Category Archives: Cycling

Penny’s Pedal and Peaks, Lake District, Saturday, September 14, 2019

Penny Browell

Scafell Pike

For a while I’ve had it in my mind that I wanted to do a big challenge – either running or biking or a combination of the two. I love running in the fells and my new passion is my bike, particularly on hilly roads, so the Lakes seemed the place to go. But there didn’t seem to be any obvious event and anyway I fancied devising something myself. However, I didn’t really know where to begin and sadly the idea faded as I embarked on a new job which involved up to 5 hours a day of commuting and less and less time to train. My personal situation also changed and I lost the drive I’d had previously. I kept running and biking but with no kind of direction, no racing and no goals.

Then things changed and I decided I wanted to do something not for myself but for Beat. They’re not a huge charity but one who are doing great work to help people struggling with eating disorders. I had also resigned from my commuter hell and given myself a summer of being unemployed and therefore a few full days to train (when I wasn’t occupied with childcare).

At first I thought I’d do a long run and then a long bike ride but I couldn’t work out any routes that worked. I considered known routes for the run such as the Cumbrian Traverse and then just doing an out and back on the bike but it didn’t feel very natural or neat as a plan. I spoke to Tom about it who suggested a run up the Scafells followed by a ride to Keswick through Hardknott and Wrynose and maybe stopping off at Thirlmere to run up Helvellyn. I quite liked the idea of doing big hills on my feet and big passes on the bike and it felt like a plan was beginning to come together. It just didn’t feel enough. I decided to add on Skiddaw – if I’m doing the three biggest peaks why not add on the fourth? But I still felt like it could be a neater plan. Starting in Wasdale seemed a bit tricky…and wouldn’t it be cool to make it a round beginning and ending in Keswick? When I suggested this Tom seemed to think I was maybe a bit mad – to get from Keswick to Wasdale is a long old ride as you have to go all the way round to the west and it would add on a lot of mileage. But we agreed there was no point in doing it if it wasn’t a challenge…

So the route was planned and the motivation to raise money for Beat was there. As this was a new challenge there were no training plans to follow or even recommendations from friends. So I figured the key things were to get to know the route and also practice mixing riding and running. It seemed to be the right plan. Getting used to the feeling of transitioning from cycling to running took a few goes but I loved being back in the lakes for a few days of hill-climbing. We managed to get a couple of days to recce the bike ride and it was then that I began to worry. After a full day of riding I was aching and ready for my bed – and this was only half of the full ride. The second half of the ride was harder and due to bad weather very slow – getting up and down Hardknott pass is not fun on a bike (or any form of transport) and seeing a car which had failed to make it up in the rain didn’t help. Tom kept telling me this was a massive challenge and I did start to think I might be mad…

I didn’t have much more time to train after this with a holiday to France with the kids and my new job starting soon. But I’d told everyone I was doing it, recruited some amazing folk to support me and set the date so I had to do what I could to prepare myself. Fortunately, the holiday was an active one in a hilly area so I got some hill reps in and some nice sociable bike rides. Then once I started the new job it was time for a good taper…

Right from the start I’d known that my biggest enemy would be the weather. I’m useless when I’m cold and riding a bike with no feeling in your fingers is more than a little dangerous. So I obsessed about the weather forecast for the week leading up to the big day and was amazed to see it was really quite good. And as the day got closer it stayed quite good – unheard of for the lakes! As we drove over on the Friday evening the scenery was absolutely stunning. I had no excuse for failing – the weather was on my side, the team were ready, I had an endless supply of food, drink and clothing. And a lot of people had given their money towards the cause. I’d even invested in a tracker so the team and supporters could see how I was doing. The problem with it being an unknown was I really had no idea how long I would take to do everything. I assumed each section would be a bit slower than when we recce’d but beyond that I wasn’t really sure….

So the morning arrived (or is 4am still the night?) and after a somewhat disturbed night and two bowls of porridge consumed I was ready to go…

Most of the biking was just Tom and me – we had hoped to have road support between the changeovers but sadly our support wasn’t well so it was just the two of us from Keswick along the 45 miles to Wasdale Head. When we started it was still dark and cold. And when I say cold I mean really cold. I knew there was promise of a nice day ahead but it doesn’t help when you feel like you’re in a fridge. Fortunately, (?) we were soon heading up Whinlatter pass which woke and warmed us up a bit but dropping back into the valley it seemed to get colder and colder. I was desperate for the sun to come out and start warming us up… Eventually it did and we both began to feel more human. This section of the bike ride was the only bit with some tricky navigation but other than one point when wishful thinking made us turn a bit early Tom did a grand job leading us in the right direction and at a comfortable pace. It was a beautiful morning and although hilly, the roads were empty and a pleasure to ride along. I started to feel incredibly lucky to be able to do what I was doing. Life can be so complex and hard to navigate – having the strength to enjoy our beautiful country in this way is a real blessing. I had just one point of terror when my chain came off. I’ve only had cleats for a few months and poor Tom has had to endure several occasions where I’ve yelped as I toppled over before managing to unclip. This looked like happening again and we had an interesting discussion in crescendo where he said “unclip” and I said “I can’t” repeatedly until eventually I managed to free myself. I must admit I didn’t feel very professional at that point…

I’d assumed this first section would take 4.5 hours but as we cycled along the absolutely beautiful Wastwater in the morning light I was chuffed to see it was around 9am, just 4 hours since we set off. Tom told me to go into the car park first so I could be cheered in but when we got there we couldn’t see any of the team! Nina and Fiona quickly appeared from Nina’s campervan (the star of the day!) and Alex wandered down from the other end of the car park so all was not lost. But unfortunately the combination of a rubbish tracker (it failed from about 20 miles in) and a misjudgement of timings to drive from Keswick to Wasdale, the car with my kit and food was nowhere to be seen. Nina and Fiona calmly established that I could do the Scafells in Nina’s clothes (fortunately she’s pretty mini like me!). I tried not to stress but it felt all wrong – I had my food and my clothes planned and now everything had been thrown into disarray. Tom went off in search of Nick and my kit and after the others had fed me a cup of tea and some food I realised it would all be fine. Then just as I finished putting Nina’s running kit on Nick and Mel appeared with the car!

