The Circuit of the Dales is one of the best time trial events in the country, taking in some fantastic scenery should you have the capacity to take it in. Coming at the start of April it is a tough way to start the season, and the event has been known to have more than its fair share of weather, not to mention roadworks.
I've ridden it four times before (in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012) and experienced a tailwind finish, a headwind finish, and two shortened events due to roadworks in Ingleton as well as other temporary traffic lights on the course. I was hoping that this year's event would not be shortened and that I would be able to set my first sub 2 hour 30 minute ride for a 20 mph average speed. That was the aim...
So much of the CoD experience is dependent on the weather on the day and I was pleased to see that the conditions were dry and a relatively mild 4°C at the race HQ in Ingleton, with a light headwind on the way up to the start, so pretty much ideal. Wanting to wear my skinsuit for aerodynamic reasons therefore meant two base layers (one of them my thickest winter long sleeved base layer) plus arm warmers, knee warmers, thick winter socks under thin lycra overshoes, and a light pair of full fingered gloves! It is hard to judge what to wear for a long event on a chilly morning when the temperature is due to rise but the course goes up to 1450 feet but this turned out to be just right.
The start of the CoD is a gift mile or two downhill through Ingleton. That is, once you have managed to join the A65 about five metres after the start line. The approaching car on an otherwise deserted road resulted in what was probably the slowest acceleration I have ever made off the start line of a time trial, and just a handful of metres into the race I was almost certainly in last place! That was a couple of seconds I wasn't going to get back, but it is a long race and there are many places on the course that you could be lucky or unlucky with the traffic.
Turning left off the A65 through Burton in Lonsdale the road is quite undulating but predominantly downhill and quick progress was made towards Greta Bridge. The fast and sometimes twisty descents were a bit of a test for the new bike and it would be fair to say I wasn't quite as fast on the descents as I might have been on a bike I was more used to. Thankfully I had remembered the speed bumps at Burton before I got to them.
From the lowest point on the course at Greta Bridge the next 24 miles are predominantly uphill, starting very gently up the Lune valley. The focus for me was to keep my head down as much as possible in an aero position and to keep my power output down to a reasonable output so I would have something left for the bigger climbs towards the end.
At Kirkby Lonsdale there is a left hand turn back onto the A65 for a few hundred yards before a rare (in time trialling) right hand turn off an A road onto the road towards Sedbergh. I was luckier joining the A65 this time around and also had a clear turn off to the right where there is a tea van at which motor bikers gather on a Sunday morning. From here to Sedbergh the course continues to gradually climb but with the occasional steeper click and following descent. Along this section was a set of temporary traffic lights where a bridge was being replaced. A timekeeper had been placed there to record any time lost but I was fortunate to sail straight through on a green light.
At the start line I had been warned about a diversion to the course in Sedbergh which normally goes straight along the High Street. Instead we were to turn sharply right and then shortly after sharp left to rejoin the original course. On the uphill approach to the town centre I was badly overtaken by a tow truck that caused a car travelling the opposite way to stop to let him through, the tow truck subsequently coming to a halt where the diversion started and then proceeding very slowly in the direction I wanted to take. If only he had waited behind me for a few seconds longer...
To this point my average speed was nearly 22 mph, so hopefully on track for a 20mph finish. Turning right onto the road towards Garsdale the wind again seemed to be fairly neutral. The road is very twisty in places and includes a few steeper gradients before Garsdale from where it mostly drags up to the Settle Carlisle railway line at Garsdale Head. There were two sets of temporary traffic lights shortly after Garsdale which we had been told had no obvious purpose and the implication was that it was ok to proceed through them. The first set of lights was on red and there were a number of cars coming in the other direction, leaving no option to stop (this time there was no timekeeper to record lost time!). As far as I can tell I was stationary for about 20 seconds and lost about 30 seconds by the time I got started again. The second set of lights seemed to have been turned around and switched off, so no more hold ups for me there.
