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The Struggle: A hard day in the Dales

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1 Jun 2018
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Words Joseph Delves Photography Joseph Delves and cadenceimages.com

Chugging from Leeds to Harrogate the little branch line train was soon passing through countryside of Wordsworthian prettiness. On my way to ride the Struggle Dales, a 174km (108 miles) sportive featuring seven formidable climbs and 2,873 metres (9,427ft) of vertical height gain, outside the windows the ever beautiful Yorkshire Dales seemed to have hit peak greenery.

The month of May having provided alternate days of rain and sunshine, the weather fruit machine seemed settled on hot, sunny, and blustery the afternoon before the ride.

With a long day in store the staggered rollout for the open-road Struggle Dales begins at 06:30 and closes at 09:00.

After passing the previous evening in Harrogate I’d aimed to leave somewhere in the middle, yet some extra faffing means I end up one of the later riders.

Still I find plenty of company as we set off from the requisitioned army barracks just outside town.

With the itinerary of the day’s climbs stuck to my top tube spelling out the distances in big Yorkshire miles, not softy euro-style kilometres, I have the feeling a tough day lays ahead.

Bedlam and Hartwith

Coming at just five and 10 miles in the first two climbs of Bedlam and Hartwith don’t present too much of a challenge, although a short ramp on the latter provides a taster of the steep terrain to come.

As we roll through, on the slopes directly above a farmer is driving his sheep with a collie. It’s so scenic I wonder if the organisers have put him up to it.

Now heading into wilder country after the two warm up climbs, Greenhow proves more of a test. Up above the arable farmland it also presents riders with their first glimpse of the Dales proper.

Happily, with the wind behind us it passes easily, as does the rest of the way to the first feed station and on towards the next major climb.

Draped about with Yorkist white rose flags the village of Malham looks lovely as we speed through to the foot of its famous climb.

Passing by the spectacular limestone amphitheatre formed by the sheer cliffs at Malham Cove, the road alongside is equally breathtaking, with an average gradient of 9% for over a mile.

Out on the moors

Eventually up and over, from here the route stays high. Immediately on the left a wall of rock pins the road in place before it breaks out onto the open ground to cross the moor.

The wind is ferocious. Lapwings and buzzards struggle to get off the ground, buffeted about by the breeze, which also makes progress by bicycle tricky.

With it blowing straight back down the road I slug along, and when the road finally tips down off the moor the technical descent sees me yanking the brakes through a series of tight switchbacks.

Off the moor and over a small bridge, the drystone walls at either side of the road provide a windbreak and the first respite in a while as the route rolls past farms and over relatively flat ground towards the halfway rest stop.

Crashing out on the grass beside Kettlewell village hall, most riders take the midway point as a chance to fortify themselves with cake and energy gels ahead of the fearsome Park Rash climb.

Just on the edge of town, the first whack of the accent takes place besides some of the residents' back gardens. Labouring up a 1 in 4 gradient it seems incongruous, yet soon enough civilisation is behind me and I’m staring straight up a valley and towards the crux of the climb.

In this year’s Tour de Yorkshire climbing specialist Stephane Rossetto led the riders over. Recceing the climb on YouTube he made it look very hard work.

Slowly building in steepness, towards the top it kinks to form a slope of 30% through the apex of its famous hairpin corner. With less than half of riders making it up without putting a foot down I use camera duties as a convenient excuse to stop.

Still getting started again isn’t easy, especially as the wind is back and pushing in the wrong direction. I wonder if this is the most sworn at piece of tarmac in the country? It definitely will be today.

Over the hump

Crossing the highest point of the day at 488 metres (1,600ft) over the far side the way down is almost as difficult, if less physically taxing.

Losing its height over around 14 miles the road swoops down the valley alongside the River Cover.

Glad to be into the second half and have the day’s biggest climb behind me on the following flat section I fall in with a friendly bunch making good time towards the final rest stop.

Still looking at my computer I’m a little shocked at my average speed.

At the 77-mile rest stop, most riders seem to be treating themselves to a well-earned lie down in the sunshine. I’d like to join them, but running behind schedule I need to press on.

