Delightful Dales Audax

Sunday 17th March 2024

Stats at a Glance

Distance 204 km/127 miles | Height Gain 3428 m/11246 ft | Maximum Elevation 531 m/1755 ft (Cowgill Head) | Surface Metalled roads | Start/Finish St Mary’s Centre, Clitheroe, Lancs | Grade (AAA) 3.25 (Hilly) | Time 09:48:09

For the last couple of months, me and ‘the moosus’ (that’s Diane, my wife) have been tinkering with the idea of getting involved with Audax. Literally meaning ‘audacious’ or ‘bold’, the term is used now to describe non-competitive cycling events – often fairly low-key – ridden within a time limit as regulated by international and UK governing bodies like Audax Club Parisien and Audax UK.

The ‘Delightful Dales’ is such an event. Organised by Andy Corless of Burnley CC, it’s 200 kilometres long – not particularly long by audaxing standards – but is a ‘grimpeur’, a hilly event with over 3000 m of ascent and some steep gradients of up to 25%. I could have chosen something a lot easier as my first solo venture, but I know the area, it’s reasonably close to our home in Durham, and I enjoy cycling in hilly terrain.

Clitheroe Start, Lancashire

There are many events on offer in the extensive Audax calendar – something for everyone if you can sit on a bike for thirty miles or so. This one started in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in the upper hall of St Mary’s Church Centre, before moving down the cobbled alley to the lower hall for the finish, also known as the ‘arrivée’ . We’d booked a very comfortable AirBnB, about a 5-minute cycle ride from the start, hosted by a helpful and hospitable couple whose annex – complete with wet-room – offered the perfect base for a couple of cyclists.

Despite already having done a couple of audaxes on our tandem, I’ll confess that I wasn’t too sure of what was going on without having the ‘administrator’ along. However, organiser Andy sorted me out with the obligatory ‘brevet’ card which would be my ‘proof of passage’ and which meant that I was officially registered. All I had to do was ensure it was filled in with my personal details and handed back with receipts from shops in Leyburn (first control) and Kirkby Stephen (second control) to prove I hadn’t just spent the day in one of the many pubs Clitheroe has to offer.

Church Street (left), Clitheroe, was the depart/arrivée of the Delightful Dales 200 Audax 2024

That was all there was to it, so I poured myself a cuppa at the well-stocked breakfast table in the middle of the hall and sat down to wait as the clock ticked towards 8 am. Around the hall were cyclists of all types – diverse in age, gender, physique and clothing  – not necessarily the ‘racing snakes’ you might expect at cycling events. I’d already gained an impression of how relaxed the start of an Audax is, so when the church clock chimed at 8 am it seemed an appropriate time to set off, though I’d noticed others departing openly in the minutes beforehand.

The weather for Clitheroe was gloomy indeed, with wind and rain forecast for much of the day. The start itself however, was rain-free and warm enough not to need gloves. Tagging along with a small group, I set off eastwards, out of town, at a relaxed pace which, if maintained, would see me back well within the time limit. I was aiming for somewhere around 10 hours, which would mean a 6 pm return from the 127-mile route.

North Yorkshire, Wharfedale

After a few miles on the A59 which, at that time on a Sunday morning, was relatively quiet, we finally transitioned to the rolling lanes that would take us north-east to Gargrave and beyond, to join the River Wharfe at Threshfield. Still no rain, and with a helpful tailwind, I was beginning to regret starting with my jacket on – as well as what that tailwind might imply for the return journey.

By now I was on my own and, shortly before reaching Gargrave (16 miles), passed a couple on a tandem who, just at that moment, suffered a gear-change malfunction on a short but steep hill. I communicated my sympathies, knowing well the consequences of coming to a stop at points such as that (they’d quite likely be pushing the bike to the top of the hill). Funnily enough, the route had just taken us past the industrial estate where J D Tandems is located – from whom we’d bought our own tandem in 2018.

