Second City Divide - Part 2.
I was awake before my watch alarm starts vibrating on my wrist. Four thirty am. My Alpkit sleeping system is warm, but not warm enough to want to stay in, and the cold hard concrete floor, covered in a carpet of pigeon shit, isn’t inspiring me to lay about. At five Jon is up, we pack, and ride into the cool dawn light. Without a soul around, we cover a quick forty kilometres on the road that morning, before the biggest climb of the route. As we gain height, the route becomes more challenging to ride, and soon after it becomes impossible. With heavy legs and screaming lungs, we find ourselves back on our feet. After three false summits, we follow a string of small rocky cairns across a barren plateau, before we start the welcome descent. It’s probably still too rough to ride, but our impatience outweighs the reality that we should keep pushing, and we ride short sections before climbing off and pushing again. This doesn’t last too long as we roll past Craig’s Hut, a cozy bothy that would have been ideal if we could have pressed on to this point last night. After a quick look in the bothy, we are on for the best descent of the trip. A well-built gravel road runs for kilometres, all the way back to the ribbon of tarmac in the valley floor.
As our bodies start to tire with the volume of the last twenty four hours, something has clicked in Jon’s head. He now understands what we are doing. This is not a race, we have no rules to follow, only my relentless ambition. We stop and start when we want, and sleep where we choose. Welcome to bike packing Jon - I’m pleased he’s here to share this experience. With Jon’s new understanding of our adventure, he relaxes and enjoys the rolling terrain we pass through. Only the noise of our tyres on the road and with the wind on our backs, we hit the gravel of Kielder Forest. As we bid goodbye to the film crew again, we race down a gravel road and we’re swallowed up by the acres of forest. From gravel ecstasy we are bought back into the moment, as latex sealant from Jon’s front tyre fills the air and we come to a halt. After a couple of attempts to get it to seal, we are finally back on the move. But only for twenty minutes. We stop again and it’s time to add a tube to the tyre. Jon pumps away, keen to get back on the road but nothing is happening. The brand new tube has a hole in it, and Jon’s head drops. A second tube solves the issue, and we are back on the road. We bag the miles on the rolling terrain through Kielder, however we overshoot the turn off we are looking for. It’s an easy mistake to make when you’re getting tired and the terrain is easy going. We spin around, finding a water refill point before getting back on track.
As dusk arrives and we lose the light, we are riding some of the best trails of the trip, and we pray we are not in for another monster hike-a-bike section. Just when Jon is back in the game and motivated for an all-nighter, a rubbing noise fills the damp evening air. I ask Jon to stop and check his bike bags, they have a habit of working themselves loose and a bag can end up rubbing on a tyre. After checking all the bags are secure, Jon lifts the rear wheel of his bike and spins it, and we discover the offending noise. His wheel has a broken spoke - it’s not a big deal. But as we check what’s going on, it turns out that it’s not just the one spoke, it’s three! This is a game changer. Looking at the map we are twenty kilometres away from Newcastleton, and it’s just gone seven thirty in the evening. Jon manipulates the remaining spokes to pull the wheel as true as he can. The wheel groans and pops as we limp into the darkness. Newcastleton is now the target, hopefully before Jon’s wheel explodes for good.
The surface is a good one and just after eight, we roll into town hoping to find the film crew there waiting. With no sign of the boys, we pull up on the high street to hatch a plan. It’s pretty evident Jon’s ride is over. It’s too much of a risk to carry on into the night, knowing the wheel will fail at any point. Jon spies a Bed and Breakfast, and gives me his remaining water and food before wishing me well and sending me on my way. I ride off and I’m gutted for him. I never thought this scenario would happen, that one of us would continue without the other. As I get back into the rhythm, I’m frustrated - Jon had just got the reason we were out here doing this ride, and was relishing the challenge that lay ahead. Before the split, we hatched a rough plan. Jon would track down the camera boys, get his wheel fixed, and then come and join me to finish the ride. The following morning it turns out that this is no longer a possibility, and through no lack of trying, Jon boards a train homebound back to Manchester.
Five minutes after leaving Jon, I set my frustrations aside and get my head back in the game. What’s my new plan? How am I going to play this out? I still feel in good shape, my Sonder bike is running well and I’m locked in for an epic night. It doesn’t take me long to decide I will ride non-stop to the finish. Even the lashings of rain after crossing the Scottish Border don’t change my mind. However, the romance of riding through the night becomes a bitter harsh reality when the temperature drops, and I find myself piss wet through in all of my layers. I start breaking the night up into half hour blocks, I’ve been here before and I know that will get me through. I’ve always found that once those first rays of light embrace the new day, my body forgets what it’s just been doing and goes about its business like a new day. Strangely, even with the history of yesterday’s effort, I will feel fresh and ready to go again. It’s mind trickery, a weird and wonderful thing! In my head, I will be on half hour blocks until six thirty am, when my frazzled brain has worked out it will be sunrise. Through a bitterly cold night I keep my head together, and stay in a positive mindset knowing full well at any point I could find my limit, and I would crack. At half past six in the morning, I very nearly do.
