That there is my shiny new birthday present to myself, ruined, ruined I say, by less than one hour’s racing around a muddy park. As you can see, the chain refuses to stay on due to large chunks of Todmorden being stuck to the bike. Less obvious is the fact that the front brake packed in completely on lap one, which made for an interesting ride – although pleasingly I did clear both The Muddy Corner Of Death and The Other Muddy Corner Of Death on every lap with only rear wheel slides to slow me down. In spite of these issues it did however manage to carry me to the end of the race, which is more than I can say for its predecessor on the previous two attempts, when we were thwarted by punctures both times. I also fared a bit better than my mate who managed to wrap most of his drivetrain around his rear wheel inside the first lap. Cyclo-cross is tough on bikes. Yes, I got lapped three times by the race leaders, but we’ll gloss over that and bask instead in the glow of satisfaction earned by actually completing an entire pushbike race.
There is no glow of satisfaction relating to the year as a whole unfortunately. There were a few gooddaysout, but largely my riding was curtailed by various external exigencies relating to work and family, as well as a probably not-unrelated malaise that kept me on the soft furnishings, wallowing in self-pity and laziness. I did manage to turn that around a little in October and November, but then some heavy-duty dental work slowed me down for a few weeks, and then it was nearly Christmas, and the excuses just keep on coming don’t they? I’m not one for New Years Resolutions, but I am going to attempt to get more miles in next year, I promise, and some of them might even be interesting enough to write a few words about. I’m going to open a bottle of something fizzy and make some plans. Happy New Year!
November is usually really hard. Every year I dread this month, when the clocks have just gone back, and daylight is fast ebbing to its annual minimum. The little sunlight that manages to filter through the thick blankets of damp cloud hits sodden ground covered in dead leaves and warms nothing, but it’s never cold enough to be interesting. There might be the odd patch of ice to catch you out on a shady corner, but there are no snows or frozen waterfalls to pretty up the scenery. Every day it gets darker and gloomier, and unlike December there isn’t even the mixed-blessing of the holiday season to distract from the grinding dreariness of everything. Most of the time it just drizzles, or blows, or both, and it takes a concerted act of will to get out of the door and turn a pedal. I usually spend most of my free time in November on the couch with a bottle of wine, feeling guilty and hiding from the world.
But this year I am trying a different approach. So far I have been out on two pre-breakfast rides, one night ride, and started one CX race. The latter didn’t go so well, as I DNFed after a very muddy lap and a half due to a puncture. I did at least line up at the start, though, which has to count for something, and I may well have another crack at actually finishing at the next round. The other rides have all been splendid, particularly this morning’s spin around the frosty back-lanes, watching the day dawn slowly around me. Grouse and pheasants skittered brainlessly along the side of the track, and a hare loped out of the way before stopping to observe the bizarre, wheeled madman rolling along the frozen grass. Something small and incredibly fast, a weasel perhaps, shot ahead at over 30mph as I descended into the cold of the valley, where the temperature dipped below -3°C. I climbed a reservoir dam wall to practise my CX shoulder carry as the sun rose above the distant cloud banks, before rattling down the final hill to home and breakfast. The toes on my left foot had gone a bit numb but apart from that everything seemed to be working just fine, and with the ground mostly frozen the bike barely even had any mud on it. The remainder of this month’s riding is unlikely to be similarly painless, but I’m determined to keep up this current momentum for as long as I can, and hopefully avoid sliding into the lazy despondency that November normally brings. A few more mornings like this, though, and it will definitely feel like the effort is worth it.
Somewhere under all that brash and rubble there was once a bike trail. It was short and led nowhere and comprised a series of jumps and berms wriggling between rotting conifers in a dank industrial plantation on the edge of the moors. I didn’t visit it very often because riding it was, frankly, at the very limit of my ability, and it was usually so wet and covered in slime and pine needles that it was rarely worth the trek to have another crack at its gaps and chicanes. I don’t think I ever saw another rider up there, indeed I rarely saw so much as a tyre track to indicate that it was still in use at all. Whoever built it clearly abandoned it some time before I was shown it by a friend, four or five years ago.
