Start: Blanchland Abbey, 5:53am.
I was now firmly on plan “get round in 4 days” so only allowed myself 3 hours of sleep. I didn’t sleep too badly but woke up feeling stiff and sore. Obviously my body had been feeling tired over the last couple of days but this was the first time I had been in actual pain. I tried to put it to the back of my mind and set off, only to discover as soon as I tried to pedal that my knees just would not bend. This could be an issue! So I rode the first bit out of Blanchland out of the saddle, willing them to come back to life. It’s actually quite hard to ride with completely straight legs and I must have looked hilarious. As I warmed up, they did free up a little, but the pain was quite acute, so just outside Edmundbyers I stopped to take my 2 emergency paracetamol to take the edge off it. When I looked down at my legs, my quads, knees and ankles were really puffy. I actually folded the tops of my socks down to stop them digging into my calves. My left Achilles was also very sore and felt like it was pulling with every pedal stroke. When I touched it, I could feel a huge bump about twice its normal thickness.
I was worried. I had proved to myself that I was stronger than I thought but this felt like I was actually damaging my body. After feeling on top of the world the night before, I had now ricocheted to the other end of the spectrum and was seriously doubting my ability to ride home – not because I lacked the mental strength, but because I just couldn’t rely on my legs to actually do what they were supposed to. But I also figured that the longer I took, the longer I’d be dragging the pain out, so I tried to keep going and broke it down into tiny 5 mile blocks – baby steps!
Blanchland to Durham was scenic and the morning sky was beautiful but unfortunately I timed my arrival in Durham to perfectly coincide with rush hour. I’d planned my route to go right through the city centre thinking it would give me a good café opportunity but the whole place was gridlocked and the only place I could find open at 8:30am was a Cooplands opposite the bus interchange. I ordered a coffee and the lady serving me explained they had some kind of deal on where I could have a “sweet treat” with my coffee for an extra 50p or something. She rattled off the options but unfortunately this was too much information for my frazzled brain to process and for some bizarre reason I panicked and ordered a steak bake and 5 cheese straws. I don’t normally eat much red meat and I struggle to digest stuff that’s really fatty at the best of times, so I honestly have no idea what I was thinking! I plonked myself down on the pavement right outside, with commuters and school kids giving me funny looks as they streamed past, looked down at my puffy legs and my half-eaten pastry hoard and thoroughly questioned my sanity.
This seemed to set the tone for the next few hours as getting out of Durham was a right pain with traffic, roadworks and then a bridge closure on the road I was hoping to take. One post-industrial northern town started to look very much like another and every pedal stroke was painful. During a recce in March, I’d stopped at Sainsburys café in Sedgefield so I set that as my next target, with the aim of buying some more painkillers and cheering myself up with a proper café stop. Annoyingly I realised I must have dropped my lock somewhere in the dark the night before as I couldn’t find it anywhere. For the whole ride I’d tried to be really disciplined about putting things back in the same bags/pockets so they were easy to find. I improvised and tied my bike to the rack using my phone cable instead. Inside, I stocked up on paracetamol and ibuprofen and, absurdly, despite looking the roughest I have ever looked in my life, managed to get ID-ed by the checkout assistant. You only have to be 16! Sadly the café was closed (cheers Covid) but the nice lady at Customer Services took pity on me and let me use the loo. I resigned myself to one of those Tetrapak iced coffee things instead – today’s nutrition had reached an all-time low. I rang Mum from the car park and we tried to arrange a meeting for later in the day, possibly at Castle Howard, but I was struggling to get my head around timings and logistics and we left the options open. I distinctly remember Mum asking how far it was to Sheffield. “About 150 miles”, I said. “So you’re not going all the way tonight”. “Ummm…”!
I had dosed up on both varieties of painkiller at 2-hour intervals but I was still in a lot of pain. Somewhere on the edge of Stockton-on-Tees I sat down on the pavement and cried for the first time since that puncture on the morning of day 2. I was just so desperate to get home and for it to be over. The people in the north east are very friendly and several passers-by stopped to ask if I was ok, had I fallen off etc. I thanked them and said I was just having a rest! I tried to think of what else could possibly help my legs work better and my mind landed on Deep Heat as I recalled that damaged tendons often work better with a bit of heat rather than ice. I also thought the numbing effect and the action of massaging it in might help. I figured it was worth a shot, and if nothing else, it would make me smell better. A quick Google, a phone call to the next pharmacy in Yarm, 3 more miles of riding and the magic cream was mine! I sat on the floor (definitely a theme today!) and applied copious amounts. Rubbing the cream in had the effect of lifting 3 days’ worth of road dirt from my legs and rolling it into little dirt balls but obviously I didn’t care. As I was doing so, the pharmacist actually came outside to ask if I was ok – another kind stranger looking out for me.
