The over-enthusiastic cyclist

If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…

Category Archives: Routes

Dover to Cape Where?

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!

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Quiet roads and big views

 

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Friendly locals

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Every cyclists favourite van

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Classic Dover to Cape Wrath scenery

More Spanish riding

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…

Uncle Juan at the top of the Sierra Cabrera

‘Uncle Juan’ at the top of the Sierra Cabrera

The path less ridden

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!

Epic riding

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.

Another rider enjoying Mickleden Edge

Another rider enjoying Mickleden Edge

Sneaky sunshine in Southern Spain

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.

The bike taking a selfie looking out over Mijas

Looking out over Mijas

Trails in the Dales

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.

The locals were friendly

Same bike, different county

The locals were friendly

The locals were friendly at Malham Tarn

 

The Way of the Roses

It recently occurred to me that despite a having healthy obsession for cycling and doing an increasing amount of work as a cycle tour guide, I hadn’t really done that much touring myself. Of course I do a lot of long solo rides and I cycle with the clients, but I’d not actually done much touring for leisure purposes. I’m working as a guide with the brilliant Peak Tours on the ‘Way Of The Roses’ coast-to-coast route next month, so to get familiar with the route (and justify some more time away from home) I planned my own mini-tour.

The Way Of The Roses is another UK national way-marked route from Sustrans, the same organisation that devised other routes such as the original C2C and the Trans Pennine Trail. I already  knew both of those crossings well so was looking forward to seeing how ‘The Roses’ compared. Admittedly, Morecambe to Bridlington doesn’t sound too appealing on paper, though it’s nice to see Sustrans continuing their theme of linking English coastal towns that are past their best, either from a tourism or industrial perspective. No offence meant to any of these towns, as maybe it’s just growing up near Blackpool that’s clouded my judgement. But rejuvenating as the route is to these towns, the main event for us cyclo-tourists is the stunning countryside that lies between. Red Rose fans may be disappointed that the route leaves Lancashire after only 20 miles, but that’s what you get for starting at the thin end of the county, with the remaining 150 miles taking you through some beautiful and diverse Yorkshire landscapes. I was blessed with clear blue spring skies, and if it’s as fine in July then the world is in for a visual treat when Le Tour passes through.

Most people, including our clients, ride it over four days though you could do it in any number of days you wanted. You could do it in a day if you were so minded, but it all depends on how you want to balance having enjoyable holiday with a gruelling physical challenge. With limited time and my usual over-enthusiasm, I did the route in a day and a half. There’s a train station at Morecambe, but the route start is only 4 miles away from the main line station at Lancaster so I got off there and pedalled to the start as a warm up. There’s also a station in Bridlington but I chose to pedal another 50 miles down the coast to Hull so I could catch a direct (and cheaper) train back to Manchester.

Bike and tyre choice is often a dilemma for these routes due to the use of quiet lanes and the occasional off-road cycle path. I took my Planet X Uncle John ‘cross bike, looking very grown up with mudguards and panniers, though it still had 23mm winter road tyres on. The tyres survived ok, but I’ll be getting myself some decent touring tyres for when I do it again next month. I reckon some decent 28 or 30mm Marathons from Schwalbe should provide a little more comfort and security when cruising down a tatty lane.

Cycling with loaded panniers took some getting used to. My brief test last week of riding to the shops and returning with panniers loaded with bottles of wine hadn’t really prepared me for long rides with the extra weight. The bike had a massive inertia; getting out of the saddle felt more like being on a turbo trainer and some hills had me reaching for lower gears than the 34/28 I had. It’ll be good training though and getting back on my Boardman should make me feel as spritely as Alberto Contador, if not actually as fast.

