Fresh from completing the self-supported ultra-distance epic that is ‘Hell of the North West’ on his Ribble CGR Ti, Ribble Bike Mechanic Brad set himself a new goal. This time he would not simply be taking part in an ultra-endurance cycle race. he was going all-out to win it! Brad tells us about the highs and lows on his way to winning All Points North. One of the UK’s toughest cycle challenges and one that tests mind and body to the limit and beyond!
All Points North is a solo unsupported, ultra-distance, endurance cycling race between 10 checkpoints across the North of England. It totals 1000km and allows riders to design their own route. Due to covid, the 2020 edition was unofficially open to anyone who wanted to complete it. At the last minute, I decided to go for it as a way to escape the madness of lockdown. As well as an excuse to go exploring by bike of course!
Due to a lack of any time constraints, I took my time travelling between checkpoints, eating and sleeping well. Additionally, I was able to go the long way round to take advantage of the stunning views on offer. Upon finishing, I was inspired to come back and have a crack at the official event. In total, it took me 6 days to complete the unofficial edition. However, to get back in time for the finishers meal you had just 3 days to complete the challenge. To put this into context, the previous winner finished in just 45 hours! He was also to be my main protagonist but more of that later.
I headed into the event off the back of nearly a year of specific training. Slowly but surely building up the miles and, most importantly, staying consistent. Preparation also included my first official event, the ‘Hell of The North West’. The name makes it sound a lot of fun I know. It consisted of 850km of racing that seemed to take in as many climbs as possible. It also featured nearly 16,000m of ascent! I was one of only 5 finishers to make it out of the 24 that started. Completing this gave me a huge boost of confidence and taught me a lot of valuable lessons heading into All Points North.
All Points North pre-race preparation
During the summer I had also completed an alternative version of the North Coast 500. It covered a total distance of just over 700 miles, mainly on-road, with some off-road and Hike-a-bike thrown in for good measure. It was great to break up the routine of work and structured training to go exploring the beautiful Scottish Highlands. As well as getting in some big, fully loaded miles of course!
One of the main lessons that I took away from Hell of the North West, in particular, was the importance of not stopping if you wanted to be competitive. So approaching the event I was doing very specific long rides with minimal rest breaks to replicate race day.
My intention was to give it my all, confident that this would be enough to be competitive. Moreover, that I would only be motivated to stick to the ambitious plan I had laid out. The route I had planned, however, wasn’t something that I was accustomed to. But with the goal being to finish as fast as possible, I would stick to the main roads. This would have the dual benefit of reducing the elevation and any chance of navigation issues.
The interminable wait
On the eve of All Points North, I was feeling quietly confident, purely because of how consistent I’d been in training. That being said, when race day arrived, the doubts started to creep in. Which wasn’t helped by the 3-4 hour wait at A Different Gear bike shop (The start location and event organisers) before an 8PM start. The only thing you can do is to let these thoughts come and go. Attaching yourself to them will only cause further unnecessary anxiety.
To pass the time, all we could do was sit, eat, and drink unlimited brews. So that’s exactly what I did! After what seemed like an eternity later, we finally got the pre-race brief and it was finally go-time. With just 10 minutes left until we set off, I started trying to download my route from my phone to GPS. But without luck. I was trying to be patient, but 5 mins flew by and before I knew it I heard ‘1 minute to go!’. Nightmare!
Out of necessity, my plans had to change. I decided to scrap routing on the GPS and would have to rely on my phone for navigation. A colleague of mine has the mantra ’embrace the suck’ on her bike. So it was time to put a single headphone in and just accept the situation for what it was. It was all-systems-go for All Points North 2021!
Lost in translation
From previous experience, I knew the instructions weren’t going to be very straightforward. But, it was what it was and we all set off. After a bit of twisting and turning, everyone had dispersed to their own adventures. However, navigation proved to be anything but straightforward. Within 5 minutes of the start, I had already taken 2 wrong turns, swiftly followed by 2 more before I had even left Sheffield! After that little bit of unintentional excitement, I finally got settled on the main road out of town.
Soon enough I started to make up for the small amount of time lost and slowly started to pass fellow riders. I readied myself for the 12-hour shift that I had planned until the next feed stop. The terrain was pan-flat to the first checkpoint, (Beverley North Bar) so I just tucked in on my aero bars and got into a flow. As a result, I arrived at the first stop 30-mins before I had planned. I filled out my Brevet card question and got back on my way without too much time wasted.
