If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…
April 11, 2017Posted by on
Long time readers will know that I’m a big fan of the Pennine Bridleway. A long distance mountain bike route along the lumpy spine of England is one of the best ideas ever and such is my love of the PBW that I’ve launched my own tour of the route! It’s the first tour under the Peak Pedalling banner, which is the professional arm to these ramblings… Even though it’s the first Peak Pedalling tour, I’m drawing on five years of MTB and road tour guiding experience to make sure everyone has a good time.
So here’s your chance to conquer the Pennines! We’ll look after all the logistics so all you have to do is to enjoy pedalling your favourite mountain bike for four days. The first tour’s happening in September 2017, with numbers are limited to a cosy eight. There’s more dates planned for 2018, including a five day option.
More details at the Peak Pedalling website
April 3, 2017Posted by on
People who know me or follow me on Strava may have noticed some pretty big walks going on recently. Whilst I’ve always enjoyed a good hike round the hills, there’s been a specific motive behind all this recent leg work. As well as developing my own cycling company Peak Pedalling and freelancing for other cycling companies, I’ve recently been working towards my Mountain Leader Award. This is the industry standard qualification that covers you to take individuals and groups out in mountainous terrain in the UK – whilst keeping them safe and hopefully giving them an enjoyable day out!
And so here I am reflecting on what has been the most intense course I’ve ever been on: six days of training by Jules Barrett and his colleagues at Adventure Unlimited. I’ve always been pretty handy with an OS map, but learning the skills to locate any specific point in a wild and often featureless environment to the nearest few meters has taken the subject to a whole new level. Add in driving rain, low visibility and a 10 kilo rucksack and things get trickier still. And that’s even before we ascended the 902 meter peak of Bow Fell at night, standing on the rocky summit in total darkness (and more rain) before correctly finding the safe route down. Wild camping, multiple river crossing techniques, emergency procedures – it’s been a busy week but with a fantastic group of people.
It wasn’t all about the practical skills though, because a mountain leader needs an exhaustive supply of information about the local environment to inform, educate and entertain clients with. In addition to being somewhat of an outdoor ninja, Jules revealed himself to be a comprehensive authority on many subjects including geology, meteorology and different species of moss. All part of the mountain leader job!
So it seems that I’ve got a huge amount of practicing to do before my 5 day assessment in spring 2018. New subjects such as emergency rope use need to become second nature and my navigation needs to be so slick that I can chat merrily to a group about volcanic rock formations without them even realising that I’m counting my paces in order to cover a specific distance within +/- 10%. Yep, there’s a lot going on.
The other major learning point for me was that mid-range cycling jackets and budget waterproof trousers are not up to the job of trekking round the hills in the rain for days on end…
Thanks to Charlie for being the only one of us organised enough to take photos!
January 18, 2017Posted by on
Everyone’s heard of Lands End to John O Groat’s and it’s on the bucket list for most UK amateur cyclists. Over the last few years of guiding with Peak Tours we’ve had people from all over the world come to ride the length of our fine land and we’re suitably proud to have them here. However, there’s an alternative ‘end to end’ route of Britain and even in the depths of this dark UK winter, I still have fond memories of guiding on it last August.
Despite guiding ten LEJOG tours, I was a rookie on the Dover to Cape Wrath route, though my partners in crime knew the tour well. It’s fair to say that I’d been looking forward to it, not just for the change of scenery, but because of its reputation as being an even better route than LEJOG.
Here’s the basics: starting at Dover in the south east of England, the tour moves North West through Kent and Essex, past Cambridge, through the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales and up into Scotland. Then the fun really begins as the route makes use of ferries to take you across the Isle of Aaron, back to the mainland, onto the Isle of Skye and then off over the iconic Skye bridge back to the mainland. There’s then still several days of the most staggering scenery you never realized the UK even had, as you follow the West coast through Torridon and Ullapool and up to Durness. The Tour finishes with a passenger ferry over the river to finish the last 15 miles off-road to Cape Wrath, the most North Westerly point of mainland Britain.
