What if you were given just the start point and a GPS route?

Northern moorlands can take on a sinister aspect when all you’ve got to go on is a friend’s GPX file loaded into your Garmin.

>>> 100 best mountain bike routes in the UK

Words and photos by Sim Mainey

Route guides are great. They distil the best trails in an area into one cohesive loop. They tell you how far you’ll go, how high you’ll climb, how to get to the start, where to park and where the best cafés, pubs and bike shops are along the way. Route guides let you pick and choose where and what you ride depending on your whims and wants and before you even turn a wheel you can find out just about every detail about your ride – enough to even make a decision about what tyres to fit.

Route guides suck. You know where you’re going, you know how far it’s going to be. You’ve got a good idea of how long it will take you, how much climbing to mentally prepare for, where the lunch stop will be and, if you want to, you can probably find out what’s on the menu. It’s all laid out for you – a ride with the sense of adventure hollowed out of it and opportunity for serendipity reduced to a bare minimum.

The solution

Riding trails blind is one of the greatest thrills of riding a bike offroad. The joy of unknown dirt under your tyres, the anticipation of what might be round the next corner, working out when to push on and when to hold back, riding on instinct and feel. If you’re riding has grown a little stale why not do a GPX swap with friends. Design them a route and get them to the same, swap them and see where it takes you – chances are it won’t be what you were expecting.

Magical mystery tour

That’s probably overstating things but I think there’s a balance to be struck, a way of combining the guarantee of great trails that a route guide delivers with the buzz of not knowing what’s coming up next. What if you were only given a starting point and a route loaded onto a GPS unit with no idea of distance, elevation or terrain and had to rely purely on turn by turn directions to navigate the route?

Route master

Deputy online editor Benji Haworth lives a couple of valleys away from me in Lancashire. As the crow flies it’s no distance at all but in reality it’s a bit of trek so while I’ve ridden over his way a couple of times I don’t really know my way around. As Benji and I have a shared love of trail finding and similar tastes in what constitutes a good ride I figured he might be the right man to deliver me a Lancastrian magical mystery tour. I floated the idea to Benji explaining that he could be as nice or cruel to me as he liked with regards to trail choice and route length, the only caveat being I had to finish the ride with us still friends. Or at least on civil speaking terms.

An email pops through from Benji, “Booyakasha. GPX attached. Start at the bottom of Cowpe Lane, Waterfoot.” An entire route in one sentence and a file attachment. I load it straight onto my Garmin without taking a look at what is in store for me.

The next morning Dave and I arrive at the starting point, fire up the Garmin and get our first glimpse at what we’ve let ourselves in for. We zoom in on the map to ensure we keep ourselves on the right track and to keep things interesting – 50m of forward warning is all we’re allowing ourselves.

Satellites acquired and a bearing worked out we head out along a cycletrack through disused railway tunnels, following the bottom of the valley. Our pleasant warm up doesn’t last long, a 90º right hander points us straight up the valley side. Gears clunk and grind as the largest sprockets on our cassettes get called into use. We pass through the post-industrial strata of this part of the world, factories, waterways, roads and railways fill the bottom of the hill, housing just above that, then light industry passing eventually to farm land. Above that is the no-man’s land of the moors. Once a busy working environment it’s now a mix of museum, playground and English savannah. I have a suspicion this is where Benji is taking us.

The first thing we learn is to not make any assumptions. The wide track we’ve been climbing on looks like the obvious way up the hill, but a distraught bleep comes from my handlebars, ‘Off Course’. Of course. We backtrack, losing hard won height and look for where we should be going. A grassy lane hidden by reeds is where we should have turned off, I make a note to pay a bit more attention to where we’re supposed to be going as opposed to where I think we should be going.

Who needs route markers anyway?

We reach the moor’s ridgeline and stop a moment to catch our breath and look at our surroundings. We’ve only come five kilometres but already I’m slightly disorientated. There are the odd landmarks I can make out but I struggle to work out where that places us.


The light has a subtle quality to it, the kind you only seem to get on the moors or at the coast. There’s little contrast either in the sky or on the ground, everything appears flat, neutral. A wave of cloud pours over the other side of the valley swallowing wind turbines whole. There’s a good distance between us and the advancing wall of cloud but there’s a sense that when it does reach us we’re going to get wet. Exposed on the treeless moors there’s the potential for things to become unpleasant quickly. We crack on.

