Renowned for his own epic rides, Ribble Bike Mechanic, Brad heard about a new challenge – the Hell of the North West. A solo, unsupported 840km ride that travels through some of the North West’s finest parks and up some of its cruellest climbs. Here, he tells all.
“That’s mad”, “You must be crazy” I didn’t know what they were talking about, but they’d definitely grabbed my attention!
Dan, one of the guys at work plans some pretty epic cycling events. This one seemed right up my street, just from its name alone – the “Hell of The North West”. It’s a solo, unsupported bike packing event which travels through some of the most beautiful national parks in the UK.
This latest edition of The Hell of the North West started in the Forest of Bowland. Before heading into the Yorkshire Dales, North Pennines, The Lake District, and back through The Dales onto the West Pennine Moors. Before finishing back where you started in the Forest of Bowland. National Parks also mean hills…and plenty of them! The ride is 840km with well over 15,000m of elevation, not far off two Everest’s!
Just do it
After a week of debating and the Hell of the North West only three weeks away, I finally pulled the trigger and applied. Usually, I like to give myself a few months in advance to prepare both mentally and physically for a ride of this magnitude. But this time, I didn’t have that luxury. I decided it’d be the perfect opportunity to test both myself and my trusty CGR Ti and explore roads I’d never ridden before. Two weeks just isn’t enough time to train. So I just accepted I was in the best shape I could be and would just give it my best shot.
Over the previous few months, I had been doing more intensity work with less volume. This wasn’t ideal preparation for a ride like the Hell of the North West, but it was on the back of a long winter’s training. More recently I had completed a 24-Hour ride that took in both North and South Lancashire Cycleway Loops (470km & 5900m Elevation). So, it could have been a lot worse. I was mainly lacking in logistic preparation. Only being able to spend the night before the event, to make a quick plan for the epic challenge I was about to undertake.
When planning something like this, I really try to push the boat out in what I’m aiming to do. From previous experience, I’ve realised that the hardest part is committing to the plan. But, once you’re out there you find a way to endure. Upon arriving at the Palace Cinema in Longridge, in typical British fashion, it was absolutely lashing it down. Which made for nervous energy at check-in.
After a chat with Dan, I got to my bike and realised my Lezyne GPS had turned off. Resulting in me losing the route of the Hell of the North West that I’d just spent 20 minutes loading. Absolute disaster! I tried not to let it phase me and set off anyway. With the intention of loading the route whilst I was riding.
I had the first couple of hours of the route in my head. After all, these are my local lanes of the Ribble Valley. We travelled from Longridge Fell to Slaidburn where we encountered our first major climb, Cross of Greet. This is a climb I know well, after all, I had Everested over it last year. It’s also my favourite in the Forest of Bowland.
I was packed relatively light compared to everyone else and managed to pass a few other riders up the climb. But this didn’t last long. Upon reaching High Bentham my knowledge of the route ran out. I had to pull over to find a solution. All the riders I’d just passed, overtook me again and I was left feeling like the Hare, and not for the last time!
At this point, I was blessed to come across Craig, another mechanic from Ribble. After explaining my situation, Craig informed me that he also had similar plans of riding straight through to Keswick without too much loitering. Therefore, it made sense to ride together until then, where he was bedding down for the night.
A quick weather check on Komoot indicated that only rain was forecast for the first few hours. So my decision to shed the rain jacket at this point was short-lived. We also felt the first draught of what was to be a tough headwind. Which stayed with us all the way to the most northerly point of the route.
However, weather aside, the route was absolutely stunning. Passing the Ribblehead Viaduct on the way from Ingleton to Hawes. Then it was up over Buttertubs Pass to reach the first checkpoint at 98km – the ‘Kings Head Pub’ in Gunnerside. On this stretch, Craig informed me that he had packed enough food for the first few days. Including a huge 1kg brick of Banana bread that he’d made the night before! There he was climbing some of the toughest slopes in the Dales with a brick in his musette! Unfortunately, I don’t think his knees found it as funny as I did.
Checkpoint two was another 100km away. Comprised of a long slog through the North Pennines where the headwind had picked up significantly and the rain still hadn’t stopped. There was a noticeable difference in terrain. The steep slopes of the Dales had turned into long winding climbs like Chapel Fell. Which are typical of the region. We had passed a few more riders at this point and the legs were feeling good. But with the winds only getting stronger, it was slowly breaking us down. Turning the chatter into silence. So it was head down, legs spinning and the promise of a warm bike shop that kept us going.
