On Sunday’s ride I decided to revisit what used to be a nicely entertaining little downhill, sadly ruined by the local council and their imbecilic notions regarding right of way maintenance. Harden Hill Road was once a little-used, grassy bridleway with a gently snaking ribbon of winding singletrack path, until a few years back when Kirklees Metropolitan Council decided to fritter away a few tens of thousands of pounds of their annual highways budget dumping several hundred tons of MOT Type 2 aggregate on it. I remember riding down here as the crew were working on it, and one of them remarked something along the lines of “We’re making this really nice for you, eh?” I think I lamely responded with “Yeah, thanks,” or similar, and I mentally rerun the conversation I should have had every time I ride up or down here: “No, you bloody idiots, you’re ruining it!”Three or four years on, and frankly it’s a total mess. Massive ruts and rain channels scar a loose and unpredictable surface of gravelly unpleasantness, and I say that as a fan of loose, rocky descents. This is just like riding down an unstable slag heap. Tons of limestone wash out have pooled in a couple of shallows on the way down the hill, and have overflowed onto the road at the bottom, no doubt trashing both the tarmac and the paint on the cars that use it. Photos flatten relief, so here’s a pic showing the depth of a rut picked at random. That’s a 29er wheel, too, these aren’t little divots; if you land in one of these at speed you are in trouble.When I grumbled about this when it first happened, various contrarians predictably defended it in the name of accessibility, but as you can see the path is now anything but accessible for anyone other than an able bodied walker or a masochistic mountain biker. Not only has it ruined a perfectly stable, sound bit of grassy bridleway, turning it into an ugly, unpleasant strip of gritty rubble, even the feeble defence of opening it up to more users is totally negated by the fact that the surface is clearly totally unfit for purpose due to the lack of any drainage or other stabilisation measures. It has also failed to wear into any sort of decent shape over time, as some assured me it would. It’s just a horrible mess. What a waste of time, money and effort.
Set off from Hollingworth Lake, lovely conditions, big group of about twenty. Headcount at top of the first hill: five of our number missing (various mechanicals). Left group waiting and rode back down to investigate; riders meanwhile showed up at the top of the hill, no idea how we missed them. Chased back up hill and then up next hill to catch group. Further mechanicals. Brilliant dry, dusty descent, random bike light battery ejection issue for another rider. Arrived at pub in total disarray. Smashing ride!
Then, on the way home, we spotted a raging inferno (ok, a small fire) at the side of the road, on the edge of a tinder-dry peat moor. We tried to stamp it out, failed miserably, and phoned the fire brigade, who dispatched a crew to deal with it. In the meantime I remembered that I had a portable pressure washer in the van, which turned out to be a surprisingly effective fire extinguisher. We also used it on a second fire that was, rather suspiciously, now burning a little further down the hill. A bloke who had been sat in a car at the side of the road nearby drove off, after mumbling something about a phone call out of his window; we noted his registration number. The fire engine turned up about ten minutes later and finished the job off properly by thoroughly dousing the smouldering ashes. I got back home pretty late as a result, but feeling like I done my good deed for the day by stopping Crompton Moor from going up in flames.
As you can see, the Dyfi Enduro 2016 was wet. It was fun, absolutely, and the descents in particular were brilliant, but it was mostly just wet. Those are my very best bits of waterproof kit there, and they’re totally sodden inside and out. If you look past the grin on my face you can see that my eyes hold the empty despair of a man who suspects that he’s only half way round a very long, very wet ride, and the during the second half he is only going to get wetter.
