James Thinks

writing is a kind of thinking

At the end of August 2021 with other plans postponed I decided to ride the Pure Peak Grit route.

I found this ride hard, somewhere around Mille Cymru or TINAT-hard, maybe harder. I made a few mistakes that made it harder for me than it needed to be, which I'll get onto. I have massive respect for the few people who've done this ride in about 36 hours. I had naive notions that I might be able to get close to those times which soon fell by the wayside as you can see from my Strava track.

Deep green valley with road sign in the foreground warning of 20% hill This was fairly typical.

It was also very scenic, well perhaps not the first few km which took me through the back of Buxton and along a rough B road which was surprisingly busy for 6.15am. But soon I was out in the peaceful lanes I had expected. Slowed down by the first climb I was happy I could make up time on the inevitable descent. But as soon as the road sloped downwards, the surface turned to gravelly loose chippings, narrow and steep. I had to take it very carefully through the tight corners. Another descent had cobblestones, so I had to take that carefully as well. This was much slower than my usual rides and I was struggling to maintain the 17kph, which had seemed reasonable.

No rain had been forecast, so unusually for me I had removed mudguards and left the waterproof shoe covers at home. As it started to drizzle I wondered if this had been a mistake, but it stayed light enough to be refreshing.

The first big climb I remember was the Cat & Fiddle. It didn't feel steep, but it did carry on into the sky. I lost count of the number of false summits. Every time I climbed over a ridge and round a corner I'd look across the valley and see cars striking a diagonal line across the hillside. Oh. I'm going up there.

Pub sign featuring metallic picture of a cat playing the fiddle Pub at (or nearly at) the top of the Cat and Fiddle climb.

I didn't have an easy view of the upcoming gradients. My GPS can do this and Erica had appreciated it on our recent trip to Cornwall. However she had been on the back of the tandem with no need to look at the road. Riding solo I needed to keep a lookout for bad surfaces and sudden bends. I thought a gradient plot would be an extra distraction.

As I descended over the many hills, I noticed a regular bump bump bump, even on smooth roads. A bit of a worry and not what my backside wanted. It was about time for my first stop which I'd planned at least every four hours. It was a local shop that I'd marked with a pin on the map. After scoffing a felafel wrap and brownie I had a look at my rear wheel. As suspected, the recently refitted tyre had a "low" point where the tyre bead hadn't quite seated on the rim, but got stuck lower down. The effect was subtle which may be why I didn't spot it on my shakedown ride. Luckily by part-deflating the tyre and manipulating it up into place, I got it fixed.

As is often on long rides my internal jukebox went through a variety of involuntary tracks, some because I'd heard them recently, others triggered by something I'd seen. Dodgy's If you're thinking of me, U2's Miami, Depeche Mode's Enjoy the silence, First Aid Kit's EmmyLou, The Divine Comedy's Freedom Road...

Mannekin riding a bike with E.T. sitting in a crate on the front Well, why not?

As day wore into night things got harder, as they usually do. For a start nowhere is open for food and water refills, but I managed that as usual by carrying enough. A churchyard tap somewhere near Bakewell provided water when I needed it.

What slowed me down most was lack of visibility. I do have a good, reliable front dynamo light with a shaped beam meaning I can always see the road 30 or 40m ahead. But for fast descents when the road appears suddenly out of the gloom, this isn't quite enough. I can see a pothole in time to avoid it, but its really useful to be able to look a few hundred meters ahead. If there's a small rise coming up I'll let the brakes off and pick up speed knowing I'll safely slow down anyway. But if it drops off suddenly then I'll brake early in case the surface gets sketchy. This isn't possible without good visibility so I had no choice but to slow down. I did also take a round beamed battery light which can throw light a lot further, but it's very dazzling and annoys oncoming traffic. I have to remember to shade it which is hard to do at times when I want both hands for braking. All of which grumbling meant I was slower at night.

My plan was to take a proper break at least every four hours, but not sleep over the night. I had previously ridden through the first night of PBP which felt fine, but that started in the evening. As I tiredness built up and I got slower I realised a nap might be what I needed. Some time around 3 or 4 am I found a convenient bus shelter in a very quiet village with space for my bike and, thankfully, a wooden seat. I put on all the clothing I had with me - merino cycling jersey, breathable micro fleece, waterproof jacket and gilet. This seemed to be enough and I set my watch. Half an hour later I did feel refreshed. A bit. I had stayed warm enough, but having chosen a location at the top of a hill then immediately got cold riding down it with no extra warmth built up from the climb. The night stayed cold and I even used my winter gloves. The microfleece layer and hood were very helpful, without them I'd really have suffered. Every time I stopped to open the bag and swap some clothing around I made sure to turn the bike around to shine the light at the ground. I recovered one dropped arm warmer this way, so I'm glad I did.

Eventually the sun rose and the views were as lovely as I'd hoped. You know, the kind that never seem to come out quite right in my photos. As I rode towards Castleton one view was kind of ruined by the huge concrete factory marring an otherwise idyllic valley. Who put that there?!

Gorge with grassy slopes in front of rocky cliffs Winnats pass from the bottom, before the tourists.

