Mary Towneley Loop MTB challengeSeptember 7th, 2014
If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…
Whilst I’m doing nothing more interesting than slogging up and down hills in the cold, here’s an unpublished piece from last August to remind us that winter won’t last forever!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.
With my off-season (or ‘gluttony period’) coming to an end, it’s time to think about what I want to achieve on the bike next year. I know I’m not a racing cyclist, but I’ve always set myself targets as a way to ensure that I drag myself off the couch and put the miles in. The amount of times over the last few years that I could easily have got home from work on a cold winters evening and festered in front of the TV, but have instead headed out to the hills to prepare for another attempt at getting under seven hours at the Fred Whitton (or whatever painful target I’d set myself…)
There’s been a lot of these targets over the years: the Etape du Tour, Mary Towneley Loop, Polkadot Challenge – they’ve all given me a motive to train hard and eat (reasonably) properly. Success has been sparse and relative, but the overall achievement has been a level of fitness that’s way above most blokes in their forties. So what’s the goal for 2015 then? Well, here’s where my plans have had to change…
A recent career change has seen me give up the day job of teaching teenagers in order to take on more cycling related work. This is definitely a good thing. However, the touring work I’ve gratefully committed to with the marvellous Peak Tours all clashes with my regular sportives and any other decent event up this end of the country. So I’ve been redefining what a ‘challenge’ could be. I’ve realised that it doesn’t necessarily have to be an organised event, but it still needs to be something that I can commit to achieving (and will get my arse off the couch).
So here’s my ideas so far:
So there’s a few ideas to keep me going. There’s also the bucket list of hike-a-bike mountain bike routes in the Lakes that I keep trying to get round to, such as the Black Sail Pass etc. And then there’s my annual claim (and failure) to do regular core exercises and stretching that would help me achieve such goals. If there was a competition for reading and ignoring good advice then I’d be on the podium every year.
Plenty to think about and I’m excited about 2015 whatever I decide to do, but the first target is to cut down on the food and drink…
Christmas can be a mixed blessing for us over-enthusiastic cyclists. On the one hand, it’s usually time off work which means time to get plenty of riding in, but there’s also a world of temptation and social obligation to distract you. Even before I got as far as the big day I’d already over indulged at a variety of work do’s, leaving do’s, weddings, but generally just using any excuse to continue eating and drinking like a medieval king. If I carry on like this I’ll end up with the figure and life expectancy of a medieval king, but I’ll deal with that in the new year.
But why shouldn’t I let myself go a little? It’s standard practice for the professional’s to have an ‘off-season’ in order to kick back and relax. Whether you’re a grand tour contender or just a keen amateur like me we all need to let our bodies and minds recharge before we start doing it all over again for yet another year. With the ongoing globalisation of the sport, the off-season now only lasts a few weeks for most professionals and by December they’ve already had their break and are attending the team’s first training camp. When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, his training began on November 1st 2011. Compare that to the late 1990’s when Jan Ulrich would still be gorging himself on gateaux well into early spring and then arrive at the first races grossly overweight and you can see how much the sport has changed. I suppose it’s encouraging to see that proper training is now the priority rather than the pharmaceutical preperations that Jan, Lance and co were using back then…
Looking back, maybe I should have taken a break long before Christmas. With the amount of riding I’ve done this year and everything else that’s been going on in my life, I now realise that I’ve been fatigued for months. I’ve still been getting out and enjoying riding a bike (when is this ever not the case?) but at times it’s been a challenge to actually get myself out of the door. Even though recent rides have been more of a leisurely slog than an assault on the Strava leader boards, I dread to think what would have happened to my fitness without these rides.
So I’ve given myself to January 1st to eat and drink whatever I want whilst still getting out and enjoying some winter riding, then it’s down to business again. I’m not too sure what I’m going to be training for yet, but I know that I need to be fit.
Right then, time for more wine and chocolate?