We were, at least, warned in advance; the weather forecast had been predicting varied horrors all week, before settling the day before on a solid seven hours of 80%-plus probability heavy rain. If a few lightweights had bailed out as a result, making the total number of riders slightly less than the 1,000 or so on the start list, it certainly wasn’t noticeable at the roll out from the town centre. The roads were officially closed in the middle, and indeed effectively closed all the way out to the end of the tarmac by the army of riders. As at the start of similarly large mass rides (such as the Dunwich Dynamo for example) cars are forced to the roadside by the sheer volume of bikes, but the addition of cheering crowds of locals lining the route, happy that we were there, makes for an even more uplifting experience. Everyone was grinning and laughing and the thickening rainfall was forgotten for a few minutes. I rode along with friends to the start of the first real climb, one of numerous long, steady fire-road slogs, where I settled down into a comfortable rhythm and started to knock out the miles as best I could. On the first descent I discovered that my glasses were useless, instantly covered as they were by rain and mud, and they spent the rest of the ride wedged in my helmet vents. I got round by blinking a lot, and my eyeballs felt like they’d been sandpapered by the end of the day. The first descent was also mostly spent in traffic jams, being a narrow strip of muddy singletrack with hundreds of mixed-ability riders trying to chuck themselves down it all at once. It did serve to spread everyone out, and the subsequent descents were much less crowded, and although I still had to share lines on numerous occasions I didn’t encounter any serious issues with how busy things were. Several of the downs were excellent even in such lousy conditions, and the famed ‘World Cup’ line was brilliant fun as promised, choppy and rocky and quite steep in places but never unpleasant. I was pleased with myself for riding everything that pointed downwards, and also for thoroughly enjoying nearly everything as well (with the exception of the last, bonus descent, of which more later).
It rained almost constantly. I think there was a gap of about five minutes where it relented back to light drizzle, but mostly it just steadily rained and rained and rained for almost the whole five hours I spent on the bike. I had every bit of decent waterproof kit on, but inside the first hour I was soaked head to foot, inside and out. I squeezed water out of my gloves reflexively until I realised that my hands stayed warmer if I just left them alone. I emptied about half a pint out of my shoes at the end. Even our second day of the West Highland Way was less relentlessly sodden than this. Fortunately it wasn’t that cold or windy, and spirits remained good, but I did have to hunker down and grind away to get myself around, meaning that if there were any views to see I missed them, along with much of the trackside entertainment put on by locals – there were a few zombies at one point, I vaguely recall, and a tea party of some kind, and apparently even Rachel Atherton was out cheering us all up one of the hills, but I missed most of this by staring fixedly at the mud a foot or so in front of my wheel as I slogged my way through the raindrops. At one point I nearly rode clear into another rider, so focussed was I on the next pedal stroke, and the next, and the next, and so on.
Until the last half hour or so my legs and lungs and skills did everything I asked of them, but my lower back gave me grief all the way round. I need to work on my core strength, clearly, because I was out of the saddle honking away every few minutes to ward off the pain, and even that didn’t help much. Coming up to the four hour mark my legs started to cramp up, and I had to hop off and walk it out for a bit. My reactions were fading similarly by this point, and I found the last couple of descents much harder work than they should have been. I only just made it to the start of the optional long route before the cut off, but decided that I would regret it if I didn’t ride the whole thing and, after knocking back the free beer on offer, set off up the final drag at a steady pace. On the final descent I encountered my fatal weakness, wet, slimy tree roots, all beautifully embedded in slick, off-camber mud, and had to stop and scoff some jelly babies whilst I gathered my thoughts. After a few minutes I got back on the bike and slithered my way down to the finish line, rolling over 4 hours and 17 minutes after the official start at 11am. I was one of the slowest riders on the long course (189th), but not the absolute slowest. I’m pleased that I managed the whole thing first time out, without any real training, and in such lousy conditions. I put on my final, spare emergency waterproof to ward off hypothermia and set off on the unfairly long road spin back to the campsite to collect my commemorative mug and start on the ride post-mortem with my friends.The Dyfi course is the result of nearly a decade and a half’s refinement, and the fact that it holds up as well as it does under a thousand riders’ wheels in such appalling conditions is testament to the organisers’ skills and experience. Only a handful of tiny sections were unrideably muddy, and all the descents were entertaining and challenging without being too scary or dangerous for reasonably experienced riders. The course is long enough to be a challenge for even the best, and yet is attainable by nearly all regular mountain bikers. The atmosphere is excellent and the organisation brilliant. The event surrounding the race itself is fun, and being run along side the Machynlleth comedy festival there are plenty of things to entertain when not riding bikes. I had a brilliant weekend, and will certainly be back next year, when the weather will be unimpeachably glorious, oh yes.