So what’s the route like then? Absolutely superb! I found it less convoluted than the Trans Pennine Trail and even more picturesque than the C2C. Signage was good throughout, even as it takes you through York city centre. The route’s only a few years old so maybe it’s popularity will grow, but at the moment it’s very much the unsung hero of the Sustrans stable. It starts nice and gently through Lancashire, warming you up for the climbs through the Yorkshire Dales. A few of them are quite tough, but they’re not relentless enough to break your spirit and there are plenty of picture postcard villages to rest at if you need to. After the drama of the hills, emerging onto the Vale of York is a striking contrast. Being obsessed with hills, I’m usually dismissive (and sometimes quite rude) about flat areas, but this made me reconsider. It’s not quite Texas, but it definitely has a ‘big sky’ feel to it on a nice day. They like to grow stuff round there, and you’ll be taken through some tiny little lanes that zig-zag their way through the fields, bringing words like ‘idyllic’ to mind. The final phase is through the Yorkshire Wolds which was a new area to me, but Sustrans guide you through the gently rolling hills on yet more almost deserted roads. The choice of roads for the whole route is so good that after I finished the trail and made my own way down the coast to Hull it just felt ‘wrong’ somehow.

The final run into Bridlington was initially underwhelming – I couldn’t even see the sea, but one last turn and you see it glistening through an old medieval archway. Rolling towards the finish on the promenade, I was flooded with memories of childhood holidays at English seaside resorts. Of course if you’re unlucky enough to arrive in less favourable weather conditions your emotions may be adjusted accordingly…

I’m totally sold on the idea of touring now and I’m already thinking up future routes (and excuses) so I can get the panniers on again. I probably wouldn’t tackle 135 miles in a day with the panniers again, but I reckon 60-80 miles would make pleasant days for me, depending on terrain of course. So if you’re looking for a good few days pedalling then give it a go, wherever you’re from. If you want to avoid carrying your own luggage, dispense with the logistics and generally get thoroughly looked after then get in touch with Peak Tours, otherwise, just get your panniers on and get pedalling!

At the start

At the start

The following afternoon...

The following afternoon…

Keswick to Windermere, MTB style!

As soon as I spotted the opportunity to be dropped off in Keswick with my bike on a Monday morning, my head went into overdrive to plot a route across some untried bridleways towards a train station that could return me back to civilisation. Despite it being the depths of winter, I had a craving for some old fashioned hike-a-bike adventure. Maps were spread across tables, the internet was scrutinised and train timetables were studied. By car, the route route between these popular Lakeland towns is a mere 20 miles by the A591, however my plan involved the Stake Pass bridleway, which promised to offer a pretty gruelling day out.

I’m a big fan of using trains with the bike. There’s nothing wrong with doing a loop, but there’s something about a point-to-point ride that makes it a proper journey. I’d booked a train from Windermere at 5pm, with the aim of arriving at dusk and having time to grab a chippy tea to eat at the station. To make the 3 hour return journey (and probable sleep from exhaustion) more comfortable, I’d packed lightweight clothes in a dry bag. There’s a time and place for worrying about carrying too much weight, but these kind of rides are not such occasions. On a winter mid-week day, miles from the nearest road or house I might not see another person should I run into difficulties so maps, compass, food, water, tools, extra layers and survival blanket all took the backpack up to 6KG. It’s all good for the legs though. I’d also cunningly put Stake Pass near the start of the ride, so that if it took more time/energy than planned I could tarmac it back to Windermere and skip the rest of the off-road sections I had lined up. It might all sound a bit dramatic, but I didn’t want to be another mocking incident on the local Mountain Rescue web site.

For any readers not familiar with the Lake District, it’s one of England’s most famous and popular national parks. The lakes and hills (or fells as they’re known) make it a favourite playground for cyclists, mountain bikers, hikers, fell runners and rock climbers. Fortunately it’s not all overly congested, partly because most of the tourists prefer not to leave the cafe’s and outdoor clothing shops.

Routes like Stake Pass are ancient traveller and trade routes between towns, and I had a feeling that today would make me realise exactly how soft modern conveniences like the A591 had made us. They’re also not the kind of routes that you’ll find in a mountain bike guide book. Oh no, the only way to assess the feasibility of such rides is to scour the internet for forum discussions and ride reports on blogs like these. So, for the benefit of future riders, here’s how it went: (Strava users can check it out and pinch the route file here)

Keswick to Rosthwaite
I could have taken the obvious road directly there, but I used the first half of the well documented ‘Borrowdale Bash’ route. I’d forgotten how technical some of it was though and getting off to push a couple of sections didn’t give me much confidence for the horrors ahead…

Up Langstrath to the top of Stake Pass:
I’d read that the bridleway on the East side of Langstrath Beck could be boggy, but that there was a rocky farm track that gave way to a footpath on the West side that would be drier. I’m usually a stickler for Rights Of Way, but given that the UK had only just stepped down from flood alerts, another pair of wheels/boots would be the last thing a grassy bridleway needed. Ecological justification.

