Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A Yorkshireman in Lancashire - a weekend in Manchester

Not as catchy a title as that Sting song, but heregoes...

Day 1

Getting away from work is no easy task these days, but my luck held and the on-off-on-off trip up to Manchester to stay with my sister finally went ahead this weekend, with a glorious couple of days riding and hillbagging in some decent September weather.

A late night drive up on the Thursday night made me very much welcome the sign of a comfy bed – although less so an early start on Friday to head out riding. Armed with a stomach stuffed full of cement-like porridge (food of champions) and a keen riding partner in Barry, the first bit of excitement was a trip in Barry’s legendary van. This is the kind of van which leaks through the sunroof even when it’s not raining, has a two-tone paint job thanks entirely to the sunshine, and the sound system to match personal cassette players of the early-80s. That said, it is the perfect bike-mobile and got us from A to B with zero technical problems (aside from me slipping out of the back while wearing cycling shoes, and then being laughed at by an eight-year-old ginger kid…) – I felt I should add this just in case I ever want to get in Barry’s van ever again!

First up (literally mile 1 of the ride) was Nick of Pendle:

Nick of Pendle

Not the best thing to do with cold legs, but the best bit was the sight of a mountain-biker ahead of us on the road, which was ample motivation to kick up the nicely steep climb to the nook between hills at the summit. Second best bit was the worlds smallest ski slope on the backside of the hill – featuring a dry ski slope which couldn’t have been more than 200m long:

World's smallest ski slope
Moving through the terrain, which was lumpy to say the least, Barry and I found ourselves at the top of a hill, discussing the relative merits of the ‘Trough of Bowland’ and why it had been included in the book…only to descend down the other side to find ourselves at the base of the next hill and the real Trough of Bowland. We have some way to go on realtime navigation and hill identification (more on this later)

Trough of Bowland
The ToB is a fantastic climb – enough to get you out of breath and to generate that feeling of self-worth in having reached the peak, but not enough to make you cough up a lung and with a road that winds through a series of interlocking spurs it is serenely quiet and beautiful at the same time. Yes, interlocking spurs is a term I learnt during GCSE geography…

Rising over the last dip, we could just about see the brown murk that passes for ocean in this part of the world: probably the combination of being close of Liverpool, Blackpool and Sellafield I would imagine, but it really was almost indistinguishable from the colour of the surrounding heather. Time for a photo op!

The Sea! (Somewhere in the brown stuff)
The next hill on the road was Jubilee Tower. It’s described in the book as climbing up to a tower built in celebration of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, and so as we wound our way uphill, we were a little surprised to see the hill capped off by this short, squat thing:

Not exactly a flotilla on the Thames
Hardly compares to what Queen Liz received this year, but they were different times I suppose (I'm not sure Madness would have been allowed on the rood of Buck House back then)…Still with a fairly sedate climb up, and great views over the moors at the top, it was a worthwhile inclusion.

A quick climb back over the ToB and our legs were definitely telling us it was lunchtime. As luck would have it, a local tea room was open and serving, so we popped inside to find a roaring fire and an old couple sat staring silently at each other. With the temperature rising and the atmosphere a little on the uncomfortable side, we took our chances and sat outside to dig into a couple of toasties. Obviously not enough for Barry, he opted for a ‘side-order’ of giant sausage butty:

Round two *ding ding*
Next up was the Cross of Greet, after a fair bit more of climbing to get to its base.

Road up the Cross of Greet
Probably the best climb of the day, the road rises to the highest point of the moors and up to a non-existent cross: at least they are consistent with the misleading hill names round here. As a climb it’s very similar to Alpine ascents, although without the hairpins, and with a lot more stoic moorlands in the foreground as opposed to stunning mountainous vistas. Still, it is a little bit like an Alpine climb in that it’s quite long and has a gentle average gradient.

Time for a quick photo op at the top, and then headed back to the van, via a few hills we had forgotten about, and feeling a bit of the knock on the ascent of the backside of Nick of Pendle. Not a bad ride though, covering 8 decent peaks and riding 3 of the 4 ‘categorised’ climbs up both sides
Sunlight over the hill

Laughing in the face of danger

Day 2
Having been stuffed up to our eyeballs with bucketloads of spaghetti carbonara lovingly prepared by Laura on Friday night, the enormous bowl of porridge on Saturday morning was probably unnecessary…but never one to begrudge food it would have been rude not to. Another exciting trip in the van took us up and over the Woodhead Pass, and down into Holmfirth – straight down the climb of Holme Moss that we were about to ascend. In contrast to Friday, the blue skies had appeared and although there was a chill in the air it was a perfect autumn day to be out on a bike.

