SCRC on the road: Etape Pennines

Many months ago, the whole of South Cave Road Club decided it would be a good idea to do the inaugural Marie Curie Etape Pennine Sportive. I should explain that South Cave Road Club (SCRC) has a total membership of two (although others are trying to join). It consists of myself and my frequent riding partner Scott. It’s often used as an excuse to go for a drink as SCRC has quite a few “general meetings”.

scrc car

South Cave Road Club support car

The entrance fee for the Etape Pennine was hefty (£61), but it was an area neither of us had cycled in before and the main attraction was that it was to be held on closed roads. Despite being booked for several months it was sort of put out of mind and with only a week to go I decided I ought to pay attention to the flood of emails that had built up in my inbox from Marie Curie. The one startling fact was that registration was only on the day before. As the start was near Durham which is over one hundred miles away this would involve an overnight stay – a proper SCRC road trip!

We travelled up on the Saturday afternoon and found Ushaw College relatively easily. Car parking was in an adjacent field and I was glad to be in the wife’s car (complete with SCRC decals) as it was bumpy and boggy. The registration packs were given out in the ‘event village’. This was a series of marquees and food stalls. Even though we were quite late at registering there seemed to be a lot of packs still to hand out. The numbers given were 2500 entrants but there were only around 1400 finishers. I was amazed at the amount of people purchasing from the cycling clothing and accessory stands. I could imagine the odd person forgetting something and needing an emergency buy but it struck me that there is a lot of ‘spare cash’ in MAMILS.

The pub we were staying in was about 18 miles away in Ramshaw. It was a lovely late afternoon drive with the sun setting behind the dozens of Wind Turbines that dominated the sky line. The village of Ramshaw was less inspiring, a long row of terraced houses that contained a pub with an Indian Restaurant attached to it and a building that looked like an inn by a bridge but there was no sign to indicate that it was a pub. Our booking was for the Bridge Inn, so due to the proximity of this building to the bridge we took a chance and went in. Luckily it was where we were booked into. As soon as we had dropped our bags off we went downstairs to the bar. I hoped that the room would look better later on – Alex Polizi (the Hotel Inspector) would have a field day in it.

Aware that County Durham is not in the M62 corridor of the Rugby League heartland I thought I would have to turn on the charm to be able to watch the Grand Final in the bar. I needn’t have worried about upsetting the locals as there was no one else in the bar. The match kicked off just as we enjoyed our free 5/6th pints of bitter, given to us as the barrel ran out and there wasn’t another one to change over to. We watched the rugby and then had a meal in the bar. With our meals and drinks I estimate that we were responsible for at least 40% of the pub’s takings that Saturday night. I felt sorry for them as I can only imagine how hard it must be to make a living from so little income. The barmaid asked us what time we would like breakfast but when I said we needed to be leaving at 5.45am her face dropped. I explained that we were a professional cycling team and that a full English was not the best pre-race preparation – so we would make do with the porridge pots I had thought to bring and could we have another couple of pints!!

5.20am!! On a Sunday!! That was when the alarm on my phone went off. Our start time was 7.18 and had been told to be there 40 minutes before. One of my pet hates is driving against a close deadline – so I thought we would have plenty of time. Our fear was that we would have a long time to hang around before we started – little did we know! On the drive up the matrix signs on the A1 had asked “IS YOUR CAR READY FOR WINTER?” I had laughed and merely turned the heater on. I was now scraping the ice of the car windows and the temperature was barely above freezing.

To find Ushaw College we simply retraced our route from the evening before. It was going well until we got within around six miles from the college. The sportive was to be on closed roads and the roads were closed already. All the roads had barriers across and were manned by hi-vis jacketed stewards. Unfortunately none of the stewards we asked had any ideas how to get to the college. One even let us through the barriers and said it was just up ahead behind a pub – it wasn’t! We kept trying different ways in but all to no avail. The only option was to drive a long way out and come in on the main road from the opposite direction. By now it was seven o’clock and I knew we would not make our start time. Scott said it was not a problem as we had the route and we would just ride it anyway – he said that the look I gave him was one that he knew I was not a happy bunny. I was getting narked and pretty much ready to drive back to East Yorkshire. Haring round unknown dark country lanes that were icy was not my idea of the best way to spend a Sunday morning.

