Sunday, 24 July 2016

23/24 Jul: The Three Coasts 600km Audax

Nigel writes: Just over half a year ago I made a New Year Resolution for 2016: to ride further than I have ever cycled before by completing a 300km Audax. Little did I know that by July I would have completed a ride twice as long as that: the "Three Coasts" 600km Audax.

This event was based at a community centre in the village of Mytholmroyd, about 8km west of Halfax in West Yorkshire, and was organised (excellently) by Calderdale CTC. Whereas the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600 that Alex rode in May is a simple loop from one end of Wales to the other, the Three Coasts 600 is a figure-of-eight. The ride starts at 6am on the Saturday morning and heads east, visiting the east coast at Bridlington (the "first coast") before taking a big loop back to Mytholmroyd. This is reached in the small hours of Saturday night, after having ridden almost two-thirds of the total distance. The ride then continues to the west coast at Blackpool (the "second coast"), looping back to Calderdale for a final small loop via Hollingsworth Lake (the "third coast") before arriving back at Mytholmroyd on Sunday evening by 10pm at the latest.


Overview of route. More detailed map below

By East Anglian standards it's quite a hilly course (the first AAA-rated route I have attempted), particularly on the second day when the return from the west coast crosses the edge of the Forest of Bowland before finishing with a 200m climb followed by an 8km descent (supposedly the longest continuous descent in England) back to Mytholmroyd.

This route has the attraction of returning to base at exactly the time when you're in need of a quick sleep before setting off again, and this was the main reason I chose it for my first ever 600. The BCM 600 (which I missed) also has a sleep stop at the same point in the ride, but many other 600s (such as the forthcoming East Anglian Flatlands 600 in September) offer nothing.

I spent the night before the ride at HQ, sleeping rather uncomfortably on a camp bed I had brought with me. However after a 5am breakfast and a cold shower I was ready for the 6am departure. There were 38 riders in total, half of them attempting the Three Coasts 600 like me, and half attempting a slightly less hilly variant called the East and West Coasts 600.

6am on Saturday: Preparing to set off from Mytholmroyd Community Centre

For the first two hours we were riding along fairly major urban roads through the West Yorkshire conurbation, passing through places like Sowerby Bridge, Brighouse and Dewsbury that I probably wouldn't have been able to place on a map before. It was all rather urban, and the road surface was very worn-out and bumpy almost all the way, but there were very few cars around and apart from repeatedly having to dodge potholes we didn't have any problems. The pace of the other riders was faster than I had expected but I assumed they knew what they were doing and I found it fairly easy to keep up with them.

The temperature was warm right from the start, and after about an hour I removed my armwarmers, never to replace them at any point in the entire ride.

There had been a quick roadside control in Mirfield (23km), where someone in a bus shelter had stuck a label on my brevet card, but our first proper stop was at a cafe in Castleford (50km) where I obtained another sticker for my brevet, ate a huge bacon roll, and topped up my water bottles.

First cafe stop in Castleford, after 50km

Castleford was essentially our last town in the West Yorkshire conurbation, and after two hours on the road we at last began to emerge into open countryside.

River Aire at Castleford

We were now riding north-east towards the east coast at Bridlington, pausing along the way in Pocklington to obtain a receipt at the petrol station and further along at the little village of Langtoft where there was an "info" control where I had to answer the question on my brevet card.

Although I had been riding with a group as far as Castleford, after leaving the cafe on my own I found myself riding solo. I thought this was just as well as I didn't wanted to be drawn into riding at an unsustainable pace. Instead I cycled on at about 25km/h which I had previously decided would be more than adequate to get me round in time. However after about an hour (and half-way to Pocklington) I was overtaken by another rider (Malcolm from Newport, Shropshire), and as he seemed to be going just slightly faster than me I politely asked him whether I could tag along behind. He readily agreed and my pace quickened to nearer 30km/h for long periods. I periodically took a turn at the front but he was definitely doing most of the pulling, and we stuck together over the Yorkshire Wolds to Bridlington and, it turned out, for most of the rest of the day.

