Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Big Day Out

IMG_20150618_104601I’d been eyeing this one up for a while. Since I was about thirteen, in fact, and let’s not consider how many years that is precisely. When I was a teenager I spent many happy summer days exploring the local hills on my beloved Breezer Storm (until it was stolen from my garage , without brake blocks, I sincerely hope the theiving scrote broke something). My mate Ben and I used to head out into the Peak District and put in forty, fifty mile days with one bottle each, some sandwiches and a battered copy of OS Landranger 110, jumpers for goalposts, isn’t it, mmm. I first planned this route back then, the aim being to ride from home to take in as many highlights of the Dark Peak as I could string together off-road in one big loop and then head back, but I never got chance to ride it all in a single day. It was always that bit too intimidating to take on, covering a number of hefty climbs over its theoretical sixty-to-seventy mile length, and featuring many descents that can leave you nearly as tired as the uphills do.

We did do most of the ride once, but we decided to make it more manageable by breaking it up into two days with a stop at Edale Youth Hostel, my first encounter with multi-day bike touring. On the first day we learned the importance of packing a chain tool when I twisted a link coming down Jacob’s Ladder, forcing me to ratchet my way to the YHA, and then on to the bike hire place at Fairholmes the next morning to borrow the necessary kit for a repair to get me home. In spite of this minor mishap we had a brilliant time that weekend and I have revisited these trails countless times over the years, watching them change, always feeling at home on them. But I never actually got round to riding that big old loop I planned out all those years ago, until yesterday.

Up and out of the door by just after six AM, I made good time to the Pennine Bridleway, something that didn’t even exist back when I first contemplated this idea. My original intention would probably have involved something stupid like riding over Holme Moss, but I took advantage of fuzziness of memory and a changed start point to follow a route down the Tame valley and over to Tintwistle instead. I had set myself a target of getting to Glossop within two hours without killing myself to determine whether to undertake the full loop or bail out. I managed this easily enough even with a minor wrong turn due to a path closure, and then slogged through the most unpleasant half hour of the route all day, surrounded by idiot rush-hour drivers on a long, tedious tarmac section. I was very happy to reach the bottom of the Middle Moor bridleway above Hayfield, signifying the start of the real riding. I pushed up what is normally an entertaining, loose descent, climbing around the edge of Kinder Scout, then dropping down and climbing back up to reach the high-point of the day at Edale Cross (541m). The next descent, Jacob’s Ladder, remains one of my favourites, although I’d not ridden it for a long time. The last couple of years have been pleasingly hard to it, and much of the debatable repair work on the upper section, presumably undertaken by the National Trust, has been loosened by winter frosts and then smashed out of the ground by storms. It’s brilliant to ride right now, if you stay on the track and keep off the chicken lines round the side, rocky as hell and full of interesting little drops and loose rubble. My recent trip to Torridon stood me in good stead and I had a blast all the way down, although I stopped to catch my breath and take a photo at the half-way gate.IMG_20150618_094343I shot down Edale at a remarkable pace, carried along on a glorious tailwind, and all the way up Jagger’s Clough I tried to make the most of the assistance and block out the knowledge that I’d have to ride back into this westerly blast for most of the last quarter of the ride. From Hope Cross I weighed up the options of a longer, simpler drop along ‘Potato Alley’ followed by a steadier climb through Rowlee Farm, or a short sharp shot down ‘The Beast’ and a similarly spiky hike back up past Hagg Farm. I opted for the quicker but tougher route, clattering down greasy rocks under the trees and back up the other side of the valley to the top of Lockerbrook, then down more greasy rocks into the Derwent Valley. I encountered a number of other cyclists on the quiet lane alongside the reservoirs, practising my most determined, weathered look as I spun along. Nobody asked me where I was riding to so I was denied the opportunity to pretend to be some sort of fearless marathon athlete. Still, I got to visit one of my favourite unnecessary cycle-infrastructure safety signs, warning unsuspecting riders of a treacherous 1-in-70 slope followed by a lethal off-camber (just) 10 degree right-hander. I reckon my son could have ridden this one out successfully on his brakeless balance bike, aged two. Still, you can’t be too careful.IMG_20150618_111444Next on the menu was Cut Gate. I stopped at the foot of the climb for a snack before shouldering the bike for the steep slog up the switchbacks. Somewhere up here I began to develop a headache that persisted for the next couple of hours.  At the summit the wind had dropped totally, it was almost dead calm in spite of my being at the second highest point of the day, and totally exposed to the elements. I hoped, futilely as it turned out, that some freak weather anomaly  had killed off the prevailing wind, and set off on the longest descent of the day. Cut Gate itself, the peculiar trench through the peat hags, was muddy and puddly on top, but wherever there was a noticeable gradient the path was dry and the descent down Mickleden Edge was as enjoyable as ever, with rubble all over. Presumably this was a further sign of the storms that broke up the surface of Jacob’s Ladder, which must have been relatively recent, as I rode here a less than two months ago and it was much less loose then.

