Friday, 15 July 2016

The Crossing Rat Race Review 2016 Whitehaven to Scarborough

The Crossing 2016 Whitehaven to Scarborough on Mountain Bike

Me and My Radon ZR Race 29er in Whitehaven for The Crossing Rat Race 2016

Before the leg break 2015 for me was supposed to be focused on doing some different things. The Crossing Rat Race event was supposed to be one of those things. 200 miles (or thereabouts) coast to coast on Mountain Bike across the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. It sounded pretty epic for a weekend riding my bike so had to be carried over to 2016.

I can see the appeal of a coast to coast adventure. Nottingham is pretty much the furthest of anywhere in the UK from the sea which is probably why we seem to flock their en masse. The sad scenario is we flock to the dive that is Skegness . The chance to dip our wheels in the sea at Whitehaven and then three muddy days later in Scarborough is pretty glamorous in comparison.

We headed up on the Thursday morning. Whilst it should be around a 4 hour drive to Whitehaven we had scheduled a sight-seeing trip to the impressive Lakes Distillery for a look around, a taste of their whisky and a spot of lunch in their excellent bistro. I certainly recommend the fishcakes on their menu,

Fishcakes and Chips at the Lakes Distillery 
After signing on in the aptly named 'Beacon' in Whitehaven and racking my bike (Zadon ZR Race 29er Hardtail) on the harbour ready for the morning we made our way through town to our inappropriately named accommodation- Summergrove Halls. It felt like we'd returned to winter as the rain came in and the weekend's forecast wasn't looking favourable.

Summergrove Halls is a conference hotel, come student accommodation just outside of Whitehaven costing half the price of a room at the local Premier Inn. I paid £30 for a night with an additional £5 charge for a second person although it was a queen sized bed. On site was a nice little bar and restaurant too so all our needs were easily met as we relaxed with a pint of Guinness watching Portugal against Poland.

My biggest worry was how my body would respond after completing the 69 mile The Wall Ultramarathon 2 weeks before. How much had it taken out of my legs as i'd struggled on local rides on th run up to the crossing although maybe judging myself by 20 mph average training rides on the road is not the best comparison for a mountain biking event.  

The Crossing Day 1- Whitehaven to Shap Across the Lake District

We woke on Friday morning to some gaps in the cloud and to our luck it wasn't raining as we headed into town where everyone was having their photos taken. I was starting to see what class of steed my £700 bargain Radon 29er was up against. Plenty of Santa Cruz's, Specialized and even the lesser spotted YT Capra's rolled past. At least half the field were on full suspension bikes with frames worth more than the sum of the Radon although my biggest adoration went out to the guy on a cyclocross bike fitted with a set of semi slicks.Maybe he knew more than the rest of us? Over the course of the weekend he certainly went through some thrills and spills. 

With each rider around me looking ready for a round of the Enduro World Series was someone who looked a little more wet behind the ears and newer to such an event. I started to see a few who had opted for the budget hire option of a Trek XCaliber and was glad I had the Radon and had spent time out in the Peak District at least trying to learn how to mountain bike.

The notable lack of any #Prokitwanker in their Team Sky kit was also a nice reassurance although there was a rather naive guy in a Polka Dot helmet calling to be smashed on any climb you saw him (especially as the rest of his kit was Rapha) and a guy dressed as Batman including miniature cape for which words currently fail me but he was apparently doing something for charity.

We were shunted together for a briefing and then let off in small groups. I ended up towards the back of the field at this point but despite having a number on the front of the bike The Crossing is not a race. You're given a finish time each day but there's no leader board, no BC Points and no money to entice me to race. I have pretty much no experience of events like this so thought I'd start near the back and see what happens whilst taking things steady to begin with.

It was about 7.40 AM when my group was set loose on day 1 and as I started pedalling I steadily passed rider after rider as we snaked our way through Whitehaven before joining what must have been a converted old railway line now forming a cycleway. This meandered it's way upwards over Cleator Moor before spitting us out onto very quiet country lanes looking down on Cogra Moss on the Western edges of the Lake District. So far a piece of cake. 

