With a bit of time on my hands and the winter weather slowly subsiding to springtime I made the decision to challenge myself to a century ride. I had the perfect route in mind, one that's been on my radar for a while, Hadrians Cycleway. 170 miles from Glannaventa Roman Bath House in Ravenglass to Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields, the route is one celebrating the beauty of the Roman frontier through incredible countryside. I'm a sucker for a good coast to coast ride and had neither the intention nor the capability of riding 170 miles in one day so my route would start from Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria and end at Arbeia in South Shields.
In order to get to Bowness-on-Solway in time to start a long day of riding I spent the night before in a cheap hotel in Carlisle. The entire ride was going to be over a hundred miles as I had to ride ten miles from Wigton train station to get to the start of the route and then another eight miles home from Arbeia at the end so I was looking at roughly 115 miles in total. My longest ride to date was way back in 2016 when I took part in the Dunwich Dynamo night ride from central London to Dunwich, Suffolk. I've come close to century rides in the last few years and never quite realised it and so earlier this year I decided that I wanted to scratch the itch and tick the century ride box. I knew that I could definitely achieve the hundred miles but I was worried about what shape my body would be in by the end of it as over the last year I've developed rather frustrating niggling knee issues when riding.
Having caught the 6:19am train from Carlisle to Wigton it was time to start turning the wheels and get the challenge underway.
My trusty steed for this challenge was Speedy Gonzales my titanium road bike and as we climbed the first hill in the chill of the morning the sun made a welcome appearance over the fields. Having checked the weather forecast and brought only a thin pair of gloves I quickly realised my mistake and hoped that it wouldn't be long before the sun warmed the day. Within minutes the cloud had asserted its dominance over the sun and I pedalled onward into a gloomy grey world. My strategy for the ride was to keep a steady pace that was sustainable, to make full use all of my gears to stay in the saddle and grind up the hills and to eat every two hours to ensure I kept my tank fuelled. This route is significantly less hillier than the classic C2C route which was another good reason for choosing it and the first ten miles were joyously flat as I rode north to Bowness-on-Solway.
Arriving by the Solway Firth estuary I turned onto the national cycle route (NCN) 72 and it felt like this was where the ride really started.
In years gone by Bowness-on-Solway was the location of the Roman fort Maia which guarded the approach from the Solway. It's also the start of The Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail, an 84 mile long distance footpath that I'd be riding alongside (ish) following the ruins of Hadrians Wall, an epic wall built to guard the wild north-west frontier of the Roman Empire.
Riding alongside the rugged coastline was very peaceful, it was still early morning and people were only just waking to start their day. It was definitely colder than I'd expected and I seemed to be riding into a headwind from the east which was rather disconcerting when I knew that I was riding west to east for the entire route. I was making good progress even with my frozen digits and rode through Carlisle just before 9am. Following my GPS I turned off towards the river and quickly realised that I was no longer on a cycle path but a muddy footpath. Hoisting the bike on my shoulder to climb a set of stairs I decided to ignore my GPS and head back to the streets. Picking up the NCN 72 sign again I declared to put my faith in Sustrans and follow the blue breadcrumb trail. Having navigated the city I realised that I'd missed my first designated feed stop of the day. I'd set the alarm on my watch for two hours from when I had set off but with all the juddering of the streets and noise from the cars I hadn't heard it. One hard boiled egg and a banana later and I was off again onto smaller roads heading into the green countryside as the sun finally showed her face again.
The signs of spring were all around, rows of yellow daffodils lining the lanes and trees starting to blossom. All I could hear was the turning of my wheels, the rush of the breeze in my ears and the morning birdsong - heaven! Feeling the gentle rays of the sun on my face made my smile grow as I cruised along quiet roads turned into rolling hills.
Before long I arrived at Banks East Turret, a well preserved observation tower where soldiers would have lived or sheltered whilst keeping watch on the frontier. There would be two watch towers in every Roman mile (one Roman mile is 0.92 English miles) and Hadrians Wall was made of turf in this western sector of the wall.
A cold slice of leftover veggie pizza (from last nights fine dining experience) and a homemade oat bar later and I was back on two wheels. I couldn't believe how little traffic was on the roads, it was glorious not to have to think about cars as my legs ebbed and flowed with the undulating road ahead. Finally forced out of the saddle to climb the hill in Greenshead I was feeling good and crossed my first county line from Cumbria into Northumberland before rolling through the market town of Haltwhistle whose claim to fame is that it's the centre of Britain.
The section from Haltwhistle to Bardon Mill was serene and one of my favourite parts of the ride. Relaxed pedalling with views over the valley and no cars - happy days!
I knew the road ahead was the biggest climb of the route and just settled into a nice slow rythmic turning of the pedals as I enjoyed the scenery. Passing the Vindolanda fort and museum I laughed as I remembered taking my two nieces there whilst on a 'Little Explorers Club' (a club I created for us) outing a few years ago.
Hoping to grab a cup of tea I stopped by a smaller entrance and made my way round to the cafe before being told by a member of staff that I couldn't leave my bike by the door. She told me I had to go through the gift shop and put it outside and then asked if I'd paid the entrance fee. I told her I just wanted a cup of tea from the cafe to which she answered that I couldn't enter the cafe unless I'd paid the museum entry fee. I do love a good brew but I think £10 is a bit much to ask and so I continued on up the hill to eat my lunch in the shelter of Grindledykes lime kiln with a gorgeous view of the valley beyond.
