Staying local has literally captivated me for so long that the thought of riding off into the sunset has felt like a naughty pleasure. In particular there's one long distance trail that starts local to me and ventures off shamelessly beyond any confines, it was time to give in to temptation.
Cycling the Pennine Bridleway End to End has been on my todo list for a long time. 8 years ago I did the Southern section, span around the Mary Townley loop and survived long enough to make it back to Middleton Top. I remember vividly standing in the fading sunlight at the northern most tip, the intersection with the 'northern section' and pondering what mysterious lands lay beyond.
Traversing a continuous 300km along the spine of England it is a big trip at the best of times, but having been locked down for so long it felt like it would be an opportunity to rediscover parts of my country. I also wanted to tag on visits to the Alpkit stores in Keswick and Ambleside, the plan was drawn.
The answer to everything
My bike of choice was a Sonder Dial. It was light and bred to cross countries.
The bike looked great even with my wobbly legs on it. Neil's build had some nice bits and bobs, most notably the lovely blue RockShox SID forks. As a fully rigid rider starting to reassess the so called benefits of having that 'connected to the road' feeling I was looking forward to a truly absorbing ride. If I was picky I would have liked mounts for a second bottle cage. I didn't think he would appreciate me getting a drill out so I worked around this with a stem cell on the bars.
There was just one upgrade I asked of Neil, which was to set it up as a singlespeed. But what was THE ideal gear? I hit the net and read that this years HT550 winner Liam Glen rode a fully rigid singlespeed with a 34:20 ratio. Oooh I thought that must be IT as if IT was the answer to life, the universe and everything. I was ready to go.
Go happened at the break of the day. I always feel a little anxiety when setting off. First of all I have to detach myself from whatever I have 'on my plate'. This can take 3 or 4 hours. Then I have to work through all the 'what ifs', another 3 or 4 hours. Once I have got through all that it's just me, the bike and the trail. That flow state is a nice place to be.
Now 370km is a lot to hold in your head at any one time so I like to break it down into chunks. For example, I had discounted the 15km to Middleton Top, the start of the PBW. The 30km along the High Peak Trail is nice flat gravel so that didn't count either. Great that was 1/10th shaved off the route, or even better a massive 1/5th off the first day. Using this ingenious strategy I had shortened the first day by 45km before I had even started. My 300km ride (370 if you included getting to Keswick) now existed in my head as a little over 100km.
But the spine of England is bumpy and the hills soon demand attention. The down and up of Cheedale is a very rude awakening, and a reminder the 6700m of vertical ascent is very real and has to be worked at. It was time to pull up my socks and pay attention. I remembered cycling in the reverse direction on my previous trip and was glad that I wasn't going to be doing that tomorrow. Better to face the unknown challenges of the northern section - I guess I must be an optimist at heart.
Another great technique for breaking down a long day is to negotiate in advance with your tummy. Now I don't know whether it is true that there is some brainy tissue down there but I do know that if you keep it happy it keeps you happy. There were 2 people on this bike (3 if you include my wingman Murphy the moose).
Unlike other long rides I have done I was not carrying any 'snack' food, deciding instead to take longer breaks and eat proper food where possible. The first stop was Hayfield, almost a 100km in (you might notice I didn't include the initial 45km when calculating distance to travel, but I do include it in distance travelled - it just makes me happier). I had worked through my 4am breakfast porridge and was due a nutrition hit. Interestingly I like to drink milk on trips like this - finding it both filling and refreshing, not quite a meal replacement but it has more substance than a bottle of fizzy pop or water.
By now the hills are noticeably bigger. If there were biblical floods I genuinely believe the valley would fill up like a big bathtub and provide drinking water for like a 1000 years. I would rise up like a little plastic duck before popping out and rolling into Glossop. As it was it took some strenuous work to escape the gravity well of the Hayfield valley. A welcome drop into Glossop heralded the start of the next chunk of the day.
Navigating on autopilot
Now it turns out I didn't have a very good memory of this section. Not at all. I remembered some reservoirs, I remembered going under the M62 but it wasn't fitting together how I pictured it. The tracks were steeper, bumpier than they were 8 years ago. The reservoirs had shifted further north.
There was a good reason for this, they were further north. I had completely blanked the section between Glossop and Diggle, even now I have done it again I still struggle to describe that section.
Once I reached The Diggle Hotel at... Diggle my mental map was realigned. Gateway to Saddleworth Moor and with a long section offering no refreshment stops I settled down to a pint of coke and a plate of sausages, mash and gravy. Energy and orientation fully restored.