The farm track was great, a few techy bits but very rideable. I could see the bridleway across the big wide valley and it looked grassy, so I imagine it would have been boggy. All goes well till you go through a gate and wonder where the track went. You’re now on the footpath and the next couple of miles will have you in a sequence of ride/push/carry, but if you’re taking this route on then you’re unlikely to get too upset about this. As you progress up the valley, look for a waterfall high up ahead on the left side of the valley – Stake Pass zig zags up the right hand side of this. It’s a strange moment when you realise this, as a) you expect to be continuing down the valley and b) it looks vertical.

Once you cross the river on the narrow wooden bridge the real climbing begins. The path’s been tastefully manicured within the last few years and is mostly fine gravel and very sharp hairpin bends. With good legs and small gears you can ride quite a lot of it though. Once you get half way up and look down you’ll see that it’s like a mini Alpine road pass, but instead of wide tarmac roads, its a gravel track half a meter wide. Annoyingly, the hairpins are too tight to ride round, which breaks your flow on the way up and would really spoil it as a descent. Eventually you hit the top and you just follow the obvious and mostly rideable track until you catch sight of the Great Langdale valley, your next destination.

Down Stake Pass to the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub:
If you thought the ascent was mad, wait till you see the descent. It plummets down quite abruptly, with rocky step-like zig zags. This was just how I remembered it from a hiking trip last year, though my claims of “Yeah, I reckon I could ride most of this” didn’t come to fruition now I had a bike with me. I know there’s riders out there that are brilliant at this kind of riding, but a healthy fear of injury meant that I pushed the first section but rode increasingly towards the bottom. As you cross the bridge, look back up and you can barely even make out the path against the imposing hills that now surround you. The track through the valley floor is brilliant – not massively technical, but certainly grand, and if you’ve not hurt yourself on Stake Pass you’ll be feeling pretty pleased with yourself, so soak it up. As a guide, it took me just over two hours from Rothsthwaite to the Old Dungeon Ghyll including a few photo stops and a quick sandwhich.

Old Dungeon Ghyll to Windermere:
From here to Windermere are a multitude of bridleway options so I’d planned as many that I hadn’t ridden before. I had to miss out the last one as the light was fading, but the last few miles of tarmac delivered me nicely to the fish and chip shop, just as planned.

I’m not sure it’s the kind of ride I’d want to do every weekend, and I appreciate that it’s hard to convey the appeal of such a ride even to most regular cyclists, but there’s just something special about taking on a remote pass that you’ve never done before. Fortunately there’s loads more in the Lakes for me to start planning!

Nearly at the top, just a few more hair pins...

Nearly at the top, just a few more hair pins…

The welcome sight of Great Langdale

The welcome sight of Great Langdale

A well earned chippy tea

A well earned chippy tea

Downhill confidence crisis

A recent trip round the classic Jacob’s Ladder loop in the Peak district highlighted a problem that’s been developing for a while. Whilst I’m fine on the smoother, more flowing descents, when it comes to the technical rocky stuff with drop offs and loose boulders I seem to have lost my bottle.
Any non-mountain bikers reading this may well be thinking “What the hell are you trying to ride that kind of trail for anyway?” but that’s mountain biking. At least in the Peak District anyway, other UK regions may have easier riding geology, but I don’t want to stir up the North/South divide.

The ride had me thinking back to 10 years ago when I first started biking round there: bumping down the same trails on a heavy bike with 80mm of unresponsive front suspension and dangerously ineffective v-brakes. I don’t remember being as cautious as I am now on my fat tyred custom hard tail. So what’s going wrong?

Lack of practice?
I reckon this is a big part of my current problem: too much time spent mincing around in lycra on the road bike. I’ve always mixed the disciplines up, but this year has had a distinct lack of ‘proper’ mountain biking. The majority of my off-road mileage has been on the cross bike on trails considerably tamer than Jacobs Ladder. It’s not been entirely wasted though, as my off-road climbing is faster than ever thanks to my high mileage.