I quickly changed my shoes and then we set off up Scafell pike. I’d had a longer break than planned but in a lot of ways that was good – I was ready to go and it was fun to chat to Nina, Alex and Fiona. The thing that makes this challenge very different from most Lakeland running challenges (apart from the fact there’s much less running and more cycling!) is that I’d decided the easiest way to do the peaks was up the tourist routes. Scafell pike is a popular hill any day but on a lovely late summer Saturday it was particularly hectic. It was quite a novelty passing people who exclaimed at our speed (which was not actually very fast…) or helping people out who weren’t sure of the way. Whilst the weather was still lovely down in the valley the tops were pretty cloudy so before long we were into murk. But navigation is very straightforward and before long I was touching my first peak of the day. The next bit was the most exciting of the running element of the day. There’s no easy way between Scafell pike and Scafell but between Fiona, Alex and myself we were pretty confident of our route and enjoyed introducing Nina to Lord’s Rake which is a quite exciting scramble. Once you’re up through the gully it’s a short climb up to the top of Scafell. The cloud was pretty thick at this point and it was a little confusing not being able to see where the peak was! After a bit of dithering we agreed where we were going and spotted some rocks which seemed to go uphill so headed up. Second peak done it was a fairly easy descent back to Wasdale. It was good to get out of the clouds and though I’m not a fan of scree it was quite exhilarating “skiing” down it

Lords Rake

Back to Wasdale and we were met by Tom who looked at his watch and asked what we were doing back so soon. The 3-3.5 hours expected for this leg had been an over-estimate and we were down in 2.5. Tom was obviously worried I was going to crash and burn because I’d gone too fast but I assured him I was fine. After a good feed and change back to cycling clothes I was all set for the next leg – the hard(knott) one. Nick was joining us for the first part of this ride and I thought that would mean a nice leisurely chatty pace. To be honest I think that’s what it was but as soon as I got on the bike I started to feel the miles I’d already covered and had a slight mental wobble. I’d still got the big passes to navigate as well as two more big peaks and several hours of Lakeland undulations on the bike. I focused on the beautiful scenery, had a drink and before long was happily pedalling along and enjoying the Tom and Nick banter. After a few miles we passed the pub where we’d stayed on our recce and I marvelled at how much better I felt today than I had the night we’d stopped there for the night.

A few miles from there was the big one… Nick chose to catch a lift as Hardknott approached and after a quick cup of tea it was time to get our heads down and start the climb. If I’m honest I had no intention of cycling it – on the recce I’d had to push almost the entire thing because it was so wet. So once we hit the steep road I jumped off and started pushing and up we went. And up. And up. The steepness lessens about half way up so we managed to cycle a decent section before jumping off again to get to the top. Then the fun bit starts… As I said the recce had been wet and there was no way I was cycling down it in that weather but today was perfect conditions so I decided to give it a go. The sensation when your bike is facing downhill on a 30% gradient and there are tight bends to negotiate is a bizarre one. Somehow I got down but there was a fair bit of cursing whenever we met cars… When I finally got off the brakes in the valley I had the weird sensation that my fingers no longer knew how to bend. All that clinging on to the brakes for dear life seemed to have sent them into permanent cramp.

We tootled along the valley (which was stunning), fingers gradually becoming normal and then inevitably had to start the next big climb up Wrynose. I managed to stay on the bike a bit longer on this one but after about two thirds I had to get off and push again… On the way down I felt a tiny bit more confident but the hands were getting another battering. At one-point Tom passed me and as he said his brakes were about to fail I got a distinct whiff of burning rubber. We stopped and his brakes appeared to be almost on fire. Water sizzled on them and we waited a few minutes for them to cool down. Once we were down into the Langdales I knew we were past the worst and started to feel pretty happy and confident. I could see we were well ahead of time and I rethought my timings and decided my aim should be a midnight finish. The ride to Ambleside seemed to fly by and then we were onto the main road all the way back. Somehow I always have it in my mind that more major roads are easier and flatter. They’re not. This one goes up Dunmail raise and when you’ve been going for 12 hours or more that’s not much fun. I found myself longing to get off and have the relief of climbing Helvellyn!

Eventually we reached Thirlmere and the car park and again Tom told me to ride in first for the cheers. But again we were early so Nina and Adrian were the sole supporters! We realised Geoff and Gibbo (set to do Helvellyn) probably had no idea I was ahead of schedule and with no reception there wasn’t much we could do about it.

I tucked into some much needed food and got changed into running gear and now I had my new target I didn’t really want to wait too long for the guys to arrive. So Nina and I set off on our next little adventure. The route up Helvellyn from Thirlmere is straightforward and it was an absolute pleasure climbing up in the evening light. The views were just stunning and again I was able to enjoy myself rather than worry about what I was doing.  As we admired the view we spotted two familiar figures climbing behind us. We kept going as we could see they were going faster than us but as the wind picked up we decided to shelter behind a rock so Geoff and Gibbo could join us. It turned out they’d arrived just a couple of minutes after we’d set off. As we continued the climb the wind gradually got stronger and it was reminiscent of Elaine’s Bob Graham when Gibbo had been responsible for sheltering her from the wind!

Once we reached the top Nina took a couple of quick windswept photos and we were off back down again. The legs were starting to complain but the wind died down and the sunset was spectacular and it started to feel like I was on the homeward straight. Once down in Thirlmere there was just a short final bike ride into Keswick and Skiddaw to deal with.
Thirlmere changeover was fairly short – it was getting dark and we knew it wasn’t far to ride so we wanted to get going. Riding along quite a busy road in the dark wasn’t the most fun but it was a great feeling to know we were doing the last few miles and I knew I had it in me to finish the job!

Back into Keswick it was great to see the spot where we’d set off about 15 hours earlier… we’d done it – or almost! For the final climb I had the dream team – Nina, Tom, Geoff and Susan. Head torches on we set off chatting and enjoying being the only ones out on the hills at this time. I figured it was likely to be windy since Helvellyn had been pretty bad but as we climbed higher it seemed like this was going to be a different scale of windy. At first Susan tried to shelter me (despite me pointing out there isn’t very much of her to shelter me!). Then we all started to struggle to stay upright and Geoff grabbed hold of me – speaking to each other wasn’t an option through the noise of the wind so we all just clung together as we fought our way up. I’ve never experienced anything like it. If I hadn’t had Geoff and Tom to hold onto I’m fairly sure I would have taken off…

The climb seemed longer than usual (and Skiddaw is always long!) but eventually we were there. Nina loyally tried to get photos on the top whilst we all did our best not to fly off and then we turned round for the final descent. We wanted to move a bit quicker but not being able to hear, see or stand up properly were hindrances… It was a relief to get to normal levels of wind where we could actually speak to each other. My legs were really not that happy now but as it started to drizzle we broke into a jog. I assumed we’d lost loads of time trying to fight the wind to the summit but I was delighted when Tom said it was only 11.30 and I knew the end was in sight.