Ok, so I appreciate that my last post was all about gearing up for a winter of UK cycling with all it’s charms and horrors, yet here I am writing about a sneaky week of road cycling in the Andalusia area of Southern Spain. I know, it’s terrible, but I’ll try and pass on some advice to make amends…
For anyone geographically challenged, Andalusia is the Southern most region of Spain and consequently has more inviting temperatures than the rest of Europe in late October. I can’t claim to have gone there purely for the riding, but when the chance of a holiday presents itself you book your bike on the flight and then get the maps out. And that’s where things get interesting. As any Brit with an adventurous spirit knows, our Ordnance Survey maps are the best in the world bar none. Your British road cyclist can spread out a 1:50,000 scale ‘Land ranger’ map and plan a precision ride with few surprises. Unfortunately, Spain involves a little more guess work.
The most detailed map you can buy is a lowly 1:200,000 scale by either Michelin or Marco Polo. Both are equally fantastic for the touring motorist and equally useless for the touring cyclist. They only show major A roads and the occasional minor road – and don’t be expecting any of those useful contour lines that we’re accustomed to. UK cyclists usually hunt out the yellow roads on the OS maps, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be quiet but properly surfaced. Our A roads are OK to ride on for a while but usually just to take us out to the nice quiet minor roads again. In Spain though, some A roads are absolutely fine to cycle on, but some are effectively motorways and should be avoided at all costs. For instance, from my tourist haven on the Costa Del Sol near Cala de Mijas, the A-7053 was a great route out of the hustle and bustle yet only a suicidal cyclist weary of life would venture onto the A-7 along the coast. They’re both A roads though.
Using ‘Street View’ in Google Maps can help plan your routes before you go. Even the A-7 looks tempting on these images though so don’t be too fooled, but at least you can get an idea of how wide the road is and even what kind of surface awaits you. At the other end of the scale, Google Maps shows every single track regardless of the surface. A route I planned in this way happily led me down a tatty concrete road that eventually deteriorated to a dirt track – not great with 23mm slick tyres! Maybe I’ll just take the cross bike next time.
So which roads were good? Well, the A-7053 swoops grandly away from the coast towards the hills and despite feeling as wide as a motorway, it had less traffic than a country lane, even on a Saturday. Alhaurin El Grande was worth a miss, but the MA-485/3303 (are MA roads like our B roads?) heading off to Coin was not much narrower but even quieter than the A-7053. This road crossed the A-355 which had the look of a motorway so I was glad I hadn’t planned a route using that road…
If you take the A-366 West from Coin you’re in for a treat (if you like climbing). It takes you up through Alozaina, Yungquera and over the Puerto de las Abejas at 820m and apart from a few small dips it’s a glorious 15km climb. The gradient is mostly nice and steady so I just kept the cadence high and powered round the hairpins (this is how I like to imagine myself, the reality may be slightly different). I descended the few miles down the other side to El Burgo, but having covered 40 miles already I knew I needed to turn around and retrace my route home. This was a shame as by all accounts the section from El Burgo to Ronda is stunning. Here’s my route for Strava fans.
The other road that I enjoyed off the A-7053 was the A-387 to Mijas (the old town on the hill, not the tourist centre on the coast). Despite being an A road, the surface alternates from wide and pristine to narrow and knackered, which makes for an engaging descent on the way back down… Beautiful views though.
So putting cartography concerns aside, is it worth doing some cycling out there? Yes, without a doubt. To give you an idea of the climate, Andalusia’s week long stage race ‘Ruta Cyclista de Sol’ is in mid February and watching it on TV this year it looked sweltering. I really wouldn’t want to ride out there in the height of summer but the 25ºC at the end of October was perfect for me. As an off-season break from the British winter or an early spring tune-up I reckon it’s a winner and I’d love to go back again, hopefully exploring further inland.
Anyway, that’s my fix of sun over with, it really is time to get stuck into the British winter now. Honestly.