Having spent Tuesday looking out of the office window at cloudless blue skies, I decided that Wednesday would not see me making the same mistake. Even though I was still nursing the cold so thoughtfully shared with me by my disease-vector offspring I determined that a decent length ride was in order. Straight after school drop-off I set my email autoresponder, and jumped on the mile-munching summer bike for the first time this year to see how far my rhinovirus-ridden respiratory system could carry me. 80kms and 400mg of paracetamol later, with Cut Gate, Doctor’s Gate and the Woodhead TPT all dispatched, it turned out that given a bit of motivation manflu isn’t any real obstacle to having a grand day out.
When I write about cloudless skies I’m not exaggerating, there wasn’t a hint of vapour in the air for the full six hours I was out on the Dark Peak hills, and given that they’re normally about 50% water in composition themselves that’s quite remarkable. We get about three or four days like this per year on the sodden little scrap of rotten North Atlantic rock that we inhabit. I was not about to allow a day like this to escape whilst I sat indoors punching formulae into spreadsheets.I had to stop to adjust the bike a few times on the way out of town. My seat post needed an extra inch or so of height and the saddle had somehow tipped back a bit, but once I’d completed my faffing I was able to get my head down and pedal properly towards Cut Gate, the first big hill of the day. My cold had other ideas at first and I was off, coughing and pushing and developing a bit of a headache on the steepest bits of the climb up from Langsett. I knocked back a couple of painkillers and determined to see how I felt when I got to the top. A chap on a CX bike passed me going the other way just after the big bog: fair play to him if he rode down the other side on 35cs, it’s quite rocky up there.
By the time I reached the summit I felt ok again and decided to press on and make a full day of it as planned. The far side was a bit chopped up by the singularly wet winter we’ve had, but even with some stupid line-choices I enjoyed clattering down to Slippery Stones as much as ever, and did it about as fast as I’ve ever managed, too. I grabbed a bacon butty at Fairholmes, where the ducks tried to mug me for bread as usual. Riding up Lockerbrook for a change allowed me a shot at the Hagg Farm berms, which were fun as usual; for some reason I always forget that there’s three gates to slow you down even if nobody’s walking up it. I also managed to tick off a personal best up more that one segment of the miserable, Range Rover-plagued tarmac drag of Snake Pass somehow, in spite of being on a full-suspension mountain bike, pretty tired, and not really trying that hard. Maybe I’m not as unfit as I thought I was.Doctor’s Gate is a trail I haven’t ridden since before v-brakes were invented; it’s changed little since then and is still ridiculously technical even with modern kit. The opening section of the descent is nice enough, but once you pass the top gate you are dumped into a preposterously rocky set of switchbacks and a ford- to-exposed-landslip-traverse that makes Cavedale look like a canal towpath. A couple of similarly awkward sections break up what is otherwise a very entertaining Peak District gritstone descent; I suspect that there are a handful of riders who could make the most of this terrain, the rest of us are reduced to taking what we can from the smashing threads of singletrack in between the stupid, lunatic bits of pointy death-rock.
The final ascent around Glossop, up the Transpennine Trail and over Woodhead, in contrast to the two Gates, is a very easy going drag, but surprisingly long for all that. I didn’t allow quite enough time mentally for these spinny bits of scenic pedalling, not that it mattered: I arrived back home in good time, a little over six hours after setting off. My cold hadn’t given me any real grief, I’d covered some decent miles at a fair pace, ridden some entertaining trails, and even managed to get a little bit sunburned, a definite first for the year (and yes, I did have sun-cream on). Here’s hoping that we get a few more days like this before too long.
Yesterday morning I rode and pushed and carried my bike up and down Snowdon for the first time in three years. There was snow down to about 400m following some showers the night before, so there was even more pushing and carrying than usual, but it wasn’t so deep that it caused any serious problems. The usual crowds of walkers were even more prone to commenting on our insanity than usual, although everyone was friendly and happy to chat. We reached the summit in a little over two hours, and headed back down the Ranger path into a biting wind as the clouds closed in. The snow cover made riding the path difficult at first, and we picked our way down to the switchbacks along the edge of the worn track until about 600m, where the really rough section starts and the snow thinned out. I rode a fair bit of this, but the Mordor rocks defeated me again. The remaining blast down Telegraph valley was fast and fun and we avoided any punctures this time, allowing us to roll into Pete’s Eats for 11am and a large fry up.
