I always preferred to do the ride in dry weather and I was a bit worried that we had had one of the wettest July's on record! It had rained nearly every day and we only had 2 or 3 days of dry weather before I set off. Surprisingly, the entire length outward to Liverpool was pretty dry. There were a few stray puddles (the type that never go away) and some of the more exposed parts of the path were soft, but none of it was particularly muddy or heavy going. Having said that, on the way back there had been some heavy overnight showers and a length of the towpath was quite wet. But still, not heavy or very muddy, just puddles.
Be careful of the sun! Even though it was partly cloudy, I still caught the sun on my neck, face and arms. Luckily, I had packed some suncream and I didn't burn. The breeze when you're moving can disguise the strength of the sun.
On both days, the wind was a light to moderate west/ north westerly blowing at around 7 to 10mph. It wasn't too noticeable heading west until I went over the top of the peak at Foulridge. After that I had a headwind all the way into Liverpool, 82 miles away!
I used my Scott Aspect 55 mountain bike for the ride. It is pretty new and I got it serviced the day before the ride. A service (either carried out by you or a dealer) will make sure everything is working properly and that cables are the right tension, brake pads good etc... It's a good idea to either use an older bike you are comfortable with or if you plan to buy a new bike, give it time to wear in and let your body get used to it. Get to know it well. Carry out minor repairs and learn what to do if things snap or break. Luckily, I only suffered one puncture during the entire 255 journey, and that was only 5 miles from the end! I used a synthetic 'wet' lube that was supposed to repel water and give better performance. In reality, it did the same as basic bike oil. It attracted the dust and gunk and dried out eventually. Next time I won't spend as much on chain lube! Of all the spares, tools and bits I thought about taking, the only things I would advise are,
- A decent, lightweight pump.
- Puncture repair kit with metal tyre levers.
- A spare inner tube or two.
- A good quality multi-tool (I got the Alien II).
Everything else just turned out to be dead weight.
In fairness, most of the towpath is pretty good for cycling. The worst parts in my opinion are stretches between Crossflatts and Skipton, where the towpath narrows to the width of a bike wheel in places and rocks protrude out of the ground. Other noticeable poor stretches are between Skipton and Gargrave, there is a very rough part near Church in Lancashire (the halfway point), Then another a few miles after Wigan towards Liverpool. But after saying that, I would say that about 80% of the towpath is good enough to get a decent speed in comfort. The built up areas have the best paths and the worst ones tend to be out in the middle of nowhere.
One thing to be careful of are the old bridges. Some of them are very low as you enter and it would be really easy to skid and end up in the canal. Especially if someone is coming the other way! At the time of writing, British Waterways were improving a long stretch of the towpath in Kirkstall, Leeds. There were also signs for closures in Wigan and Liverpool starting soon. However, there are easy diversions signposted. As you approach the outskirts of Liverpool & Leeds (about 10 miles out) the towpath becomes really good, wide and easy to cycle. Depending on the time of day, you can fly along them and make good time.
I originally planned to do the ride there and back over three days but managed it in two.
Day One. I set off from Leeds City Centre, Lock 1 (River Lock) at 05.30. I took a steady pace with 5 minute rests every 30 minutes, half an hour lunch and lost 20 minutes trying to find the canal in Burnley where it disappeared into a tunnel. I arrived at the end of the canal in Liverpool with a total cycling time of 11 hours, 15 minutes. This equated to an overall average speed of just over 11.3mph.
Day Two. I set off slightly earlier at 4.50am (just as it was getting light) and began my journey back towards Leeds. This time, I took less rests and tried to make use of the tailwind to increase my speed. I only took one 5 minute break every hour and had 10 minutes for lunch. I completed the 127 and a quarter miles in 11 hours and 23 minutes. An overall average speed of 11mph. (I would not recommend attempting this without decent rest intervals. See below).
Altogether, my total cycling time was 22 hours and 38 minutes. This was cycling a total of 255.8 miles (the extra mile came from the diversion at Kirkstall in Leeds where the towpath was closed). This equates to an average speed of just over 11mph.
REST, ENERGY & FOOD
If I'm honest, my personal target was too much. I pushed myself too far and in hindsight I took fewer breaks than I should. At the time of writing this section, I have been home for four hours. I have chronic saddle sores that see me sat on a cushion and wincing every time I move. My knees are aching so bad that It takes me ages to sit, stand, bend or do anything except lie down. My back is not too bad considering the 10kg of backpack I just lugged to Liverpool and back. My own stupid fault for being so impatient. But then again it feels great to have done it in 2 days!
Definitely take at least 5 minutes rest every half an hour and at least half an hour every 4 to 5 hours. Get off the bike, take off your helmet and backpack, sit down, walk about, stretch your calves, thighs, hamstrings and soleus muscles.