At least half the group was made up of previous Peak Tours customers who were back for more. Some of the newbies to Peak Tours had booked the D2CW specifically because of the Scottish section of the route. They had a definite sense of smug anticipation about the second week: an English Munro bagger was pretty excited about the mountains we’d be passing, whilst a Scotsman assured me that West was definitely best. I suspected that it would be spectacular, though to be honest I’d underestimated just how beautiful the West coast of Scotland would be. Yes the riding can be tough, but cresting every hill brought fresh views of giant lochs and mountains. Everything is bigger up there. Imagine the Lake District on steroids and you’re halfway there. White sandy beaches, sightings of seals and dolphins and some incredibly quiet roads. Cycling heaven.
I confess that in my excitement for Scotland, I’d almost discounted the English part of the tour, which was a mistake. The Peak District section was well known to me and the Yorkshire Dales picked some great roads I hadn’t ridden before, but even as a die hard Northerner I had to admit that the route through Kent and Cambridge was picturesque. Honestly, it’s all good!
Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control the last 15 miles to Cape Wrath itself proved inaccessible to us on the crucial day. But even with Dover to Cape Wrath rechristened as ‘Dover to Durness’ it was still an amazing two-week tour. Obviously perfect weather helped, as did a great group of riders and not forgetting Nigel and Johnny with whom it was a genuine pleasure to work with.
I came home and immediately put my name down to lead the two 2017 tours – hopefully see you there!
December 8, 2016Posted by on
If I’m honest with myself, I’ve been struggling with my motivation recently. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed getting out in the hills when I have got on the bike (that never happens), but it’s taken a lot of mental arse-kicking to get me out of the door. Compared to the average couch dweller I’m still in good shape, but by my own standards I feel worn out. It’s been a big year though, with plenty of bike related work and fun and then my wedding in October, so it’s not surprising that I’m knackered really.
Things got worse last week when I came off the bike riding home down an unlit cycle path covered in leaves. I hurt my thumb badly enough to get it x-rayed and even though there’s nothing broken, subsequent attempts at riding have failed miserably.
Oh well I thought, I’ll head out for a run instead – anything to slow the progress of my expanding waistline. The run felt good but the cold winter air aggravated my chest and brought back the annoying cough* that I’d nearly got rid of. It was during a coughing fit that I then pulled a muscle somewhere in my chest and I now feel like I’ve been literally stabbed in the back.
So here I am, running as badly as a cheap Windows PC and grinding to a frustrating halt. With my hardware and software malfunctioning, there’s only one thing to do: I’m going to hit shut-down and then reboot myself in a couple of weeks. I’ll get out for some hill walking instead (safe mode?) but nothing that’s going to get me out of breath or cause me any more injuries. There’s another purpose to the walking, which I’ll reveal at a later date.
Even the pro cyclists have an off-season when they let themselves go and leave the bike alone for a while. I think it should do me some good as well. Some time off the bike will give my body a rest and then I’ll miss the cycling and be gagging to get back on the bike again. Hopefully I’ll still be able to fit into my cycling kit when I do get back on the bike…
* My wife has made particular reference to my cough being annoying.
November 12, 2016Posted by on
Every man suffers from a lack of performance at some point in his life. Maybe it’s brought on by tiredness or stress, or maybe it’s to do with the head? And so it was for me yesterday when I set out on a ride, only to find that my legs could barely turn the pedals (what else did you think I was on about?)
I just wasn’t expecting it though: I’d cleared the day of commitments, spent ages planning the ultimate route, even the weather gods had granted me a dry sunny day. I’d eaten well the night before, got a decent night’s sleep and had the bike and kit prepped and ready to roll. So why was I struggling to even get to the end of my road?
You get to know your body well after years of cycling, with every local road and trail becoming a benchmark to gauge your fitness and well-being. I didn’t need Strava or a heart rate monitor to tell me that something wasn’t right today though. My legs felt heavy and every bone in my body just ached. It’s happened before over the years and I’ve found that there are three options available at this point:
- Turn around and go home in a sulk
- Finish the planned route at any cost
- Cut it short and try not to get too annoyed
The first option is the emotional response and your body will thank you for turning round, but the feeling of wasting the day whilst sulking on the couch is a real morale crusher. I’ve tried the second option before but it took ages to recover from and probably kept me off the bike for longer afterwards. It’s also best not to be hurtling down hills if you’re not on top form…
I opted for the third choice this time. My planned 40 mile off-road epic quickly got cut down to just over 10 miles of the lamest mountain biking I’ve ever done. I struggled up the hills, pushing up an easy local trail for the first time ever. But the weather and fresh air were great and I’d still got some kind of riding in, certainly enough to justify getting changed and heading out of the door in the first place. If anything, it made me realize just how fit I am when I am on form.
