written by Carla Benton.
The Rapha Pennine Rally; described as a self-supported bikepacking ride, mostly off road with 520 kilometres (323 miles) of riding and 9000 metres (29,500ft) of climbing.
When I signed up to the Pennine Rally earlier in the year, I’d never ridden more than two days in a row, and even then that had been on tarmac. I was really new to off-road riding; however, I’m a bit of an eternal optimist, and a big believer in giving things a go, seeing how they go and that things will somehow work out in the end. And so, when Ultra Distance Scholarship sorter and all round badass Taylor Doyle asked the Scholarship winners if they wanted to take part, I said an enthusiastic yes. I was really excited to ride a gravel route that had been developed specifically, and was excited to ride through Scotland and North England, two places I’d never ridden before, with a bunch of cool people. It would also be great training for my first ultra, the GBDURO, a few months later. I was, of course, also looking forward to the physical and mental challenge that would push me out of my comfort zone.
One of the things I loved about the ride, aside from the awesome route, was the sense of camaraderie and joy that the riders shared. Everyone was friendly and supportive; whether it was having a chat with people while riding, or catching up with people at the end of the day, this made a real difference. I had one of my best weeks ever, and I can’t recommend this ride and route highly enough.
Here are some of my thoughts and experiences about The Rapha Pennine Rally; thank you so much to everyone who made this so special - my fellow riders, it was awesome sharing the trail with you all! And whether you finished or not, i hope you had the most amazing experience. Also everyone involved in making the Rally itself – Louis from Rapha, Luke and Christian of Outdoor Provisions who created the route, and everyone else involved.
Massive thanks also to everyone involved in getting me to the start and the finish - everyone who dotwatched and sent messages of support (or even came out in person (@NashieLad), my coach Alison at Veloqi Cycle Coaching, Albion Cycling, Wei @ FDN Bikefit, Wizard Works, Wahoo, Stayer Cycles, Komoot, Arundel Bike, Teravail, Outdoor Provisions and Hope Tech. I honestly can’t thank you all enough.
Day 1 - Edinburgh to some stones just past Tushielaw Inn - 66 miles.
It was really lovely chatting to everyone at the start about their rigs, journeying to the start line and how they were feeling about the ride. A real sense of camaraderie and excitement at what lay in store for us, and the vibes were really positive and supportive, and it felt warm and welcoming. As a black woman the cycling community can often feel intimidating, but I was really heartened to see that the work that Louis and the Rapha team had put in to making the start line representative had paid off, as I saw a range of genders and ethnicities. This made me feel even more excited for the ride ahead, knowing that the team were actively putting in work to make different types of people feel comfortable.
"As a black woman the cycling community can often feel intimidating, but I was really heartened to see that the work that Louis and the Rapha team had put in to making the start line representative had paid off, as I saw a range of genders and ethnicities."
The start was a blur as we were counted down, and then we were off. After riding out from Edinburgh along the canals and quickly realising I couldn’t keep up with anyone but myself, I slowed down and enjoyed the scenery. Scotland as always did not disappoint! The riding and the scenery were beautiful, with some stingers (the infamous climb to the tower being particularly memorable!).
I thoroughly enjoyed my first day, and the changing scenery as we left more urban areas to the wilder parts of Scotland. On this first day, there were lots of thoughts of ‘i can’t do this!’ and ‘i’m not good enough’ - quickly overcome by doing it, and listening to cool tunes. A familiar thread was - hit off road, felt slow, fat and rubbish. Hit tarmac - felt like Lance Armstrong. Sadly the tarmac to off road ratio was not in Lance’s favour.
As the day drew to an end, I rolled into Tushielaw Inn for some standard ‘only vegan option on the menu’ chips late in the evening. A few other riders were here, and it was great to catch up about the day we’d had. We then carried on to a bivvy spot with what seemed like everyone else on the rally.
Cue my first ever night bivvying in a non-hooped bivvy bag which, due to a plague of midges, I cannot in good conscience recommend!
Highlights - finding a Greggs in Peebles where I could buy all the vegan sausage rolls for very cheap. On a serious note, the views and the gravel!
Lowlights - midge plague, sweaty bivvy!
Day 2 - Random stones to bothy in Kielder Forest - 60 miles.
The day the wheels (metaphorically) came off.
I woke up feeling tired and fatigued, and limped to CP1, which felt like a lifetime away. I felt slow and was in a lot of pain and kept wondering what was wrong with me. Luckily there were lots of friendly faces, tasty food and general good vibes to cheer me up courtesy of my fellow riders and the awesome Snowpeak team at the first checkpoint, which really helped boost my mood.
I continued to feel bad after CP1, and during the gravel climb out toward Kielder Forest I nearly fainted and fell off my bike. I lay on the floor for some time, and made a deal with myself – I’d give myself 15 minutes to just rest. After this, I thought through what I needed to get going - and decided it was pain relief, water, sweets and some banging 80s tunes. It worked to a point - I had to push the rest of the hill which was pretty long, but at least I was moving. I realised here why I felt so bad; my period had come early. Having since spoken with my coach, and other women who do long distance riding, this is a pretty common occurrence due to the stresses placed on the body. Definitely something I will be remembering next time.
The views were really beautiful, which helped take my mind off things, and I was soon rolling through Kielder Forest (as some call it, the ‘neverending forest’ and I can see why!) Passing the sign marking England was a real highlight - I couldn’t believe I’d cycled so far!
