"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
La'al Lakeland 100K AUDAX Perm, June 5th 2017
This was my "birthday treat" for 2017 (my 49th) and it turned out to be one of the most gruelling and challenging rides I've had a go at. Also one of the most awesome. If you get a chance to take on this route, including Wrynose and Hardnott passes from East to West, I recommend you go for it. I also recommend you try and get it in on a day when the weather isn't quite so bad!
It's a tradition among many members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre to undertake a big sporting challenge on one's birthday. On my 31st I remember running 31 miles, for example. I also ran the Welsh 1000M Peaks Race on my birthday a few years later. This time the challenge was to be a bike ride - not the longest by my standards, as I've clocked up a dozen 200k rides in a year recently, but definitely the steepest. I knew 30% would be a big ask, as the 25% section of Lynmouth Hill almost stopped me in my tracks last year, but with fresh legs and a new 32-tooth gear on the bike I thought I would be able to get over the infamous passes.
The day dawned with torrential rain, forecast to be set in for the day and with a yellow Met Office warning. After a memorable birthday mediation, Kokila sang me Happy Birthday (both versions) and presented me with a cup cake with a candle in it that served as pre-ride breakfast. Then I was off out the door and into the rain, with 80 PSI in my tyres, a goretex jacket plus my endura jacket as a spare, 3 inner tubes and some flapjacks. I was in shorts and immediately, before I'd even reached the start at Troutbeck, I thought I'd got it horribly wrong and wouldn't be able to do the ride. It was June, allegedly 12 degrees, but I was freezing. I decided to have a crack at the first section at least, and either pack in after Hardnott if I was still too cold or find a shop to buy an extra layer of some kind - any kind!
The Lake was cutting up rough as I passed the piers on the way to Ambleside and the wind was driving heavy rain into my face, but the scenery was incredible and soon I was following signs for the notorious Wrynose Pass.
Once over the cattle grid I was warmed by the climbing and cheerfully enjoying the challenge - grateful to be out there doing what I love on my Soul's Day. The road was like a river and I couldn't spend much time out of the saddle for fear of the back wheel slipping, but the tyres behaved well and when I did stand up, I kept my traction. On the steepest sections there was no chance of that though - I had to stay seated in that lowest x32 gear and push with all I'd got. My front wheel started to lift so I sat on the nose of the saddle, putting more pressure on my knees, which seemed to work. The intense slopes alternated with short sections of gentler gradient where my legs recovered. Yard by yard the pass surrendered to my efforts and then I was descending, nervously on the treacherous, sodden road, to the foot of Hardnott. Ahead I could see Alpine-style switchbacks - once I reached them I hit the steepest sections of the climb, certainly steeper than Wrynose as far as I could tell, and again I had to sit forward and give it full gas. After a long battle I arrived, joyful and triumphant, at the bleak and exposed summit. A fantastic experience and the best birthday present you could wish for. Only another 80 odd Kilometres of Lakeland hills to go!
Descending into Eskdale my heart was in my mouth and I chanted enough mantras for protection to see me through a few incarnations without misadventure. At one point I was sat on the crossbar with one foot unclipped to act as an extra brake if I lost traction - only once was it needed on the 30% slope.
I came out of the cloud and into the quintessentially beautiful surroundings of Lakeland. I also felt the warmth of the climb seeping away and the cold and rain attacking me again. I pushed on past Fellbites, as it was not yet open, aiming for a control point on Boot as per the instructions. Then I found I had passed Boot without even noticing it! I asked the landlord of the pub at the junction if he was open but he wasn't - so there was nothing for it but to ride a couple of miles back up the valley and wait for Fellbites to open. This is a feature of Audax - you have to "control" at predetermined points to have your ride validated, and although the organisers are fairly lenient you don't want to push your luck. Eventually they opened and I got an amazing hot chocolate and brownie, cheap and in lovely surroundings, before getting all my gear on (2 jackets one over the other) and setting off again.
The valley was gorgeous and then came Birker Fell - steep, demanding, bleak, windwept, rain soaked and magnificent. It took a lot out of me and then I got my mojo back through the amazing valley that followed. Is this the Duddon valley that Wordsworth wrote about? Not sure but it deserves romantic poetry and my mind was short of words with which to appreciate it, all thought and form on the mental plane having been dissolved by the rain. I was tired but grateful to see such an exquisite road on my travels. A nasty climb on A road broke the spell a little but I reached the second control hungry and looking forward to lunch. No such luck - cafes closed on Mondays! A superfood bar from the grocers was all I got and I thought that would see me through with my remaining flapjacks. A grave miscalculation, not for the first time!
From Broughton I found the way out of town towards Kendal and a long stretch of varied roads, hilly (of course) and although as beautiful as any Audax stage you're likely to see, less memorable than the first 2 stretches of this incredible ride. The climb to Gummers Howe was the big challenge of the stage, and that long, long drage up from the lake shore to the heights was, thankfully, the last really big climb of the day. I had slowed to a crawl by now through lack of calories but Kendal offered an excellent choice of cafes I was able to sit down over a hot drink and a buttered scone to refuel. I didn't hang around as by now a long rest would have meant stiffening up, so I was soon back out and on the final stage of only 16k. It took about 54 minutes and was mostly flat, but there was inevitably a slight sting in the tale towards the end climbing towards the Kirkstone road before diving back down to arrive at Troutbeck Bridge, clocking in at 7 and a half hours.
A truly great route and a challenge worthy of a birthday ride, thanks to that yellow-warning-rain.
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