Next was Winnats pass which is nothing if not intimidating! At least it was still very early and the buses full of tourists had not yet arrived with their noise and smoke. Another hour of zigzagging up and down various hills put me on the road to Glossop where I had my first serious doubts about completing the ride. My left knee suddenly started getting painful. I often have a few aches, but this seemed more persistent. I decided I'd get to Glossop along a fairly flat road, by Pure Peak Grit standards, and see what I could do. Once there I find a good bakery, ate a little too much and texted my cycling buddy Nick. He's had knee issues as well, but admits he hasn't got it all worked out. Nevertheless his gentle encouragement was what I needed. I'm not someone who likes to take medication regularly, but I did take a small dose of ibuprofen before carrying on. The next climb was snake pass which was a long but thankfully gentle slope and the pain reduced to discomfort. However, the many motorbikes roaring past were a jarring contrast to the peaceful early morning lanes. A gentle loop around Edale, then straight up the formidable Mam Nick which had me walking the bike for the first time. I started walking all of the harder hills. I had done more than an Everesting's worth of climbing by this stage. Even on those I rode up I was very slow. I was passed by every cyclist I met. I resisted the urge to tell them how far I'd already gone. Some people had driven their cars to the top of the hills and sat out with chairs just soaking in the amazing vistas. I don't blame them, but I felt those of us who'd walked or cycled up there had earned those views!

Concerned that it would soon get too late to find food and unsure what options lay ahead, I went for an early dinner about half four. Nice veggie burger but I found I couldn't manage the chips and had probably over-eaten all day. The route then took another little loop up the local hills before the it moved on. This zig zagging up the same hill from different sides is exactly what I do when planning my AAA audaxes, but in this case I found it frustrating, perhaps due to the lack of perceived progress. The lovely weather and stunning views partly made up for it. I stopped a couple of times to try and loosen my pedal cleats as I was having some trouble getting the left one out which might not have been helping my knee.

Reservoir in sunlight with forest beyond

As dusk fell I started getting stomach pains that I knew from a previous ride meant I would urgently need to find a toilet. The trouble was I was out in the countryside, but thankfully not far from the next town. I searched frantically on Google Maps for a pub - ah "The Friendship" that sounds good. I got there and it was a usual rowdy evening town that audaxers dread. Small cars being driven aggressively, drunken people wandering along the street and shouting. There was a sign post opposite the pub to which I locked my bike. With my lightweight cafe lock I was very unhappy about leaving my bike here even for a few moments, but my guts were now shouting at me so I had little choice. When cycling I dress to be conspicuous - fluorescent yellow helmet and arm warmers, scotchlite gilet. Great on the road, not so great in an unfamiliar pub. I smiled at the banter but didn't try to explain what I was doing. Dressed like that I didn't think I could get away with just running straight for the loo, so I bought a soft drink - I was thirsty. I made it to the toilet to my huge relief. I'll spare you the details, but it wasn't quite the end of my issues and I was rather uncomfortable at times for the rest of the ride. I think this happened mostly because I ate too much, but I need to work it out because it almost ruined the ride for me.

Back on the bike the steep climbs kept coming and I kept walking. I was repeatedly trying to estimate what time I'd get in, but this was a depressing game as it kept getting later and later. In the end I resolved to just keep turning the pedals or walking the bike, knowing that the distance travelled would keep going up and I would get there sometime. If the ride wasn't endurance before, it was now.

Sometime after 11pm I was pleasantly surprised to be caught by another cyclist, Ben. Incredibly he had been riding the Pure Peak Grit as well, having started a little earlier than me. I learned that he'd also done extra distance in order to sleep in the same hotel in Buxton each night. I must have overtaken him while he slept the previous night and now, some 19 hours later he'd caught me up. It was great to have some proper company for the first time in ages, but after maybe an hour together I realised he was stronger than me and suggested he go on ahead, which he did. It was interesting too watching Ben's taillights disappear in the distance and occasionally reappear on a straight section. This was how I first realised what a huge climb we had coming. Ben must've been about a kilometre ahead when I noticed his lights rising and illuminating some dramatic bends. Only after slowly following him up this enormous climb did I realise it was Holme Moss, topping out at 525m above sea level. Ben's swift disappearance got me thinking that I'm definitely not one of those people who can ride well on only a few minutes of sleep per night. I was plodding, my average speed about 70% of what it might be on a typical 200km. My neck and back were aching the way they do when I'm too tired. A few hours of good sleep would probably have made up for the time spent in my case, and certainly made the ride more enjoyable.

After a chilly descent I was back to plodding along and counting up the distance. Not fast, but with no stopping now. Happily the terrain, while not flat, did not provide the extremes of earlier and I arrived into Buxton about 2:45am. Relieved, exhausted, aching I sneaked back to the hotel glad that I'd arranged with the landlord to leave a key out for me.

It was a beautiful route, but I felt utterly sure I never wanted to do anything as hard as that again!

Mugshot of James cycling on a road in the sunshine.

James Bradbury

I write about whatever is on my mind. I do so mostly to help me think more clearly. If other people find it interesting that's good too. :-)


The tyre bead hadn't quite seated on the rim

I lost count of the number of false summits.

A churchyard tap somewhere near Bakewell provided water when I needed it.