The last time I visited it, in early summer, the foresters were in the process of harvesting their cash crop, and the chainsaws and massive machinery of industrial wood-processing were making short work of the trees. I hadn’t been back up since, until I decided to take a detour off today’s ride to see if anything remained of the unknown diggers’ work. It quickly became clear, lurching over the detritus left by the felling, that everything had been obliterated. I couldn’t even see a trace of the dry-stone walls that the builders had incorporated into their jumps, let alone the minimal berms or kickers or gaps.
This small trail was built in a working wood, unofficially and without regard for sustainability or safety, and if it was tolerated by the landowner that was the most that could be said for it. It is no great loss, objectively, as even local riders obviously used it rarely, and its destruction only occurred as part of the normal process of management of the land upon which it was illicitly constructed. Still, I am sad that it has gone.
Today I took part in my first cyclocross race, as part of my recently launched campaign to not actually die in the attempt to ride the 3 Peaks race next year (previously). It just so happened that the local secondary school was hosting a round of the regional CX race series this weekend, and a couple of friends were going to have a go too, so this seemed as good a time and place as any to start. Happily, my road bike is actually a CX bike in disguise, so all I had to do was dig out the pair of knobbly tyres that I bought on a whim a year or two ago, remove the mudguards, and fit a shorter stem. These technical adjustments took under an hour, which as it happened was very nearly as much time as I had spent on the physical preparations for my racing debut in this discipline.
As is my usual tactic, I gridded myself right at the back to ensure I kept out of the way of the fast lads, which turned out to be a good idea; everyone was a fast lad, apparently, and they all shot off into the distance with alarming speed once the starting whistle blew. I spent the ensuing laps with my heart rate pegged and my eyeballs nearly popping out of my skull, hanging right off the back off the race like the unfit mess I currently am. I was lapped by the front runners after perhaps ten minutes, and then by pretty much everyone else, as far as I can tell. After about half an hour I started to feel a bit less than utterly terrible and made back a few places over the last couple of laps. The whole thing was wrapped up in about fifty minutes: short and very, very sharp.
The course was classic cyclocross, apparently: approximately 95% uphill, frequently through a swamp, or a sandpit, or a swampy sandpit. The downhilll bits were all carefully taped out to make them off-camber and almost impossible to ride at more than 5mph. There was a special hurdle section to make you either get off or crash hilariously, an amusing tractionless bit over an awkward grassy lump, and one of those hypnotic spiral-of-death things in the middle of the football pitch. I didn’t crash at any point, my hard-earned mountain-bikerly poise and grace carrying me easily through the various slip-slidey grassy banks, bunkers and boggy bits. I also found the cornering drills of last year’s speedway sessions handy on the numerous grip-free bends and turns. Technically I really rather enjoyed the exercise, it’s always fun coaxing a slightly daft bike over amusing terrain. I just need to work on the small matter of the woefully underpowered engine. Oh, and the remounts, being able to jump back on after getting off would be a handy skill to acquire given that I had to get off about fifty times a lap, which is roughly par for the course, I’m told.
So, in summary, my first CX race was awful. Apparently there’s another round not too far away next weekend; I might see if I can have another go and get some more practise in.
I spent several pleasant hours last Sunday standing around on top of Whernside whilst 600 or so hardy individuals passed through our official checkpoint for the 55th Three Peaks Cyclo-cross, which I was helping to marshal. I actually had very little to do as the technical race-monitoring stuff was handled by members of the Bowland MRT, so I mostly just snapped pictures, admired the views, and occasionally prevented oblivious ramblers meandering right through the crowds of frantic racers attempting to check in amongst the tangled wires and boxes of dibber electronics.
Marshalling the race gets you a guaranteed spot in next year’s event, and I think I’ll probably have a crack at it. I’ll need to do a bit more riding in the run up than I have recently though, I’ve not touched a bike since July, hence the lack of updates hereabouts. The summer holidays, work, and family concerns have totally wiped out any free time, although things seem to be settling down a little again so hopefully I will get some miles in somewhere interesting soon. In the meantime, here’s a few more snaps from Sunday.