Thinking back, there were tell tale signs before I’d even set off. I didn’t exactly jump out of bed in the morning. I then had that extra cup of tea whilst slumped back on the couch, dressed and ready to go but stalling the start. It seems that my body and subconscious mind knew what was going on way before I did.
I don’t know the science and I’m certainly no doctor, but I’m probably just knackered. Simple as that. It’s been a busy year, busier than most considering I got married four weeks ago so I probably just need to take it easy for a few days. Them hills aren’t going anywhere I suppose…
May 12, 2016Posted by on
The emotive sound of clanging cowbells and cheering crowds. It was almost loud enough to drown out the screaming coming from my legs as I crested yet another Lakeland pass. Yep, I was riding the Fred Whitton Challenge again. Friends and long term readers will know of my ongoing goal to get round in under seven hours. Would this be the year when everything fell into place?
My training had been substantial. A huge amount of riding and running during the spring had got my weight down to an all time low, with a recent visit to Tenerife to finish off the preparation. The truth was though, I just wasn’t feeling super-motivated leading up to the event. I wasn’t sure whether it was general fatigue or a touch of over-training, or maybe I just wasn’t up for these kinds of events anymore. Touring commitments had prevented me entering any events last year and it was all feeling unfamiliar.
The weather can play a huge role in the Fred. After several years of dangerously cold, wet and windy conditions, everyone had been praying for fine spring weather and it looked like our prayers had been answered. I set off feeling good and my Garmin was telling me that I was saving time on every section of the course. The weather was also presenting the Lake District in all it’s stunning glory, with Ullswater still and misty like a giant water colour painting to my right. No time to stop for photos though.
Some cycling snobs turn their noses up at paying to ride an event on open roads, pointing out that you can turn up and ride the route any time you want. That’s true, but you can’t put a price on the crowds who turn out to cheer everyone on, regardless of whether they know you or not. It really is part of the local calendar now and unlike many modern sportives, all the profits go to charity. Everyone’s a winner.
By 85 miles, I was way in front of my previous best and totally on pace to achieve the sub-seven. And that’s exactly when it all started to unravel. Despite filling both water bottles at the feed stop five miles ago, I’d been playing catch up with my hydration, and now I’d nearly emptied both bottles again. Worse, my right leg started cramping – a worrying sensation as you make your way towards Hard Knott pass. That warm weather I’d been praying for was taking it’s toll on me, and to make matters worse, a hot headwind was blowing hard as the route headed inland from the coast. I’m not great in the heat (thats’ growing up in Northern England for you) and as we approached ‘the big one’ the temperature was up to 25ºc and I really wasn’t feeling great.
Hard Knott pass is never easy, even when you’re fresh. I definitely wasn’t feeling fresh, but having done it ten times before I knew I just had to dig in, ignore the pain and get it done. The first half of the climb was probably the worst 10 minutes I’ve ever spent on a bike. Both quads were now cramping every time I got out of the saddle, but with gradients over 25% there wasn’t really any alternative. I was pleased to survive the first ramps and get to the middle section where the gradients ease off to just plain ‘steep’. I was in trouble though, with diminishing control of my legs and the road about to rear up to 30% again.
I’ve never pushed up Hard Knott pass before (or any other road climb) but on the next hairpin my legs defiantly let me know that they weren’t up for any more of this abuse. With a spasm so violent that I only just managed to unclip and get off the bike, I frantically tried to stretch them out to get them under control at the side of the road. I’d always been a rider who’d battle through the pushers, proudly riding up the steep ramps whilst taking the cheers of the crowd. Now I was on the side of the road, barely even able to push the bike. I felt sick, dizzy, frustrated, but most of all exhausted. I could feel my sub-seven hour ride disappearing as I pushed my bike to the top with wobbly legs. Despite having kept the calories coming in all day, I felt as weak as a kitten and I was in a mess. There was still Wrynose pass to tackle but it was the same miserable scenario. I could definitely kiss goodbye to my goal.