Just like Friday, the route went uphill from mile 0, climbing the 1,200 feet up to the summit of Holme Moss. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe my legs have finally come back into form, but I felt very sprightly heading uphill and really enjoyed the 4 mile ride to the top

What a day for riding
Summit of Holme Moss
The ride got even better after that, with a perfect descent off the back to the Woodhead Road, casually topping out at around 45mph and with little need to touch the brakes until the base. Unfortunately there was little option to then join the busy A road crossing the Peaks to get to our next climb, and we slogged our way upwards climbing to a similar height we had just descended to with the traffic flying past only a few inches from our elbows – not massively pleasant. When we finally turned off the road, I had to drag Barry (a materials scientist) away from the Tata steelyard that had caught his attention – something to do with the way the steel was drawn from metal pipes into more and more narrow wires I think

Fascinating medal
At the base of Pea Royd Lane, we stopped briefly to allow a massive waggon to whine and stall its way up the first few corners before taking it on ourselves. Another knee-breaker, it starts with a fairly robust gradient which only flattens out a few hundred metres from the top. One of those that you look up at from the base and realise the amount you have the climb in such a small distance by just looking at the towering cliff ahead of you.

Pea Royd Lane
(complete with van of cheering builders)
After this, the road undulated over the top of the moors, winding through farmland and an enormous windfarm before dropping into Jackson Bridge. At this point, I somehow lost the GPS track, and missed a crucial turning without realising how costly a mistake this was. Having climbed past some roadworks, and descended an incredibly steep and narrow road, we found ourselves in the middle of a Food Festival, and after a bit of head scratching realised we had gone through the Holmfirth without having climbed the Jackson Bridge climb in the book. This was a minor disaster, as we both had one eye on lunch and the produce on offer, as well as realising that by back-tracking we would have to climb up the 25% Cinder Hills Road

Cinder Hills Road
With nothing to be done about it, it was a ‘grit your teeth’ moment and we headed back the way we had just come, knowing that even more climbing awaited us in Jackson Bridge. Once we got there, however, the road up Tenter Hill was really something to behold, and wound way up to a farmhouse at the top – and the marvellously named Dick Edge Road

After that, it was down, up, down, up and down again into Holmfirth for lamb sandwiches and cake (plus a burger for Barry)

Lamb sarnies
Knowing we were a bit pushed for time, we drove up to the next loop around Halifax rather than riding – and having ridden the roads there we were pretty glad of this decision later on. Halifax and the surrounding hills are incredibly tough – constantly up and down meaning that by the time we’d done the two climbs on a 20 mile loop, we’d actually climbed 8 peaks and over 3,500 ft.

The first official climb was the infamous Shibden Wall. A cobbled climb of over a mile, we were lucky to get through with all of our fillings in place. Having said that, there’s something about riding over rough terrain on a completely unsuitable bike (skinny and slick tyres, no suspension, and bike frames set up for racing on smooth tarmac) that is immensely satisfying and very fun.

Contemplating cobbles

Shibden Wall

More up and down followed, as well as a tour through what looked like the set of Shameless (albeit with a few more scary looking families hanging around on street corners), before we descended to the base of the ‘last’ climb of the day – Halifax Lane. Another tough one, I think the day’s undulations made it harder than it would have been with fresh legs, and it was a relief to get to the top and the fantastically named Halifax Vandals RUFC.

Halifax Lane - cobbles optional

Wheelie + concentration in Halifax

A warm welcome by a line of cows was a photo op not to be missed:

Bovine welcoming committee
Before jumping in the car and rushing back for our 8pm dinner reservation

Getting ready in a hurry

Day 3
Not to be missed before heading back was a quick ride up The Rake in Ramsbottom. To  be honest, this climb was much shorter and easier than I had expected…maybe my legs are coming back into form after all…

Mid-way up the Rake

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Riding in a hoolie – A weekend in York (with no riding there)

This blog has had something of a break recently – a bit like silly season in Parliament where they all go off on their holidays and leave the country to run itself (not that anyone seems to notice) – and I haven’t been out on my bike as much as might have liked. Still, there has been plenty of cycling action, what with the Olympics, Tour of Britain, the world-famous 3-lap challenge, and of course some racing of my own – so below are a few pictorial highlights of what I’ve been up to since riding the Dragon

