500km of rough stuff bikepacking from Edinburgh to Manchester, created by Rapha and Outdoor Provisions

Words BY EMILY & KIRSTY / images by dan

Last year Louis, who works at Rapha, asked us if we thought the Second City Divide route we’d been developing from Glasgow/Edinburgh to Manchester would work as a bikepacking event. We were a tad apprehensive about handing it over but Louis’ vision convinced us - rally format, 5 days, self-supported, camping encouraged and a 50:50 men/women split. Fast forward 12 months and the Pennine Rally was a thing and 80 riders were in Edinburgh to take on the route.

We asked two friends of OP, Kirsty and Emily if they fancied the ride. They didn’t need much persuading and took to the challenge immediately. We told them to keep an eye out for the official photographer Dan. 'Don't worry', they said, 'he'll hear us coming...'

They finished less than 72 hours ago - here are their most vivid memories from 5 days in the wilds of southern Scotland and Northern England.

Pre Rally / Day One

108km, 1994m of elevation

Our planning mainly consisted of cafe rides! We aren't the type to take training too seriously and we just figured if we rode our bikes lots and dialled in our gear set up we’d have it within us.

A few weeks before the rally, we did take on OP's Straight Outta Manchester route; to double check we liked spending more than a day riding together. We learnt that we were capable of big hilly days, that we needed to eat more than we thought and that early starts were pretty important if we were going to get any ground covered.

After nervously trying to eat as much breakfast as possible we crossed Edinburgh to the start point. Trackers were turned on and it actually felt like a bit of a relief to finally be there, the waiting and packing and fretting were over, we just had to ride our bikes now.

Pretty quickly out of Edinburgh we were on beautiful trails, bumping into other riders and we found our rhythm. Lots of up, lots of down, the theme for the next 5 days.

Highlight: Some pretty epic descents, journeying through stunning Scottish valleys.

The most incredible thing was the community, the conversations we had with others we bumped into, the friendships forming. On the last descent of the day we bumped into a group of ladies we’d met earlier and found a stunning camp spot together. The sun came out, no midges and we were treated to a river to wash in!

Emily lost her spork in Peebles… a tent peg makes somewhat of a suitable alternative...

Day Two

113km, 1977m of elevation

Alarms were set for 5.45 because we knew we had a big day ahead of us, but the sunlight woke us earlier and we were riding by 6am. We very quickly realised that we needed to give ourselves long days to get the mileage done, but to also allow us to enjoy it and not feel like we had to rush.

Today was wet, but we found ourselves on some stunning gravel trails. The Craik Forest cut through, a horrific headwind on a short but wet section of A-road were made better by the H van which filled us with caffeine and snacks before crossing the Scotland/England border through Kielder Forest.

The last 30km to the YHA at the Sill was hard work and we were pretty soggy by this point. Both relieved that we had a shower to end the day and a chance to dry out.

Highlight: H Van coffee, crossing the border into England, incredible gravel that just went on and on and a shower at the YHA.

Lowlight: Rain, but hey, it was better than it being too hot, cannot complain!

"Five days may seem generous, but this is a rally not a race. Riders are encouraged to enter with the spirit of adventure in mind, not a fast finishing time. The going will be tough at points so you might travel slower than expected on some sections."


Day three

120km, 2030m of elevation

We woke up to a dry day, which was a relief. Both pretty tired starting off, but after a good refuelling from a petrol station we were at the second checkpoint before taking the first big paved climb of the day. Usually, we love to avoid tarmac, but today some easier climbing was appreciated.

Headphones in and heads down we cracked on. Faffing with a mechanical that we couldn't solve at least broke up the next climb to the world famous Tan Hill Inn. Em was now without her granny gear for the rest of the rally.

An absolutely stunning descent from Tan Hill, back with the girls we had camped with on night one - bumping into other riders throughout the day really lifted morale. We’d moan about the climbs, woop together over the descents, share snacks and plan rides together post-rally.

