Brutal. Coast to coast, sea to sea, and back again, in two days. 224 miles. Easy. 5,800 metres of climbing. Ouch. Heavy rain and riding into a 43 mph headwind hour after hour. Eugh. What the hell was I thinking?
Truth is, I have no idea why I attempted a double C2C ride in March, the tailend of the UK winter. The classic sea to sea route doubled as I figured it was logistically easier to drive to the centre of the route and ride each way and back. A lot of effort to avoid taking panniers or catching a train!
Yet once an idea forms, it becomes difficult to shake, even with the daunting prospect of howling headwinds and more rain than Noah’s nightmares.
Truth is, I was on the verge of cancelling, only to miss the free cancellation deadline by a few hours. Argh! I love cycling but it has to be enjoyable. Slogging away for 8 hours in atrocious weather, battling ridiculous headwinds on a challenging route didn’t feel fun. Can’t think why.
Everything about this trip felt mad. Wrong. Driving over five hours to beat a 10pm check-in deadline, taking two days off work in the middle of a major project. The miserable weather.
Yet perhaps the Gods were in my favour. My rear gear cable snapped during my final preparation ride, 20 miles from home with 100 miles in the legs, a choice of two gears, 39×11 or 53×11. Oof. On the same ride an ancient and much patched innertube simply gave way when crossing a cattle grid at speed.
Lucky? I looked at the weather forecast again. Maybe not.
Coast to Coast Double Day 1
Whitehaven Maryport – Alston
The first challenge with cycling in the rain is getting dressed, especially when temperatures dip as low as 0°C. The week before I’d enjoyed 14°C and riding in shorts in tropical London. Not today. Five layers on the upper body. Three, that’s three, pairs of boot covers. Soldiers wear less.
The route began with a 300 metre climb up Hartside Pass. The wind howled, determined to push me back down. Most of my strength was sapped attempting to stay upright never mind climbing the hill. Thirty minutes in and I wanted to quit.
Exposed fell conquered, I settled into a rhythm. Well, a slog. The wind and I dueled, only one winner. My cadence averaged 60-70 rpm, my heavy yet dry feet mashing away at phenomenal speeds of 9-11 mph. This continued for 4.5 hours. At one point the wind was so strong I was crawling along at 4 mph on a slight downhill. I did not feel epic, just stupid.
The stem and I began our day long staring contest. To begin with I did my best to remain aero (ha!), hunkering low on the bike but soon gave up when I realised how pointless it (and life) was. All that kept me going was the thought of a monster tailwind on the return.
I had planned to ride to Whitehaven, and loop back via the mighty Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, an ambitious ride in perfect conditions, suicidal given the weather. My plan soon changed. Ride for 4 hours into the headwind then turn around. This took me to 46 miles, so I couldn’t resist stretching this target to 50 miles, which then, on realising I was just 9 miles from the sea, led to a messy route change and a dash to the nearest coastal town of Maryport.
I’d done it. Hoorah, sea to sea part 1. Only now I had to cycle back. Now was not the time to stand in the sea with the bike above my head. I stopped for a photo, where upon the violent sea smashed into the sea wall soaking both the bike and I. Nice. Fortunately, I was already very soggy. Now with added salt.
The rain really began to pound on the return leg. My er, ‘waterproof’ gloves were more like sponges, heavy and waterlogged. Please oh please, cycling brands stop spinning your thin lies, these things ain’t waterproof. You’re just giving us false hope. I’m looking at you SealSkinz. Hands frozen, I pushed on, the wind on my back firing me along at 30 mph plus.
And then the tailwind stopped. The very same b*stard wind I’d ridden into for 4.5 hours. Argh! Legs tiring, the ride back was another slog, culminating with a 500 metre climb back up Hartside Pass, where upon the wind decided to return and give me a helping hand. I was very grateful, like a tired pro rider being pushed up the mountain by the hands of adoring fans.
What a day. A nice ride beneath kinder skies I’m sure. Yet I won’t be in a hurry to ride through a storm in this part of the world again. Or anywhere for that matter.
Coast to Coast Double Day 2
Alston – Seaham – Alston
A good night’s sleep cures many ills, sadly not my legs nor saddle sores. Ouch. Yet the weather looked better. By northern standards anyway. Heavy rain at the end of the day and ‘just’ an 18 mph headwind on the return leg.
I set off, mind dazed, body confused. Surely this was some kind of cruel joke? Once again lots of climbing to begin the ride, this time with a tailwind. I managed to stay dry for all of 11 minutes. Damn you weather forecasts.
The light dousing woke me up, just as well given I was soon descending Killhope Cross at 55 mph on wet roads. Whoosh! Eyes half closed, rain smashed into my face, stinging my cheeks and battering my one open eye. I knew it was a quick descent but refused to take my half closed eye off the road to confirm, my bike beginning to shake and wobble like an old car at top speed. Don’t puncture now.
Tailwind pushing me on, I flew to the coast in just over three hours, legs at rest, heartrate glued to zone 1. Approaching the coast beyond Durham I passed through many an ugly town, as is so often the case in England where coastal towns have long since passed their prime. Assuming they’d had a prime.
The coast was equally miserable. I felt no sense of achievement, not with the nagging thought of the return ride into an 18 mph headwind praying on my mind. Off I went, crawling back across exposed fells. Not that I cared, the wind and I were one now, friends, given how much time we’d spent head to head.
I was relieved to reach the lumpy Durham fells again, not just to escape the grim scenery of the coast but also to take some shelter in the valleys. The scenery here is beautifully bleak, I love this part of the world. Old mines dotted here and there, twisting roads carved into valleys, amber fauna contrasting with the bright green grass and the slate grey skies. Mist everywhere. Enough to distract me from the hurt.
I finally reached the climax of the ride, the ascent of Killhope Cross (pictured at the top of the blog), a torturous climb with an apt name. You know you’re in trouble on a climb when you rise out of the saddle at the very beginning only to sit back down again within two pedal strokes. Slog, slog, slog. The headwind reduced my ascent to a wobbling and weaving 3.5 mph.
Would I recommend riding the C2C route?
First, as you’ve probably guessed, you should avoid riding the C2C route in March with massive headwinds! It’s cold and miserable round here at the best of times, so plan for the warmer months.
Weather aside, I’m still not sure I would recommend riding the C2C route. Sure, my route wasn’t the official C2C route, as talk of offroad sections put me off, despite assurances that using a road bike would be fine. I get annoyed with a few ruts in smooth tarmac, let alone an offroad segment!
Yet I saw enough of the route to get a flavour. It’s an ok ride but I wouldn’t recommend it. The C2C route is a bucket list ride that’s ‘nice’ to tick off but beautiful it is not.
There are some amazing roads and segments, the fells of Cumbria, Hartside Pass, the Killhope climb, but the rest? Meh. The coast at both ends is miserable in that truly pathetic way only England can contrive to spoil an area of natural beauty.
The C2C is also a big logistical effort given you start and finish in different places. Riding in a straight line just ain’t my thing. I like loops, a chance to avoid the wind, to see the sun from a different direction. Nobody gets kudos for drawing Strava art snakes.
The main reason why I wouldn’t recommend the route is because there’s so many better rides in this part of the world. You’ll get better scenery with more challenging routes in the Lake District or exploring the fells of Durham. To think I drove through Yorkshire too, where there’s a whole world of better rides.
Hell, I drove 5.5 hours to get here I could have gone to Wales, the New Forest, the Peak District, Devon, etc, all better rides than the the C2C. In that time I could have driven to Belgium, or flown to ride in the French Alps!