Finally we made it back to the bottom at 11.45pm and my challenge was done. Over 100 miles and over 17,000 feet done in 18hours and 45 minutes It’s a weird feeling when something like this is over…exhaustion, elation, emotion…it was all there. Tom and I waved everyone off and then had the simple matter of riding back to our holiday home (less than a mile away). I looked at my bike and looked at the road and thought I can’t do this! Challenge done I knew it was time to relax and sleep….

Congratulations to anyone who has read this far – I know it’s a long one but this really was a most amazing and important day for me. The money it raised for Beat far surpassed my expectations and I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who donated. Beyond that there are some people I owe huge thanks to – this was an odd adventure for all of us and you all made it so special. So big thanks to Geoff, Susan, Fiona, Alex, Nick, Mel and Gibbo. Extra big thanks to Nina who was with me for every step on the hills and whose campervan was an absolute lifesaver! Biggest thanks of all to Tom for encouraging and supporting me every step and wheel turn of the way from the very first seed of an idea through the training, all of the organisation and right to the final pedal and peak.

Now what’s next….Bike and Ben Nevis??

Click here to donate to Penny’s fundraising page

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World Transplant Games – Bike Road Race, Hetton Lyons, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Shaun Roberts

Baptism of fire in the road race on an undulating course at Hetton Lyons. This was a combined 17-lap race for all the 60+, 70+, 80+ men – first over the line sets the end of the race.

Pushed very hard at the start, but got dropped by a breakaway of six. Managed to keep my foot on the pedal for the full hour, though, and only the leading two got a lap on me. So ended up 7th of 24, which I was pretty pleased with, as there were some proper cyclists here.

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Lands End to John O’ Groats by bike, Sunday, June 15, 2014

1030 miles in 10 days

Dave Shipman, Mike Bennett

Dave …

I know, it’s not running, but enough folk in the club do triathlon, duathlon or ride a range of sportives and local rides like the Durham Big Ride and Beast, or just cycle for fun and fitness, to hopefully make it relevant and interesting.

Mike Bennett and I, along with a colleague, Andrew, have just completed LEJOG, enjoying a fantastic period of weather – only rained once in 10 days!! – and cycling through some of the most beautiful parts of Great Britain. We did it with no back-up, carrying our own gear, on a route worked out to avoid major routes and to find quiet back roads wherever possible, although in reality that did mean more hills and slow progress on many days. For accommodation we stayed in a range of cheap hotels, B+Bs, youth hostels and pubs and to make the whole thing possible we got the train down to Penzance for the start, then back from Thurso at the finish.

Only, err, 1030 miles to go ...

The daily schedule, which we managed to stick to only by toiling through some very long days and late finishes, looked like this:

Day 1 Penzance – Lands End – Newquay 63 miles
Day 2 Newquay – Tiverton 110 miles
Day 3 Tiverton – Bristol 70 miles
Day 4 Bristol – Craven Arms (north of Ludlow) 90 miles
Day 5 Craven Arms – Southport 115 miles
Day 6 Southport – Carlisle 132 miles
Day 7 Carlisle – Stirling 125 miles
Day 8 Stirling – Tomintoul 121 miles
Day 9 Tomintoul – Crask Inn 121 miles
Day 10 Crask Inn – John O Groats 83 miles

Significant aspects along the way were the kindness and warmth of people everywhere and something which really surprised me, the majority of drivers were cyclist-friendly. Only in Preston, where a man in a VW Golf nearly killed me and a young chap in a Peugeot got very verbal were things intimidating. Only the rush hour into Bristol, a stretch into the Lakes and parts of the A9 in Scotland got scary. Otherwise from start to finish we had “pinch me, I’m dreaming roads” several times a day, had a great many laughs – do it with friends/family if you decide to give it a go yourself, it’s a brilliant way to spend time together – and can look back on miles of quiet lanes, notably in Cornwall, Shropshire, the Lake District and Scotland for the rest of our cycling lives. The ride along the seafront at Crosby, with the Anthony Gormley statues looking out to sea, also was unforgettable.

During the journey, from time to time we were given an extra cheer, much appreciated by all of us. Roz and her sister joined us just outside Hereford, but sadly couldn’t ride with us due to family commitments. My brother John and his partner Lyn popped out from a garden centre in Chester and John rode with us til Lancaster. Barry Bird joined us from Carlisle to Moffatt, then turned round and rode back to Carlisle. Apart from that, although there were nearly 50 cyclists starting at about the same time as us at Lands End, encounters with fellow LEJOG or JOGLE riders were rare events after Day 1 until the last day, in reality we all went on slightly different routes, covering different distances at different speeds so were dispersed to the roads. However, in keeping with the growth of cycling fever and the Tour Depart in Yorkshire, wherever we went cyclists were very much in evidence, which is brilliant to see.

Is it me, or are they getting thinner?

Practically and mechanically things went pretty well too, Mike had a couple of punctures, Andrew shredded a back tyre but that was all, the only noticeable downsides were late night rides into Carlisle (near midnight) and Tomintoul (elevenish). Somehow we/I failed to notice the extra ski resort after Glenshee before Tomintoul, which took us over the only hill we had to walk up in the whole journey: head for “The Lecht” if you want a challenge, don’t think I could get up it even on a mountain bike after a rest day, so after over 100 miles on a very hilly day the legs and trusty touring bike gave up!!

Like on most endurance events, we all turned into food processing machines, eating more of anything and everything as the days went by, huge breakfasts and frequent meal stops supplemented by a million muesli bars/flapjack, jelly babies, chocolate milk, Turkish Delight, Bounties, Jaffa Cakes, salted nuts but despite that inevitably had times when the energy levels dropped and all lost a few pounds in weight by the end.

