5 July 2007

Before reading please note:

This blog is best read by using the numbered entries, from 1 to 7 for each chapter, on the right hand column of this page. Click on "Meet Team Aldi" for the photograph.

The bottom link, over there on the right, is for the Hospice at Home website which is the organisation we chose to raise the money for. Take a moment to read it and see what a wonderful job these people do for others, a worthy cause indeed.

If you're planning to do the ride and you come across this, don't hesitate to get in touch with us via the e-mail address provided if there's anything you need to know or are unsure about. We'll be only too happy to help where we can.

e-mail: chris4teamaldi@inbox.com

7: Thanks

We have to mention all the people who supported our effort, it just wouldn't be right not to, and there were quite a few....so here goes.

To our fantastic backup team on the day we say this....we really would have struggled without your help. So, Tracy..Jan..Kim..Debbie..Becky..Millie..Charlie and Kirsty, a massive thanks to you all from Team Aldi. Thanks for hanging around in the rain waiting for us, and thanks for all the lovely food and drink...and, of course, for your total support and belief in us...we all appreciate it more than you realise.

To family members who came to cheer us on in the rain..Dennis..Beryl..Becks..Kelly..Jack and Dan, it was great to see you all when we needed it most....and to Brian, who turned out to cheer us on through Apperley Bridge in the gloom....you've all got no idea how much you lifted our spirits.

To Brendan, thanks for getting up in the middle of the night to take us to Liverpool and then drive the van back home...you were a star.

We want to thank all the people who showed their generosity by sponsoring us for the ride...thanks everyone, the money is going to a great cause....

We'd also like to thank Peter Robinson for producing his fine website, Towpath Treks, as we've mentioned before it was a huge help to us.

Sutty..Sean..Jamie..Stuart..Norrie..Shane..and me...Team Aldi..."When the going gets tough, the tough get going"....that's true team spirit !!...well done, boys.

4 July 2007

6: The Ride

On the day of our ride we were up at 2.30am, we had all arranged to meet at 3.00am because we wanted to be in Liverpool for an early start. We arrived at the Eldonian Village in Vauxhall at around 4.30 and, after a quick photo call, we started out on our journey at 5.00am.

The first few miles were steady away, just getting into our stride, chatting away riding out of Liverpool...it was raining slightly but nothing to worry about. We made our first stop at 15 miles, just to have a drink and such, but as we stopped the rain started to get heavier...this was to set the tone of the day...rain. After that we just started to grind the miles out, the path was good and we were making good progress. Where we stopped next I have no idea but it was around the 30 mile mark...the rain was torrential so we sheltered under a bridge, a nice little village but I never saw a sign, there was an old windmill on the opposite bank to us. We had some food, dried off a bit, then decided that the rain wasn't going to ease off...we just had to accept that we were in for a soaking, and at least it wasn't cold. So we set off for Wigan in the bouncing rain. Trouble is, when it's raining that hard all you can do is put your head down and peddle...you don't notice your surroundings much, you just have to ride. And ride we did, the path got muddy in one or two places but on the whole it wasn't too bad. Apart from the odd bit off backache among the lads we were doing fine and we reached Wigan around breakfast time.

We got a little lost just after Wigan Pier, took a wrong turn over a bridge and ended up on the wrong side of the canal, but once we realised our mistake we were soon back on track and riding through Wigan towards the Wigan flight...a long string of locks that elevate the canal up and out of the town. It was around this point that we started coming across loads of those stupid cycle barriers...they came one after the other. There were more and more of them as we rode up the flight of locks (as if it wasn't hard enough)...cycling up the Wigan flight is a pain but we were soon at the top lock and once we were clear of them we took a breather under another bridge to shelter from the rain.