A short climb later and we veer off the quiet roads onto our first piece of proper Mountain Biking of the trip. We climb up the Corpse Road which goes from nice gravel to more rocky sections. All pretty much ride able for most with the odd foot-down we made our way down to Loweswater and over the Whinlatter Pass. Disappointingly Whinlatter has a trail centre which can be accessed from the pass so I'd have loved to have seen a collaboration as by this point I was getting worried the weekend would be a lot more road cycling than mountain biking.

We dropped into Keswick to the days pit stop at the 30 mile mark. This was well stocked with tea coffee, hot chocolate if you wanted, plenty of sweet and savoury options as well as Clif Bars, Shot Blocks and Gels. I have a love for their Double Espresso Gels so grabbed one for the road. After coffee and cake I got back on the bike to get myself moving again as quickly as possible. I hate cafe legs but plenty seemed to be happy to spend some time at the pit stop. 

Keswick works well for a pit stop unless you have a climb out of it and that's what we had so I was glad I didn't take my time at the stop. We quickly climbed a side road out of Keswick up on top of the Moors and out towards our next major off road section.

With a name like The Coach Road you'd think a bridleway would be relatively easy but we started climbing from the off and it got tougher with a section that was barely ride able before we could settle into a little more of a rhythm. We climbed up to 437 metres above sea level to the highest point of our Crossing adventure so far before the Coach 'Road' eased off over the summit before gradually dropping down as the weather started to turn to heavy rain.

We popped out onto the roads and flew downhill to Patterdale and around the edges of the impressive Ullswater before what seems to be the most pointless section of the Crossing Route. We turned off the roads and onto the rugged rocky carry section up and over Boredale Hause. The steep, rocky climb seemed pointless whilst carrying a mountain bike. I struggle to see any logic in such a climb. Had there been an amazing downhill section to follow it may have justified some 'hike-a-bike' but climb just didn't justify the risk to us as competitors with an awful scramble downhill after the summit. My issues with my ankle which were made worse by having done the crossing ultramarathon 2 weeks before were seriously showing as I struggled to climb a mountain pass wearing stiff mtb shoes and carrying my bike. I was definitely not amused.

We exited Boredale for a long drag of a cross country climb which seemed to go on for ever as we slowly made our way up above Ullswater before heading out onto the roads towards the end of day 1 in Shap with a fantastic private road climb up from Haweswater.

Day 1 finished, 100 km of riding with some interesting cross country sections and over 2000m of elevation gain. The downside was rather a lot of road and that ridiculous hike-a-bike section. Aparently I was 20th rider home too which was reassuring event though I wasn't racing and started toward the rear of the bunch around an hour after many starters.

He'res the Strava view of the route of the Crossing Day 1.

 We ended up in the Crown Inn in Shap for food that night. Good prices and decent homemade food was the order of the day. They did a roaring trade from us Ratracers that night.

The Crossing Day 2- Shap to Northalerton

Day 2 started to the incessant sound of rain falling onto the tent. I'd managed to get a relatively good nights sleep and my legs didn't feel like they'd done over 2000 metres of climbing yesterday. After managing to wolf down a couple of breakfast bars and an oat drink I started to get my things together. The start window was from 7 til 8 but most riders wanted to get out pretty early as day 2 was going to be our longest distance in the saddle.

It was about 7.40 as I pushed into the start area with an unknown number of riders out in front of me as I followed the roads as they ran parallel to the M6. If you've driven the section along the M6 you'll know that it's a pretty unforgiving section of road you don't really want to drive in bad weather. We started in bad weather but by the time we turned East towards the village of Orton the weather had started to become a little more pleasant.

About 8 miles into the day we turned onto our first offroad section. Starting on a rugged offroad climb before ascending grassy fields. The resulting descent off the top of the moor was singletrack of technical delight. Dropping into a gully we followed what should have been a fast flowing trail in the dry down to a rough, rocky lane. The recent rain had made things a little squelchy and the multitude of rocks scattered around the trail will likely have caught out many a rider. It did me a few times. 

After a right turn off the bottom of the rough lane we cut through a farm and headed across the fields before rejoinng the roads that lead us over to Kirkby Stephen and up into the Yorkshire Dales.

