The Struggle Dales.
I don’t want to get out of the car.
I really don’t want to get out of the car.
Sitting outside the headquarters, warm and dry, with the wind and rain lashing the windows the urge to remain inside was almost overwhelming, but it was an urge that had to be fought. I was here to ride the Struggle Dales, a relatively new event on the calendar but one with an already fearsome reputation which would only be enhanced by today’s conditions.
The Struggle Dales does exactly what it says on the tin, it’s a Struggle. 174 kilometres long, climbing 2,874 metres and crossing some of the toughest climbs in the Dales, including Malham Cove, Greenhow Hill, Trapping Hill and of course Park Rash. In a world where you can roll up to a sportive, ride the short or ‘mini epic’ route then an hour later be left with a medal hanging round your neck it’s good to see an event with just a single distance. There’s no option to turn off, no watered down version, it’s simply a case of “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”
After a quick slap to the face I was out of the car, ready and looking for a solid group to ride with, strong legs to share the pace into the pounding wind. As we were in Harrogate I was hoping there would be a large contingent from the Harrogate Nova, or the ‘Nova train’ as they are now known. I’d ridden with them before and they force a solid pace from start to finish, one that you hold on to until you pop. Unfortunately though it seemed that they had blown all their weekend passes already this year riding the Fred and the Etape du Dales and on the day there were just two of their contingent Greg Ketteringham and Pete Watson, would this be a strong enough group? I then spied another rider, and you know the saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it’? It was Andy Cunningham, quite possibly the best climber in the north and custodian of more KOM’s than I’ve had hot dinners. Andy doesn’t need a wheel to follow, he’s strong enough but I guess like me he would like some shelter early on from the now increasingly inclement weather. Thing is anyone who tries to ride at Andy’s pace is soon going to find themselves in a world of hurt so we’d just have to see how things would unfold.
Our quartet rolled out at bang on 8 am with a handful of others in tow but most combatants already up the road. Out of Harrogate and pushing a solid pace we shared the work onto the first climb of the day Bedlow Ridge. Here Andy took over at the front, gapped us slightly but being very conservative with my effort I didn’t follow, just kept him in sight then rolled up to his wheel once over the brow. Looking behind Greg was with me but Pete had vanished. Oh dear, we were now a trio. Next climb was Hartwith Bank, a vicious ramp that kicks up to 20% as soon as it leaves the main road. It’s a cruel diversion from the B6165 into Pateley Bridge but this wouldn’t be the Struggle if it didn’t pack in as much elevation as it could. Rapidly sending the chain to the largest sprocket we headed up on mass, not pushing too hard and picking up another rider along the way.
Back as a quartet and now with a tall rider to hide behind who also wanted to ride hard we hurtled down the wet roads into Pateley Bridge to take on Greenhow Hill. I hate Greenhow, it’s a bitch, and with today’s block headwind I knew what lay in wait at the top. It’s never the climbing that gets you on this hill, it’s always the wind at the summit with tired legs your speed is reduced to walking pace.
Hitting the base our new member was at the front and he pressed on hard, laying down some serious power in a huge gear. I suggested he changed down but he declined, saying he opted for power over souplesse when taking on this short climbs. Greenhow isn’t short however as I told him when he ground to a halt and passing by that was the last I saw of him. I’m afraid it was also the last we saw of Andy as he danced on upwards towards the horizon. There was a split second when I contemplated going with him but I knew it would be suicide so bid him farewell and stuck to my own tempo.
Greg was a short way behind, and once back on my wheel we set about battling the elements all the way to Malham. As always when prepping for a big event you read about the big climbs but The Struggle packs far more and the next 30 kilometres were relentlessly hilly. The rain was now coming down hard, but it’s only water and my legs felt good so I ploughed through it. With the promise of tailwind once we reached Malham I just got my head down and got stuck in, at least it wasn’t that cold.
Arriving in the picturesque Dales village, the most westerly point on the ride there was still Malham Cove to tackle before we made the turn eastwards. This is the quintessential Yorkshire Dales climb, snaking up the steep bank between high stone walls and grazing sheep, it is just beautiful, even in today’s conditions. In fact the weather was so bad now all I could do was laugh, it was either that or cry. Over the top the rain was coming in sideways in sheets, visibility reduced to a couple of hundred metres and it was a struggle to just stay upright. Riding past those with deep section wheels I made a point of passing on the left in case they took off and were blown into me.