We were doing okay for time, we hadn't arranged to meet up with our backup team until lunchtime, so we ate a few mars bars and such and then set of for Blackburn in a cloudburst. For whatever reason we seemed to lose a little time on this stretch, maybe it was the rain and the path that got a bit messy in places, plus we took a wrong turn and ended up at the end of the Walton Summit Branch only to have to retrace our tracks to our route...but we just seemed to take ages to reach the outskirts of Blackburn...and we were all soaked to the skin. As we rode through Blackburn the phone rang, our support team were already parked up by the canal at Church...great news...this gave us a lift because we knew there were warm drinks and some food there for us...plus there were dry clothes in the cars. We arrived at about 12.15pm, slightly slower than we had hoped but in the conditions we were riding in, not bad.

The girls had done a great job of setting up a little canteen for us in a small park just off the towpath. Hot soup, hot beans, bread, sandwiches and loads of water and juice, it really was brilliant...just what we needed. We were also able to have a change of clothes, well, nearly all of us, and we had reached the halfway point of our journey...from now on we were on our way home and the miles would tick by nice and steady from then on...or so we thought.

Having arranged to meet up with the girls at the Anchor Inn at Gargrave we set off again. We hadn't travelled far, maybe 15/20 minutes or so, when the countryside opened up and the canal was threading it's way across open moorland...the wind got up, and it started to lash down with rain. As the canal turned, so the wind changed direction. One minute it was blowing at our backs, the next it was in our faces...the towpath turned into a muddy grass track and the going got harder....it really was no fun at all and it seemed to magnify our aches and pains. But for Team Aldi, failure is not an option and we battled on through the wind and rain. At the Gannow Tunnel in Burnley we got a little lost again...and to be honest we didn't know that there was a tunnel at Burnley (so much for our research)...anyway, we asked some people for directions and were soon back on the towpath heading for Colne.

By this time one or two of the boys were struggling with their knees and we had to make a few more stops than we had planned for. This is the problem with long bike rides, they can take their toll on your joints...especially your knees and it's no fun at all...if we're honest, we were all starting to ache a bit. But, onwards we went....onwards towards the Foulridge Tunnel, which is a mile long. We were a little concerned about the route through Foulridge itself beforehand...in the event, we needn't have worried because we soon found our way (after asking directions again) along the cycle route to the Hole in the Wall pub where we took a sharp left, then straight down a hill and back onto the towpath....a doddle.

From Foulridge the path was good for a mile or so, nice and smooth and we picked up speed but it wasn't long before we hit what we found to be the worst part of the whole ride. The towpath deteriorated into a complete boneshaker, it really is bad there....and it seemed to go on forever and beyond. The two lads who were struggling with their knees really felt it on this stretch...in fact we all did. The canal is like a snake here, you look across the feilds and you can see barges on the canal straight in front of you....it's just a series of u-bends and the path rattles your teeth and bones. This part of the towpath, at around 90 miles into the ride, caused us real problems....as we were to find out when we eventually reached Gargrave....much later than we'd hoped.

At least when we rode into Gargrave our awesome backup team were waiting under a bridge (sheltering from the rain) for us. More refreshments were served, coffee, tea, sandwiches and more juice...oh, and more Jaffa Cakes....lovely. But it was here that one off the lads had to pull out of the ride, his knee was giving him too much pain and he couldn't carry on...the rest of us were deflated by this but there was nothing we could do, it would have been crazy for him to carry on....but well done J, all the same....you showed some real guts to get that far and we were all proud of you.

We left Gargrave in a monsoon....34 miles to go....it wasn't going to be fun. Once again the towpath turned to grass...wet grass, it was like riding through a big sponge and the rain lashed into our faces, this was a really tough part of the ride but we got to Skipton and the path improved slightly. Through and out the other side of Skipton, and to Snaygill...this was where it got really bad. The rain absolutely hammered down, the wind blew into us and the puddles along this stretch were more like ponds of dirty black water...it was awful. Two more of the lads were really struggling with their knees now and there was no let up with the rain as we reached Kildwick. There are a couple of benches here so we stopped, one of the lads just fell off the bike here because his knees were so bad. We re-grouped and had a chat between ourselves but it was obvious that he couldn't carry on, he could barely walk let alone ride. So a phone call was made for him to get a lift back, and with heavy hearts we left him to wait for his lift....so again, Stu...well done mate, you got further than you thought you would and rode yourself to a standstill...you could have done no more.