After turning off at Nateby we started to climb. And continued to climb over the brutal Lamps Moss. 3.8km at an average gradient of 8%. We gained 310m of elevation in a very short space of time. I was so wishing I was on my road bike at this point with a fast descent to follow that would be a limited amount of fun on knobbly tyres. Schwalbe Nobby Nics aren't really designed for the road but I found I could actually push on them and their road traction wasn't bad at all. 

As we dropped down into the valley I saw a steep lane off to the left, thinking 'that would be an interesting climb' we were directed left off up the lane for some more cross country fun. The lane ended up pretty tough with most of the initial section a push up. At this point I'd been joined by a lad who I'd overtaken and dragged along on the descent so it was a nice point to start some conversation. It's amazing and a little ironic when you travel for hours to an event and you end up talking to people who actually are from close to home.

As the rugged track's gradient eased it was time to get pedalling. I still kept this as a social section and we exchanged opening gates for each other as the trail took us back over 500m in altitude along the Corpse Road (Not sure if it's a continuation from day 1). We then descended on some more rugged sections back down into Muker as I was starting to feel like I can actually ride a mountain bike even though I realised my forks were on lockout for the whole downhill. There will be plenty quicker on technical sections but it was nice just to have some fun.

We hit the roads again after Muker and my companion started to falter as my road strength seemed to be coming into play. After passing a few small hamlets I was directed down Dubbing Garth Lane. This was a fantastic section of mainly flat rocky lane flowing later into some great singletrack on Low Lane where I pleasingly overtook a couple of riders. 

We rejoined the road heading through the nice looking town of Reeth before a well earnt pit stop at the Dales Mountain Bike Centre on the outskirts of the village around 40 miles into the days stage. This was a good time to get some food in the system and my body was crying out for some caffeine. 

Straight out of the pit stop was a tough climb that had me questioning the logic of downing a BBQ Pulled Pork cob. It tasted great but wouldn't have been the best thing to bring back up on the first climb after the break. Known as Hard Stiles it certainly is a tough climb after a pit stop but the subsequent fast downhill that followed was awesome. To put it into context I managed to get a Strava top 10 on a downhill on my mountain bike!

We were pushed onto an off road section which pretty much buffeted us out into Richmond before a group of us got working together on the road run into Northalerton to the end of day 2. And I was told I was 6th rider back so pretty pleased with my efforts.

Day 2 Strava from The Crossing 2016

Although from that moment on my positive day 2 of the Crossing started to go significantly downhill as I began to feel rather unwell. By early evening my stomach was doing sommersaults and everything I had taken on just wanted to exit via the back doors. Through the night I started to feel worse and worse as I started to get dehydrated through hot sweats and shivering.

The Crossing Day 3 Northalerton to Scarborough

I must apologise now, Day 3 from Northalerton to Scarborough should have been a great day on the bike but the way my body was feeling. I didn't think I'd get through the day when I eventually dragged myself up to the start line knowing that day 3 was going be be torture for me.

Day 3 became such a blur that I took 3 wrong turns or missed turns before even reaching the pit stop for the day. Two of those wrong turns took me up a couple of lovely climbs. Great views but the realisation of a lack of direction arrows meant I wasn't extremely far off course although I did do around 10 miles further for the day for my errors.

With the first 10 miles on gently rolling country roads we turned off up what seemed to me more of a push up climb. Maybe sections would have been ride able had I been in a better place but for me this was an almighty heave of a push up climb into the impressive Boltby Forest which I imagine to be a great training base for an enduro rider.

From the top of Boltby Forest we cut along the top of the Moorland before descending fast along farm tracks and back out to rolling roads prior to a lovely zig zag climb through Newgate Plantation prior to a climb through Brookhill Wood onto Roppa Wood. We then descended quickly to the road and with a signpost veering the the left I followed the track round and onto the road before a lovely road climb. A lack of directional arrows added a feeling of worry which was confirmed at the top by a bird watcher who hadn't seen a cyclist 'in the last hour'. Oops, time to retrace my steps again.

When I'd veered left onto the road I should have actually gone almost straight on, onto an access road for what I think was a campsite. Back on course I started overtaking the riders I'd past some time previously as we climbed through a farm and up a tough lane, throwing us out on quiet back roads before I was relieved to reach Hutton le Hole and the final pit stop of the crossing.