Mosedale Cottage is the tiny white smudge that you can see slightly left of centre in the above photo. There are no roads, houses, or any other forms of civilisation whatsoever in the entire rest of that picture, or for several miles around on either side. It is an old quarrymen’s hut, now partially converted into a bothy, hiding in one of the less dramatic, less frequented of the several Mosedales in the Lake District, and is a destination that I’ve had my eye on for ages. I finally managed to pay it a visit the other night, getting myself there by bike, naturally.
It had been over a year since I last did a bothy ride, although this was not for want of trying; I have had to rearrange several plans for overnight trips into the hills as family and business interfered during the past few months. After much discussion, it finally looked like the stars had aligned and we were all available this Thursday, so plans were made, forecasts monitored, bikes fettled and bags packed, until everything was ready. At the last minute one of our number had to drop out, due to some sort of work-related nonsense, but the remaining two-thirds of us determined to carry on no matter what, and Rik and I made our way up to the eastern fringes of the Lakes. Looking at the map of the surrounding area it was easy to sketch out a promising itinerary incorporating an overnight stay, and we parked up at Wet Sleddale reservoir to test my carefully devised route at about half-seven.
Wet Sleddale’s main claim to fame is its status as the destination for Withnail and I’s holiday-by-mistake (warning: slightly sweary). I can now vouch for the documentary accuracy of the above linked clip with regards to the climate, terrain, and populace depicted in the film, and whilst it wasn’t actually belting it down when we rode off, the ground held plentiful evidence that rain was not exactly a rare climactic phenomenon hereabouts. We even met a farmer who yelled something about a gate, it was uncanny. The track past Sleddale Hall, the dilapidated ‘Crow Crag’ of the film, was dry enough, but once we reached the upper reaches of the valley we discovered that it is not idly named. Where the track was solid, it was submerged in deep puddles or channelling run-off, but this was nothing in comparison to the sections of almost featureless bog that the map directed us across when the track disappeared. Had it not been for flattened-grass quad-bike trails left by the shepherds we would have had difficulty picking our way across the top over to Mosedale. We did eventually reach the watershed between the valleys, although this is perhaps a misnomer, as most of the precipitation that lands here seems to prefer to hang about for as long as possible, in many places showing blunt defiance of the laws of gravity and doggedly adhering to inclines of thirty degrees or more. Our altitude allowed us to see over towards our destination, and after slithering down vague and incoherent tracks over waterlogged slopes to a wooden bridge, we made our way up the final, damp drag to the cottage.
The cottage itself is very fancy for a bothy: it has a stove, a sleeping platform in a boarded, insulated room, well fitted windows, chairs, tables, and even a pair of not-completely horrible sofas to sit on. There was no fuel or lighting at all, but it was warm enough inside, and I managed to salvage three working candles by melting the dregs of various tealights together and fashioning wicks from a discarded clothing label (you have to make your own entertainment in a bothy). We had brought a couple of beers apiece and spent an hour or two chatting before turning in at around eleven. I slept pretty well, waking only a handful of times and dropping back off easily.
The next morning dawned wet, a persistent rain drumming down and the lowest clouds smudging the tops of the surrounding fells. After putting a short note in the bothy book and eating a very basic breakfast we packed up quickly to minimise the pain of leaving our nice dry shelter for several hours of what was sure to be very damp riding. Feet were soaked within yards of the door, courtesy of a river crossing, although even without this the mostly submerged bridleway down the valley would have left us in the same condition in very short order. There clearly used to be a decent track up Mosedale to the quarries above the cottage, but it has well and truly fallen into disuse and is now hidden beneath boggy turf for long stretches. Even the switchbacks dropping down to Swindale Head are almost totally overgrown, and whilst the descent may be a pleasant enough ride in dry conditions, it was pretty frustrating and unrewarding on this morning.