We reached Bridlington (158km) at 1pm exactly and stopped for lunch at the designated control stop, the Boathouse Cafe. A bicycle mounted above the side passage showed that this was clearly a well-established destination for visiting cyclists.

Saturday lunch in Bridlington after 158km

Thanks to Malcolm's assistance I was well ahead of schedule: in my (deliberately pessimistic) plan for the ride I had expected to be there nearly an hour later. I knew I had plenty of time for a proper sit-down lunch: a very inexpensive meal of baked potato with baked beans followed by apple pie and ice cream, which I enjoyed in the company of several other riders in the garden behind the cafe.

Saturday lunch in Bridlington

After lunch I persuaded Malcolm to join me for a brief diversion to the sea front (about 400m beyond the cafe) and an opportunity to have our photograph taken on the "first coast" of the ride.

Nigel and Malcolm on the "first coast" at Bridlington

We then set off west towards Malton. We were now riding along a succession of very quiet lanes; the quietest part of the ride so far. There was virtually no wind today, so with Malcolm once again setting a satisfyingly-brisk pace we made good progress and arrived at Malton (204km) at 3.40pm. This was another control, so we stopped at Morrisons, bought yet more food, and ate it standing outside with a group of other audaxers. I was now exactly one-third of the way round the whole route, though with the route effectively divided into two by an overnight sleep stop I was more conscious that we were more than half-way round today's part of the ride.

We continued west from Malton to Thirsk, passing through the scenic, wooded, Howardian Hills along the way. I don't think I had heard of the Howardian Hills before: they take their name from nearby Castle Howard and form a wooded and parklike landscape that is quite different from the North York Moors a short distance further north.

After another quick info control we arrived in Thirsk. This wasn't a control, but our routesheet warned us that this was the last opportunity for food for a long time, so Malcolm and I stopped at Tesco to find, once again, a gaggle of other Audaxers clustered outside in the warm early-evening sunshine.

Food stop at Tesco, Thirsk after 247km

I wasn't especially hungry but my food strategy was to eat little and often, and I managed to consume a pasta salad before Malcolm and I set off once more. We were joined by a third rider - Rob from Portsmouth - who accompanied Malcolm and me for the remainder of the evening.

A few kilometres west of Thirsk we paused briefly for another info control (at Skipton-on-Swale, 253km). This was literally a turning point in the ride, since here we turned south, back towards the West Yorkshire conurbation and our sleep stop in Mytholmroyd. Rob was another fast rider, possibly slightly faster than Malcolm, so although the low sun and long shadows brought on a relaxed, mellow mood our pace remained fairly brisk. We had been riding through beautiful, quiet lanes all afternoon, and continued to do so for the next couple of hours.

Toll bridge over the River Ure at Aldwark

We were now riding south, passing midway between York to our east and Harrogate to our west, and the villages we passed through became increasingly prosperous and impressive.

We reached Tadcaster at 8.40pm, about half an hour before sunset. The town bridge over the River Wharf was closed for repairs following winter flood damage, but our routesheet already reflected this and diverted us over a temporary footbridge nearby.

Temporary footbridge over the River Wharf at Tadcaster, during the closure of the town bridge. It wasn't the only time I had to get off and walk...

We paused on the main street to rest and eat some of the food we'd bought earlier, not far from the huge John Smith's brewery that dominates the town. Just before we set off again I decided to take a couple of capsules of what Alex B calls "vitamin I" (ibuprofen). On my last big ride I'd had a bit of trouble from my right knee, and had wondered whether it would be a problem on this one. So far today it hadn't, but I'd had a couple of slight twinges and I thought I might as well take a dose of painkiller before it became a problem. In the event, I had no further problems for the remainder of the weekend.

High Street, Tadcaster: eerily deserted on a Saturday evening

We continued south, with Rob continuing to lead our group of three at a fairly fast pace. Somewhat to my surprise I was able to keep up and didn't feel the need to drop off the back. In fact the only time I dropped back was on the approach to Castleford. By now the sun had set and it had became completely dark. We were close to the West Yorkshire conurbation and the road surface had deteriorated. I decided I didn't have the nerve to draft Rob downhill at 40km/h when I couldn't see the road surface ahead, so I dropped back and followed a few metres behind.