Like most outdoor enthusiasts, cyclists tend to be acutely aware of the changing seasons. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was raving about the joys of spring and riding my ‘best bike’ whilst exposing my pale arms and legs to the sun. That’s all drastically changed in the last few weeks. After a transitional period wearing arm and leg warmers, the lycra has now been totally replaced by thermal bib longs and jackets of increasing thickness. Short finger gloves have been replaced for long, with over-shoes, buffs and under-helmet hats all brought back into play after a summer at the bottom of drawers.
And then there’s the lights. I often put a set of little LED blinkers on in case I’m late back on a summer evening, but now it’s back to charging up the big light before evening rides. In an effort to embrace the winter months, I’ve given the Planet X Uncle John some attention – it needed some! After a summer of touring with clients and then some big off-road adventures it deserved new cables, bar tape and 25mm winter tyres at the very least. The last thing you want is to be stopping on top of a dark hill trying to fix your bike in the shivering cold.
Though I’ve been night-riding for a few years now, it still takes some adjusting to. After hammering around on a lightweight carbon racer, hauling the Uncle John up hills with its heavier tyres, full mudguards and a weighty battery felt like hard work. But these rides aren’t intended to trouble the Strava leader boards, they just need to keep me lean and keen till the spring rolls around again. The old-school roadie logic is to just get in a large volume of steady miles over the winter, but I’ll be throwing in some high intensity muddy fun on the mountain bike whenever I get chance.
Despite the heavier bike, freezing temperatures and extra wardrobe faffing about, there’s something quite magical about a night ride once you’re out there. The isolation and views can be beautiful once you get over the spookiness of it, and you quite literally see your local roads in a different light. You’ll see some different wildlife as well. I’ve raced badgers down country lanes (surprisingly fast) and had owls flying right in front of my face (quite frightening).
It was mid-March when I was writing about the joys of spring and I’ve enjoyed seven months of summer cycling wear since then. Whilst not a truly scientific test, it would seem that the winter cycling period is still shorter than summer. I’m going to hang on to that positive thought, as once the novelty wears off it’s going to feel like a long slog through the winter darkness.
An event must be doing something right to keep you going back for more pain every year. That I returned for the seventh consecutive year says a lot about the Mary Towneley Loop Challenge. There’s obviously a great 46 mile off-road route with 6500ft of climbing through some cracking scenery for starters. There’s also the appreciation from the local mountain rescue service who run the event brilliantly every year in order to put your £20 entry fee towards saving lives. No commercialism at this event!
I’ve been chipping away at my ride times over the years and though I seemed to have plateaued at around 5h 25m, I still felt that I had a sub 5 hour performance in me. I had high hopes for this year, though the mystery virus of last week (and a few too many drinks on the Friday) left me unsure of my form as I lined up at the start.
Unlike road sportives, it’s a mass start for the 200+ riders. The mountain rescue Land Rover leads out the peloton for a high speed half mile of tarmac, before blocking the road to traffic and leaving the pack to fight for position into the first section of trail. If you’re at the back here you can get held up as the pack thins to single file and an onslaught of gates and mud takes effect. I’d shuffled near to the front on the start line for this very reason, though it did mean I was having to keep pace with some very strong riders. There’s a strategy specific to this event, which requires you to keep within a bike length of the rider in front as you pass through a gate. Each rider gives the gate a good shove to enable the next rider to pass through and shove it open for the next rider. And so on… The gates become less frequent later on and of course the pack thins out after the first few miles, but I found myself sprinting hard for some of the gates. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually quite skilful and almost fun.
After riding well for 35 miles, the mid-race lull finally kicked in and my average speed started to slip. An energy gel before the final climb of Rooley Moor Road managed to stir up some adrenaline but I knew I needed to put up some kind of fight to finish anywhere near 5 hours.