So,would I do it again, most definitely, different route and probably take a few more days, do it from North to South (JOGLE) next time … could we run it as a club relay? Yes,if enough people would commit to running a few 10 mile legs each … though the route would have to take in a number of long distance footpaths to make it both safe and interesting – one for the AGM to discuss perhaps … ?

… Mike adds …


I signed up to this thinking it was ‘something to do’ It wasn’t until a couple of days into the event I began to appreciate the enormity of the task, especially given the 10 day schedule with no rest days built in. Having said that we settled in to a routine and the actual cycling became surprisingly manageable despite long days in the saddle. Memorable bits centred around scenery, food and accommodation, the cycling was almost incidental. Maximum calories were consumed, major roads where possible were avoided major hills however were included, the Cheddar Gorge, Kirkstone Pass, Glenshee, the long hill out of Moffat which took an hour to get to the top of and many others along the way. The Crask Inn deserves a special mention, many miles along a single track road (the A836 no less) from Lairg in Scotland, landlord and landlady waited up for us to serve a cooked meal, a few pints of the local Black Isle Beer and a wee dram of the local malt.

Our trusty steel framed touring bikes performed well and got us to the top of all the hills bar the Lecht. They also raised a comment or 2 from some of the older cyclists we met on route.

All in all it was one of the most memorable, (for all the right reasons) adventure holidays I have been a part of. My thanks to David for the route planning and booking of accommodation. (We’ll forget the minor oversight of the road up to the Lecht ski centre in the dark and wet.)

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Etape Caledonia, Pitlochry, Scotland, Sunday, May 11, 2014

81 miles

Dougie Nisbet

Last year I rode this event, as well as other Etapes, on a 30-year old aluminium Alan bike, with 30 year old equipment, including the drive train. I did ok but wondered how much better I would do on a modern bike. So this year I was riding my new Hoy bike, and I had a nice position in a fastish starting pen. Just before the 5-mile marker I was comfortably wooshing along in a very nice peleton where some nice chaps at the front seemed to be happy doing all the heavy lifting. This was great!

Around a sharp corner, down the gears, and attack the hill. Woops – a bit of a crunchy gear change – but I don’t think anyone noticed. I’d geared down into what appeared to be a phenomenally low granny gear and was spinning against nothing. Nothing, indeed, was what I was spinning against. My chain was lying like an angry malevolent metallic snake in the middle of the busy road and I only just managed to coast to the roadside before grinding to a halt. Huddling in to the roadside for dear life as the steady stream of riders flew round the blind corner I had the more immediate problem of getting across the busy road on my cleats to a place of relative safety. The marshall took his life in his hands and dashed over to retrieve my chain.

Heroes and Hammers.

Not a great start. I chatted to another cyclist who, surprise surprise, had also got a snapped chain. “You put in all the training”, he said, “and then this”. The marshall had a toolkit but the chain-fixing-tool was playing up. And the cool Mavic guys on motorbikes were ahead of us so couldn’t come back ‘upstream’. “I’m afraid it’s just a waiting game”, the marshall said. The reality began to sink in. I’d been looking forward to this for months, and here I was, under 5 miles in, and it wasn’t looking good. If I couldn’t get moving before the sweep vehicle came through, it wasn’t going to be worth restarting, and I was beginning to get cold.

But a guardian angel appeared in the form of a spectator who had a look at my bike, then had a brief conversation with the marshall, then disappeared. When he came back he was carrying two hammers. This was looking promising. The ultimate tool of desperation – a big bloody hammer! And he had two, so double the hope. He gave me an inquiring look and said, “I’m not insured to do this you know”. I invited him to go ahead, and hit it as hard as he liked while I averted my gaze. I’m not sure what happened next, some sort of black magic I reckon, but when I looked again they were giving a satisfied “good as new” nod, and my chain was back. I thanked the guy with the hammers and joked with him that I would be giving that Chris Hoy a piece of my mind, to which he replied, without a trace of irony, “Who’s he then – is he the guy that serviced your bike?”. Well in a way, I guess he was.

The Finish in Pitlochry. 25 minutes after crunching to a halt, I was back in the race. But my heart really wasn’t in it. Not for a while anyway. I gave myself a bit of a talking to and got down to business. Soon the timed Scott sprint appeared and I gave it a go, only to be thwarted again by the slowcoaches who ride 4 abreast across the road chatting to each other. What bit of the word ‘sprint’ is it that they don’t understand? I put my head down and gave it my best shot, aware of a thumping in my tummy. That’d be my thighs. Too much beer and chocolate! Damn. I thought I’d solved that problem the previous evening by putting my saddle up. Not exactly the same as losing a bit of weight, but it relieves the symptoms, if not the cause. Schiehallion came and went and unexpectedly dry roads meant an awesomely fun descent. Then a steady brisk ride in calm conditions back to Pitlochry.

I compared my times to the previous year and was chuffed to find I was faster on the King of the Mountains, and, surprisingly, the Scott Sprint, thanks due to fine, calm conditions, but mostly thanks to the marshall and unnamed hero with the hammers who gave my bike a bit of a talking to. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. If it wasn’t for them my race would’ve been a washout.

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The Beast, County Durham, Sunday, September 8, 2013

50 miles

Dougie Nisbet

The alarm went off but I kept my eyes closed. I wiggled one leg, then the other. Ow. They still felt as if they’d been kicked by a horse that hadn’t removed its shoes first. I could just stay in bed. Curse this good weather and ideal conditions. Oh well, it had to be done. The Beast had to be tamed.

I drove the enormous distance from Durham to Sniperley Park & Ride because, well, I’m pretty sure I’d formulated some pretty convincing self-justification for driving this massive journey, but if I was going to tackle 50 miles of beastly County Durham hills I wasn’t going to add an extra one just to get to the start. Into the car park and I spotted the tell-tale purple of a Strider hoodie from some way off and pulled in to park beside Jamie Steel. We were both a bit uncertain of what lay ahead so we got our numbers sorted and went for a warm-up around the car park. As the clock ticked down to 9AM riders began to assemble at the start and it was good to see such a wondrous variety of weird and wonderful machines about to embark on the adventure.

All smiles before the off ...