I hobbled on, heading east through Hutton Rudby and stopping for a quick coffee and ice cream in Great Ayton before hitting the hills. I was now fuelled entirely by caffeine, painkillers and Deep Heat fumes. It was hot, and a mixture of sweat and suncream was pouring off my face. The North York Moors were absolutely beautiful, but brutal. So many percentage gradient signs! I would love to explore this area with fully working legs. I approached Rosedale from Fryupdale (what a name!) to the north and joined the Glaisdale Rigg road over the tops. Oh boy. A horrendous, never-ending 8mph slog into a howling gale. At one point I was convinced I could see the Angel of the North on the top of the moors. I think it was a shooting cabin. I clearly wasn’t quite thinking straight. Several false summits later, the stone cross of CP8 finally came into sight. It was so windy that I couldn’t get my bike to stay upright for the checkpoint photo.
When I had recce-d this bit of route in March I had vowed never to go up Rosedale Chimney on a loaded bike ever again, so this time I headed out of the valley to the southeast, through Cropton Forest, which was a much more enjoyable experience. From there down to Castle Howard (CP9) wasn’t too bad. Mum was waiting at Castle Howard armed with what now strikes me as a very random selection of food and drink including tea, Coke, a yoghurt, jam doughnut, croissant, grapes and a hard boiled egg. At the time it seemed like a perfectly normal meal, so I sat on the floor wrapped in a blanket, devoured most of it and stuffed the rest into my pockets for later. Mum has since confessed that she was absolutely ravenous thanks to me taking forever to get there and that she’d secretly hoped I wouldn’t eat everything in sight – sorry about that Mum! My legs were now so sore that I couldn’t get from sitting to standing normally so I had to roll onto all fours and then haul myself up. According to Mum I was physically broken but still remarkably cheerful!
Blanket, doughnut, Coke, sorted.
I left Castle Howard at 7:30pm with 80 miles left to do. In hindsight this was totally bonkers – I would normally consider 80 miles to be a decent day ride, not something to embark upon after an already long day as night was falling. But stopping for the night and carrying on the next day wasn’t even an option that crossed my mind. I was totally fixated on getting home and I simply couldn’t be bothered with another bivvy. I was determined that the next sleep I had would be in my own bed.
The next few hours were honestly the worst of the whole trip and I think my brain has blocked a lot of it out. I’d planned a nice flat route around the east side of York but the trouble with flat riding compared to hills is that there is no option to freewheel, and as my ruined legs struggled to turn the cranks, the miles seemed to tick by agonisingly slowly. Selby was a particularly low point: there seemed to be nothing there but boy racers, supermarkets that closed at 10pm (just before I arrived), and an overpowering, nauseating smell of animal feed that must have come from one of the factories I passed. Grim. In the absence of anywhere to purchase food I bought a pint of Coke from a grotty pub and tipped it into my water bottle. The only saving grace on this stretch was seeing the moon light up the chimneys of Drax power station – beautiful in an industrial sort of way.
Moon and Drax power station
After Selby I skirted round the northwest side of Doncaster, taking a mixture of roads and bridleways (I no longer cared about avoiding gravel), and crossing the A1 at Skellow. If I ever build a footbridge there is no way on earth it will feature steps. They very nearly finished me off. What’s wrong with a ramp?! From Selby back to Sheffield was the only time on the whole trip when I felt scared. I think it was a combination of extreme fatigue making me think irrationally, spotting a shady figure on the towpath, and two separate occasions when a rat ran across the road in front of me. I was convinced that if I stopped and slept, I would either get abducted or eaten by rats. Time seemed to take on a different dimension as I crawled along, and, after what seemed like an eternity, I eventually rolled into Sheffield at 03:48am. I had been on the go for almost 22 hours and was completely overwhelmed with a) relief that it was finally over and b) disbelief that I had actually finished! Andy was waiting for me at the station (what a hero!) and we took some pictures before heading home.
I did it!!!!!