As I write this its four days until I leave on a 3-month long adventure in New Zealand, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. For some time now I’ve wanted to get out there and see some areas of the world and New Zealand has always been at the top of my list. Everyone who I’ve spoken to who is well travelled confesses it was their favourite place.
This is after having returned to the grim northern winter after my last adventure in Canada and South America, feel free to have a look at my images on Instagram @michael_james_jones ;), having witnessed the devastation that the floods this winter have caused to our beloved Lake District from afar. I should be packing and finalising the details of my trip but I find myself reminiscing of my farewell lap of the Lake District last Autumn, as I remain on hiatus from the fells…
Anyway, back to the topic in hand. It was around April time last year when I came across the Lakeland 200 mountain bike challenge, which involves riding a 200km route with 6400m elevation, around the Lake District. It takes in many parts of the Lakeland 100 race route, which I unfortunately didn’t get a place in last year and would also give me lots of trips down memory lane (trail?) along its route, perfect! The ‘rules’ are simple: Just get round under your own steam, in under 40 hours. More info can be found here: http://www.selfsupporteduk.net/routes/Lakeland200.html
‘Great! I’ll have a bash in the middle of Summer, and try and hit it non-stop, just like an ultra race, seeing as I’m not in the 100!’ I thought. Races came and went and I kept putting it off until the last week of my tenancy at my house in Ulverston. It was now or never and despite being days before the Cumbria Way ultra race, my flatmate and I agreed I should use the force of the yolo and crack on with it, as it may be a long wait before I had another opportunity. Due to less daylight and poor preparation I would just go out and enjoy the adventure, hopefully within the time allowance, but over two days.
I was up late faffing with my bike and packing my rucksack so only got a few hours sleep in before I woke to a grey and drizzly day, en route to Staveley where I’d start.
The first miles were fast and flowing and spirits were high as I anticipated the coming day’s adventures. A couple of brief stops to tighten my GPS device on my handlebars didn’t upset my flow and I was soon floating down the Garburn Pass into Troutbeck. I smiled as memories came flooding back of riding up this trail in the other direction on my own one winter, at the tender age of 12, on my steel hardtail shod with 1.75” tyres, desperately out of my comfort zone but loving every second. My Mum was waiting for me at Kentmere to collect both a battered bicycle and I, both tyres cut to shreds by the ruthless lakeland rock…
Ambleside to Elterwater was pleasant as the day began to brighten, with happy memories of living in Elterwater last Winter still fresh in my mind, though I wondered when or if I’d get the chance to do similar again in future. I stare at the Langdale Pikes and feel inspired, as I will no doubt during mile 90-odd of the Lakeland 100 in July. My mind wanders into autopilot and I find myself riding down the Red Bank road into Elterwater, back towards my old home, before realising I’ve made a wrong turn, so as the challenge rules stipulate, I turn around and grind back up to the turn off. A few minutes lost but all is well.
I’m making good time, though aware I’ve not done much climbing so far and my rear end is starting to get uncomfortable, with the weight of my rucksack pressing it down into a new saddle I’d only just installed (rookie error!). I’ve settled into a good rhythm though, flowing nicely over towards Claife Heights and finally riding new trails I’ve been meaning to ride for years. I feel strong and fortunate to be able to immerse myself in the adventure, playing a friendly game of cat and mouse with a day rider until we arrive at Grizedale Forest Centre.
New and familiar trails come and go and I stop at Coniston petrol station for a good feed before pressing on, embracing the first real struggle up and over Walna Scar pass and into Seathwaite, the first check point on the Lakeland 100. There’ll be no Jamaican ginger bread waiting for me in the village hall this time though, so I stop for a quick drink at the Newfield Inn.
The day begins to cloud over again with the occasional light drizzle but my spirits aren’t dampened as I head over to Eskdale, knowing I’ll soon be in my favourite place in the Lakes: Wasdale. A quick stop at Boot and I’m riding over towards Burnmoor Tarn, pleasantly surprised that I posses the strength to ride the whole section. Yewbarrow pokes its head above the horizon as I descend into Wasdale and I pause to appreciate the view down towards Wasdale Head, nestled in the bottow of the valley, surrounded by a panorama of fells of such innate, delicate beauty, I’ve yet to find another place with such character. A special place for me, always.