The rain finally began to fall as we approached the village of Kilnsey, attended closely by the distinctive limestone bluff of Kilnsey Crag. It wasn’t hard rain, but ‘claggy’ – a thin mist which cut visibility even before we’d climbed over the tops. Then we crossed the River Wharfe at Kettlewell (30 miles) to get down to the real business of the day. After a short, leg-bending ‘kicker’, out of the village, the road undulates gently alongside the Cam Gill Beck, for a couple of kilometres, to the glowering base of Park Rash, the first of five major climbs.

The fearsome slopes of Park Rash, near Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales, disappear into the mist

I was actually thankful for that brief climb earlier; it had prepared my legs, to a degree, for what was about to come – the gradient on Park Rash is about 18% at its steepest and goes on in that vein for nearly a kilometre; after that there’s a bit of respite before a final kick up to the summit. It merits a forbidding 9/10 in Simon Warren’s book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs which I’ll abbreviate henceforth to ‘100GCC’. After what seemed like a lifetime of suffering (we all say that, don’t we? But we love it really), and having seen virtually no-one for miles I was overtaken by a young guy, faster certainly, but looking no less laboured, just before the top; I couldn’t have been happier, such was my relief at getting there.

Coverdale & Wensleydale

Before getting properly stuck into the long descent through the narrow slit in the landscape that is Coverdale, I had to stop to remove my sunglasses which were fogging up thanks to the chilly drizzle. Once comfortable, I could get on with the business of recovering from the tribulations on Park Rash on what is, more-or-less, an 11-mile descent, with a couple of mild climbs thrown in en-route, to the River Ure in Wensleydale. Then it was straight onto the second ascent – far longer but much steadier – with the first control, at Leyburn, breaking it up- nicely in the middle.

Riders come and go at the first control in the market town of Leyburn, North Yorkshire

Emerging from the Co-op, with coffee and the all-important receipt in hand, I took just enough time to consume the scalding hot beverage together with half of a small omelette I’d brought along as my sustenance for the day, before setting off to conquer the remainder of the climb – just as the tandem couple were arriving, so kudos to them for conquering Park Rash! Onward and upward, we rode heroically toward the sound of the guns on Bellerby rifle ranges, and over the shoulder of Whit Fell, which marked the top of the climb. With the rain having stopped, the roads were now dry, offering a swift, untroubled descent, past the YHA at Grinton into Swaledale, laid out, gloriously, below us.


A small group, including me, coalesced to journey through what I think is a particularly attractive dale, through the villages of Reeth (53 miles), Gunnerside and Muker (62 miles) but thankfully ignoring the road leading onto the harder side of the notorious Buttertubs Pass (8/10 100GCC). The weather was really beginning to pick up now: the sun was threatening to break through, with patches of glorious brightness roaming the dale’s steep flanks, though alighting on us only rarely. We passed through the village of Keld (65 miles) before stopping to take pictures at the falls of Wain Wath Force on the upper reaches of the River Swale. Due to the amount of rain we’ve had in previous weeks, they were as good-looking as I’ve ever seen them.

Wain Wath Force on the River Swale above Keld, Swaledale, North Yorkshire

This brought us to the foot of the third of today’s climbs, over Birkdale Common to Lamps Moss, at which point we’d be entering Cumbria. It’s challenging enough from the east, as we were tackling it, but the gradient on the western side is a real beast (7/10 100GCC). As we worked our way up towards the cloud base, the rain returned as a windblown drizzle or ‘clag’. Now receiving a degree of the anticipated headwind, progress was retarded somewhat. Finally however, as the road pitched steeply downwards, so Kirkby Stephen – the location for the second control – was revealed, sprawling in the Vale of Eden, far below – encouragingly bathed in warm sunshine.

