Parallels 2022: Josh Murphy’s Three Peaks Adventure
During lockdown, like many others, Josh Murphy yearned for adventure and spent hours looking at maps, joining up dots and daydreaming about big days out on the bike. This year, our annual Parallels challenge presented Josh with the perfect opportunity to make one of these daydreams a reality: a three peaks challenge, connecting the highest points in Wales, England and Scotland by bike and by foot. Here, he recounts his experience over this epic weekend.
It took all of thirty seconds from leaving the train at Bangor for the dark skies to deliver on their promise. As I pointed the handlebars into the damp coastal air, into ever smaller and quieter lanes the doubts that had been kept at bay by naïve optimism began to gnaw at the task at hand. It was far too early for such negativity but spending half a day of precious annual leave on three typically cramped and delayed trains will do that. I resisted the warm embrace of beer gardens in full flow and battled thoughts of getting stuck into Bangor’s best bitters as I pedalled out of town.
The sounds of Friday night frivolity soon dissipated, replaced by the whizz and splash of cars on wet roads passing a little too close, a little too quick. The rain was a concern. I’d packed light in the sleep department hoping that less comfort would force more forward progress but with saturated ground everywhere the campsite was off the cards and instead I scouted towns in desperation, eyeing up bus stops, picnic tables and playgrounds for any glimmer of shelter or privacy. In the end I settled for a covered café space just off the main road. It was fairly exposed but had space to dry kit, get organised, reset and eat three discount meal deals in relative luxury.
As it turned out the terrace was a favourite amongst the local youths and I woke several times much to the surprise of those gathered for cheeky cigarettes and a spot of underage drinking. Between defending my perch and midnight midge attacks the pre-three peaks sleep was probably as bad as it could have got, I was somewhat relieved when the alarm buzzed at 3am.
The bags were hurriedly packed, and I pedalled quickly up Pen-y-pass to the base of Snowdon to ease my shivering. By half-three Snowdonia’s jagged silhouette was already distinguishable against a brightening backdrop of deep indigo and the path from the car park upwards glistened with the previous night’s rainfall. It was early but there was already a buzz of people arriving, aiming to make the summit by sunrise. To my surprise a car-park warden was already on duty, they kindly agreed to stow the bike and I set off on a lightweight amble for the summit. Turning the head-torch on and pressing go on the Argos Casio somehow marked a personal ‘grand-depart’ and adrenaline fuelled emotions spurred my gentle trot into an all-out gallop to the closest horizon.
The route I’d chosen on Snowdon was the pyg track for those that know it. It is the shorter, more direct of the tourist paths and takes you from the pass, over into the vast amphitheatre of Snowdon’s eastern cwm. The path traces the contours of this glacial bowl before snapping up into lactic inducing gradients closer to the summit. Halfway up this steep final slog with views stretching forever outwards, the enormity of the day ahead began to dawn on me. I looked northwards, picturing the other peaks of Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis rising from the clouds like the mystical illustrations in a Tolkien.
A few years ago, in mid-lockdown delirium I was playing with the dots on mapping sites when the thought occurred to me to connect the highest peaks of Wales, England and Scotland just to see what it looked like. The numbers were big but the line on the map looked cool – and that’s pretty much all it took for me to be invested. It promised mountain ranges, border crossings, round the clock cycling – in essence everything I’d missed whilst being boxed in a one-bed on a busy street in East London. The thought had taken hold and that was it. Over the next 18 months I pencilled a number of dates to give it a go, but restrictions kept changing and it never seemed quite appropriate to follow said line through the country. As lockdown eased, plenty of other real-life plans took over and I neatly filed the idea away, that was until a few weeks ago when Apidura got in contact to ask if I’d like to take part in their Parallels Challenge.