That left five of us to carry on into the gloom of a Saturday evening, onwards into the rain we went with more aches and pains between us than we cared to mention. The path to, and away from Silsden is another bone jarring few miles and I'm pretty sure we all felt every bump in the track..it was like being kicked but we were soon through the last rough part and onto the lovely smooth path that would carry us to Leeds....and the rain had stopped. On we rode through Keighley, Bingley and on to Shipley...at least the locks were all downhill now so it was great to freewheel down them, if only for a short way. It took us a while to reach Shipley and by now we were well behind the time we had calculated for the ride...but no matter...the end was in sight. At the swing bridge at Dockfeild quite a little crowd had gathered to cheer us back to our hometown...and what a welcome sight it was for us. Our, by now legendary, backup team were there again and this time they had been joined by a few more family members, more hot soup was served but this time the stop was shorter...it was beginning to get a little dark and we needed to be on our way on the final leg of the ride..the last 12 miles.

It was hard riding away from where we live when we were all so tired, but we all knew we had to finish now....no matter how much pain and discomfort we were in. Another supporter turned out to cheer us on at Apperley Bridge (nice one Bri) and that lifted us again and to be honest, we did the last 12 miles quicker that we thought we would. But as we got closer to Leeds our adrenaline seemed to kick in and carry us those last few miles and before we knew it the bright city lights of Leeds were looming in front of us....and then...it was all over, we were at the Grannary Wharfe in Leeds city centre and our epic journey was complete.

There were no tears from Team Aldi...only winces of pain as we dismounted from our bikes to be greeted by our wonderful support crew who had brought champagne for us to toast our success, and they presented us each with a certificate as a momento of our ride. Photographs were taken for posterity, to be shown to generations to come...it was over. Team Aldi had done what they said they'd do...failure was not an option, the bikes were taken apart and stacked onto our team truck and we made our way home by car...it was a job well done.

The ride took longer than we planned, this was largely due to the terrible weather on the day and the injuries we picked up along the way. Add onto that all the time for our stops and it took us around 17 hours to complete the ride...but we weren't trying to set a record, it wasn't a race for us...it was just about doing what we set out to do...which was to ride the longest canal in the UK in one day, and that we did. We have no doubt that there are guys out there who could do it much quicker, but we set ourselves a target speed of 10/12 miles an hour...no great speed, but fast enough to do it in 12/14 hours and be able to enjoy it. But on reflection, we reckon that had the weather been good then we would have been slowed down by all the people using the towpath, especially around the towns...as it turned out on the day we rode, we hardly saw a soul because the rain was so bad...we only saw three other cyclists all day...so we were able to ride along without constantly having to slow down for people.

Team Aldi's ages range from 15 to 50 years old, so we reckon we didn't do so bad....and we've yet to hear of anyone else who's done it in a day, so we don't know what a decent time would be. The fact is, if you complete the whole 127 and a half miles in a day you should be pleased with yourself....no matter what time it takes to do it. But if you are thinking of doing it and read this...learn from it, because it's tougher than you think. For those who are not so sure but would still like to have a go we say this....split it over a couple of days and don't bite off more than you can chew, at least that way you'll see more and enjoy it more because it's a lovely route to cycle....even on one of the wettest June days we can remember. Hopefully, when you do it the weather will be kind to you.

5: The Route

The Leeds to Liverpool canal is a great work of engineering, at 127 and a half miles it is the longest canal in the UK. It links these two major cities by weaving it's way, serpant like, through the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. A towpath runs alongside the canal all the way except in two places where tunnels had to be built through the hillsides. The tunnels are Gannow Tunnell in Burnley and Foulridge Tunnel at Foulridge. At both these places there is no towpath so you must leave the canal and follow the signposted route until you can join the canal again.

For many years the canal fell into disrepair leaving the water often full of rubbish and the towpath a puddle filled, muddy mess. In recent years all this has changed and the canal has had millions of pounds invested in it to bring it back to it's former glory. Many canalside buildings and houses have been redeveloped and wildlife has been allowed to fluorish along it's route. Many new developments have sprung up, mainly waterside apartments and new offices, and now the whole route has become a source of leisuretime activity. Boating, walking, running, fishing...and cycling are all popular pastimes on the canal and it's towpath today.