Lunch was a classic bike staple of oatcakes and cheese followed by another piece of oat bar. It was chilly enough not to sit there any longer than necessary and as the long beautiful road stretched out ahead of me it was speedy riding as the hills stopped rolling.
It was here that I realised that I'd lost the rubber cover for the USB of my front light :-( the first (and only I hope!) casualty of my century challenge, no doubt caused by some of the appallingly potholed road surfaces I'd been riding on throughout the day. At this point I have to admit that the constant vibrations from the poor road conditions were giving me grief in my left wrist and my lady bits felt rather numb. Thankfully the fast descending road meant that there was no time to dwell on those niggles, only time to revel in the glory of freewheeling down towards Hexham and passing a sign that read forty eight miles to Arbeia.
Stopping only to use the loo, fill my water bottles and put some much needed chamois cream on my nether-regions I breezed through Hexham crossing the River Tyne as I motored towards Corbridge.
In Corbridge I stopped at the Co-Op and bought some sushi for later in the day and a much sought after cup of tea. I sat on the floor in the sun by the bike rack and willed the tea to give me a little boost. My legs were feeling ok but I was starting to realise just how much further I had to ride having ridden eighty miles already and knowing that I still had another thirty odd miles to go. It wasn't long since I'd eaten but I snuck in another piece of oaty energy bar goodness before saddling up and riding on.
The following miles were definitely a struggle, a battle of wills entirely fought in my brain. My body was just plodding along doing it's thing but my mind was telling me I wasn't enjoying it, it was very dull, there were too many miles left.....I was riding through a soupy fog of misery. The landmarks and places weren't coming fast enough and I was willing the miles to disappear quicker which of course meant that they felt strung out and longer than usual. A saving grace was a newly tarmaced section of the route on the Wylam Waggonway alongside the River Tyne. Smooth as a babys butt, it lulled me into a trancelike state of bliss with every turn of the wheels.
By now I was down to single digit miles to Newcastle and as the surroundings became evermore familiar I felt the evil, depressing brain-fart mood lifting and the excitement building. A quick five minutes break to scoff some energy laden sushi and I was back to it, feeling only small niggles in my calves to signal the many miles they'd powered me along. Having never ridden along this part of the Tyne before I really enjoyed the anticipation of seeing the many bridges ahead that signalled the city centre. Finally turning onto the quayside stretch I navigated the various pedestrians along the shared path and revelled in reaching a big milestone along the route.
I knew not to count my chickens before they'd hatched as there were still a good few miles to ride but I also knew that I could do it, I would make it and the familiar route would be a friendly reminder that I was on home turf now. After a quick loo stop at the Cycle Hub cafe I felt rejuvenated and the miles ticked over as I headed for the North Shields ferry terminal where I would cross the Tyne.
Rolling up to the ferry gates I felt relieved. Having just missed a ferry I'd have a twenty five minute wait and after only five minutes I was starting to get rather chilly. I decided to eat a banana in the hopes that it would magically give me the energy I'd need on the other side of the river for the final seven miles home and unwilling to sit down in case I seized up, I paced around the small floating ferry dock to the stares of the regular passengers. Finally the 5:30pm ferry docked and I savoured the seven minutes of sailing across to South Shields. Following the last few NCN 72 signs up to Arbeia, I had reached the end of the route.
Considering I grew up just a few miles from here I honestly think this is the first time in my thirty seven years that I've actually seen the fort here.
Knowing that this was the end of the route but not the end of my journey I turned tail and headed for the coast road home. I fully expected these to be the hardest miles of the challenge and I was right, it's always dangerous to feel that you're nearly there as the body and mind start to give in. Riding into the headwind and up a very small but rather long-winded incline for a few miles I was willing myself home. I've made this ride many many times and every time I forget just how long this road is! Each milestone counted down in my head, Souter Point lighthouse, Whitburn Village, Seaburn beach and then finally turning off the coast road and into the little streets of Roker. Pulling up to my Mams house and getting off Speedy I felt the tiny elation of a challenge completed followed by the huge relief that I was finally finished. Looking at my GPS I'd ridden 117 miles and I'd arrived just under twelve hours from when I'd started riding which felt like days in the strangeness that is bike-time. It was nice to come through the door to my Mam telling me congratulations and to talk about the ride. Most importantly I got down and did some light stretching of my legs, taking care not to go too hard as I had slight niggle in my dodgy right knee. A hot shower was next and then the final act of post ride self-care was a bag of frozen peas for my knee. I could relax now and enjoy the fact that I'd finally ridden a route I'd been wanting to do for ages and on top of that I'd ridden the longest ride of my biking life, woohooooo!
Waking yesterday morning I tentatively took my first steps of the day and was incredibly pleased that nothing really hurt. Usually after previous challenges or long rides I've been in a lot of muscular pain the next day and I have to say that I'm really chuffed that it's not the case this time. Looking back at what worked on the ride I definitely think that taking it at a steady pace was the best strategy. According to Strava I was moving for a little under ten hours and had an average speed of twelve miles per hour which is very good as there was 1,618 metres of elevation gain along the route. Having regular food stops every two hours also seemed to work well. I have to say I was never hungry on the ride and didn't ever seem to feel depleted in my power and riding so I'll take that forward as something to do for my next long ride. Overall I really enjoyed the route, it was virtually traffic free and not too demanding on the hill front so I'd definitely recommend it as one to ride. As for the century challenge, I'm really chuffed that I completed it and also that I didn't destroy my body along the way. It's got me very excited to think of further long distance challenges for the year so watch this space....