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.