A Load of Old Cobbles The RVC 2014
“Come to Calderdale, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…” What was I thinking? "Daz", good friend and effervescent, industrious founder member of the Kirklees Cycling Academy frothed about the young riders club fund raising event, the “Ronde Van Calderdale”.
The RVC is a homage to the Belgian one day classic "Ronde Van Vlaanderen" (Tour of Flanders) and held on the same day. It takes in a series of short, sharp, horrid, cobbled climbs that easily rival the Koppenberg and its compatriots in Belgium. "Trooper Lane" is longer, steeper, narrower and deserves to be recognised and promoted as a classic pave climb. In fact, the KCA crew have created a route that includes some of the toughest cobbled climbing its ever been my displeasure to struggle up. However, as I like a challenge, it had to be done: after all, I've ridden up some of Europes biggest and toughest climbs, it can't be that bad can it?
The sportive takes in much of my old stomping ground: as a youth I yomped over the moors above Hebden Bridge with Dairylea triangles, an ´apeth of Yorkshire Mixtures, and a stick for a gun; later riding over them on the mountain bike, getting all fancy with cheese and ham baguettes, flapjacks and a pump for a gun...good times.
From Spey Valley High School, the route heads west and for the hills, the circuit twists and turns to connect a bakers dozen of cobbled mill town streets and lumpy old bridleways whilst sending you to the hump of England´s backbone...twice. It navigates through the suburban sprawl of bustling market towns, passing small villages with gastro-pubs and Range Rovers, long stretches of verdant and fecund pasture with fresh born lambs and fresh laid cow-pats, and windswept Heathcliffian moors with moody clouds and Sunday drivers huddled in their cars eating Ice Cream in force ten gales. The route is a guided tour of the history of Yorkshire from sheep and wool, to canal and mill, to Motorway and urban sprawl, and all the while cycling through your very own Hovis advert.
The peloton largely ignored the parky morning, and the start line was the usual hum of over-excited nervous energy. After the off, clumps of riders grouped together with the sine wave of tyre noise and the bustle of the throng shimmering through the congregation: this quickly dissipated as the interference of traffic furniture split the peloton and small groups formed. Its a relatively fast, urban ride out to Steele Lane, least ways, it would have been be if the horizontal rain and hurricane strength head wind abated. The first climb was tough, but doable, I didnt see anyone get thrown from their steed, despite the damp gritstone cobbles underneath. From here it was a long grinding drag out along the exposed moors: low clouds, grey and heavy with rain, the gusting winds snatching at your jacket and a low slung head staring at the wheel in front. Not the nicest of sections, but the squall passed and the descent back to the valley floor was accompanied by dappled sunshine and a rising temperature.
The ride along the valley bottom was warm and welcoming, traffic a touch heavy for my liking, but at least the wind and rain had gone, and the Sun had his hat on. A sharp change in contour threw me as I was enjoying the swooping descent, completely wrong gear and the only way to avoid a crunching chain break was to get off and suffer the ignominy of hand cranking to the right gear and setting off while other more astute riders sailed on up the climb. Another short cobbled section topped the asphalt ascent, and from here this loop of the land of Summer Wine veers toward Toffee Town and Bronte Country.
Wood Lane feels like the first real cobble challenge, there´s a few miles in the legs, energy has been spent and the road abruptly goes from flat to "chuffin hell!". Finding a line is not easy. The cobbles bounce your wheel around and the constant search for assured traction makes concentration essential. Some opted to bunny hop to the smooth pavement, but not all :-). The Food Station after the climb is well sighted, many riders were clumped here, refuelling, swapping stories so far, and girding loins for what may come. What comes is "Shibden Wall", (nee Lee Lane). Renamed by the 1988 Kellog Tour of Britain, this redoubtable cobbled climb deserves its notoriety and place in the top 100 greatest climbs in the UK. A ferocious climb that starts with a welcoming short tarmac section that then annihilates with its vertiginous gritstone wall. Just as the quads have filled with lactic theres a short respite before a nasty gooseneck and the rest of the torture continues. The climb had scattered onlookers yelling and cheering support, which was motivational and welcomed.
Taking the hairpin wide gives another breather and time for a little acid to wash out, before this battle of two halves continues. From here a few decide to opt for the handy smooth tarmac on the left, but most remain true to the spirit of the event. From here loud yelps and cheers could be heard, as if some great throng awaited within a stadium, their siren calls drawing you toward their song like sailors towards their doom. Alas, no beautiful maidens but a flock of Alba Rosa cycling club cheering on their fellows to the summit. A warming team spirit if ever there was one.
Gibb Lane is a grubby, dishevelled, washboard of a climb. The cobbles have large tyre-width gaps where the rain has rinsed out the grout, and avoiding these while not spinning out the back tyre is challenging. It´s bordered by working farms so the cobbles are displaced and largely uneven, and the farm vehicles make sure there's plenty of crud and cow shit distributed along its length. An exponential curve, the climb seems to just get steeper and tougher, and although I´d managed Shibden Wall, Gibb Lane demoralised me, and for the 1st time (but not the last) I was off the bike and hobbling up cobbles in my carbon soles as if I had hobnail boots on, clacking and slipping my way up like a wet spider.