As for food, I took loads of energy gels and caffeine energy drinks (Lucozade Sports). As it goes, I stuck to water and muesli bars and felt fine, so the gels were a waste of time! I had a good breakfast before setting off and tried to eat a muesli bar or aot bar at least once every hour for the first few hours to avoid fatigue. A box of 12 bars doesn't weigh that much. It's a good idea to have two water bottles as there are long stretches without shops. I took a British Waterways key (Available at http://www.waterscape.com/) so that I could fill up for free at the water points along the canal (and there are dozens). The key also gives you access to toilets and waste bins. Just look at any canal guide for locations. You can even buy a card that enables you to use showers if you are planning to camp out along the way.
I did stop lunch on the outward leg, but next time I won't have a Burger King as it was repeating on me for the rest of the day! I stuck to snacks with oats, sugar and protein to keep me fuelled up. Chocolate seems to give a quick boost and tastes nice but it's short lived compared to oats and honey. The golden rule is never to wait until you're thirsty to get a drink and eat something at least once an hour. You can't really drink too much, and if you do it just means you have to stop and have a wee!
My bike computer has details of my weight, height, BMI and weight of my bike and backpack. It calculated that I burned 8900 calories on the outward journey and 9250 on the return. That's over 18,000 calories in just two days! So you'll forgive me the Quarter Pounder & Cheese I had when I got back!
Padded Shorts. These are a must! Even if you have the comfiest saddle on earth (like I thought I did), you still need these. I had a comfy saddle and padded shorts but I still have saddle sores (and boy are they called sores for a reason!). If you don't like the tight Lycra ones, you can get baggy shorts with padded inners. They look cool too! However, a word of warning... get used to wearing padded shorts because believe it or not, they can sometimes make things worse. because your bum isn't used to the tightness of them, it can sometimes cause friction burns during long periods of cycling. I got two patches (about the size of a credit card) of very sore skin that blistered and took over a week to calm down. I also wore an Adidas Climalite t-shirt (Keeps you cool and wick away sweat) in white to reflect the sun. Ankle socks and trainers that are comfy to wear. Even though you're on a bike you can still get blisters from ill fitting trainers. (As i found out). Most important, a helmet. I am an experienced cyclist with many years of road and mountain biking. I thought I didn't need a helmet till I heard about a guy who went flying over his handlebars, hit his head losing conciousness, landed in the canal and drowned. GET A HELMET!
Of the 10kg of equipment I was carrying, I could have done without about 9 and a half kg of it! It's a good idea to have a bike computer (Mine is a Garmin Edge 305). Because it gives you information that's useful such as Speed, Distance, Calories, Elevation & Time. It's something to look at when the open countryside becomes just another field! A bell is also a real essential item. It's so much nicer than shouting 'EXCUSE ME!' every few minutes.
Take a change of socks and underwear. It stops the bacteria from breeding and prevents infection from saddle sores, (sorry its disgusting) and makes you feel fresher. A lightweight waterproof coat is good if showers are forecast and padded, short fingered gloves stop you getting sores on your hands from gripping the handlebar. A multi-tool, puncture repair kit and pump are also essential. I also took some anti-bacterial gel, hand wipes, ibuprofen, suncream, lip balm and anti-mozzi spray that all came in useful.
OTHER TOWPATH USERS
90% of the people I passed on the way were friendly, courteous folk who waved, smiled or said hello. Unfortunately, there were a few who weren't. Towpath people fall into 4 categories:
- Other Bikers.
Usually fly past you without a look, hello, 'alrite or a smile. They seem totally focused on getting wherever they're going as fast as they can. Usually hidden behind their cool looking sunglasses and expressionless face.
- The Old Couple.
Taking a steady walk along the canal. They don't hear you're bell at 30 yards, or 20, or 10, or 5 or even when you've stopped right behind them! But they see you smile, they make way and you say thank you!
- The Young Couple.
Usually hears your bell at 30 yards but although the male stands on one side, the female panics and can't decide between each side or the middle. Then they have to find the dog... "Rover, stay... Rover stay... Rover come here... ROVER NO!!!" Again though, a smile and a thank you as you pass makes it all OK.
- The Fishermen.
Now I'm not a negative person but of the hundred or so fishermen I passed, not one replied to my friendly nod, wink, hello or smile. Not one! Some were sat in the middle of the towpath with rods extended so it was impossible to pass. Several wouldn't even move until you had come to a stop in front of them. I'm sorry, but these people need to show some respect for other towpath users. VERY RUDE!
I'm sorry if I sound disrespectful but as polite as I was, saying thank you and hello to everyone I passed, there were a minority who looked at me as if I shouldn't be there. I never forced my way through and always slowed down to pass people but a minority of people and majority of the fishermen were just down right arrogant. (Apologies to any friendly ones who weren't out when I passed). It was hard to maintain my polite manner but I suppose my advice is to be courteous to everyone despite not receiving the same goodwill in return from some of them.