Olympic watching
Croatian bike-based wine tasting
Marmotte-ing (on the Galibier)
It’s probably fair to say that having reached the 70 hill mark, I’ve become a bit complacent with ticking them off, and have managed to leave myself with quite a challenge to fit everything in before 31 December (not to mention making the task harder by doing the rest of the hills in the deteriorating weather). Although, that said, I’m not sure I could have relied on there being better weather in July/August after the summer we’ve had, so perhaps it’s for the best that I’m planning a trip to the Scottish Highlands in October – at least there won’t be any midges at that time of year (I hope).

It probably comes as no shock to you, dear reader, but it turns out that spending 10 days in the Croatian sunshine, drinking wine, beer and Negronis, and eating anything and everything (from courgettes stuffed with brains to copious amounts of gelato) isn’t great for one’s fitness. I was, however, suffering under the delusion that this wouldn’t have too much of an effect, and I would be able to carry my form into September’s 3-lap challenge with ease. After an ignominious round, I limped home to report that I’d managed to add over one-minute to my time – setting me back to where I was in May. Turns out that progress has many guises.

A trip up to Yorkshire was next on the cards, to tick off the climbs that are close (but not that close) to home – much to the chagrin of my Mum, who decided that a visit home ‘just to go cycling’ wasn’t on the acceptable scale of things! We drove up on the Friday night, and being the party animals that we are, even made our own cheese sandwiches to have as a car picnic. Not many people spend their Friday nights in a service station car park (and those that do generally leave the lights on and are expecting people to be peering through the windows…) but we were there, living the high life as usual.

Friday night cheese sandwich based fun
Early on Saturday morning, I struck out to the Yorkshire Dales, scene of the Etape du Dales and a notoriously hard place to ride – always up or down hill, and with fickle weather designed to beat you into submission. However on this particular morning a strange glowing yellow ball appeared in the sky, bringing warmth and light – no idea what that was (never seen that in the Dales before) but it was very welcome. It was still pretty parky, however, and the wind was up blowing the car all over the road on the drive there, and bending the trees so they were parallel with the ground.

First hill on the list was the 7/10 Park Rash, which is one of those hills you can see coming from a decent way off

Park Rash climbing out of the valley
Actually not as bad as it looked (or maybe it’s just my legs were feeling fresh), it starts off with two wickedly steep hairpins before getting to a more sane gradient for the rest of the climb. The sign says 1:4, but I think that’s an average as I’m pretty sure the corners were more like the 1:3 that you get on Rosedale/Hardknott.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I made my way North, only to be stopped on two separate occasions by cows. More accurately (on the first occasion) it was an open field of playful bullocks. Playful isn’t an adjective you often associate with bulls, but this lot seemed quite happy to play fight over the road all day, and they certainly paid no attention to my shouting and waving of arms. Rather than weave through them, I decided the prudent (although slightly less dignified) solution was to walk around them – man beaten by cow.

Didn't fancy arguing with this lot
Black and white cows
Having reached the Northern-most point of the loop, it was then time to head up the Stang, which turned out to be a fairly gentle ascent, with the requisite mid-climb cattle grid and plenty of road-kill from the nearby pheasant farm (stupid birds). There is a rule that you can’t ever pick up road kill that you’ve hit, but if you come across it then you’re more than welcome to help yourself. As appealing as that sounds to someone who loves a good money-saving scheme, I couldn’t quite stomach the idea of the next 40 or so miles with a rotting pheasant carcass in my back pocket…

Sadly I forgot to take pictures at this hill, and at the next, so here’s a picture of the future Queen of England instead

Probably not the picture you were expecting
(but no lawsuits here - and that's not me!)
After the Stang it was a case of following my nose to pick up some food. My stomach had rumbled as I cycled through the picturesque village of Reeth, and it turned out my instincts were spot on – there was a bakery blowing out it’s delicious scent and open for business. I may not have many talents, but I do have a nose for a good bakery…

One massive steak and ale pie later, and I was good to go (after washing the gravy off my chin/hands/legs etc)

The 'Dan Dare' bike size pie
Out of Reeth, the going got harder as I turned into the gale that had been mostly behind me for the outward leg. This also coincided with a number of short but steep inclines, meaning that I tasted the pie again on a couple of occasions – sorry if this is more detail than you needed to know…

And of course this wouldn’t be a 100-climbs ride if there wasn’t a road that looked like a road on Google maps, only to turn out to be a lumpy gravel track down a steep hill

Gravel again, thanks Google
Up and over the tops into the wind, I was really starting to feel the lack of endurance rides, as well as the strong wind, so the ride up Oxnop Scar was pretty tricky especially the steep kick at the start. Nevertheless I persevered and was rewarded with a view of…the moors that I had just crossed and had been looking at all day. Who says that you don’t get anything back from hill climbing.

