I first became aware of The Perfidious Albion in the summer of 2021 and was immediately taken by the clever naming of this UK based ultra endurance cycling event. The origins of the phrase “the perfidious albion” comes from international diplomacy, referring to the notoriously duplicitous and treacherous nature of the British government throughout history and probably very recently too!
The event organisers felt this same willingness to mislead and betray reflects the best and worst of cycling in the UK, enticing sun-drenched images of stunning views get you hooked, before brutal gradients and unpredictable weather deliver a swift dose of reality.
This duplicitous approach was reflected in the fact that there was only one finisher in the 2021 event.
Fast forward one year and here I am outside the Somerton Hotel in Lockerbie at the start line of the 2022 edition of the Perfidious Albion a 1600km route traversing Scotland, England and Wales, with the small matter of 23000metres of climbing, Mount Everest is 8848metres!
At the start line the irony of starting an ultra endurance event one mile from where my secondary education was an unmitigated disaster both in academic and sporting terms was not lost on me, but I had to use this as opportunity to put some ghosts of the past to bed.
Amongst the small peloton, the chat was discussing bike set ups, but mainly about the impending red weather warning for extreme heat in the UK as we rolled out along Lockerbie High Street and up past the golf course and out to Boreland and onwards to Eskdalemuir.
Around 3 1/2 hours into the ride, we had barely encountered a car, which was really a nice way to start, the section around St Mary’s loch, Megget and Tala reservoirs were a busier but generally the roads were really nice to cycle on due to the low volume of traffic which really was a theme throughout the week.
Myself, John and Joe were closely bunched together as we approached Peebles at 120km, it was always my intention to have a brief stop here, but when neither of the others riders stopped I made my first error in not sticking to my own plan and soldiered on, which was fine considering how I was feeling, but not from a hydration perspective given time cycled and the unScottish heat! However we carried on eventually reaching Hawick, where rather disappointingly my first “meal” was in a Costa coffee close to closing for the day so a rather limited selection of cheese and ham toasties, a far cry from the pizza I had been dreaming of!
Coming out of Hawick there was quite a long climb out of Wauchope Forest before I headed into foreign lands and crossing the border into England, the whole area around Kielder Water was stunning and one that I would like to return to, spirits rose as myself, John and Bruce reached checkpoint one at the same time and took the obligatory bike photos at Falstone Bridge crossing the river Tyne. My next focus was trying to get through the 10km gravel section at Wark Forest before it got dark. I arrived at the start of it around 2130hours and endured the gravel, my bike making it very clear to me that it was not enjoying the gravel experience, however we got through it just as the light faded. We met Rob (Race Director) who had hotfooted it from near Eskaldemuir back to Lockerbie and then via train and bike to find us and get some photos and check in with us.
I had deliberately not set myself any targets for day one, ride to how I feel, but I was pleased to get through the gravel section. travelling close to Hadrian’s Wall, we cycled through the village called Once Brewed and came across a pub superbly named Twice Brewed. Twice Brewed is called this after local soldiers demanded their Ale should be brewed again because it wasn’t strong enough and after a few pints the soldiers were invigorated and soon the invading army were in retreat. If I had known this at the time I might have had a few pints! Anyhow as it was after 10pm and having a juice, I rapidly cooled down and felt the effects of the 285km, so when John said he was going to get a room, I joined him.
Rolling out of the Twice Brewed Inn at 4.11am, I was very quickly relieved that I had enjoyed a comfy bed for a few hours due to 1600 metres of climbing in the first 40km of cycling, progress was slow in this terrain but a beautiful sunrise kept me in a reasonable mood, which quickly started to go downhill when the rain started. I had a chance meet up with Will, who was taking a breather beside a Buddhist retreat near Carrshield, following a good chat I carried on and thought to myself perhaps he was seeking some divine intervention before tackling Dowgang Hush (1.4km long averaging 10.9% gradient) and Great Dun Fell (7.4km long, average 8.4% gradient), whatever the motivation for his stop Will was soon past me as he had been for virtually the whole of day one, we met each other again in Melmerby, after what can only be described as the best descent I have experienced in the UK, down Hartside. Nice technical switch backs, stunning view over towards the Lake District and after a tough start to the morning the 6km of fast descending was wonderful.
With it still being only 8am on a Sunday morning, I was then faced with the prospect of having to climb Great Dun Fell without a proper breakfast or coffee, but there was nothing else to do because I wasn’t prepared to hang around for 45 minutes waiting on the bakery opening in Melmerby.
