst Kean went through another of his product demonstrations. Who actually needs to carry a ceramic hotplate mat camping?!
By the time we were back in Hawick it was lunchtime – a Wetherspoons all-day breakfast lay across our path and we didn’t resist. Slow service meant more pints drunk and a shockingly bad 1530hr departure from town. That late night effort seemed to have hidden costs…
We admired Shankend viaduct from the road, where we planned to wildcamp had we been ‘on it’ yesterday, before a 4 mile climb of Larriston Fells to around 1,500’. Here the rains came in proper – Kean waved me through at the top of the climb as he waterproofed up. I thought I’d enjoy the descent and see if it was still bad at the bottom before doing likewise. Of course a descent in the rain is where we always miss the hidden turning – I sailed several miles by before realising. Waiting in vain at the bottom for 20 minutes I had to second guess what Kean would have done. I had no signal on the phone of course, so I cut across to intersect the route proper at Steel Road and waited another 40 minutes.
Whilst waiting, I ruminate on the ‘Venn’ of riding long distance with another – in which we silently discover a ‘team’ daily routine based on stepping aside for one’s riding colleagues modus operandi. This could be how long they spend in the shower; what gear they prefer to grind up 20% climbs; how much time they need alone (either up front or trailing wilfully at the rear); managing the mapping; always leading or following etc. The outcome is an acceptable unspoken pattern of travelling behaviours that neither rider is entirely responsible for…
A couple of long distance cyclists came by having just come through Kielder Forest at the same time Kean hove into view. By now it was gone 1800hrs and my fears of navigating Kielder by day amplified by the dozen, realising we’d have to do it at night at this rate. We came up with another plan to wildcamp short of Kielder and think again about it in the morning. We stopped at the lonely Co-op in Newcastleton and loaded up for an evening meal and a breakfast, then started the dumb hunt for a peaceful site.
By the time we had found a reasonable pitch it was 2100hrs + and the midge were in full effect – any joys in pitching were removed by their incessant biting. We sat netted up in our chairs drinking wine and nibbling, trying to relax despite the sheet lightning cracking in the near distance. A car mysteriously climbed the nearby hill then disappeared – we awaited ‘the hard man’ again.
The morning of Day Three revealed the effects of too much late night cheese were evident – my foot was clean outside the tent and impressions in the roof lining concurred with recollections of an abduction and ensuing struggle. Outside livestock had been let into the field overnight and we sensed we ought to pack promptly. Sure enough, a woman on horseback started shouting the odds from the roadside. We gathered our chattles and moved everything to the roadside, then went through our routine of tent drying. The breakfast fry-up was suitably enhanced this morning – only because we dare not cook our burgers the previous night.
The horsewoman came by several times and in different modes of transport to check whether we had moved on and told us to sanitise the rusty gate before we went. By 1100hrs we were ready – we had camped on the Scottish side of Kershope Burn, just SW of Kielder, but had decided we would give the forest a wide berth in the heat and head directly for Haltwhistle. Day Three had become a write off before it had begun, but hey, we were in England now.
Around 1500hrs we’re double lunching (that’s ordering two lunches each at the same time… much confusion at the till) at a café in Greenhead, then booking another ‘safety’ campsite at Hadrian’s Wall – I think we’re done with wildcamping this trip. It’s an Instagram idyll that rarely seems to come good – the conversion rate is poor and the negative effects of a poor camp impact on mood and progress in equal measure. We arrive to a luxury pitch with tents up well before 1800hrs, able to shower and relax into the setting sun’s rays in our chairs.
I now have to scramble to re-route us after the delays of yesterday and the ensuing Kielder bypass. We also have to consider the endgame – which now looks distinctly unachievable. We’ve already used the Day Zero card and look like we’d finish at least a day over budget – time for a train! This option plays into the hands of Kean who has unwittingly left his precious sun hat in the toilet at out lunchtime stop and of course he wants to go back and get it!