A healthy fear of injury
I’m crap at being injured. If I can’t ride then I start going a bit weird. This is in my mind as I bounce down rocky trails, maybe more than it should be. As you get older you become aware of responsibilities and I’m not the carefree young man that I was. There’s a pro road cyclist who overcame his fear of fast descending by listening to classical music, but I think I’ll need more than a change of playlist to sort this out.

So what’s the plan? Well having slept on it, I’ve realised that like most things in life, if I want to get better I’ll have to practice. I’ve never deliberately practiced riding before, I’ve just ridden. So I might actually go out and find a difficult section of trail and repeat it a few times (I believe proper riders call it ‘sessioning’ a section) then move on to a harder section. Sounds quite dull but I reckon the returns should pay back massively.

I might also take to wearing knee and elbow pads to help with confidence whilst practicing. I suspect going back to riding full suspension would also help me get my downhill mojo back, but I know I’ll not get clearance for it at home….

Checking out the latest Pennine Bridleway sections

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!

No work, a good weather forecast and a rest day on the Tour de France – the obvious thing to do was to grab the mountain bike and head out on an adventure! From the list of rides to do this summer, a test ride of the recently opened northern section of the Pennine Bridleway seemed to fit the bill nicely. I’m a big fan of these long distance route type things and the Pennine Bridleway’s a incredible route. Though originally inspired and initiated by the horsey brigade, UK rights of way laws also make this a prime mountain bike route. I know the southern section that runs through the Peak District to the South Pennines where it meets the 47 mile Mary Towneley Loop, which I know particularly well. And until fairly recently, that was it. Last year though, the next instalment opened, from the top of the MTL right up through the South Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales into Cumbria. If they get people out on their bikes and help bring a bit of money into rural areas then it’s a win/win situation.

I like the idea of a mountain bike route that goes from A to B, but it also makes for a complicated day ride. You could get crafty with a riding partner and leave one of your cars down trail and then use it to get back to the other car at the start…. or you could use the train! One advantage of living in Manchester is that it has train routes heading out in all directions. I’m moving out of town a little way next week, so it made sense to utilise these stations to tackle this point to point route.

The railway strategy today was to get a train to Mytholmroyd in the South Pennines and then ride 12 miles of trails to get to the start of the new PBW section, then slog north on the trail 22 miles to near Gisburn, at which point I’d veer off and ride 8 miles of country lanes to the station at Clitheroe. I was tempted to carry on to Long Preston on the edge of the Dales, but the train journey times and price doubled so I’ll have to continue this particular adventure another day. Here’s the ride data on Strava if you want to pinch the route.

The South Pennines are often overlooked as an area of countryside, which is a real shame. Admittedly, it’s not a designated National Park and there are a few creepy farms to occasionally pass through, but to this rider at least, its dramatic rolling moorlands make it well worth a visit. Even the guide book I’d read was dismissive of the area, stating that it was the Yorkshire Dales section that would appeal to people, which is doing the area a massive disservice. One thing to be wary of on such a PBW mission, is that the route manages to sidestep every village and shop where you might have planned to stock up on water. I did an hour without water in rare British summer heat and eventually had to get the map out to plan a diversion to a local pub to rehydrate. The symbol on the OS map is a pint of beer, but I was was just happy for them to fill my camelbak with water.

So anyway, what’s the route like then? Really, really good! As ever, it’s a mix of existing bridleways, reassigned (and re-gated…) paths, along with some totally new bridleways. I’m pleased to report that the new bridleways have been tastefully and sensibly constructed – a rock/gravel base planted with grass seed that should drain well and is already settling in to a trail that looks as old as the some of the other bridleways.

I know some people might dismiss this type of route, claiming that it’s not technical enough, but I’d disagree. The climbs are all rideable and the descents are usually fast and fun enough that a lapse in concentration would mean trouble. Admittedly, it’s not the technical challenge of the Nan Bield  pass, but it you carve yourself a decent chunk off, then you’ll know about it by the end of the day. I’m already studying the train timetables for an assault on the next section…

Brand new bridleway!

Cows enjoying the brand new bridleway

On the way to the PBW

On the way to the PBW from Mytholmroyd

The start of the new section

The start of the new section