The first checkpoint of many
I clocked the first 100 miles in 5 hours 30 mins, before hitting the hills of the North Yorkshire Moors on my way to the second checkpoint at Rievaulx Abbey. Which was to be the first of the many sadistic checkpoints set by the organisers. I dropped down the 20% descent to the Abbey where I was tasked with finding a hidden Phonebooth. After which I performed a swift U-turn and headed back up the sharp incline to exit the grounds of the Abbey.
Once clear, I enjoyed a lovely gradual climb over the moors to Runswick Bay (CP 3). With strong legs, a slight tailwind, and a clear starry night, the miles seemed to disappear. After some rabbit dodging on the descent to the coast, I made it to the next checkpoint. Just as brutal as the last, it was a 20% descent and no through road. You just had to shrug your shoulders and laugh!
Upon reaching the checkpoint, I encountered a few riders who had actually ridden around the coast through Scarborough. This enabled them to cut out the moors, but so far they had only been to The North Bar. This was a nice little confidence booster to set me on my way to the feed stop that I had planned at 280km into the ride. The run-in was mainly undulating dual carriageways, which thankfully at 6am weren’t too busy. This terrain definitely helped me to keep the pace high and contributed to me arriving at the Ingleby Barwick CO-OP ahead of schedule. I had made it in 11 hours instead of the expected 12.
Fuel to burn
I filled my boots for the 260km stretch that I had in front of me. Which would see me ride through the Pennines and Northumberland, before my next feed in Longtown, just North of Carlisle. En-route to the Pennines, I stumbled upon Dan. A ‘Rookie’ participant in the event who I was pleased to see was also riding a Ribble. In his case an Endurance SL R that I could have potentially built! We had a good chat about how things were going and after some words of encouragement parted ways. I set off into the hills to reach the next checkpoint at Grassholme Reservoir (CP 4).
This one was just an undulating out and back to the checkpoint, so a bit of a let-off from the organisers. Now it was time for some proper climbs and the start of one of the ‘Tough bits’. It wasn’t so much the climbs that got to me but the heat! I hadn’t planned for a heatwave, and that was what we were faced with. I was riding in a windproof, waterproof and thermal cyclocross race suit. Perfect in the sub 15° temperatures that I was expecting, but far from perfect in 23° heat.
The heat is on …literally
Every time I hit a climb I was overheating and soon felt like the dreaded *bonk was upon me. Therefore, I had to slow down and take on some sustenance. This pattern repeated itself for the next few hours. Fortunately, the riding was as beautiful as usual as I headed through the North Pennines into Northumberland. At the time I didn’t even realise it was the heat and thought I’d just overcooked it and so plodded along over the rolling hills towards the border.
*Bonk is a cycling term that refers to the state that you find yourself in when your body’s stores of glycogen become depleted. At this point, the body starts to fatigue and burn fat. Even the simple act of turning the pedals becomes incredibly difficult and your mind and body feel totally drained.
By this point, I was in no shape to make an effort anyway and just took it all in. By the time I had reached the top I had been caught by a pair of super-strong cyclists. Richard and Neil had gone the opposite way round but had covered a similar distance. It was nice to be able to chat with someone and bring myself back to what I was here to do. After hours of being slightly delirious, I’d lost my focus and this was just the tonic that I needed. It was 60km until the next feed but I set the target and plodded on.
Popeye the cycling man
At one point I was struggling to hit 15km/h on a false flat downhill, with a tailwind – definitely a low point. I reminded myself that everything passes eventually and just like that the tides turned. A can of coke on the Scottish Borders resulted in a real ‘popeye’ moment. This combined with a drop in the temperature and a stunning section of the route around the back of Kielder gave me a new lease of energy. I passed the previous winner Pawel at some point on this stretch and after a quick calculation, I figured we were both about halfway.
When I stopped for my next feed another rider stumbled into the shop. So after a nice chat with him, I set off into the Lakes while he headed in the opposite direction in search of a place to kip. Before the event started, I had identified this as being the toughest stint between feeds. 280km through the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales with 550km already in the legs and no sleep for two days.
Into The Lake District
The route to The Lakes was a 30km stretch of flat through Carlisle, then on to Bothel, before turning South for Keswick. As soon as the sun dropped below the horizon the inevitable happened and I started to lose focus from lack of sleep. I wasn’t actually falling asleep on the bike, but I just couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm. The more I looked at my GPS the slower the miles seemed to tick down. The 10km from Keswick to Honister, in particular, seemed never-ending. As I closed in on the iconic Lakeland climb it was a mental battle to keep myself going.