We slithered down to the farms at the end of the road, making the most of what few interesting sections of trail we could find, before turning left and starting to ascend sharply again on the ominously named Old Corpse Road to Mardale. This was the route used to transport the dead to their final resting places at the nearest church, one of many old coffin roads in the Lakes, and there were quite a few of the large, flat coffin-stone boulders in evidence showing that frequent rests would have been needed whilst carrying the deceased up this hill, even with the path in better repair.
Once the steep climb out of the valley has been dealt with the path was surprisingly solid, wet under wheel but not swampy, and we made good progress over to the top of the descent alongside Rowantreethwaite Beck. This section of the ride was where we finally found some proper Lakeland mountain-biking, with spectacular views and an enjoyable, challenging sequence of switchbacks. Unfortunately it was also incredibly slippery and after a few worrying moments where my front wheel stubbornly refused to go in anything like the required direction, I ended up walking the bike down many of the more tricky bits. The slaty rock hereabouts is greasy in the wet, and combined with the mud and rain and wind I decided that getting off the hill in one piece was more important than riding out the descent in its entirety. From the bottom of the switchbacks the road along the side of Haweswater curved us back towards our start pleasantly enough, and just past the dam we joined a permissive bridleway following a private utility company road which meandered eventually almost all the way to the car park. It was a bit of a slog into headwind-driven rain for the last half hour or so, and we were very glad to finally reach the van, crank the heating up, and change into some dry clothes.
It was great to get out into the hills and spend a night a bit further from civilisation for a change, although I’m not sure I’ll bother returning to Mosedale with a bicycle, the tracks thereabouts are not really worth the effort. Even walking out there would be a fair old slog without much obvious reward for most tastes, and lacking as it does the dramatic Lakeland scenery that starts to appear in the next valley over I can see why fewer people explore this corner of the hills. We saw no other visitors to the fells in the entire course of the trip after leaving the car park; indeed, barring a couple of farmers in the valleys, we saw nobody at all away from the roads. Mosedale Cottage itself is a remarkable thing, a genuine, freely available bothy in one of the busiest national parks in England, and I suspect that it is only the relatively unappealing nature of the surrounding countryside which keeps it from becoming completely overrun. Perusing the bothy log book revealed that it has had visitors more nights than not over the past few months, so even out here in the bleakest reaches of nowhere it attracts a fair bit of traffic. I think that The Old Corpse Road would be worth a visit in better conditions, however, even given the slog of a climb required to get over it, and I think there must be a decent ride to be put together incorporating this trail somehow. I will probably be back to further explore this side of the Lake District again at some point, but I suspect I won’t be bothering with the drag over from Wet Sleddale again.
The last time I went up Cut Gate it was dusted with snow, frozen solid under a crisp clear sky. I think it was about -2°C, not somewhere to hang around. Today it was rather different, it hit 27°C at the top of the hill and looked like this on the way up.The Dark Peak has been baking under a full-blown heatwave for what seems like weeks now, and the paths are dusty and fast. Stream beds contain diminished trickles where normally you can be guaranteed wet feet, and permanent puddles are bone dry. Only the Bog Of Doom where the trail crosses Great Grough still held wet mud, but even this had dried out to the point where it was possible to ride right through it. I don’t think I’ve seen the moors this dry since I was riding over them on a lugged steel Raleigh. On the way up the hill I encountered clutches of baby grouse cheeping as they scattered across the heather. A mountain hare stopped to look at me before loping off the path, and pewits and curlews put in the odd appearance. I think I saw perhaps four humans between the A616 and the top, it was very quiet. Upon reaching the cairn marking the pass over to the Derwent valley I took advantage of the conditions and lack of traffic to explore a little off the main track and pay a visit to the trig point on the summit of Margery Hill, something I’ve meant to do many times, but never got around to. The path is vague and crosses plenty of what would be impassably boggy sections in normal conditions, but I was able to make good progress over the baked peat and found the white pillar in a shallow bowl of sun-cracked mud, with a few interesting gritstone boulders scattered around nearby. I had a bit of a sunbathe on a rock, listening to the birdsong and insect chatter, with only the occasional rumble of aircraft to remind me of distant people and problems. I could have stayed up there for hours.I didn’t. I had the school run to get back for, and I was running low on water, so I set off back down Cut Gate via Langsett Barn (and a brief lie down in the only significant patch of mud on the whole hill). The drag home was tiring, I suspect because I’ve only used a bike properly three times in the past month and a half, and I only had a bag of Jelly Babies for the whole ride. I still had a brilliant day off, though, I really should do this more often.
