Set up last year as an overspill event for the Lake District’s well-established Fred Whitton Challenge, the Etape du Dales gained instant celebrity due to its punishing climbs over the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Mindful of this increased interest, organiser Stuart Holdsworth expanded his entry to 700 riders, streamlined the entry and sign-on procedures, added a new loop which included an extra killer climb to the UK’s highest public house at Tan Hill and increased the length of the course to within a black pudding’s length of 110 miles.

All in all the event had a bigger, shinier veneer for 2006 and was an instant sell-out. 2005 entry? Slightly over 300 riders. 2006 entry? Slightly under 700 riders. Very promising indeed.

Unfortunately, then the weather unceremoniously wiped the smile off everybody’s faces and reminded us that this was Yorkshire, and this was May, and May in Yorkshire is a hardman’s land. More than 100 riders didn’t take the start and who can blame them?

As cars full of bikes swelled the B&B parking spaces around Skipton and the surrounding villages on Saturday evening, the talk in the bars and restaurants was hushed rather than anticipatory, outside a howling gale was blowing and unwelcome, torrential storms had been passing through the area like double glazing salesmen for the best part of a week.

Sunday’s weather forecast was no better and riders were worried with good reason. It’s hell up on the moors when the weather’s bad. It’s even worse when the weather’s bad, you’re knackered, hungry, freezing, wearing cycling shorts and in the middle of a 100-mile ride.

Window of good weather
Pre-ride instructions stated that riders would be set off in small groups between the times of 6.30 and 9.30am and I thought I’d spotted a window of opportunity when checking the local weather website. Unlike the Met Office, which was forecasting blanket rain for the entire region for the entire day, local reports were suggesting a window of good weather at dawn with all hell due to break loose about mid-morning. I judged it might be possible to complete about two thirds of the ride before the rains came if I set off at 6.30. After that I’d be in too much pain to care about getting wet.

This was a huge gamble; the best way to survive hard sportives is to ride in small groups, using other riders to draft, recover and pace yourself. It’s safety in numbers and a sure-fire way to set fast times. Leaving so early was going to mean few riders on the road to work with, more pain, but less freezing rain.

I waved goodbye to a fast time in favour of at least a partially dry ride, got up at 5.30am and was ready to roll at 6.29 on the dot. A few other riders had similar ideas and a group of about 20 of us rolled out of the start at Wharfedale Rugby Club in the village of Grassington. Fortunately our photographer Jon Kennedy had the same idea and was out early, which is the only reason we’ve got any pictures to print.

It was freezing cold but bright sunshine elevated the mood of the early groups. The route wound along the hedge-lined lanes through Kettlewell and Buckden at a sedate pace and bad weather seemed a million miles away. A packet of sheep, well choreographed by a brace of collies on the road, slowed the group to walking pace for about half a mile as they were shepherded between fields. “That group’s better organised than our clubrun,” commented one of the riders, who did indeed seem to be taking well-drilled rotations on the front of the pack.

The pace increased and the conversation faded as we approached Fleet Moss, the first of the major climbs which characterise the Etape du Dales. It was breathtaking (literally) to climb up onto the high moors at such an early hour, the morning air so clear and empty of sound. As expected it was every man for himself on the climb and pretty soon everyone was riding a solo time trial. Having so few riders at the front does have its benefits, though, and the clear roads saw me register more than 50mph on the descent for the first of two occasions on the day.

Dots on the landscape
Buttertubs was next, another leg-breaking ascent, which saw the gaps between riders grow and pretty soon riders in front and behind were dots on the landscape. The descent into
the first checkpoint at Hawes set up the newly-added loop, which would lead to Tan Hill.

What a climb: 150 metres of uneven tarmac reared up from the valley floor at about 20 per cent, before it levelled out into a more manageable gradient, which sailed off into the stars. Not a breath of wind and not a sign of life meant climbing in complete silence. For about five miles across rolling moorland it was the most awesome cycling experience imaginable, with not a single shred of evidence that humans had ever colonised the planet. Then suddenly there was a pub on the corner, which kind of spoiled it.

The Tan Hill Arms, 1,732ft above sea level and thankfully the bar was closed at 9.30am or I’d have been seriously tempted after that climb.

“Is there a toilet in there?” enquired another rider who’d arrived as I was refuelling at the marshals’ post. “It’s an ’ell of a walk down to t’village ’tween beers if there in’t,” replied the marshal with trademark Yorkshire humour.

After a storming descent of Tan Hill we rejoined the familiar route on the energy-sapping drag from Keld to Nateby. The only way to stay positive here is to bear in mind that you pass the halfway point in the ride. As you take the left at Nateby (after the second of my 50mph descents) you get the psychological lift of turning for home.