It is easily possible to cycle the canal from end to end, and the towpath is good for most of the way. With the exception of a few small stretches the Lancashire end of the path is very good for cycling, non of these stretches are bad enough to make the rider dismount (even during or after heavy rain) and for the most part the surface is smooth crushed gravel...and even tarmac. This makes it easy for the cyclist. In certain stretches the surface is grass or a thin track, these can be quite energy sapping in wet weather but again at no point should you need to dismount.

When you do have to leave the path at Burnley and Foulridge cycle routes are reasonably well signposted, the one at Burnley is quite tricky so watch it...but you can always ask for directions and it's not really a problem. The Foulridge cycle path is easy to follow and was not the problem we anticipated.

The worst part of the route is after Foulridge, this is from Marton to Gargrave, not a great distance but it's hard going on a rough track, very bumpy, and it twists and turns through the valleys until you seem to be going nowhere. We found this to be the hardest part of the ride as fatigue was setting in.

After you leave Gargrave village the path turns to just grass, this continues almost all the way to Skipton and was tough to ride in the wet...it's easier when dry. The path is good through Skipton but once you get to Snaygill it deteriorates into bumpy track (often very muddy) all the way to Kildwick. From here, once again, the path is very bumpy, muddy, and at times a single narrow track....this is around Silsden. Having said all that it's still very easily rideable, you just need to take a little extra care and it's hard on the legs and wrists.

Once the path gets to Utley it's plain sailing all the way to Leeds, the towpath has been relaid and is excellent for cycling and once again there is much redevelopment taking place.

All in all we found the towpath to be in much better condition than we thought, you may struggle slightly on the gnarley stretches but the miles of smooth surface more than compensate for that.

4: Planning

To take on a ride like this requires a certain amount of planning. We needed to gather information about the Leeds Liverpool canal, we needed a good map and as much information about the condition of the towpath as possible. We knew what we were up against along the Aire Valley section from Gargrave to Leeds, but none of us had even seen the Lancashire part of the canal at all...let alone ride it. We had ridden as far as Marton, near Gargrave and that was it. This meant that there were 90 miles of towpath that were a mystery to us so far as it's condition went...was it a good path?.. was it a mud bath?..we needed answers to these questions so we set about the task of gathering the info.

The first thing we noticed was that there wasn't anything about cycling the towpath in one day..well, if there was we didn't find it. We searched on various websites, British Waterways, National Cycle Network...all useful in a way, but they only told us part of what we needed to know. We weren't 100% sure that you could actually cycle the whole length of the towpath and we didn't know anyone who had done it before to ask. Then we found the website that was to give us the answers to all our questions, it's called Towpath Treks. This is the most comprehensive website that we found on the subject. Not only does it give a detailed description of the condition of the towpath, mile by mile, but it also has many excellent photographs showing the canal and it's surroundings...and by looking through these photographs we could see the path and, more importantly, it's condition all the way from Liverpool to Skipton. Best of all, the website has a map showing the whole route of the canal from end to end...a map that can be enlarged. The website has been produced by a man called Peter Robinson and to anyone wanting to do this ride it's a Godsend.

We were able to print out a copy of the map and have it enlarged even more, this enabled us to see every town and village on the route and from it we could work out the distances from place to place. We worked out where our stops would be, how far we would have to cycle between them....after seeing this we became more confident.

We decided to start the ride in Liverpool and finish in Leeds because we wanted to finish near to home. We didn't want to stay overnight anywhere so this meant organising some transport over to Liverpool on the morning of the ride, and it would have to be early...very early. Luckily for us one of the members of Team Aldi has a courier business and he arranged for a friend of ours to drop us of at the start of the canal in Liverpool in one of his vans and then drive it back home...perfect, that was our travel plan to the start sorted out.