Ouch. I DNFed out of the Dyfi Enduro this year after binning it half-way around, at the top of the ‘World Cup’ descent, landing on some especially pointy slate, which cut clean through my gloves and deep into the palm of my right hand. It wasn’t entirely my fault for once, my unscheduled lie-down was precipitated by a rider in front of me choosing a very creative line almost perpendicular to my own path, forcing me to brake on slippery off-camber rocks, with the inevitable result that I parted company with my bike and got closely acquainted with the sharp edges of some Ordovician geology. It could have been a lot worse though: I had scrubbed a lot of speed before hitting the ground, and after my hands took the impact they were just badly cut and bruised, nothing broken. The one deep gash was quickly patched up by the excellent paramedics from St John’s Ambulance, called up by the nearby marshall. I didn’t feel up to completing the rest of the route on hands that could barely grip the bars, though, so I rolled down the road for a few miles before being picked up by a helpful course sweeper in a van who was ferrying a broken collarbone and another unspecified injury back to the start.
The weekend wasn’t a washout by any means, in spite of my latest foray into minor injury acquisition. I had enjoyed two days’ worth of excellent riding at Coed Y Brenin and the Climachx trail, along with a little more beer than was entirely sensible afterwards with various bike-riding friends. Dry, pleasant weather made a pleasing contrast to last year’s damp proceedings, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the course, and, this time, the spectacular views. You could even see the top of Cadair Idris. It did rain a little later on in the afternoon, but by that point I’d already decided to head for home before any post-injury stiffening made driving more difficult. Hopefully I shall be able to revisit the Dyfi Enduro next year, and I’d certainly like to head back to the area for more riding in general -perhaps with some tougher gloves, just in case.
The Mary Towneley Loop is a not-quite-fifty mile circuit of bridleways and back-roads in the South Pennines, in between Hebden Bridge, Rochdale, Ramsbottom, and Burnley. It is named after one Lady Towneley, who was apparently a fantastically rich horse-pestering fox-murderer, rather than anything interesting to do with bicycles, but who did inadvertently put together a challenging route for a bike ride whilst trying to find something to do with her sports-cow in between using it to hunt down and kill Lancastrian wildlife.
The loop has been on my to-do list for years, awaiting a day when I could muster enough enthusiasm for massive hills and double-track, and rope a couple of likely mugs into helping me open and close what is reputedly the finest collection of farm gates in the north. There are lots of gates on the MTL – someone told us there were about fifty or so, and in the interests of scientific investigation we decided to verify this by keeping a count of gates opened and/or closed on our way round. There were three of us keeping track so I’m pretty confident that we got the number for the day right, but we ignored gates clearly fixed open deliberately, or gateways with missing gates, and multiple-opening gates were only counted as one, so gate-counts from other sources may be different. We began our clockwise circuit from Bottomley in Calderdale, because it’s near to where one of us lives, although it turned out to be a good place to start for other reasons too. Clockwise is generally accepted as the best way to do the loop, as it keeps the hills relatively steady and shallow, and allows for more fun on the corresponding descents. Looking at various elevation profiles beforehand seemed to bear this theory out, although I would be interested to go back and re-ride the thing counter-clockwise one day to see how it compares – I think it would still make an interesting day out in the ‘wrong’ direction.