Day 3 Strava Part 1- You can clearly see my wrong turns.

 The next section of the ride passed a sign for Rosedale which stuck me with fear. From Hutton Le Hole you can climb the Rosedale Chimney, one of the toughest climbs in the UK but fortunately we didn't make this ascent. Had I been on a good day I might have taken a little detour up but I was in no fit state for playing in the hills that are normally my passion.

I had hoped we'd get to see some of the trails around Dalby Forest like I'd hoped on seeing some of Whinlatter's trails but in reality we just passed through Dalby on mainly fire roads which I found a bit of a disappointment. We went through one of the UK's best trail centers and barely saw what it has to offer.

More easy trails led us eventually out into the edges of Scarborough for a final flourish by the seafront in the North Bay with an Ice Cream to finish.

Strava on Day 3 to Finish in Scarborough.

 Day 3 didn't have any of the rockier stuff we'd tackled on days 1 and 2 although we weren't going anywhere near as high up. There was, however a serious amount of climbing for the day and much of the route after an initial road section was off road.

At the finish line of the Rat Race Crossing 2016

How Fit Do You Need to Be for The Crossing

It's difficult to say just how fit you need to be. It's hard to deny The Crossing is a tough event. With over 5500 metres of elevation across 3 days of riding it's certainly a challenge for many. With 3 days of riding over 60 miles a day you need the general riding fitness to be able to get you to the finish line. With a combination of road and more strenuous mountain bike sections this is probably the equivalent to 3 days on the bike riding 80-100 miles a day on the roads alone though cross country saps your strength.

The Crossing is probably more of a beginner to intermediate mountain bike event. It will be tough due to the amount and variety of climbing each day. If you can build to 50+ mile xc rides you'll have the basis of fitness to finish without draining your reserves.

Best Bike for The Crossing

Hard tail, hardtail, HARDTAIL. There's too much on the roads and the mountain biking isn't rugged enough for long enough to warrant a full suspension bike. I never had an issue with 100 mm forks up front.

The hardtails the designated bike provider for the event Wheels of Callander had available I've heard bad reports on but I think that was from people used to much better kit. I couldn't fault my 700 quid Radon but you wouldn't expect an xc race type bike to struggle unless things get knarly (and the Crossing isn't really that knarly) although for 700 quid I had far better spec than the Trek's many of the hire bikes were

As there's a lot of road the 1x10 / 1x11 brigade may also struggle on the roads too,

Tyre Choice for The Crossing

Knobbly to Semi Slick for days 1-2. Day 3 gets a little muddy so be aware. I think the smoother centre tread of a Maxxis Crossmark might work well though I was ok on a pair of Knobby Nics from Schwalbe though they are the stock tyres on my MTB when it arrived and just about have enough tread on them a year on.

My Thoughts on Rat Race The Crossing 2016 and recommendations

  • Well signed and marshalled event with the only exception for me being day 3 with some minor issues.
  • A lot of road riding on day 1 and 2. Allowed progress but would have been great for more ride able xc.
  • If you have a hardtail and a full suspension bike- Opt for your hardtail
  • Change the route to remove the Boredale Hause portage, the resulting downhill isn't worth the climb and there appear alternate bridleways to the North of Ullswater that could be used or stick to the road for this section. 
  • Not using Whinlatter and Dalby Forest trail centers was a big disappointment
  • Day 3 susceptible to mud so start early if possible when likely to be wet
  • Consider a tyre that will roll relatively well on the road
  • Be prepared for long days in the saddle, put the miles in and you'll be rewarded.
  • The Pit Stops were great, eveything you could need half way through each stage.
  • Take your own energy drink with you, I now have a disdain for High5 thanks to the last few Rat Race events I've done. 


  1. Having just completed the Coast to Coast Challenge on a Cyclocross fairly easily - would I get away with using my Cyclocross bike on this race?

    1. Thanks Daryl for your comment. This year to my knowledge there was one person who completed the Crossing on a cx bike although I think it would struggle on the rough stuff. Maybe with something like a 42mm monster cross tyre the majority of it would be rideable (though you'd need a seriously low bottom gear) if it's all you have. If you do have an mtb I'd take that option for the extra comfort