Monthly Archives: June 2018

Howgill Heatwave

The Howgill Fells have been on my personal list of Rides I Want To Do for ages now, the rolling grassy hills abutting the M6 just before Tebay have always looked inviting to me as I drove past en route to some more northerly destination. I had however always held off visiting on the grounds that anything that verdantly green was likely to be waterlogged and unpleasant for much of the year. In light of the current spell of warm, dry weather, I thought now might finally be a good time to explore this corner of the north, and gathered a couple of friends to join me on a day off following the classic Howgills circuit from Sedbergh. The route follows bridleways up onto the main ridge right to the top of The Calf, then descends Bowderdale before looping back along the eastern edge of the fells via Ravenstonedale; plenty of .gpx traces of variations on this theme are available online, here’s the route we followed, wrong turns and all.As you can see from this and subsequent pictures, the ride was rather puncture-prone. We had four of the damn things. Our first happened before we even left the car park, and a good half-hour was spent trying to get a tubeless repair to hold, liberally coating the tarmac with sealant before we gave up and stuck a tube in there. Any reader thinking “Aaah, serves you right, you’d never have that problem with good old fashioned inner tubes” should note that the failed repair was of a very old tyre, and of the three subsequent punctures two were replacement tubes, the other an inch long slash that would have killed pretty much any setup. My tubeless kit held its air perfectly all day long despite clattering into numerous big pointy rocks with my usual inelegant hold-on-and-try-not-to-die riding style. I think my companions were just unlucky, as sometimes happens, no matter what you’re running.The sun was blazing down when we arrived in Sedbergh at 11AM, and as a result of our start-line mechanical we were already lightly toasted before even turning a pedal. The first climb up to the top of Winder (…is it pronounced “winder” or “winder”? We may never know…) was a brute: steep, grassy, baking hot and sheltered from any breeze. I was developing a headache by the time we reached this first summit of the day, so I necked my emergency paracetamol and stopped to admire the view, which already stretched out beyond the Scafells away over the far side of the Lake District, and out to the Yorkshire Three Peaks in the other direction.After regrouping and rehydrating as well as we were able we continued our ascent up more moderate gradients, with the exception of the sharp kick up to Calders, and (via a brief pause courtesy of puncture number two) finally topped out on The Calf. This was the high-point of the day, and the Howgills, at 676m. The small tarn marked on the map near the summit was completely dry, and in the distance we could just see the smoke plume from the massive fires raging far away on the moors in Saddleworth. Everything was bone dry and beginning to take on the warm tones normally associated with more arid climes. I could have stayed up here for hours, but we had many more miles to cover, and a pub stop scheduled, so after a quick point at the view and a bag of sweets we pressed on to the main event of the day, Bowderdale.The Bowderdale descent is one of those routes that frequently pops up in the mountain bike media’s Top Ten UK Trails You Must Ride articles, so I was very interested to see what it was like and how it compares to my own personal favourites. Nearly ten kilometers of unbroken singletrack, it starts off with a gentle roll from the trig point on The Calf, before turning into a frayed ribbon of rock-infested ruts curving around the shoulder of the fell, dropping into the top of the Bowderdale itself. You lose over 250m of height just in this one relatively technical kilometre down to Ram’s Gill, and I definitely needed a bit of a breather before carrying on into the longer, more sedate second movement. For the remaining seven or eight kilometres the path clings to the side of the valley, contouring round numerous streams and gullies, many of which have collapsed to provide an interesting off-camber exercise in traction management. The path between these little challenges is mostly a narrow rut, just wide enough for pedalling; you need to watch your line carefully all the way down or risk being ejected down some fairly steep slopes. Even after two months of solid good weather, there was still a surprising amount of water about the place, and bikes and riders alike picked up a light coating of mud before we reached the road and rolled under the A685 at Wath.

After a spin along some quiet back lanes to a leisurely refreshment stop at The Black Swan in Ravenstonedale we set about the tarmac climb to Adamthwaite, and what we thought would be a quick and straightforward ride back to the start. Two punctures, a wrong turn, several scuffles with uncooperative vegetation and farm-furniture, and varying levels of heat-related exhaustion put paid to that notion, so it was a very tired party who rolled into Sedbergh at well past 6PM. The first thing I did when I unlocked the van was hunt down more painkillers for the splitting headache that had manifested in the final hour, before hurling my kit in the back and leaving my companions in a cloud of dust as I set off for home, much later than intended.Even with this slightly trying ending, I had an excellent day out in splendid surroundings with great company. The loop round the Howgills is a proper Big Day Out, well worth saving up for a sunny opportunity just like this one. Even with copious mechanical problems and the odd route-finding mishap we had a marvellous time, and I’ll definitely be back in the future to revisit these lovely fells.

The main set piece of the Bowderdale descent is very good, although its finest attractions are all blown through in the first third, from the top of The Calf to Ram’s Gill. The subsequent thread of riding down the last two thirds of the valley, whilst charming, is overlong, and by the look of it very wet and muddy for most of the year. In terms of absolutely ride quality it doesn’t quite compare to the various Torridon descents I have done, or even more accessible routes like Cut Gate or Nan Bield, but it is worth noting that we saw absolutely nobody else, even on a gloriously sunny day, and from the very top to almost the very bottom there are no gates, stiles, bridges, or ridiculous waterbars. You can ride this huge valley end to end without touching the ground (in theory; you’re doing very well if you do, it’s a good solid challenge even for a fit, technically competent rider). It is very definitely worth a visit, and the surroundings and approach are unique and beautiful.