I tucked up and let the bike have its head on the two-mile descent that ends, quite abruptly, in the village of Nateby. I’ve done it the hard way a couple of times over the years and, believe me, it’s brutal but this was the first time I’d ridden it as a descent. All I can say is WOW! What a rush! If I’d been more familiar with the road I’d have got it all out but thought better of it today. Still great fun though. 

Cumbria & The Vale of Eden

On leaving Nateby – alone again – I began passing riders on their way back from Kirkby Stephen (75 miles) which was at the end of a mile-long stub on the route. Again, I chose the town’s Co-op store to obtain my receipt. It lay on the other side of the marketplace however, and it seemed that many had, quite sensibly, opted for closer solutions. I bought a bottle of sparkling water which I used to wash down the final piece of omelette. 

Now it was time to ‘pay the piper’, by confronting that headwind and I can’t say I was looking forward to it. The undulating route followed the Settle-Carlisle Railway and River Eden through Mallerstang, a deep, picturesque valley that’s also home to the ruins of Pendragon Castle. Despite its romantic Arthurian implications, it’s actually Norman, dating ‘only’ to the c12th. I’ve visited it before but if I’d been touring it would certainly have been on my list of places to stop – probably where I’d have had lunch. 

The penultimate climb at Garsdale Head was the toughest of the day in my book

At the end of the valley, shortly after the junction with the busy A684 Hawes/Sedbergh road and under the first of several fine viaducts I’d encounter in the miles ahead, lay the penultimate climb. This would, very possibly, be the toughest of the day – the ‘Old Coal Road’ at Garsdale Head. Rated at a mere 7/10 100GCC it must have been the fact that it came at 88 miles which made it seem much tougher than that. I usually take pride in not having to resort to zigzagging but couldn’t avoid a couple of brief excursions when the bike seemed to develop a mind of its own.

A couple of days previously I’d mashed my left crank, which was original Hollowtech technology, by failing to appreciate the subtleties of a self-extracting bolt. The Shimano Sora compact chainset I replaced it with was – more conventionally – Type II technology but with 165 mm cranks, not the 172 mm I’d always pedaled. I’d toyed with changing over the years and now that my hand had been forced; I was grinding up a hill trying to decide whether reduced torque was offset by reduced pedaling diameter. The fact that it hadn’t concerned me on Park Rash probably indicates, at least, that it was no hindrance. Overall, by decreasing hip flexion – however slight – I thinks it seems more comfortable, particularly on the drops or extensions.

It was also helpful to have another rider further up the climb, on whom I could see I was gaining slowly. After he took a few minutes at the summit – no doubt to admire the hard-won view – I passed him before, almost immediately, hurtling downhill, towards a series of steep hairpins. Here I flashed past Dent Station, constructed – in my humble opinion – unreasonably high above the dale it was built to service.

Dentdale & North Yorkshire

From Cowgill, deep down in Dentdale, the road rises – gently at first – towards the final climb which begins at yet another imposing railway viaduct – this one at Dent Head. The route tracks the nascent River Dee (the one running through Dentdale – not the other one), past a cascade of falls that offer a pleasant distraction from tiring legs. No less a distraction is the viaduct itself which, for a few brief seconds, takes the focus off the steeply rising road passing beneath one of its massive arches. I was only too aware that by concentrating solely on ‘time and climb’, I was missing a fine view and a great photo opportunity, so I’ve included the same shot from the last time I was up there (ditto with the one on Garsdale Head). Despite Audax promoting itself as ‘non-competitive’ I was in a battle to the death with my legs, neck and lower back.

The viaduct at Dent Head marked the last challenging climb on the Delightful Dales 200

But nothing lasts forever and, as the computer ticked up to 95 miles, I found myself at the T-junction on Newby Head with all of the ‘bad boys’ now behind me. Ahead lay a relatively gentle, undulating descent to the final market town at Settle. This would conduct me past the lower slopes of Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent, all familiar names from fell-running days. There was also the most iconic of the Settle-Carlisle Railway’s viaducts, at Ribblehead as well as the villages of Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Helwith Bridge, associated with the ‘Three Peaks’ fell and cyclo-cross races respectively.

