Dales Divide

In April 2022 I took part in my first bikepacking race – the Dales Divide, a 600km off-road route in the North of England with 10,000m of climbing. Although I have lived in Amsterdam since 2016, I'm originally from the UK and I was excited to take part in my first race back home.

I signed up for the race in January, and read every race report and blog I could find to try and gain insight into the kind of bike and kit I might need. The overwhelming opinion seemed to be that a mountain bike would be best, but as I wasn't in the position to build up a new bike my all-road Surly Midnight Special would have to do. I switched my slicks for knobby tires and started training.

Training through winter was actually really nice. I invested in some good winter kit and got out for long endurance rides twice a week. As well as niggling concerns about my bike, I was also worried about how I would train for all those hills. The longest training ride I did was 224km, and I only managed to accumulate 660m of climbing over that distance. I found an indoor cycling gym close to my place and signed up for a membership, going 2-3 times a week for intensive 1-hour sessions. I had no idea how this would translate to cycling up a 20%+ gradient, but I could feel myself getting stronger.

I had this vague ambition, based on my training rides, that I would finish the race in 3 days, averaging 200km each day. I had no idea just how slow proper off-road miles could be. The Netherlands has some beautiful cycling routes but you rarely encounter rugged terrain.

In the weeks leading up to the race, I started to redesign the Carrie Gere stem bag to give myself more carrying capacity and an extra stable mounting system. After a couple of prototypes, I landed on something I was happy with and made 2 of them. These ended up carrying a surprising amount of food and I was super happy with how they held up. Along with the stem bags, I also made a half-frame bag that was as big as it could be, whilst still allowing for 2 water bottles – I wanted to make sure I had the room to bring everything I could need for pretty much any mechanical mishap (I ended up using none of it, thankfully). Alongside my Carrie Gere bags, I used an AGU seat pack for my clothes & sleeping mat and a Topeak front loader for my bivvy and sleeping bag.

I drove to the UK a few days before the race with my partner and our dog in our ambulance-turned-campervan. We camped a few km away from the start line and explored the local surroundings which were incredibly beautiful – it made me excited to get started.

The race started at Arnside Pier at 8am. Before we set off, Pat Hall, Emily Chappell & the race director Chris Ellison said a few words. Starting the race after all these months of thinking about not much else was surreal and I felt pretty nervous. Within the first 5 minutes of the race, I met India and we started chatting. It turned out it was also her first race, and also her second-ever off-road ride, on a brand new gravel bike. We kept pace with each other for several km before officially deciding to stick together for a while. The first 40km or so were mainly on road with some pretty chill off-road sections, and the kms flew by. After years of cycling on almost flat terrain, I was surprised and happy to discover I really enjoyed climbing, especially flying down the other side, spinning out the gears on this bike for the first time. In the first couple of hours I couldn't imagine it would ever get tough. The sun was shining and I was having a great time.

At around 40km we entered the Yorkshire Dales and the real riding started. The landscape became wild and beautiful and the terrain quickly turned rugged and slow. We did our first hike-a-bike section followed by lots of chunky rocky single track and miles and miles of bog. It was around this time, when our average speed dropped to about 8km an hour, that I realised riding 200km that day might be a tall order.

At some point in the early afternoon, I came off a small grassy verge into a hidden bog in front of it. My front wheel immediately sank and I was thrown over the bars into the thick mud. I was covered from head to toe, but I wasn't hurt, and it was early enough in the day that I could see the funny side of it.

It was around this time that we started talking to two other riders, Pottie and Matt. Pottie was on a mountain bike and we were leapfrogging each other – she would zoom off on the rough bits and we would catch up on the road. We ended up riding as a 4 for the rest of the day.

We made it to a petrol station in Pateley Bridge a few minutes before it closed at 10pm, where we frantically loaded up on supplies and then found a chip shop nearby for dinner. We stopped for about 40 minutes total before cracking on. We wanted to get as close to the 200km mark as possible before we stopped for the night.

At 182km we arrived in Boroughbridge after a particularly difficult boggy section in the dark. We were muddy and drained and needed sleep. We found our luxury accommodation for the night in the form of a Morrisons supermarket car park. We set the alarm to go off 2 hours later and tried to get some sleep.

Day 1 on Komoot

On day 2 we were off by 5:30am with the aim to stop in York 40km later for some breakfast. I was super stiff getting on the bike and I had developed saddle sores for the first time ever so the first few km were slow. Stopping in York we made a beeline for Greggs where we loaded up on sausage rolls and coffee.

The first 60km were flat and pretty roady so we made progress quickly. Things started to get tougher after that and there was a lot of hike-a-bike in the unusually hot weather. We hit gate after gate after gate, and deeply rutted farm tracks through fields that had dried rock hard. This terrain rattled my bones on the rigid bike. It was slow going and I was in a tough spot mentally.

