Despite only being in its second year, Rapha’s Pennine Rally is already an fantastic example of how bikepacking events can and should be run. The Rally is a self-supported adventure that is roughly 500km long with 8000m of climbing covering a mixture of gravel and road that snakes its way between Edinburgh and Manchester.
What sets it apart from other ultra-endurance bikepacking events is that it’s very much a rally, not a race. It's about challenging yourself – after all riding 500km is no easy feat – but it isn't necessarily about being the fastest. Speaking to Louis (Rapha’s UK Activation Manager and The Pennine Rally Director), it's this rally ethos that gives the event its most important quality, a comforting entry point into the world of ultra-endurance riding.
“I love ultra racing definitely and I love the bikepacking thing, but that the entry point, the bar is so high for many, many, many years. Basically, you just looked at events like TCR (Trans-Continental) and latterly GBduro, Dales Divide, and Pan Celtic – which are all excellent, fantastic races – but are terrifying things to put yourself in for to see if you like it. You are very constrained by the fact that they are zero support and completely self-supported. They are races so that rules out loads of people off the bat as many people don't feel competitive, and they tend to focus on the fastest riders. So you don't really see yourself there if you're not at the sharp end. What I wanted to do with Pennine Rally was build something that had just a little bit more structure so that you could take it on safe in the knowledge that no one was really racing you so as long as you got to the end you're a winner.”
And the Pennine Rally pitch must have struck a chord too, as when we went to registration to check out some of the bikes that would be lining up it was amazing how many people were using the event as an opportunity to dip their toes into bikepacking.
The 49 women, 46 men, and six non-binary roster meant there was a refreshing mixture of cyclists there too, this wasn’t a coincidence though. With a lot of cycling still male-dominant a specific point was made to assure that the entries were equally split. That meant there was a diverse crowd milling around the start at Gamma Transport Division drinking coffee, chatting, and performing important last-minute tweaks to bikes.
There was an air of nervous excitement as Louis gave a race briefing before gently herding riders into groups and releasing them into the wild. Very quickly the city of Edinburgh was left behind us as we entered the Pentlands and the remote sections of the Scottish borders gravel.
The route itself wiggles its way through the Scottish Borders, into England through Kielder Forest before traversing the North Pennines and Yorkshire Dales. It’s the creation of Luke and Christian of Outdoor Provisions and is an adaptation of their Second City Divide route. The Pennine Rally may leave out some of the truly rugged sections of the now established Glasgow to Manchester bikepacking route but it doesn't feel like it when you are out on the trail. Long smooth gravel climbs of Scotland and Kielder transition quite abruptly to steep rocky farm tracks, byways, and old roman roads of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
100km of nothing
Riders descended on Peebles from the old drove road for resupplies. Louis had categorically warned us of the next section, the infamous '100km of nothing'. Once you leave the Tweed Valley there is very little until Kielder Water so riders had to make sure they were well supplied.
There was some respite though. After the grueling hike-a-bike to a radio tower and the Captain's Road climb many convened at the Tushielaw Inn for a liquid reward before pedaling on in the hunt for a camp spot. Come the morning of day two and we were also treated to the first of the checkpoints where the guys from Snow Peak had set up a luxurious encampment from which they served noodles and coffee, not before the notorious cut-through at Craik and a little climbing.
Sitting around the fire allowed riders to reflect on the litmus test of the first night. We caught up with Robyn – who we had previously chatted to in our Pennine Rally bike check – and, like most riders, was buzzing for the coming four days of riding.
“So I am a weeper. I tend to cry before things because I get apprehensive and overwhelmed. And then will cry daily at the thought of having to ride so far and for so long and not being able to do it. So around 10:30 on these types of rides I have about a half an hour cry, but I haven't shed a single tear.”
From the Snow Peak checkpoint, riders embarked on the final climb out of Scotland, crossing the border and descending into England and the gravel roads of Kielder Forest.
Riders took on supplies at Kielder Water and continued onwards into Kielder and the famous gravel roads of the Dirty Reiver. Kielder is a lonely desolate area and the following 40km was entirely off-road, navigating a maze of tracks with little in the way of landmarks, and nothing on the horizon.
Tires finally hit the tarmac and riders picked up speed as they headed towards Once Brewed for hot food. From here some riders choose campsites while others slinked off to find a quiet spot in the corner of a field further along the route.
Here comes the Pennine express
Day three saw the express riders catch the main group. The express category is a new addition to the Pennine Rally, giving more riders who wanted more of a challenge the option to attempt the route over a shorter time frame, four days rather than five, but still finish in Manchester on the Saturday with everyone else.
The first of the express riders crept past while the sun was down having laid down a solid day and a bit of riding. But many convened at refueling spots during the day, with the two groups sharing tales and experiences from the last 250km of remote gravel trails.
Checkpoint two was a welcome sight for weary bikes, and the Canyon team set to work giving bikes and repairing the damage caused by the last few days of riding. Riders arrived solo or in groups, milling around drinking coffee and stuffing Outdoor Provision bars into their pockets.
The beauty of the checkpoints isn't just that you get a nice coffee, but they also become social hubs. Everyone was starting to get to know each other and as you rolled into a checkpoint it was like bumping into friends that you hadn’t seen for a while. With the constant stream of incoming and outgoing riders, it meant people were able to ride with new groups too. Something that wasn’t lost on Nick who was riding the Pennine Rally to raise money for Gendered Intelligence, a trans and non-binary support and advocacy charity.
"I'm having a very difficult but fun, fun time. It's such a nice crowd. And the route is really, really stunning.… I don't ride in groups very often, so this has been a really nice change because it's such a nice group. You can fall into a different group for a bit and then move on. It's also punctuated by enough stops, I think I've actually stopped more than I would if I was cycling on my own. I tend to just get my head down, which is probably good for managing my energy."