We ride un-luggaged down into Haltwhistle town for some lazy beers and all the snacks behind the bar as there is no cooked food to be had. Here, Kean tells me that the hat reclaimation will be worth it as we can see Hadrian’s Wall properly in the morning. Whilst this is true it does mean another 18 bonus miles that take us absolutely nowhere!
Day Four arrives and, with a luxury campsite, comes the temptations of showers and laundry again. We go off and view the admittedly spectacular old wall, pondering Hadrian’s retrospective planning application, before pressing on to the hat café. Here Kean is shamed into buying brunch only then to admit that he’s also left a Voile strap at last night’s pub.
We pick up our luggage from the campsite on our return then go to Haltwhistle to check on the train option we have in mind at the station and get the strap back. Of course the station is unmanned and we cannot seem to book bikes onto the train on-line. It’s a problem for the morrow though, so on we pedal towards Lambley, another site we should have wildcamped at had we managed to stay on plan.
It’s gone 1730 by the time we are on the colossus that is Lambley Viaduct. A more than fortuitous and engaging encounter at the fenced-off southerly end of the bridge with the owner of the disused train station has us deep in discussion about photography and the RCA; SUSTRANS and a clumsy compulsory purchase threat of his home; and working class life in Sunderland in the sixties. He told us it was ‘our lucky day’ as he opened the gate to let us continue without a tedious detour.
From Lambley we hooked up with the River Tyne Trail, which was smooth, straight and flat as railway cuttings often are. We crossed over the Northumberland-Cumberland border on a small viaduct after 28 miles a few miles short of Alston. The residue of 3 day old dates were required to fuel the final miles through a now mizzley town on a steep incline, then out eastwards to Nentberry, where we had a pitch booked.
On arrival we couldn’t see more than 40 yards ahead due to the falling mist. Rain and midgies were also in abundance making the set up quite miserable. It was late (again) and the thought of riding 8 miles to Alston for food was as depressing as it was trying to cook up something at the site. We had passed a remote hotel with a bar earlier and gambled we could get something there – we were in luck. The bar staff persuaded the kitchen to reopen and we took whatever they offered – this came as steak pies and chips, both of which stayed on their plates for less than a couple of minutes. Relaxing in the warmth in our sweaty vests, I caught up with some log book and Kean spent his time scratching his angry midge wounds – locals gave us a wide berth…
Reluctantly back at camp, I snapped at the realisation I’d left my headtorch at the pub – fuming I cycled back in the bleak rain only to find the establishment in the dark and closed. Off to a wet tent in a wet sulk. Kean went to the bunkhouse shower block and used a wall mounted hand drier for over an hour, drying out his vetements, before retiring himself.
Day Five was a bleak morning – the mist still hung, the midge still bit, but the rain had at least relaxed. Hot showers revived and a talking-to by a pair of hardy Dutch cyclists doing a 200 mile tour on their hefty town bikes restored my resolve. Back into Alston for a big feed – we knew a big day was in the offing, so were reluctant starters, winding our way out to Garrigill. The sun banished the mists and the temperature rose dramatically – once climbing out of the village we were in vests again. The broken road surface was ideal as it meandered alongside the river up Tyne Head and all was well.
The road morphed into a track, then disappeared at a disused mine – all semblance of a trail had vanished and we were solely reliant on digital mapping. Luckily, we had a good signal as a mist lay ahead and landmarks were few. The ground was un-ridable – in turn reedy soft grass, boggy shoe-catcher moss and frequent wheel-catcher rocks. Trudging was the order of the hour, which meant we were easy pickings for the river midge. They eroded our mood in short order and the 5 mile section became a Japanese torture game show episode. Several river crossings delayed progress further as we balanced metalled shoes on wet rocks, passing over 35kgs of uncooperative bicycles.
‘Gravel racing’ – why? A recurring theme of conversation during the ride was the apparent cyclingworld’s fascination with ‘racing’ + ‘bikepacking’ as a vehicle to grab the attention of the vaguely interested through social media. As GBDURO is in its infancy it’s interesting to note that the potential foundations of a ‘standard’ LEJOG offroad equivalent is being heralded only in a ‘racing’ or elite context – more-so than a challenge in its own right.
