We’re finally breaking fee from winter, but impatience got the better of us, so we went in search of mud-free trails, in the most unlikely of places.
Words and photos: Sim Mainey
Mud is the substance that binds British mountain biking together. It’s a dirty obsession that unites riders across the country, a common theme to off road stories. Claggy mud, gritty mud, thin cement-like mud, fibrous sticky mud – maybe it’s the rich variety of it that fascinates us. Maybe it’s the prevalence of the stuff – a year round feature of every ride. Mud deeply affects our riding, dictating when and where we ride, our relationship with trails and even what we spend our money on. We select frames based on the amount of mud clearance they have, tyres with a variety of spikes, sipes, blocks and compounds are stashed in the shed to tackle differing levels of slop, we are possibly one of the few countries in the world where a mudguard grouptest will be read with as much interest as one for high end forks. We have come to embrace mud as an essential part of any ride.
It’s not like we have a monopoly on the stuff either, we just seem to take it to heart a little more than other countries. Mud matters to us so we feel a certain camaraderie with countries that share a similar climate and affinity for liquid dust. Bikes and components from Canada and the Pacific North West have always been well received in the UK while those from a little further south in perma-sunny California are treated, probably unfairly, with a slight sense of suspicion.
It might seem perverse but when Summer bleeds into Autumn and the trails start to soften I’m secretly pleased. I love the feeling of my tyres sinking ever so slightly into the ground, biting into the dirt and adding a bit more jeopardy to a ride. I even actively go looking for dirt of the right consistency, aka ‘hero dirt’. I’d take soft loam over dusty trails any day. Riding in mud just feels right. Up to a point.
That point is when the thought of having to hose down the bike and all your riding gear puts you off going out in the first place, where your shoes look like fossils and you’re fishing round in the spares box for yet another set of brake pads. At this point for all the bluff and bluster mud is less the substance that binds British mountain biking together and more the substance that grinds it to a halt.
I had found myself at this point. A winter of being covered in dirt had eventually got to me and I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to ride my bike but I couldn’t face adding to the small pile of earth scraped and jet-washed from bikes, shoes, shorts and jackets that had accumulated outside my back door. I wanted to ride, I didn’t want to get muddy, I didn’t want to carve an even deeper trough into the local trails. The answer was to head for rockier ground, to go where there was less soil and more solid substrates. While the mountains of the Lakes or North Wales were the obvious choices they were also likely to still be covered in snow dumped from Siberia. I needed rocky trails but without too much altitude, which left one place to my mind – the Yorkshire Dales.
The Dales isn’t a mud free zone by any means, there’s plenty of opportunity to end up axle deep in clag if you go looking for it, but with a bit of careful planning it’s possible to put together a decent sized ride that avoids too much filth. My plan was to call up Stu at Dales Bike Centre in Fremington and ask him to help me out with a route that avoided the brown stuff but in the end I didn’t need to, he’d already put a route on his website that was accompanied by the phrase, “Drains well so good riding in all conditions.” Perfect.
Despite being of generally optimistic disposition I’m also a realist so although I was determined to stay mud-free I knew I was still going to get wet. This is Yorkshire after all and with the amount of snow we’d had there was going to be a lot of melt-water on the hills. I was OK with this though, I could dress for wet and at least wet means clean, requiring just a post-ride towelling down rather than full-on decontamination.
The sun is making an effort to burn off a thin veil of cloud as we arrive in Swaledale. Snow is stacked up against the drystone walls on the tops of the valley but the lambs in the fields below and the first signs of daffodils give tale of two seasons. “Yeah, that route should be fine” says Stu, nodding as he looks at the map spread out on the counter. “You might get a bit of standing water here and here, he circles the offending bits of trail, but other than that it should be pretty dry” and mud free, I ask. Stu nods again. This ride is coming together with unprecedented ease.
The first half of the ride is a pleasant 12km spin from Fremington to Gunnerside on a well marked bridleway that runs alongside the River Swale. Some of the fields we pass through are flooded and sections of the bridleway hint at having been recently rebuilt after being washed away. A couple of deep puddles and the occasional snow drift are the only technical features to be found. We’ve done a third of the ride by the time we’ve got to Gunnerside and I’m mud free, so far so good. It’s at this point that we start to climb, leaving the green of the valley bottom for the grey, beige and white of the moors.
