Cycle test inspires peak performance
A week after England sweltered on its hottest day on record, I set off with a group of family and friends to ride the UK’s most popular cycling event: the Coast-Road to-Coast (C2C) connects the West and East of England. , from the quiet seaside town of Whitehaven, bordering the Irish Sea, to the bustling coastal town of Tynemouth overlooking the North Sea, close to the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Although the 225km route is attractive to long-distance cyclists of all abilities, be warned, as there are many hills to climb and no way to avoid them all.
We were a mixed group, ranging from fitness enthusiasts, middle-aged cyclists in Lycra, and my 18-year-old son, fleeing a household recovering from a recent COVID outbreak. To help with the logistics, we have booked a company that specializes in self-drive bike trips. For a fee, they would transport each rider to the start line (with our bikes) and also be there at the end, to bring us back. All we had to do was drive to Penrith in the North West of England, a bustling market town near the Lake District National Park, home to England’s highest peak and deepest lake .
Self-guided tours are popular for many reasons and the morning we left Penrith we found our guesthouse was packed with others on the same journey. Some traveled alone, others in twos or threes. Over the next few days we encountered them time and time again – at the crossroads of villages studying road signs, in farm shops looking for food, in country pubs having lunch, or on the swept hills by the wind, taking the chance to take a picture while catching their breath. .
After spending the night in Penrith, our self-guided tour went as follows:
Day 1 We were driven to Whitehaven before driving 80km back to Penrith for one night. Positive elevation: 1575m. Total drop: 1444m.
Day 2 We cycled 72km from the lakes to the Pennines – then spent the night in a country pub. Our overnight luggage had been transported by courier. Total elevation gain of 1800 meters. Total elevation 1725 meters.
Day 3 We cycled 72km from the Pennines to Tynemouth – then were driven back to Penrith for the night. Positive elevation: 930m. Total drop: 1118m.
Before starting our journey from Whitehaven, some riders sunk their rear wheels into a slipway, the tires glistening with salt water as the mid-morning sun shone through. Moments later we head east towards the Lake District for the chance to pass some of its most impressive peaks including Skiddaw and Blencathra. There was little fanfare and no one watching, just a few dog walkers passing by and a lone seagull perched on a sail mast.
Thankfully the heatwave had passed, replaced by a scattering of clouds that rarely threatened throughout our three day trip. During this period we cruised through two of England’s most popular mountain ranges (the Lake District and the Pennines). Some runners used their smartphones to help navigate, others relied on maps and some of us simply followed the blue and white C2C signs conveniently placed along the course. Most of the time we found ourselves alone, sometimes on lonely moors, or cycling through the woods, enjoying thrilling moments on descents, followed by strenuous climbs that always silenced the group.
Unfortunately I contracted COVID before the trip which left me weak just days before the trip started. Rather than cancel my cycling adventure, I opted to rent an all-terrain electric bike. Without this wonder of technology, it was impossible for me to tackle the terrain without frequent stops and the need to push my bike on certain hills. I was not alone however, with two other riders in our group who chose this option for personal reasons.
Britain is blessed with thousands of miles of interconnected cycle paths, traversing hills and glens, or weaving through towns and cities. These routes often take cyclists away from busy roads, along repurposed railway tracks, winding lanes and quiet trails, far from civilisation. I soon discovered that we were more likely to encounter tractors than trucks, and more likely to see sheep than people.
Luckily there were plenty of places to stop along the way. Sometimes a village pub, other times a welcome surprise as we rounded a corner in a country park, facing a cozy cafe, with pastries, tarts and a friendly smile.
Long road trips fade over time, and while I was recovering from COVID, my enthusiasm for note-taking waned. But I do remember a few special moments. . .
A field mouse dashing across a country lane.
A juvenile hedgehog (hoglet) in the center of the road, in danger of being run over. After a hasty descent, I managed to get a car full of tourists down, just in time to pick up the spiny creature before gently depositing it on a stone wall, near fields and hedgerows – and away from danger!
A few hours later, after a long steady climb that left those around me breathless, I turned off the e-bike battery and studied the sign in front of me. Beware of cyclists – downhill grade 20 percent. A quick check of the brakes before heading downhill, only to discover another sign as our speed increased. Slow down a 25% grade: followed soon after by the screeching of the brakes as each cyclist came around a tight bend in a farmyard!
There were other special moments too: Up the hills, while biking around, we discovered a narrow lane blocked by a herd of sheep. We watched a sheepdog get to work, the farmer calling out instructions from his quad. Moments later, the sheep were in an adjacent field, and we were on our way again, excitedly discussing the unexpected encounter!
And how can I forget the third day and an incident we later called, “The Valley of Shattered Dreams”. After an early breakfast we had set off with high hopes of an easy passage to Tynemouth, until a wrong turn in the first few miles led us into a dilapidated farmyard. Soon we were pushing our bikes up a steep, marshy trail, toward a wide valley of tall grass and wildflowers. There were no visible trails, just a scattering of curious goats, hardy sheep and passing dragonflies.
With no phone signal, those relying on technology soon realized that paper maps still had a use. Maybe we should have turned back or taken the time to study our guide, but an icy wind hampered our decision-making abilities. Instead, we continued on our way, passing abandoned buildings and the remains of a disused coal mine, now barricaded and forgotten.
All trips come to an end at some point and by the middle of the third day the landscape has changed, as hills and livestock have given way to houses and people. Luckily there was another surprise in store, a wide track called Derwent Walk, flanked by woods, wetlands and meadows. This wildlife sanctuary is home to many species of birds including woodpeckers and hawks. For the more knowledgeable, badgers and deer have also been spotted during the quiet hours of the day. On the trail, we had to slow down, as there were lots of dog walkers, runners, stroller pushers and other cyclists, each of us enjoying the chance to travel quietly, only a few miles from the bustle of crowded suburbs.
After coming off the trail, we spotted the River Tyne, spanned by a series of impressive bridges. Soon we were cruising our bikes through a bustling street market filled with appetizing food stalls, watched over by customers enjoying the afternoon sun while seated in beer gardens or riverside cafes.
Shortly after, I smelled the sea air again. Gulls appeared overhead as we came to a coastal track leading out into the open water. We had reached the North Sea and watched children scooping sand into buckets as two sturdy swimmers climbed out of the water before rushing to their towels. Just offshore, dinghies could be seen jostling for position during a race.
For us, our competition was now over, although it never looked like an endurance event. There is no official finish line or marker, although there is a tradition of marking the end by dipping your front wheels into the North Sea. I did it, with my brother and my teenage son. For a few precious minutes we stood in line, our wheels digging into the wet sand, our smiles as wide as the blue sky above.
Handshakes and hugs followed soon after, before heading to the nearest pub, for a celebratory drink at one of the many establishments along a busy street. Along the way, I spotted some cyclists we had met during our three-day trip. Some were waving coffees, others seemed lost in thought, their tired bikes parked nearby, lightly spattered with sand and mud.
As for me, I felt as proud as a punch, especially for the chance to have cycled across the width of England with my eldest son. We had formed a bond again, chatting side by side over the miles, making plans for more adventures in the years to come. Next time, maybe I’ll have enough energy to use a normal bike. But again, the e-bike was a perfect companion and even earned a nickname: the Cumberland Charger!