By definition, racing only has one ‘winner’ – which cuts against my more social snowflakey grain. I believe the richness of this challenge is not served best by rushing and deserves a more inclusive marketing framework, one which encourages mere mortals such as myself to try, even if only in sections. This year’s GBDURO, albeit constrained by the pandemic, demanded self-sustaining competitors (unable to repair or shop en-route), with a keen emphasis on reducing waste. The completion rate was predictably low. The logical extension of the ever increasing ‘eco-win’ ruleset is to either not do the challenge at all, or, on completion, to commit to donating both body and bike to their respective recycling channels!
I felt for any of the GBDURO or Second City Dividers coming through here in the dark and I was truly glad of a riding companion today – the mist wrapped around us like an unwelcome spirit, shrouding the horizon and with it any ability to gauge when the terrain would relent. There was no turning back now, we’d been in this mode for over two hours. We crossed the Pennine Way at Dunfell Hush, through another eerie ex-mine, then stumbled onto a foggy tarmac service road, not shown on our mapping. Desperate to make a different progress, I knew we’d be taking this road – please let it be downward! We layered up in the cold mist and began to follow the Alpine-style descent using the snow poles as a guide.
Boom! Descending like fighter jets out of the clouds suddenly we were in bright sunlight, unwittingly speeding down Great Dun Fell with the offroad tyres howling at over 35mph. Turns out we’re on a 2880’ grimpeur classic climb, but going the ‘right’ way, as three or four roadies suffer towards us up this classic, brutal track. The views are otherworldly now – in the distance, rivers glow and flow like molten metals. I’m breathless and lightheaded due to fatigue, exhilaration and relief and start laughing to myself as we roll ever downwards.
At Dufton it’s straight to a summer country pub, with chilled locals imbibing in the sun. We’re on the wall with two amber ales and two tonics sharing disbelieving notes on the last couple of hours. I realise I have broken my glasses in one of the strenuous river crossings, but I’m so elated at this stage I don’t give a fig.
Once regrouped, we’re off to Appleby-in-Westmorland where we have a dubious site reserved. As always, it’s just too far out of the attractive town centre, but it turns out to be the best site yet. A classic retired farmer shows us around this minimal affair with its wooden dunney and we pick a pitch where we can see Great Dun Fell in the distance. It’s 8 o’clock and a great evening for slow pitch luxury with cold tinnies and snacks. Sat in the chairs, we notice for the first time that Dun Fell has a radar station on top, hence the service road we just came down – we must have been all of 100 metres from it at one point but the mists had it perfectly camouflaged. Around 9pm we head back to Appleby to have a recce of the railway station first, as we may take an earlier train if we are able to rise in time. We then try for an evening meal but have to settle for a Spar bits and pieces affair outside a pub, where stiff brandies and cream filled cakes are the order of the evening.
Day Six brings bright sunshine and a prompt decamp to be at the station for 1130. Nerves jangle as to whether we can get the bikes onto the train – will the driver let us? Will the spaces be already filled with other bikes? What a farce the UK railway system is with regard to cyclists.
We get ‘lucky’ and are on our way down the spectacular valley, leapfrogging around 60 miles of our intended route down to Skipton. Although I’m saddened to be missing out this section, I’m soon distracted by the teeming throngs of shoppers in town. We haven’t seen more than a handful of people for days and, in these times, it came as a shock. Ensconced in a pub garden we can watch the need for social activities whilst waiting for food. An over-the-top steak suet pudding becomes a challenge in itself, especially as I’d had a starter…
Gorged and uncomfortable, the regret is immediate as we climb out of Skipton through Carleton and up over Elsack Moor to Laneshaw. More road grind through Trawden then we’re up over Boulsworth and passed Widdop Resevoir. It’s a rough looking landscape strewn with flytipping and done no favours in the chilled gray light. There’s a fair bit of pushing for me to keep going forwards – when we come to the Packhorse Pub I’m with the sad, broken horse painted on the sign. From here though it’s a welcome roll down into Hebden Bridge town, itself getting ready for a Saturday night.