We also decided it would be best if we had a support team to meet us along the way at various points, this would enable us to have some food and drink, sort the bikes out and have some spare kit at hand, plus, if any one of us got into difficulties they would have a ride home. The task of supporting the team fell to our wives, girlfriends and families and, as it turned out, it was the best thing we did....they were brilliant.

On looking at the map, we all agreed that our first food stop should be Wigan at 37 miles. We would carry enough food with us to refuel there, plus snacks along the way, so we didn't need the support team to meet us there. The next stop would be at a place called Church, near Accrington because this is the halfway point along the length of the canal at 63 and a half miles, this would be where we would meet up with the support team for the first time. Here we would have some warm food and a breather before setting off towards Gargrave, 93 miles, where they would meet us again. From Gargrave we would ride to Shipley, 114 miles, meet them again and then ride the last 13 miles to the finish in Leeds where there would be the support team waiting to transport us, and the bikes, back home. On the day our plan worked well so it was worth all the research beforehand.

We know others who may do this ride might do it with less backup, or none at all but we felt that was the best way for us to get the job done. As it turned out, with the rain, it would have made the task even harder than it already is had we not been able to link up with our backup team. We were able to refill our drinks bottles (it's thirsty work) because, even though you are riding alongside millions of gallons of water, a fresh supply is hard to come by and I don't think you could carry enough on your own. Forward planning is essential, even if you intend to stop off at cafe's or pubs along the route (and there are many pubs on the canalside) you need to have a plan...and stick to it as rigidly as possible.

Finally, you need to keep an eye on the weather as the ride approaches. As we've mentioned before the weather can change very quickly along this route, it passes through an area renowned for it's rainfall. You can watch the weather forecast on the TV which isn't bad, but we found the best ones on the internet. Sites like AccuWeather, Weather Underground and Netweather.tv all give very detailed long range forecasts....keep informed of the weather.

We've put links on this blog for all the websites that we found useful so if you're planning on doing the ride, take a look. One of them, Cycling Permit, is an Adobe PDF file. You should, by rights, carry a cycling permit with you and you can download one for free here. We have never been asked to show a permit to anyone...ever, but you never know so it might be an idea to have one with you should you be challenged.

3: Equipment

Obviously, the first thing you need is a good mountain bike...one that's been well maintained. If you're planning on doing the one day ride then you'll probably already have a decent bike, if you haven't...get one. Our bikes took quite a bit of stick during the ride from the weather, the towpath surface and the mud. Suspension forks are an advantage but not a necessity, our bikes are a mixture of suspension and standard set ups and the standard, non suspension, ones did just fine. It's what you're comfortable with that matters on a long ride so make sure the bike is set up properly ie. saddle height, bar height, bar ends set right, the things that make you feel comfortable if you're going to be spending hours in the saddle.

Make sure your bike is serviced before you do this ride. You find yourself a long way from nowhere quite often on the route and there isn't a bike shop for miles, so make sure you've done all you can to ensure your bike doesn't let you down....and it pays to have some basic knowledge of bike maintenance, fixing brakes, adjusting gears and last but not least...fixing punctures. If you're riding in a group then make sure at least one of you knows what to do if something breaks or goes wrong, if you're riding on your own then I'm sure you'll know how to fix a bike....or at least you should.

Other equipment you'll need...spare inner tubes (at least 3 each) plus puncture repair kits, tyre levers, pump and adaptor. A spare length of cable (inner and outer) should one of yours snap, and a good toolkit which should include a spoke key, chain link splitter, allen keys and an adjustable spanner. You can buy all in one tools at bike shops now that are lightweight and fit everything. You should also fit two bottle cages to the bike, ones that will carry large bottles.

To carry your spares, tools etc. you'll need some sort of backpack, this will also be needed to carry your food and extra fluid. We took loads of bananas, chocolate, muesli bars, (all from Aldi) drinks, isotonic energy gel...you name it, but it all has to be carried. If you're in a group you can share the load around, if you're on your own we'd recommend you give this some serious thought because it's no fun lugging a big pack all the way.