We'd had a control in Castleford on the way out, and we had a control in Castleford on the way back, this time at a 24h filling station just before the Aire bridge. In my original plan for the ride I'd expected to reach here at 1am, when I'd no doubt have had to conduct business with the attendant at the "night window". However it was still only 10pm and the shop was still open, so we could go inside, get a cup of coffee, and use the toilets. When we came outside and stepped out of the chill of the air-conditioning, we were all struck by how warm and humid the outside air still was.

Final control of Saturday evening at Castleford

We were joined by three or four other Audaxers for the final 50km or so back to Mytholmroyd, following the reverse of our earlier route out. I had expected this night-time part of the ride to be a solitary, slow trudge through the darkness and so to cheer me up I had brought a portable bluetooth loudspeaker and a playlist of lively 1970's and 1980's popular music.

My bluetooth speaker fitted nicely on my top tube

In fact I had plenty of company and was feeling stronger than I expected, but since I had lugged a 300g loudspeaker all this way I decided that I might as well use it. I turned it on at a moderate level and we set off. In an instinctive reaction my pace quickened and for the first few kilometres I found myself at the front, leading our small train into the semi-urban fringes of the conurbation to low-volume ABBA.

We arrived back at Mytholmroyd Community Centre two and a half hours later at 12.45am, having completed 375km, slightly less than two-thirds of the total distance. I went in, got my brevet card stamped, and sat down. A solicitous volunteer immediately offered me a choice of three different hot meals, all clearly selected to appeal to weary audaxers and be easy to digest. I chose a portion of cottage pie followed by a bowl of bread and butter pudding, both of which went down easily.

I knew my camp bed was waiting for me upstairs, but I didn't go there straightaway as there was no point lying down if I wasn't sure I was going to fall asleep immediately. So I spent half an hour showering, refilling my water bottles, preparing my bike for the next part of the ride and digesting my dinner before settling down to sleep at 2am. When I had arrived, Chris the organiser had asked me what time I wished to be woken up (since with different people getting up at different times you didn't want people using alarm clocks) and I had stated 5am. My original plan had been to set off at 6am, and I saw no reason to change it.

My camp bed beside the pool table at Mytholmroyd Community Centre

I fell asleep instantly and awoke two hours later at 4am. After dozing for a while I decided I wasn't going to go back to sleep and so got up, had a bowl of museli and a cup of tea, and set off once more on the bike, heading west towards Lancashire this time. It was 5.20am.

Although I had started this section with Malcolm we got separated at the first ATM control in Todmorden (385km) and I found myself riding on my own. A shower, a change of clothes, two hours sleep and a lot of food meant I felt quite fresh, but I quickly discovered that although my legs weren't hurting, they weren't giving me much power and I found myself cycling at less than 20 km/h, much slower than I had been riding yesterday. However I reassured myself that even at this slow speed I would almost certainly be able to finish the remaining 226km within the remaining 16 hours, and carried slowly on in a low gear towards Burnley.

The weather today was quite different to the previous day: distinctly dull and overcast, with rain forecast for much of the day. However it was still quite warm, and when the rain arrived it was rarely very heavy and passed over quickly, and I probably didn't wear my rain jacket for more than an hour in total over the entire day.

After a while a small group of audaxers caught up with me and I took the opportunity to increase my pace through the rather hilly outskirts of Burnley and on to the village of Whalley. There I turned left, whilst everyone else in the group turned right. This was because they were taking a different route to me, the slightly less hilly "East and West Coasts 600".

I stopped at the next town west, Longridge, and after a visit into the co-op for food, and ten minutes sitting down, I carried on, feeling rather stronger and faster now, towards an info control in the tiny village of Whitechapel (437km). Whilst I was stopped there, trying to work out the correct answer to the question on the brevet card, Rob from Portsmouth arrived and we rode on together to the next control, a filling station in Fulwood (448km) on the northern edge of Preston. Here we found several other audaxers, and after I'd had a cup of coffee from the "Costa Express" machine and a pastry we carried on together in a larger group.