Great Dun Fell was a tough climb, a real bonus that it is closed to vehicles and was being enjoyed by cyclists, walkers and runners. Figuring out how the road worked its way around the hillside and up to the giant golf ball at the summit and dodging the resident sheep that owned the road helped keep my mind off the severity of the climb. A couple of cheery cyclists told me at the second cattle grid counting down the snow poles at the side of the road would help me get to the top, and it worked a treat counting down from 148! It was cold up at the top, although a great view, so I wasn’t hanging about and quickly descended and now the search for food was vital. At the farm at the foot of the climb we met Bruce, who advised that John had scratched due to the lasting impact of his recent bout of Covid, a real shame as he had been great company on day one and looked like a powerful cyclist, sadly Bruce also confirmed Great Dun Fell would be his final challenge as the pain in his good knee he experienced on day one was getting worse and he was scratching. It says so much for his character that his decision and made but he still wanted to climb up to the giant golf ball. I know what I would have done, chapeau Bruce. 27km later, I found a Nisa store in Langwathby where Will and I made do with a wide variety of delights from Pork Pies to Magnums and we chatted about holidays in France to distract us from the matter at hand!
The heat was now a big factor, it was baking hot, so when I reached Keswick it was time for proper seat in a cafe out of the sunshine and a re-charge. Having cycled the legendary Fred Whitton Challenge in the Lake District a few years ago, I was aware of how difficult and beautiful the Lake District is to cycle in but I think I had focussed so much on the brutality of Hardknott Pass, I hadn’t given too much thought this time to Honister, Newlands Hause, Whinlatter Pass and Cold Fell, however I managed to tick them off aided by a delicious damson and raspberry icecream at the foot of Honister Pass after a view from the top that literally takes your breath away, also the memories of the crowds that lined along Whinlatter Pass and Kendal CC making a “Dutch Corner” atmosphere on Cold Fell, during the Fred Whitton brought back great memories and helped me through this tough section.
Rob appeared again at Cold Fell and we cycled together to Gosforth, where I decided to end my day, after 251km of cycling and 4850metres of climbing. Pub lasgane that wasn’t defrosted properly was the highlight of my evening in Gosforth, not!
Rob was again waiting for me at 5am as I rolled out of Gosforth dreading the climb up Hardknott Pass but we enjoyed the empty roads, cooler air, views and wildlife as we ticked off the 20km to my nemesis, which is only 2.2km long but you have a 300metre climb in that short distance, with ramps at 33% on a rutted surface. We shared the road with only one vehicle which was joyful. Once I bid farewell to Rob at the summit, I was expecting a block of reasonably flat roads, which wasn’t exactly how it worked out when I came across Kiln Bank Cross quite soon after which is a category 3 col. It’s still the Lake District, what was I expecting!
Breakfast was at Levens, where again there were no cafes so a village shop was the only option; due to the heat multiple magnums were consumed during an extended stop in the shade under a tree.
Most notable on this stretch was cycling beside Dallam Tower near Milnthorpe, which is grade 1 listed country house, absolutely stunning. Cycling through Wray into the early afternoon I was really starting to struggle in the heat and was feeling really lethargic and struggling in the greenhouse like conditions, but mindful that I had only covered 50km since my extended stop in Levens, so was keen to carry on, but that didn’t last long as BANG went my inner tube, a proper explosion. It happened right outside a café, a café that doesn’t open on a Monday, however I wheeled the bike round the back and started changing the inner tube. At the back there was an empty marquee where I decided to have a wee siesta and slept on a picnic bench for over an hour. When I woke up it felt warmer but the now overcast sky made the heat feel less intense, so I decided to get going again, such was the heat it took me a good few minutes to work out it wasn’t the constant drip of sweat from my forehead it was actually raining!
Following a 7km climb to check point 4 at Bowland Knotts, through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) my joy at reaching CP4 was short-lived as I had another puncture, closer inspection showed a rip on the tire wall was giving the inner tube little protection. Thankfully I had a tyre repair kit with me and applied the tyre plaster with a nagging fear of how long it would last.
Descending tentively through Forest of Bowland I was again dreaming of pan flat roads, which was a dream that didn’t last too long as some shorter but brutal ramps at Doeford Bridge (30% max elevation) and Primrose Hill brought me back to the present with a harsh dose of reality. After these I was cycling through more built up areas and after what seemed like forever called it a night in Chorley around 2300hours after an hour faffing about deciding on where to spend the night.