Fatigued, we do our best to join in the hubbub and order a couple of Negroni and bottles of lager to chase. A curious discussion with the waitress regarding the tanning of deer and walking LEJOG without shoes stick in the mind – but I was weak. From where we are sat I can see our campsite hovering up high, yet seemingly very close. This meant only one thing – a brutal climb. Provisions garnered at a Coop, we start off. It must be 20% plus up one of those farmer-concreted frictionless roads that adhere to nothing except tractor wheels. Forty minutes later we’re sneaking onto the site in the inky dark, with only open fires of ready-pitched campers to reassure we’re in the right place. A right old wind has whipped up and there is no flat earth to make good our retreat.
I can hear Kean’s groaning and expletives as he wrestles with hidden nettles and a furiously flapping tent as I get my duvet jacket and long trousers on to keep warm. Once we’re pitched we try and make the best of our turbulent surroundings – the remaining gas struggles vainly to produce boiling water for Kean’s Expedition food sachets. Wine is necked and little is said. The meals seem gourmet in this context, especially with added chopped chorizo. Hebden glinted and winked below us, the wind carrying the joyous noises of revellers well into the night.
With the pitch as it was, an expected poor night’s sleep ensued – my limp carcass sliding down to the foot of my tent repeatedly, dragging myself slowly back up to the top each time I’d woken in a chill. A quiet, unspoken breakdown with barely boiled honesty eggs and sausages in brioche buns and decent coffee ensured we had the stomach for the final day. The chilled owner quad-biked over for her £10 – we loved her attitude and the basic site – now we could see it in daylight – with its honesty box/shed and butty van for those that needed it.
It’s Day Seven – all that remained was to ride the flattest route possible home now we were back on plan. Sloppy luggage packing soon had me cursing as we bobbled down rough tracks towards Todmorden in the grizzle. Once on the canalside, Andy (of this parish) made contact from Lock 55 – he was to join us at some stage en-route and be our pilot back into Manchester. Once we had joined up around Lock 29 we made for Littleborough and a roast lunch by Hollinsworth lake, at The Vine. Andy smirked at our tired tales and the remnants of our banter, but gave credit (if not awe) to Kean for riding his 40kg+ one-man rolling bikepack expo of a bicycle, still festooned with every device known (and unknown) to man.
From there we rode relatively efficiently and silently into Manchester centre along the Rochdale Canal, with its occasional wake up calls on slippery cobbles. In the Northern Quarter we were symbolically finished off by a 10 minute downpour – giving Kean his first and last opportunity to try on his mid-priced poncho. The we were relieved to be home – fussed over by a surprising welcome committee who had been patiently dot watching our labours and indulgences.
So just what was that??! In hindsight, it all seems quite a normal laidback jaunt, albeit spread over 8 consecutive days. Once we had momentum, I felt we could continue to do so for some time – and maybe this is the learning? Prior to this I had only ridden events with two overnight camps and there was an unchallenged thought that this was my limit. Now I know differently and I won’t be confined by distance or time in the future, just ensuring the rest and the feeding are given suitable priority over speed and distance (which, let’s face it, I’m good at!). The conservative balance we struck meant we were always able to get through the next 40+ mile/3000’ day with a little energy to spare (if not daylight). The route through Scotland was great, matched easily by the North Pennines too. I regret we took the train a little early and missed the Yorkshire Dales – in hindsight we should have ridden this section and got a train on the penultimate day. I am already planning to go back and complete it before the year is out along with the Wales section of GBDURO next year. I can thoroughly recommend it to those that haven’t gone ‘multi-day’ as of yet and are thinking of doing so – you will enjoy either of the GBDURO or Second City Divide routes for their mix of challenge and scenery, regardless of ability.
Words – Neil Ruddock
Pictures – Neil & Kean