Diverting down past the ruined farmstead at North America to Langsett Barn for a refill of water, I grabbed a bite from my pack, and pressed on toward the Trans-Pennine Trail, attempting to ignore the persistent throbbing ache at the top of my skull, and the noticeably rising breeze. The usual bridleway link to the TPT was shut for some reason, so I enjoyed another brief spike of unwanted adrenalin courtesy of the Great British motorist and his astonishing faith in his own driving abilities. I then escaped up the quiet old railway line on the nice new surface installed by Sustrans, straight into the teeth of what was fast becoming a brutal headwind. A cheeky detour up and across the dam of Winscar Reservoir provided brief respite before turning back into the full force of the gale. It was chilly enough on the tops to merit putting on my waterproof, and I ground my way to the top of the hills above Holme feeling distinctly cold. Dropping down Ramsden Road to Yateholm was actively painful. At the bottom of the rocky descent I dug out my emergency paracetamol to deal with the now un-ignorable headache, and gritted my teeth for the final grind home.

More tarmac carried me to the start of Springs Lane, by which time the painkillers had taken effect, and I climbed steadily up over familiar ground to the Isle of Skye road, where the wind bullies you nearly as much as the motorists. A white van man drove me clean off the road, but I barely had the energy to show my appreciation. I turned gratefully off the blacktop after a grim fifteen minutes where I must have averaged barely seven miles-per-hour. As a final kick in the teeth the headwind required me to pedal most of the way down the last descent just to keep moving, but I was running on autopilot by this point, smiling at myself just for finishing the ride, and (just) inside the nine hours I had down as a vague target to aim for when I set out.

In total my Garmin tells me I covered 107.66km (66.9 miles) with 2,866m of ascent over some fairly tough terrain, without dying horrifically or having to phone someone up to bail me out. Here is the Strava trace, with slightly different numbers for some reason. I ate 1.5 bags of Jelly Babies, two houmous sandwiches and one cereal bar on the road, and then half my bodyweight in chilli when I got home. Then I slept for about twelve hours. A good day, well spent. Damn, I love mountain biking.IMG_20150618_104603

Scotland 2015

Well, I’m back.

Me and Rik went to Scotland to ride bikes and watch the Fort William Downhill World Cup. It rained, lots, but we had an ace time anyway.

We drove up on Thursday, originally intending to ride up and back down Ben Lomond, but rain and low cloud led us to divert to Laggan Wolftrax instead. This turned out to be an excellent idea. Laggan is reputedly quite technical (for a trail centre), and a couple of features on the black certainly merit stopping and considering rather than blindly riding in.  It is all technically rollable, though. We did the three main loops in more-or-less sensible order, bar a few diversions due to dodgy signage. The two red loops are good fun and the black is entertaining, with scary looking features that turn out to be quite flattering to ride, provided you don’t choose a stupid line (obviously I chose a couple of stupid lines, but still lived to tell the tale). Also kicking around the track were a few staff members of the Canyon Enduro team, who took a sideways look at my knackered old Nerve AM before blasting down the huge qualifier rocks like they were insignificant pebbles. Must have been down to the fancy new bikes.

