I can’t tell you anything about the feedstation at Slaidburn. I resisted the temptation to head indoors and replenish my pitifully diminished energy reserves even though the prospect of getting off my bike and being somewhere dry for a few minutes was almost as beguiling as the idea of nutrition which didn’t have to be squeezed from a foil tube. The lady at the checkpoint grabbed my bottle and refilled it for me and I set off into the murk and up the next hill. This was a day when there was always to be a ‘next hill’.
A damp start
Arriving for the start at the Ashton Memorial in Lancaster, I was anticipating a dry day with no wind so I equipped myself accordingly. I left my waterproof jacket and overshoes in the car and packed a light windproof to ward off any light breezes which might occur. I picked up my number and timing chip and was ready to go. There was a light shower so I decided to wait for five minutes till it cleared. After 20 wet minutes I decided to set off, after all it was supposed to be bright with sunny intervals by mid morning! As I knew that it was going to be a hilly ride and that the hills started right away, I didn’t bother waiting for a group to form at the start.
Head for the hills
The first section of the ride was familiar as I rode out of Lancaster down to Conder Bottom, up the first hill of the day, across the Quernmore crossroads and steadily upwards to the viewpoint of Jubilee Tower. This was built in Victorian times and commands fine views west across Morecambe Bay, north to the Lakes and south to Blackpool and the Fylde coast. At least it does normally but apart from the fact that I was riding head down, the 10 minute shower had become a steady drizzle and it felt more like November than early June. It was downhill from here and then briefly away from the hills to Scorton where the cyclists’ cafe was passed with regret.
Another windy and wet ride!
Shortly afterwards the road headed steeply up Long Lane towards Oakenclough and then proceeded to skirt round the southern end of the Bowland Fells via the attractive stone villages of Chipping and Whitewell . This might sound as if the organisers had given us some respite from climbing, but in fact the route went over a succession of hilly spurs many of them via steep and narrow roads. The early shower had now become a downpour and as our heading was East by North East the weather gods had granted us a strong and gusty north- easterly headwind. At one point the route took us within two or three miles of Slaidburn and the major feed station. In the conditions it was very tempting to head in that direction and complete the long rather than the HC route but my pride wouldn’t let me, so I headed south eastwards to the first feedstation at Bolton by Bowland. I really felt for the cheerful people at the checkpoint who were having to stand for hours in the torrential rain. I refilled my bottles, grabbed a piece of flapjack and continued.
The next few miles to Wigglesworth were relatively flat but the headwind made for hard work. After Rathmell the road headed upwards again with fine views to the Yorkshire Three Peaks which were becoming clearer as the rain slowed to a steady drizzle. This section was on narrow fell roads and struck me as an inspired piece of route planning as the nearby A65 is a road that most cyclists do well to avoid. I had thought that the last few uphill miles would reduce the amount of climbing on the next big hill but then the road dipped towards the edge of Giggleswick. After a short section towards Keasden the road went upwards.
I had never climbed Bowland Knotts and despite the conditions I was very interested to see what it would be like. I really enjoyed the ascent. Once the lower slopes had been dispatched, the whole climb was visible. There is always something exciting about a road which heads for the highest part of the skyline. Looking towards the distant crest it was possible to see the rock outcrops which are a feature in so many views on this side of the Bowland Fells. The narrow road was well graded but even so the wind, weather and hilly miles were beginning to take their toll by the time I reached the cattle grid at the top.
The field was well spread out by now and there were no other cyclists to be seen. I love wild places like this. There is something in me that responds to bare empty landscapes and even though I was feeling pretty drained I felt privileged to be here. The rain had now stopped for a while and there was a good descent on a sinuous road down to Gisburn Forest. I was only 2 or 3 miles from Slaidburn and I had mentally ticked off this section of the route when I looked ahead to see another hill. Although only short it really took the wind out of my sails or do I mean lungs.
I didn’t stop in Slaidburn. With 74 miles under my belt and 28 to go I tried to stop myself from thinking that the job was nearly finished. I knew that I still had Cross of Greet as the next but one climb and that there were some nasty little climbs between there and Lancaster, but I think I was becoming a little complacent.