In its inception Parallels 24 shares a lot with my own ideas of riding the three peaks. It was itself a reaction to lockdown restrictions and covid wiping out the ultra-racing calendar. It provided a platform for our community to draw silly lines on a maps and follow them with reckless abandon. It was a shared date for random acts of adventure. Personal journeys under one communal heading. I was drawn to its vague rules, the simplicity of its goal and the feeling of being part of our ultra-cycling community once again.
I knew immediately that Parallels24 provided the perfect excuse to give the three peaks a proper crack.
The descent from Snowdon was quick, the sun had risen by now and strong golden rays reflected off rippling metallic slabs all around. Back at the car park I exchanged trainers for cleats and thermals for lycra under the harsh light of the public toilet and set off down the other side of the pass towards the industrial yards of the Mersey and Dee estuaries. A cliché breakfast of oven-fresh Welsh cakes further down the valley set me in the perfect mood and I tapped away on the pedals to a well curated playlist consisting mainly of Elton John hits.
I’d love to describe the riding in evocative, painterly detail but truth be told the scenes were much more Lowry than Turner or Constable and after a 250-kilometre tour of the North’s industrial estates I’d had quite enough. Choosing the most direct route between A and B often has such drawbacks but I told myself the smaller mileage was a worthy trade and took solace in road signs counting down and dialects sounding ever friendlier. By late-afternoon I’d cleared the traffic systems of Lancaster and was back into green fields with hills on the horizon. These were familiar roads. I grew up in the Lakes and though I don’t know its hills as well as I should I do know the roads between them. I followed the local Levens TT 10miler or the L1015 to those that know before cutting across to Windermere and over Dunmail Raise to Keswick.
Having experienced sunrise in Snowdonia it was a nice feeling to see the sun trace its low arc over the Lake District. From the shores of Windermere the distinctive shapes of Langdale began to shimmer like the plume of a strutting grouse, it’s contours flexing in the dusk. The dramatic scenes ahead buoyed my mood and I stepped on the pedals to the base of Scafell Pike. My brother met me there, I stashed my bike in his boot and he showed me the shortcuts of the local fell race to the top. Of course this will be chagrin to the ears of the ‘unsupported-purists’ but the opportunity for a moonlit scramble with your big bro when you struggle even to meet a few times a year was far too good to miss. Having raided his glove box for sugar I set off down the valley only to feel a wave of tiredness shortly after that I did not have the strength to resist.
A few hours sleep in a properly built limestone bus-stop saw me right and the onward march into Scotland and through the borders continued. Fuelled on steak bakes and wine gums I reached Glasgow at around 6 and graced the Bonnie Banks shortly after as daylight faded to pastel shades on candy floss clouds. This far north however the sun never really set and a highland gloam illuminated the asphalt as a silver ribbon that laced its way across the rolling plains atop Rannoch Moor. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the miles covered so far, the arctic night or being alone in such beautiful expanse but those hours following that silver thread past Loch Tulla and through Glencoe will forever be etched in my memory as one of the best experiences I’ve had on two wheels. Time stood still, the sun trapped just beyond the mountains in limbo between dawn and dusk, senses heightened, I rode grinning wildly listening to techno beats willing the pores of my skin to open to such magic, to store this feeling for future times when I might once more be cramped behind a screen dreaming of the open road.
Daylight broke, thankfully setting the hallucinations that had been growing in confidence throughout the night firmly at bay. By this time I’d long since forgotten about the ‘three peaks challenge’ climbing Ben Nevis that morning just felt like the natural conclusion to a beautiful night. Climbing atop the hulking mass that had been on the horizon both physically and mentally for such a long time just seemed right.
Each heavy uphill step brought better views, further vistas until there were no more obstacles bar the curvature of the earth and the small concrete trapezoid that marked the summit. I took a big breath in, smiled inwardly and proceeded to take far too many photos of the same view till my hands went numb.
As the satisfaction faded jelly legs became stumps and thoughts turned to fish and chips in Fort William and how I might navigate the rail strike to get back to the desk for the following morning. Reality was calling.