On paper day three had considerably less climbing but the long drag up Yad Moss, the undulating road following the River Tees, and the final gravel ascent to the Tanhill Inn added up. For most, reaching the Tanhill Inn, Britain's highest public house at 1,732 feet (528m) above sea level, marked the halfway point of the route. A significant morale booster after the long climbs that had been endured to get there. It was much needed too, as riders refreshed themselves after a hot day on the bike.
It wouldn't last though and the weather took a dark turn, rain rolled in which resulted in bar tabs getting longer and sleeping plans being altered in favor of more sheltered options.
Despite everyone's different morning routines, there was a natural mass convergence at the first bakery on the route. Unsurprisingly after Oxnop Scar road climb and its brutal 25 percent grades, many were keen for a proper breakfast. Oxnop wouldn't be the only big climb of the day, Cam High Road stretched intimidatingly out in front of riders and felt like it would never end.
Even the poor Rapha H Van (an old Citroen Type H kitted out as a mobile clubhouse) that was meant to serve coffee at the final checkpoint succumbed to the Yorkshire climbs, luckily alternative coffee arrangements were quickly made to caffeinate emotional riders as they finally crested the climb.
The last hurdle of the day was Salter Fell which cuts through the forest of Bowland. Another long climb and cruelly followed by a particularly rocky descent that was hard to ride and caught many riders out, myself included. Weather played a part too, with rain showers rolling through as riders persevered to reach the pub in Slaidburn.
The Hark To Bounty Inn saw a roaring trade although it was somewhat offset by the inflated electricity bill as everyone took the opportunity to charge battery packs. The hints of inclement weather weighed again on peoples sleeping plans although it wouldn’t come to anything.
On to Manchester
The effects of four days of bikepacking were being seen, weary bodies made efficient work of packing bikes up for the final day. Riders were dotted along the remainder of the route but everyone had the same goal and we were all bearing down on Rapha Manchester. The switchbacks of the Pennine Bridleway provided some entertainment whilst the Rooley Moor road sought to give riders one final big kick before descending into the Manchester sprawl. The spiderweb of paths and back streets hid riders from much of the traffic before the last 2km on congested city roads – a stark contrast to the windswept hilltop just a few hours prior.
Riders rounded the corner to applause as they were welcomed into Rapha Manchester by their fellow riders – as was the bride and groom of the wedding taking place next door.
A comradery that's interwoven throughout the event and creates the sense that riding the Pennine Rally in your own way is an achievement, rather than who came first or who was fastest.
And that's what makes the Pennine Rally so welcoming, Rapha’s Pennine Rally is a bikepacking and ultra-endurance sandbox, and Louis and his team have created a safe space for all riders who want to try bikepacking or test themselves in a supportive environment. Something that isn't lost with Louis.
“Where do you learn to bikepack, right? Well, obviously there's the internet, but there's no replicating experience. And then there's no replicating the experience of others that you get just because you're there with them, and they have ideas and you get to see different perspectives.”
With bikepacking becoming more and more mainstream in the cycling sphere, inclusive events like the Pennine Rally are going to play an important role in how bikepacking will develop in the future. Events like this allow future riders to better engage with bikepacking and cycling as a whole. Bringing important and diverse ideas and helping to break the barriers that still exist in the sport.
If you are new to bikepacking events or ultra-endurance curious then the Rapha Pennine Rally is a must for your 2023 calendar.
Who should ride it?
The route borrows many sections from the Second City Divide route, plus some of the other best UK bikepacking routes that pass through the area. The terrain is a mixture of good quality gravel and road although there are some technical and steep sections, both up and down, which may require walking depending on skill level and gear ratios. There is also some mandatory hike-a-bike as well although everything can be pushed, with little need to carry your bike.
That means even if you have limited experience riding off-road you will manage most of it without a problem. Of course, it's worth brushing up on your off-road skills beforehand just in case.
Whilst many riders opted to carry their best bikepacking tents or bivys and either wild camp or stay in campsites, there is nothing stopping you from traveling lighter and staying in hotels or B&B's along the route. If you are curious about sleeping under the stars you could also choose to camp some nights and stay in accommodation for others, although there are very limited options on the first night.
What sort of bike do I need?
As you may have seen from our Pennine Rally bike check, there was a wide range of bike and kit choices. While there were really no wrong answers, there are a couple of things you will want when choosing the best bikepacking bike for the Pennine Rally.
Number one is that it should be a bike you are comfortable on as you will be riding it for five days and covering a lot of distance. You will also want a good range of gears as lots of the hills are pretty steep, especially when you get into Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Finally, you will want to think about tires. Given the terrain, a set of the best gravel bike tires are going to be the optimal choice. We recommend a tire between 40mm and 50mm that's still reasonably fast rolling. That will give you plenty of grip and comfort on the rough terrain whilst still rolling quickly. If you opt to ride a mountain bike, we would recommend choosing one of the best XC tires to keep things rolling as fast as possible.
Other than that, most bikes are capable, we even chose to ride a fixed gear – although we don't recommend that unless you really like grinding up climbs.
What bikepacking kit do I need for the Pennine Rally?
Obviously, you will need a bike and the best bikepacking bags will be handy too, although some did use panniers too. You will need the bikepacking essentials if you plan on camping, the best bikepacking sleeping bag and mat will assure a good night's sleep. Other than that, there isn't much extra kit over your regular riding tools and clothes that you need. It's getting easier to go bikepacking on a budget too, so if you just fancy trying it out you don't have to spend loads of money on new gear.
We have a guide with some really helpful bikepacking tips too if you are looking for some great advice from the experts.