Day 4 was the day of most concern for the red extreme heat warning and we agreed that racing would be suspended in the afternoon. It was disappointing that news had reached me that Will had scratched leaving just me and Joe as the remaining riders. In this shortened day, the highlight was Bruce cycling from his parents house near Leigh to ride with me for a few miles, this really boosted my morale as we cycled into Cheshire across a quaint toll bridge that charges vehicles 12pence to cross it, cyclists go free! It was really good of Bruce to come out and see me, and it was greatly appreciated. The only other notable on this day was cycling out of England into Wales before I found a Premier Inn near Holt in the early afternoon. A frustrating afternoon and evening was spent sweating buckets in a hotel room without air conditioning, but deep down I knew it was the right thing to do, the heat was so extreme even descending was like cycling into a furnace, no cooling breeze today!
Well rested I left the hotel at 0404hours and started the Welsh leg of my adventure, even at this time in the morning it was warm, but much more manageable. A relatively flat 10km was a nice way to start the day and not really indicative of the way things were going to be. As I approached Ffrwd, I thought the last time I saw letters in that order was on my sony walkman beside the Rwd and Rec buttons! On the section of the route from Ffrwd to Gwynfryn I started a game of spot the vowel.
A quick stop in Corwen at a Nisa store, saw me come across Welsh cakes for the first time. When in Rome I thought to myself and what a decision, the packet of 6 didn’t last too long. Back on the bike cycling through Cynwyd (Who knew hunt the vowel could be so exciting!) I approached a T junction, which was to shape my day, instead of turning right towards Bala, which I knew was on the route I am convinced my GPS told me to go left which I followed and cycled to Pen-Y-Bont Fawr, only stopping there because there was a café that was open. When I stopped I turned my phone on and it exploded with messages with dotwatchers telling me I had seriously gone off route (Thank you to everyone who messaged me, it was greatly appreciated how you were trying to look out for me). A rather terse call to Race Director Rob was made (sorry Rob) who confirmed the error I made and I needed to cycle back, which would be a total of 40km and 800 metres of climbing, meaning I needed to cycle over both sides of the Milltir Cerrig pass to get back onto the race route. Thoroughly dispirited with this I was about 2km away from returning to the correct route, when my back tyre blew out again. On closer inspection, the back wheel was buckled, tyre ripped and the patched up inner tube punctured again. Was this the end of my race, the biggest concern was over the wheel. Another rather terse call was made to Diane (sorry Diane) telling her what had happened, and as she does, she helped calm me down and think logically. I called RH Roberts a bicycle shop in nearby Bala. I explaining what I was doing, what had happened to my bike he kindly agreed to supply a new tyre and a couple of inner tubes and put them in a local taxi to where I described my location. About half an hour later the taxi arrived and I paid him for his fare and then fixed my bike up and cycled into Bala to the bike shop to pay my dues. How trusting of him to put these items in a taxi without payment and without knowing me, proof, if proof was needed we should all support local bikes shops.
I now needed to put all of this behind me and start again for the rest of the day, a nice cycle along the shore of the picturesque Lake at Bala was a good start before the climbing started in earnest from Dolhendre with unbelievable amount of gates and cattle grids on the back rounds to Dolgellau.
Taking the turn off at Llanymawddwy, it was now time for the iconic Bwlch Y Groes climb (Hellfire Pass in English), the average grade of this col is 12.5% with a maximum of 25% over 3km. At the foot a motorist who had just driven down, slowed down and wished me good luck, a clear sign that this was going to be brutal, thankfully I never encountered another vehicle for the 3km climb as I weaved from side to side trying to distract myself with the stunning views. Bwlch Y Groes is a climb that is now in my top 3 UK climbs, it just feels like it gets harder and harder as the gradients increase to what feels like a relentlessly steep wall at the top. Getting to Llangdafan marked the end of the day for me, still kicking myself and worried about my rear wheel it was time for some food, a phone call home and some sleep.