No timing, no chips, just a man with a megaphone and a blast on a horn and presently we were belting down the hill towards Witton Gilbert. Up the long drag out of WG so beloved by Ian MacKenzie for the Durham Tri-Club hill sessions then along past Broom House at which point I found myself alongside Alan Smith on a bike with some awesome tri-bars. We chatted awhile until I was shooed away and I sped ahead to see if I could catch Jamie.

A few miles later and the first real descent. Woohoo! Here we go, head down, bum out, no effort, free time. A few stragglers spreading out and a bit of jinxing required, and, yes, I’m sure there was something important I had to remember … what was it … Oh yes! This isn’t a closed roads event! If you’re a bit of an Etape junkie, as I am, this is an important point. It’s easy to want to hug the shortest and most fun line down a long fast twisty descent, of which there were many, but best to stick to your own side of the road. Jamie and I kept seeing each other, riding together, passing each other, and a lot of the time I couldn’t remember if he was in front of me or behind me. He wasn’t so keen on the fast descents but was strong on the flats and climbs. At the long twisty climb up to Tow Law he pulled away as I paused to take a close interest in some roadside shrubbery.

Never one to work for a living when I can sit on the wheel of a big bloke and draught, I found myself belting past Jamie a few miles later as I tucked into the slipstream of a couple of jet engines. Jamie was suffering the further indignity of having gear problems that meant his big chainring had become a no go area, something that became pretty frustrating for him as we got ever closer back to Sniperley and the possibility of blasting down some of the descents became a lost opportunity.

After the twisty winding quiet rural lanes it was slightly unreal to finally get back to Durham and join the traffic back into Sniperley. A decent goodie-bag (the ‘Beast’ buff I like!) and a sunny sit down before Jamie arrived a few minutes later. We don’t know if was just me Alan and Jamie that tamed the Beast or whether there were a few more Striders out today. A nice course, a bit lacking in elegance but I admire and respect its functional brutality. It lacks the polish of the Etapes, but it’s also a fraction of the price and parking is a lot more straightforward. I’m certainly glad I got out of bed for it even if I did have a few problems climbing stairs on Monday after my horsie-beastie weekend double.

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Etape Caledonia, Pitlochry, Scotland, Sunday, May 12, 2013

81 miles

Dougie Nisbet

Yes, it’s true, in case you’re wondering. The Etape Caledonia is indeed a walk in the park compared to the Etape Pennines. That’s not to say it’s easy, it’s just not as hard or as brutal as the Pennines.

We were staying about a mile from the Start. ‘Downstream’ unfortunately, which meant that I wasn’t sure how early to get out of bed and make my way along to the Start. The instructions suggested ‘at least an hour’, which meant there was potentially a lot of hanging around time shivering in a Pitlochry dawn waiting for my time to go. In the end I could have left things much later and found the pavements pretty clear even with the early starters already well on the way. I turned up with almost an hour to spare and settled down to wait. This was a very smooth operation; some wifie on a big chair they’d borrowed from Wimbledon was barking instructions to riders, while boards were held up indicating which wave should be where. I was in wave AA and not for the first time I wondered whether I was the only person in the universe who didn’t make something up for their estimated finish time. Looking at some of the generously clad riders who shuffled past in the early waves I did suspect I’d be seeing them again before the finish. Finally it was wave AA’s time to go! The final wave! I clunked into my pedals and felt a tingle of excitement as we followed the 4000+ riders north out of Pitlochry.

I’d expected to be frustrated by rider congestion but it wasn’t that bad. I’d sit on a wheel for a while, rest, then bridge the gap to the next group. I tried working with riders but nobody was playing. Time and time again I’d follow a wheel, and when the rider peeled away I’d take a session, then move aside to discover they were not in my slipstream. It was a bit frustrating although I did catch the wheels of riders 298 & 299 for a few miles and belted along in their slipstream until Tummel Bridge where I had to let go. Shortly after a rider alerted me that my reading glasses had dropped out my pocket and I decided that the responsible thing would be to go back for them in case they went through a tyre. I pulled over, turned round, faced back down the narrow single-track road at the steady stream of cyclists coming the other way, and thought, nah, the glasses are staying where they are. They’ll go nicely with the tacks and screws.

Dougie out on the road.

Approaching a feeding station a marshal with a megaphone bellowed clearly, “Feeding to the left; straight through on the right”, which apparently means, stop anywhere and wander about chatting to your mates. Having tetchily negotiated the obstacle course I settled in with a loose bunch and felt eyes upon my bike. A voice said with a hint of incredulity, “Are they tubulars?!”. Not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed, I said they were, the same ones that had done the Pennines, although they’ve roughed it up and down to Gateshead a few times since then. I was given a run-down of the course and the upcoming Schehallion, of which I was a little apprehensive, and then it started to rain.

I’d tried to go for a time in the Green Jersey timed section but had been thwarted by people riding four abreast and talking about last night’s telly, but I was up for the King of the Mountains. Schehallion. The red mats appeared and I put the foot down. A minute or so later it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea how long Schehallion was. 1 mile? 3, 5? Perhaps I should’ve done some homework. I tried to pace my effort on where I imagined the finish might be, which in the end came sooner than I expected. Well if that was The Hill, it could have been far worse. A nice fast descent now, although not too fast as it was raining quite heavily now and I wasn’t riding on the grippiest tyres in the world.

On and off solo riding until about 20 miles to go when two riders passed who were clearly working together. I thought, I’m having some of that and leapt on the wheel. Initially I let the working rider in front of me, but after a bit of non-verbal communication I made it clear I was willing to do my bit. They looked at me and the bike and presumably decided to risk letting me mix in and help out, and then followed an absolutely fantastic 5 miles or so of fast riding. It was good old fashioned close-formation chain-gang stuff and we overtook other riders as if they were standing still. I knew I couldn’t keep it up but I intended to work with these guys and beat the clock as long as I could. We charged through a feeding station and during one of my spells at the front I looked ahead and was sure I could see someone driving a Chaise Longue. Sure enough, it was Durham Tri’s Ian Mackenzie, more commonly seen with Allan Seheult trackside on Wednesdays, riding on a recumbent. I managed to shout a few words of encouragement as we flew past at a speed I knew was unsustainable. Another mile or two and I was burnt out. I thanked my chain gang for the lift and took my foot of the throttle.