Ribblesdale & Lancashire

By the time I rode into Settle it was around 5 pm and I could feel that, all being well, I’d make Clitheroe somewhere around my target time of 6 to 6.30ish, necessitating a confirmatory call to Diane, which I made, appropriately, from the entrance to Settle Railway Station, the southern terminus of the 73-mile long heritage line that had kept me company since Kirkby Stephen. As anticipated, the weather hadn’t been kind in Clitheroe; the ride we’d planned for her had been rained off so, instead, she’d amused herself by visiting the castle museum as well as a couple of the pubs and coffee-shops the town has to offer.

The sun was setting noticeably by now, lighting the unmistakable profile of Pendle Hill which began to dominate my horizon. Along with it sunk the temperature. I wasn’t inclined to stop and don my jacket however, and spent a few miles contemplating whether it had been a bad idea not to have brought gloves. Every now and then I’d glimpse a winking light: the red ones weren’t so bad; it was up to me to decide if I felt inclined to chase the rider ahead, but the white ones meant I was a target and even when you’re tired it’s hard to resist the competitive urge – it certainly helps the miles go by, mind you.

View from the castle, over Clitheroe, towards Pendle Hill

The journey had one final surprise in store for me: as I rounded a tight, and very blind, right-hand turn in Sawley – a village I know from visiting its historic, ruined medieval abbey – a taxi shot across the road in front of me, heading for a car park opposite. There was nothing I could do to avoid it. He hit the brakes and I ended up sitting on the bonnet of the car – no harm done to either me or the bike. What do you do? I’m not a big remonstrator because there are rarely any winners. So I just slid off the bonnet, rolled my eyes, and continued on my way. That told him!

I’d already put it behind me in the short time it took to join the busy A59, just as it began to get properly dark, but now with only a handful of miles left to the finish. Despite being caught by a couple of riders in quick succession, I found I could sit easily in the wheels. I’m aware of the conversation in Audax circles about the use of flashing rear lights: it wasn’t so much the fact that this guy’s light was flashing, it was more the intensity of the pulse. We undoubtedly live in an age where lighting technology has outstripped the ability of the human eye to cope. How bright does anything need to be in order to be sufficiently safe? Answers on a postcard.

Back To Clitheroe

Finally, still squinting, we reached the town centre where, frustratingly, just as I was making the short ascent up Church St, my chain got stuck. Not sure how it happened but it was the only mechanical I’d had all day so perhaps I shouldn’t grumble. I was on my way again after a few seconds and, as daylight gave way to street lights, rode in to find Diane helpfully pointing out the route to the lower hall entrance, as she’d done for many that day.

Despite there being a few bikes parked outside, the large, welcoming hall, with its oasis of tea, coffee and cake, arranged on tables in the centre, was fairly quiet. Andy took my brevet card which, like a good boy, I’d filled in already and informed me that it would be returned by post. It’s a good job he said something or I’d still be standing there now. The first person back – hours ago – had been a lady, so good luck to her; very impressive, but I don’t know her, and probably never will, such is the nature of audax. In this sense it really does feel like a solo journey; but for a few riders I spent quality time with, I have absolutely no idea who else might have been enjoying/suffering out there with me.

If I regret anything it would be focusing inwardly too much and not noticing as much as I’d normally be inclined to. I’m lucky enough to have decent access to the area and have visited much of it over the years, but I think I’ll need to take a different approach for ventures further afield. But how does it rank in Scott’s 100 Greatest Cycling Events I hear you ask? Well, I think – in technical parlance – I’ll have no hesitation in awarding 9/10 S100GCE!

1 thought on “Delightful Dales Audax”

  1. Well done! I loved reading about your experience, and the photos look great. I felt like I was with you reading that.

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