The Dales Divide: My First Off-Road Race (01/05/21-04/05-21)

Looking back, the timelines are a little hazy. I should have written this when the memory was fresh. What I do remember is that everything happened rather quickly…

Over a year ago, back in March 2020 I was plotting a ride on the Trans-Cambrian Way with a couple of colleagues. Then, the ‘you-know-what’ happened and our organising Whatsapp group ground to an abrupt halt. Around the same time a year later, the weather was warming up slightly after my King Alfred’s Way ride and I felt inspired to make the most of the upcoming bank holidays. 

I began plotting another attempt at the Trans-Cambrian Way, but around this time I heard of a race called the Dales Divide. Now in its third year, the DD is a 600km mostly off-road race that crosses the North of England (and back again). The route follows gravel tracks, bridleways and quiet roads through the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks. The event is free, low-key and attracts a real spectrum of riders.

Dales Divide 2021 route

I joked with my colleague Ali that we could attempt the DD instead of touring the Trans-Cambrian, and showed him the route. It would be a lot more riding, but if we were to pedal it over 4 days it would ‘only’ be 150km a day. The Trans-Cambrian is a measly 160km, and we’d been thinking of riding that over 3 days. Ali said he was ‘well up for it’ and that he would email the race organiser to see if there was space for us. I thought Ali was joking too, until he forwarded the confirmation email saying we’d got a spot. 

I’ve wanted to try an off-road ultra ever since I rode the Transcontinental Race. I like the idea of a fixed route that doesn’t require any ‘homework’ in advance and I like the idea of racing with fewer distractions. In a way, the DD seemed like a great opportunity – it was less than a month away so there was no time to stress about it, and we were far too unprepared to actually be competitive – we could simply turn up, give it our best shot and bail out whenever we needed to. Although the route takes you through some remote areas, you’re never that far from a railway station. 

However, there were a few little problems:

The first was that I was not fit. I hadn’t ridden a single ride further than about 75km all year, and that was on road. I’d never done a single majority off-road day ride further than about 150km.

The second problem was my knee. After such a long injury-free spell it had suddenly started causing me problems and I’d done very little leg work on it for the last few months. 

The third problem was that I didn’t feel I had a suitable bike. My Marin hardtail is extremely heavy. Great for touring, but not for racing. I couldn’t imagine trying to ride 200km a day on that thing. I have my Dawes of course, but it also weighs an absolute tonne. It’s great for cruising around town, but hardly optimised for that kind of terrain.

I concluded that it would have to be the Dawes. In a way, it would be fun to take a classic British tourer on a classic mixed-terrain British ride. The only issue was that the bike was still out of action due to the broken rear wheel hub from when we rode King Alfred’s Way. I’d need to sort that out – and ASAP. 

We accepted our places around 3 weeks before the event. I got my Dawes repaired and back in action less than a week before the race. That meant zero time for training. What could go wrong?

The start at Arnside pier

Race day came and we set off to tackle the event as a pair. Ali had never ridden an ultra before, but he’d been prepping for Transpyrenees (now unrealistic due to the pandemic), so was in alright shape. I’d only ever done one ultra – the TCR – so this would be both our first off-road endurance race, and our first time competing as a pair. 

We headed up after work to Arnside and stayed the night in a local B&B. We’d booked one day off work and a return train for 6.20pm on the 4th day. It was a tough one to calculate. 2.5 days seemed like it may be unrealistic. 3.5 seemed more sensible. Train travel is always fiddly with bikes in the UK, but now even more so with COVID-19 and restricted seats. When you’re travelling this far, you want to book your bike space in advance and be on that exact train. 

The thing that worried us was the weather. The first two days looked good, but it was clear a big storm was on its way in. If you were fast, you might dodge the rain. If it took longer than 2 days, you’d be getting wet. That much seemed certain. 

One of the early ‘technical’ sections – not quite the bike for it!

The morning of departure was gorgeous. We gathered at Arnside pier and rolled out at 8am. There were around 60 tracked riders, but the trackers weren’t mandatory and there could have been as many as 100 starters. It was cool to see so many people loaded up and rolling out together.

The day started quick and easy as we headed east on fast tarmac. Already on the first off-road sections we saw people having mechanical problems. There was a funny mixture of bikes: plenty of gravel bikes with skinny-ish tyres, but also many on hardtails with suspension forks and plus-size tyres. Ali and I were an unlikely pair: he was on a loaned titanium rigid MTB with tyres that must have been around 2.5”, while I was on my steel tourer with 47mm slick WTB Horizons. I had 2.1” knobbly tyres at my disposal at home, but it had been such a faff to get my current setup tubeless that I simply couldn’t be bothered to change them for something more practical. Over the next couple of days Ali sped off from me whenever we hit rough terrain, and I flew past him on the tarmac sections.

