Time trialling is a strange pleasure, especially for the majority of participants who are never going to actually win. There is no TT equivalent of a freaky round of golf (the day when your mishits are so bad they sail right over the gorse onto the next fairway) when you can score 8 or 10 shots better than normal. Most time-triallists are largely competing with themselves – their previous performances on the same course, their times against those always around their level, but most of all, during the event, their mind trying to win over their body to just keep going.
And even stranger, and to my mind not a pleasure at all, are dual-carriageway based TTs. Too many big lorries, not enough bends, too much sitting down – uncomfortable and boring.
Which is where SPOCO TTs come in (short for Sporting Courses, but don’t ask me if it’s pronounced spoke-o or spawk-o). These take place on country roads that are often very quiet (and very scenic, if you get a moment). And you can’t just concentrate on churning out the watts, as they include reasonable hazards like bends and hills, and arbitrary ones like sheep, cattle grids, railway lines and hens. And in our part of the world, the daddy (or is it the mother) of all SPOCOs is the Teesdale Mountain TT.
The bald stats are impressive enough – just under 40 miles with over 4,500 feet of up (and as the finish is at the start, 4,500 feet of down), and a maximum gradient of over 20%. It’s in a lovely wild part of the country – up Teesdale from Barnard Castle, across the bleak Pennine landscape of Bollihope Common, a brief circuit in Upper Weardale before the climb back over Bollihope and an exciting largely downhill final 10 miles.
All these hills make it harder than usual to judge just how much effort to put in in the earlier stages, but even before the start there are tricky decisions to be made. The route tops out at 1737 feet above sea level, about 300 feet higher than anything in familiar Cleveland Wheelers territory over the North York Moors. It can be cold up there, indeed you might even be in the cloud at times, so just assuming the effort is going to keep you warm won’t do. As well as choosing your clothes you need to think about your bike – gears to get you over 20%+ but also to maximise speed on long downhill straights. And of course wheels – the route runs largely on a north-south axis so it’s likely you’ll have a side wind for long, usually completely exposed, stretches. Just how much solid sail-like surface area do you really want under your bum?
So having made all this decisions, it’s race time. It’s worth knowing that the pain starts straight away – 4.6 miles uphill to Folly Bank top, albeit at a mild 3 to 8%, over long open straights. The wind is critical here – on a calm day it’s easy enough to settle into a nice rhythm but if the wind is against you’re already battling to keep any sort of momentum going. On the straights you can see riders up to a couple of minutes ahead of you, and of course narrowing that gap is a great incentive. On the other hand you’re a sitting target for those behind and it probably won’t be long until the unmistakable rumbling of disc wheels gives a brief warning before you’re passed. Don’t worry, you’ll be well used to it by the end. (I’m writing for the average reader here!)
From the top of Folly Bank there are lovely views down to the Tees below, and some welcome but brief downhill before the climbing resumes and you get to a right turn off the main road at 7.6 miles. This is the Stotley Grange climb, according to Strava segments, and it’s the start of the fun. A very narrow lane between two stone walls, only half a mile, but 18% at the bottom and never less than 10%. Right at the top, a little more respite then a swooping descent with a couple of tight bends (you’ve now covered 10 miles) before climbing back up onto the main road over Bollihope Common, and turning due north. (Main road is a relative term here – on an early April Sunday morning bikes will easily outnumber cars). It’s uphill for a little under 3 miles with a reasonable gradient of 5 to 7%, wind permitting. Once again you can see riders in the distance – some who passed you only a short time ago, some who you hope to catch later. The top of Bollihope is the highest point on the ride and if you’re not in the cloud has great views. Which you won’t enjoy for long as your attention is focussed on a descent for 2 miles at 5 to 10%, with some nice fast open bends and some not so nice blind turns and even hairpins (red-flagged by the marshals – this is a slickly run event). It would be too easy if this was the drop into Weardale – first you have to cross a little valley then climb a steepish mile at 7 to 10% past a quarry. Then the final, “technical” descent into Weardale. For the first, but not last time of the day, you may well ask yourself just how important a few seconds here or there are at the end of the day. For sure you could go faster, but do you want to? A cattle grid on a bend, then the drop steepens and the bends tighten into the top of Unthank Bank. The words “Unthank Bank” are presumably seared into the memories of everyone who ever did the Teesdale Mountain Time Trial – either because of the perilous descent or, 5 miles later, the malevolent climb.
That 5 miles is the flattest bit of the day – through Stanhope and gently up Weardale on the main road (a good time to refuel), before turning over the river and railway line onto a much smaller road with some dodgy surfaces, some up and some more downhill blind bends again begging the question, just how much are a few extra seconds worth? The good news is you’ve now passed the halfway mark and on arriving back at the bottom of Unthank Bank there are only 16 miles to go. Unthank Bank up is simply horrible – about 350 feet of climbing in half a mile, 20% in the first stretch, varying from 10 to 15% for the rest before you reach the respite of a 5%. For me this bit is not about getting up as fast as possible, it’s just about getting up at all. The relief at getting over Unthank is short-lived – the fear of having to get off and walk is over, but the need to suffer isn’t, or the fear of blowing up. At this stage the late starters (the fast boys) are still on their way north, descending past you at what appear to be (and probably are) preposterous speeds.
Fast back down past the quarry and onto the final 2 miles to the top of Bollihope. This is in two steps and rather steeper than the south side – often around 10%. It is a huge boost to morale to get to the top, the long views down to Teesdale and beyond, and long fast downhill straights. Just how much fun this is depends on the strength of any side winds. On the way back you don’t turn off onto small roads, you just blast straight on towards Barney. At one point the gradient steepens to over 11% and this is the fastest section of the day. I see the Strava segment here is named “Rooster Road to Chicken Corner” which gives some idea of the potential hazards and how you might feel about going at over 40mph stretched out on your aero bars.
After 6 miles of sometimes exhilarating, sometimes scary descending you’re back at the bottom of Folly Bank. What was a brief, unremarkable respite on the way out now feels like Alpe d’Huez at the end of the Marmotte (I know, a bit of an exaggeration, but that same can I/do I have to do this feeling). 220 feet of climbing in under half a mile, at up to 10%. Then a short flat, a brief but nasty uphill blip at nearly 12%, and then three glorious straight downhill miles to the finish. Except, of course, the chequered flag is just a little bit uphill, so for one final time you get to fight that monstrous burn searing through your weary legs. This time you really can leave it all out there, safe in the knowledge that there are 365 days until the next Teesdale Mountain Time Trial.
As mentioned above, this is a well run event and the cakes on offer at the end are excellent. Perhaps unusually for a TT, the slower riders are as, if not more happy, then the quickies. There is only one winner but us slowcoaches are united by our sense of just accomplishing it, of having the temerity to not just do what would be a lovely tough-ish Sunday morning ride (with a coffee stop in Stanhope), but to do it against the clock.
If this has whetted any appetites, Teesdale CRC have more details on their website including a video taken on a horrible day. Don’t let that put you off – it’s a great challenge – get it in your diary for next year.
John Main – May 2017
John would like to make it clear that he hasn’t done the Marmotte and has no intention to. He was just using his imagination. (Perhaps he’d read Dave Kirton’s harrowing accounts from 2009 & 2010 – Ed).