Adding the very first gate of the day to our running tally within a few hundred yards of our start point, the route immediately introduced us to the other main distinctive feature of the loop: a ruddy massive hill. Whilst the landscape hereabouts does in fact have large swathes of flat, smooth terrain all over the place, unfortunately being as they are elevated expanses of featureless peat bog on top of the hills, the actual paths and tracks that traverse the scenery are forced to hug the edges of the valleys, snake along the bottoms, or, frequently, lurch crazily up and down the steep sides like a demented slow-motion roller-coaster. The MTL follows a wide selection of the most-demented, most roller-coastery ones, presumably in order to give one’s equine steed a good solid workout whilst one sits on top of it admiring the pylons and whatnot, thereby providing those of us unfortunate enough to have to rely on our own metabolism for propulsion with a good chunky challenge to get our teeth into. As the first few miles of our day were undulating but not unduly so, and provided a decent warm up without breaking anyone, I would recommend Calderdale as a good starting point for anyone contemplating riding the loop.Another benefit of a Calderdale start is that there aren’t that many gates between Bottomley and Waterfoot, and you can make pretty good progress here provided you don’t get lost in Healey Dell, like we did (someone has nicked the signs, so bear right and don’t go down the old railway line, that’s the wrong way). Above Healey Dell we encountered Rooley Moor Road, the longest slog of the day, an arrow straight road-width track interspersed with long stretches of cobbles allegedly placed by locals during the “cotton famine” caused by the American Civil War. Mill workers, unable to find employment in factories starved of raw material, were paid to lay setts on this remote moorland, converting a small footpath to a full blown road to nowhere. Apparently paying people for completing a pointless task was more acceptable to the Victorian mind than just giving people money so they didn’t starve or freeze to death. With this bizarre monument to make-work employment dispatched we rolled down the entertaining, rocky descent into Rossendale, before negotiating a maze of back-streets out of Waterfoot and out towards Burnley.Lulled into a false sense of security by the relative lack of gates, we were soon to be disabused of our misconceptions; the MTL asserts its true nature in full force as it crosses the Forest of Rossendale. There are curiously few trees in the Forest of Rossendale – apparently they were all cut down and made into gates. Our tally leapt here from single digits well up into the thirties in a matter of a few miles. It also started to rain, and Rik noticed a slow-puncture on his back wheel. After donning waterproofs and a swift tube change, we relayed along the tracks from gate to gate, meandering towards Holme Chapel and then on to Hurstwood, where we took a brief detour to play on a fun bit of built bike trail instead of rolling down some boring double-track (I’m assured we didn’t miss any gates, though). We met a couple of walkers enjoying a cuppa on gate forty-something as the sun came out again. They gamely volunteered that they’d tried riding bicycles in the area once but found things a bit too steep and rocky – did we try to ride our bikes over everything? They boggled again when we told them that the steep, rocky bits were the best bits.The climb up from Hurstwood to Gorple is the second biggest of the day, and even with a fair tailwind helping us along we were starting to feel the miles in our legs. The views did much to compensate for the effort, and the descent to Widdop rewarded with a surprisingly rocky series of hairpins down to the reservoir. After a few stretches of quiet tarmac the route reverted to type, throwing three more sharp hills at us (and some gates) before we dropped back down into Calderdale once again. The ascent out through Callis Wood is quiet and steady and we ground slowly back up from the valley floor on to the final section of high ground for the day. Scattering a herd of sheep, we rolled onto London Road beneath the shadow of Stoodley Pike, with the last climb in sight ahead of us. A concerted grind up and over the shoulder of the hill led us to the fun drop back into Bottomley, and through the last few gates of the route.Our Mary Towneley Loop statistics for the day were as follows.
Distance: 76.28 km (a couple of kms were added on the ride in and out).
Time: 9:04:48 (but we stopped quite a lot to chat and eat and faff with gates, moving time was 6:41:30).
Elevation gain: 2,213 m (but it felt like more).
Total gates: 88 (and here we are at the final gate, quite glad to be done opening and closing the damn things).I think we can conclusively state that there are rather more than fifty gates on the MTL, and the current tally of 88 as of late-April 2017 is as close to a definitive figure as you’re likely to get, because I’m not going back out there to double check, and I’m not sure anyone else is daft enough to bother counting.