It was an awesome first day. We felt great, as usually happens at these things. The adrenaline was coursing through us and while we may not have been the fastest, we were fairly efficient – and spent very little time off the bike. 

By the time darkness fell we were still trucking along, the cornershop Red Bull and a microwave chicken pie having brought me back to life in Summerbridge. After almost 12 hours moving we’d covered about 185km and we called it a night, bivvying down next to the bridleway we were following. We’d climbed over 4,000km and my body was aching. It had been a brutal day on the bike. 

I slept like a baby. Ali, not so much. As long as I’m horizontal and tired, I always sleep OK. I didn’t quite run at TCR pace – my body & mind weren’t conditioned for that – but we still set the alarm for just 5 hours sleep, waking up just as daylight broke. 

Our first night’s bivvy spot

The next morning we had some long flat miles to look forward to on our way to York. We made quick progress. Me, on my slick tyres, noticeably faster than Ali. We arrived in York just in time for McDonald’s breakfast, which we ate as the morning sun began to warm us. It had been a cold morning, with frost on the ground when we woke up – so that sunshine was much needed. 

By lunch we’d made Scarborough and fish ‘n’ chip beckoned. We’d crossed the country and were halfway, making good progress at that. We were probably towards the back of the tracked pack, but already many riders had scratched and dropped out from the race. I suspect the terrain was tougher than many had expected, especially those on gravel bikes who we’d spotted struggling on the very first off-road sections. They couldn’t have lasted that long.  

Lunch in Scarborough

Scarborough beach front is as naff and tacky as most British seaside towns. The bank holiday had brought in flocks of people and after our peaceful ride across the moors, the amount of people was stressful. Before long we were heading back up into the hills and towards the North York Moors. 

We finished the day with a similar amount of riding to the previous, albeit a little more of a struggle with tired legs. Around 200km in a similar number of moving hours. We rolled out our bivvy bags in a wet garlic field, and fell asleep drowning in the smell. 

Second night bivvy spot

This is where things started turning for the worst. We’d been very aware that the storm was on its way and it was due to arrive the following afternoon. Maybe we’d have been able to push really hard and make it to the finish without another night’s sleep, but we’d end up cycling well into the following night in awful conditions. And what would we do when we arrived? Sleep under a bus stop in Arnside and wait all day for our train? I was envious of the other riders that had driven to the startline in vans – they could simply arrive whenever they wanted and roll straight onto a mattress under a dry duvet. We didn’t have that luxury.

Up on the North York Moors

The other major problem was my knee, which had – unsurprisingly – blown out towards the end of the first day. It hadn’t been too painful to begin with, but as we rode on it only got worse. Lack of training probably didn’t help, but nor did riding on a rigid steel tourer with so much weight and my gears that were far from low enough. The route often lacked rhythm and we were constantly getting on and off to deal with gates and steep inclines, and this only made my knee worse. By the third day I was really in rather a lot of pain. I’d definitely have scratched had I not been so stubborn, or had an equally stubborn riding partner. 

By the time we reached Northallerton the rain had arrived. It bucketed it down all morning and we were soaked through. When I spotted a Dominoes I had a genius idea, the pizza would take a good 10 minutes to cook and we’d be able to stand inside for that time and warm up slightly. We stumbled inside bringing puddles with us, and placed an order. I asked if there was any chance we may be able to eat inside by the door – we were freezing and it was pissing it down outside. I was given a frown and a shake of the head ‘COVID’. “OK, no problem,” I replied. “We’ll just stand here and wait”. “I’m afraid you have to wait outside… due to restrictions”. We sighed in disbelief, looking out into the pouring rain. The order was swiftly cancelled and we were back out in the elements. 

In some ways, dealing with pandemic restrictions added a fun challenge to the DD. In other ways, it made things a bloody pain. We found a Gregg’s round the corner and ate cold pizza slices sitting on the floor in an alleyway undercover. It was a sad sight. 

We pushed on to Catterick Garrison, where we found our next fast-food-induced momentary respite from the weather: waiting on our takeaway from McDonalds. Once again we asked if we might be able to eat inside, but were told to move on. Instead we sat by the Tesco supermarket under shelter, feeling sorry for ourselves. We were so wet and cold. It was so far from being fun. 