After that it was just a case of rolling back, into the wind or course, to the car in Grassington – where it turned out that the sleepy market square I’d parked had been transformed into a tourist mecca, and wasn’t the most subtle place to get changed out of my lyrca. Oh well, needs must…

Sunday was a difficult morning to lever myself out of bed, especially after sinking a few ales at a folk gig (don’t ask) the night before, and seeing the wet windy weather out of the window.

Relaxing folk music. Very relaxing, as it happens
Still, I knew I needed to get going, as I’d promised to be back in York by lunchtime, and needed to fit in three hill-climbs and a drive to and from Durham into that 5 hours…What I hadn’t gambled on was the A1 being full of traffic heading up to the Great North Run. Damn you charity-fundraising-fun-running swine. Fortunately I flipped into rally-driver mode, and hit the minor roads with a vengeance, making it up to Lanchester ahead of the expected time, and with a good adrenaline rush to boot. Good thing that the roads are quiet on a Sunday morning ;)

Predictably, Lanchester was dead at 8.30 on a Sunday morning, meaning there was an undignified rush to find the only open place with public conveniences - cue a bemused conversation with a sleepy garage owner while dressed in lyrca. Joy.

I had originally planned a 70 mile circular  ride linking all of the days hills, but didn't have enough time to get round the route so decided to climb the first - Park Rash - and then drive to Stanhope where the other two were in hitting distance. Park Rash was a lovely re-introduction to Northumbria, with no cars on the road and the sun poking through the clouds, and a hill big enough to get the blood pumping, but gentle enough to make sure that I still had both of my lungs by the time I reached the top.
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A quick stint in the car up and over the moors (incidentally the scene of my soul being crushed by the wind when I toured from Coldstream to Wiltshire last year - it seems this is always a hard road to ride), and I was down in Stanhope and at the base of the Crawleyside climb. This must be nodder central, as there were tons of people milling around on old mountain bikes (and even a Brompton) - but to their credit they were mostly straining and struggling to make it up the same climb. Which made me feel somewhat overdressed and a bit of a Flash Harry with my sparkly race bike - all extra motivation to climb at a decent rate I suppose...

The climb itself is a long beast, with some killer steep slopes from the off, and a second kick about half way in. However, there was an enormous tailwind blowing me up so all in all it felt pretty manageable. Not one to hang around on the top of, as the wind cut through everything I was wearing and the dark clouds were looming ominously in the foreground
Bleak Pennine gloom from the top of Crawleyside
The descent was incredibly hairy, with the headwind blowing me to almost a standstill in places and making it hard to stay in a straight line. At the bottom, the trip to the base of Chapel Fell was a long old slog along a fairly busy road and still into the wind - I think I averaged only about 12mph despite putting in some decent efforts. At this point I was pretty glad I didn't have to do the whole loop...

The presence of a rainbow close by provided a brief restbite, although this was broken by the realisation that a rainbow means rain...
Rainbow - it's there, honest
Needless to say, the rain did start to come down as I got to St John's Chapel, and as I turned up the road to Chapel Fell it started to come down in stair-rods. Chapel Fell is the highest paved road in England, and at its base there is a sign which does the opposite of leaving you with a warm fuzzy feeling:
Nice to know
As well as the rain, there was the wind to contend with, and with almost no-one else around (besides the odd sheep farmer driving past and staring incredulously) the overall level of 'bleak' rose to about 11/10 on my bleak-o-meter. Still, there was a hill to climb so I grit my teeth and pushed on, up the hill and along the undulating gradient. It's a long climb, and one that I think would be great if it wasn't for the weather as the surface is good, the road quiet, and the views spectacular. However, this wasn't the best of days, as my photo at the top shows:
Pretty sure this is the face I was pulling
all the way up
That said, the ride down and back to the car was amazing - pure unadulterated tailwind. Bliss!