Cestria CC does the Winking Sheep Sportive (27 August 2017)

L-R, Stuart “The Younger” Cook, Peter Scott, Emma Glover, Ian Dodds, Ray Haldene, Paul Mallett

I should qualify the title by stating that six club members decided to enter the sportive formerly known as the Roof of England, and rebranded as the Winking Sheep, being a beer made by one of the sponsors (more on that later). There were three routes available and everyone, suprise, suprise, opted for the longest at a tad under 90 miles. It wasn’t so much the length that made this such a fantastic and challenging route, but the climbing which was 2726 metres or 8944 feet. To put it in context with the Fred Whitton, which is arguably the toughest in the north of England and possibly UK, the Fred is about 22 miles longer and climbs 3750 metres or 12,312 feet. The Fred has two really tough climbs at the end, Hardknott and Wrynose, while the Sheep has one near the end (Peat hill) and Crawleyside earlier on.

Paul fixes his first puncture before Nenthead; soon after his tyre would be discarded. The moto marshalls were excellent throughout the event.

Peter thinks twice about opening up the great tyre debate and thinks the better of it. Nenthead cycle shop is the location.

The Sheep started at St. John’s Chapel in Weardale, with rolling starts between 8-9am. Due to nw of our group having to work until 8am and then get collected and brought to the start by another, we decided to aim for 8,30am. The morning was lovely, with the sun breaking through raising the temperature to about 14C. Having been given our safety briefing at the start line, we got going at about 8.45am and headed west up the main road towards the first climb, Killhope Cross (and the border with Cumbria). There was a light westerly wind but it was not too bad since we had shelter most of the way from the lee of the hill. Traffic was very light and it was too early for the motobikers, apart from the event moto marshalls. Having stopped for a photoshoot at the top of Killhope, we began our fast descent when Paul Mallett stopped sharply before the rumble strips, due to a puncture (fortunately before the cattle grid, but still causing Stuart “The Younger” Cook behind him a squeaky bum moment). The kind moto marshal who had taken our pictures at the top stopped to offer Paul a tube, but he had deep section wheels and it was a short valve. Having efficiently replaced the tube, Paul then took his wheel to place under his front forks when there was a bang and the new tube blew. After close inspection, he discovered that the tyre had split and he had no spare (nor had the marshall). The marshall had already radioed it in and told Paul that the Nenthead bike shop was open for repairs. Paul replaced the tube again and managed to get enough pressure into it to gingerly descend to Nenthead where the shop was open. Fortunately, Paul bought a new tyre and we were off again with not too much delay. What a perfect place to split a tyre!

The roadside marshalls were also excellent. This lovely lady got our prize for most enthusiasm and craic, as she cheered every one of us up the climb out of Garrigill.

After the pit stop, we managed a decent pace into Alston and traversed the cobbles without incident. Here the route wheeled around towards the Hartside road, before forking left and east to Garrigill and the first feed. This is a country lane that bounces up and down, and Ray Haldene’s knee started to give him problems. We arrived at the feed within a couple of minutes, and had tea, crisps and bikkies there. The first steep climb is shortly after the village and has short sections of about 21%. Emma Glover was in top form and romped up this first (a feat repeated on every single climb afterwards). Paul and Ian Dodds were also in fine form, while wily Stuart paced himself up the climb. There was a lovely lady road marshall at the top of the climb who cheered and clapped everyone up to the junction. We stopped to chat; she was one of many volunteers from the area and we greatly appreciated their support through the day. Ray climbed in quite a bit of pain, but decided to head for the next feed at Middleton and review the situation there. Having joined the main Alston-Middleton road, we paced ourselves to the top, regrouping a couple of times. By this time there was quite a bit of low cloud and while we didn’t get wet, it was quite a lot cooler. After the climb (Yad Moss), the road makes a gradual descent more-or-less all the way to Middleton. Ray decided to test his knee and see if he could ride it out. He stormed down the descent, dropping most people until near Langdon Beck! We all regrouped on the road and headed into Middleton for some more snacks. Here, Ray popped into a local chemist to buy some pain killers and bravely set off with the rest of us towards Stanhope.

Rather than taking the usual route out of Middleton (Snaisgill road), we took the main road towards Eggleston and then turned sharply uphill onto the usual route. This was another short and sharp climb but we had some help from the tailwind. The tailwind was also useful for the climb over Bollihope Common, and we descended to the Bollihope Burn valley before the final climb towards Stanhope. Again, Emma soared upwards again, leaving the rest of us in her wake! Ray was steady here and soldiered on. The descent is technical but there was a marshall with a red flag who slowed us before the tight left hander and cattle grid. Shortly afterwards on this descent you hit a series of tight right- and left-hand bends on a steep gradient, but everyone got around these safely and we regrouped at Stanhope ford, which was busy with picnickers and even an ice cream van!

Stuart talks labradors with the cheery food ladies at Garrigill feed station.

The short event route took the back road to Daddry Shield and St. John’s Chapel, but Ray decided he would try the medium route (still sharing the same course as the long route at this stage). We therefore ascended Crawleyside; everyone in the group knew it but it is long and, in parts, steep. Understandably, people ascended at different speeds but we all got to the top and waited a few minutes. The descent to Edmundbyers is fast, especially with a tailwind, but you can see the road ahead and adjust for the tight left hander. We turned towards Blanchland and arrived there shortly afterwards for the final feed for both routes and sampled a selection of peanuts, crisps, flapjacks and bananas as well as topping up water.

Ian crests the climb out of Garrigill and joins the Alston-Middleton road.

Ray popped another couple of pain killers here, and we all set off through Hunstanworth. Once we cleared the forest, there was a slight headwind. At the top the heather was magnificent, and it was not so fresh as it had been at the tops of Yad Moss and Bollihope. There were plenty of grouse sounds and we saw one surveying us from the bracken. The descend to Rookhope went without incident and we headed to Eastgate and rejoined the main valley road. Here Ray had decided to return via the medium route, so the remaining five of us headed to Westgate and the much-vaunted climb of Peat Hill which we’d all studied closely on route profiles and Strava. Having had a discussion about which was harder, Crawleyside or Peat Hill, we agreed that it was the latter by a long way. Even with a following wind, the steep sections were still savage, ramping up to 21% through two tight bends. The severity of the climb eases soon after, but there was still a good mile of climbing after that. This was the one climb where there was no chat or banter!

“My right leg”: Ray puts a cheery face on his knee problem at Garrigill while Emma contemplates another packet of crisps – she deserved them!

Ian descends off Hunstanworth climb down to Rookhope.

Having waited at the top and exchanged impressions of the climb, we all headed down towards the Roohope-Allenheads road, and turned left onto that road. While there is a climb all the way to the county border with Cumbria, it is not steep at any point, and we regrouped at the stone cairn. We had passed a girl doing the long route on a heavy-looking mountain bike, and given her some encouragement, as we were very impressed. We didn’t stop at Allenheads and turned left onto the road to Cowsgill where we did the final climb of the day. All five of us reached Cowsgill together, and cycled the few miles back to St. John’s Chapel as a group. Despite being one of the last groups to finish, the event marshalls and organisers gave us a hearty welcome back and we crossed the electronic line where we were given our complimentary bottles of “Winking Sheep” beer (with the offer to open it if we wished!). We found Ray who had got back safely, and we reminisced on what was a great day’s cycling.

Many thanks to all concerned in organising the event; it was completely run by volunteers, and there were a lot of them. I’m also most  grateful to my teammates who made the ride so special, and with whom I had loads of banter, craic and encouragement!