I was so sure that the sun would rise at that time and I would be fine, that when it is still dark at six thirty, I wobble. I am almost empty. With heavy legs and even heavier eyelids, I stop and slump over my bars. Have I got another half an hour in me, I question myself? If I’m honest, at that point, I’m not sure. And then it starts, the switch in my brain that realises I’ve reached that point. I smile at this thought - this is what you set out to do. Forget finishing, forget the film, forget everything that you think matters externally, because it doesn’t. I’ve got to the point where I want to be on this whole journey. This is what I’m here for, this is where I find out what I’m made of. Here you are Steve Bate, what are you going to do? I clip my foot back into my right pedal, I lift my cranks and push on them. I wobble as the bike moves forwards, and I’m back on the move. Just one more half hour block. Soon after I make out the skyline. The blackness turns slowly to a dark blue. I hear birds start to sing and as the half hour block comes to an end I stop. I finish the last three jelly babies, disappointed there are no more. I hunt through my top tube bag in the hope of finding any escape artists, but I have no luck. However, it’s now light, and just like the last time I did this, my mind is ready to go again. I push off into the coming morning with the urgency to get this ride finished.
I get a message from Jon saying he won’t be joining me, he’s out.
He congratulates me for riding until three am, where the tracker must have stopped. I message him back quickly saying how gutted I am for him, and that I’m still on the move. His reply comes back which makes me smile and gives me a huge boost: “Fucking hero.” I’m running low on food and water so I’m on the hunt for somewhere to refuel. I’m still pretty cold with all my wet layers on, but with renewed life, I press hard on the pedals, watching the kilometres fade away. I find a shop to stop at hoping for some hot food, but no luck, not even a sandwich. So I buy two chocolate bars, a chocolate milk and two cans of coke. I stand outside shovelling food down my neck, making small talk to someone who wants to hear my story. I’m being polite, but he doesn’t sense my urgency to push on. I tell him I’m hoping to be in Glasgow by half past two - he nods and agrees that I probably will be, having no idea how fast or slow I’m riding. I head back into the rain, hoping it will stop at some point, but I’ve gone past caring. With the taste of chocolate in my mouth, I’m focused on the end goal as I navigate the standing water on the roads.
A car and two figures stand outside in the distance, and as I approach the shapes, I see it’s the boys. I stop as I haven’t seen them since Jon and I left them heading into Kielder. They have been trying to chase me all morning following the tracker. They can’t believe I’m still on the move and in good spirits. I stand still for a few minutes while they run through the interview process - they question me on how I’m feeling, how things are going, and on Jon having to bow out. After a few minutes I’m back on the road with the boys leap-frogging me, catching images where they can. I’ve stripped back a few layers as the rain has dried up for a bit. I drive my pedals round as hard as I ever have on this journey, each pedal revolution taking me closer to Glasgow and the finish. I hit the White Lee Forest and it’s gravel paradise. I am totally captivated by the monstrous white wind turbines. Their large blades chop at the thick misty air that surrounds them, and I race through the maze of wide gravel roads, built to install and maintain these giants. With the centre of Glasgow fast approaching, the boys were again finding it hard to keep up, as I weave down back alleys and whizz through an inner city network of cycle paths. At this point I just want to be done. The natural magic of the route has totally gone, and there’s just man made everything everywhere. I just want to finish, to be able to stop. I don’t have the focus to be riding in traffic at this point of the day. It seems to be bringing me down being back in civilisation. I don’t want to be here on my own, I want to be back in the wilderness, the space, the nature.
At fifteen minutes past three, I roll into the Glasgow velodrome car park. My journey is complete. After being on the move for thirty five hours, I climb off the bike, goal achieved. There is a deep sense of pride in myself. I’ve pushed myself to the limit, and kept riding, kept believing until the very end. What an adventure. My only disappointment is that Jon isn’t with me to share this moment. The lads arrive and it’s smiles all round. They have been incredible, chasing us around the wilderness for the past fifty-odd hours. I take the miniature of whisky I’ve been carrying the whole way out of my frame bag, crack it open and raise a toast to Jon, the film crew and my sponsors.
I’d like to thank everyone who has been involved in this journey, it’s been some ride. Special thanks must go to Ed and Mac for their effort in filming this adventure. I look forward to seeing how it looks through the lens. To Alpkit, Sonder Bikes and Hunt Bike Wheels, I can’t thank you enough for the continued and kind support you give me for adventures like this. It’s a privilege for me to work with you guys.