We then saw a car with two road bikes on top and then another one with a bike on the back. We realized that we were not the only ones who had fallen foul. Eventually we hit a long line of cars that were queuing for the event car park. We sped into an empty spot of field and hurriedly grabbed the bikes from the back of the car. It was now 7.19. The riders were being set off in ‘waves’ of 200 at two minute intervals. Our 7.18 wave was “J” and as we jogged through the field the letter “G” was being led from the event village to the start line. Hearing snippets of conversation loads of people had got lost and/or were late. Incredibly we were in time for our wave start as the organisers were instructing latecomers to start whenever they wanted.

We were shepherded into the start lane and waited for the previous group to head off. Just before our countdown began a rider in front fell with his bike to the floor. There was an equal mix of concern and amusement – he got up and realized that his chain was caught in his rear forks and faced a mad rush to free it before the flag went up. He was good to go on ‘6’. “5,4,3,2,1” – we were off!

As we set off a number of my concerns were laid to rest. The main one being that we would miss our start. I had also being worried about the press releases for this event. It was often described as a race, indeed there were prizes for the top 3 times (I have no desire or the ability to be in a race). All I had seen at the registration event were males that could indeed be racing cyclists but at the start there was a (healthy) mix of ages, genders and sizes. I also saw a couple of mountain bikers carrying rucksacks. This gave it the normal feel of a regular sportive. What made it more professional was the sight of motorcycle outriders and a Mavic moped carrying spare wheels setting off with each group.

The first person we saw stopped with a puncture was no more than ½ mile from the start gate. I felt sorry for him as it was cold and I wouldn’t fancy changing a tube with cold fingers. That thought made me realize that I was in fact cold – in all the haste to get to the start my brain hadn’t had time to process the outdoor temperature, As I stopped to put on my ‘boil in the bag’ rain jacket I also realized I had left my favourite flapjack bars behind and didn’t have any liquids in my bottles. This was only the toughest event I had undertaken and I was badly prepared. The bad preparation theme had followed through from my ‘training’. Since completing with ease my London to Brussels which was spirit level flat I hadn’t been near any hills and I had seen that as my main cycling event of 2012. I had begun to enjoy alcohol again and my Marlboro Light consumption was creeping up.

etape scenic 1

Image courtesy of Etape Pennines rider

As we cycled down Ushaw Moor we entered the first town of New Brancepeth. It was here I first realided what a huge operation a closed road event was. Every single lane, new build road and junction was barriered and there were marshals at all the crossing points. I was also amazed at the amount of local people that were out on the streets to cheer us on. I wondered how they felt about not being able to go in the cars to the shop, football match etc. for several hours. As we had found out the road closures started early and would remain closed until set times. The organisers had said that after all participants had set off the ‘sweep wagon’ would set off at 13mph. If anybody was caught up by the sweep wagon they would be invited to ‘get in’ or continue but without the luxury of closed roads. The practice of closed roads takes some getting used to, but you soon get to really enjoy it – it also greatly helps your time as you don’t have to slow for junctions and then accelerate away.

etape scenic 3

Image courtesy of Etape Pennines rider

Despite setting off with around 200 riders the road was not overly busy. Some set off at a fast pace and others were content to amble along. But, come the first hill a lot of cycles were bunched up. It wasn’t any great incline but clearly some riders were in worse shape than me. I felt quite good as I weaved my way through the strugglers and already some were walking.