Trouble brewing
Today, though, it was countered by the first sign of trouble brewing. Out of nowhere a headwind had sprung up and the canopy had changed from bright blue to battleship grey. I estimated I had about an hour maximum before the weather became an issue and set out to get in as many miles as possible before it started. A group of four of us made it to the bottom of the steepest climb of the day, a wall basically, which climbs up past Garsdale Head railway station. By the top there were two of us left and we thanked God that it was still dry for the trickiest descent of the day, a real stepladder of a descent with tight, steep hairpins lined by drystone walls.

Through the valley floor and into the viaduct valley led to the breathtakingly scenic climb up to Ribblehead. Except it was only visible through a veil of milky light. Just as I realised the temperature had plummeted the first splashes of rain fell and suddenly it was like switching the shower on.

Conflicting emotions. I knew we had completed the major part of the ride dry (there were going to be late-starting riders with at least three more hours of rain to endure), but I also knew that I was very tired and still had at least two hours of riding to go. I managed to stick to the wheel of my riding companion for the descent but got dropped on the flat run-in to the final checkpoint at Stainforth. Badly out of shape through Horton in Ribblesdale I sideswiped a pub wall on a right-hander in the village and bounced back into the middle of the road without coming down. Sheer tiredness, I had to keep focusing on points in the distance on my side of the road.

By now the rain was teeming down and it was freezing. A couple of riders were at the checkpoint which marked the start of the final long climb over to Halton Gill, but the climb split us. It was interminable but at least climbing kept you warm. I remember enduring a freezing hailstorm at this point last year but this was worse.

After surviving the descent there was an agonising, 15-mile, flat run-in to the finish. The headwind was driving freezing rain into my face and it was hard to keep over 15mph. I kept looking around in the hope that the cavalry, in the shape of a fast-moving peloton would come by and sweep me to the finish, but it didn’t happen. I passed a couple of riders spinning madly on the final run-in. They’d lost the use of their hands due to the cold and couldn’t change gear.

Untold suffering
Finally, after just under seven and a half hours it was over, for me at least, but after changing into dry clothes I watched the horror unfold as riders who had suffered much greater lengths of time in the rain came in. I saw riders being helped out of their jackets because they were too cold to operate the zips. I saw one rider having his gloves cut off with scissors because he was too cold to remove them and couldn’t get out of his wet clothes. I saw riders too cold to drink hot coffee because their hands were shaking so much they spilled the contents of the cup before they could get it near their mouths, but the most abiding memory I will have is of seeing the sheer joy and delight on the faces of every single one of the 470-odd riders who had completed it. If a ride like this is character building, there were giants in the hall at the end of this ride.

The marshalling was excellent, signage was clear and there was abundant food, energy drink and water at all checkpoints. Despite the conditions and some crashes on the descents there were no serious injuries. (Somehow a rider who had crashed into a wall on the Buttertubs descent had survived uninjured when his carbon forks snapped.) Some people were treated for the effects of the cold at the finish but none were serious enough to be hospitalised. All agreed that the extra loop of Tan Hill had improved and added to the ride’s character, and had certainly made it harder than last year.

“Coming back next year?” enquired one of the marshals. “Never again,” I replied, but then I said that last year. May 20, 2007 then, see you on the line?

Entry for next year’s event open in January 2007. Go to www.etapedudales.co.uk for more info.

ROUTE DETAILS
Depart Wharfedale RUFC, turn left to Grassington, then left down Wood Lane.
At Coniston fork right stay on local road to Kettlewell then turn right and stay on B6160(NW) to Buckden.

At Buckden fork left via Hubberholme to Hawes, turn right onto A684, ride through Hawes then follow signs to Simonstone.

After Buttertubs pass turn right at end of descent to Muker, stay on B6270(E) through Gunnerside to Low Row then take a sharp left up a steep climb in the direction of Langthwaite.

At the bottom of the descent into Arkengarthdale turn left to Tan Hill, then left to Keld.
In Keld turn right on B6270 to Nateby, then left onto B6259 to the Moorcock Inn. From there turn right in the direction of Garsdale for one mile, then left towards Garsdale station up the steep Coal Road. Proceed to Dentdale and at the end of the descent go left to Newby Head on B6255.

Take a right to Ribble Head (Viaduct) then left to Horton in Ribblesdale, then stay on B6479 to Stainforth. Take a left to Halton Gill, then a right to Litton and continue on to Arncliffe.

At Kilnsey stay on B6160(S) to Threshfield, turn left back into Wharfedale RUFC.

Photo: Jonathan Kennedy