Some avid endurance cyclists have been making up for lost time and miles this year, and Marcus Nicolson seems to be hurriedly ticking off the miles list, while spending less time actually on the bike, and in doing so setting some rather impressive FKT’s.
Back in July, Marcus Nicolson laid down a Fastest known time (FKT) on the Badger Divide, and then following this took on the Hungarian Divide placing 4th, shortly after taking some time off the bike, the next two wheeled adventure drifted along in the shape of the Second City Divide and journeying south to the finishers party held in Manchester.
Here’s what Marcus had to say about his ride south on the route…..
It was nearing the end of September and I was ready for one last bikepacking challenge before the cold autumn really set in. I’d noticed that the guys behind the Second City Divide route were organising a group finisher party in Manchester and thought it could provide a good opportunity to push myself for another fast time.
What is the Second City Divide?
The Second City Divide route was made up by Christian and Luke, the team behind Outdoor Provisions bars and (more recently nut butters) YUM! . The route covers just under 600km and connects gravel, single-track, trail and road between Glasgow and Manchester (both respective ‘Second Cities’ in the UK). It includes a knee shaking +9000m of elevation, taking in both the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales along with plenty more hills in between!
The whole route has been carefully curated to be a winding transit between the two cities that are linked by some of the best all-road cycling the UK has to offer, the organisers suggest a comfortable journey time of 4-5 days to take on the route, allowing time to appreciate the landscape and enjoy the journey in daylight hours. Be sure to jump on the 2CD site to read more about it.
Each year a finisher party meet-up is arranged in Manchester towards the end of September. Riders who are interested can set off from Glasgow whenever they choose and ride the route at their own pace. There are a few bothies and hostels along the route that means it is possible to travel with a lighter sleeping kit and be a bit more comfortable along the way.
Rolling out from Glasgow
I had decided to push myself and set off from Glasgow early on Friday morning with the intention of making it to the finish in Manchester by Sunday afternoon. It was quite bizarre to be weaving between late night revellers staggering out of the clubs and munching on their take away chips at 4am while I set off from the route’s starting point in George Square. The first section of the route takes in some of my local trails and winds out south of the city through a series of windfarms. Those first few hours of riding through the dark were filled fog, wind and rain, visibility was so poor I couldn’t see more than about 10m ahead on reaching of the higher points.
Thankfully the weather started to clear as I moved further south and the fast-rolling first section saw me get to Abington (100km) just after 9am. Some more windfarm gravel climbing and I was making my way to the borders; Talla reservoir climb is another steep one! Approaching Ettrick there is a cut-through section through a forest which provided a break from the gravel, the route around here was still fast and soon enough I was crossing in to England at Kielder Forest in the early evening. As luck would have it I found a discarded vegan chocolate bar on the trail that provided a much-needed energy boost before hitting a single-track section on the border.
Across the Border
Kielder Forest is home to the Dirty Reiver gravel race. Here the hills are undulating but again the paths are wide and the gravel is smooth. I was able to keep up a steady pace as darkness began to fall over the Northumberland hills. A longer road section led me on to Haltwhistle (280km) where it was time to stop for some proper food. I found myself in a local Indian restaurant devouring a paneer curry and garlic naan. My clothes were mud-splattered and I had some fresh Kielder Forest grit stuck to the back of my helmet. I must have looked quite a sight to the other diners who were enjoying their Friday night in the town. The refuel saw me on my way to the village of Alston and I was able to reach my goal of clocking up over 300km on the first day. I passed several villages but couldn’t spot a decent bivvy spot so continued along the route until I found a suitable tree with shelter and long grass. I hadn’t taken an air mat or sleeping bag with me this time. Instead, I’d opted for a light sleeping set-up of down jacket, bivvy and silk liner with the hope that I would be just about warm enough. I was able to hang my riding clothes to air out a bit from branches on the tree and managed to get 3-4 hours of rest here. I knew I’d need the energy for the gruelling day of climbing ahead!