I took lots of photos on the way up and down the mountain, the scenery was spectacular in the snow, and we had a fair dose of sunshine and clear views. Unfortunately the stupid Sony camera app on my stupid Sony phone appears to have a bug whereby it will take a photo, show it to you, and then totally fail to save it anywhere. Thanks, Sony. The pics up there were taken by my mate Andy.
Last Sunday was the first race of the year, round one of the PMBA Enduro series at Gisburn. As ever I entered as a bit of fun, with the aim being to get round without breaking myself, and ideally not coming dead last as a bonus to aim for. I’m not a natural racer really, I can’t be bothered training properly, and I definitely don’t have the skills to make up for lack of form, but I do enjoy getting out onto closed trails with crowds of people who love riding mountain bikes. Someone has to pad out the bottom of the results sheet, and it might as well be me, right?
The day dawned gloriously bright and calm and followed a week or two of dry weather, so Gisburn was in about as good condition as you could care to ask for. The van kicked up dust along the access road, and the queue basked in the warmth of the sun as we waited to register and collect race numbers. Riding out for practice the trails proved to be dusty even under the trees and everything was shaping up nicely for a cracking day out.
Unfortunately, in spite of the lovely weather and previous dry days the first race stage was pretty grim. Slimy rooty ruts lurked in dark, grotty pine woodland, punctuated only by bits of woodwork, unrideable swamps, all finishing into a greasy bombhole. Practice was unpleasant enough, but I had such a bad race run I’ve actually asked for advice from the internet on how to ride the rooty, muddy horrors of surface-cut woodland trails. I’m sure it basically boils down to practice, and I don’t usually ride that sort of thing so it completely caught me out. I shall have to hunt out some muddy forest lines near to home and spend some time working on controlling a bike when you have zero traction, and lots of trees to crash into.
Stage one was fortunately just a brief dark spot on an otherwise unblemished day of splendid riding. Stage two, three and four were all enjoyable, comprising the Home Baked, Whelpstone Crag and Hully Gully trail sections respectively, all of which are ace, rocky, swoopy, grippy fun. I didn’t place particularly well here either, naturally, but I had a much more enjoyable time riding than on stage one, and felt I did pretty much my best on each of them.
Stage five was the big finale, based on one of the easier downhill runs, with four big drops, a decent sized tabletop, and then a final flourish through rooty, muddy trees. One poor sod properly nailed himself on the tabletop in practice, and the course was closed for a good hour while paramedics stretchered him off for a trip in the air ambulance. Fortunately he turned out to be fine, but seeing him being carried back up the course strapped into a neck brace added significantly to the sense of trepidation I felt queuing up to try my luck. After enjoying the nice little introductory roll-in section, I skipped the first drop (the chicken line was faster, honest, even the quick boys took it) but hit the next three and surprised myself by managing to get down in one piece without securing myself a free helicopter ride. For all the roots and mud and ruts I actually found the lower woodland section much easier than stage one, due to it being a bit steeper, allowing you to keep your wheels rolling even if you got a bit out of shape. I even managed a grin when one of the Cotic team riders yelled “nice bike” at me as I slithered past (unfortunately just being on the same bike as them isn’t all that you need to be properly fast). On my race run I was pretty tired, made a mess of the top section, then got caught in a bit of traffic at the bottom, and thereby lost a fair bit of time. I didn’t mind, I was already more than happy with myself just for clearing the drops – these were bigger than anything I’ve ever ridden before and I actually felt pretty good going over them.
The roll back to the finish over, we grabbed a burger, packed up and headed home. I was pretty happy with my efforts in the most part, the swampy slipperiness of stage one being the only thing I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. I just need to get some serious practice in on wet, muddy roots before the next time – yes, there will be a next time.