Friday saw us emerge from a rain-sodden tent and make our rain-sodden way to rain-sodden Glencoe to ride the Devil’s Staircase and Ciaran Path (both rain-sodden). The push up the staircase was amusing, if you find the sight of very miserable, very wet ramblers amusing (I do). The ride down the other side was brilliant and I didn’t puncture, unlike the last time I was here. We turned right at the penstock and rode up to the scary-looking Blackwater dam, which felt like approaching the gates of Mordor, only soggier. You’re not supposed to use the dam to get across the valley, there are big signs warning you about deep water and whatnot (which is daft, there’s a four foot concrete wall in the way of the water, you’re more likely to fall off the front of the dam). Duly noting the warnings, we somehow magically found ourselves on the north side of the valley, no, I have no recollection of how we got there yer honour. We then promptly rode off in the wrong direction through a massive bog and had to climb back up before setting off down the real route. People rave about the Ciaran Path, apparently. Presumably they rode it during one of the Highlands’ bi-centennial dry periods. I can only say that I’m sure it’s fun when you can differentiate it from the thousands of burns that cross it. I don’t mean to imply that the riding was bad, it wasn’t, it was excellent in parts, but all the excellent bits were punctuated by swamps and rivers and mostly submerged under half a foot of water. When we finally made it down to Kinlochleven we were very wet and very cold and sorely in need of refuelling. The Ice Factory café sorted us out and we began to climb back up, slowly and painfully, towards the top of the Devil’s Staircase again. And then the rain stopped. The wind dropped. The clouds reluctantly loosed their grip on the summits and the whole world altered its aspect completely in a matter of minutes. We forgave Scotland for the previous four hours and had a cracking final half hour riding down an amazing trail in glorious sunshine.

The brief break in the weather turned out to be a minor blip and proceedings reverted to type for Saturday. In fact the weather was so bad that practice and qualification for the Fort William round of the UCI Downhill World Cup was called off completely. We squelched around the event village ogling fancy bikes and spotting mountain-bike celebrities (Manon Carpenter! Loic Bruni! Nigel Page! Danny MacAskill! Danny MacAskill’s mum!). We took the gondola up  and walked down the course, which was muddy and terrifying and cold and wet. We retreated to a pub, then retreated to our tent to hide from the weather, worrying vaguely about the trees overhead dropping limbs on us in the night. Sunday dawned much better – the sun even came out later on, and the racing was excellent to watch.  We set off for Torridon almost immediately after Greg Minnaar clinched the win, and three hours later set up our tent in the free camp site below the imposing mass of Liathach.

The next morning we set out on our Big Mountain Day. The weather was pretty good but everything was still soaking wet from the previous week’s downpours, so we ended up soaking wet in pretty short order. It barely mattered, the scenery was superlative, and the trails astonishing. A wrong turn led us to complete a different route to that originally intended but we didn’t feel that we’d missed out as the riding was pretty much perfect. The hills were almost deserted, we saw one other group of riders and a total of four walkers in almost seven hours of riding. The paths we rode were incredible, rocky and challenging but immensely rewarding. The only midgie in the ointment was the obligatory stupid square-edged water-culverts, one of which booted me over the bars on the last descent – but these were happily fairly rare and didn’t detract from an excellent day’s riding. We finished off with a fancy meal at the incongruous Torridon Hotel, a swish establishment in the middle of nowhere, proper posh like.

On Tuesday morning, after a night disturbed by the loudest cuckoos I’ve ever heard, we set out on the Ben Damph loop. “Damph” is a typically Scottish understatement: the entire hill was utterly sodden. Three hours, mostly of slog over boggy, wet paths led us to the top of an excellent rocky descent. It wasn’t a bad ride at all, but I feel that it’s probably one best reserved for a dry day, one preceded by at least a week of no rain.

And that was it. We arrived at the tent utterly knackered, and abandoned vague plans of riding somewhere else on the way home in favour of a nine-hour drive straight back. A week of Scottish water erosion had taken it’s toll: all our kit was soaked, our bikes were making some very alarming noises, and we were twitching involuntarily at every drip or splashing sound. We broke camp, chucked everything in the back of the car and set off for home. It was a brilliant holiday, we had a great time, shame about the weather. I will definitely head back to the Highlands and to Torridon in particular one day, there’s riding to be had there like nowhere else I’ve ever been. I might factor in alternative activities in case of rain, though.