Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Road trip. Northern stylee.

What a wicked week! Had little time to write because I’ve been so busy riding! On Wednesday I met my good friend Dougie from Fort Bill up at Glentress. As I’ve said before, I’m not really a great fan of trail centres but if there is one that I always enjoy it’s Glentress. Maybe it’s the constantly evolving trails? Maybe it’s the café? Or maybe it’s because when I ride there, it’s usually a bit more of a social. Despite heavy damp mist crossing the border, Glentress seemed to sit in a bit of a pocket; not clear but not muggy and cold as it was when I left Morpeth.

It was good to catch up with Dougie and we meandered around at a steady pace chatting away. We then bumped into two couples and all ended up riding together. Maybe it’s the way when some bikers get together but we really had plenty to talk about and it was change for me to not be focusing on ‘Training’. Well, I say that… as time went on, one of the guys, (riding an SX Trail – you know who you are!) and I engaged in a bit of friendly ‘duelling’ on the descents and fast singletrack sections…. He was pretty quick and it took some big efforts and a dip into the lactic to occasionally pull away from him… A good rider and a great sport!

Managed to talk Dougie into a night and a day in Northumberland so we drove back down over the border. Thursday dawned and I wanted to show the big man some of the great trails around Thrunton. I knew conditions would be perfect as I imagine they have been up and down the country recently. It was perfect, and as usual for this little known gem it was deserted.

My plan for the week was to spend the weekend in the Lakes, and watching the excellent weather forecast unfold I realised this was going to be a classic weekend. (Not difficult to talk Dougie into another night or two!) I had big back to back rides pencilled in; 6 hours on Saturday and 8 on Sunday. This isn’t really Dougie’s scene so I sent him off round the classic loop: The Back of Skiddaw. He’d considered going to Whinlatter but I talked him round! The Skiddaw loop really is an absolute classic and gives an experience that could never be matched by any trail centre I’ve ridden. As Dougie had never visited the Lakes before, it was the right ride as there are virtually no navigation issues. (I set him round clockwise as you face Skiddaw from Keswick; going up Dash Falls. It always amazes me how many people do it anti-clockwise and loose all the height on the road towards Bassenthwaite….).

I set off up Lattrigg and headed out to Skiddaw House but with no intention of descending Dash. This has to be some of the best and most scenic singletrack anywhere. I continued out towards Mungrizedale along the flat but fast and fun trail that remains generally walker free due to the distances from Keswick and the roads. This is the type of place that is stunning on a good day but grim on a bad one…. Well today it was springy peat joy and the sun was already generating some real warmth.

I turned right and settled in for a few road miles. The next instalment was to head toward Matterdale End, turn off the Coach Road at and climb the ridge to just under the peak of Helvelyn. This climb is a beast; it’s the shallowest angle up to the peak but is essentially grass, peat and draggy moss that never seems to dry out. Friendly duel number 2 started! Mountain Biker versus Fell Runner! Despite an apparently un-athletic gait, this guy just kept going like some kind of remorseless running zombie… Regardless, his style was brutally effective and he pulled away from me as my wheels were increasingly pulled into the ground. It was really hard work for a good twenty minutes before the ground firmed up. As the ridge levelled out I caught The Running Man again… I commented on how hard it was to catch him and he gave me a knowing look. It was the type of cheeky grin that could only be made by those who are secretly aware of their magical abilities…. (I actually passed him 4 hours later in his car; sweat still glistening on his brow…). Respect to that man!

After desperately trying to look like ‘it was really nothing’ to go past him, I turned off left to head down Sticks Pass. Unfortunately the track has been sanitised substantially, (sorry; I meant to say sustainable improvements have been made) but it’s still a steep fast, slippery, rocky and sketchy descent all the way down to Patterdale. Next, I headed round the back of Ulswater for one of the best bits of trialsy singletrack in the Lakes. The bone dry and ultra grippy surfaces had me riding up and down things I didn’t think I was going to make on several occasions…. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden here and I totally forgot what a long road slog it was to Pooley Bridge and round the lake to start the climb back to the start of the Coach Road. Oh well, good to get the legs spinning after the stop / start / balance fun of the last section.

Up the road, past The Smiling Running Man, across the deserted and sun dried fell track (yes; sun dried!) and down the high speed rocky plummet to St Johns. Home. Curry. Relax!

A good early night set me up for Sunday’s 8 hour beasting…. Dougie was heading back up the coast and he kindly dropped me off at St Bees. The plan was to ride a solid section of the Coast to Coast just to get an idea of average speed and consolidate a couple of navigational issues. Out of St Bees, I joined the Coast to Coast cycle path. Surprisingly for me, I actually quite enjoyed this section! It’s a nice smooth path, the morning sun was slowly creating heat, glinting through Spring green trees and there were many cheery locals out walking. This will be a great warm up come the day.

Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of the Lakes fells and it reminded me why I was here…. I dropped alongside Ennerdale water and in the distance Black Sail Pass loomed in the hazy sunshine. I breathed deep in anticipation of the big wake up call lying just beyond Black Sail Hut. Off the bike and carry. I have decided not to force these sections. Get off and push earlier rather than later. Conserve energy. Steady not fast. Save that for when it can make a marked difference. My pacing was perfect. In fact it took me forty minutes to get up and over. Well pleased with that! Next slog was up to Bulatt Bridge. More pushing across ankle twisting round rocks. The pedalling got easier past the bridge and the unpredictable swoop down to Eskdale began. Great fun, but plenty of random big holes to catch you out….

Slog number 3… over Dunnerdale. Even the flat on the top is unrideable…. Sawn off tree stumps and peat bogs make running the quicker option before the singletrack gets fast and fun again, down to the steeping stone crossing. Nice hot day; just jump in the water, wade, clear the peat of the legs and cool down.

I’m sure the short section of road to the bottom of Walna Scar has been placed to strategically intimidate…. The pass faces you directly and puts the ‘loom’ into looming…. It’s a monster. Long. Long. Long…. And just the sort of gradient that has you spinning the granny ring, fighting for traction, getting off, getting back on… But a focus on good pacing had me cresting the pass having exerted just the right amount of energy… Not too fast. Not too slow.

Then the fun began! I love this descent! Fast, steep at points and the odd major feature thrown in for good measure. Bizarrely, I did not see a single person all the way down! Weird on such an amazing day. Seat down and sliding round corners in blazing sunshine it was a far cry form the last time I rode down here with Paul Errington in the pitch black… Both great in their own way.

Through to Tilberthwaite. Up the road to the Loughrigg descent but I chose to dip left into Grasmere, (and then back on the road to Keswick) rather than attempt The Terrace on a sunny Sunday afternoon. My years of working in Grasmere and Ambleside taught me that that is a no no… So far I had ridden for 6 and a half hours. I calculated that I would have reached Troutbeck about forty five minutes later if I had continued. This bodes well. 55 miles of gnarl at about 7.5 miles an hour. The average I need to achieve for a sub 24 crossing is 8.75mph. My speed will pick up once the Lakes are behind me. Some days I think ‘Yes’ it’s possible. Other days I say ‘No it’s ridiculous’. Today was a ‘Yes’ day. It can be done in under 24 hours. Will I do it? I hope so. If I don’t, somebody will crack it eventually and the best of luck to anyone who decides to give it a one hit run. I’ll be happy to complete it no matter what happens. It’s an awe inspiring and intriguing challenge that has really caught my imagination. So many variables to consider. The calculating and wondering will get its final resolve next month. I can’t wait.

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