2013 Marie Curie Cancer Care Etape Pennines | Total Women's Cycling

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Etape Pennines: Tackling the Marie Curie Cancer Care Etape

Finally recovered from the Etape Pennines, an aptly described “beautiful but brutal” closed road sportive, Total Women’s Cycling editor Kirsty shares her experience of the 84 mile ride.

The closed-road Etape Pennines offers a “beautiful but brutal” ride, our editor couldn’t agree more

When an email landed in my inbox that spoke of a closed-road sportive, setting off 17 miles from my parents home, I just had to sign up. Combining work, with a quiet weekend at home, what could be better? A bit of cycling with my Dad and a walk or two with my Mum and the dog in the Dales – bliss.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into…

Blink and you miss it, 2:13mins in for a very quick action shot of Kirsty and her friend Tom.

Before I get into things, I would like to extend a huge thank you to everyone involved in organising this event. Any sportive is tough to co-ordinate, but add in the fact that the Etape Pennines was on closed-roads, it must have been a logistical nightmare. Everyones hard work paid off, the event was a huge success and enjoyed by all of the riders who took park.

Decisions, decisions…

I touted the idea of riding the sportive to a couple of colleagues, who rather too quickly declined the offer. They all prompted me to take look at forums discussing last years’ Etape Pennines, so I did. Long story short, everyone talked of gruelling climbs and punishing headwinds – surely it couldn’t be that bad, I survived riding Bealach na Bà (Google it!) – I’d be able to cope. Right?

Deciding to ignore the hype, I pootled on getting extra miles in the legs by commuting an extra few days a week with ladened panniers.

After what seemed like the blink of an eye, with far too few long rides under my belt, the weekend of tackling the Etape Pennines had arrived!


With the Fondriest lovingly wrapped and securely tucked in the car, I set off on Friday evening – homeward bound. Needless to say, the traffic gods were not looking favourably on me. I endured what can only be described as an epic drive, arriving frazzled after setting off a mere 8-hours earlier.

Saturday – the day before…

As my plans for an early night were shattered, a lie-in was in order. So, after re-charging my batteries from a long week at Total Women’s Cycling, my Dad and I decided to head out on an ‘acclimatisation’ ride, to check the bike was in order and decide what clothes to wear.

We had a genteel 22 mile ride out, taking in Tunstall, the lofty heights of Barden Moor that looks out over Leyburn, before looping back into Richmond and finally arriving in Brompton-on-Swale an hour and a half later. The bike worked a treat, and I’d made the decision on what outfit I would wear.

After lunch, it was time to head out and get registering. Challenger World, the company behind the Etape Pennines had the registration process nailed. I was suitably impressed to arrive on Saturday to volunteer marshals helping us park, and enough stalls to help me re-stock my cycling wardrobe.

Even though it was the day before the main event, as more riders gathered to sign on, you could feel the nervous energy build. What was it going to be like on the start line tomorrow?

The big day

Waking on the day of the ride, I was surprisingly nervous. Although I’d already decided on what outfit I would wear, I attacked my suitcase and started trying on various combinations – had I got the right combination to keep me warm on the hills, but cool enough as I was churning on the flat sections?

Unsurprisingly, I stuck with what I’d decided the night before. As it was set to be around 12°C at the coolest when we set off my choices were as follows;

– Bib shorts
– Short sleeve jersey
– Arm warmers
– Windproof gilet
– Windproof shell jacket
– Oversocks (help keep the wind out!)

Arriving in Barnard Castle a half hour before my 7:20 allocated start time, my Mum decided to give me a loving pep-talk, as it was clear the nerves were setting in;

Pull yourself together girl, have a bit of faith in yourself. You cycled the coast of GB didn’t you – you’ll be fine. Just get on with it!

You can always trust your Mum to know exactly what to say to get you motivated – love you Mother!