Heading off alone, soon I’m skirting the edge of Leighton Reservoir. Having crossed it via a small bridge immediately after it the tarmac raises itself up to head straight back towards the moors.

Consistent with a medium gradient, Pott Bank road takes you out through farmland to deposit you high and exposed among the heather.

Foolishly I thought this was the climb. Turns out it’s just the road to the climb. Crossing the expanse of open ground through the blustery wind, I spy the last section sitting in the distance.

A mile or so brings you to the foot of it via a slight downhill.

The sheep wandering across the road are in little danger of getting run over so comically slowly do I lever myself up towards the summit of Trapping Hill.

A cattle grid marks the summit, while the views back to the reservoir or onwards towards Lofthouse make for a good prize.

One hill too far

Feeling pretty tired now, the way back down is tricky and I have to remind myself to behave through several of the corners. Six of the day’s listed climbs down, one to go.

Another flat 12-mile stretch brings me back off the moors and across the earlier part of the route.

At this point I’d like to recount how the course keeps back one of its hardest sections until last. Returning through Pateley Bridge at 96 miles, the climb of Two Stoops swings off and out of town while slowly rising upwards.

With the town behind you, it kicks spitefully before delivering you to a final summit before the dash to the line.

I’d like to, but I can’t. On the way back through Pateley, the slowly building dread at missing my train back to London had reached a crescendo. So shamefacedly I ducked the last climb of the day.

Trying to push on I find my legs aren’t prepared to play along either. The result is that I make it back to the finish without even time to neck my complimentary beer.

Leaving behind a scene of contented desolation, with riders sprawled all over the finishing area, I grab my bag and a head as quickly back to Harrogate as my legs will allow.

Having been on my bike for the best part of nine hours I make it back to the station with exactly seven minutes to spare.

Sat on the train in my now humming kit I feel a little disappointed to be leaving Yorkshire with some unfinished business. Still, at least it’ll give me an excuse to head back.

Maybe I’ll bag Trapping Hill when the I head back for the UCI Road World Championships next year. Starting and finishing in Harrogate, given the continued enthusiasm for cycling I saw in Yorkshire it’s going to be unmissable.

The Struggle Dales proved an epic day out. The clue is in the name. If you’ve not ridden in the Yorkshire Dales it’s not so much a sample menu of the area’s climbs as a three-course meal, with appetisers, drinks, and postprandial cigarettes.

Just make sure you leave room for all of them.

The Climbs

Bedlam

Distance: 0.6 miles
Elevation gain: 281ft
Gradient: 8% avg.

Hartwith Bank

Distance: 0.7 miles
Elevation gain: 458ft
Gradient: 11% avg.

Greenhow Hill

Distance: 2.4 miles
Elevation gain: 934ft
Gradient: 7% avg.

Malham Cove

Distance: 1.1 miles
Elevation gain: 544ft
Gradient: 9% avg.

Park Rash

Distance: 1.2 miles
Elevation gain: 684ft
Gradient: 10% avg.

Trapping Hill

Distance: 0.7 miles
Elevation gain: 369ft
Gradient: 9% avg.

Two Stoops

Distance: 1.6 miles
Elevation gain: 680ft
Gradient: 7% avg.

Do it yourself

Entry

£40, ridethestruggle.com

Travel

Harrogate train station is located right in the middle of town and easily reachable from most of the UK via a connecting service at Leeds. A once a day direct train runs from London King’s Cross. There is ample parking at the event for riders arriving by car on the day.

Accommodation

We stayed at the luxurious Hotel du Vin in Harrogate, where the staff were very accommodating about our bike. Overlooking what will likely be the start/finish line at the 2019 World Champs it’s also ideally located for exploring the town. hotelduvin.com/harrogate

Bike

There are plenty of excellent bike shops in and around Harrogate, so spares and repairs are unlikely to be a problem. Early sign-on for the event can be found at Chevin Cycles, who will also give your bike a free once-over.

Thanks

Gratitude is due to Matt and Victoria at Struggle Events for hosting and Hotel du Vin in Harrogate for providing accommodation