However I quickly became separated at some traffic signals and for the final 20km into Blackpool I was riding on my own. I arrived at the North Pier at 10.47am. This was another control but it was just an "info", so I didn't buy anything and simply answered the question on the brevet card and got another audaxer to take a photo of me to celebrate having crossed from coast to coast in about 22 hours.

Sunday morning on the "second coast" at Blackpool

Then I carried on, heading north-east out of Blackpool, across the River Fylde and then north towards my next control at Glasson Dock on the Lune Estuary south of Lancaster.

Crossing the River Wyre north of Blackpool

This took me across The Fylde, a very flat coastal plain which meant this was easily the easiest part of the ride so far. Along this section I was caught up by several riders who I hadn't seen before. One of them asked how I was doing, confirmed that I was "doing the six", and explained that he was riding the Good Companions 200km Audax, which had departed from Mytholmroyd Community centre at 8.30am (i.e. almost three hours after me) and was following exactly the same route as I was. The name of the event reflects its purpose, which is to provide some company (and perhaps an occasional tow) to the weary riders on the 600. I accepted the offer of a tow, but after a while I decided the pace was unsustainably fast for me and so I gave my thanks and dropped back, completing the final few kilometres to Glasson Dock on my own.

The Fylde Coast is very flat

I arrived at Glasson Dock (510km) at 12.35 and stopped at the designated control point, the "Lantern o'er Lune" cafe.

Glasson Dock

I was well ahead of my original plan, though this was mainly because I had set off from Mytholmroyd earlier than originally planned. The cafe was full of Audaxers on the 200 as well as on both 600s and I went in to join them for a leisurely lunch.

Sunday lunch at "Lantern o'er Lune" at Glasson Dock

I had ordered quite a large meal (a plate of sausages and mash) and was still eating when the others started getting ready to set off again. However I was happy to linger: I was aware that the final 90km of the ride would be tougher than anything that had gone before, and intended to ride them at my own pace. This would be the hilliest stage of the whole ride, and the main reason why it is AAA-rated. But it was only 2pm and so I had a full eight hours left: I could afford to take it slowly, and if I got too tired I could simply stop and rest.

After setting off again on my own it wasn't long before the climbing started with the route crossing Bleasdale Moor on the edge of the Forest of Bowland. This was a beautiful, quiet landscape of open moorland and sheep, quite different from anything I had ridden through up to now.

Bleasdale Moor in the Forest of Bowland

The price for the beautiful scenery was a succession of fairly long, fairly steep climbs, though only the first of these was steep enough to warrant an arrow marking on the OS map. A combination of tired legs and not-particularly-low gears meant I had to climb these very slowly, pausing every few minutes to allow my legs to recover before starting again. I could see a pair of audaxers ahead of me; they didn't seem to be going much faster then I was. Nevertheless I was glad that I was riding this part of the route on my own and could take it at a speed that suited me.

A pair of audaxers ahead of me on Bleasdale Moor

After a while I left the moorland behind but the undulations continued and there was one further OS-arrow-rated climb before things became easier and I dropped down to the village of Chipping.

Approaching Chipping towards the end of the most scenic part of the whole ride

A flock of "Good Companions" passed me and checked I was OK. I declined the offer of a tow, pointing out that it didn't help much when going uphill, but I took the opportunity to increase my pace and ride with them for a while before dropping back and leaving them to speed them off ahead to our next control in the village of Whalley. It was quite fun to ride with these energetic younger riders; they knew I had cycled over 500km so I didn't feel I had anything to prove. Indeed they were probably surprised I could achieve any degree of speed at all.

I was interested by the speed in which they took some of the descents. Clearly they're much more used to riding downhill at speed than me, partly because they all ride with racing clubs, and partly because we don't have many hills near Cambridge. However I was surprised to find myself hitting the brakes on a number of downhill sections because I didn't dare to ride as fast as they did. One reason was the bike: before today I had considered my Trek Domaine as being extremely sure-footed at speed, but today when my speed approached 50km I felt an alarming oscillation at the back of the bike that I had not experienced before, perhaps due to my seatpost bag being more heavily loaded then normal.