I limited my losses on the rolling section to the finish, crossing the line with a time of 7h 21m. Though initially gutted, as the evening (and beers) went on I knew I’d still done ok and that I am capable of the sub-seven. My time put me 242nd out of 2100 finishers, which is in the top 12%. Better than last time, though if I’d been able to ride the last two passes like I usually do then I would have been nicely under seven hours.
I’d been telling people that whatever my result, I wasn’t entering again and that I needed to leave this Fred Whitton obsession behind. Who am I kidding?
October 22, 2015Posted by on
After a long summer of guiding cyclists from Lands End to John O Groats, I was ready for a holiday myself. We were off to Andalusia in Southern Spain again, though further up the coast in the region of Almeria this time. The bike chosen to gatecrash this holiday was my Planet X Uncle John, giving me off-road options as well as the usual road miles. It’s not always easy to find route info before you go, so if you’re heading out that way for some cycling here’s three decent rides that I‘d recommend:
The Ruta TransCabrera
This route crosses the Sierra Cabrera range. The South side is off-road, climbing up from Sopalmo to the top (or descending if you’d rather) whilst the North side is a quiet tarmac road with some steep sections. The locals seem to do the gravel road on short travel hard tail mountain bikes, but my ‘Uncle Juan’ was ideal and made the tarmac less tedious.
I’d been really excited about this and it didn’t disappoint. 8 miles of a winding gravel road with stunning views, what’s not to like? I admit that the first mile with its 10% slopes had me worried, but it slackens off to an average of about 5%.
When you finally get to the junction at the top, turn left and left again to tackle a punishing 25% climb to get an amazing view from the 3000ft summit of the range. It’s been freshly tarmacked and feels a bit like Hardknott Pass, which is great if you’re getting a bit homesick. Don’t pinch my Strava KOM though.
Bedar and beyond
Putting the slicks back on, it was time for some road riding. This time I headed inland and once I’d got off the busy (but totally safe) A370 I was climbing past Bedar on a stunning road with superb hairpins before finally dropping down towards El Marchal. I rode on further to get the distance in, but even if you then just climbed back up and descended back past Bedar you’ll have had a decent ride with a proper climb.
Though much of rural Spain is in a state of crumbling decay, these roads are immaculate. Wide, quiet and flawlessly surfaced in that light grey tarmac that the Spanish seem to produce. On a weekday morning I probably saw one car every half hour, if that. It’s almost like the roads are bigger and better than they need to be, but it makes for amazing cycling so I’m not complaining. In fact I’m already scheming when I can get out there again…
El Cortijo Grande / Sierra Cabrera
Heading out through Turre and up towards the little mountain resort of El Cortijo Grande is a road that has become my favourite climb ever. The road takes you up into the hills and apart from a short section that is more like a farm track, the surface is superb. It’s well signed for ‘Sierra Cabrera’ so just sit back and enjoy the views and intricate hairpins. In an hours worth of climbing I saw one car and one man herding his goats. At one point you climb between a few houses in a remote little village then you’re back in the wilderness again. Eventually you approach the junction of the Ruta TransCabrera so you’re obviously obliged to tackle the extra section right to the top. I descended down the Ruta Transcabrera road to Turre to make a loop of it, though this loop in reverse could be equally rewarding.
Get yourselves out there. It’s great riding and the weather’s far better than the UK…
June 5, 2015Posted by on
For a middle aged man, I’ve spent an suspicious amount of 2015 on the scales. Unlike normal people though, us cyclists aren’t obsessed with losing weight in order to look slimmer, although there’s no denying that lycra and beer bellies aren’t a good match. No, for us cyclists losing weight really is about just weighing less. The theory isn’t exactly rocket science: in order to cycle up hills faster you either need to generate more power or gain an advantage on gravity by weighing less. Ideally, both.
Whilst I’m not actually overweight, I’m certainly not lean enough to be mistaken for a pro cyclist. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I’ve spent large sums of money on making my bikes lighter, yet never really had the discipline to make myself lighter. It seemed that my love of food and drink was becoming my limiting factor, so when I started 2015 overweight and out of shape I knew it was time to sort it out.
