I wrote another piece on the site about personal improvement and pushing your limits, so when the opportunity to do this ride came up, I knew it was something I wanted to try. I’d heard about the climb, as some other lads I know went over to tackle it a while back but I didn’t have a real idea of what it was like. So what did I do? Google it of course. Probably not a good idea as the results kind of made me question whether I was physically up to the challenge and if I would be able to manage the climb. Wikipedia says, ‘At a height of 2,782 feet, Great Dun Fell is the second-highest hill in England’s Pennines.’ ‘Great’, I thought another link told me, ‘highest road in England.’ ‘Even greater!’ I thought… Not!
Saturday came and I was up early, making sure I got a good breakfast in me I packed up the car with my bike and gear, probably took too much gear but it’s better to be over prepared, right? I waited for James to come over and soon we were on the road to Alston. Once we arrived we all met up, got our bikes ready, and filled our jersey pockets with gels, bars, bananas, cake and the 10 of us set off.
The sun was shining and there was little wind, pretty much a perfect day for cycling and spirits were high. I had no idea of the route and all I knew was that it was over Hartside Pass, 20 miles of flatfish roads to the start of Dun Fell. Up The Fell, back down, retrace the route back and up and over Hartside and back into Alston. Simple enough! So I just followed wheels as we headed our way out of Alston.
Things didn’t get off to the best start, when Paul snapped his chain just as we started Hartside. A chain tool and link were sent back to him and the rest of us carried on to wait at the cafe at the top. I’d ridden up Hartside once before on the coast to coast a few years back and it was nowhere near as bad as I remembered it. That day was a totally different ride and I had been on the bike all day and soaked to the bone, but it made me think ‘yeah I’m feeling good today, that wasn’t so bad.’ We waited a while at the top, took in the views then pressed on, snaking down Hartside at a canny pace. Half way down I think I must have hit a bump in the road and my chain jumped off. Not what you want when you’re flying down a winding road at 40mph. I eased off and coasted to the bottom where we were joined by Paul and Dan who had managed to catch back up after fixing Paul’s chain.
It’s great being out on roads that are away from your usual stomping ground. The lanes were quiet, a few cars here and there and the odd tractor was all I remember seeing.
We passed through a few small villages and before long somebody pointed out our destination. Over to our left, on top of the hills it sat. A round, white object, like a golf ball sitting on a large tee.
My first impression was ‘yeah that looks pretty high’ and as we continued on it slowly started to become more prominent. We were now only a couple of miles from the start, ‘yes it defiantly looked high’ I thought as I took on a gel and half a banana, trying to keep my energy levels topped up before the long, hard climb began.
We took a few more turns through the winding lanes. Some of the guys came to a stop 100 metres down the road and I was unsure what was going on, ‘Have we took a wrong turn?’ I wondered. No, this is it, this is the start of it. Ok then here we go I guess. Time for a call of nature and to ditch my saddle bag and rain jacket. Might as well leave that extra bottle too as I’m not gonna need it for the next hour and it’s only gonna weigh me down. So I stashed them in the bushes and off we went.
The climb starts off relatively easy as you pass through a tree lined lane, then the row of trees come to an end and it opens up to reveal what lies ahead. From here it’s hard to see where the road actually goes and it doesn’t take long for us to all split up as we ride at our own paces. I hung back as I wanted to try and get a few photos and really wanted to take it easy and not kill myself so early on. The steady incline soon ramps up as you take a left turn and I couldn’t help but look up to the top and think ‘God, there’s miles of this go.’ I looked up the road, took a deep breath and tried to keep my rhythm going. It’s hard as the road kicks up again and I’m out of the saddle. I can feel my breathing start to get heavy. I reach to my jersey pocket for my inhaler but decide that it’s too risky to try and take it as I ride and I don’t want to stop, so I carry on and just try and ease back with my effort a little and regain control of my breathing. Thankfully the road eases off and there’s a little respite as we go through a gate and over a cattle grid. My recollection of the next 10 minutes is hazy. I tried to zone out and stop looking at the top, instead just looking around taking in the scenery, saying to myself ‘up and down round and round’ as I turned the pedals. I remember hearing Martin singing “nobody said it was easy” and it brought a smile to my face. I could barely breathe let alone sing, then thankfully there was more respite in what looks like a flat section.