I had forgotten how lumpy the descent from Garsdale Head to Hawes is. In my mind it was downhill all the way and a chance for a little bit of a rest but the reality is far from that with a few smaller uphill sections and one that is significant in length and gradient.
The right hand turn in Hawes towards Newby Head is a significant milestone, and the point that you find out exactly what wind conditions you are going to have to deal with over the last 14 miles over the moors to the finish. The corner also has a 25% gradient which continues for 200 metres or so! With no traffic around I was fortunate to be waved through by the marshals to take the turn up the steepest inside line on the right hand side of the road. The bad news was a light head wind.
The first climb towards Ingleton is Pike Hill - 1.5 miles long at an average gradient of 5%, but with that starting gradient of 25%. As I turned onto the hill at Hawes my average speed was 21 mph, but this quickly dropped to 20.4 by the top of Pike Hill. This recovered only slightly on the short descent before tackling the main climb up to Newby Head. This climb is 3.5 miles long with an average gradient of 4%, and with sections up to 9% into a naggy but thankfully light headwind it was quite a slog, albeit at a fairly respectable 13.5 mph average speed.
The summit came a little earlier than I had expected and with my average speed now down to 19.8 mph I was looking to get up some speed on the descent and build it back up to 20 mph in the final 8 or so predominantly downhill miles. The descent proved to be harder than expected when the surprisingly gusty crosswind took a side swipe at my front wheel at over 35 mph, forcing me off the tri bars onto the drops for most of the way down to Ribblehead.
The viaduct at Ribblehead marks a particularly evil small climb, which then levels off for an interminable half mile of false flat before another half mile of headwind to the pub at Chapel-le-Dale where there is a fast descent. The last couple of miles are also particularly cruel into a headwind with a series of steps up towards the line just before White Scar caves. The only photographer I saw out on the course also chose to stand not far from the finish!
Photo by John Nixon
So, how did I do?
Well, you might recall my stated objective was to set my first sub 2 hour 30 minute ride for a 20 mph average speed. However, it turns out that the course is actually 50.7 miles long (a fact that I hadn't been aware of before the start), which means that a sub 2 hour 30 ride needs an average speed of 20.28 mph and not just a round 20 mph. This all became apparent in the last couple of miles as the finish wasn't coming into sight as quickly as I expected and the clock ticked over the 2 hour 30 mark.
Normally in a time trial there is a definitive time recorded on your behalf by the timekeepers. So imagine my surprise when seeing my time on the result board as 2:29:14! All the more strange as I had been caught for 32 minutes by rider number 80 maybe a mile before the finish and his time was 1:58:31. Thinking there must have been some simple miscommunication in getting the results on the result board, or some easily made mistake in the arithmetic, I asked the organiser to check my time and I have been told it is what the timekeepers recorded.
Which all leaves me not knowing exactly what my time was and whether or not I recorded a personal best for the course. My previous best for the full course set in 2010 was 2:30:55. My Strava ride shows an elapsed time of 2:32:02 and a time of 2:30:48 for the 2018 Strava segment* (which makes some sort of sense allowing for me starting my Garmin nearly a minute before my start time). Ridewithgps shows a time of 2:31:03. I think that it is probably best to claim that I "matched" my previous best. At least I can say that my averge moving speed was over 20 mph, so at least that much was successful! The result sheet shows me finishing with 2:29:14 in 52nd place out of 110 entries; with just 84 finishers that gives me 61.047 national ranking points in CTT's new rankings system.
In further analysis, my average power output was only 215 watts, which was disappointingly low. However this includes any periods when I wasn't pedalling; removing those periods increases the average to 225 watts. More positively, based on data uploaded to Strava, only two other riders using power meters recorded faster times with lower power outputs which I hope is a good indication that I was reasonably aerodynamic.
To wrap up, the Circuit of the Dales is a fantastic event which I would recommend to anyone but be prepared for whatever weather it might throw at you!
* I'm not entirely clear how my ride of 50.7 miles as shown by Strava can include a Strava segment of 51.5 miles!