The Etape series of closed road events have gained a lot of attention over the last year or so, not all of it positive, but with my summer riding largely wiped out by my daughter's birth, an end of season event offering closed roads and some tough climbing was an ideal way to finish on a high. The entry price at £63 was pretty steep but I'd only managed a couple of sportives all year so splashing out a bit didn't feel so bad.
This year's route had been altered after some complaints about the 2012 edition being too hard - apparently the new version was front loaded to put a lot of the climbs in the first 40 miles, leaving a relatively calm second half, so I had some clue as to what I was in for. The start was moved too, from Durham to Barnard Castle which may have helped with the revised route plotting but meant convenient accommodation was pretty thin on the ground.
It seems like part of the deal for these sorts of events that riders are "encouraged" to spend as much time as possible in the local area. Last year's Etape Cymru, although organised by a different company, similarly required you to collect your race pack in person the day before. Great for the local tourist infrastructure but not so great if you're trying to find a place to stay in a town the size of Barnard Castle. So, I was stuck out in Darlington for the night before the ride (fortunately, at the most agreeable Bannatyne Hotel).
Having collected my race pack from the beautifully grand Bowes Museum where there was quite a range of promotional stuff going on and some slightly out of place dance music being played in the grounds of the French style 19th Century art gallery. I retired to the hotel for a leisurely evening of watching TV and eating delivery pizza. Not as cultured as my afternoon perhaps, but these events kind of force you to kill a lot of time...
After a 5.30 start and a half hour drive over to Barnard Castle I was parked up in the extensive car parks of Glaxosmithkline just down from the Barnard Castle Golf Club which was hosting the start. With the sun rising at a depressingly late hour I was getting set up in the dark, grateful for the occasional car headlight passing by. Using the portaloos was tricky in such lighting conditions too!
Shivering on the short ride down to the start line I realised I'd ended up classifying myself on my entry form as amongst the slowest riders. So as the daylight arrived I was sat at the back of a lengthy queue to start the event. Tedious as it was waiting around like this, it gave me a good view of the 1000+ riders taking part as they were released in waves.
My progress to the front gave me plenty of time to listen to more inspiring dance music and to the guy on the PA system shouting encouragement to those who were being released for their ride. It did cross my mind that the residents in the house next to the start line may not have been particularly pleased by the racket, but their plight didn't occupy my mind for long after I got underway.
I was a little disappointed by how hard going I found the first few miles as the stiffness in my legs and general sluggishness of early morning riding worked their way out of my system. Despite being a closed road event it was surprising to see how many riders stuck determinedly to the left hand lane, particularly on the approach to blind bends. Having ridden the Etape Cymru last year though I was a little more trusting and enjoyed half the roads almost to myself on the descents.
It took a little time until the first proper climb arrived and I realised the down side to starting at the back was the very real possibility of having to stop and unclip as the width of the road did not allow much room for so many riders climbing slowly upwards. Some tricky manoeuvres were required to maintain the momentum but with the bottleneck safely negotiated I was nicely warmed up and started to settle into a rhythm, always keeping one eye on the cloudy sky. There was no rain forecast for the day but I'm always wary of optimistic predictions in places such as the Pennines. For most of the morning it remained cool but given the climbs to come I was never going to be cold.
One thing I find on sportives is that because you aren't required to think about the route at all, the details of where you've been never really lodge in the memory in the same way as when you're using your own map. So, the next 40 odd miles became something of a blur, somewhere in the middle of which was the King of the Mountains climb which was timed. Not particularly caring about this section, I ground my way up at my own speed but it was impressive to see the timing system being deployed along the route for this sort of thing. Later on in the ride there were several sections where the closed roads ran out and a main road had to be negotiated. For these crossings the organisers laid on traffic lights for the riders and more timing mats that neutralised your chip while waiting for the marshals to stop the traffic and wave you across.
