We set off just after 9.00, on schedule and in a very light drizzle. I’d put my rain jacket on at the start and then took it off again, undecided as to how damp it was going to get but knowing that after five minutes I’d be ‘boil-in-a-bag’ in the jacket. Good choice in the end – although it drizzled off and on through the morning, it was never quite wet enough to need it.
The route took us up Hope Street, past Intu and then out of the city via Birches Head, Bagnell and Stanley. It’s a stunning route out that very quickly delivers some seriously testing hills (Bagnall Bank and beyond) and Staffordshire Moorlands countryside that arrives so soon it feels as if it’s still part of the City. All I can remember of the next twenty or miles as we head out through Cheddleton is that it is hill after hill after hill after hill - and this is before the Peak District proper has arrived. I start to worry that even the 100km route is going to be beyond me. Even more so when an unexpected ‘kick’ near the top of yet another hill turns my legs into unresponsive jelly. This is a first for me – I had the gears to get up it, just not the juice in the tank. I don’t mind running out of gears and having to put a foot down, but my legs refusing to play is a new one. I walk the 50 yards to the top, sparking a few “alright mate?” and “everything OK?” from other cyclists as they spin past.
Back in the saddle, I struggle on, hoping that the feed station isn’t too far ahead.
We’re on the high ground east of Leek now, and for what feels like the next hour every signpost says “Longnor 3 miles”, but in a different direction each time. I think the route grazes the Manifold Valley at one point and I begin to wish I’d paid more attention to it before I’d set off. Where’s that feed station? Every road sign seems to have ‘Bank’ or ‘Edge’ or ‘Hill’ in the place names, and route certainly seems to veer towards (and up) every one of them.
Another long struggle up a minor road to the A53 at Flash, after a big stint pushing hard in cross-winds on the moors, and there’s the Flash café, with a small mountain of bikes stacked outside. Only a couple of them have Tour of the Potteries sportive numbers on though. A rider steps out of the café and I ask him where the feed station is. “Oh, it’s at Gun Hill”. “What, the bottom? I ask, while I try to work out how many miles it is to Gun Hill. “No, it’s at the top”. Between Flash and Meerbrook, where Gun Hill starts, is I reckon at least five miles away. It’s the Flash café for me.
Quarter of an hour later, a gallon of tea, several flapjacks, some crisps and chocolate to the better, I set off again on stiff legs. 100 yards down the A53 towards Leek, turn right to pick up the road to Flash village, and 50 yards on there’s a big sign at a community centre saying “Feed Station”. Whoops. The perils of misinformation. I stop again for more cups of tea and flapjack, grab some gels and I’m on my way. Two feed stations in twenty minutes and I’m flying – too quickly as it happens for the next turn, which I don’t spot until too late. I brake hard to turn left but my back wheel isn’t having any of it and carries on, so I steer with it, just avoid a stone wall and a drop into a valley and just about stay on the road. Entertaining stuff…
The next section around the Roaches is lovely but I’m waiting now for the fuel from the two food stops to kick in. Down the next hill and around a few more corners is Meerbrook, and that spells the start of the infamous Gun Hill, beloved of Tour of Britain route planners. If my legs gave out on a small hill at around mile 20 then I’m going to really struggle here. But it’s a result – a long, slow, gritty struggle to get up, but get up I do. And thankfully that must be (I think) the worst hill behind me now as the route skirts west of Leek, forever seeking out minor roads and avoiding as far as possible anything remotely like a main road.
A tail wind makes life even better and I start to enjoy the odd hill. But then the route drops down towards Rudyard Lake and up the other side of the valley towards Biddulph Moor. This hill goes on and on, and then on and on some more, longer than Gun Hill and steeper too. This is a real battle. Up ahead I can see the road steepen and wind into a tight left hand bend. I’m not going to be able to get up the inside of the bend, so my only hope is to crab across the road (I’m already zig-zagging) and get round it on the right. Luckily it’s a really quiet road so I can hear if anything is coming – and just at that point, I hear a car coming up behind me. I’m practically stationary on the pedals willing it to come past before the bend so I can pull across the road behind it. Luckily the driver makes the right choice and goes round me before the bend, which means I am now doubly sure nothing is coming round the corner from the other direction. And I just make it round, legs screaming and threatening to turn to jelly on me again. The hill goes on for ages yet but that was the crux point and I top out on Top Lane with magnificent views all round.