I stop at the Pub for a good hour or so to eat properly and contemplate paying to camp in the adjacent field. I do some sums and realise it would only mean more riding and climbing the next day and the thought of wild camping in Ennerdale is too tempting to resist, so I push on (literally, stomach laden with enough calories to ensure I won’t be losing any weight today!), up Black Sail Pass, the gentle dusk light fading to reveal an array of soft pastel colours as I descend carefully into Ennerdale. It doesn’t take long to find an ideal place to pitch and after a quick swill in the river I’m soon dozing off to the peaceful sound of the river flowing nearby.
The next day is a bit of a struggle to get going as tiredness from the previous nights catches up with me, but I’m rolling again by 9. The cool morning dew sprays up from my tyres, splashing over my legs as I make my way over Scarth Gap pass, greeted by a glorious, still Buttermere, not a cloud in the sky. It’s going to be a great day!
I’ve yet to eat and after grinding up Honister Pass I start getting a bit shakey as I make a wrong turn at a fork in the trail so get some energy drink on the go, to last me until Keswick, where I would stop for a dirty cooked breakfast, pastry and two large coffees. It was probably the instant hit of dextrose but the section along Derwent Water, below Catbells was sublime. Fast and flowing with a stunning view north, towards a purple-heather shrouded Skiddaw, when I could afford to take my eyes off the trail.
Skirting Latrigg I’m on familiar Lakeland 100 territory, though this section is ran in darkness, benefitting from a slightly different street-lit view back towards Keswick. Down into Threlkeld and it’s time to change the GPS batteries while chatting to another cyclist who soon gets going up the old coach road which skirts the north of Clough Head. I catch back up and we share the view towards Blencathra briefly, before I press on, aware I’ve still got a way to go today.
The following miles go by nicely, though my bottom bracket is making some rough sounds as dry dirt rubs around near the bearings. It comes and goes, as does the strength in my legs. A quick stop at the now sadly non-existent Pooley Bridge to rehydrate and I ride on towards Howtown, reliving fond memories of the Lakeland 100 as I follow its route, feeling somewhat fresher this time around!
It’s after Dale Head, hiking the slog up to Boredale Hause when I run into my first real difficulty. I start to bonk hard and am really thirsty. It’s a slow walk to the top with my helmet removed to try and cool down. I listen to some music and appreciate my surroundings and the weather I’ve been blessed with. This will soon pass once I get back on top of my energy levels. I fly down towards Hartsop, brakes off, grinning from ear to ear, where I’m able to get some water.
Just two big climbs left, but hiking up on to high street via Hayeswater is difficult at the best of times and I stoop to a new low, my energy levels in the gutter this time. Shortly after the battery in my GPS watch, which I’m using to record my effort, dies, so I won’t be able to submit my ride for official verification. ‘Oh well’, I think ‘I’ll have to come back next year and do it in a oner!’ I take it easy and just try to keep going, slowly but surely until the top arrives and I’m on High Street, steadily making my way to Thornthwaite Beacon. Just one last climb! The views from here are wonderful and stretch for miles, right out down towards the Furness Peninsula.
My energy returns and I start the grassy descent towards Troutbeck with renewed vigour. A bit too renewed as I nearly go over the bars several times in dips and ruts that are hidden in the grass. ‘Calm down lad, a broken collarbone now would not be fun!’ I think. Definitely a descent to return to with company. At the bottom I chat to a farmer briefly and refill a bottle one last time, before I begin the last ascent up and over the Garburn Pass.
The sun hangs low in the sky as I commit to riding the whole climb without pushing, which is a lot easier now most of it has been resurfaced. A final backward glance to the Sun and it’s down into the shadowed valley of Kentmere, carefully picking out a line down the loose and rocky south side of the pass. Not my best riding but I’m glad to be down in one piece this time, 14 years on, with no slashed tyres…
Out of Kentmere and I’m soon on a new trail which an old work colleague enthused of, although I can’t take full advantage of it this evening as I can barely make it out at times in the fading violet light, illuminating only the moon and clouds above me. I arrive back on the road to Staveley that I departed from nearly 36 hours previously and in haste forget to check the GPS, realise I’ve gone about a mile down the road when I should’ve just crossed it onto a footpath into Staveley instead. I laugh and backtrack, now in total darkness under the cover of trees and wary of traffic. A quick blast through a farm and I’m back into the fading twilight, arriving at my car in Staveley thoroughly exhausted, but completely at peace, my sense of self once again restored by the beautiful Lake District.