Blue Hippo Media, the people behind the enjoyable Bicycle documentary, have teamed up with Singletrack to make a film about the history of mountain biking in the UK. As with their previous effort the money to start production was raised through crowdfunding. I was a tiny part of the first real MTB boom in the UK, more years ago than I care to count, so I definitely wanted to see this film made. One of the perks on offer was a ride around an unspecified bit of Wales with Rob Warner (and a film crew). For a thirteen-year-old me Rob was one of the British mountain bike elite, along with Steve Peat, Jason McRoy and a handful of others who showed up in MBUK regularly, and in recent years his commentary on downhill world cups has been a thoroughly entertaining accompaniment to the race season. A ride in his company sounded like a recipe for a good day out in itself, and with the added feel-good factor of helping finance a film I wanted to watch I didn’t have to think for long before deciding to cough up for a place.
The unspecified bit of Wales turned out to be Coed Y Brenin, a fair drive away but by all accounts well worth the visit. In spite of its great reputation and history as the first proper trail centre in the UK I had never ridden at there before, so quite apart from riding with a genuine Legendary Name (© Singletrack), I was looking forward to seeing what the place has to offer. Our guide for the day was Daffyd Davis, one of the original movers and shakers behind the first trails built here back in the 1990s, so we had the benefit of his encyclopaedic local knowledge. He shepherded us around a variation of the MBR route, with a few long stops to facilitate filming by the crew at various points en route.The film crew were mostly unobtrusive apart from the long pauses at the top of a couple of descents whilst we waited for them to set up, and occasional friendly encounters with them at the bottom of the valleys. We were incredibly lucky to fit our ride perfectly into a little weather window between Atlantic winter storms, despite a wet, grey drive out and the threat of snow in the evening. We spent four hours or so on the hills and it only started to rain once we returned to the visitor centre; we rode the whole way round in sunglasses. The trails were excellent, a nice mix of relatively natural feeling rocky singletrack with a few groomed trail-centre berms and jumps thrown in here and there, as well as the inevitable fire-road climbs linking everything up. I will definitely be back for a visit, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Riding with Rob was highly entertaining, we were regaled with anecdotes and jokes the whole way round, and it was fascinating to follow (or try to follow) him down the trails – he’s still got an amazing facility on a bike, years after doing any serious racing. He was friendly and personable and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ride himself, all whilst keeping a professional eye on the film crew and ensuring that there was no dead air or awkward silences whilst the cameras were rolling. He was even happy to pose for the obligatory selfies we asked for.
Once we got back to the visitor centre there was a bit of an informal interview in the drizzle, a cup of coffee, and I set off for home having had a thoroughly brilliant time. I can’t wait to see the finished film; all being well it will première in Hebden Bridge on July 16th this summer, and I think is due to be released on DVD shortly afterwards.
Really, I should have been doing paperwork this morning. I’d planned a day off but as often happens work has overrun this week, and I should have gone into the office for a serious Excel session or two. Unfortunately for my spreadsheets the sun was out for the first time in ages, a good frost had hardened things up, and there was no way that I was about to let such glorious conditions go to waste after that many weeks of muddy, wet, windy unpleasantness. To add to all this I couldn’t let my riding buddy down, could I? So I set off for Hope with vague route plans and a faint suspicion that I was getting away with something.
The ride was slightly thwarted initially by Rik having shock-deflation problems, so after a couple of false starts I set off alone whilst he fettled things to try and get it working. I did a fun little loop up the Roman Road, down The Beast, then up and over Hope Brink again. When I got back into the valley the problem was fixed, and we honked our way up above the always-picturesque cement works to take a run at Cavedale, which, amazingly, I had never done before. There was ice all over the rocks and I had a bit of a sideways detour at one point as a result, but otherwise thoroughly enjoyed the whole descent; I shall have to come back when it’s a bit warmer and have another go.
Rik’s bike developed a loose spoke at some point down Cavedale but after checking things over and determining that nothing was about to collapse we carried on up the Broken Road for one last descent from Hollins Cross into Castleton before heading off for a fry up at the Woodbine. Mechanicals aside, I got in three-and-a-bit solid hours of textbook winter Peak District riding: much better than fighting spreadsheets at the office.