When we arrived at North Pennine Cycles (CP #2), we were greeted by another rider sat on a chair in front of a heater. He had a quilt wrapped around him and was sat alongside the mechanic who owned the shop. He had volunteered to be a checkpoint. Staying up all night to greet riders whilst offering mechanical help, warm brews, and some food. What a Legend!
Looking around, it was a proper old-school bike shop. With parts stacked from floor to ceiling. I asked him how he ever found anything, to which he responded, “I don’t”! More riders arrived, all in the same state, feeling like drowned rats. Many riders who had planned to ride through had simply had enough for the day. Instead, taking refuge at local pubs and bunkhouses, including Craig.
Fortunately for me, there was another rider looking to ride further into the night. Straight away Jaimi was helping with her local knowledge. Explaining that the 24-hour Spar I was planning to stock up at in Keswick wasn’t actually 24 hours! So, the only place to fuel up was about an hour away in a village called Alston – an absolute lifesaver!
Hash browns to the rescue
With a change in direction came a change in the wind and consequently a change in mood. Riding out of the Pennines, the weather cleared and after hearing about some of the epic rides Jaimi had done, including a 60,000km round the world bike tour, I knew I was with a super-strong rider who I could learn a lot from.
As a Cumbrian, she knew all the local spots and promised Hash browns with beans at a village store in Gosforth from 7:30am. Arriving in Keswick at 2am gave us five and a half hours to do 90km of some of the most epic Passes in the Lakes through the night. The first of which was the next checkpoint, Honister Pass. After a quick photo at the top, we carried on with spirits high. With a good riding partner and a stunning sunrise over Newlands Pass we were motoring along!
Whinlatter pass came and went along with a few smaller climbs around the West Lakes, which saw us arriving at the Village store bang-on 7:30am. With nearly 400km in the legs and Hardknott Pass approaching, we took the opportunity to have a longer break and reset for the day ahead. We fuelled up on a mound of hash browns and loaded up with enough food to last until we got back into the dales. It also came as a huge boost finding out that we were some of the only riders that rode through. Meaning we were near the front of the pack, with only Patrick ahead.
The hare and the tortoise
We were soon put back in our place though when we reached Hardknott pass. Often dubbed the hardest climb in the UK. At 2.2km long with an average gradient of 14%, topping out at 33%, it is an absolute beast. We took a quick time out at the bottom to mentally prepare ourselves.
Jaimi explained how the climb is split into 3 sections. A few super-steep switchbacks at the bottom hit over 25%. This was followed by a flattening off in the middle where youre meant to ‘recover’. But it’s still over 10%. The coup de grace is the 30% switchbacks on the top section before a 33% drag up to the top where it starts to flatten out. With 400km in the legs and a loaded bike, there really isn’t any other way to get up other than full gas!
I got up the first section okay, with some kind words of encouragement from Patrick who was perched partway up the hill having a picnic. Recovering well in the middle and motivated by Jaimi still pushing on behind, I ground my way up the top switchbacks and the final section. The real killer is the rippled tarmac from all the years of cars braking hard. They almost create waves in the road, which on a 33% climb really is brutal. I made it to the top absolutely dripping, shortly followed by Jaimi who also manage to scale the wall. From here it was a short pedal through some of the most remote lanes in the lakes. These would take us to the next checkpoint, Holy Trinity Church in Seathwaite.
I thought we were heading directly to Ambleside where we could get some proper food and have a short break. A direct route was 30km with a climb or two along the way. However, Dan had other ideas! We wiggled our way through another 50km of steep climbs before arriving. For me, this was some of the toughest riding on the whole route. Simply because I wasn’t expecting it! Seemingly every time we turned a corner, we had another 20% wall staring at us.
It was 2pm before we reached Ambleside. But a couple of pies later, and after finding out we were leading the pack, we were both feeling good. The sun came back out and we agreed to part ways at the top of The Struggle. I was planning to go further into the night than Jaimi. At the top of the climb, we gave each other our best wishes and I shot off into the Valley.