In our darkest hour I had an even greater stroke of genius. We were sitting outside Peacocks, a cheap clothing outlet in the UK. Within 5 minutes I had a new jumper and t-shirt, a wooly hat, and winter gloves. I rounded off my new wardrobe with some gardening gloves that I could wear over my cotton ones. Dry once again, we cracked on with a clear plan for the night. We’d be heading up onto the hills again, but passing through an estate where there were 2 or 3 bothies in quick succession. We’d be up there by nightfall and then guaranteed a dry night’s sleep. Game on. 

Desperate times call for desperate measures…

We did indeed reach the bothies by darkness, just as the storm was whipping up again. It was bliss to have somewhere dry inside to rest and we fell asleep listening to the wind howling. 

It was still raining in the morning, a truly foul way to start the day. The weather was bonkers – there was even sleet and hail falling horizontal in the wind. We were, of course, heading straight into the wind and walking across flat fields. We simply couldn’t ride it.

We sat beside a stone wall to escape the wind for a breather. There couldn’t have been more than 100km to go, but we were moving at snail’s pace. Suddenly we were getting a little concerned about catching our train. 

A tribute to the late Mike Hall on one of the final climbs

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, my GPS died. Ali’s device had already died. So had his phone. So had both our power banks. I’d used the last juice from my one to half-charge my phone overnight, so we resorted to that as our final navigational back up. However, within a minute of me getting the phone out, the cold bullied the battery down to 5%. We’d fucked up big time. 

Now we had the tiniest amount of phone power, and the Wahoo would turn on to give 1%. Brilliant. Just as the storm was stopping we now had no idea which way to go. What amateurs we were, stood on the junction of a small tarmac road, with a minor track heading off at higher elevation. I suggested to Ali that we simply follow the road down into the valley, where there would be a village and charge our phones. It sounded like Ali agreed, but then he said “and then we’ll ride back up to here and carry on?” “No way,” I replied. “I’m not doing a 300m descent, only to come straight back up in a couple hours. We don’t have time. We’ll just scratch from the race and follow Google Maps back to Arnside”. I was salty. Annoyed with Ali for not charging stuff. And equally annoyed with myself for being equally stupid and not charging stuff. 

Ali was less enthused by the idea of quitting now that we were so close to the finish. Good for him. I didn’t want a DNF either, I just needed someone to push me a little. We turned on the phone, tried to memorise the few next turns and then headed off onto the tracks. 

After a little while we saw signs for the Pennine Bridleway. “Aha! The route most likely follows this for a while, and soon it’ll have to bring us past a village”. We followed the bridleway way markers hoping that we were still on the route, occasionally turning on the GPS for just a second to double check and try to memorise the next few turns. After a while we rejoined a road heading down into civilisation. 

Peace was restored, and the weather was easing. We had only a couple of hours to go. Surely the ride was in the bag? We ate soup in a cafe and used our phone-charging as an excuse to stay for cake and extra coffee. We’d easily limp back to Arnside for our return train. 

The glamorous finish line

We were soon caught up by Tom, another participant who was one of the final tracked riders still moving. We rolled on as a trio over the last few fields and back to the startline. The rain had eased, but it was still a dark and overcast day. The pier in Arnside was eerily quiet, quite the opposite of that bustling morning under blue skies when we’d set-off. There wasn’t a single person there. We took our celebratory finish-line photos and shared a pint with Tom, before grabbing some extra beers for the train home. 

I believe we were the second last to finish. That said, of a starting group between 60-100 only 25 tracked riders finished. That means only 25-35% finished the course – quite a drop out rate! I also haven’t heard of any other pairs finishing, which might mean that we were the only pair that finished. Unless anyone tells me otherwise – I’m claiming a win in our category.

Would I do the route again? Absolutely. I’d definitely rather do it on a bike that is either far lighter, or much more comfy. I certainly wouldn’t recommend riding it on slick tyres, unless the weather is completely bone-dry. 

I’d also be quite happy to leisurely tour the route over a week. It’s a really stunning part of the country, and I’m grateful to have seen so much of it within just a long weekend. I went to Leeds University and rode through Yorkshire at the end of my RTW, but I don’t know this area well at all. At university I was working, studying, playing music or simply busy being hungover on the weekends, so I never really explored the surrounding countryside. In the three years I was there, I  made just one excursion to the Dales, and that involved about an hour walk with the rest of the day spent in a village pub. That regret was partly why I was drawn to the route and I’m glad I satisfied my off-road race curiosity up there.

I’m sure I’ll do another, and when that happens – I’ll actually be ready for it.

PS. Hope you enjoyed the photos from this one. Ali loaned me his Fujifilm X100 so that I could document our race. Photography and ultra-endurance racing don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, but after the TCR I really wanted to find a balance between riding hard and ‘shooting from the hip’ – the Fuji was great for that.

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