Rabbits dart left to right, right to left; occasionally they just stare, petrified in the glare of my headlight. To my right a pink moon has risen above an archipelago of clouds in the midnight blue sky. The moon looks oval but that seems implausible, it’s been a long night.
COVID19 precautions required The Racing Collective to replan the usual 11pm mass start in favour of an open start window running from 8pm - 11pm. A daylight start for the TransEngland was a rare privilege that I wasn’t going to miss out on. I was there at Morecambe Pier head for 7.59 to join a small socially distanced group trading route strategies and taking pre-ride selfies against the spectacular Lakeland backdrop across the estuary.
Nobody wanted to be the first rider rolling but eventually riders drifted off down the pier past the diners in the Midland Hotel. The greenway to Lancaster was as characterful as always; broken glass to keep you on your toes, weed smoke to calm them again. I was looking forward to the lanes of the Trough of Bowland.
Pssst - pssst - psssst - PSSSTTT! I stopped at the top of the Quernmore climb to plug a hole in my rear tyre. A tubeless plug seemed to do the trick and I was soon chasing down the riders that had passed me. As the flashing red lights became brighter the gradient increased but I was soon over the top and dropping down the fast twisty descent towards CP1 in the Trough of Bowland. The still evening air was a novelty for those used to windy Pennine conditions but I paid the penalty every time I rode into a bank of midges, mouth open and gasping for oxygen only to choke on legions of black bugs. I came to an abrupt halt on the climb out of Slaidburn as my bike became two speed following a gear change. Fortunately a few minutes of daylight remained to throw it down on an overgrown verge whilst I looked for disconnected Di2 wires. Reconnected a few minutes later and the race was back on, well, kind of. For once I was enjoying the excitement of chasing distant riders but I wasn’t going to lose sleep over the results.
Settle, Horton and Ribblehead were soon behind me and I was onto the gravel climb up to the Cam High Road. I first rode this way over thirty years ago on what seemed like an epic loop from Sedbergh riding an early 501 steel MTB. Back then I carried little food or spares and the closest thing to a mobile phone were the red telephone boxes that dotted the countryside. What I lacked in contingency kit I made up for with bulletproof optimism, and somehow this always got me home. Tonight I had spare chain links, pads, tubes, chainring and cleat bolts, down jacket and the rest; I may as have well been equipped for a haul across the Alps. The climb wasn’t really suitable for a road bike on deep section wheels but with a bit of careful line choice I reached the top unscathed.
Tan Hill was alight, a new outdoor seating area was festooned with strings of light bulbs. It was a little surreal, the kind of bar you’d expect to find in the corner of a festival field but here we were atop the Northern Pennines at the highest pub in England at 2am.
As soon as the CP3 selfie and water were taken I was spinning east towards the market town of Thirsk. After the hills of the Dales this next section always felt to drag, after Reeth the road dropped into the wide valley separating the Dales from the Moors, with only the A1, A19 and the York - Edinburgh railway to break up the patchwork of arable fields. Early dawn was creeping in, un-noticed save the realisation that my headlight was no longer lighting the road. Whilst thick banks of cloud hid the colours of the dawn sky, limbs became chilled by the dense, dank air clinging to the valley floor. Left - right - right - left - left - left - right; I had no idea which direction I was headed, only the sweet scent of rapeseed interrupted by a manure strewn farmyard to punctuate progress. I blindly followed Komoot’s arrow down lane after lane until with a sense of relief I eventually reached Thirsk. The climb from here up Sutton Bank was a tough one after so many flat miles, I inched up the first 25% ramp as sunrise crept over the horizon. I would have celebrated at the top but unable to persuade both eyes to focus on the same piece of road I pulled over and lay down in a lay by for ten minutes. Bliss.
A rude awakening from my watch alarm; it was time to move - next stop CP4. I hadn’t ridden this way before and I was looking forward to the lanes after Helmsley. I didn’t see a car for hours en route to Bransdale, I threaded through dense verdant woodland until I emerged to climb to the most closely guarded of the North York Moors dales.