I’ve found from experience the best way to maintain focus is to rid yourself of distractions. To give me a goal to aim towards and be mindful of. Amidst all of the struggle, even the checkpoints seemed too much to digest. I even resorted to breaking up the ride between checkpoints to make the task more manageable. Once the targets were set, I turned my GPS light off and just held the next target in my mind. Repeating what almost became a mantra whilst I rode for a while before hitting the next checkpoint at Honister (CP 6). Coincidentally, it was also a checkpoint during Hell of The North West and came at a similarly brutal stage into the ride, so I knew what I was in for.
Unfortunately, it was also pitch black, so I missed out on some stunning views. But after grinding my way to the top I took a moment to set the next goal before continuing onwards. My legs were shaking on the way back down from sheer fatigue. Thankfully, I managed to find my flow on the way back to Keswick. For the first time in the ride, I started listening to something other than the navigation and put on an audiobook for the next few hours. During daylight hours the roads around Ambleside and Windermere would be choked with daytripper’s and holidaymakers, but at 2am I had them all to myself.
Lake District to Yorkshire
Once out of The Lakes I had a flat 20km out to the next checkpoint at Silverdale (CP 7). It was here that I encountered the only bit of rain throughout the entirety of the ride. But as I was feeling stronger by the mile, it had little effect. From Silverdale, I was off into the Dales for some more short, stabby climbs! As usual, it was chilly in the Dent Valley but I was soon sweating on the 1km, 13% climb up to England’s highest railway station (CP 8). Which just happens to have some lovely 20% switchbacks halfway up.
After descending back down, I continued through the valley as dawn broke. This was definitely one of the highlights of the ride. It’s often peaceful in the Dales in the daytime, but at 6:30am it was something else entirely. Moments like these are why it’s worth persisting through the difficult spells because your efforts will be rewarded eventually. Drifting through the Dales I eventually got up to Malham Tarn (CP 9). It was at this point that I checked the rider tracker for the first time.
A two horse race
To my surprise, it looked like being a two-horse race between reigning champion, Pawel and myself. He had only recently returned after finishing second at the Trans Iberica. So he was definitely on good form! From what I could deduce, we had taken the same route but the complete opposite way round. At that stage, I was actually a good 50km ahead. I knew my run for home included a lot more climbing, but barring a disaster I felt pretty confident that I could hold him off.
It was at this point that my mindset switched to ‘Racing’ mode and I started to let it mess with my emotions. Overreacting to things I should have ignored and I let it distract me from the present. By the time I reached the last feed stop, it was 10am and I could feel what was about to happen. With being on a high for a while I’d neglected to eat so felt a bit dazed. Combined with the sun making a reappearance the tide turned yet again.
Heading out of Pateley Bridge, I only had 20km until the last checkpoint, but it felt like the longest 20km. I had planned to take a ‘shortcut’ through Lofthouse which I came to regret when climbing Trapping Hill. The temperature hit 25° on a 3km climb that averages over 8.5%, and features gradients that reach 20% in places. It was also the first time that I let the ‘race’ get the best of me. I genuinely started to get angry at my route choice. By the time I arrived at the Leeds Pals Memorial (CP 10), I had stopped multiple times to check the tracker. I was mentally all over the place.
Mind over matter
It was now just a straight 120km run back to Sheffield. But with the sun beating down again, it wasn’t long before I completely cracked. Within 10 minutes of reaching the last checkpoint, I nearly passed out going up a short climb and was at the lowest ebb of the entire journey. In 2 hours I only managed to cover 20km, freewheeling wherever possible so as not to overheat. It was a constant battle just to keep on plugging away. Eventually, I had to pull over to re-assess the situation because I simply couldn’t carry on in this manner.
It turned into a 30-minute break and during this, I had thoughts to scratch, have a kip, to give up. However, it’s in these moments that you define who you are. I accepted where I was and tried to create a new way of seeing the situation. Instead of thinking that I’d thrown away the win and may as well quit, I realised what an achievement it was simply to finish. I also removed the top half of the race suit to allow my body to breathe again!