Steaming through a disused railway tunnel

From not really knowing where we are we suddenly know exactly where we are. We’ve joined up to the red trail at Cragg Quarry, a trail I’ve ridden plenty of times before. “But, I thought Cragg Quarry was over there.” I point off to what I think is the East. I’m thrown and I realise that my inbuilt navigation has gone haywire and I’m almost entirely dependent on the little plastic box of silicon attached to my bars. This makes me feel slightly uneasy. As someone who has put more than a few routes together over the years details, forward planning and knowing my Never Eat Shredded Wheat at all times is important. Having completely entrusted someone else with all that is making me twitch. There’s no backup either, I’ve not brought a map, compass or any other devices that might lend some more perspective on where we are.

There’s some interpretation of what the GPS says we should be riding and what I think Benji intended for us to ride. While the line on the screen is straight, taking us along the bridleway through the quarry, the red trail to our left snakes alongside, occasionally veering off before returning alongside the bridleway. Figuring that Benji would be more likely to have us ride the fun bit than schlep along in a straight line we meander off, causing all kinds of beeping from below.

We’re eventually guided out of the quarry and onto the moor again. The only trail we can see goes straight on over the tussoked horizon. The GPS says to go right. Right takes us to the edge of a cliff. This ride is certainly testing our faith in Benji’s trail divination and has us trying to think if we’ve ever pissed him off in the past. This would be a rather convenient way of serving up some stone cold revenge.

“What would Benji do?” Who’d have thought a GPS ride called for mind reading?

On closer inspection of the cliff edge there’s the faintest of trails, slightly flattened grass that would make a sheep track look like an A-road. Despite using a computer that is getting information from satellites we’re still very much relying on keen eyes honed over the years scouting trails to navigate safely.

The faint track becomes slightly more obvious, likely as there’s only one way down from the cliff, down a grassy ridgeline and into a mesh of water filled ruts from motocross bikes powering up the hillside. We surf down the frothed up dirt dropping down a particularly loose chute to the bottom of the hung valley. A hat tip for that one.

Bearing down on a moorland reservoir

The subtle light and shades of blue and white have turned to plain grey. The cloud bank that hovered at a distance earlier has arrived, the sky empties itself onto us mercilessly. We can’t beat an escape though, we have to carry on following the prescribed route, trying to save ourselves from the rain will likely just lead to us getting lost. We just keep following the lines on the screen, matching them up with lines on the ground.

A modicum of psychology comes into play as we ride along. ‘What would Benji do’ becomes our mantra when looking at any ambiguous options in front of us. I’ve ridden with Benji long enough to know what kind of trail he’s likely choose. Typically he’ll go for the most efficient way to the top of the hill. If that means a 200mm climb up a wall of loose gravel then that’s the way to go. Contouring slowly uphill isn’t his style, you might as well suffer horribly for a little while than suffer slightly less for much longer. Equally when it comes to downhills I know he’ll seek out the steepest, technical trails he can, relishing the challenge of making it to the bottom in one piece. So, when faced with some confusion on the Garmin I look at the options, think about rides with Benji and, with some degree of accuracy, make a good guess at where we should be going.

“I reckon the quarry road’s safe bet, even for Benji”

Despite this we’re thrown a few curve balls, such as a trail that starts behind a bus stop and through a wall. “You have got to be kidding” says Dave as we look down this nothing trail, a scrappy little dirt thread that looks like it rarely sees anyone walking on it let alone riding it. Surely this is a mistake. I wipe rain off the GPS screen, nope, this is it. We keep the faith and follow the trail. The dirt strip opens up slightly and becomes a great bit of singletrack with off-camber rock sections to keep things interesting. I never doubted you Benji, not for a moment.

For the next trick…

We ride across car parks, through the middle of a factory, dodging fork lift trucks – never mind why he decided to send us this way, how the hell did he even find these trails!

We continue through a farmyard, over a wall, up a hoof-pocked hill and onto an old Tarmac track, possibly once used to move rock out of the quarries. We climb, the sound of heavy machinery comes over the brow of the hill. We leave the mettled track onto boggy grass and drop into the top of a wood. Roots, rocks, jumps, berms – this is a mountain biker’s playground. We’ve no idea how much further we have to go, we’ve got no idea whether to give it all on this descent or hold some energy back for the potential next 10 hills back to the start. One things for sure, we’re hoping there’s a café round the next corner. Isotonic liquids so far have involved rain streaming through our helmets, down our faces and depositing salty rainwater on our top lips.

A cairn-do attitude leaves no stone unturned

Back at the bottom of the valley we wonder if we’re in for an easy ride back to the start or another brutal climb. It could go either way. I don’t know how far we’ve come or how far there is to go. After a mile or so on a little used cycle track we turn a corner and find ourselves back at the car. A strange sense of satisfaction hits me, we’ve done it! I’m soaked to the skin but happy. Despite having our hands held all the way round it feels like we’ve done this unaided and in some way discovered the trails for ourselves.