Thursday, May 02, 2013

Pretending to be a Roman, pt I

It's been a good while since I did anything in the way of long-haul cycling. There's been a fair bit of commuting to work, but that's only a handful of miles each way. There's been a few short MTB rides over the winter. Aside from that, the last time I did any serious riding was the 12hrs of Exposure and since then, I've just been bimbling. So when Dad came out with the plan to ride the Hadrian's Cycleway, it seemed like something that would probably kill me. The full route is 174 miles, Ravenglass to South Shields (or Glannaventa to Arbeia, if you're pretending to be a Roman), but with only a weekend we decided Bowness-on-Solway (Maia) was the better start point. Apparently, this is the actual western end of Hadrian's Wall itself, and the rest down to Ravenglass an extension, the Western Sea Defence, plus for our purposes, it brought the first distance estimate to a nice round 100 miles. And cleverly remembering the old adage that 'misery loves company', I roped in Ross to suffer along with me. It seemed like the best idea.

The appointed weekend came, and we gathered in Torpenhow on the Friday night, faffed with kit, deliberated about weather forecasts and tried to work out what we needed in terms of clothing. It became obvious that it didn't really matter, so we gave up on all of that, had a beer and relaxed. Saturday morning came and after more faff and a short drive we were at Bowness unloading and getting ready to ride.

Our bike choices all varied: Dad had gone for his MTB with slicks, rather than the higher gearing of his road bike; Ross opted for his flat-bar cross-inspired Cube; I, being a geek about these things, had rebuilt my old singlespeed up into an off-road drop-barred, hybrid-tyred, fully rigid 69er mongrel. Since we were YHA-ing for the night we didn't need much kit, so I'd restricted myself to my 15l OMM Pack, Dad had packed his small rack-top trunk, and Ross seemed to be carrying the kitchen sink. Still, as we pottered along the Solway coast, none of that mattered, it was sunny, we were on bikes, and another little adventure was on the go. The roll along to Carlisle was utterly uneventful, a little bit of tweaking saddle heights, a little tweaking of brakes, a lot of chatting, and a solo breakaway by Geoffrey (only to be reeled in on the next climb) and we were soon through Burgh by Sands and passing Ratlingate Scout camp at Kirkandrews-on-Eden, the scene of my first Cyclocross event many many years ago. We were soon over the Carlisle northern bypass, off the tarmac and onto the gravel and mud round Bitts Park and pulling up for our first appointed coffee stop of the weekend at the Turf Tavern. Large coffees all round, no muffins available but Mum had given up a Tunnocks Wafer each before we set off, so the refuelling commenced.

With the 'flat bit' of the first day out of the way, we knew the gradient was going to start going upwards as we set off again for Brampton, through the riverside parks and then backroads to Brunstock. After a short spell on the main A689The 'official' route takes a somewhat circuitous route through a bunch of little villages, which our official routeplanner had decided was 'too much of a faff', so we pacelined it along the main road. Not sure what the copper with the speed camera thought as we chuntered past:
Pyro: "He'll have a speed gun."
Ross: "Nah, I bet he's just pulled over for a snooze!" 
< pedal-pedal-pedal *peek into van* pedal-pedal-pedal >
Pyro: "Nope, he's definitely got a speed gun. Alright"
Officer "Alright."
But he didn't pull us over, so we must have been doing less than 60. One quick stop for a jimmy and a handful of Jelly Babies and we were off again, heading straight into Brampton itself with lunch in mind. After a bit of faff (the Farmer's Market was just shutting up shop, the pub that had outside tables wasn't serving food, the pub that was serving food didn't have outside tables, neither did the obvious tearoom) we found the Off the Wall coffee shop, grabbed the two little tables outside and parked ourselves. Toasties, wraps and a brew (and the only salad of the weekend), a nice sit in the sun, some funny looks off a gentleman on a mobility scooter and the world set almost to rights, and it was time to get going and get the legs ready for some proper hills. Oh joy.

From Brampton it was all fairly gentle to begin with, then just after Lanercost Priory, it started to rise. The climb up to Banks is a steep little so-and-so, and due to tuning issues, neither Dad or I could get into the 'Granny Ring', so it became a game of muscle. Through the hamlet and onto the scarp top things eased off, but it was the first properly out-of-breath moment of the weekend. The long undulating run to Birdoswald (Banna) was pleasant though, and one of the few bits that actually runs alongside the wall itself. We stopped for a quick picture on a section of the wall, then commenced descent, dropping down to Gilsland just as the sky darkened and a hailstorm started. We hit the T-junction as a group, Ross and I breaking right, Dad breaking left. "Where are you two going?" he yelled after us, as the hail started to fall. "Tea shop!" we replied, pointing out the chalkboard sign at the junction. We parked the bikes up and dived inside, found comfy chairs by the fireplace and ordered our coffee and teacakes for that vital mid-afternoon refuel.

Rising, sated, from our comfy chairs, we returned to our marginally less comfy saddles for the last leg of the day, the final 8-mile stretch to the YHA (and pub) where we were staying. The gradual rise out of Gilsland and over to Greenhead was okay, steady and undulating again. A nice little track diversion took us round over the Tipalt Burn and along the back side of that and the railway. Coming into Greenhead, we had the option of crossing back over the burn by bridge or ford: The ford looked more interesting, but discretion being the better part of valour, we all chickened out. And with good reason, the one bit of the ride we'd sort of been fearing (well, the next bit after the climb to Banks): Greenhead Bank, a quarter mile of 1:4, then 1:10 to the summit at the turnoff to Carvoran. Sustrans have done a great job of putting in a gravel cycle path set back off the road, but there's only one small hitch with it: Turning off the road and up through a bike barrier (presumably to stop motorbikes using it) robs you of any momentum you might have wanted for the early - and steep - bit of the climb. Since two of us were having front mech issues, we decided that walking is just another gear, and proceeded to engage that one.

From the top we had another 'Navigator's Choice' route, and deviated from the official Route 72 guide. The main route descends back down from beyond Carvoran to Haltwhistle (supposedly the 'Centre of Britain', but the Ordnance Survey and a farmer from Dunsop Bridge disagree), then follows the valley to Bardon Mill before climbing the same height back up to the Stanegate, just south of Once Brewed where we were staying. Instead of playing this game of drop-and-climb-again, we gave small thanks to General Wade and pacelined along the old Military Road, undulated along at some pace, fuelled by the knowledge of impending shower and food, and soon saw the big green triangle come into sight. Shower, clean clothes, pub dinner, a pint of liquid anaesthetic or two, a little light conversation and an early night and we'd be all ready to do it all over again tomorrow!

(Pt. II to come soon!)

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