Once in Kielder, I realised I felt too unwell to sleep out in my bivvy/push on to my planned stop near Haltwhistle. Luckily I ran into Luke Douglas of Outdoor Provisions, who created the route and knew of a cool bothy nearby. We rode the rest of the way to the bothy which was slightly off route, and found a warm welcome in the form of a fellow cyclist, who had cycled there with his pannier racks fully loaded (and a suitcase strapped to the top!) He was really lovely and we got a nice fire going which made things nice and toasty. That night was just what I needed to feel better.
Lowlights - feeling ill all day!
Highlights - bothy!
Photo by Luke Douglas
Day 3 Bothy in Kielder Forest - Tan Hill Inn - 75 miles
Photo by Luke Douglas
This would be my longest ever off road day, to make up for the lower miles of the previous day. Although I knew it was a big one, I was feeling stronger physically and mentally, the trials from day 2 having given me a huge confidence boost in myself and my abilities. I was really floating on cloud 9 for most of the day and truly enjoying the ride. The bothy had also given me the much needed rest my body needed!
Photo by Luke Douglas
When I arrived at the Canyon checkpoint at the halfway point, I did a little happy jig to myself. In preparing for the rally, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time thinking past day 2, as I was convinced I wouldn’t make it this far. And yet here I was, halfway through and still feeling strong and happy! I spent some time chatting to fellow riders and getting my bike checked, before pushing on.
The miles passed in a haze of good vibes and singing badly to Afrobeats songs, taking in the amazing views and climbs, enjoying riding at my own pace. However, as the day progressed I started to see less and less riders, which I started to find quite mentally tough. I was starting to look forward to finishing and seeing my fellow riders.
On what I can only describe as the final off-road drag to the Tan Hill Inn (the highest pub in England!), I was joined for a short while by a couple of lovely mountain bikers who chatted with me and kindly held open gates so I could keep pedalling. They were really supportive and encouraged me to keep pushing on to Tan Hill, which they assured me was “just a few minutes away” (reader – it was not).
The final tarmac drag to Tan Hill nearly broke me; I was tired and it was late, and as I couldn’t see the Inn I was convinced I was miles away! I nearly cried with happiness when it suddenly appeared through the mist, and I raced my little legs to get inside. I was completely elated and super proud of myself, and as I entered I heard a familiar scream - my tent buddy and all around cycling badass Zara coming to greet me, along with the lovely Aandy. he best end to the day that I could ask for.
Lowlight - climb to Tan Hill (although i’m really proud of this one!)
Highlight – being greeted by Zara and Aandy and fellow riders at Tan Hill
Photo by Luke Douglas
Day 4 Tan Hill - Slaidburn, 61 miles
No longer the lovely rolling gravel we’d been spoiled with, but big hard rocks as we started to hit the Pennine Way. I was worried about cycling up and down these rocks in case I got a puncture; so, the day involved me walking a lot. There was lots of hike-a-biking.
The day started with a nice, fast downhill from Tan Hill, before hitting some beautiful gravel in a stunning valley. I stopped a lot, feeling tired but also wanting to enjoy the scenery and take photos of what I was cycling through. I was also doing a good job of pretending that the Oxnop Scar climb (a road climb with up to 25% gradient) did not exist.
"...with my trusty mix of Outdoor Provisions, sweets and 80s bangers, I managed to drag myself to Askrigg for an extended lunch break where I sat for a while eating lots of food."
Reader – you may have assumed, as did I, that climbs would have become easier for me as the week progressed. But I can assure you they did not, and Oxnop Scar was a real sting in the tail. I had my first cry of the Rally at the midway point after a long slog and realising I was actually only halfway up! I spent a bit of time here feeling sorry for myself and thinking of ways I could possibly scratch and sneak home. But the views were delightful, and with my trusty mix of Outdoor Provisions, sweets and 80s bangers, I managed to drag myself to Askrigg for an extended lunch break where I sat for a while eating lots of food. I was convinced at this point that I would finish here, but I somehow managed to trick myself into getting back on my bike.
I plodded on, aware I was very slow, but feeling happy, enjoying the views and the journey. I had a great time cycling up Cam High Road (definitely not a road but a trail covered in big rocks), before it started raining. I crested the hill, where Louis and some of the Rapha crew were waiting with hot drinks, a welcome sight! Cycling down to the Ribblehead Viaduct was a real highlight of the whole ride, a place I’ve always wanted to visit.
I felt pretty good throughout the day, enjoying the gravel and the climbs, until I got to Salter Fell at around 9.30pm. I was really worried about crossing, as it was obviously getting dark, was very windy and cold, and it had started drizzling. I was worried I’d get stuck and that something bad would happen to me. I really did not want to carry on, but I was determined to get to Slaidburn. I managed to coax myself over and down to Slaidburn by singing and talking to myself the whole time.
I arrived in Slaidburn a sodden, quivering mess. Luckily a couple of locals in the little pub took pity on me and found me what I imagine was the only room left in the village.
Highlight - gravel descent to Ribblehead
Lowlight - Crossing Salter Fell on my own at night with a dodgy light
Day 5 - Slaidburn to MANCHESTER - 60 miles
The miles passed quickly earlier in the day, and I was buzzing all the way; even the last gravel ‘climb’, possibly the worst of the Rally! What made this day feel better, is that I saw people all day! And those moments, however short or long they were, really buoyed me. I think the lure of a warm bed and a shower helped a bit too.
Almost at the top of the last climb.
Cycling to the finish and being greeted by my buddies Zara, Aandy and Tay was the most amazing feeling. I’d done it! And i’d done it mostly cycling at my own pace, which as hard as it was as it meant I was alone for long stretches, was just what I’d needed to test my mental abilities. An incredible 5 days of riding from Edinburgh to Manchester.