It’s become a bit of an in-joke in mountain biking circles but ‘What tyres for…’ is probably the question that keeps most riders up at night before a ride. Arguably nothing else makes a bigger difference to your ability to tackle mud than the rubber your bike is wearing. Carcass size and shape, tread depth and compounds all come together to determine just how much grip or slip you’ll have and what works one place can come unstuck in another. It’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole of tyre geekery. I stare down at my front tyre – a well proportioned Schwalbe Magic Mary with rows of pronounced spikes. I’ve got the same on the rear. For where I live it’s the perfect tyre for much of the year, but I think they might be a bit much for this purposefully hard-surfaced route. Some things are just meant to live in the mud. One component that is coming into its own despite its name is the mudguard. There might not be much dirt around but spray from the water that runs down the bridleway is kept out of our eyes.
Axle deep in ****
We clamber over a gate that has been half buried in the snow and break off the well surfaced track, known locally as The Yellow Brick Road, and pick up a rougher, wetter trail that will take us to the head of Gunnerside Gill. We go no further than 20 metres before Dan has come to a dead stop axle deep in mud. Thick, stinking mud covers his back wheel and swingarm. “I thought this was a mud free ride!” he moans as he drags his bike out of the miniature bog. “To be fair I’m not sure that’s really mud, mud doesn’t normally smell that bad”. The rest of the trail down to the old workings at the head of Gunnerside Gill is wet but bog free.
There’s a good reason Gunnerside Gill is reasonably devoid of mud. Back when the area was being mined contributory streams that fed the gill were dammed and then released, the surging water stripping the soil from the hill and helping to expose seams of lead ore. Nature has crept back since the mines closed but heaps of rocky spoil means there’s little dirt under our tyres. We cross the footbridge at the old lead workings and head back on the opposite side of the valley. This side of the valley is a lot rockier and as we climb and then hike-a-bike up into the deep scars left by intense mining the scenery looks more like Alaska than Yorkshire. The snow is still deep here, smoothing the gaps between the rocks and making for slow going on this westerly aspect. The trail vanishes under a thick, crunchy layer of off-white. We kick-step up the hill, aiming for posts and cairns our only reference points in this white and grey landscape.
Out of the shelter of the valley it’s cold. The sun has decided not to break through the clouds and the world around us seems very bleak. Bleak is something the Dales does well. On a good day it’s drystone wall to drystone wall green, on a not so good day it’s endless grey. Slashes of white in amongst the drab offer a touch of relief but it’s a barren place with no trees and very little green of any kind. We end up riding down a gulley, the track we want to be on above us and covered in snow too deep to push or carry over.
Snow drifts scaled, fallen into and broken through we’re back on the trail. It’s like riding on the moon, giant mole hills of pale rock litter the landscape and under tyre is a mix of rock crushed to various grades. It should be hard packed and fast rolling but it’s spongy, soft and draggy. We’re riding on a surface that feels like it’s inch deep mud but there’s no dirt being flung up. It’s messing with our minds. I thought my beef with mud was the aftermath it leaves, the cleaning up, the wear and tear on my bike but it’s dawning on me that it’s maybe more than that, it’s the pull at my tyres, the draining effect on my legs – the unseen effect that mud has on my riding. I’m soaked, reasonably clean but really quite tired.
We’ve not seen another soul on the ride. The only vehicles we’ve seen have been a car, long abandoned in a pool of water and a tractor equipped with a second set of tyres parked in the middle of nowhere. Tyre tracks through the snow show we’re not the only ones to have travelled this way though. In a cruel twist the final descent is on sodden close-cropped grass, potentially our mud-free ride will be undone at the last few turns. That golf green grass mixed with water is slick, sending wheels sideways on turns and immune to attempts to lose any speed. At the bottom of the trail we’re not dirtier than the top but quite a bit wetter. Success! We get back to Dales Bike Centre just as Stu is closing up so miss out on their famous selection of cakes. We hose down the bikes, more out of habit than because they need it.
When it all gets a bit much and you’d rather not take several kilos of the trail home with you, it can pay to pick your rides and to look further afield. Mud is good though and I do think that getting at least a little muddy is part and parcel of riding a bike off road. We are British after all.