With a tailwind pushing me around Ullswater, it was absolute bliss. I got to Pooley Bridge, (CP #5) snapped a ‘classic bike lean at bridge photo’, and took off again. For me, this was the easiest section of riding. Probably because of what had preceded it, but with a tailwind and undulating terrain similar to the Ribble Valley, I was floating along.
I made it to Kirby Stephen in good time. But after being distracted by the choices on offer in the CO-OP and a quick chat with Ryan who had been following with his camera for an hour or so, I headed for Tan Hill. Not far out of Kirby and after a few wrong turns, I was caught by the Tortoise! Jaimi had caught me back up, I couldn’t believe it.
It was at this point that I realised just how strong she was, both mentally and physically. When I was riding with her in the Lakes she seemed to have been slowing down. But this clearly hadn’t meant anything. Even though I may have been riding faster, she just does not stop! The epitome of ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’.
We enjoyed a nice sunset up Tan Hill and were well on our way back into the Dales for the night. From the top of Tan Hill, we had the pleasure of a 20km descent down the valley to Reeth. But as the sun dropped, the temperature plummeted and we were soon riding in temperatures of 1-2° celsius. After almost 40 hours of riding it had started to catch up with us. With Jaimi really struggling to concentrate down the steep descents, it was time to find somewhere to kip.
This almost made the problem worse as we came to a halt looking for somewhere to stay. This made it almost impossible to stay warm. It was 1am now and after a few more climbs like Kidstones Pass we settled for shelter at a public toilet near Kettlewell – rock n roll!
Looking back on it now is really amusing, but at the time it was pure torture! When I pulled out my sleeping bag it was completely soaked. Leaving us both with nothing but a bivvy bag each to keep us warm. The floor was absolutely freezing and whilst I squirmed around all night trying to get a few minutes of sleep, Jaimi resorted to sitting in the corner underneath the hand dryer in an attempt to stay warm. After what seemed like an eternity, 4am came around and the mandatory three-hour break was up. It was still freezing so all layers were piled on and I was happy to be leaving that toilet behind.
A harsh reality
We had a few hours on a high after setting off, with a beautiful sunrise riding over to Malham. But reality kicked in that we were 600km into a ride on about 20 minutes of sleep. There was still 250km to go, and no shops were open for at least 3 hours. We were quickly back to hardly moving.
I knew the next checkpoint was only 50km away, so I just set that as a target and got into a rhythm. We had the intention of a quick stop there and then aim for a café to get a proper meal before a big effort back to Longridge. When we reached Abbey Tea Rooms (CP #6) we were informed that two riders had overtaken us in the night, John Rigby and Brett Doneaugh.
Brett had passed through 3 hours prior and John wasn’t too far in front of him. We were in no state to chase them down so carried on in search of a café. A few more hours passed with no luck. So when we spied a CO-OP in Keighley, the plan of the café went out the window and we took one last long break. With Jaimi struggling to get comfortable on the bike she told me to try and catch the others in the last 100 miles. Three hours was a lot to try and pull back, but we weren’t too sure whether they had stopped!
As I didn’t have the route loaded onto my GPS, the only way to navigate was through voice navigation on my phone. It took a while to get used to the unusual commands, being sent the wrong way three times within the first hour, which at this point was super frustrating. But as with most things, it’s your reaction to it that causes most of the problems. So I just had to accept the situation as it was and try to find a rhythm.
The home stretch
With some good tunes on for the first time in the ride and surprisingly good legs, I soon got into a flow. The next few hours simply flew by when passing through Hebden Bridge, Todmorden & Bacup. Before reaching more local roads around Ramsbottom. It was a great feeling to have some familiar tarmac underneath me. It was only then that I started to realise how close I was to the finish.
I got a surprise visit from Murray (another mechanic at Ribble) who rode with me to the next checkpoint (Anglezarke). Now I was really close to home, back on the roads I ride daily. Passing my Nana (who bless her had been stood out in the rain for an hour waiting for me), then down Goosefoot lane to Mellor where my Mum was waiting to cheer me on.
It had started raining again by now. But being so close to the finish I just ploughed on, not wanting to disrupt the rhythm. Next up was the Nick of Pendle, before hitting the last climb, Birdy Brow. I’d been this way back to Preston many times before at the end of long rides so it was a familiar feeling to be ascending the 2km climb on fatigued legs.