The climbs are thick and fast now, with little respite between them: the "Summer Wine" leg gave long sections for a recovery, ever since Wood Lane its been up and down like a ventricular flutter. From the grunge of Gibb Lane, its a short stint across a ridge line, before a breakneck swoop down into Luddenden. A glorious descent with open vistas across once dark satanic mills, now green and pleasant. Luddenden is a quaint curiosity of a village, stuck like a glob of wax in the bottleneck of the valley, a cluster of dark gritstone mill cottages gathered around a pub and a church, those stalwarts of Yorkshire life. Those old enough, and Yorkshire enough, may remember Thora Hird ducking into the "Flag and Ferret" (The Nelson) in the sitcom "In Loving Memory" filmed here in the 80´s. (Thats two Thora Hird references!!). Alas, no time for childhood reminiscences as the route goes directly up again, almost vertically so.
Old Lane, probably the toughest of the cobbles. Short, bumpy and straight up, Old Lane is perfect...for full suspension mountain bikes, yet again I was off and pushing. I felt like Granville on Arkwrights Bike.. Lots of vocal encouragement was offered, but no amount of cheering was going to get me up that. (note to self: less Nutella and more miles next winter).
After Old Lane, its a long ascent back to the heights of the Pennines at Wainstalls. Gale force winds decided to return, with an uncanny knack of always blowing in your face. Heading north? wind in your face. Heading West? Wind in your face. Heading South? Wind in your face. How is that possible?! There was no shelter at all, silin down it was, and the descent from Cock Hill required a sustained effort, not the long awaited free-wheeling hoped for. It was reassuring to see the Ice Cream van serving 99´s, despite the nordic conditions. Only at Old Town did the winds abate and allow a lifting of the head so that the stunning views across and down the Calder Valley could be inhaled. A wondrous section back down to Luddenden and closing this loop.
Literally on last legs, the valley bottom rush in warm spring sunshine seemed to be over waaay too quickly. Especially as the RVC´s coup de grace awaited: Trooper Lane. The proverbial "bogey man" of the RVC, Trooper Lane holds a fearful reputation, and coming after 115km of relentless peak and trough, battering head winds, and a nasty case of vibration white finger, its reputation is well deserved. Its stats speak volumes. 700m with an average gradient of over 19%, with some short painful ramps well above that.
The first tarmac ramp shocks the system, a corkscrew twist that rises like a wall, and after that the little respite is just a cruel joke, its better not being there at all. From there, its a sustained gut wrenching effort to the summit. Narrow lane, green cobbles, and the skinny club racers in fluorescent tops making it look easy, ensure an oath to lay off the cake and figs next winter. Trooper lane has an emotional element to it. Its the last one. Its all down hill from here (well near as makes no difference) and the road section back to Spey Valley grants a bit of tarmac to try and grab back a few seconds from the clock.
The "finish line" is somewhat of an anti-climax. No inflated triumphal arch, no podium girls with celebratory black pudding; no colliery brass band playing in the back ground, no Eric Olthwaite handing out commemorative brass-handled shovels..., no signs or "statements" at all that you've just completed whats been called "Britains toughest sportive" by British Cycling. You wheel in to the car park, wander aimlessly with shaking legs, through a ginnel and past t´coil oil to a hall inside the school, sign a bit of paper that you've returned, and pick up your goody bag. No "ceremony", just sign your return slip, get back in your car and go home. All very understated, very Yorkshire, very... "Just ger on ´wi it".
However, the "goody bag" was probably one of the best I´ve ever had. Bottle of Beer and a flat cap! Far more imaginative than the ubiquitous T-shirt. The vittles provided on route were quality (chocolate bars, bananas, milk shakes, Haribos!) the organisation was top class, and the KCA, after only their third time at putting on the event has got an event to be proud of. The club deserves your support for all they do for youth cycling in the area and for putting on a reet gradely do. Thanks.
(1) get to your "May weight" in March!
(2) "fat tyres" - I used Vittoria Open Pave 27mm, at 95psi. (loads punctured, I didn't, #justsayin)
(3) if you won't make the cobbles, use light MTB shoes, walking up greasy cobbles in carbon soles is a right bugger.
(4) Join the Ronde van Calderdale group on Facebook for a great support community, more tips and links to better war stories than mine.
(4) Donate a tenner to the KCA anyways. A cycling club for under 18´s thats nurturing real cycling talent, and gives an alternative to PS4 and tagging trains.
Thanks to: Darren Stringer at the KCA; the RVC support crew for a unique and well run event; British Cycling for the usage of the photos purloined from Flickr (:-)):