Black Sheep Firkin Challenge, 2013

Simon, Beags, Al, Self, Deano, Mike.

In 2008 in an effort to raise money for for my charity, I set off to cycle from Darlington to Vienna. It was late May/early June and I'd imagined a fortnight of sunny days pootling through the English countryside, into Holland, Germany and finally down the Danube in to Austria, instead it hammered down for over a week, blew several gales, and brought down trees across my path.
Last year I was persuaded to do the Firkin challenge which as many of you will know is a hundred mile bike ride through the Yorkshire Dales to raise money for Wooden Spoon, again in May. It lashed down and the temperature dropped below freezing (the countryside was too bleak for trees).
As I write I'm sitting in a cottage in Devon where I've come to get in some cycle training for this year's Firkin Challenge. It's coming down stair rods and blowing a hoolie; the forecast for the day of the race is for the weather to deteriorate!

The morning of the 2013 Firkin Challenge dawns; I say 'dawns' though it doesn't actually get light, there is only a barely discernible lessening of the darkness and a snare-drum roll of rain batters the plants outside my bedroom window. I drag my charity-shop body out of bed, squash it into hideous lycra and await the arrival of my teammates and the van that will carry us and our bikes, food and equipment to the start. The team - Robabank Twostep - arrive and en route the road ahead turns milky with bouncing water and the windscreen wipers flail ineffectually against the deluge but we are in wry good spirits. On arrival at Black Sheep Brewery in Masham where the Firkin starts we have a briefing, receive our race numbers, then head outside again to prepare ourselves and our bikes for the 'fun' ahead.

8:55 a.m. - Start time, sees the starters huddled under an awning brandishing clipboards, an unfortunate photographer swathed in wax jacket and wellington boots and we few, we happy few, we band of brothers - Al our leader, Beags and Deano, Simon, Michael and Me, astride our trusty steeds, dripping like willows. And we're off. And there's a crash - three minutes in and Beags runs into the back of Deano and hits the deck, embarrassment wraps him in its reddening grip but from now to the ending of the world he can roll up his hose and say 'These scars did I receive upon the Firkin day.'

Trees wave us on our way, birdsong dopplers overhead and villages zip past in a blur of hiss and spray:  Watlass and Well, Hackfall and Hornby. Soon enough we are in Hauxwell and the first real climb of the day; the 'peloton' strings out and the world slows: sweat mingles with the rain dripping from my nose and running into my eyes, my riding glasses steam up and I can't see, my 'waterproof' gloves have lived up to their name and refuse to let any water out, lending my grip on the bars a cold, clammy, squelch, and my overwhelming sensation is of trying to force too much oxygen into my lamentably inadequate lungs whilst the downpour dampens the fire in my legs. At the top there's a regrouping and we all pretend not to be breathing through our ears, but the heaving chests and mouth open grins give the game away.

The road sweeps along the top of Barden Moor escarpment with Penhill to our left and roadside signs warn of the possibility of being run over by a tank or shot on the firing ranges (there was no mention of this at this morning's safety briefing). The road plunges into valleys and grinds back up again and after thirty miles or so we reach Reeth and our first checkpoint.  Standing in the rain we have our cards marked and more photographs taken though I don't remember smiling for the camera. From here it is a ten mile climb to Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in the British Isles at 1,732 feet (528 m) above sea level and famous for Ted Moult's clumsiness with a feather. But we haven't got there yet: there's still the matter of the ten mile ascent. Of course there are some downhill bits too, but they are the kind of downs that snigger and mock the ups you've just done and taunt you for the ones you are about to do - every freewheeled downhill foot to be revisited in an 8 mph uphill slog.

A shout of 'mechanical!' from behind alerts us to the fact that Al, our team leader has a problem; we slow the pace further and await news………catastrophe…….the gravitational pull on Al's robust person has proven too strong for his lightweight Mavic wheels and a spoke has pinged. News and advice volley backwards and forwards but in the absence of a spare back wheel bad tidings inevitably trickle through - Al's abandoned.  Reluctantly we press on without him and the task in hand soon reasserts itself as our main concern - up and ever up. We overhaul others struggling towards the top. The rain eases. Someone has a puncture, we grind past more bikes. False summit after false summit and we're in the clouds.  Water pours across the road in a river, visibility decreases with our reserves of energy. Take a drink, pedal on, I can't feel my feet, will it never end? I take a look at my bike computer - 39.7 miles - not even half way! Up and up, to a cattle grid and then at last, through the mist, Tan Hill, our support crew and a few minutes respite.

I eat and drink at the roadside and change most of my clothing for dry stuff: warm socks - bliss! Soon the cold begins to gnaw at us and we must press on to keep it at bay.  From here the route plunges off the moor towards Kirkby Stephen; it is a fast, tricky and at times, technical descent, particularly with the amount of water on the road and we have to be careful not to overcook the corners; nonetheless we reach speeds well over 40 mph. Soon we're below the cloud-base and the Eden valley opens in front of us - Welcome to Cumbria!

It seems odd that as we pass through the market town of Kirkby Stephen, everyone is going about their daily business - life is normal, and yet we are in a kind of cocoon: shut off from normality, in a world of our own. But we soon come down to earth with a bump, or at least Deano does: he somehow contrives to run into my back wheel and ends up sprawled across the tarmac like a suddenly beached swimmer. There are some minor recriminations: 'You braked!' 'No I didn't; you weren't paying attention.' Deano bends his rear derailleur back into shape and we're off again to our next checkpoint at Nateby and we're just over half way. To everyone's surprise a land rover pulls up and Al jumps out complete with replacement bike which he has somehow managed to conjure up from home so team Robabank is back together again.

It's a long drag from Nateby to checkpoint 3 at Hawes through the wild country of Mallerstang, but there is a sense of moving towards home territory and the big climbs are behind us. Hawes welcomes us with trays of delicious Fat Rascals and on top of them I shovel in a load of carbs in pasta form to fuel the final thirty odd miles.

Once out of Hawes we form a train behind Al who is fresh as a spring lamb and we put the hammer down - the villages of Wensleydale fly by and there are some moments of pure joy as the peloton swings out to the white line and swoops through the apex of corners at high speed like Spitfires coming off the top of a roll or Swallows in pursuit of hatching Mayfly. Askrigg, Newbiggin, Carperby. Bolton Castle towers above us and we hare by, the fields are impossibly green, like emeralds and then we hit Redmire and down to the outskirts of Wensley where we join the main road and pull into Wensleydale Rugby Club and our final checkpoint. We sign in, grab a quick drink and some chocolate cake which appears from nowhere and we're soon off on the final leg. 

The last few miles, familiar to us from our training rides, seem endless and our legs are tired. We are determined to keep the group together so we can finish as a team but it means waiting, when all we really want to do is get off these damned bikes, but eventually we roll into Masham and up the final hill to the finish and forming a line, we all ride over together and cheers fill our ears and cameras flash and we do indeed get off these damned bikes!

Later we drink beer and wallow in the warm glow of success and we talk over the day and was it worth it? Oh yes!