'Summer is for grazing, but autumn is for raiding, pillage and rape'
Let us get one thing clear from the outset. I am NOT a lithe, muscled 65kg climbing machine.
I AM a 74kg lump of fat and bone who lacks any noticeable muscle. Also, I am old.
Given the above you can instantly tell I am not a naturally born climber.
Indeed I dread hills - and the Coast to Coast route via the Reivers is jam packed full of them as I was about to discover.
A motley crew of 20 cyclists, with a wide range of youth, experience and fitness, set off from Whitehaven marina in dribs and drabs, riding along the coastal path and waving back to the children on the train as it trundled past.
Then came the first climb of the day, a short test for the legs with a kick at 10% gradient to give an early warning of what was to come, as the path turned eastwards towards Workington. A rolling route over the Caldbeck Fells then followed with some beautiful scenery to give a reward for the suffering my legs took from the repeated 20%+ gradients.
As I looked over to Bassenthwaite memories flooded back of the week I had spent there as part of an Outward Bound Training exercise whilst being groomed as a manager at Rolls-Royce plc so many years ago.
It was then onwards to Cockermouth for a lunch stop. Much of this village had been devastated by the floods a couple of years back and work was well underway to restore the village centre.
The whole ride was well supported by Dave and Mel and the sight of them each day with their chuck wagon was always welcome. A time to grab a banana, a slice of cake and drink as well as meeting up with some of the other cyclists to share experiences before the onward ride to Caldbeck for the first night's stop.
Day 1 Distance 60.5km with 850m of climbing.
Tuesday dawned bright and very hot, the temperature rising to 31degC and proved to be a very arduous day in the saddle. The climbs kept on coming as we headed towards Carlisle where we stopped for lunch at the Cathedral. The roof in this place is majestic and well worth the detour.
It was not that long ago that strangers here would have been treated with suspicion. It was the nerve centre for bitter feuds and bloody battles created by the long-running dispute over the border between England and Scotland. During a period of Scottish occupation the ruler of this stronghold was one Macbeth, no wonder they built a castle here.
Escaping from Carlisle proved a challenge but eventually the city sprawl was left behind and the rugged moorlands came into view, something that I could glimpse between the sweat that was running down my face from both the heat and the unforbiding terrain...there MUST have been some downward bits! The steep switchback trails took us down to Bewcastle with its famous cross which has survived 1300 years of relentless borders weather in St Cuthbert's churchyard. Any hope of using the downward momentum to tackle the long gradient with 25% inclines which were then ahead were thwarted by two tractors filling the road. So it was a lung busting, knee wrenching standing start to get up the climb.
Day 2 Distance 87.5km with 1035m of climbing
Day 3 commenced with the invasion of Scotland where its defences lay in it being again situated at the top of a very long hill.
Newcastleton proved to be very welcoming and the local tea shop is to be highly recommended. The countryside is beautiful with many clear rivers and mountains as we rolled along the border before turning towards the Keilder Forest and England.
The tracks around Keilder Water give you many good sightings of what is the largest man made reservoir in Europe and at Leaplish stopped for lunch. It was then just a short ride to the night stop at Bellingham but this proved to be the most hazardous bit of the trip so far. As I turned out of Falstone, 80% of which had been consumed by Keilder Water, the road rose like a wall in front of me. Two mad dogs lay in wait at the corner deterring any attempt to gain.momentum. Having climbed the first long steep hill the surface deteriorated as the next challenge lay ahead. Across yet another cattle grid to be confronted by a huge beast of a bull, and very bully he was! Bellowing loudly and waving his head, his harem of cows also joined in. I had read somewhere that cows don't like to be separated from their calves..and this lot were, with me being the separating barrier. The path was steep, pot holey and gravelly. So far I had managed to complete the ride without ever resorting to getting off the bike and pushing. But I gave in and got off. I was not sure on which side of the bike to walk up the hill, that bellowing monster looked as though it would make mincemeat of my Mercian. So I decided to let my companion face the herd whilst I sheltered on his other side....Mercians are after all very valuable pieces of precision engineering. Once just past the monster I got back on my bike and did a very impressive hill sprint up the remaining 200m to the cattle grid.
Day 3 Distance 75km with 908m of climbing
The next day began disastrously. I had been using my Garmin 800 to keep track of my journey and map the route with the aim that other intrepid adventurers could follow in my cycle tracks. But this morning I woke to find the garmin had failed; completely dead. In this part of the world mobile phone reception is a thing of dreams so even Strava on my phone was useless. So I had to rely on my friends stats for the day and he is not a numbers nerd like me.
The day's ride began by going up hill, again, and it was a very steep uphill but at least it was tarmac. With the temperature continuing to rise we turned right to continue a mountain ascent along sheep paths with the occasional llama eyeing us suspiciously. Mountain goats and sheep were well suited to this terrain of the Buteland Fells. Progress was slow, not helped by a farmer driving a flock of sheep along a narrow path. But at least this gave me time too stay upright recover my strength though I had noticed that after three solid days of climbing, many of them up tracks more suited to Mountain bikes, with the gearing to go with such machines, I was using one gear lower than my normal cycling on a road bike. The scenery around here was bleak and raw and buzzards, or were they vultures, could be seen circling in the sky.
Lunch was taken at a truly beautiful little village at Matfen. With its village green and young boys playing in the stream this was truly idyllic. The journey was now nearly over and the run down into Ponteland was quick with the sun on my back and the speed bringing a refreshing draft of wind.
The route from Ponteland into Teignmouth is best glossed over. The cycle trails were awful and it took all my mental strength just to stay upright. The Mercian was more than capable of handling such rugged ground but I am afraid I wasn't. And then it was down the hill and back to sea level on Teignmouth Quay and time for a celebratory ice cream
The end of the route is just beyond the promentary, looked over by the statue of Admiral Collingwood, and just after that is the beautiful ruin of Teignmouth Abbey.
A total journey of 300.5km with 3336 m of climbing.
It was a great experience and my first taste of cycle touring, though admittedly it was done the easy way with excellent support throughout.
If any of my fellow riders see this and feel drawn to comment, then please do.
For me it is now to consider what next year's cycling challenge will be.