Cross Fell and the Pennines
The next morning, I set off in the dark towards the biggest climb on the route over Cross Fell in the Pennines. Some short, sharp road climbs led me along to the long and loose gravel climb which creeps up and over the moor. It was quite amazing to be climbing my way through the darkness, with the sun slowly starting to emerge behind me as I clambered further up the ascent. I stopped to take in the bright pink and red skies forming behind me and take a rest from the climbing and hike-a-bike. A grinding, squeaking noise informed me that it was time for a brake-pad change before the steep descent down the other side of the moor. There was enough daylight to see what I was doing and I was glad I’d taken spare pads, an item I’d stupidly forgotten in my packing for the Hungarian Divide race earlier in the summer.
There is a bothy further up Cross Fell which makes an ideal rest stop for those doing the route over a slightly longer time. Some hike-a-bike was required on the downhill sections too, with some technical riding required. Here I caught up with another rider, Dan, who had set off from Glasgow on Thursday. He was tearing down the bumpy hillside ahead of me and we chatted along the flatter road section that followed. This was a morale boost and we’d catch each other up at various stages during the day. Riding alongside each other I was able to keep up a faster tempo on the road sections than I would have otherwise.
Into the Yorkshire Dales
More road climbing led up to another mandatory stop at the Tan Hill Inn (highest pub in the UK). The long road sections were a bit of a slog with my mountain bike tyres but I kept it slow and steady on my way to the Inn. There had been a big festival there the night before so the staff were a bit hungover and not in the mood for making hot food. A quick coffee and cake along with a chat to some local cyclists. When I told them I’d sent off from Glasgow the day before they roundly agreed that I was completely bonkers!
More prime gravel and knee crunching road climbs lead the way through to Ingleton and further down the Dales. At Colne (500km) I was again thrust out from the isolation of the off-road route in to bright lights, nightlife, fast food and traffic. It feels surreal when you are riding such long days, focused on your one goal, to be surrounded by people again and you have to take advantage of those situations to refuel. It takes a minute to search for a spot with a bench and bin to eat your chosen take-away delight and slip off the restrictive cycling shoes for a minute or two. Then… onward into the night.
When you feel that twang of pain in your ankle and you’re pushing your bike up another incredibly steep section of the Pennine Bridleway in the pitch dark you need to stay focused on the end goal. I make a mental note that with every step I am getting closer to the end of the route. The thought of a beer at the finisher party was thoroughly entrenched in my mind as I kept on slogging late into the night. Maybe the dodgy ankle won’t swell up until later in the ride I thought, or better still it won’t swell up at all and you can push on through the night to get ahead of the pains. On that last night I had thoughts that I could finish the route with no sleep. However, I shouldn’t have been quite so optimistic!
The last 80km of the 2CD route is very tough. I’d been warned about this by several veterans of the route before setting off. When you are some 60km out from the finish a spectacular skyline of Manchester emerges below. Nonetheless, the climbing in the remaining section doesn’t stop. The tough Bridleways and hike-a-bikes don’t stop! It was a bit demoralising to say the least! I lay down to get a couple hours sleep in a soaking wet field just outside of Rochdale as the fatigue of the route and over 6000m elevation that day had taken their toll. That rest was enough to see me through to the finish of the ride.
The next morning, after further steep road climbing, I eventually found myself looking out from a hillside church where it became apparent that there were no more climbs remaining to the finish in Manchester. This was the motivation I needed to finish the final canal-side section into the city which was much faster rolling. The sun started shining as I passed the Etihad Arena and arrived in the city centre proper just after 9am. In total it had been just over 53 hours since I left George Square in Glasgow.
My ambitions for the ride were to set a fast time and push myself to go far on a route with a lot of elevation. I thought that setting a fast time might encourage others to push on the route and what is possible. At the finisher meet-up later that afternoon I spoke with a few other riders who had completed a ‘double divide’ by combining the Badger Divide from Inverness to Glasgow and the 2CD route. We chatted enthusiastically about possibilities of a group Double Divide for next year, quickly forgetting all about the aches and pains we’d acquired in the past few days.
Massive congratulations to everyone who has completed the 2CD ride so far and to Luke and Christian for creating the route and annual finisher party! The route packs a punch and provides a real challenge to anyone looking for a bikepacking/gravel riding experience across some iconic areas of the UK.
Last modified: 7th October 2021