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Putting the Tour de France to the test
WITH less than a year to go until the Tour de France comes to Yorkshire, Ashley Barnard took the opportunity to cycle part of the route
TORTUROUS climbs, exhilarating descents, spectacular views, jelly legs and aching bones - I experienced it all during my two day adventure in the saddle.
Following the same route that Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and other stars of world cycling are expected to take next year was to be an experience I will never forget.
Yorkshire is currently basking in the glory of its chance to be showcased on the world stage for the 2014 Tour de France Grand Depart.
Split into two stages, the first will see top-level cyclists from across the globe tackle the challenges and take in the beauty and splendour of the Yorkshire Dales, Peak District, historic cities and industrial centres.
Stage one, confirmed for Saturday, July 5, 2014, will commence from Leeds and take riders through Skipton before heading into the Yorkshire Dales National Park, though Wharfedale, Bishopdale, Wensleydale and Swaledale, and then back via Ripon and making a fast finish into Harrogate.
Stage two, on Sunday, July 6, starts in Sheffield, taking cyclists on the edge of the Peak District National Park, through Huddersfield, Keighley and Harrogate before the finale of the Yorkshire stages in York.
As a regular mountain biker, and having done a lot of cycling around the North York Moors National Park and Yorkshire Dales with my dad, I thought it would be a good opportunity to have a go at part of the route, even though it would be all road-based.
I thought this might actually make it a bit easier, having been dragged through deep bogs and wet moorland many times in the past while on day or weekend-long biking trips, and as Dad had undergone a knee replacement operation earlier this year I thought it would be a fairly relaxed and fun ride.
When discussing our route we knew we were more interested in stage one, but I thought even taking a full weekend would perhaps be a bit ambitious for us to take on 190km, so we decided to cut out the section between Leeds and Skipton to avoid city traffic and the A65.
And on the other side we decided to finish in Ripon rather than Harrogate to keep off the busy A61.
This left us with about 130km, to ideally split evenly over two days. This placed our halfway point in Muker, Swaledale, but because the Dales village has only a few small guesthouses and is on the Coast to Coast route, finding accommodation there on Saturday, August 31 was practically impossible, especially as there were now four of us: my dad, Mike, his wife Stella, me, and my boyfriend James.
Therefore we had to push on another 12km to Reeth to stay at the Black Bull pub - making our Saturday mission a gruelling 80km, before a more gentle 50km the following day.
So far so good - dad's knee had recovered well and he had done a practice mountain biking event in the Dales a couple of weeks beforehand, and Stella was also recovering from an inner ear operation that she had worried would affect her balance. James had been doing lots of running, and as for me, well I was thinking positively and enjoying a peaceful state of denial of how much pain I would be in afterwards.
On the Saturday morning, we met dad and Stella at their accommodation in Skipton as they had decided to stay the night before. We checked tyre pressure, water bottles and munched a preparatory muesli bar before setting off north along the B6265 Grassington Road.
Day one of the Tour next year will start in Leeds, but we joined the route in Skipton for our tour of the Dales
The first village we went through was Rylstone, before passing through Cracoe and Threshfield - the going was quite steady, but the traffic was busy at times which did feel a bit unnerving, although of course the only traffic for the Tour riders will be support cars and bikes.
The road surface was smooth and had obviously been recently resurfaced or at least well-maintained, so would not present any problems to the sprinters used to impeccable concrete surfaces.
When we turned into the village of Kilnsey we hit one of the sudden micro-climates the Dales are known for, and from sun on our shoulders one minute we had run straight into clouds, wind and drizzle, and were faced with a short climb before we could descend into Kettlewell, and follow the valley to Starbotton.
Riding through Wharfedale before our first major challenge
We stopped in this pretty village for a rest. Dad and Stella had been ahead because I had been stopping to take pictures - it was an important part of this feature and had nothing to do with my being tired - and were tucking into some homemade fruit cake.
Villagers here are ideally-placed for a front row seat as many houses are right on the road side, but crowds trying to jostle for a position might not have much luck as there wasn't much of a pavement.
We needed a stop-off in Buckden before the incline at Kidstones Bank, the first really killer climb. It seemed to go on and on – up there with the more famous Buttertubs Pass for pain factor
After the next village of Buckden we reached our first killer hill. I was starting to feel some pressure because we had agreed to meet Stuart, the Northern Echo photographer, at noon in Asygarth and we still had about 20km to go in an hour-and-a-half. But even with this in mind I couldn't stay on my bike on the brutal Kidstones Bank.
Even staggering up the incline on two feet proved to be a bit much, and embarrassing as it was to see other cyclists power past me without a hint of discomfort, there was no way my legs could muster the energy to get back on the bike.
I caught up with Stella and we pushed our bikes up while pondering what on earth we were thinking when deciding to take on the task.