The next half hour was one of my finest ever on a bike. I made a conscious decision to ‘empty the tank’ to ensure that I beat last years time. My body was screaming and the adrenaline was flowing yet at the same time I was totally calm inside, almost tranquil. All I had to do was keep pushing the pedals round as hard as I could and ignore the disturbing heart rate readings on my Garmin. Each rider I passed gave me more confidence and in my head I felt like I was about to win a stage of the Tour de France. The descent off the top was equally adrenaline fuelled, with the loose rocks feeling like minor inconveniences as my hardtail skipped over them.
All these ‘heroics’ meant that I not only shaved nearly half an hour off my previous best, but I finally broke the 5 hour barrier, stoping the clock at just under 4h 56m. The low-key nature of the event doesn’t stretch to clocks though, just a short stagger into the school building to give your name and number. Here you can feast on the free tea and cake whilst swapping stories with other muddy riders in various states of delirium and exhaustion.
Regular readers of this blog might now be realising that this is the only event of the year that I’ve actually achieved my target in. Trawling through the results indicates that I came 23rd out of 210, which is a satisfying way to finish the summer. Though I’m looking forward to an autumn of riding purely for pleasure, I’ll have the memory of this pennine triumph to carry me through till spring and get me motivated for next year. Under four and a half hours next time?
For a Lancashire lad now residing in Cheshire, I seem to have spent a lot of time in Yorkshire lately. With ‘Way of the Roses’ crossings, working on events based on Tour de France stages and then back to watch the actual tour, I feel like I’ve been there every other weekend of the year. The mountain biker in me couldn’t ignore all the public bridleway signs that crossed the roads and checking the map revealed a vast network of bike friendly off-road routes across the Yorkshire Dales national park.
Despite being the Dales being closer to Greater Manchester than the Lake District, this was only the second time I’d taken a mountain bike up there. Without a car, I used to catch the train to ride in new areas, but with our governments shortsighted refusal to spend even a fraction of the proposed HS2 budget on reopening a 12 mile trans-pennine route, the Dales weren’t practical to get to. Now armed with a car, it was time to check out what they had to offer.
If you want a mountain bike guidebook to an unknown area, then the UK bibles are by Vertbrate Graphics. Their ‘Dark Peak” edition was my companion many years ago when the Peak District was an unknown territory and though I bought their ‘South Dales’ edition at the same time, I’d only used it once. I must have become much fitter/dafter/more enthusiastic over the years as this time when I pulled the book off the shelf I thumbed straight to the back to find the longest routes. I settled for the penultimate route of 30 miles that started from Settle, taking in Malham Tarn and Arncliffe.
I had it in mind that the riding would be less brutal than the Peak District and less ‘epic’ than a similar Lakes route. Wrong. Maybe it was the heat that was uncharacteristically heading towards 30ºC or the fatigue from the previous days road-riding stupidity, but I was glad I didn’t pick the final 50 mile route from the book. The long ancient drovers routes lined on each side by classic limestone walls were easier under wheel, though the mix of grass and limestone would be slippery as hell in the wet. Some might say that the riding isn’t technical enough, but whether it was the heat or the idyllic setting, it was just fine for me. I was also conscious that with a Lands End to John OGroats job starting in a couple of days, I shouldn’t risk a crash. I found myself switching the Garmin’s screen away from the usual information to get concerned about, such as average speed, heart rate, elevation etc so I could enjoy the stunning views and take it all in.
And that’s what made the day really. Having not been there previously I had no previous times to beat, Strava had no prior data to punish me with. It was just going out and pedalling up hills to see what was on the other side – just like when I started mountain biking! I’m not saying the route was a easy (and the long slog up from Arncliffe had me totally cooked) but the countryside and weather made this a four hour holiday for me.
If you’ve followed the tour from Yorkshire into the Alps and Pyrenees you might expect a return to the Dales to be disappointing, but they have their own unique beauty. They’re drawn from a slightly lighter colour palette from the Lakes or Peak District and the trails also had their own geological quirks to keep you on your toes. The frequent hollows and dips were new to me and involved a quick fire game of ‘pump or pull’. And that’s got to be a good thing, as the wider variety of terrain you can ride, the better.