We were riding our own races more on day 2. India went off ahead and then a bit later on Pottie, Matt and I also separated. Sticking on a podcast and having some solitude for a couple of hours turned out to be exactly what I needed and I managed to get my head back in the game.

By dinner time Matt, Pottie and I had reconvened in Scarborough where we had another chip dinner and did another big resupply. We learnt that India had fallen into some stinging nettles, had an allergic reaction, and spent the rest of the day trying to find antihistamines. Luckily she managed to get it sorted and found some other riders to team up with in Scarborough.

Riding out of Scarborough with Pottie, Matt & our new riding pal Cederic was maybe my favourite part of the whole race. It was the kind of off-road riding that I love the most – gravel logging roads through beautiful forests, lots of fast fun downhill sections and beautiful scenery. Apparently, just show me a pine tree and I'm happy.

After the gravel, once again came bog, so much bog – we had entered bog world. Where earlier in the day this would have broken me, my head was in a good place now and we just slowly hiked our bikes through dark muddy marshes for hours, chatting, cracking jokes and having a good time. It's weird how your mood can go all over the place on a race like this – I was told to expect it, but experiencing it was something else.

We managed to cover more distance on day 2 and clawed back some of the missing km from day 1. Our total distance stood at 390km when we stopped for the night in Grosmont, a really cute little village with an old train platform, where we slept for the night. We decided to treat ourselves to a full 4 hours in our bivvy bags, and this time I managed to fall asleep.

Day 2 on Komoot

The alarm was set for about 6.30 the following morning and as we were packing up our stuff a lovely man who owned the cafe opposite where we were sleeping came out to offer us tea. Getting on the bike on day 3 was even tougher than on day 2. My body was screaming at me, but like on day 2, after a few km everything started to loosen up a bit. Pretty near the start of day 3 I enthusiastically cycled through a ford that was deeper than it looked. My wheels slipped out from under me and I fell into the water. Matt & Cederic looked on in bemusement as they walked over the bridge that I hadn't even seen.

Day 3 was similar to day 1 in terms of scenery and climbing. Cycling through the Yorkshire Moors was beautiful and the weather was amazing once again. There were some really technical parts to overcome in the first few hours and I stretched my bike’s capabilities to the absolute limit.

We were aware that resupply points would be few and far between on this part of the route, and because it was Easter Sunday, our options were even more limited. We cycled through Catterick hoping to find lunch and bumped into India and a bunch of DD riders sitting outside an Italian restaurant. We had what we all agreed was the best meal of our lives and then went around the corner to a small convenience store where we stocked up on snacks and a box of extra-thick sanitary pads which Pottie used to fashion extra padding for her saddle. India left with the group she had been riding with earlier in the day and we made a plan to meet in one of the bothies on the moor for night 3. Cycling through the moors in the dark was exhilarating. The gravel was loose, chunky and more technical than the previous night but it was still faster and more fun than the extra slow, barely rideable sections we'd gone through earlier in the day. We reached the last bothy on the moor at about 10pm and decided we weren't ready to stop for the night. Maybe we could even finish the race?

We reached Bainbridge at about 1am and consulted the GPS to figure out a plan forward. There was about 30km between us and the next town. If we could do that section tonight, we'd only have 40km left.

The 30km was almost all off-road and started with an 8km loose rocky gravel climb. As soon as we started the climb it started raining hard and the gravel became slippy and unpredictable. Once we reached the top of the hill we were totally exposed to the elements. Visibility became really bad, and the rain was coming down super hard. Mine and Pottie's lights both died and the only light left was Matt's dynamo, which flickered on and off while we made incredibly slow progress across this high section. Once we finally made it through the off-road section, we had a long road descent into the town. We were all soaked through and we were frozen. We made it to Dent at about 6:30am, that 30km had taken us 5 hours.

We found Cederic, who had made quicker progress, in an indoor bus shelter/tourist information hut. After the last few hours, it was like we'd walked into a luxury hotel. I didn't even blow up my pad, I just crawled into my sleeping bag on the concrete floor.

Day 3 on Komoot

We got up an hour later and were ready to just get it done. The night before had completely drained us, and all that stood between us and this all being over was 40km. We cracked on, and despite the odds, within a few km, I was enjoying myself again. I savoured those last few hills, knowing soon I'd be back in the Netherlands with its incredible but incredibly flat bike path network.

Cederic and I rolled back onto Arnside pier just before midday, 3 days and 4 hours after setting off. We waited for everyone in our group to roll in and then we went to the pub, we were finished. Even though just 7 hours previously I was in hell, all I could think about now were the best bits.

Day 4 on Komoot