The final big climb was a cheeky little number in the last 10 miles to Pitlochry. I was pretty tired but encouraged to see my name splashed on the road as I hit the last hill. Soon we were in the outskirts of Pitlochry and a spectator shouted, “800 metres to go. If you’ve anything left, give it all NOW!”. I got very excited. I had something left, and I gave it all! Sadly with 600 metres still to go we turned a corner and there was a long drag to the finish and the waiting crowd. I’d given my all and it had all gone. I was knackered and feeling slightly foolish as I slowed down for a rest at the very time I should have been sprinting for home. But the line came quickly enough and the race was over. As I crossed the line I heard the commentator say that there were just under 1000 riders still to finish. Given that I started in the 27th and final wave I reckon I must’ve passed most of those in the last 5 hours. I thought it was busy.

Overall compared to the Pennines I’d have to say I prefer the Caledonia course. The hills are gentler so it’s possible to get into some sort of rhythm, and you can fly down the descents without having to touch the brakes every few seconds. Despite the 4000+ field there was rarely a problem with congestion, although next year I’m going to get into an earlier wave and see if I can sit on a few more wheels.

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Etape Pennines, Sunday, October 7, 2012

78 miles

Dougie Nisbet and Alister Robson

Dougie Nisbet …

Who would’ve thought that County Durham had so many hills? An endless supply of cruel sniggering climbs. When I bumped into Alister at the finish we were in full agreement; a course recce would have been a very bad idea. It really was just as well we did not know what awaited as we surely would never have got as far as the start line. The hills were endless, just one nightmare after another – and when you think it’s all over, you turn a corner, and there’s another one. I think that’s why Colin played his Get out of Jail Free card – he lives on the coal face – he knew.

Dougie on a classic eighties bikeIt was Colin’s announcement the day before that he wouldn’t be starting that made me start paying attention. Just as well – I hadn’t realised you had to register on the Saturday, just like a marathon expo. I also made the mistake of having a look at the suggested training plans on the website and thus denting my naivete. I really shouldn’t have. The training plan for people with limited time was 6-8 hours a week. I’d been cycling to work off and on for 2 or 3 months. That was about 3 hours or 30 miles a week. On average, when I wasn’t running between breweries. That should be enough surely? Yeah. And I’ve got all this core fitness stuff from running. Everything would be just fine. Just. Fine. And then there was the ‘minimum average speed’ of 13.1 MPH. I checked my average speed for cycling from Durham to Gateshead and it wasn’t quite 13.1, it wasn’t even close, and it doesn’t even have any 2nd category climbs.

We couldn’t have wished for better weather and the sun rose as I waited at Ushaw College for my start time. Jacquie was easy to spot in her Striders hoodie and there was Alister a couple of zones and minutes ahead of me. When you’re used to running vests it’s quite different seeing everyone in cycling gear. We’re probably all hard-wired to chase a Striders vest but Alister soon disappeared into the sea of Lycra and I wouldn’t be seeing him again until we both finished over 6 hours later.

I was in the last zone to go and we pushed off under a clear dawn sky. This was the first road race I’d done for over 25 years and I was a little out of touch. So used to running now I’d forgotten about wind-chill and cold hands. So much so that two miles later I had to stop and pull the gloves from my pocket that I’d thankfully shoved in as a last-minute thought. Fumbling with the Velcro on my mitts and trying to decide whether to pull the gloves over or instead of, I became aware of a motorbike that had stopped and pulled up alongside me. I looked up and knew. Nearly 2000 riders, but I’d still managed it. Just like a fell race. Situation Normal. “You’re the sweeper, aren’t you?” I said miserably. He nodded, and asked me if I was ok. I nodded feebly and began to feel a bit pathetic and sorry for myself. I was cold and at the back of a field of over a thousand riders and this was not going well. I struggled to get my mitts in my back pocket without much success before simply handing them over to a marshall who’d come over to assist, and asked him to do it for me.

It took several miles before I got warmed up and gradually become more confident. I steadily passed people, hopping from wheel to wheel and taking pace whenever possible. I used to race on the steep banks of Meadowbank velodrome and so was at ease riding in close groups and found it a gloriously exhilarating experience riding on closed roads so near to so many other riders. It was nostalgia and excitement rolled into a lovely sunny autumnal Pennine morning. My draughting was parasitic, not deliberately so, it was just that few people seemed willing to work, or simply misunderstood and thought I was trying to get past and moved over to let me through. As it happened the opportunities for sharing the pace were fairly limited to early in the race as pacing works best on flattish stretches into the wind, and when the hills started, both up and down, the advantages of taking pace were negligible.

We passed the 15 mile marker and I was, as Danny once put it, in terra incognita. I hadn’t ridden more than 15 miles in one go in more than 25 years, so I awaited with interest to see which parts of my body would start to hurt first. I was riding the race as I would run a marathon, taking it steady early on and conserving energy as I knew it would get a bit rough towards the end. Occasionally I’d peer hopefully ahead for a Striders top but Alister was nowhere to be seen. Somewhere even further ahead were Keith Wesson and Donna James who were to ultimately finish as winners in their class, with Donna being 6th Lady overall.

The hills loomed ahead and I caught Peter Brooks who was chirpilly stoical after having an unfortunately eventful journey to the start. Later, as the King of the Mountains pass lazed into view I took my hands of the bars to scrunch my cape into my pocket. This looked like hot work. A Darlington rider remarked that this was ‘skilled riding for a 2000 number’ and I was about to take umbrage until I realised he’d meant it as a genuine compliment. I was tickled! And then the hills began. And once they started, they simply did not stop. Like an early morning session hunched over the great white telephone after an all-night bender when your body is wracked with pain, when you think, surely there’s nothing left, when your body is just a spent, rasping, empty, husk, there’s another bit, then another, then another. Where was it all coming from?