So another enthusiastic thumbs-up for Yorkshire, but also for the simple pleasure of getting out and riding a bike somewhere new.
It’s not every year that the Tour de France begins in your own country. When it last did in 2007 I was only just rekindling my love of professional cycling, though I’d have had no appetite to visit our capital anyway. But as a proud northerner, the short journey over to Yorkshire was inevitable and highly anticipated. And what a weekend it was.
Yes we all know that Cav crashed out in tragic style at the end of stage one, but viewing those last few kilometres in front of a big outdoor screen in Holmefirth was amazing. The audible gasp at the crash was a moment of collective dismay on a scale I’d not experienced before. (Football fans must go through this every Saturday, which might explain their frustration and outbursts of verbal abuse.) It wasn’t an elitist crowd either; lycra-clad cycling geeks mingled with novices who were probably destined ask how Marcel Kittel wouldn’t win the Tour despite winning the first stage. It really didn’t matter though, it was just brilliant to see that level of interest.
The main event for my party though, was being up on the ‘Cote de Holme Moss’ to see the race pass by on the Sunday. Pedalling up in the morning was rather different from any previous visit and certainly not a day for Strava ambitions due to the amount of people heading up on bike and foot. The atmosphere was great though, reminiscent of my years at Glastonbury, but with a lot more bikes. The range of people tackling this category 2 climb was impressive: kids as young as five, pensioners on tandems, a suit wearing man on a Brompton and a surprising amount of mountain bikers.
You could have a hard time justifying watching a bike race to a non-cycling fan. The idea of waiting five hours to watch the fastest cyclists on the planet pass by at high speed doesn’t sound great on paper, but the atmosphere and sense of anticipation creates enough excitement until the riders do eventually arrive. From the first police motorbikes through to the wackiness of the publicity caravan, you’ll be so delirious with excitement that you’ll be cheering and clapping anything on wheels. After that’s all passed, the entertainment comes from latecomers pedalling up the road, who unexpectedly find themselves in a mock Tour de France scenario complete with cheering crowds and crazed fans running alongside them. If the embarrassment gets too much and they decide to dismount then the good natured boo’s from the crowd are equally embarrassing. The young children pedalling up got a genuine and deafening roar from the crowd that they’ll never forget.
Eventually the helicopters arrived and we knew that that riders were approaching. The drama of seeing the first three riders making massive efforts up the steep road whilst all anxiously looking behind them was impressive, but nothing compared to the peloton that was right behind them. I thought I was well out of the way, then in a moment they were upon us and despite a hurried step back they flew past only inches from me. Strangely, they all seemed bigger than expected, though I’m not sure why. I recognised a few riders such as Geraint Thomas and the yellow jersey of Marcel Kittel, who was already slipping off the back but they were so fast it was a blur of lycra and wheels. I honestly didn’t expect it to be as exciting as it was, but the atmosphere, anticipation and crowds made for a kind of temporary sensory overload, leaving a surge of adrenaline in the crowd.
Once back down at the big screen, even a downpour whilst watching the last 12k couldn’t dislodge the field of fans. Unlike a football match, there ware no overall favourites, more that we were just enjoying an exciting race. Niballi got a huge cheer as he crossed the line first, but so would any of them. Just like the rain, it really didn’t matter.
Riding back on the Monday through some other towns that had hosted the race reinforced the scale of the weekend. The Northern weather will soon wash the names from the roads and all the yellow painted bikes will eventually find their way to the rubbish dump, but the memories will live on. Will the British public treat cyclists any differently on the roads? Will more people ride their bikes or follow the sport? I don’t know. I’m not even sure that the new fans will follow the race’s progress to Paris but chapeau to Yorkshire, you did the race proud.