The Peak District’s rocky descents, scree scrambles and wild reservoirs are a cinch to explore in the age of digital mapping – just download an app.
Words and pics: Sim Mainey
To paraphrase the Fast Show; isn’t the internet brilliant for mountain bikers? Obviously it’s fantastic generally – at any moment the small computer in your pocket can give you access to the sum entirety of human knowledge and let you order a takeaway without having to leave the sofa. Often at the same time. We surely live in exciting times.
As a mountain biker the internet has become an invaluable tool. If I need to repair my bike there are manuals, videos and step by step instructions a couple of clicks away, if I need to know what tyres for any occasion there are a dozen different voices all willing to give a (differing) opinion. Routes can be researched, plotted and followed all on one device. And with the likes of YouTube, Vimeo and Instagram visual inspiration to leave the house or for places to ride is never far away.
This is all great, but, and you knew there’d be a but, there’s something that’s been annoying me for a while now and I’d like to get it off my chest.
If you’ve spent any time on platforms like Instagram or Twitter you might have seen the hashtag #outsideisfree, usually accompanied by a photo of a reasonably expensive bike in a location that has probably required a drive of some sort to get to. Outside isn’t free, it’s incredibly good valuable but it’s not free. Even if you change the context the outside and our freedom to it has been, and continues to be, hard fought for. The ongoing story of which is best told in The Peak District.
The Peak District sits slap bang in the middle of the country flanked by Manchester to the north west and Sheffield to the east. With these huge conurbations at its edges it’s not surprising that the Peak District was the first and remains the busiest national park in the UK – the sheer number of people wanting to get away from the urban sprawl means it’s rare to find yourself alone here.
It’s a sunny Friday morning and Rob, Rafi and I have met up in the town of Hope to tackle a route that can truly be described as a classic. Despite this being a well known favourite neither Rob or Rafi have ridden it before, or in fact done any riding in the Peak. After a week of dry weather they’re in for a very dusty introduction.
Our first stop comes 100m into the ride as Rob dumps his bike by the side of the road and runs into Watson’s Farm Shop for a pie. This sets the tone for the ride – stop for views, stop for food, stop for photos, stop because it seems like the right thing to do. The climb out of Hope is gentle enough, the bridleway slowly gaining height and opening up the views across the vivid Technicolor green valley. Curious lambs block our way, unfazed by strange men and machines until called back by their mothers and then bouncing off in a panic. It doesn’t get more quintessentially British than this.
Fight for your right
To the west of us is Edale Moor and beyond Kinder Scout – the place where the fight to make the outside free started. In 1932 a group of ramblers struck out for Kinder Scout from Bowden Bridge, but this was no ordinary walk. In 1932 walkers had no right to roam, no access to the countryside and the walk they had set out on was one of mass disobedience and trespass. They came into conflict with estate gamekeepers but managed to reach their goal. This event lead to a long running campaign by The Ramblers’ Association to give the public the right to walk on access land culminating 68 years later with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. As mountain bikers it sometimes feels like we’ve got a pretty rough deal being confined to byways and bridleways but the reality is that we’re new to the scene. It took 68 years for the ramblers to get what they were after and it will likely take us a good deal of time to get where we want to be. In this part of the country groups like Ride Sheffield and Peak District MTB are working to improve mountain biking’s profile and reputation with landowners and user groups to make more of the countryside accessible as well as looking after that which we currently enjoy.
Today our route takes us away from Kinder Scout, down and round Derwent and Ladybower reservoirs. This means the first descent of the day is down local favourite, The Beast.
If I could sum up riding in the Peak generally, and The Beast in particular, it would be rocky. Big lumps of the stuff, some unmoving and offering dependable traction but just as often loose, unpredictable and a real test of line choice, skill and suspension. While considering this point two riders on rigid fat bikes bounce down the trail. They seem to be having fun and although the sound of teeth chattering isn’t quite audible it seems like it should be. With the sun streaming through the trees and the dust hanging in the air this sunken lane filled with millstone grit rubble is a challenge, when it’s wet and the gloom seems to pour out of the woods it can be a properly intimidating ride and easily earns its name.
