Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Big Day

Having arrived at the YHA in Liverpool at 20:30 I booked in and put my bike away in the shed ready for the morning. It didn't need any more work on it but I adjusted the saddle and pumped the tyres up a bit because it had been unused for a couple of weeks.

The YHA itself was fantastic. I mentioned to the chap that I was going straight to bed (after one of their bottles of beer) and getting up early so he found an empty dorm for me and said he'd try to book others in elsewhere. He did. For £16 I had a large en suite dorm to myself - perfect.

After sorting my kit out (photo) I settled down for the night. As predicted, I didn't sleep much and so finally, at 3am, I decided to get up.

Breakfast consisted of a bottle of Lucozade, 2 bagels and a pre-workout energy bar. That did the job! After fetching my bike and attaching the lights I cycled the 2 miles across town to the start of the canal. At 03:45, the streets were still dotted with revellers from the night before but they left me alone and I reached the canal at 04:00.

I'd printed out and laminated a few, small (A6), maps for the trip. The first one, was just big enough to show Liverpool Lime Street, the YHA and the start of the canal. It certainly navigation hassle free. The other maps were for navigating around the 2 tunnels (Gannow and Foulridge) either side of Burnley. I also had the mile matrix from Tow Path Treks with me.

The start of the canal was odd. It just starts, from nothing, behind a new housing estate. I'm used to riding the dark canal at night, with lights, but heading out of a strange city was definitely a bit eerie. Thankfully I didn't see anyone for at least 30 minutes until I came across fisherman who loomed out of the darkness. He made some comment about my "F'ing aggressive lights". -  Haha - Smile and wave boys. Smile and wave :)

1.5 hrs in
My plan for the route was to stop briefly every 90 minutes for a drink and cereal / energy bar. At 05:30 I had my first stop. No idea where it was but it felt like I'd made good time. Someone had forced open most of the bike gates so my progress was not impeded.

I can't remember enough to give you a mile by mile account (it'd probably be pretty boring anyhow). From this point until Wigan the towpath altered between thin, gravelly track and grassy, dry, mud. I nearly came off a couple of times as the wheel edged into the side of a deep rut and flipped me sideways. Luckily I stayed on but at one point my right knee jarred and this was going to give me some pain for the rest of the journey.

The countryside opened up nicely towards Parbold and by the time I got to Wigan I was hoping for some smooth towpath and boy did Wigan deliver! Apart from the ridiculous number of locks they built for me to climb, the towpath right from the outskirts through to the other side was fantastic. Cobbled like a new driveway. Other blogs have mentioned the bike gates in Wigan and I can concur that they are a royal pain in the arse. Rather than fiddle with the awkard contraptions I lifted my bike over and then walked around.

From Wigan, a few things of note happened before I reached the halfway point at Church. First of all, there was a rain shower which threatened to make things a bit tougher. Luckily it soon petered out and left me cooler and refreshed. At around this point my knee was becoming increasingly painful and so was my backside. Stupidly I'd forgotten to apply my Vaseline before setting off. I also had a clatter under a bridge which made it worse and bumped my chain off as the wheel got stuck between some cobbles. Bridges actually caused a few problems  (mainly in built up areas) where there was a lot of glass. On numerous occasions I had to jump off and carry my bike to safety. Before reaching Church I also had the displeasure of seeing the canal side in Blackburn. Now, Blackburn might be a nice place but viewing it from the canal, it looked like a complete dump. Dirty, ugly and unfriendly. Unsurprisingly this was where most of the glass was. I felt more uncomfortable riding through Blackburn in daylight than I did Liverpool in the dark.

Half way
Arriving at Church was nice. They've made a real effort with the half way point and you can't fail to miss the large metal displays next to the mile marker. I wasn't going to stay long but decided to rest and take some paracetamol and ibuprofen for the pain whilst stretching my legs. The swans had a little bit of my oaty bar and I took a couple of photos and had a whole bottle of Lucozade.

The half way point proved to be a real boost. I'd been flagging for half an hour or so and was aware that my positive thoughts had become a bit more negative. Every little frustration had been getting on my nerves and I'd quietly been swearing at some of the people I'd passed who looked grumpy, did not exchange hellos or failed to move over enough. The pain (alternating between knee and backside - but never both together?!?) and dehydration were probably to blame. However, after my stop in Church I was a new man. The pain subsided and I was flying towards Burnley... and lunch!