Dougie argues the case for not walking Unlike fell racing, where it’s often quicker and more energy efficient to walk up the hills, the opposite is true with cycling, where walking in cycling shoes, even on level ground, is an achievement in itself. I managed to climb all the hills and made a lot of gains. My bike was also attracting some attention. One of the very first aluminium frames, bought for me for £120 in the early 1980s by my Dad and hand-built with Campagnolo equipment throughout, it is pretty much unchanged to how it was 30 years ago. Apart from the tubs, which I rather sensibly replaced on Saturday before the race, and prayed that the 10 year old tub tape that I’d found in a drawer was still sticky. Or at least, sticky-ish, for those 40MPH+ descents. Climbing slowly past one lady on one climb she commented “that’s a lovely bike”, and one chap at the final feeding station called it “gorgeous”. Perhaps it was a combination of the toughness of the race and the stunning scenery but I was finding these unexpected compliments were making me feel quite emotional.

I’d remembered from the course map that there was one Category 2 climb, and that it was, as you might expect, in the last 10 miles. On the scale of awfulness it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared but I was overtaken by a bloke who was quite simply whimpering a series of shuddering and wholesome profanities that seemed to be directed at no-one in particular, although the hill seemed to be implicated. The last few miles went by quite quickly and then the beautiful sight of the red timing mats of the finish. A few minutes later I bumped into Alister and recognised the dazed and perplexed countenance that I was sure reflected my own. He moved on to find Jacquie and I made my way back to the car. I looked down at my medal and thought how you get medals for all sorts of races nowadays, practically giving them away they are, for the most noddy of events. But this one I clutched in my hot sweaty hand and thought, I really earned this one.

… and Alister Robson:

…or how I got way in over my head

Cycling is easy right? I mean I bike to work every day, approx 80 miles a week carrying a rucksack with all my work gear on a heavy and old touring bike. 80 miles on a modern road bike in 6 hours on closed roads with no traffic – shouldn’t be a real challenge, right? Wrong..

I'm guessing this is the *before* shot!

It was the hills that did it. The first one – I now know to be Button Bank – was tough but I made it up OK. A nice pleasant approx 30 miles later having my first break, eating a banana and some shortbread I wondered what all the fuss was about. The sun was out, the countryside looked amazing, there was no wind and my fingers and toes had even started to regain some feeling after the chilly 7am start. I climbed the next hill OK and grabbed a gel and stopped for a few moments to speak to Jacquie who’d pop up all over the course supporting me (unless I was delusion, which was possible).

Then we hit the next hill. And the next. And the next. From 40 miles to 65 it felt like I must have walked uphill as much as I cycled. I walked so much I ruined the new cleats on my new cycling shoes. I now know why cyclists place so much emphasis on having the lightest bike possible – because when you’re pushing it up hills like that, you really do want it to be as light as possible. As Dougie said, if we’d had the commonsense to recce the route properly beforehand we’d have probably joined the huge ranks of those that didn’t even make it to the start line. My only thought for most of that section was looking back, expecting the sweep vehicle (there was supposed to be a strict 6 hour cut off) to catch me up.

Still it didn’t and after 65 miles the hills seemed to stop, I recognised where I was for the first time in ages (nr the Saltwell Fell race) and a friend, Jon, caught me up and we nattered for a few miles. I waved happily at Colin and Elfie and I even felt good enough to leave Jon and enjoyed some of the more gentle downhills. (The earlier ones were so steep I felt I was hanging on for dear life). Then again at 75 miles a massive great hill. Great. Still I got to the top (mainly on foot I’m not ashamed to admit) and then set about catching those who had inched by me while still onboard their bikes and whose thigh muscles were clearly cursing them for it. Over the line with a punch of the air and a kind of sprint finish and a phenomenal sense of achievement.

I caught up afterwards with Donna James (1st FV45 and 6th lady overall) and Keith Wesson (1st MV60) and both just looked pleased to have made it round in one piece, then Dougie who looked shellshocked and had the same 1000 yard stare I think I must have had. James Garland also made it round in one piece, even allowing for projectile vomitting and a puncture. Peter wasn’t so fortunate, having had a fall on the way to the event, but persevering to 30 miles anyway. Jon beat me by 1 second even though I beat him home (some major road crossings were designated stop zones – where you went over a mat and your time stopped) which seems awfully cruel over nearly 80 miles. A great medal and Jacquie treated me to an event cycle top. Next year again? Hmm…


Pos Name Club Cat Pos Time
1 Dave Hopper M40-44 1 4:07:25
57 Hannah Sammut F30-34 1 4:54:22
257 Donna James F45-49 1 5:30:53
590 Keith Wesson M60-64 1 6:12:01
619 Jonathan Steed M40-44 151 6:14:44
621 Alister Robson M40-44 153 6:14:45
681 Dougie Nisbet M45-49 155 6:20:43
1251 James Garland M35-39 194 8:04:15

1,327 finishers.

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Fred Whitton Challenge, Coniston, Sunday, May 9, 2010

112 Mile Bike Challenge

Dave Shipman

Myself and a colleague from work completed the Fred Whitton Challenge on Sunday 9th May, so I can recommend it to any of the many Striders who have taken to two wheels as well as running. Its a daunting 112 mile circuit of the Lakes, starting and finishing in Coniston and taking in all of the major Lakeland passes – including Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands and Whinlatter, then at a hundred miles throws in Hardknott and Ryenose just for good measure to see off the legs completely.

So what was it like … its reputation stands as the hardest one day ride in Britain, could well be, certainly after years of long distance and touring cycling it’s the hardest ride I have ever done. There is an enforced cut-off at 12 at Buttermere Youth Hostel (about 50 miles), so our plan was to start early and ride steady, we were on the road by 7, cold and still, perfect weather thank god, as training in the previous weeks had been plagued by high winds and cold rains!! Pessimistic, my plan was to carry on as far as possible if I made the cut-off.

Dave enjoying the day out. It was straight into the climbs outside Coniston, over the top to Ambleside then up from Windermere and the first serious hills of Kirkstone Pass – misty and cold on the top, with the first crowds, who’d gathered at various points in the early stages but had then evaporated after about 60 miles – probably gone off to do something more interesting than watch sweaty lycra crawl by!! Followed by a great descent and trawl round to Keswick, before Seatoller and the steep climb towards Honister. Feeling fine at this stage, but delayed by a puncture entering Keswick. Repair time allowed for extra food and drink, and the experience of hundreds of swifter cyclists flying by as I wrestled with tyre and new inner tube …

Seatoller was the first ‘Oh God, why am I trying to do this’ moment, quickly followed by a rapid dismount and 50 yards of walking until the severity of ascent dropped to a manageable 1 in 4 !! A bit like in fell races. Buttermere Youth Hostel offered the usual sandwiches, bananas, mountains of flapjack, energy drink and water, but no tea and I was craving tea, but never mind. Onwards and very upwards, fell off at the top of Newlands, when desperate zig-zagging caused me to clip the grass bank, contributing to a stiff neck and shoulders later, but no real harm done.

