Some people are stubbornly resistant to change, even when it’s a change that will clearly result in a demonstrable improvement to their lives.
Take my domestique partner for example. She refuses to use keyboard shortcuts while typing – not even for copy and pasting. In fact she gets quite angry when I lean over her helpfully to jab at the laptop when she’s working, even though it’s for her own good.
Speaking of shortcuts, I rode a sportive recently that opened my eyes to a much more efficient way of achieving something that cyclists have been doing wrong for years. I’m talking about LeJog – the famous Land's End to John o’Groats ride, an 870-mile trek from one coastline to the other. LeJog generally takes at least a week, which is a long time to be away from home – so imagine if there was an easier way of doing it.
Well, picture my amazed face when I discovered that the boffins at cycling company Open Adventure had somehow discovered a quicker way of cycling from one coast to the other. It’s so simple you’ll kick yourself. Instead of cycling from south to north along the vertical axis of the country, they cycle from west to east instead! The result is a much shorter and more efficient route, as I realised when I looked at a map of Britain.
I signed up for the Coast to Coast ride immediately. With this new time-saving approach, I reckoned I could traverse the British landmass and still be home before my partner had finished typing out her hit list, or whatever it is she does for a living.
I arrived at Penrith for my transfer to the west coast town of Seascale, and discovered another truth. Short cuts aren’t always what they seem. In order to get on the bus I first had to dismantle my bike and put it into a box. Then, on arrival in Seascale two hours later, I had to 1) reassemble my bike and 2) build my hotel room for the night. I mean pitch a tent, but it amounts to the same thing.
All of this palaver took so long that I could probably have been halfway through LeJog by the time I finally lay down on the hard ground to sleep in my tent, which I’d pitched beneath a giant wind turbine so that I wouldn’t forget where it was.
Five restless hours later it was time to get up again. I crawled out of my hotel room, tore it down and stuffed it into a bag. Most of my sprightly fellow campers had already packed up and left, but I was knackered – and the sportive hadn’t even begun.
I should say at this point that although the Coast to Coast in a Day represents an 83% efficiency saving over LeJog, it is still a pretty long ride - 150 miles, and a claimed 4500m of climbing. The first 30km alone involves ascents of what I later discovered are two of Britain’s toughest climbs, Hardknott Pass and its evil sister Wrynose.
But the early morning sun was shining as I rolled down to the water’s edge at 7.00am to start the ride. Growing up on the east coast of Ireland I was reared on tales of Sellafield and its nuclear mutants, so I took care not to get too near the water’s edge. I was sweetly oblivious to what lay ahead, having saved further time by efficiently not doing much research at all on the route, other than to note that it started and ended at the seaside.
The opening few miles were a delight. Before setting off I had found a cafe by the beach in Seascale where I had a coffee and porridge before the ride, and could feel my legs slowly waking up as I stretched my weary limbs. Country lanes and gently rolling fields either side lulled me into an easy rhythm with no hint of what was to come.
I fell in with a friendly guy who was wearing a hi-vis vest and a tool belt. He turned out to be a ride marshal local to this part of Cumbria, and as we rode he filled me in on Hardknott. ‘Is it everything they say?’ I asked.
‘And more,’ he replied with an ominous smile. ‘It starts just across this cattle grid,’ he continued, dropping behind me. ‘See you at the top!’
I crossed a little bridge and suddenly ahead of me I could see it. A single track road wound up the side of what was basically a green and stony wall covered in sheep, its summit obscured in haze.
I clunked down into my bottom gear, a regrettably macho 39/27, and braced myself for some pain. I’d like to tell you it wasn’t actually that bad and that I floated up it, but unfortunately that would be a lie – Hardknott turned out to be the baddest hill I’ve ever tried to climb.
I made it most of the way, out of the saddle, straining on the pedals, praying for mercy and leaving a trail of sweat and defeated cyclists in my wake as I inched up the slopes one vertiginous ramp at a time.
But, about three quarters of the way up, I glanced ahead and my heart sank at the sight of yet another 30%+ ramp rising before me like a drawbridge being pulled closed. I couldn’t face it, there was nothing left in my legs or lungs – it was all I could do to unclip from the pedals without falling sideways. I spent a minute at the roadside, bent double over my bike catching my breath, then walked the ramp.
Luckily the gradients eased off a bit here and I was able to remount in time for the event photographer at the summit – the pics show me gliding serenely along, with no hint of the physical price that must be paid for those stunning views west over the Cumbrian countryside.
I didn’t stop at the top. The descent turned out to be almost as difficult as getting up, and the consequences of failure more severe. On cresting the peak I could see emergency personnel waving flares in the air as a rescue helicopter thundered into view, rising out of the valley below and perching gingerly on a crag, rotors still spinning as a medical team hurried across the rocks. The reason soon became clear – a cyclist lay prone at the roadside next to a stretcher. It didn’t look good. I grasped both brakes and eased my way to the bottom.
Hardknott is followed by a short, relatively flat valley before the next climb, Wrynose, appears. Approached from the west, and with Hardknott as a benchmark, Wrynose was a relative cakewalk – one steep ramp had me straining again, but I made it to the top. On the way down I realised that Wrynose would be an entirely different proposition from this direction. I was glad to have gravity on my side as we left the twin peaks behind and sped on towards Windermere for the lake crossing.
My memories of the rest of the day are a flurry of images, mostly involving hills, and of the camaraderie that hills inspire among a group of cyclists sharing a journey. From the Western Lake district we passed through the Yorkshire Dales and picturesque villages decked out in bunting and yellow bikes in preparation for the Grand Depart of the Tour de France. On we rolled, grey clouds descended and light rain dogged us all through the Vale of York – the hot soup at one feed station was a masterstroke.
There was one last obstacle before we reached the sea, and the final stretch through the North York Moors was a rollercoaster of steep climbs and swooping descents in quick succession. I met a 60-something Scotsman on the final hill and we chatted a bit. He was by no means the senior rider – one 67-year old lady I’d met on the Penrith bus and again afterwards turned out to be a veteran of the Race Across America (at age 60) and a regular Iron Man competitor. The Coast to Coast attracts a hardy breed, and age is no barrier.
At last, after 13 hours on the road, the sea rose into sight ahead. The sun had come out again and it was a lovely summer’s evening. I raced the long descent into Whitby with everything I had left, taking a wrong turn somewhere in the streets but I sniffed out the seafront and rolled across the finish line to bring an end to 246 km of riding. My Garmin showed 3,331m ascent and a moving time of 10:31 – which shows how long I spent at the food stops. So much for efficiency!
In Whitby I took a walk along the harbour and admired Dracula’s ruined abbey on the hill. Whitby is a special place, steeped in maritime history – I half expected to find an old pirate down the docks, and was prepared to exchange my finishers’ medal for a nip of rum and a night in a hammock. Instead I settled for chilli nachos and another night ‘camping’ on the floor of Whitby leisure centre – I was asleep before my head hit the pillow of rolled up clothes.
The Coast to Coast in a Day is a unique sportive, and it’s easy to see why it sells out in a matter of days each year. There is something satisfying about crossing a landmass in a day, a sense of achievement sweeter than most loop-based Sportives. I would highly recommend it to anyone – but maybe book into one of Whitby’s many guesthouses in advance. You’ll have earned those soft clean sheets, and sleeping in a bed is…well, more efficient.