It was deceiving and looked like it was slightly downhill but it wasn’t. I stopped pedalling and tried to coast along just to give my legs a rest and I watched the guys up ahead tackle the next steep section, which wiped my earlier smile off my face. I could see Matty, Barry, Dave and Martin all up out of the saddle stamping on the pedals and climbing out of my sight. I tried to coast a little more and then picked up speed to try and carry a bit of momentum into the next section but my speed was sapped as soon as I started to tackle that next section. I was really beginning to feel it now, breathing getting heavier and cadence reduced to snail pace. I think we must have been well over halfway up by now, although I have no way of knowing. What I do know though was the sight that greeted me next almost broke my will.
Up ahead was another gate and a sign saying no vehicles beyond this point and what looked like a wall of tarmac heading up between the high cliff faces, it’s just relentless and my breathing was getting out of hand, I could feel my wind pipe closing up with every turn of the cranks and at this point I had no option but to unclip my feet, I so wanted to carry on but my asthmatic lungs had other ideas, better to be safe and recover while I can than push too far and end up having an asthma attack. Two shots of my inhaler and the relief is pretty instant, I force myself to breathe long and deep to get some oxygen into me and stood for a moment and watched James and Christine catch me up and pass me. “Go on keep going, I’m alright” I said. I looked back down and thought wow we’re pretty high there can’t be much further to go, the radar station is out of sight at this point and I’m hoping the end is just over the next crest. With that thought in mind I tried to clip back in and get going. I’ve no idea how steep it was here but it must be around 20%, after a second attempt I manage to get clipped in and I’m away again, with Christine about 20 metres in front and I use her back wheel as a target to follow, keeping my head down I carry on but the road gets steeper still, Jesus Christ it’s endless and I’m out of the saddle just trying to keep the bike moving, zig zagging across the road to try and make it a bit easier. I move up closer to Christine and she says “come on we’re nearly there now” her words are the encouragement I wanted to hear and there is comfort in the sight ahead, we’ve almost made it.
The hardest parts are all but done and the top is now in sight, the road snakes away in front and the landscape is exposed, barren and littered with rocks and boulders, there is one final kick up to the last gate and cattle grid and I can see the others standing taking photos and shouting encouragement. Get in, I’ve made it, I cross the cattle grid and get a high five from Barry.
It’s a relief to know that’s it, and I smile as I take in the view, and it’s a beautiful sight, clear blue sky and hills, valleys and countryside as far as the eye can see. I ride on, right up to the radar station where everyone’s bikes are parked and I touch its big white walls. Mission accomplished.
We all stood around to take pictures and talk of the climb we’d just endured, waiting for the last man to appear, I hadn’t seen Alan since the very start of the climb and was unsure how far away he was, hoping that he was still going and hadn’t given up. Paul being the strong rider that he is headed back down to see if he could find Alan and after a short while reappeared with him following his wheel as they made their way up to the summit. Well dones all round.
Now for the much easier and faster part, descending., from going 5mph up the climb to flying down it at 50mph, it was brilliant, sitting low on the bike and carving round the twists and turns all the way back to the bottom where we all regrouped and started the 20 mile ride back to Hartside.
The pace was much quicker going back, we seemed to be flying through the hedge lined lanes, I think people were buzzing in the knowledge the hard work of the day was over and there was no need to conserve our energy like we did on our way out. Of course there was still Hartside to get over again so I eased off as we approached it and slipped through the pack to hook up with Alan near the back and we chatted while taking in the early part of the climb. Again I found Hartside nowhere near as bad as I remembered and I left Alan to ride at his own pace and I did too, pushing on a little faster and steadily making my way to the top, taking in the scenery as I went and just enjoying the climb, the gradient was a lot more manageable than on Dun Fell and I had plenty of gears to spare as I kept a good rhythm going to the top.
The cafe at the top was heaving with cyclists and motorbike’s and again we sat and waited for everybody to regroup and refuel, the ride was almost over and there was only about 5 mile, downhill back into Alston which turned out to be fast, great, nice open sweeping roads and a group of us blasted off exchanging turns on the front and keeping the speed high, my legs were spinning out at times and I could’ve done with a few more gears and before we knew it we were back to the cobbled street where we’d all parked.
And that was that, South Shields Velo had conquered the Great Dun Fell (again) For me it was a pretty epic ride, it wasn’t the longest ride I’d ever done but I felt a real sense of achievement in getting over the climbs, like I said earlier I did have some initial worries but there were all forgotten about as soon as the ride started, no point in weighing yourself down with worry, positive mental attitude and all that. I think I learned a little something about myself too and I’ll keep that inside my head and use it for future inspiration when I need it, along with the memories of what was a great day out on the bike.