Dave still enjoying the day out. Until about 70 miles I was still feeling pretty comfortable, but then it all started to go wrong, legs and head had gone as far as they wished for one day, I was clearly holding Alan back and slight rises were becoming big lumps in front and underneath my wheels. At the 85 mile checkpoint I had had enough and if there had been a broomwagon would have gladly got in it. There wasn’t, the local taxi company said they would take me back to Coniston for around 50 quid – fancy saying that to a Yorkshireman – so it was time to take stock. Alan went on alone and I ate as much as I could, washed down with 3 mugs of tea. Twenty minutes and some sound guidance from local cyclists / volunteer marshalls and I was on the road again. Of course I walked up Hardknott and Ryenose passes, but even cars do that (though some of the top riders apparently ride the lot), wore my brakes out on the descents, then it was a pleasant-ish last few miles back to Coniston.

By then I had decided that I could and would finish, which was pretty pleasing, especially as that meant I would never have to do it again. EVER!!

Official time was 11 hours 17 minutes, average speed 10 miles per hour, thousands of feet of climb, which, taking in the puncture and several food and survival breaks, I was pretty pleased with. Because of the bad winter and the early time of year ( by September I am usually a lot fitter on the bike ) it was too far, and the relentless hills make it really tough – my longest ride in training was 70 miles, which was woefully short in terms of ideal training, but with the atmosphere and the camaraderie on the day you do get helped along. And then there are the views, you really do feel you have seen most of the Lakes and then some more by the end of the day, away from the passes there were some fabulous quiet lanes and spectacular scenes.

It took my legs at least a week to recover – jogging round the Snods Edge 10k was a weird and weary feeling – but now at least I know I will get round any other rides this summer!! Bring on the Darlington Festival Rides and the Cyclone, they will all seem flat after the “Fred.”

Go on, give it a go.

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Trailquest, Blanchland, Sunday, September 6, 2009

3 hours

Colin Blackburn

This weekend was a very busy one with lots on offer in the north east and further afield. There was the Ben Nevis Race, the Great Scottish Run, Grisedale Horseshoe, a triathlon, a 10k, a 10 mile, a trail race and even a roller ski event in County Durham! My decision was made for me, I decided to avoid all the hassle of travelling and do something on my doorstep. This year the local Trailquest was in Blanchland and was part of a NE and a national series of Trailquests.

So, what’s a Trailquest? Basically, you ride round on a mountain bike for a fixed time and try to navigate your way to as many controls as possible earning points for each control visited. If you get back late you lose points, if you get back very late you lose all your points! The person or pair with the most points wins. As an orienteer the navigation bit appeals, as a poor mountain biker the cycling bit isn’t as attractive. Still, it’s just down the road.

I spent most of the week before the event desperately trying to fit new brakes to my MTB. I only have time for a couple of short road rides to test the brakes before the event so it may well be my last ever event. On the day I make sure I have everything: compass, whistle, first aid kit, food, money, waterproof,… It feels a bit odd having to take all this stuff when I’ll only be out on the hills I train on week in week out. Still, rules are rules.

The ride down to Blanchland is a five minute downhill whiz. The brakes work. I register and then look at a blank map to see which tracks are disallowed and which areas are out of bounds. The whole of the event area is north of Blanchland so I won’t be popping home for a cuppa en route. (I did once do this during a 5 hour adventure race in Blanchland.) There’s a fair bit of hanging around while more people turn up an register. This seems to be an opportunity for bike porn as each bike is examined by each new registrant. One bloke has an anodised aluminium rotating map holder—phwoar! I have two wooden clothes pegs to hold the map to my brake cables, later on I’ll wish I’d had three.

After a bit of milling around waiting for the guys to set up the start I punch my dibber, collect my map and set of up the road toward Slaley. My basic tactic is to avoid as much off-road cycling as possible, especially dodgy downhill stuff, i.e. to finish in one piece with as few scars as possible. My wuss’s route isn’t going to win me any prizes but I’ll still have a nice 3 hour cycle ride. All the controls I’m likely to get are low value ones, 10 or 15 points. To get the highest value control, 50 points, you have to be a suicidal nutjob and to cycle almost to Allendale.

An hour in and I’ve done a nice circuit around Slaley Forest, occasionally going off-road but nothing too scary. I decide to collect a control just at the bottom of a track. I can’t quite read the map but a few seconds later I work out that the little lines mean “steep rocky track”. Luckily I realise before what I thought was steep becomes what they mean by steep. I can get down and back up the track as quickly by running with the bike than repeatedly falling off and getting back on again. I think this is where I lost my peg as well as my nerve. Seeing one guy ride down I see how skillful and/or fearless some riders are.

Once I’ve got back up the track I do a few zig-zags through Slaley Forest collecting a handful of controls. Some of the tracks are wide and fast others narrow and muddy. I only fall off once and even then I was hardly moving. With half-an-hour to go I emerge out of the forest to take the moorland track back to Blanchland picking up a couple of controls on the way. There are some beautiful views and with fine weather it is great to be up on Blanchland Moor on a day like this. The drop down from Penny Pie via Shildon is steep but with good tracks is also exhilarating and I arrive back at the finish in the final minute, perfect timing.

On finishing, I discover that I could have collected one more control worth 15 points if I’d sacrificed a 5 minute time penalty, just 5 points so 10 more points missed! Oh well, I’ll know better next time. As I started first I’m also one of the first back and so the tea has only just been made by the guy who did finish first. It’s a very DIY approach compared to some events but seems to work well. In fact I have to wait some time to download my dibber as all the organisers are out cycling themselves. When I finally do download I seem to have 180 points with a 180 point penalty. There has been some problem with the timing, but only for me! Ah well, I wasn’t doing it for the glory. When they do publish the results I know I won’t be last as one guy lost 145 points in penalties by trying for the 50 pointer!

Despite the lack of results it was a great day out on the fells. In fact it’s the all uphill cycle ride home that’s the real killer!

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