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 negated by the fact that the surface is clearly 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.