This wasn’t rocket science either: cut out the take-aways, reduce the alcohol intake and generally try and eat better/less food. One notable change though, was the addition of juicing. My fiancé had embarked on a strict juice diet and I (mostly) went along for the ride. With the exception of emergency sandwiches, I embraced a juicing plan by the over-enthusiastic Jason Vale aka ‘The Juice Master’. I’m as cynical about fad diets as the next man, but you can’t argue with the idea of swapping burgers for large quantities of natural fruit and vegetable juice.
By April, 4kg had been lost and my third trip to Tenerife was set to be the test of the science. Thanks to the the ingenious http://gniza.org/segments site, my Garmin Edge 810 was going to let me race against my previous all-out efforts on the slopes of Mount Teidi to see whether the upgraded waist line had been worth the effort. The results were almost unbelievable. The steeper the road got, the more improvement I saw. I slashed over 8 minutes off the final category 1 climb from Vilafor to the top. I was now a mere 15 minutes behind Chris Froome’s right hand man Davide Lopez (and another 500 riders) on the Strava leader board. Riding that strongly felt incredible though, more than a marginal gain that Team Sky would look for and more like the advantage that a blood bag would have given the previous generation of pro riders.
Unfortunately, more typical holiday behaviour then took hold, followed by weeks on the road supporting cyclists and eating as much as them regardless of whether I was riding or driving. So whilst I’m not back to January’s podginess, I’m not quite the lean, mean, hill climbing machine that I was last month. But having experienced how dramatic the improvements are, I’m not going to stray too far up the scales again.
So next time you’re about to splash out on the latest weight saving carbon component for your bike, save yourself some money and take a look at your diet.
March 5, 2015Posted by on
No matter where you live, you can get bored with the local trails and roads – even in the cycling paradise of Macclesfield. In order to get to anywhere fresh and interesting you have to pedal the same old routes that you use every time, with the return leg of your loop covering equally familiar ground.
Obviously one solution would be to relocate every year or two, but even if you hate moving house less than me you’d have to agree that it’s a little drastic. You might have the option of driving somewhere new to ride a loop, but there’s still a lengthy drive home when all you want to do is make use of your shower and kettle, and if you’re riding off-road then you’ve also got the messy business of getting a muddy rider and bike into your lovely clean car. Much as I like a good loop, I’ve recently had a yearning for a decent point-to-point ride. They somehow have the feel of a proper journey and if you plan it so the destination is home, then what better motivation to keep slogging on than getting to your own home comforts?
So this morning I took advantage of a lift into Manchester with my mountain bike, from where I could spend £5 and 25 minutes on a train journey to Littleborough. This unassuming town just north of Rochdale might have many amazing attractions, but for me it’s proximity to the Pennine Bridleway and the potential for a 50 mile slog down the Pennines back to Mac made it the perfect destination.
I’ve got a lot of love for the Pennine Bridleway. A fully signposted, long distance route suitable for mountain bikers is a quiet triumph of English outdoors access in my books. As well as providing some properly rugged and surprisingly remote riding, many stretches of the route are never too far from a train station – plenty of escape options if I’d over-estimated my fitness. My plan for today was to follow it South towards Hayfield, from where I could assess my energy levels and decide on how far to venture into the Peak District.
EDIT: I now run a cycle company that offers the chance to ride the whole Pennine Bridleway as a four day tour. Have a look!
After 32 miles, 5000ft of climbing and 4 hours of leaving Littleborough, I parted company with the Pennine Bridleway. Not that we’d fallen out (far from it) but it was veering too far South East into the Peak and away from home for me to commit to following any further. I still managed to make the remaining miles hard work for myself by tackling the Goyt Valley and a couple of stiff road climbs, but at least I was heading for home. The final damage at the end of the day was 51 miles, 7800ft of climbing and nearly 6.5 hours of pedalling time. A proper ride by anyone’s standards.
But it was only as I got close to home that the punchline hit me: my local trails that I’d gone to such trouble to avoid became welcome sights and rather comforting. The unexciting local paths which routinely take me out and back on my regular loops were now massively appreciated by my aching bones and I’d never been so relieved to be on them.
I’d nearly made it, all the way back home!