I slowly got going again and what a relief it was to be able to ride normally. Keeping the pace slow I fuelled up, gradually regained cognition and realised how far into the red I was. It was a liberating feeling to be able to ride topless. It took me back to my time touring Thailand a few years back. After an hour or so, feeling confident again I decided to quickly check the map. The race was back on! Pawel and I were roughly a similar distance away. But with me having the hillier run in, I knew I had to just give it everything and see how it all played out.
The race is on
With only 100km to go, I left it all out on the road. I had relaxed my focus and the miles just ticked on by. Checking the tracker every so often indicated that there was little to separate us. This was a great carrot to keep me motivated. With only 20km to go, I’d completely run out of water and needed to stop for the final time. It probably took me less than a minute to run into the petrol station and get some more fuel.
Before setting off I turned airplane mode off on my phone and almost instantaneously received messages from friends and family back home. They had been avidly tracking my progress by following the dots on the tracker. It gave me a huge boost to know that people were watching and cheering me on. It’s moments like these that the lines between supported and unsupported rides become blurred. For me, this support was massive and a real spur. After over 950km you really don’t have any legs so all you can do is keep a high relative effort.
It was great a feeling when I started to see Sheffield appear on the street signs. Though it also happened to be rush hour by the time I got there. Therefore, the main roads really weren’t great, but it was far too late in the proceedings to start making a new route. Transiting through Sheffield seemed to take forever and I finished in the same fashion that I had started. Namely, by going the wrong way multiple times! This was just not the time for such mistakes! As I started the climb past Heeley Park, I was fully expecting to see Pawel already there, waiting at the finish line.
It was an awesome way to finish All Points North, with a small crowd cheering me in. Just as they quieted down another round of cheering commenced. This time it was for Pawel who had just appeared at the bottom of the climb. Incredibly I had won, and only 30 seconds was what separated us after close to 1000km and over 46 hours and 26 minutes of riding. Truly unbelievable! The tanks were completely empty by the finish and I didn’t really have much to say.
Post race reflection
Winning All Points North is what I had set out to do, but now that it’s happened it seems hollow in a strange way. I feel an event like this is an exhibition or an expression of who I am. It’s just a reflection of my headspace, training, and discipline heading into the event. This is where I find the real value. If I had finished second I would have learnt the same lessons, had the same experience and gone through the same preparation leading up to it. So the only thing that would have changed was the end result.
I feel as if I’m just getting started and getting caught up in ‘winning’ something that will hinder my growth. As soon as you think you’ve arrived or made it, you put a limit on what you’re capable of. Yet there’s always more to learn and more room for growth. That being said, beyond the result, the experience was deeply rewarding. It also gives me great satisfaction to know all the sacrifices that I’d made heading into the event were worth it.
In a similar fashion, winning an event like All Points North gives me so much confidence for future events. The amount of progress, I had made between completing HOTNW to All Points North was massive and I’m now excited to see where I can go from here. Broadly speaking, it just backs up the fact that the only limitations are the ones you place on yourself and I hope I’m setting an example for others to go out and push their own limits. You will never know what you can achieve until you try it for yourself!
Brad’s bike of choice for All Points North and other ultra-distance events is the ultra-versatile CGR Ti. It combines the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio, with generous tyre clearance and the ultimate ride feel of titanium.
- Ribble CGR Ti (Custom Paint Scheme)
- ENVE Foundation 45 Carbon Wheels
- Shimano GRX Di2 Groupset
- Shimano Ultegra Chainset
- Absolute Black Oval 42T Chainring
- LEVEL 3 Carbon Bar, Stem, Seatpost
- Schwalbe Pro One EVO TLE 30mm (setup tubeless)
- Profile Design T3+ Clip-On Tri Bars
- Alpkit Ultralight Possum Frame Bag
- Alpkit Enduro Harness with Sea to Summit Drybag
- Exposure Toro MK12 Front Light
- Exposore TraceR Rear Light x2
- Prologo Dimension NDR Tirox saddle
- Shimano XTR SPD Pedals
- Lezyne Mega XL GPS
If you enjoyed reading this why not check out Brad’s Hell of the North West Blog? Read it here.
Are you familiar with the Five ferries Island Hopping Challenge? Taking in the majestic scenery of the Scottish West Coast it’s the ride of a lifetime. We’ll let Jane explain why here.
People from across the world now ride Ribble bikes. Take Carlos for instance who enjoys nothing more than spending his free time riding his Endurance SL Disc around Pennsylvania.