Other essential equipment is clothing, be prepared for any weather conditions because it can change rapidly when travelling over the Pennines. On the day we did the ride it rained almost non stop and at times it was torrential, we were soaked for most of the day. A good, lightweight, waterproof jacket or coat is a must and it pays to take a spare cycling jersey and shorts. Take some spare socks, I didn't but most of the others did, at the end of the ride my feet were a real mess...live and learn. You can never trust the weather and if you get caught in a downpour with 50 miles to go it's no fun finishing the ride in soaking wet clothes.

We also took with us a Garmin Forerunner satellite watch which belongs to one of the lads so we knew exactly how far we had travelled and how long it had taken us. Then last, but by no means least, we took our mobile phones just in case...where would we be without them? But you never know what might happen on a long ride so it pays to be able to have contact with others should things go wrong.

3 July 2007

2: Fitness

People who take on a ride like this need to be fit, that goes without saying. Each individual knows if they are at a level of fitness to ride 127 miles in a day no matter what the surface, road or path. The surface of the towpath, in places, is not good and it's hard work riding the rough stretches.

If you are going to attempt the ride in a day then you must understand that your body is going to take quite a pounding at times. The constant peddling is hard enough and your knees take some hammer, but the vibration through your wrists is the thing you notice as well. There are no hills to freewheel down, apart from the locks, so you are pretty much peddling the whole route and the repetitiveness of this can affect your knees...as we learned to our cost, even though we had trained on one the roughest stretches of the towpath.

For four and a half months our weekly training rides would usually take in the stretch of towpath around Silsden which is a very rough track so we were used to it. But still, on the day we did the ride, the rough sections caused us problems...they sap your energy quickly and serious concentration is required so as not to lose control of the bike. Add this to the fact that you've cycled 100 miles already, you are tired, and it doesn't take long for it to take it's toll on you. So be honest with yourself, if you're not fit enough I wouldn't recommend that you attempt the route in one day. We knew we were but it was still very hard.

It has to be said that a couple of us have experience of long distance bike riding, but the rest of the lads haven't and it was to their credit that they got themselves fit enough to do it in a few months. That's not to say they aren't fit at all because we all do some form of training..running, football, cycling etc. and that's pretty much all year round so we weren't short on fitness...we just needed to build our stamina level up and the best way to do that is get out on the bike and ride...20, 30, 40, 50 miles a time so that on the day of the ride you're used to it. We still did some road riding, anything to get the miles in, but mostly we trained off road.

So, if you're one of those people who knows they're fit enough to give it a go...go for it. If you're not, do it over a couple of days and make a weekend of it because if you run out of gas on some stretches of the canal then you're in for a long drag to the next town or village. Having said all that, you don't have to be super fit to attempt it....just be sensible, and, as I said before...be honest with yourself.

1: The Idea

The idea to do the ride came about, over a few beers, by a couple of us back in January 2007. We both wanted to ride the length of the Leeds to Liverpool canal, which runs through our home town of Shipley in West Yorkshire, and wondered if we could do it one day. We decided to ask around a few of our friends and see if they would be interested in joining us....after a week or so we had five other lads who said they'd like to give it a try.

So, with a team of seven, we started to organise weekly training rides along our local stretch of the towpath to get us all in shape for the challenge. We decided on a date for the ride, Saturday June 30th. Our thinking behind this was that the days are longest in June, this would give us plenty of daylight hours to do it in....we didn't want to be riding in the dark. We also decided that we would make it a sponsored ride and raise some money for a local cancer care organisation...Hospice at Home.

The following story will explain how we set about the task, getting fit, finding sources of information (via the internet) and planning the ride because we knew that if we were to do it, we would have to plan it in detail.

We'll put all our sources of information etc. on the blog at some point so that anyone out there who would like to do the ride (in one day or more) can, hopefully, use it to their benefit.

Oh, and the reason we're called Team Aldi is because we buy most of our cycling gear and accessories from our local Aldi supermarket. We highly recommend it...and you can't beat them on price!

Meet Team Aldi

Team Aldi at the halfway point in Church, Lancs.
(click to enlarge)