The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

Tag Archives: mountain biking

New Pennine Bridleway tour!

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

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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!

7th time lucky at the Mary Towneley Loop

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?

 

Leading the way / trying not to get overtaken

Leading the way up Gorple Rocks

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

 

Braving the elements

With a day of rain forecast, a less enthusiastic cyclist might have resigned themselves to a day on the couch. But for me it was an opportunity to get back on the mountain bike, which had become sidelined by all the recent dropped handlebar fun. I don’t mind getting wet on a mountain bike ride, maybe due to the amount of wetness coming up at you from the trail and with the lower speeds it often seems less of an issue.

But getting wet whilst already out riding is one thing, actually starting your ride in the pouring rain is another. I admit that I spent some time sulking at the window, fully dressed to ride but reluctant to actually begin. But once I started, I never looked back.

The thought of mountain biking whilst wearing the lycra of a road cyclist would have offended me in previous years, as surely it’s not the style of the mountain biker? But experience has taught me that the last thing you need when you’re soaking wet is some cold wet baggy shorts flapping around your legs. Better to go with the sleek cross-country racer look and just wear a waterproof over the top half. In this mild wet weather that we grudgingly call ‘the British summer’ if you keep your top half warm and reasonably dry then it doesn’t matter too much about your bottom half.

And so I emerged from the safety of the garage and pedalled off into the rain towards the first trail. The transition from “Argh, I’m getting wet” to ” Sod it, I’m wet now” is a quick one, as the cold and damp spreads through your lycra clad legs and backside. The next milestone moment is sometime within the next hour when you discover how ineffective your ‘waterproof’ boots are, so it’s worth getting a decent distance from home to avoid the temptation wimp out with damp feet. If you make it this far then you’re committed to a big ride: you know that once you get home again it’s going to take at least half an hour to restore your bike and belongings to a state where they can be used again, so there’s no point just going for a quick spin.

There are other angles to consider when heading out for a wet ride like this. Rocky trails are as rideable as ever, just a lot wetter, but anything involving mud or grass is worth avoiding. All you’ll do is get frustrated, clog your gears up and ruin the trail for when/if it does eventually dry out. If you’re embarking on a wet ride with others, be careful with the personnel. Every mountain biker knows that with each additional rider, the amount of time spent stopping and faffing increases exponentially, until you reach a critical mass where any progress at all is impossible. This isn’t the weather for big group rides. Either head out solo or choose a riding partner of well matched pace – you’ll not be wanting to stop and chat.

My local route round Macclesfield Forest and the Goyt valley was ideal and I was so engrossed in the ride that I didn’t really notice the gradual change from the heavy rain I started in to the bright sunshine that I finished in. This might have annoyed some riders, but I didn’t care and I wore my coating of mud with pride. Whilst I’d passed many like minded mountain bikers in the worst of the weather, it was only now the rain had stopped that the road cyclists emerged, which further validated my choice of ride for the day.

With bike and rider hosed down and the washing machine busy on a ‘sports intensive’ wash cycle, a well earned beverage was enjoyed. The only remaining evidence of the adventure was the dull ache of well used muscles and a smug feeling that I hadn’t let the weather beat me into a day inside. People as annoying as me will often remind you that skin is actually waterproof, but it’s true. Hard as it sometimes is to start, you know you’ll feel better for it by the end and if nothing else it will make you appreciate the good weather riding. Get out and ride!

The Mary Towneley Loop mountain bike challenge

It’s sometimes hard to get motivated when the alarm goes off at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning, especially when you know that it’s going to result in five or six hours of gruelling mountain biking round the South Pennines in abysmal conditions. Yes, it’s the Mary Towneley Loop Mountain Bike Challenge again and the 6th year for me.

For those not familiar with this particular form of suffering, it involves a lap of the MTL, which is part of the excellent Pennine Bridleway. The event is run by the local mountain rescue team and the top value £20 entry fee supports their service. That’s comforting, as the weather forecast for this year suggested that they might be busy looking after some of us. Whilst yesterday was a warm, clear sunny early autumn day – today was forecast to feature high velocity horizontal rain. Classic pennine weather.

The route is approximately 46 miles with 6500ft of climbing (74km/1950m for non-UK readers) over grass/mud tracks, cobbled pack-horse routes and generally rough and rocky terrain. There’s not much flat and there’s not much tarmac. To be honest, it’s a brute of a route, but I’ve watched my times improve since that first year when I was chuffed to get under 7 hours, so it’s become a bit of a benchmark for my fitness. Last year I got round in a very respectable 5h24m and I was now left wondering whether I had a quicker time in me. The course record is apparently around 4h15m, which still seems unreachable for me. I was amazed by the large amount of riders braving the elements this year, as last time the weather was this bad (in 2010) only about 70 riders started, allowing me to bag a cheeky 10th place.

I met Duncan, my partner in crime for the day, on the start line. I knew he’d been knocking out 5h30m loops in training, including opening all the gates himself, so I assured him to crack on at his own pace and not hold back for me. We blasted round together for the first 20 miles in great time though, so quick that we started worrying that we’d gone too hard too soon. I felt ok though and had been working to the mantra of “keep Duncan in sight and you’ll do alright” which I’d just about managed to do.
However, by mile 26 it all started going wrong for me…

At the bottom of another tough climb I felt a bad hunger knock. Foolishly, I decided to try to keep the rapidly disappearing Duncan in sight and deal with the issue after the climb, which was stupid as this climb was the one section of the route that would have really benefitted from a full suspension bike and a lack of fuel just made it worse for me. My chain also started to develop serious chain-suck on the little ring (for the non-tech types, when the chain ring approaches the end of its useful life, the chain jams, especially in muddy conditions…). This meant that the remaining 20 miles would not have the benefit of nice low gears on the hills. It was also about this time that the rain really started to heavy.

After a few miles of sulking, I had a word with myself and found my flow again – not quite Duncan pace, but pushing as hard as I thought I could sustain till the end. Odd as it might seem, once I’m totally soaked to the skin, covered in mud and suffering badly, I actually start to really enjoy myself. Obviously I’m counting the miles down and willing myself towards the end by using whatever mind tricks I can, but there’s something rather enjoyably epic about it. By the last (and biggest) climb I realised I could still get back within 5h30m, so despite the aching legs, back and arms, I stepped it up again. The weather was so bad by now that two riders about 100m in front of me were barely visible through the mist. I set them as a target and ground out an adrenaline fuelled pace up the cobbled ascent of ‘Rooley Moor Road’. I caught them at the top and the three of us blasted past Cragg Quarry, though the track was now more like a river. The descent was fast and rough but I just let the brakes off and rode it out. The recent mountain bike ‘practice’ rides had definitely paid off.

Bizarrely, the longest tarmac section of the whole route is the final few miles back to the event HQ, though it’s obviously uphill, just in case you thought it might be an easy finish. Now’s the time to lock the forks out and empty the tank. I was so hungry I felt sick, but I’d have plenty of time for feeling ill once I’d finished.

I stopped the clock at 5h25m which put me roughly 26th out of 195 starters and only a minute slower than last year. It would have been amazing to have beaten my best time, but given the mechanical and meteorological disadvantages I’m going to claim it as a successful day on the bike. Duncan had managed a very impressive 5h01m and is already contemplating a sub 4h30m time. I reckon I might have a sub 5 hour effort in me, but not in that kind of weather…

If you fancy a well run and friendly, but absolutely brutal mountain bike event then I can definitely recommend this one. Free tea and toast at the start and tea and cakes at the end. What’s not to like?

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