Gannow Tunnel
The plan was to stop at the large Tescos in Burnley (right by the canal), eat my ready meals and buy more Lucozade. I quickly found my way around Gannow tunnel and powered on.  After rounding a corner and seeing a long, straight, mile of canal I realised that I'd made a mistake and flown straight past Tescos. I wasn't going to turn back though and was quite pleased because I was enjoying the solitude on the canal. It was going to be another 7 miles to Foulridge and I knew there would be a shop there. I had half a bottle of Lucozade left and figured that should be fine. I was still feeling great after my Church stop.

Foulridge tunnel appeared at the end of a pleasant stretch of towpath in glorious sunshine. I passed some happy pensioners who were pleased to step aside and before long had zipped through the country lanes and free-wheeled down into Foulridge (with the help of my preprinted map). Unfortunately the cafe didn't have any Lucozade (oops) so I bought 5 bottles of water and a couple of Mars Bars before pressing on.

Foulridge Tunnel
From this point on I knew the route but had never been here with such tired legs and a tired mind. The towpath from Foulridge to Silsden (via Barnoldswick, Gargrave and Skipton) is horrible. It starts with very rough, rocky track, followed by long, exposed, switchback sections of grass and then deep rutted grass and mud. My arms and wrists took a terrible pounding (hardtail bike). Sometimes you just have to put your head down and grind out the miles.

Just before Gargrave I decided to stop. I still hadn't had my ready meals and I was really fed up. After an All Day Breakfast, a Chicken Casserole and some Kendal Mint Cake I was buzzing again. I'd also had a boost from checking my text messages. It turns out that the tracker I had set to automatically update my blog had stooped working at 5am and my wife thought I was floating dead in the canal somewhere near Aintree.... I re-established contact and they said they wanted to wave as I passed by somewhere before Leeds. I sent a text back suggesting Bingley but only if they wanted to and possibly in a couple of hours time. That was great but I didn't know if they were going to be there. With fatigue setting in I was really looking forward to seeing my wife and children before the final 16 miles but would they be waiting? Arrgh, if they're not there, it's going to be horrible...

16 miles to go
... As I rounded the corner towards Bingley 5 Rise Locks I saw the dog first and then started to recognise the people standing nearby. My wife, the children and my neighbours (with 2 of their nephews). How great was that?! I was chuffed to bits. Mike and Di (neighbours) had brought me some water and Mars Bars and Bec and the kids had brought some big smiles and a few hugs. 111 miles done and just 16 (and a bit) to go.

The next 16 miles were pretty straight forward. Hard because I know every inch from Shipley to Leeds but easy because I could visualise the final stretch. I spent the time thinking about the last lock and the McDonalds that was going to follow.

At 17:47 I reached the end of the canal having started at exactly 04:04. In total I probably stopped for about an hour. I don't think I've ever sat on something for 13 hours straight - let alone a bike!

After a quick cycle back to the office (to get the car) and a 1/4 Pounder Meal, I headed for home.

What a day. I was lucky with the weather but I think I did pretty well. I didn't have any mechanical failures, I had enough fuel and I knew enough about the route to keep the demons at bay when times got hard.

If you're thinking of doing the same, check out the various blogs online for ideas and tips. Google Streetview is great for visualising where you start and end, as well as working out how to get around the tunnels with the minimum of fuss. It really felt like I'd been to some of these places before. I like planning and left nothing to chance. I took plenty of kit with me and needed very little of it. If I was doing it next weekend I'd take the same stuff again (see kit list earlier in blog). As an individual, I'm fairly self sufficient and had not planned on seeing anyone I knew en route. The boost I had at Bingley though, when family and friends turned up, was great! Above all, it's so important to take on enough fluids and calories.If you're going to stop every 90 minutes, do it. Don't wait for a quieter or prettier bit of canal.

The end.
Thanks to everyone who has sponsored me. Thinking about the money raised, my family and especially my sister kept me going.

Thanks also to for the invaluable advice and links on their site.

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