In retrospect, I should have looked at the total ascent, the number of hills, the weather forecast and the true mileage on the popular C2C (Coast to Coast) cycle route across northern England. But I assumed that cycling more than 140 miles over two days after a summer of triathlon racing would be well within my capabilities.
The reality was two very long and tiring days in the saddle – but also an amazingly beautiful and off-the-beaten-track cycling route that I urge many others to follow. I would, however, suggest that you cycle it over more days (three to five!) and when you are sure of a tailwind and mostly cloud-free skies.
Facts and figures about the C2C
The C2C cycle route was developed by Sustrans and opened almost two decades ago. Most years, an average of 12,000 to 15,000 cyclists complete the route (finishing in Sunderland or Tynemouth). Many thousands more riders complete shorter sections. I had heard about this route several years ago and had been keen to give it a go ever since.
There are a number of options for cycling coast to coast across northern England, and a variety of off-road options along the way, but I planned to cycle my road bike and to follow the official C2C signs as closely as possible from Whitehaven, Cumbria, on the Irish Sea in the west to Tynemouth, Tyne and Wear, on the eastern side of the country and located on the North Sea.
The total distance is 140 miles or 225km and a total ascent of around 3000m. The highest elevation reached is 607m.
Autumn cycling on the C2C
Choose your days well and you could enjoy blue skies and sunshine, albeit a little chilly. In autumn you also benefit from quieter roads and the fabulous colours of the foliage and landscape. On countless occasions, my cycling friend Jo and I stopped for a breather and a gaze at the spectacular scenery. In my opinion, this is when the UK looks at its best.
Unfortunately, Day 1 of our C2C cycle was rather wet and while it gave me a good opportunity to test my waterproof cycling kit (and a lovely Regatta baselayer), the rain did obscure some of the views.
I do like a challenge though and I decided that cycling slowly uphill offered many more opportunities for taking in the views!
The C2C route: Day 1
Starting in the small seaside town of Whitehaven, the route is at first wonderfully flat. This is because it follows an old railway line. The surface is fine for road bicycles and we made good progress.
Around 10 miles later, the signposts (by the way, the C2C signposts are very, very good indeed and offer great directions at every turn), lead you on to country roads and from here the going is a lot more undulating. There is a short section that edges the A66 – thankfully on a cycle path – and various detours on to country roads to avoid shorter sections on busier roads but bit by bit, cyclists head eastwards and finally into the outdoorsy Lake District town of Keswick. This is where we stopped for lunch (and tried to dry out some of our very wet cycle clothing in a warm café).
If you are not so fit and looking for shorter days in the saddle, Keswick would make a good overnight stop. However, I had decided that the whole route could be cycled in just two days so we needed to ride further east.
Again, the route follows lots of quiet roads and offers a great deal of undulating cycling. The views are worth the climbs, although the descents never feel quite long enough to rest weary leg muscles.
At another popular outdoors town, Penrith, the C2C crosses the M6 and winds its way onwards with increasingly long ups. Our overnight stop was a far distant village called Alston and by mid-afternoon we were becoming worried about making the hotel in daylight.
We were right to be worried. Murky weather and an early autumnal sunset meant that we climbed the long and weary ascent of Hartside Summit (1903ft) in mist and semi-darkness.
Cycling at different paces, Jo and I reach the top separately before speeding downwards as fast as we dared – around some tricky hairpins and in very wet conditions – to reach Lowbyer Manor Country House. We had been dreaming for hours about a hot shower, dry clothes and a meal of steak pie and chips (we needed hearty food after 75 miles of cycling!)
Thanks goodness, too, for Lowbyer’s boiler room, where the owner very kindly dried all our wet clothes and kit overnight.
The C2C route: Day 2
I had been very worried about how my leg muscles would cope with another 65 miles of cycling. And I was right to be concerned. While my thighs felt fine as we headed downstairs to breakfast, as soon as we got out on the route again I realised that we were in for many more hours of hill climbing.
Day two of the C2C route might not include as much elevation gain (1350m on Day 2 compared to 1700m on Day 1) but it does reach a higher point at 607m. Our day also started with a headwind, which then gave way to a fierce crosswind so cycling was hard work.
Again, though, the route was gorgeous. With less rain and some blue skies we could take in even wider panoramas of lovely autumnal scenes.
Between Alston and Gateshead the route heads up and down and then up again and then down and then up, up and up. There are several significant climbs and many, many smaller climbs. I was thankful for leg muscles strengthened by a year of triathlon training and Jo had cycled a few long-distance routes over the summer but even so we found the distance and hills very tiring.
So it was with huge relief that we suddenly found ourselves on an old railway line with about 25 miles to go to reach the North Sea. The trail was quite bumpy in places but manageable on a road bike and the closer we came to the sea the smoother the tarmac became.
We were still tired and the miles did seem to roll on forever but for the two hours, the smell of the river and then the sea pushed us onwards. By this point we were finishing off our last snack bars and dreaming (again) of a hearty meal and a pint of ice-cold soda and lime. I am not sure we have ever been so pleased to see the sea!
Thankfully, our luggage transfer and taxi man was there to ferry us back to the start point from Tynemouth. Thanks to Macs Adventure for organising the trip.
See the C2C route on Garmin
My advice is to cycle this route between April and September next year when the prevailing winds are in your favour. Take three to five days to really enjoy the route.