It was a stunning evening, so we decided to push on, getting treated to the Swaledale valley at golden hour before finishing the day with a 25% hill and a stunning wild camp at the top of Oxnop Scar.

Highlight: Slaggyford!!! Descending from Tan Hill with our new gal pals. Wild camp at Oxnop Scar.

Lowlight: Mechanicals, the crushing realisation that nothing could be done to fix it on the trail and we just had to make do!

Day four

97km, 1868m of elevation

We knew today was a day of two massive hills, but at least we’d chopped a bit off by camping high up last night. We didn't have any water left, so a breakfast of Soreen and nut butter fuelled us to the third checkpoint.

The H-Van appeared at the perfect time, after suffering up the old Roman Road out of Bainbridge. Two coffees and lots of pretzels later we were descending to Ribblehead viaduct; familiar terrain, therefore slightly odd to not be popping home for a much needed shower! Our wonderful friend Hannah met us for lunch in Ingleton, a pep talk and a spray of deodorant...

Then it was over Salter fell, which was a brutal climb on tired legs, but oh so stunning.

Highlight: Almond croissants at the top of Salter fell that Hannah had bought from home for us! Hanging out with more incredible ladies taking on the rally, eating dinner with them and hysterically laughing - it's amazing how a big bike ride makes anything funny, breaks barriers and builds friendships.

Lowlight: Ummm… was a great day really. Our spag bol portions could have been bigger?!

Day five

83km, 1564m of elevation

It felt so odd to wake up knowing that this was the last day. The simple process of a bike packing trip, riding, eating and sleeping had been all we'd been thinking of for the past 4 days and we didn't want it to be over.

We were both pretty tired and stiff starting off, and the hunger was bad. We had heard from everyone that had already ridden the route that day 5 was the hardest and we were ready for the challenge. We've approached the whole rally not taking ourselves too seriously, trying to have a laugh at the suffering and taking time to enjoy the best bits. Today we knew we just needed to keep moving, didn’t try too hard to pedal up the hills and had lots of lovely walks with the bike.

With the end in sight, it wasn't as bad as we'd feared. It was an incredible feeling when we got to the top of Rooley Moor road and could see Manchester for the first time. All we had to do now was navigate the canal, not fall in and not get any punctures. 1.45pm and we were rolling in front of the Rapha Manchester store. It was all over.

530km, 35 hours of riding over 5 days, 9,522m of climbing. Tired and hungry, but oh so proud of the achievement.

Highlight: Cheering the other riders in, Rudy’s Pizza and having a long BATH.

Lowlight: Traffic! The wilderness we had just travelled through felt so far away once we were back in manchester. It being over, how do you return to ‘normal’ life after an experience like this?

Any top tips for preparing for a trip like this?

DO IT, sign up for it.

Find a friend that you can laugh and suffer with. Learn to enjoy the uncomfortable tired feeling, do lots of cafe rides in preparation and have a couple of nights out camping to work out what you do and don't need. We are all capable of way more than we think we are, and it's only through stepping out and doing something that feels scary that we learn how incredible our bodies and minds are. I'm hooked.

The 50:50 male/female split was also INCREDIBLE. This shouldn't be so exceptional but is the first UK bikepacking event to have an even split. The vibes of the rally were incredible, the friendships formed and support given life-changing.

It may not have been a relaxing beach holiday, but 5 days of incredible riding over such varied terrain with inspirational people was pretty special.

Phone snaps dump from Emily below...

If you're interested in having a go yourself and can't wait for next year's Pennine Rally, there's a running of the Second City Divide route in September. Start in Glasgow whenever you want, with the aim of finishing in Manchester on Sunday 26th.

The route is open to anyone any time of year and all attempts are self-supported. The nice thing about the Pennine Rally was that it gave just enough encouragement from the H van stops, a group whatsapp and the live tracking page. If you’re interested in doing it yourself, you’ll have to find other ways to keep your spirits up when it’s tough. It will be worth it though!

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