My Dad was waiting at the top and from there it was just an undulating 10km back into Longridge. I took my time to get to the finish from here, taking in the views of the Ribble valley and trying to comprehend the adventure I’d just been on.
The first time I had ridden a proper road bike was when I was 13. I remember that I nearly cried halfway through a 27-mile loop on the flats because it was so uncomfortable. So uncomfortable I didn’t ride one again for about 5 years! Now, after only 2 years of riding consistently, I’d just completed an 840km ride on about 30 minutes of bad sleep and I genuinely felt good at the end. Finishing the last 100-miles in about 8 hours.
I arrived back at the Palace cinema in Longridge to be greeted by Dan and Brett, who’d arrived a short time before me. It was only at this point when Dan said Jaimi was the only person still out on the course that I realised that everyone else had scratched. Meaning of the 50 who had signed up, 24 had started, only 5 finished and I was 3rd place.
I had definitely used the race as a carrot to push myself. But in the end, this wasn’t a race against anyone else. You can only ride your own race, test your own limits. If this means that you’re in front of other people taking on the same challenge, then that’s great. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. That mentality can take away from the experience completely. If I was emotionally invested in the end result, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the journey along the way.
Grinning from ear to ear I enjoyed some homemade vegan chilli and a beer whilst I waited for Jaimi to finish. There wasn’t a grain of doubt that she’d make it, and eventually, she arrived, absolutely drenched but still smiling! She finished 4th overall and was the only female rider to finish. We sat down and had a good laugh for a few hours. Discussing our experience’s and listening to stories from other riders relayed by Dan.
With the Hell of the North West being my first proper organised event, I learned so much. First and foremost, how much more I have to learn and grow. I usually only do these things solo, so it was just really inspiring to know other people were going through the same experiences I was. This took my bar of what is possible to another level. At the end of the day, we are all human, so if they can do it, why can’t I?
On the physical side, I’m really not very strong on the bike. So if I stay consistent, I have so much opportunity to grow, and even though my mind is what gets me through these things, I still have a long way to go before I’m on someone like Jaimi’s level.
There were also more specific lessons learned, like how important planning and preparation are. Not having a route on my GPS could easily have made me scratch if I wasn’t shepherded around the course. I will also definitely be planning somewhere to sleep next time! Not only to save carrying wet sleeping gear around but also getting a few hours kip would be a massive boost!
I’m definitely looking forward to taking part in some more organised events this year, with ‘All Points North’ being my main goal. An epic 1,000km bike packing race between 10 carefully selected checkpoints around the north of England. which forces you to go to places you would usually bypass. Other than this, I’m just excited to go exploring!
The beauty of training for these things is that having a bigger goal really helps motivate you to get out on your bike and in turn, take a break from the chaos. It’s rare in today’s society to get some real solitude. We’re all bombarded with distractions in every moment, so to just be out in nature, either by yourself or with like-minded friends is genuinely a blessing and one of the main reasons I love to explore the world on two wheels.
Prior to taking part in the Hell of the North West, I’d built up my new Ribble CGR Ti. A timeless all-rounder and more than capable of withstanding the miles I knew I’d be throwing at it. I opted for the new Shimano Gravel GRX Di2 1×11 but stuck with 700C LEVEL wheels fitted with a trusty pair of GP5000 tyres. For this kind of event, less is definitely more when you’re climbing. Until of course, it comes to settling down and you wish you’d packed a few more items!
The rules for this event stated double lights front and back, emergency bivvy, face mask and gel and check-ins every 100km due to not having trackers this year. Besides that, I took some solid Exposure lights (British daylight hours did help here!), a battery bank, my phone, a few snacks to tide me over between stops (albeit never quite enough!) and my Alpkit saddle and frame bag packed with tools, jacket, waterproof and spare kit – which came in handy after the downpours!
If anyone is interested in taking part in the Hell of the North West event next year, it’s looking like September 2022. Starting at Waddow Hall (Clitheroe) and will be pushing for a 50/50 gender split of participants! To find out more and get involved check out www.randomadventure.co.uk
Our latest Ribble Rides series covers a 26mile route in the Trough of Bowland, a local favourite of ours and the tour of Britain too! Read here
Up for another challenge? Ribble rides – Garstang to Beacon Fell is another great route for riders of beginner to intermediate abilities.