Leaving Llangdafan just after 4am I was hoping for a nice, incident free day, however within 30 minutes of starting I had another puncture, unbelievably from near 40 degree heat on Tuesday, there was frost on the ground of this valley less than 36 hours later. I decided there and then that I wasn’t going to cycle over another cattle grid, which had probably caused the buckled wheel in the first place and was clearly why I was now puncturing so often. If there is one thing Wales has in abundance it is cattle grids. However the goal was to finish and I couldn’t risk the rear wheel any more, so as frustrating as it was, and it was, I stopped and walked over every cattle grid for the rest of the route and never punctured again in the final 570km! If only that was the end of my bike woes though!
Around lunchtime CP6 at Strata Florida was ticked off and I carried on to Tregaron, where Rob was waiting for me, we went for a coffee and a tasty date slice before continuing on the Cambrian Mountains loop. It was good to see Rob and I was glad it wasn’t an extended stop because the climbing out Tregaron was pretty serious stuff, the only respite being on a stretch where surface dressing was ongoing and the tarmac still being wet meant a hike-a-bike for a short stint. The Elan Valley was very beautiful and very rural which certainly helps to keep you cycling as there are no cafes and shops trying to lure you in for sweet treats! The day ended in Brecon and with another 4000plus metres of climbing it had been a reasonable day.
Day 7 and my alarm went off at the usual time for the week 0330am, however unlike every other morning I was unable to get out of my bed, I just couldn’t face getting on my bike, so I rolled over and went back to sleep, waking again about 0700am and immediately started googling the nearest train stations to Brecon, then phoning local taxi companies to see if they could take me and my bike to the station. None of the companies that answered would take my bike, so a cup of coffee and some biscuits later, I was on my bike and starting on the route. So far I hadn’t listened to any music during the week, saving it for the inevitable meltdown. Well this was the time, the meltdown had arrived in a fully blown form. Starting the day with music, the first tune was You do something to me by the god-like-genius that is Paul Weller and a favourite track for Diane and me. Cycling out of Brecon, the iconic riff from an REM classic, followed by Michael Stipe singing, “A public service announcement followed me home the other day, I paid it never mind, go away” I was now singing out loud and before we got to the third line, “Shits so thick you can stir it with a stick-free Teflon whitewashed Presidency….” Without any warning I was instantly a blubbering mess, still trying to sing out loud but sounding like a whaling child! Yip, “Bad Day” by REM was beautifully timed and fittingly represented what rock-bottom looks like. By the time we had moved onto the Style Council’s My Ever Changing Moods I was laughing out loud at the accuracy of the tracks that were randomly playing.
Just as well the music was distracting me as the climbing from Brecon was brutal, with the toughest being one of the UK Top 100 climbs, Llangyndir Pass, described as a “monster climb” in Simon Warren’s guide to Britain’s hills, a couple getting their wedding photos at the car park made me think I made it to the top, but as usual 100% of climbs don’t end where you think they do, over the brow there was still more climbing to be done, although it was infinitely more enjoyable that a really rough gravel path descent that was unrideable with my bike.
Rob and his friend Nadia came out to meet me near Blaenavon prior to a lovely descent into Abergavenny, where I treated myself to pizza. The sky was really dark for about 3pm and as soon as I got back on my bike the heavens opened and biblical rain bounced off the road and anything in its way, my touchscreen GPS didn’t like it and I was unable to lock the screen before the rain played havoc with the settings, resulting in an extra lap of Abergavenny, frustratingly returning to where I enjoyed my pizza! I sheltered in a bus stop for a while then started the 18km Gospel Pass climb from the Capel-y-Ffin side. I arrived in Hay on Wye in more torrential rain, but the relief of getting out of Wales into England was obvious as I enjoyed the flat lanes that took me to Hereford where a Tesco supermarket was the next stop. Following the full scale meltdown in the morning I couldn’t risk another one, as railway stations and options to bail out were much more accessible, so I decided to try and plough on through the night to the finish line. Leaving the street lights of Hereford it was now about just keeping moving the bike forward along the rural lanes of Herefordshire into Gloucestershire.
It was around 1.30am crossing over the River Severn near Tewkesbury, all of sudden I was grinding to a halt, the bolt that was holding my Tailfin to the seatpost gave up, sending the Tailfin back and dragging along the ground. At anytime it would be difficult to see how to continue but I surprised myself with how quickly I decided to use the what3words app to plot my location and hid the Tailfin in the bushes having taken out some essentials and stuffing them into my jersey pockets and Restrap frame bag. With about 150km to go the finishing line was feeling a long way away with my bike being pushed to the limit over the week.
