The Rapha Pennine Rally is one of the best bikepacking routes to be found in the UK, and the countdown is on to the Rapha Pennine Rally 2023, with exactly one week to go until this year's riders roll out to tackle the stunning 500km bikepacking route from Edinburgh to Manchester.
As the name suggests the Pennine Rally is not a traditional bikepacking race, but a rally. With entrants expected to focus on the thrill of exploring new landscapes and embracing the comradery of the ride, Rapha says that should take precedence over a fast completion time. Rapha also makes the Pennine Rally an exclusive event, and last year saw a refreshing mixture of cyclists with 49 women, 46 men, and six non-binary riders in the roster, this year sees the entries also equally split.
The standard five-day route is what most riders will choose, bikepacking through some beautiful and remote areas in the Scottish borders and north of England. For those keen to challenge themselves there is also the Pennine Express option, which leaves two days later with those brave enough only having three days to make it to Manchester.
Here at Bike Perfect, we are developing a habit of riding the Rapha Pennine Rally with our senior reviews writer Graham Cottingham riding the event last year, on a Surly Steamroller fixed gear bike, one of the more unusual bikes to be seen at last years Rapha Pennine Way bike check, and the thought alone of riding a 'fixie' would fill most people with fear. However, Graham embraces a challenge and loved the idea of riding a fixed gear bike on the same terrain as everyone else on regular bikes. Graham's partner Ruby Boyce also rode the event and although the cute couple photo taken on the morning of the Grand Départ from Gamma, Edinburgh looks like they rode as a pair, Ruby was keen for me to mention she rode solo.
I asked her what advice she had for anyone riding this year...
"I found the social side of the rally super enjoyable. Everyone has their plans but you will quickly get to know everyone there and I often found people to ride with along the way. My top tips would be to wear sunscreen, have fun, if you need a cry, do it, and enjoy the environment and the people as much as possible. Afterwards, be sure to give yourself a mental buffer between leaving rally life and entering real life again."
I also asked Graham the same question...
"I would say my main piece of advice would be don't overthink it. It's easy to get caught up in 'what ifs' that you lose focus on the bigger picture. Look at the route, break it down, and make a plan for each day. Apart from a few longer sections on the first couple of days, there are loads of reliable resupply points and don't forget to factor in pub stops too. That means you don't need to weigh yourself down with days and days of food and water, just take plenty to get to the next stop and enjoy the ride. If the weather looks good I would also recommend camping as it gives you way more flexibility. If you are camping, most importantly take a midge net."
This year, taking on the challenge and carrying the torch for Bike Perfect is our freelance writer Amy Perryman. Amy competes at a high level in various disciplines riding for Montezuma's Race Team in cyclocross and throughout the summer for the London-based team TEKKERZ CC. She also recently competed in the Rad Race, Berlin, an indoor fixed gear criterium, with no brakes!
I had a chat with Amy to find out how her preparations for the rally are going...
"In terms of prep, I've not done much, I'm very much a last-minute person. I have my bike, bikepacking bags, and kit organized. However, no clue on the route, sleeping spots, or how tough it's going to be. I haven't done any specific training just simply relying on my everyday training fitness and the km's in the bank to get me to Manchester."
So what is the weapon of choice?
"I'm riding the Canyon Grizl CF SL WM 6, which is just a beautiful-looking bike, the Candy Pink colorway, I just love. I'll be riding a 30-34 gear ratio, with Challenge Gravel Grinder tires on a tubeless setup. Canyon has also set me up with the Canyon x Apidura Bikepacking bag collection, but I think it's going to be quite a heavy setup, with a hefty load being added to the frame."
Apart from a heavy bike, what else are you expecting?
"Adventure! I've never done anything like this before aside from a small bivvy trip along the South Downs Way. So I'm excited to be roughing it for the week, taking things back to basics and just pedaling all day, every day! I'm good at putting myself into uncomfortable situations with lots of racing and intense training, this is a different kind of uncomfortable and I'm keen to see how I will cope. We are riding as a pair with my friend Tom Hardie, he's done lots of bikepacking so I'll be tapping into his experience if I need it."
As mentioned, the Rapha Pennine Rally starts in Edinburgh, and I'll be on the start line next week with Amy and Tom to send them on their epic adventure. I also hope to follow them around some of the route and grab some images of the pair in action so check out the Bike Perfect Instagram for more Pennine Rally content. With five stunning days ahead, let's have a look at each day's riding and what lies ahead.
Day One Edinburgh to Tushielaw
Day One sees riders setting off from Gamma Transport Division in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town. The route quickly heads off-road, as they leave Edinburgh by the Water of Leith and into the Pentland Hills. From here it's byways and drovers tracks to Peebles, with a chance to resupply before the grueling Radio Tower climb, a 10km punishing gravel ascent. Day One ends with some fast freewheeling down to St Mary's Loch, over the Captain's Road and on the lookout for your first evening's camping location.
Day Two Tushielaw to Once Brewed
Things get more isolated on Day Two with the most remote section of the route, the '100km of Nothing'. Riders will have to have planned their fueling for this section as there are very few options for resupply. Passing mostly through dense forestry and some navigation is required, especially the ‘Cut Through at Craik’, where bike handling skills are also required. The first Rapha Pennine Rally control point comes at Hermitage, before climbing over the border into England and the flowing Dirty Reiver gravel of Kielder forest. Hadrian's Wall, and the village of Once Brewed is the finish point with a chance to relax and enjoy a well-earned beer at The Twice Brewed Inn, ready to start the next day.
Day Three Once Brewed to Tan Hill
Day Three rides into the heart of the Pennines and resupply becomes much easier. It is here that the climbs begin to get long, as the North Pennines tilts subtly, and sometimes blatantly, upwards for 33km of ex-train line bike path. After the second control point at Garrigill, you'll be treated to a change in scenery; rolling hills all the way to the Yorkshire Dales. From there it's 18km up to reach the highest pub in England at Tan Hill.
Day Four Tan Hill to Gisburn
Some see Day Four as the Queens stage of the Pennine Rally with three headline climbs packed into 100km. The gradients get serious with a variety of on and off-road climbing, as riders pick their way through Swaledale via the glorious Swale Trail before encountering the infamous Oxnop Scar, a road climb that begins at a very Yorkshire twenty-five percent. After the ascent of Cam High road, you’ll then descend into Three Peaks territory and the Ribblehead Viaduct before a road transition into Lancashire and the final climb at Salter Fell.
Day Five Gisburn to Manchester
The final leg into Manchester is through lumpy Lancashire. It brings a real sting in the tail after four days on the road. From the Coal Road outside of Gisburn, the sublime singletrack of selected parts of the Pennine Bridleway to the rough Rooley Moor cobbles, it can catch you out. You're on the home straight though, and Manchester is on the horizon after the relentless Rooley Moor. From there it’s cycle routes and little runarounds through the backstreets of Bury and into town to a hero’s welcome at the Rapha Manchester Clubhouse and the camaraderie of your fellow riders.
Keep an out next week for our bike checks from this year's Rapha Pennine Rally riders and check out Graham's ride report from last year.