I stopped in Whalley (554km) to "control" at the Spar store. It was 4pm. The "good companions" were standing outside, and after going in to buy a banana milkshake and something to eat I chatted with them for several minutes. As the only "600-er" in the vicinity I was automatically accorded a degree of respect and admiration, which was rather nice. I was told that the locals insist that the name of their village is pronounced "War-ley", and if they ever overhear someone calling it "Wally" they will correct you.

From Whalley back to Todmorden we were following the reverse of the route we had taken in the morning, an undulating run along main roads round the edge of Burnley and then down towards Todmorden. I rode with the good companions for about half an hour before they disappeared off into the distance.

Please read carefully

This route had been very quiet in the early morning, but in the late afternoon it was quite busy. It also started to rain steadily and the combination of rain, busy traffic and - on the descent into Todmorden - the need to constantly crash through potholes might have made this a rather depressing trudge if it had not been for the knowledge that I didn't have far to go.

Todmorden was only half an hour from Mytholmroyd but instead of heading directly back I turned right towards Littleborough for a final short loop via the "third coast" at Hollingworth Lake.

Hollingworth Lake, Littleborough: the "third coast"

The final control at the Hollingworth Lake Visitor Centre was staffed by a volunteer from Calderdale CTC at a table laden with home-made cakes and biscuits.

Final control at Hollingworth Lake

A group of Good Companions was there attending to a puncture, so I left them there and set off on my own for the final, and biggest, climb of the day. This involved climbing about 200m over a distance of about 3km to the top of Blackstone Edge. With a gradient of around 6% this wasn't especially steep, but with my legs in their current state my lowest gear wasn't quite low enough and once again I found it necessary to stop every couple of minutes on the way up. It was drizzling steadily but at this point, so close to the finish, I hardly noticed.

The final climb up to Blackstone Edge before the last long descent

There's not much at the top: just open moorland, Blackstone Reservoir, a pub, and a left turn onto Cragg Vale Road which offers the reward of a long 8km descent all the way down to Mytholmroyd. Apparently this is the longest continuous descent in England. The rain had now stopped, and with my Garmin now showing 599km, I switched on my bluetooth speaker and turned on the music. As I started to accelerate I glanced down. My distance was now 600km. I found myself smiling, and if I'd been able to whoop, I would have whooped.

Minutes later I arrived at Mytholmroyd Community Centre. I wheeled my bike into the entrance and strode into the main room to present my brevet card to Chris the organiser. He looked at his watch to check the time: 7.28pm. I had completed 607 km (the official distance) in just under 37.5 hours.

Survivors at the finish

This was my longest ride ever, only my second ride to have gone very much over 200km, and it was a very enjoyable and satisfying experience. I'm obviously extremely pleased to have completed the ride without any problems, well within the time limit and quite a lot faster than I had expected. I chose this particular event because of the return to base after 375km for a food and sleep stop. Although that feels slightly less "pure" than a simple loop like The Flatlands 600, I think it was a good choice for a first 600 as it divided the ride into two, both practically and psychologically, though it did have the consequence that I didn't have very much night riding (and I do like night riding).

Buddying up with Malcolm for most of the first day (and Rob for the later part of that day) made a huge difference, as I told them at the time. Since I was far from home and not riding with anyone I knew there was a danger that I would end up trudging round the whole route on my own, which would be slow as well as being a bit lonely. In the event I had plenty of tows, and plenty of company on both days, as well as some pleasant long stretches riding solo as well.

The Three Coasts 600 is a great route, and visiting both east and west coasts in the same ride was very satisfying. The organisation by Chris Crossland was excellent.

I knew there'd be quite a lot of gritty urban riding in the middle, though since most of this was very early or very late I never had any problem with traffic - and it was very interesting to spend time in a completely unfamiliar part of the country. What I hadn't expected was quite how poor the road surfaces were: mile after mile of completely worn-out roads. I was also surprised that I seemed to be the only person complaining about this: is the rest of the country really like this? It certainly makes me see the roads of Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk in a more positive light.

Completed brevet card

My total distance, according to my Garmin, was 609.4km, 378.6 miles. Nigel Deakin



Download GPS track (GPX).

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