Now we turned though and run east was lighting fast, too fast at times and there were multiple squeaky bum moments thanks to random patches of gravel hidden on corners over the brows of tiny lumps in the road. Down in the valley the rain was easing and with the wind on our backs Greg and I were chipping along at close to 60kph. This was more like it, however it would not last long as onto horizon lay the biggest baddest beast of the day, the Struggle’s signature climb Park Rash. This road has long been testing cyclists but has been afforded wider fame thanks to its inclusion in the last two Tour’s de Yorkshire.
Greg declared that he was going to suffer and I was to press on up, but as I was in no mood to go solo from here on I just road a fair tempo, if such a thing is possible on 25% slopes. Grimacing for the photographer on the steepest bend you are thrust into the red and will likely not recover until the undulations at half way. The solitude at the summit is worth all the effort to get there though and when the clock isn’t ticking I always take time to hang around to soak it in. Today was all about pressing on however, but the next section of the route required a little restraint. As we were warned at the start, the descent off Park Rash had only a couple of weeks previous been treated to a layer of the dreaded chip and seal. Although it was starting to bed in it was little more than a gravel track in places which required a serious amount of caution and caused a substantial amount of frustration.
I kept checking behind to see if I could catch sign of Greg, but it seemed, unintentionally that I’d dispatched him and I would be on my own now.
The next target was Masham, and the second feed and I needed food. I’d depleted my supplies, apart from my emergency caffeine gel, which as it wasn’t an emergency would not be consumed yet and was aching for sustenance. Cresting a brow a glanced behind and saw a flash of red, white and black approaching. A Nova rider. Am I being caught by a late starter or was it Greg. It was Greg, he’d patiently pinned me back, I wasn’t hanging around but he had crawled up to me and untied once more we would be stronger as a duo.
At the feed at 78 miles I filled a single bottle, grabbed a gel and a bar and was about to hit the road when I spied the tray on mini Coke cans. NECTAR! I put the bike down, grabbed one, gulped it down in one and was energised. That is what you want at the last feed stop, proper sugar! Feeling like a character in a computer game that had just had all its lives restored and looking forward to Trapping Hill I forced the pace some more. Although this is the ‘easy’ side of Trapping Hill, the force of the wind today would make it anything but. Hitting the base, the Coke wore off and it was like riding into concrete, But at least the sun was now out! For the first time in the day we could see what we were riding round, the imperious Yorkshire Dales, its just a shame we’d been robbed of the views for the rest of the ride.
Leaving Greg once more I made my own pace, and ahead could see riders, placed at regular intervals, suspended in purgatory inching their way up the tough slopes into the teeth of the gale. At the head I made out a rider with bright orange overshoes, overshoes which I would be chasing for the next 45 kilometres without catching.
Dropping down the step side of Trapping Hill I knew the next 10km would be a breeze. I was now tired though and really starting to feel it, and although it was pan flat alongside the beautiful Gouthwaite reservoir I was struggling to keep a good speed. There was only one thing for it, the emergency gel. I popped half of it, as I knew there was one giant climb left and with it surging into my veins clicked up a gear and got my head down. I picked off a few riders, each one a vital carrot to chase then arrive in Pateley Bridge for the second time to take on the last big lump of the day, Nought Bank Road. Or as the Struggle calls it, Two Stoops, named after the two large stones at the top.
I had one speed now, survival speed. With Mr orange overshoes within touching distance he was what I aimed for. Crawling up these testing slopes was the hardest part of the whole day, and required me ingesting the second half of the gel to appease my protesting body. Once crested though, it was time for the run in. It was still 20 kilometres to go, and there were still some minor obstacles to cross but all the big beasts had been tamed.
Still chasing the orange overshoes, I began to empty the tanks over the perfect run in. The route is exquisitely weighted with a gentle start, big climbs placed at regular intervals and then a fast, predominantly downhill run to the line. With a matter of a couple of kilometres left, rolling to a halt at a t-junction, I looked right. “Hi Greg.” “GREG!!” Where the hell did he come from, he’d be chasing me all the way from Trapping Hill, and only bloody got back on. This was some ride, and although he has been giving me credit for forcing the pace into the wind early on, this ride to catch back on was equal if not greater in my eyes.
So together again, we finished, not quite hand in hand á la Lemond and Hinault, but we had shared one hell of a day on two wheels in horrible weather over serious hills.
Like I said at the start there is only one length Struggle, it isn’t for the faint hearted but it is a challenge which is what these events were devised to initially be. It is an undertaking that requires preparation and perseverance and rewards you with a sense of achievement which is always worth more than any medal. On a logistical side signage was great, as was the marshaling, feed stops well stocked with both science food and real food, and yes Coca Cola! Start/Finish Facilities were simple but sufficient and there was plenty of quality food to refuel on afterwards and I will be back, that is for sure.