Gravel Culture: Rapha Pennine Rally

Posted By Gravel Union On 23 June 2021

Emma took part in the inaugural running of the Rapha Pennine Rally and sent back this report.

Rapha recently partnered up with Outdoor Provisions to bring us their first unsupported bike packing event - the Pennine Rally. The route they had designed incorporated a mix of quiet roads, tracks, cobbles, setts, forests and open moorlands and snaked its way across the Pennines from Gamma Transport Division in Edinburgh to the Manchester Rapha Clubhouse.

The usual pre-event nerves could be felt buzzing about at the start at Gamma. Glancing around, there were some pristine looking bike packing set ups, mixed in with the more trailworn. The most noticeable difference to most events I’ve ever been to were all the women in attendance! I must confess it had escaped my notice that Rapha had made sure that 50% of the tickets were held back for women participants. Such a pleasure to see.

After a short briefing from Rapha’s Louis, warning us about the lack of opportunities to buy food on the Scottish part of the route and to make sure we were suitably stocked up before we set off, we were good to go. Covid19 meant that the usual group start wasn’t possible and we’d been given timed waves to start instead. It was really nice and made for a more relaxed feel to the morning.

Rolling out along the canal, the city of Edinburgh was soon behind us and there were red sandstone tracks under wheel. Gentle undulations led to bigger climbs, riders snaked out ahead, chatting at gates, everyone in high spirits and there were plenty of smiles.

Whilst the first part of the route was new to me, I had looked and realised that I knew quite a lot of the climbs and descents in the latter section, from the Dales into Manchester, and this had dictated which bike I’d chosen for the event. Some of the route was going to be rather gnarly on a gravel bike, so I’d opted to take the Kinesis Adventure MTB prototype with its 3” tyres and dynamo powered lighting. Comfort over speed was my logic. It’s fully rigid, which I guess blurred the line between gravel and mtb.

After arriving into Peebles via an old drove road, it was a chance to stock up on food and grab a coffee. Riders rolled into the various different eateries on offer. One chap, Oisin, started chatting with me. He had come over from Belfast and was planning on riding home afterwards to meet the ferry. I set off, with Oisin catching me shortly afterwards and we chatted and rode, the usual yo-yo of half conversations as our speeds changed with the terrain.

Huge landscapes opened up before us. Tracks and trails, passing the odd rider, stopping for snacks. We pulled off the route in search of water, a church, but sadly no tap - it had been a long time since there was a service there. A kindly woman in the house next door filled our bottles. Onwards once more. Somewhere in my head I thought I’d heard that the Rapha H-van would be at The Hermitage Castle. Oisin has started fantasising about coffee. Sadly, when we arrived, there was no sign of the Rapha H-van. Little did we know, but the support from the H-van and the Canyon wagon with mobile mechanics onboard didn’t set off until we were a good 12 hours ahead of them.

The evening was still warm after the sunshine of the day. I was getting hungry. I felt a little awkward as I’d decided it was easier to take four days’ worth of dried food with me and was quite looking forward to the Thai Chicken curry I was carrying - all I needed was an extra water top up. However, I knew Oisin only had bars. By this point, the hills were starting to take their toll. In my head, I’d decided that 160km a day would be about right and I was looking about for any taps. A fancy farm with two steam ploughs in a barn appeared on the trail. We knocked on their door, politely asking to use the tap outside. The woman there insisted on giving us water from indoors and washing our mucky bottles, whilst the man taught us about his steam ploughs.

By this point, I was quite shattered and let Oisin go. I just wanted to find a tent-sized flat bit and get some sleep. The light was beginning to fade and the midges were coming out to play. Little flat bits were not forthcoming. Then, in the last few minutes of light, I arrived at the Scottish/English border at The Burning Bush, where I found some flat ground and a perfect rock to set up my stove on.

Next morning, very early, I had drunk my coffee and packed the tiny tent away. I looked at the tracker - Oisin had rolled on ahead. One rider was already steaming ahead of the rest of the field, but most seemed to have stopped quite far back. The Pennine Rally, whilst being a bike packing event, wasn’t following the ‘codec’ that I’m used to. Instead of camping, it looked like many riders were booking lodgings as they were moving through the event and at least some of them were just cruising gently from one hotel to the next, without carrying much in the way of kit.

I rolled past the sleepy visitor centre at Keilder Forest. The trail rolled up and down. Lambs bleated, the odd hare ran past. Oyster catchers, lapwings and curlews were shouting above me in the sky. Haltwhistle was soon close by – allegedly the centre of the UK (although this is disputed by Dunsop Bridge, Lancashire) – it gave me a good chance for a second breakfast (or maybe a first lunch).

Tracks, lanes, trails and even a narrow gauge railway passed before I decided on booking a hotel for the night. To my long-distance-bikepacking brain, it felt like it was slightly cheating to stop reasonably early, but it was a great chance to wash all my kit and lie in bed with a beer and a curry. Bikepacking sure does make you appreciate a comfy bed.

Next morning early, I set off with some of my favourite trails still to ride. The Dales arrived - all limestone outcrops and bright green grass - brutal and beautiful in turn. The Roman road which carved straight up from Askrigg was stunning. It was nice to ride it first thing in the morning when I felt fresh - usually I seem to be crawling up it late at night. This time it was just me and the beautiful light.

Winding over towards Salter Fell, I wondered where to spend the night. As the route headed towards Manchester, perfect bivvy spots became harder to find. I knew from past experience and from local knowledge that there were places I just wouldn’t feel happy stopping at. In the end I found a great spot, although it was strange stopping within 20km of my home! I’d met the guys from Tailfin who had come past me whilst I was having a quick bike faff. I caught them again whilst they were admiring the sunset, before heading off in search of pie and peas for my dinner.

Breakfast was porridge in my cosy tent with a curlew shouting at me. It was time for the final roll into Manchester. Through the once-rich mill towns, now scruffy round the edges, the route took in snickets, ginnels and gritstone setts. A hike up a hill to Rooley Moor Road, or Cotton Famine Road as it’s known locally. Two guys flew past me on the climb. A jaw rattling descent followed - the last big drop of the route before picking up the canals into Manchester and a warm welcome at the Rapha clubhouse. Oisin was long gone, but the Tailfin guys were still there. Old faces from years ago were also waiting to cheer on the riders coming in and to share a beer.

All in all, it was a great event. Outdoor Provisions had put together a really lovely route, both challenging and beautiful. It was lovely to see the work that Rapha continue to do to encourage more women to get into adventure riding - I hope they keep doing so and that the event runs again next year. A great introduction to bike packing.