Cycling the Etape Pennines: A tough but incredibly rewarding experience

by Patrick Grant
Fashion designer and Marie Curie supporter


I've been aware of Marie Curie for a long time. However, it wasn't until my mum began working as a Helper in Edinburgh that I grew to understand all of the different ways in which they care for people suffering with terminal illnesses. Like many people, it's not until you experience a charity's services first hand that you see the amazing work they do. That’s why I decided to take on the Etape Pennines cycle challenge in support of Marie Curie.

I went to school in the town of Barnard Castle. The view from my dormitory window was across the tops of the fells of the northern Pennines. I used to run cross country along the banks of the River Tees and I practiced for the long expedition of the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award by marching about with a rucksack on my back in upper Teesdale.

This is beautiful countryside, often overlooked in favour of its glitzier neighbours, the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks. The North Pennines is an awe-inspiring landscape of giant open moorland and beautiful rolling dales, unspoiled by the mass tourism of its near neighbours. In 1988 it was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a status which will ensure its preservation as one of England's great wild places.

Etape_PenninesThe Etape Pennines sportive takes you through the heart of this wonderful place. This is for sure one of Britain's toughest bike races, with a field made up largely of committed club cyclists. I am not one of these but have taken up cycling properly this year after my dodgy rugby-knackered knees finally decided to call a halt to marathon running. I have commuted to work by bike almost every day for a decade or so, journeys of varying length but of late about an hour a day. A few years ago I did some triathlons and a couple of decent-sized bike races, but I've not put in a lot of serious miles on a bike before.

This year I kicked straight off with the Surrey 100, 100 miles on the route of the Olympic Road Race, finishing in about six hours without much training. Secondly (after a good deal more training), I did the the Scotland Coast to Coast, a run, kayak and cycle across Scotland, which I finished in 11 hours and 23 minutes.

Etape-PenninesAnd finally the Etape Pennines. The Etape is very, very hard. It took my pal Dave and I just under seven hours to finish the 85 miles. The last 25 (mostly uphill) miles were into a pretty decent headwind and I hated almost every pedal turn. There were some pretty monster climbs along the way and in all, depending on whose GPS you believe, we ascended between 8,500 and 10,000 feet. But it is without doubt one of the best races I've ever done. The route is spectacular, some of the descents are beyond description, the organisation is as slick as it could possibly be. I have a funny feeling that I might be doing it again.