The Etape Pennines claims to be a contender for the toughest sportive in the UK – living not too far away from it, me and some riding friends decided to see if this was a claim to be taken seriously. It certainly looks tough, relatively short for a sportive at 78 miles but with an immense amount of climbing (7600 feet)…almost taking it to Alpine levels!
The video above was obviously shot on a relatively rough day in the North East – we were luckier with some sun peaking out from the clouds and an average temperature of 17 degrees, a rough southerly wind did blast us as we headed south from the start in Ushaw College. We slightly fumbled the start, heading in the wrong direction but we were soon back on course. It is generally said that the climbing doesn’t start until 40 miles in, which is true to an extent but you wouldn’t class this first half as flat…in fact, no sooner had we started than we were heading up Buttons Bank, a climb that averages 9% for 0.7 miles…flat? Not a chance! After a quick descent the next 10 miles are largely spent climbing a shallow gradient, a quick descent into Middleton-in-Teesdale and then this is where the pain begins. The tough climb up to Harthope Moss, peaking at 2000ft.
Harthope Moss is rated as a Category 3 climb on Strava, it wasn’t the toughest climb of the day but it is long at 2.3 miles @ 5.2%. The other side is actually a far tougher climb but this one won’t leave you with fresh legs if you push on, as I did. I really opened up here, after a short descent early on in the climb I hit it hard, my heart rate up into the 180s. This second part of the climb is pretty tough, constantly at a 10% gradient. I was feeling strong, actually recording the 2nd fastest time up here on Strava…not for long one imagines! The descent to St Johns Chapel was the fastest I’ve ever done, with a maximum speed of 55 mph…you need guts not to touch the brakes down this one!
My favourite part of the ride was next, out of St Johns Chapel you have to climb three hills, each about a mile in length, each averaging about 8-10%. This is my perfect terrain, punching up short steep climbs, and then super fast descents. I was lucky enough to record a few more fast times on these climbs. The surfaces aren’t great here, these roads aren’t used that frequently and show some signs of breaking up but this just adds to the fun doesn’t it? It was hot work climbing these, pulling the arm warmers down as I rocked from side to side, snapping back out of the saddle to keep the gear spinning over the stepper sections, sweat dripping off the peak of my cap, dropping to the road and leaving me as I wrestled further upwards – awesome – the sound of the drivetrain, and my breathing were the only noises that could bother me up here.
After these three tough climbs in quick succession there is an amazing descent, a good 3 miles in length, with barely any rising…average speed down here was 30 mph, and it got the heart rate down, all important as the final test was on the horizon in the form of the Meadows Edge climb. You turn a corner after the descent and then wham, right in front of you is a wall of climbing – this hill is all in the first mile, from there it is a series of false flats, tiny descents and what seems to be a never ending succession of summits – it really messes with your mind, especially when facing into a strong wind as we had that day. 5 miles later it’s done, another Category 3 climb ticked off.
Climbing over, it was time for a huge descent. For 5 miles the average speed was 27mph…that says it all, and it’s perfect, exactly what your legs need after so much climbing and 4 hours in the saddle! It’s not all plain sailing though, oh no, the final bump in the road comes about 5 miles from the end in the shape of the Ragpath Bank, 1 mile @ 6.4%, pitching up to 20% in places…once over that, it’s time to relax and think back to a truly memorable and tough day in the saddle. Certainly a ride to do, to remember, to smile about.
Garmin Stats: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/217499876