A steep drop into the meagre ford at Egmont Bridge preceded a taxing 33% climb up to Egmont. I wasn’t expecting it but by this point in a ride you just deal with whatever the road throws at you. The lanes to Whitby were a riot of bucolic English summer, cow parsley vying with buttercups for attention on the verges between ordered columns of hawthorn and hornbeam. I rejoined the rest of the world above Whitby. I slotted into the steady stream of caged day trippers descending from the Fylingdales road only to discover that my rear tyre had partially deflated mid way through a roundabout.
An orange clad rider was ascending the Robin Hood’s Bay climb as I descended - a reminder not to loiter, and I didn’t. Straight back up that hill and onto the cinder track south. As soon as I could I picked up some asphalt and progress was good despite the headwind. I spotted the same rider once more in north Scarborough so I took a gamble on my route and split downhill to join the dawdling tourists on Marine Drive as he stuck to the main road. The headwind was especially savage by the sea but I knew the finish would soon be in sight, I pushed on to thread through the zombie crowds on the pier and I arrived at the Diving Belle. Finisher's selfie taken and tweeted, I could finally relax and swap tales with the other finishers in the Scarborough sunshine.
GBDURO20 winner Josh Ibbett shares his thoughts on the gravel wheel conundrum.
650b or 700c?
The GBDURO route is roughly 50:50 road to off road. Of the off road sections a good percentage is relatively fast rolling dirt roads and gravel tracks with the rest being made up of rougher surfaces and the odd bit of hike a bike. So what should you prioritise, comfort or speed?
Well that depends on what kind of rider you are and how experienced you are off road. For those aiming for a fast time the priority maybe speed, for others it may be about getting the job done and maximum comfort. So ask yourself this question before you consider your bike, wheel and tyre selection.
A gravel bike is probably the best tool for the job, however a hardtail MTB will also work well. Let's assume though that most riders are at the cutting edge of bikepacking trends and are on a gravel bike. By now you should have decided if you are going fast or steady, speed or comfort?
Personally (being relatively keen on speed and experienced off road) I would recommend a 700c wheelset. These roll faster on the road and dirt road sections and are generally more efficient, however will require more care when riding off road and can be a little less forgiving on the rougher sections of the route.
If comfort is your priority, then a wider tyre will be the way to go. It will be a little bit slower on the smooth sections, however the improved comfort may well improve your experience. On a gravel bike the answer is to fit a 650b wheelset. A wider tyre can be run at lower pressures which will offer more grip off road and will help to absorb the smaller bumps. However, if you really want to go the extra mile for comfort it might be best to run a MTB with a suspension fork.
The vast majority of the route is on hard packed tracks and trails, although there may be some softer and rockier sections at times, so overall a fast rolling tyre would be the most beneficial. I’d recommend a minimum of a 45mm tyre on a 700c, and a 2.1inch on a 650b rim or MTB. I used the WTB Ridder 45 in the 2020 event.
Dynamo or No Dynamo?
Dynamo hubs are favoured by many long distance cyclists as they allow more self-sufficiency with recharging gadgets and powering lights. Having power on tap is one less thing to worry about on a self supported event. GBDURO's four stage format means that there will be the opportunity to find a power point to recharge after each stage meaning a dynamo might not be as important, but just remember there will also be 100 other cyclists fighting over the same power points in the same small village pub!
Words by Josh Ibbett who rides for Hunt Bike Wheels
With the race now only 4 months away you might feel the nervous energy building, maybe you're second guessing your kit choices. But, hopefully, you're feeling super excited for an incredible tour of our little island via the fantastic GBDivide route. Be assured that once you start racing from Land's End all feelings of negativity really do disappear and you'll soon settle into riding bliss.
We reached out to GBDURO19 & 20 riders Philippa, Angus and Jason for their hot-tips for GBDURO and their good/bad kit choices. Between them they have experienced both first and second editions of the race. Hopefully these words of wisdom will answer some questions, or at least guide your race planning.
Philippa Battye - rider of GBDURO19
The only things which were wrong or amiss as it turns out were clothing choices!
En route I bought...:
Watch out for leaving things unattended on your bike if you're getting the train to the start. My almost worthless second hand etrex got swiped, although thankfully they left my far more valuable lights on my bike!
Other than that, my bike and set-up were all good.