Straight out of Slaidburn the road rose steeply then fell to a bridge over the Hodder before the big climb of Cross of Greet. This is a lovely road in normal circumstances but by now my calves were becoming solid blocks and climbing out of the saddle was a very occasional option. All three routes had come together in Slaidburn and so the slopes were dotted with cyclists t. Few of us can resist the temptation to try to reel in those who are ahead. I was grateful for the mental distraction that this provided me with. At the top was a family group with two very excited children who were thrilled to have conquered the big climb. It brought home to me what a good idea it is to have a short option in these events. The view from Cross of Greet is exceptional and the cloud had lifted enough to reveal the Lakeland Fells and another superb view towards the Three Peaks.
The descent towards Bentham is one of the best and fastest in the area, but today the route turned quickly left on to a narrow road heading for Wray. After a steep drop to a stream, I spotted a road which was impossibly high up on the other side of the valley. After crossing a bridge the road wound steadily through dense woodland, until a sharp right turn led to a murderously steep single track road. My calves were screaming as I fought my way upwards to join the bit of road I had spotted earlier. Surely the rest of the route couldn’t be as hard as this!
There was a brief lull as I descended to Wray and another feed stop. I refilled my bottle and forced tired legs back into action.
The last battle
I took a caffeine gel and set off on the toughest section of the whole ride. What had gone before over the previous 90 miles eventually proved to be merely the prelude to the real test.
Now if I were to tell you that the next climb is known as ‘Dick Hill’ you might think that I was being gratuitously offensive. I can only tell you that worse thoughts were going through my mind as I cranked up a 25% slope which suddenly steepened to around 30%. I can only apologize to anyone who heard my language at this stage.
The road then plummeted down to a stream crossing, then again rose steeply upwards to Lower Salter Farm. The pain had only just begun. A sharp right turn on to a gated semi surfaced farm track then attacked the hillside to the right. All I can remember of this climb is a blur of gates, gravel, more gates and ever steeper pitches of broken tarmac. Somehow I grovelled my way to a properly surfaced road and the cattle grid that marked the top. I was now drained and my legs were completely shot. I was glad of the long descent and the views towards the Ashton Memorial and the finish.
The struggle wasn’t over yet. After a right turn the road dropped down to yet another river crossing and the hill locally named after the Scout Camp at its top. This was yet another steep climb and I was delighted and somewhat bemused that I got to the top without walking. Another checkpoint soon appeared and after declining the offer of a gel (I really couldn’t face another one!), I dropped down to the cross roads and on to the last short but painfully steep climb of Stock-a-Bank. It was then a short distance to the finish.
I have rarely felt so drained at the end of a sportive. I’ve ridden the Fred Whitton, the Etape du Dales, and many of the harder events in Britain. In terms of difficulty this felt as hard as any of them. The conditions certainly made their contribution, but the real damage was done by the relentless succession of steep hills and technical descents. There are no individual climbs to match Hardknott and Wrynose on the Fred Whitton route. However the succession of steep and brutal climbs in the last 12 miles of Le Terrier HC (combined with the softening up process provided by the rest of the route), make for arguably as tough a finish as any event in the country.
A real classic
Despite or perhaps because of all the suffering on the day, I loved the experience. The route was intricate but logical. There were no busy roads and the sheer number and variety of the climbs meant that the route was absorbing from start to finish. The checkpoints were manned by cheerful, enthusiastic and often cold and wet volunteers.
A good sportive needs a good route, but there are other less tangible factors which help define the difference between a good event and a great one. The best events have really distinctive routes and are run by enthusiasts who appreciate the needs and aspirations of the participants. Very often it’s the events run by cycling clubs which really stand out.
Le Terrier wins on all counts and deserves to gain a place amongst the classic events like the Fred Whitton and the Etape du Dales. Great credit is due to Graham Orr , Bob Muir and all the volunteers who helped to create a truly memorable day!
Recorded Distance: 102.56 miles (as measured on my computer)
Duration of ride (via Sportident timing): 7 hours 40 minutes and 36 seconds
Average Heart Rate: 154
Maximum Heart Rate 181
Position (not that it’s a race!) 20/93 (excluding those who started HC route and opted for a shorter ride)
Total ascent (calculated via Memorymap): 11,817 feet (3598m) , 115 feet per mile.