Normal Service Has Been Resumed

It had to end eventually. A month-and-a-bit-long run of dry, dusty riding broke in spectacular fashion last night when a skyful of lowering clouds burst above us and we got caught in the resulting torrential downpour on the tops. Watching the grey ceiling slowly dissolve into pillars of raindrops along the valley and out over the city until it finally caught up with us was quite a sight, although of course the view vanished completely once the weather hit.  To add to the fun, just after things really got grim, one of our number suffered a show-stopping mechanical which required the removal of half a drivetrain before we could even start to roll and push him back down the hill to the pub. We stayed cheerful, but having set off in lightweight summer kit we were all so cold and wet once we got back we couldn’t face hanging around for a pint, and just set off home with heaters on full-blast.

(Pic by Duncan Smith)

On the plus side, we did get a very pleasant ride in before our soaking in the last half-hour or so, the hills were deserted as everyone was watching the football, and the ground has been so dry for so long that we didn’t actually get particularly muddy, just very, very wet. The weather forecasters are now all reassuring us that the lovely, sunny high-pressure systems are going to come back shortly, but even if they are wrong I feel like I’ve actually had a bit of a summer this year, for the first time in ages.

Nice Out

It’s been absolutely lovely out there for weeks now. Blue skies and dusty trails everywhere. I must have ridden past this trig point hundreds of times over the past few decades, and the hill it tops is as dry as I’ve ever seen it. Marvellous.

Glentress 7

I spent the last Saturday in May with my wife and son in the beautiful Tweed valley, near Peebles. Sadly for my family, however, we weren’t there for a civilised weekend getaway with museums and tea-shops and gentle strolls by the river, but for me to muck about on bicycles yet again. I had brought my family with me for the Glentress 7 MTB race, ostensibly to provide support whilst I avoided my paternal duties and rode round a forest like an overgrown child. In my defence I must stress that I was simply succumbing to my wife’s gentle hints that she would like to be involved somehow in this ridiculous pasttime of mine, and I certainly didn’t force them to join me. We rented one of the camping pods at the Glentress hub, which sit right next to the course, very handy for getting to and watching the race, and significantly less uncomfortable than a tent. The weather was pretty much perfect, dry and sunny but with a nice cooling breeze, and this helped make the experience bearable, I think. I’m not sure that wife or son particularly enjoyed playing at being an MTB pit crew, but then hanging about aimlessly for most of a day during which time your only communication with your partner or dad comprises a few grumpy monosyllables once an hour isn’t exactly a receipe for fun times. I did warn them how things were likely to be beforehand, but by the end of the afternoon they’d had enough and retreated into the pod to snooze and play games, so my vision of being greeted on the finish line by adoring wife plus child was not to be realised.

The race itself was great fun, if very tough. Unsurprisingly in light of the lovely weather we’ve been having, the course was very dry and very fast, which is exactly to my tastes. The descents were all excellent: twisty, rooty singletrack with tricky little drops and steep chutes, flat-out blasts, off-camber corners and swoopy, flowy curves everywhere. Everything was just the right side of challenging to be fun and keep you on your toes, and I was pleased to make it down every time without hitting any trees and without holding up too many people. I even managed to pass quite a few riders on my earlier laps before fatiuge set in, not a normal occurrence for me. The out-and-out fun of the downhills almost made up for the brutal slog of getting up to the top each time. The climbs were tough but all completely rideable, even at my lowest ebb on laps four and five. Although the grind up the hilariously nicknamed Rue De Souffrance, a long straight slowly-increasing incline, got harder and harder every time, I still ground my way up there on every lap, pedals turning at a cadence of maybe 15rpm, but still turning all the same, damn it.

During these climbs and descents I encountered several new and interesting places for pain to take hold: I don’t think I’ve ever had my triceps spasm before, for example, an indication of how much the course beats your entire body up.  My back was making its usual protests by the end of lap one, but gave up whinging in due course and my legs took over the task of telling me I was an unconsionable idiot for the remainder of the race. I refused to listen and occasionally thumped my left quadriceps to remind it who was in charge. It exacted revenge by cramping fiercely in concert with its counterpart hamstring after I was sideswiped into a patch of nettles by an overenthusiastic team rider, thus compelling me to roll around in the venomous foliage for a while, yelling amusingly. On the positive side the resulting stinging, itching rash on my left arm distracted me from my weirdly aching eyelids for a good half-lap or so. By the end of the race very little of my anatomy wasn’t in some sort of pain, but nothing was so badly beaten up that I had to stop at any point, which I think is about as much as I could have hoped for, given my daring training strategy of doing one long ride two weeks ago and pretty much nothing else for the rest of the year.

When the final lap came to an end I was very glad to see the finish line, and I felt like I had emptied the tanks fully in getting there, but at no point prior to that did I really feel like I wanted to stop. I did definitely go out too fast at the start, and I wasn’t fuelled properly for various reasons; I definitely made mistakes which slowed me down, besides just not having enough miles in my legs. Having said that, this was the longest solo race I’ve ever done by some distance, so I wasn’t expecting anything much from it, even by my own very low standards. Whatever the discipline I am usually glad just to finish without any disasters, and not coming last is a bonus. Apparently I placed 42nd out of 60-odd V40 riders, riding seven laps in a smidge under seven hours all told, which is respectable for a first go. I had a really good time doing it, and I have to admit it was rather lovely to have my family with me after I’d finished. I did spend plenty of time with them afterwards and I don’t think the experience was too awful for them, although I’m not sure they’re likely to want to come back again with me next year.