MORE than a thousand cyclists descended on a North-East market town before riding over the hills and far away in a punishing bike challenge.

Barnard Castle offered a dramatic backdrop for the start and finish of the Marie Curie Cancer Care Etape Pennines event today (Sunday, July 20).

The route took riders through the North Pennines’ stunning rolling countryside visiting Middleton-in-Teesdale, St John’s Chapel, Blanchland and Stanhope.

A climb to the top of Bollihope Common offered them breathtaking views across the dales before the home straight through Eggleston and back to Barnard Castle.

First to complete the 60 mile course were cyclocross competitors Keith Murray, 39, from Darlington, and Tony Fawcett, 36, from Stanley, County Durham, in three hours, 26 minutes.

Mr Murray, a bike salesman, said: “It was great to be out on closed roads, roads we know and train on but cannot ride in the same way when there is traffic not just sheep and rabbits.”

He said people who turned out to support riders made them feel like they were riding in the Tour de France.

For Adam Holmes, 18, from Eggleston, the Etape Pennines was his first sportive.

He said: “I bought a road bike at the end of 2012 and have been riding ever since.

“It was brilliant to ride on my home turf and to have local support on the route, I even spotted some people I knew.

“It was definitely gruelling but well worth entering. I thought it was fantastic.”

Adam had prepared for the event with a training ride in April which included event ambassador Jonathan Edwards, though the former British triple jumper had to pull out of the ride after he was called in for presenting duties at the British Athletics Anniversary Games.

Durham County Councillor Maria Plews, cabinet member for leisure, libraries and lifelong learning, started the event as she had on the two previous occasions.

She said: “It’s wonderful to see so many cyclists taking on the challenge with such enthusiasm, passion and pride.

“The event is a huge benefit to the region for lots of different reasons.

“It’s also a huge bonus that the Etape Pennines supports Marie Curie Cancer Care.”

Organisers encourage participants to raise sponsorship for the charity to enable Marie Curie Nurses to provide more care and support to terminally ill people and their families.

The partnership is on course to raise £1million through a series of similar events.

Organisers claim the event boosts the local economy by around £235,000 though some businesses and residents complained about the road closures and timing, at the start of the school summer holidays.