As I skirted around Cheltenham, CP8 was at the top of Cleeve Hill, which had a ramp averaging 12% for over a kilometre, this was done in the dark with increasingly thickening fog. At the top there was a field, where I admit to getting hopelessly lost as there was no obvious track/trail and the darkness and fog made it quite disorientating as I went around in circles, even now reflecting on this part I don’t understand how I circled back to the masts 3 times!
As daylight returned and the fog receded I was becoming increasingly concerned about the condition of my bike which was well founded as with about 100km to go of the 1600km route, the shifter for my front derailleur stopped working and while I was trying to get it moving I was on a rather steep descent when I realised the brakes had now completely failed I was hurtling downhill out of control with no idea what was at the bottom of the hill, I decided that the only course of action was to stop the bike by crashing, desperate action, but a necessary action. I cycled up the bank at the side of the road and came to a halt when I threw myself to the ground with the bike stopping soon after. Scary stuff, but apart from some scrapes on the right hand side of my head I felt fine. I walked the bike into a small town called Chipping Campden around 0800am and feeling very sorry for myself saw a small courtyard off the High Street with some tables and chairs, I plonked myself down and had my head in my hands when I heard a very cheery “Good morning”. Looking up, I saw it was directed at me and I returned the greeting. It was Katie from the cafe in the courtyard where I was sitting, I asked if she was open and she said yes, so I ordered some coffee and pastries to eat while I decided what to do. Speaking to Katie about my woes she went away to prepare my coffee, when she came back she said she had arranged for me to take the bike to the garage behind the cafe and they would have a look at it, which was so thoughtful of her, unfortunately the garage couldn’t help and I returned for another coffee, not giving in Katie phoned her friend Andy who was coming down with his tool kit and bike spares, unfortunately he couldn’t help either but arranged for me to get a taxi to the nearest bike shop in Moreton on Marsh, Cotswolds Cycles who performed heroics and although they couldn’t get the derailleur working again, I was stuck in the small ring for the rest of the route, they did manage to get a temporary braking solution that “should get you through the next 100km but no guarantees” This was a gamble I was prepared to take and got a taxi back to Katies of Chipping Campden to thank Katie and Andy and comply with the race rules. I had another coffee as my garmin had died so needed some charge before starting on the route again. This stop had cost me, after nearly 4 hours getting the bike sorted but I was so grateful to them for being such nice human beings, they couldn’t have done more for me, and it made me resolve to be a better human.
Speaking of being grateful it wasn’t long before John Barnes who had cycled with me for most of day one had cycled out to meet me and escort me to the finish line, what a fantastic gesture and one that really helped pass the final miles, Rob once again joined us for around the last 20 miles and helped get me over the line, the noise from my GPS to denote “route completed” as we got to Wild Carrot café in the Chavenage Estate was the finest tune my ears have ever heard, I had completed the route and as a bonus was first finisher.
As you can tell there are so many people to thank for helping me along the way, first thanks go to Rob for creating and running such a fantastic event, the route was stunning and on very quiet roads. Rob’s number one concern from registration to the finish was rider welfare which was greatly appreciated. Also his continuous check-ins with us along the route really lifted spirits. It really was a well run event with great communication from signing up for the event, not to mention a fantastic route.
A special thank you to my gorgeous wife Diane, my rock, who supported me more than she will ever know on all our calls and messages and throughout all the training for this event. I don’t know what I would do without you. Also for allowing me to indulge in what is quite a selfish hobby!
Well done to Joe for finishing the route as well, that makes three finishers over the two editions of the race, an indication of how tough it is. Also thank you to John for coming out to cycle with me and giving me a real boost and incentive for the final 80km and then for going out of his way by driving me to the railway station. Thanks to Bruce for coming out in the Greater Manchester area and helping my get through this busy area in good spirits. Indeed it was a pleasure to be part of the whole Perfidious Albion community, everyone really played a part in supporting each other.
Thanks to everyone who messaged me throughout the race, the direct messages and comments on Strava and other social media really lift the spirits. Especially to those that tried to stop me from continuing off course and saving me from myself!
RH Roberts Cycle shop in Bala, Katies of Chipping Campden, Andy (Katie’s friend), Cotswolds Cycles and Nadia for the Tailfin collection, I can’t thank you enough for all your help along the way.
So that is that, the tortoise had its day!
Link to the full route https://ridewithgps.com/routes/39905433
Link to day one and the rest of the ride https://www.strava.com/activities/7480490431