Dales Divide Preview with Ali Macleod

Dales Divide Preview with Ali Macleod

27 March, 2024

Words by Ali Macleod and Photos by Jonathan Kambskarð-Bennett

Ali is a bikepacking aficionado and ultra-racing veteran. With plenty of races under his belt, he's shared his preview of the Dales Divide. After completing the treacherous 2021 Edition where a storm blew most riders off the fell, Ali definitely has some stories to share.

For most, Easter is an invitation to enjoy a long weekend of home comforts: two extra days off work, time well spent with family, and getting outside in the warmth of early spring. For a small few, it marks the annual congregation at Arnside Pier, a double traverse of the English countryside, and late night dining at petrol stations. An unpredictable April holiday, better known as the Dales Divide race.

The 600km mixed terrain route has always drawn a variety of abilities to the startline. As somewhat of a season opener in the UK ultra-distance calendar, the race is considered both a credible post-winter stress-test for those tackling longer events later in the year, as well as an entry level option for rookies riding against the clock for the first time. But it is somewhere in this spirit of accessibility that the origins of the race can be found. The first edition was held in 2018. Co-organiser Chris Ellison had finished the Tour Divide, the 4400km route widely regarded as the birthplace of bikepacking as a sport, and wanted to create a UK event, albeit of a different scale, which could exist as a stepping stone towards the Highland Trail 550. Each year Chris has put together detailed pre-ride information and goes to significant lengths to ensure beginners have the tools to enjoy a memorable experience. He has always wanted to create a race which could lead the learners in the direction of more challenging experiences. In his understated words, “there are some winners, if you like”, but the Dales Divide is mainly about the rest of the field.

a pause on the climb out of Summerbridge

So the Dales Divide has been constructed to make the appeal as broad as possible: a route which requires no commitment to a specific cycling discipline - doable on both mountain and gravel bikes; and with limited technical sections, can be ridden in the ethos of early bikepacking events, reflecting the late Mike Hall’s vision that premium equipment isn’t a prerequisite. Mike’s legacy continues to be close to the event: every year his mother, Pat, is there to say some words and see riders off from the pier. The silence shared by all riders is always incredibly moving.

The route is deliberately circular, located near carpacks and a national railway station, designed to simplify travelling to and from the event. Beyond the practical details, it is beautiful, a masterpiece in delivering ever-changing scenery and speeds: curated gravel tracks on the estate roads; squelching bog across the Moors; and fast-rolling tarmac at each coastal extremity.

Funnelling out of Arnside, riders will briefly descend some woodland singletrack, then cruise along 35 km of road, before turning towards a sharp climb into the Yorkshire Dales National Park. For some, the ice cream van that often sits on the corner might already be tempting. After reaching the famous Ribblehead Viaduct, the route follows the Cam Roman road and then down the Pennine Bridleway, with a fast double-track descent into the village of Bolton Abbey (122km). Beyond the town of Boroughbridge is the cycle track which follows the river Ouse into York (218 km). Those aiming to go further into the night welcome the long stretch of road on the other side of the cathedral city; those that choose to pause and sleep nearby are able to enjoy the gathering of tired eyes when Macdonalds opens the following morning.

fast rolling tarmac is welcome relief on this mixed terrain route

After the road out of York, riders must navigate slow-going farmland and an abundance of gates, before their eyes narrow in the direction of Scarborough (330km). Although, there’s every chance they might smell the coastal town first, as scents from the famous McCain chip factory waft in-land. Climbing out of the town, up onto the North York Moors and pointing westward for the first time is a psychological relief - it’s a home straight to Arnside! Sort of. First there is Grosmont, another tourist honeytrap with steam trains, ice creams and cafes, then the administrative capital of North Yorkshire, Northallerton (460km), and finally the military town of Catterick Garrison. This is the last re-supply point before the Cam High Road, a relentless gravel climb that is the highest part of the course and offers incredible views. From there, it is 60km back to Arnside, predominantly (but not exclusively) downhill.

Passing through so many places across the Dales and Moors, the organisers have put increasing importance on ensuring that the race has a positive impact. Initially, a group of bikepackers arriving to interrupt a peaceful weekend raised some eyebrows in Arnside; but what began with some intermittent contact with the Parish council has developed into a meaningful connection with the local community. To gain entry, the majority of riders donate to a local charity. With just over 200 riders lined up for the 2024 edition, £5,500 has been raised and split between Bay Search & Rescue, a voluntary recovery team for Morecambe Sands, and Access the Dales, a non-profit organisation that aims to reduce barriers for people to access the outdoors.

This year’s edition is set to start with a less-than-dry track beneath the tyres. Fastest Known Times might be less likely, but in the true spirit of the Dales Divide, there’s every chance of a record number of finishers. As always, Dotwatcher will be following closely.

waking up outside Boroughbridge, ready for day 2

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