Gathering on the start line, photographs were taken, safety talks given, and as we waited for the start horn, an eery silence descended over us riders. As soon as the horn went, there was a flurry of pedals and we got away bang on 7:20 – there was no hanging around getting chilly for us (much appreciated organisers!).

I used the first 10 miles to warm the legs. The sun hadn’t fully risen, so I wanted to take my time and not get carried away with the excitement. It would prove to be a wise move, as later in the ride I passed many of those that had shot off at the front, only to cramp up and be left walking alongside their bikes.

Dramatic landscapes were the order of the day

This is something I’ve learned over many longer rides; it’s a marathon not a sprint, so take your time early on, ignore those churning the pedals and settle into your own rhythm!

The first climb came around 5 miles in and it allowed me to stretch my legs, peaking at just 330 metres. It was nothing spectacular but enough to get my heart rate up. It was also a chance to speak with some of the other riders. I bumped into the lovely Helen Pidd from the Guardian, we chatted and ended up riding together for quite a bit of the sportive.

Once the first climb was over, we descended into the first feed station. It was a welcome sight as I knew one of our biggest challenges lay just round the corner, the climb out of Langdon Beck before descending towards Burnhope Reservoir.

Throughout the course there were 3 feed stations, the first at 15 miles, the second at 44 miles, and the last around the 60 mile mark. All were manned by wonderful volunteers, who managed to raise our spirits while feeding us much needed sustenance from ZipVit. Thanks to all those who sacrificed their time, to let us crazed cyclists enjoy an epic ride.

Kirsty leading the peloton up the hill…

The second climb was long. Really long. Essentially, it was 5 miles of ascending. I settled into the saddle and just plugged away. The wind may have picked up, but so too had my spirits – chatting to even more cyclists who rode alongside me. I’d never met these folk before, but we were jointly suffering – sharing in the experience!

Hitting the top, I quickly zipped up my jacket to keep the chill out and switched to the drops. Tucking in, I hit around 38mph – that was enough for me. Even at this speed cyclists were whizzing passed me. I started to get concerned when I saw someone in the middle of the road signalling to slow down. Heeding their sign, I saw the result of riders possibly getting a tad over zealous with the closed roads and pushing their boundaries a smidge too far.

A couple of riders were huddled on the side of the road, injured, but already being tended to by the ambulance team who were positioned round the course. I’m happy to report no-one was seriously injured, just a hint of road rash.

Victorious, crossing the finish line!

Once the road levelled out, we were treated to the spectacular view of Burnhope reservoir. Built in 1936 – it was amazing to cycle alongside!

The middle of the ride is somewhat of a blur, although things started to get quite interesting after the final feed station. There was only 24 miles to go, I thought that it would be a breeze!

How wrong I was! The wind had picked up and we started to be buffeted by 25 mile per hour headwinds. Not something you want when you’ve already been in the saddle for a couple of hours. It really was a sting in the tail, but with my friend Tom joining me we battled through and tried to take our mind off things by chatting.

All I will say is that it’s amazing what you find interesting to talk about when you’re battling hills head on into a 25 mph wind!

Dipping into our reserves, we battled through and managed to reach the finish within 7 and a half hours. It had been epic and we’d depleted our energy stores, even raising a smile to cross the finish line was pretty tough!

Kirsty’s Etape Pennines Stats (via her Garmin)

  • Distance: 85.42 miles
  • Time: 7:16:27
  • Avg Speed: 11.7 mph
  • Elevation Gain: 3,158 m
  • Calories burnt: 5,299


I won’t forget the Etape Pennine’s in a hurry that’s for sure. Yes, it was hard going in parts, but I would recommend you give it a go. Start off early in 2014, train hard and you’ve got 10 months to get in shape for it – why not make it a your cycling goal for the year?

The chance to ride on closed roads, through some of the most stunning scenery the UK has to offer, with so many friendly cyclists, being cheered on by the locals – it’s something I believe everyone should experience!

What’s next?

If I write it down, I have to commit, so I’ll say it now – who wants to join me for ALL THREE of the Etape Series next year? 


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