After such a brutal descent you’d hope for a gentle climb, but no such luck here – from the valley floor to the top of the next hill is one long struggle fest. Valley halfpipe completed we get our breath back and enjoy riding along the undulating track that hugs the ridgeline, the reservoir below flitting in and out of view through the trees. Speeds start to pick up and soon enough we’re back to charging down another sunken lane, less rocky than The Beast but with enough jeopardy that our full attention is required. Thanks to the dry weather Derwent Reservoir has gained a sizeable beach which seems like an ideal picnic spot to get sand in our sandwiches and top up tans before the next climb.
Ahead by a nose
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the iPhone-nose-swipe but essentially it’s using your nose rather than finger to unlock your phone. It’s not something I’ve really been familiar with until now. As well as packing a map I’ve downloaded our route onto my phone on the OS Maps app. It’s damn clever, but when you’re riding along with non-touchscreen friendly gloves on it requires you to use your head a little to access it. We’re looking for a bridleway to our left and I want to make sure we don’t miss it. My inelegant solution to this elegant app is to stab at my phone with my nose. Daft as it looks it works and we find ourselves on the start of the climb back out of the valley.
The packhorse trail up the hill is direct. There’s no contouring to ease the ascent or room to tack from side to side. Head down, pedal, maintain grip on the rear tyre and try to stop the front end from lifting. Thankfully it’s a reasonably short haul but it’s a pretty brutal way to start this second half of the ride – outside isn’t free, it’s hard work. The climb soon mellows and changes from the weather-proof slabs to more delicate moorland.
The Peak District can be split broadly into two – the Dark Peak, named after the colour of the peaty moorland, and the limestone White Peak. While this route is based in the Dark Peak it’s anything but today. The trails that, with a bit of water, can become an oily grinding paste of Millstone Grit are instead sandy, drifty and being blown into our eyes.
The singletrack trail twists round the side of the hill and brings us up to the cross roads at Whinstone Lee Tor and the view back down the lush looking valley, the wind dragging white streaks over the reservoir.
A tale of two trails
The descent down to Cuthroat Bridge is gradual, a headwind impedes rapid progress and throws grit in our teeth for good measure. This bit of trail has seen heavy use, multiple lines have developed broadening it out from its original more sinewy form. This makes picking the right line a whole lot harder – not that there is a right line, more a combination of lines that will make for a smoother rider. I pick a loser and literally end up in a rut that ends with a rocky step with the potential for an over the bars incident. It’s a pleasant surprise to find that rather than having to perform an awkward hoist a small pile of stones has been built up against the back of the rock providing a downslope. Small acts of trail maintenance can make a big difference. “Today I think that would have been better as a climb”, says Rafi, looking a little worse for wear from battling the wind despite using Rob as a windbreak. He’s probably right.
Just before the trail hits the A57 we turn off right, keeping above and away from the road for a little while longer.
If you’ve never experienced riding on a surface that refuses to do what you expect then I can point you in the right direction. Even for the Peak this trail is loose – we don’t so much ride the trail as surf it, a clattering wave on a river of rock. Speed is the answer, keeping momentum that carries us over the stone wash rather than getting caught up in it. This is fine until a 90º left hander leaves us unable to stop or to coax bikes through the open gate that is immediately round the corner. A mini pile up into a drystone wall is narrowly averted and lesson learnt we set off again, only for Rob to get a bit too loose and almost high side off the bike. What ensues is probably the closest I’ve seen to ballet on a bike as, one foot still clipped in the other trailing behind, he fishtails down the trail before regaining control and composure.
Riding on the track on the southern shore of Ladybower Reservoir is a completely different experience, a mellow come down after the hectic high speed chaos of before. Riders on hire bikes make the most of the late afternoon sun enjoying a more sedate ride than we’ve had. I nose swipe at regular intervals looking for the bridleway that’ll take us back up the hill and to the final descent, causing a few funny looks. This is what map reading in 2017 looks like. At this point the battery runs out on my phone. It seems technology will only take you so far – 24.22km to be exact. The good old paper OS OL1 is wrestled out of the bottom of my bag and we find the track we need, taking us over the final hill and back down into Hope.
While #outsideisfree might not be true, I understand the sentiment. Thanks to the work of people like The Ramblers Association, various mountain bike advocacy groups, trail builders, enlightened landowners and the knowledge available through the internet the outside has never been so accessible. We’ve got a way to go before we have an equal standing with other user groups but we’re well on the way. For now maybe we should use #justgetoutandride, that’s got a nice ring to it…