This would be a great area for spectators however, with lots of space in fields on either side of the road, and I can imagine this first major climb will be packed out with cycling fans wanted to see the riders sweat it out to the top.
The descent into Bishopdale was a great reward, a long straight road with amazing views across Bishopdale and into Wensleydale, and certainly helped us catch up on lost time to get us to Aysgarth only about half-an-hour late for our photo call.
We had an hour's break for lunch, which Stella rightly decided was a mistake because our legs would have to get used to moving again, and as we were now working into the wind the ride towards Hawes was tough going.
We stopped again at the foot of Buttertubs Pass. Dad had been trying to convince us it "wasn't too bad", and that on this side of the Dale it was a nice, steady incline. "It's easy, you'll get up no problem," said James, who had been sailing along with ease all day. He got a sharp word from Stella for being too smug.
Buttertubs Pass: The Big One, what felt like a near vertical climb. Sugar intake essential before attempting this, and don’t look up – the intimidation of the climb ahead does get to you
I tried to get a head start, to get my head down, get in the zone and try to power up. There was hardly any traffic so I could weave side to side, which often works when I'm doing a long or steep incline, but about two thirds of the way up my legs turned to jelly and I had to admit defeat.
Dad did his best Bradley Wiggins impression and made it to the top - there were walkers coming in the other direction though and he wouldn't be seen dead stopping for a rest.
Again, there is a lot of space in fields on either side of the road for spectators so it is another section that fans will enjoy, but it was an effort to even push my bike up, never mind ride.
James and dad powered up the hills no problem, and despite Stella heckling the walkers coming down the hill and asking for a push we had no takers.
It is difficult to find "the top" of the pass because it levels out a bit, which lulls you into a false sense of relief, but then there are more, shorter climbs before the big descent - which actually has a couple of climbs along the way down so riders will have to change gear quickly unless they have the leg power to go from high-speed downhill into a incline without losing pace.
Descent into Swaledale: Probably the best view of the weekend. It was clear so we could see for miles and the dale looked glorious. The descent is surely one of the best in the whole of Yorkshire
Again, the views looking down into Swaledale were spectacular, so much so they did not look quite real, and the ride to the bottom was exhilarating, even though I disobeyed the boys and applied my breaks for most of the way - I just like the idea of keeping my teeth if I fall off.
Dad, who loves to pedal down 25 per cent descents in what seem to be attempts to break land speed records, said the crash barriers on that particular stretch would have to be addressed.
"Normally crash barriers are bad enough but at least you can slide along it, but along the Buttertubs Pass the barriers are wire with sharp metal uprights," he said.
"If a cyclist went into that they would slide for a bit still but soon hit the upright because there are close intervals between them - and riders will probably reach speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour.
"Often though Tour organisers put thick padding around all road signs so I'm sure that will also be the case here."
From Muker to Gunnerside in Swaledale the road was probably in the worst condition of the whole route. It had been recently resurfaced but perhaps cheaply and still had quite a lot of gravel at the sides which would cause problems for cyclists travelling at high speeds.
We managed to drag our tired bones to Reeth before collapsing and rewarding our efforts with hot dinners and pints of juice.
Waking up the next morning I thought my legs had turned to stone - and after listening to a blazing domestic outside our bedroom window at 3am I had not had the best night's sleep.
I slipped a couple of paracetamol - "to take the edge off", as Stella advised, and we were good to go.
The first climb came early on, and although the Tour de France riders would not have had much chance to recover from the Buttertubs Pass, I felt better once we got moving and I managed to climb above Grinton without much trouble.
I had the first puncture of the outing though, which did create some difficulties because James had hurtled off into the distance with our spare inner tubes, and ones dad had did not have a compatible valve, so I had to keep going with a couple of efforts to pump the tyre back up until he came back down the hill to see where I was.
Once the two men had expertly changed the inner tube, we were aided with the wind behind us to the top of the Dale before and long and exciting descent into Leyburn.
From here the Tour will go through towns and villages that will be packed out with tourists - and the local businesses are sure to do a roaring trade if they can make the most of the thousands of visitors.
The road from here onwards grew busier so we had to ride single file more rather than in pairs, and it was fairly up and down but the Tour riders will be able to get up a good speed as they make their way to Harrogate.
After passing through Masham, West Tanfield and North Stainley, it was almost disappointing to have reached Ripon.
Despite being utterly exhausted I had loved the thrills of the descents, the scenery, and passing, or being passed by, dozens and dozens of fellow cyclists who were probably doing similar rides to us.
The overall consensus was that the weekend had been fantastic, that fans and riders would be treated to a once in a lifetime experience next summer - and that the Tour would certainly cause North Yorkshire to be ranked as a top tourist destination for cyclists and non-cyclists alike from around the world.
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