February 9, 2015Posted by on
Whilst I’m doing nothing more interesting than slogging up and down hills in the cold, here’s an unpublished piece from last August to remind us that winter won’t last forever!
The word epic gets over used these days. We’ve probably got Hollywood to thank for that. But when it comes to mountain biking it’s quite subjective, as one riders’ epic is another’s standard ride. Remoteness and spectacular scenery can help to tick the ‘epic’ box and living by the Peak District provides me with plenty of opportunity.
20 miles of Peak District riding tends to suffice for many riders. The trails here are tough going and even the descents feel like hard work. So what led me to take on an 80-mile loop with enough rough stuff to keep many riders happy for a few days? Certainly the training would be useful, but I was also in need of a skills boost: too much time mincing about on the road bike had given me fitness at the expense of technique. But more than that, I wanted the journey of an epic ride and (assuming I survived it) the satisfaction at the other end.
Given that I would be out for over 10 hours, I left home in Macclesfield early and headed out into the Peak District. Within seven miles I’d gained some decent height but also a healthy sweat, partly due to the extra weight in my pack. I know riders who’ll happily turn up for a ride with just a multitool and a pump, but you’d be wise to carry more on an epic. Spare brake pads, chain lube, spare clothes and plenty of food and water are minimum requirements for this kind of caper.
At this stage, I was plagued by doubts and questions. Can I do the full route? Should I do it? Why am I doing it? It’s best to ignore such questions and just get into the rhythm of the ride. The usual niggling aches and pains gradually eased and after 23 miles I felt I had enough behind me to stop for a quick sandwich break. I’d already done 3000ft of climbing and ridden what some people would class as a decent ride, but there was plenty more to do.
Skirting round Mam Tor gave a sense that I’d arrived at ‘the good stuff’. Not that I’d been short of trails so far though, as my carefully plotted route cunningly avoided tarmac wherever possible. The only rain shower of the day coincided with my only mechanical, but it cleared by the time I dropped in at Fairholmes visitor centre for more sandwiches. The place was typically busy with people who’d come to pootle round the reservoirs. I love to see people getting out and riding, but my mud splattered face and bike marked me out as someone who was here on a very different mission.
The Cut Gate Path epitomises ‘epic’ more than any other Peak trail. It doesn’t lend itself to short loops, so any crossing leads you into epic territory by default. Even an out-and-back crossing would make for a fairly hefty ride. After the push/carry/grind up Margery Hill you finally reach the Cut Gate path. It’s not everyone’s bag, and if you’re a trail centre fan then there’s a fair chance you won’t appreciate it at all. That’s because it’s the antithesis of a trail centre: there’s no obvious line to follow and you’re forced to think several moves ahead to keep some momentum as you pick your way down what feels like a riverbed. If you attempt it in winter or early spring then it actually is a riverbed. I’ve tackled it in all seasons, from blistering heat to winter blizzards (that really was epic…) though for me, late summer wins hands down. With mellow riding temperatures and the hills resplendent in purple heather it really is worth the trip.
With the glorious descent off Cut Gate and down Mickleden Edge dealt with, I was starting to feel like I’d broken the back of this ride. The GPS disagreed though, revealing that I was only just past half way…
After 60 miles I’d reached the usual point in an epic where things start to get weird. My body had long since passed through it’s peak period of performance and was now just hurting. Any previous high heart rate enthusiasm had now given way to just simply slogging it out. Short rocky climbs that would usually be relished suddenly required exaggerated commitment and audible grunting. I cursed my route planning that stubbornly avoided tarmac. Did I not realize how I’d be feeling? Each chocolate bar gave precisely 40 minutes of burn time before my body reverted back to running on empty. I was into the end game.
Counting down the last 10 miles I was feeling the full effects of the epic, in areas of my body that don’t even usually suffer. It was ten and a half hours since I set off that morning and I was totally spent – which is exactly how I intended to feel. Not everyone ‘gets’ the idea of an epic. Some might say that it’s too much of a good thing and that the last half isn’t even enjoyable. But it’s going beyond your usual limits that makes it for me, and I know I’m not the only one. Even as I write this on the day after, with aching neck and stiff legs, I’m already planning a route and excuse to get out and go through it all over again.