The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

Tag Archives: MTB

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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Some days it just ain’t happening

Every man suffers from a lack of performance at some point in his life. Maybe it’s brought on by tiredness or stress, or maybe it’s to do with the head? And so it was for me yesterday when I set out on a ride, only to find that my legs could barely turn the pedals (what else did you think I was on about?)

I just wasn’t expecting it though: I’d cleared the day of commitments, spent ages planning the ultimate route, even the weather gods had granted me a dry sunny day. I’d eaten well the night before, got a decent night’s sleep and had the bike and kit prepped and ready to roll. So why was I struggling to even get to the end of my road?

You get to know your body well after years of cycling, with every local road and trail becoming a benchmark to gauge your fitness and well-being. I didn’t need Strava or a heart rate monitor to tell me that something wasn’t right today though. My legs felt heavy and every bone in my body just ached. It’s happened before over the years and I’ve found that there are three options available at this point:

  1. Turn around and go home in a sulk
  2. Finish the planned route at any cost
  3. Cut it short and try not to get too annoyed

The first option is the emotional response and your body will thank you for turning round, but the feeling of wasting the day whilst sulking on the couch is a real morale crusher. I’ve tried the second option before but it took ages to recover from and probably kept me off the bike for longer afterwards. It’s also best not to be hurtling down hills if you’re not on top form…

I opted for the third choice this time. My planned 40 mile off-road epic quickly got cut down to just over 10 miles of the lamest mountain biking I’ve ever done. I struggled up the hills, pushing up an easy local trail for the first time ever. But the weather and fresh air were great and I’d still got some kind of riding in, certainly enough to justify getting changed and heading out of the door in the first place. If anything, it made me realize just how fit I am when I am on form.

Thinking back, there were tell tale signs before I’d even set off. I didn’t exactly jump out of bed in the morning. I then had that extra cup of tea whilst slumped back on the couch, dressed and ready to go but stalling the start. It seems that my body and subconscious mind knew what was going on way before I did.

I don’t know the science and I’m certainly no doctor, but I’m probably just knackered. Simple as that. It’s been a busy year, busier than most considering I got married four weeks ago so I probably just need to take it easy for a few days. Them hills aren’t going anywhere I suppose…

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

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!

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

Industry influence

On a recent mountain bike ride, I started to feel the benefit of the wider bars and shorter stem I’d installed on the Cotic Soul. I felt more in control and with my weight a little further back it was easier to pull the front end up. This should have been a joyous revelation, but I had a slight resentment that the cycling media had pushed me into this upgrade that I had resisted for so long. One of the reasons I stopped reading MBR was that I was becoming increasingly irritated by their insistence that I upgrade to this wide/short set up. That and their illegible use of tiny white fonts on a bright orange background….

Those that know me well have realised that I don’t like being pressured into decisions*. I’ll often resist all (good) advice in order to stubbornly cling on to the belief that I’ve made my own decisions for my own reasons. I recently decided to go short and wide as I wanted more confidence on the descents – but was it due to years of nagging from the cycling industry and press? The internet has made it almost impossible to ignore peoples opinions on what we should be riding. There’s not just the magazines and their online environments, but internet forums full of people telling you how to kit your bikes out. Blogs are no better, even I’m putting my opinions into your head!

There’s a few examples of this going on in the bike world at the moment, but the one that irritates me the most is mountain bike drive trains. I’m almost universally derided for running a triple ring chainset, but why? I like having a range of gears from 22:34 to 44:11 and apart from the obvious cross-chaining omissions, I use them all regularly. I’ve had friends, colleagues, magazines and websites all telling me that I should be running a double chainset and how it’s so much ‘better’ for years now. I even had a mechanic at Evans imply that I’d specced my bike incorrectly by fitting a triple. Did he not consider that I’d spent hours poring over gear tables to ensure that my dream bike was exactly what I wanted?

Other corners of the industry become even more militant when shouting about having a singe chainring set up. Nowadays that ingenious piece of design technology that is the front derailleur has become as popular as asbestos in the MTB media. An essential piece of kit on a road bike, it is apparently an unnecessary liability on a bike designed to go up and down steep trails. What entertains me most about this development is that companies are now having to get very innovative to overcome the problem that they have created. Companies like SRAM, who have found a way to create a cassette that squeezes in a specially small 11th sprocket, with a sprocket the size of a dinner plate at the other end. Then there’s the obligatory rear derailleur redesign to handle the new freakishly large capacity…. Does this system actually offer any benefits to my ‘retro’ 3×10? I wouldn’t have thought so, but the cycling industry and media need to keep moving forwards to keep healthy, partly driven by professional sport and partly funded by people who feel the need to buy the latest innovation.

Ranting aside, I accept that bicycle design should be improving year on year. Even a look back ten years shows a drastic change in handlebar/stem, suspension, brakes and geometry. I must admit that I thought tubeless tyres were a bonkers idea but now I couldn’t imagine riding off road without them. Maybe there’s people still riding trails on aging rigid bikes with 120 mm stems and v-brakes, but all I see are people buying into the latest technology that the industry wants us to buy. Should I be buying a seat post that I can remotely raise and lower? I’m sometimes tempted to get one even though I never actually manually drop my post. The marketing must be working.

I’d also appreciate it if people would stop telling me that my wheels are too small. 26″ wheels work well for me off road and I’m not about to abandon that format to make them 3″ bigger (and no, not even 1.5″ bigger either). Let me enjoy having fun on my little wheels in peace. Maybe I’m too traditional. I can’t even get my head round the idea of a carbon MTB, having recently regressed to steel (though even that was a decision probably influenced by the cycling press).So what about the ultimate solution to a non-existant problem: electronic gears? Maybe cable operated gears will be as obsolete as rod brakes in 10 years, but for the moment I’ll stick with the cables that flawlessly change my gears every time I need them to. Maybe the pro road cyclists will benefit from them? See what Sir Wiggo thinks of them in the video below: .

So what conclusions can I take from all this waffle? Well, I accept that the bike industry needs to keep reinventing the wheel to keep healthy, if you’ll excuse the pun, but I’d rather be left to come round to these ‘innovations’ when I need to. I’d say just buy what works for your own riding and budget and enjoy riding your bike.

And don’t spend as long thinking about it all as I’ve done today.

* There’s an irony relevant to this blog to be told here. My own reintroduction to cycling as an adult 10 years ago wouldn’t have been delayed if it wasn’t for my aversion to peer pressure. My good friend and flat mate of the time nearly put me off trying mountain biking by repeatedly insisting that I come out on a ride with him and even buy his GT Avalanch. Once he backed off, I did ride, I did buy the bike and the rest is history.

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?

Mary-Towneley-Loop