Angus Young - rider of GBDURO19 and GBDURO20
Great kit choice: Preparing overnight oats beforehand to give me a hearty breakfast each morning in 2021.
Poor kit choice: In 2019 I used 35mm Panaracer GravelKing SKs; great tyre but more volume is essential.
Jason Black - rider of GBDURO20
Good Kit Choice - My JetBoil was brilliant. Fast and effective for reheating food and cooking, or, very importantly boiling hot water quickly to reheat the body struggling with hypothermia esp. in the Yorkshire dales where the cold wind and very heavy rain made life so challenging.
Bad kit choices - I always use a Dynamo front wheel powering directly my trusty Sinewave front light. However the low speeds at night on lengthy gravel sections with a very heavy laden bike made charging virtually impossible, and more often as the light strength was determined by totalling speed there were times I had a very dim light to ride with making visibility poor. I would also have had a back up power pack but again that was struggling with recharging due to the low speeds.
To add fuel to that fire, my Garmin 1030 a day later started to die which in reflection was created by the intermittent power surges from the hub to the device experienced during the hike a bike sections to chugging along at low kph climbs and gravel speeds. Eventually my Garmin data routes and maps gave up and I ended up looking at a rainbow for several hours on end.. which led to my DSQ.
So avoid that at all costs.
Second - I am a test rider for Infinity Seat who are based out of California. They asked me to trial their new carbon seat and seat rail - not a good idea on a super aggressive gravel race with a bike laden down like a tank in war. The outcome at the midway point was catastrophic, as I was at the head of the race and that put a dent into my race. A small emergency tube of superglue and an engineering mindset got the rails reattached with a wobbly 800km limp to the finish line.
The UK countryside views and the landscapes were breathtaking, the silence and solitude from the handlebars was eerie but peaceful. There is something special about being plucked and removed from this busy world and emerging on a remote gravel track deep in the highlands, lowlands or wetlands. Here, nature’s your only friend.. I didn’t know or did it even matter if I was an ultra cyclist or an endurance athlete, what mattered was I was here and I was living it ... that feeling of freedom it was priceless and humbling.
Did I win? No. Did it matter? Absolutely not. Did I finish? Yes, absolutely that mattered for me.
Words by Cal of Mason Cycles, the FastFar Company
A cosy glow spills from the windows of an isolated highland croft at dusk. The smell of beer and a hearty pub meal escaping out the front door of a country inn. Bangin’ bass lines and laughter heard through the open window of a remote house at 2am on the Pennine Bridleway. These are the moments where choices are brought into sharp relief. I could be in that pub, at that party or settling in for a good night’s sleep, but I’m not. I’m pursuing a notion or conquering a self set challenge just because; well it seemed impossible.
Thats’s where this year’s GBDURO sits. At first glance riding 1963km without resupply seems impossible. Of course it’s not, adventurous types trek to the poles dragging sufficient provisions for 90 days on a sled. There are no shops on the Iditarod route and you’ll struggle for a SPAR at Everest base camp. This forces a shift of gear, a whole new mindset and a self reliance that endurance athletes are familiar with. Full self sufficiency takes this further though, there is no escaping the soaking chill of an unexpected thunderstorm in the embrace of a hot shower at a hotel. Dodgy stomach? You’d better get your trowel out and dig some catholes. There is no shoulder to cry on and you’d better know yourself very well because your food choices for today were made weeks ago.
Self sufficient riding has a more important role than demanding better planning though. It forces us to really consider consumption, the noun that sits at the centre of 21st century capitalist ideology. How much do we actually need? How much is enough? These questions are more easily answered when every gram slows the pace of our wheels. Less and lighter spells success. Even packaging carried is wasted effort, it pays to minimise.
Big money cycling has for years relied on money from sponsors whose raison d’etre is simply more. More stuff = more profit. Consider the 14 million items of landfill thrown from the caravan of the Tour d’France each year. Cheap trinkets to pass the time until the riders arrive, each of those riders supported by several team cars spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. A crash? It’s OK, just grab a spare bike and carry on. The consequences of the rider’s actions are focussed on their athletic performance and it is a poor metaphor for life. We as a race and individuals must learn to live within our means and that means looking at everything we carry with us on our journey.