February already! Rik and Andy and I decided that it was time for a bit of an adventure, rubbish weather not withstanding. A few options were discussed before we settled on exploring around Cross Fell and visiting the bothy known as Greg’s Hut for an overnighter, combining most of the fun of a bivvy with less of the discomfort and potential hypothermia of a winter night sleeping outdoors. We set a date and, despite weeks of horrible Atlantic storms, on the day the wind dropped, the rain dried up and it looked like we might enjoy near-perfect conditions for the first proper trip of the year. It didn’t quite turn out that way as you’ll see, but we still had a great time.We set off from Kirkland, ten miles or so past Penrith, at about 10.30pm, climbing straight up into the dark over the slowly freezing mud. The track grew rougher and more vague until after an hour or so it vanished into a bog, by which time the snow was covering the ground and we were carrying the bikes for long stretches. We followed the footprints of walkers through semi-frozen sphagnum swamps and over the saddle of Skirwith Fell. At the top the frozen crust was mostly hard enough to ride over. A kilometre of entertaining snowy descent took us to Greg’s Hut, which is a renovated miner’s shed, well-sealed from the elements and kitted out with a wooden sleeping platform and even a working stove. It had taken nearly two hours to reach our accommodation for the night, rather longer than expected due to the heavy going in the snow. Even at -5°C outside the bothy was comfortable enough, and once we had fuelled the stove with the heat logs we had carried up taped to our bikes we got the thing sufficiently hot to more-or-less dry our socks out. There were also gas cannisters, instant noodles, even a half-bottle of decent single malt, all presumably left by the mountain rescue team who had used the place as a marshal point for the recent Spine Race. The whisky in particular was appreciated, as my hipflask chose this trip to develop a terminal leak – as a result my rucksack now smells more stereotypically vagrant than ever, and I was left without anything to drink, which is frankly intolerable for a night on the hills. Greg’s Hut is positively luxurious compared to most bothies, and we half-jokingly discussed making up some story of being trapped by adverse conditions to enable us to stay for a peaceful extra day away from home.We slept well, and were back on the bikes by 7.30am, setting off into fog and snow. The clear conditions we had hoped for failed to materialise but we determined to stick to our planned route over Cross Fell and down from Tees Head. Retracing our tracks of the night before to just short of the ridge, we then turned south towards the summit, and head on into the wind and snow. Awkward ground conditions and a fair amount of navigational uncertainty meant that it took us nearly an hour to reach the huge shelter that tops the fell, and we didn’t hang around for long in the blowy spindrift.The going wasn’t much faster on the way down, and with no sign of the path under the white stuff I was very thankful for the little blue arrow on my GPS keeping us on course. We still overshot the junction for our descent from Tees Head, and floundered along for a good distance trying to spot what amounts to little more than a sheep track in amongst the drifts. Any attempt to ride was thwarted by sticky snow clogging in our frames and locking our wheels solid. We had to shoulder our bikes again, frustratingly, even to walk downhill. Then, at about 700m, the snow thinned significantly, the mist and snowflakes cleared as we dropped out of the cloud, and we spotted a cairn marking the trail. Finally we could ride for more than a few yards.The subsequent descent was fast and smooth, snaking rapidly down, around Wildboar Scar over frozen ground until we were nearly at the bottom. The sun was out, the views were dramatic and wide with the Eden valley spread out in front of us. Brakes squeaked back into life and I managed at last to shift into the big ring, the bike finally becoming useful rather than an encumbrance. Traction was minimal but nobody had any serious crashes, and sliding the back wheel around the corners was easy fun. The final kilometers were soaking wet and left us caked in mud and sheep shit, so we were glad to get back to the van and peel off filthy outer layers. The round trip took us around four hours, excluding our stay in the hut, but we guessed that we could easily knock at least an hour off this with drier, snow-free ground conditions. Our average moving speed was an appropriately glacial 5.7 km/h, and we were aching all over from all the pushing, carrying and yomping through icy bogs and snowdrifts. The views were non-existent, the trails were mostly unrideable, the accomodation didn’t even have running water: we all agreed it was a cracking night out.(Additional pics by Rik and Andy.)