We had to cross the A68 near Crook after 14 miles and this was one of four crossing points we had to navigate. It was very professional with electronic signs and barriers with a gaggle of marshals at each side. Our timing chips were also detected and any time we were waiting would be deducted from our ‘race time’. At this crossing we were straight through with no waiting.

etape scenic 2

Image courtesy of Etape Pennines rider

After 16 miles came the first feed station at Morley. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered to stop so early but with having no extra fuel on board I thought it wise to. On offer was whole bananas, Zipfit (one of the sponsors) gels, sweet shortbread biscuits, water or ‘energy’ orange squash. Our local Sportive (the Big G) has a food stop that has a wonderful array of wraps, buns, sweets, nuts etc. I thought that as this one was so early the next one would be better stocked. It wasn’t. After 38 miles it was the same but with half bananas. On subsequent stops it was banana chunks. It was with joy that I saw a garage coming up and I planned to buy a Mars Bar or two (other chocs are available) as I came to the garage there was a sign “CLOSED DUE TO CYCLE EVENT” D’oh! As well as people not being able to travel by car – this event was also affecting people’s livelihoods. This garage had had to close and other cafes and pubs would be down on custom – although local B&B’s must have been delighted. There was no sign of animosity from the hundreds of people that were out and about waving and clapping us along.

The terrain certainly wasn’t flat but there were no real issues with the hills and then – as we passed the 40 miles mark – everything changed! The course threw up everything from very steep short hills to long ‘as far as the eye can see’ climbs. The longest climb was out from St John’s Chapel, and this would determine the King of the Mountains winner. The timing chips were clocked at the start and finish of the climb. The winner did it in 9.32, my time was 16.42 and Scott’s was 13.32.

scott etape

Scott on a climb – I’m in a different postcode still

Scott could have finished the course a lot quicker than me, but we are SCRC and our motto is the same as US forces in Vietnam – “we never leave a man behind”. At the top of every climb Scott was there waiting (normally by the ambulance – just in case I needed it). He was quicker up the climbs due to better gearing ratios and nothing to do with the fact he is a non-smoker and several stone lighter. At the top of every climb I was tempted to take off my jacket as ‘boil in the bag’ was apt but the long descents reminded you that even though it was brilliant sunshine the temperature was decidedly chilly still.

After 65 miles the terrain flattened out and it was the final push for home. This was just as well because I was pretty much done in and was beginning to feel a bit light headed and I could feel every single stitch from my shorts digging in. I did notice that on the road closure times we had got to within 30 minutes of some of them being re-opened and a queue of cars were waiting at the barriers. We had overtaken more cyclists (I use the term cyclists with caution as dozens were walking up the climbs) than had overtaken us so there would be plenty who wouldn’t be on closed roads for the finish. With only a couple of miles left the road was traffic coned into two lanes and I thought that this was the finishing straight starting, but it was only to allow churchgoers to leave the service without getting knocked down. There was a final sting in the tail with another short steep climb but as we crested it the finish line was in sight. It looked like a proper stage finish with barriers either side of the road and a large crowd assembled.

At eight hundred metres out, Scott asked me if we were going for a sprint finish. When I replied that I was up for it he said that he was only joking but we decided to put on a show for the crowd. A quick 3, 2, 1 and we went for it. The announcer on the Tannoy saw us and with a chance to break from his usual “give a round of applause to..” he burst out Murray Walker style “AND LOOK AT THESE TWO SPRINTING!!!”

As to the result of the sprint! It would be churlish of me to claim a win because Scott had waited at the top of climbs for me and could have had a lot better finish time than me. So, we will call it a dead heat.

etape sprint

The ‘Manx Missile’ had best watch over his shoulder – the ‘Cave Cannon’ is born!

My final time was 6hrs 32. The winning time (even though it’s not a race) was 4.07. Despite several times wanting to join the legion of ‘walkers’ up the hills I had remained on my bike throughout and managed 793rd place! We walked up to the event village clutching our medals and enjoyed a burger sitting out in the sun. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. The scenery was stunning, the organisation first class and closed roads are a joy, but we were lucky to have such a sunny and windless day in October – I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much in less clement weather. After phoning our respective partners to let them know we were still alive we hit the A1 South back to East Yorkshire. The car was filled with Scott’s smile as he basked in the glory of knowing he had the next day off work to recover – me I was just pleased to know who really won the sprint!