The payoff for the King of the Mountains climb was the descent down Chapel Fell. Long and largely straight it was easy to let the speed build, and with brakes that seemed to run out of stopping power above 45mph I felt my control over the bike slipping away. By the time the speedo hit 57mph I was starting to seriously lose my nerve especially as a cattle grid was rapidly approaching. Juggling the risk of locking up the front wheel and the desire to snap the levers off trying to get down to a slightly more manageable velocity, I hit the grid at a terrifying 50mph. I'm sure the guy who crossed it at the same time as me heard my whimpering and probably the massive sigh of relief as I made it over the other side still upright.
My pathetic brakes gradually started to have an effect as the gradient eased, and around the same time I passed a much less fortunate rider sat by the side of the road covered in blood being tended to by the paramedics.
Despite the route taking in some fantastic scenery, and at one point routing us down an incredibly steep drop onto the top of a dam, there were a couple of blips. Both involved flat or slightly undulating section ending at sharp bends around which lurked extremely sharp climbs. Confronted with such a dramatic change in terrain meant being stranded in a high gear and some rather awkward circling around while trying to get down onto the granny ring for what lay ahead. The climbs themselves were surprisingly manageable though, despite the huffing and puffing around me, and my confidence began to grow in the first half of the ride as I kept on overtaking. I was keen to keep that confidence in check though as I was gradually forming a plan to ride the whole thing non-stop, but didn't want to push too hard and blow up.
So, as each feed stop passed by I was measuring myself carefully to see what was left in the tank. By the time of the third stop on yet another section of high moorland I knew the worst of it was over and almost to prove that point, about five miles of constant descent presented itself. Averaging 35mph+ for all of that distance was an amazing feeling and left me ready to tackle the rest of the ride come what may. Just to top it off, the last of the cloud cover was burnt off and bright sunshine opened up the views and boosted the adrenalin just a little further.
Somewhere on that second half I found myself at one of the crossing points and despite my efforts to keep the bike rolling I mistimed my arrival in the neutralised timing zone and ended up waiting for the red light to change instead of rolling on through. Despite doing a series of slow turns in the confines of the junction I couldn't manage the momentum for long enough and had to unclip. It would be the only time my foot touched the floor that day and I was left more than a little annoyed after managing nearly 60 miles upright.
If the first half of the ride was characterised by stiff climbs and fast descents on open moorland the latter half was dominated by the wind. What felt like a continuous headwind awaited us and, despite the terrain easing, it was a battle to keep up my speed. I fell in with a guy in red, white and blue kit that looked like it probably belonged to a serious rider and we spent quite some time towing each other along. Eventually though the caffeinated gels I was on seemed to boost me up enough to leave him behind and I tackled the last 10 miles or so alone.
Coming off the moorland brought us up against the wind, but also brought easier terrain and our first sight of spectators. There are always reports of grumbling locals after closed road events but, as with the Etape Cymru, there were plenty of locals out to ring cowbells and cheer us on and this lifted my spirits as well as fuelling fantasies of being one of the pros.
Into the last few miles and my drinks bottles were long empty and my food supplies down to just a few jelly babies, but the last mile was mainly downhill into Barnard Castle and the noise of the finish line spurred on a final spurt of effort. Despite the fatigue, I crossed the line at a good speed, flashing by the surprisingly large crowd of supporters.
I was surprised at how few other riders were around and when I asked a marshal how many others had finished he estimated only about 60 had arrived. The good folk at Raceahead soon texted me my results and later that day I was amazed to find I had finished 49th overall. Plodding back to the car and quickly stowing away my gear I wandered off for a post-ride coffee and to reflect on a very satisfying day on the bike.
Until the time of writing I would have recommended this ride to anyone who fancied a challenge and the thrill of speed that closed roads allow you to enjoy to the maximum. But sadly, the organisers have since decided to reduce next year's route to only 60 miles and to sell entries in a bundle with the Etape Caledonia. A real shame as this was a great day on the bike with some cracking roads and scenery. But who know, maybe after next year the Etape Pennines will transform itself once more...