The wrong answer
I am never too shy to get off and push on steep rubbly terrain, but this 34:20 nonsense was just too big for me to sustain with a loaded up bike over this duration. The saying that it's the rider not the bike stands true. Still I was stuck with it and I knew it was important to not get frustrated, avoid going all out and redlining on just a few hills to prove a point. Staying comfortably inside the 80% effort threshold would get me to the end.
The route climbs and weaves its way around the many reservoirs that hydrate much of the north. It is a great section, sparsely populated with good tracks ending in dramatic style passing under the M62. From here you pass briefly back into civilisation before the stout climb up to Summit and the end of the Southern section.
Summit - I love that name and it's such a milestone on the Pennine Bridleway. It's where the southern section meets the Mary Townley loop, a circular section of the Pennine Bridleway 75km long, and which in itself provides a very fine outing. The South to North route attacks it by heading west - the long way around.
There is some lovely riding on this section with great views over Manchester. Put aside the fact you are heading south west at one point because you are still valiantly chipping away at the total distance. If you started in the morning, and you are lucky with the weather you will also be riding into the evening sun. Rich reward for all the effort you have put in so far.
Unresolved what ifs
I had a couple of concerns before I started - both of which I could have sorted really really easily. I knew I needed to replace the brake pads and I knew the soles could become detached from my repaired shoes. I had stubbornly ignored these inconveniences and now they risked compromising the trip.
My strategy for the brakes was to use them as little as possible and hope it wouldn't rain. The front brake grinded more than the rear so I used it less. I adapted my pedal strokes to make sure I was pushing more than pulling, but between the constant twisting action from getting off to open gates and the amount of walking I was doing it really wasn't helping. Fortunately some zip ties came to the rescue, 2 zip ties per shoe, proved to be remarkably effective, seeing me through the entire second day with some hard climbs and countless hiking sections.
Waterfoot was my next stop. The steep descent from the disused Cragg Quarry workings shaved a few more microns off my brake pads. It is well worth trying to get here before closing time as the village has good amenities and there is some more remote terrain to come. Vegetarians beware; the Waterfoot Coop doesn't have a vegetarian pie section!
Climbing out of Waterfoot I had just one thing on my mind - joining the northern section. I would be over half way and treading new ground. I still had in my imagination that picture of me at the intersection. It had turned into a rich oil painting of myself standing on that threshold, sun setting to the west (with storms encroaching), bike propped up on the signpost with me and Murphy standing chins raised high purveying the unknown lands.
Finally joining the northern section was not quite so dramatic, but psychologically every km was now a km closer to the end. The Dales beckoned, I had 170km in the bag, (shy of the 200km I wanted) and I had to leave some time in the day to make some inroads towards Keswick. But now it was time to find a a bivvy spot in the hills.
Sunday started early. I felt good and had mentally reserved a table in Settle for breakfast. It was going to be a fully veggie breakfast with a steaming hot pot of tea all for myself. A millionaires shortbread would have to get me there.
The northern section, although having some of the bigger hills according to the route profile proved to be friendlier singlespeed terrain. But the gates kept coming. There were a lot of gates on the southern section and there are a lot on the northern section. Don't discount both the time and physical effort required to get off your bike and manhandle sticky gates. You read about the likes of Olympians making marginal gains... if you really want to train for a time on the PBW work on your gates.
Reaching Settle was as marvellous as I had imagined. I tucked into my breakfast feast satisfied with where I was at. I knew it was going to be a stretch to get to Keswick that evening so I had to reframe the days objective. As long as I completed the PBW today I would be on the road and as you know that doesn't really count in distance to calculations.
I wasn't planning on stopping again, so I was glad to find the local supermarket stocked veggie pies. With lunch sorted I was on my way.
The lady in brown sandals
Whizzed past me on the climbs and held the gates. I reciprocated on the descents and for a short while we made a great team, reducing this tiresome burden for each other. There is no doubt e-bikes are really opening up these spaces and by the time we parted on our separate ways - quite appropriately at yet another gate - I could sense what an enabler this was for her.
I really enjoyed the terrain north of Settle. The trail weaved its way between Ingleborough and Penyghent with expansive views and some of the best singlespeed riding of the trip. It wasn't all plain sailing however, my much anticipated lunch stop was dealt a severe blow when I realised I had picked up a Peppered Steak Slice by mistake.
Little by little the paths started to smooth out. Penyghent faded into the distance and a few valley hops later I enjoyed a long descent towards Pendgragon Castle. Kirkby Stephen beckoned just a couple of kilometres down the road. I was ready to ride triumphantly into town.
The opposite of bittersweet
I feel that there should be a word that covers that specific feeling of moving from elation to despair. I can immediately think of 3 scenarios that warrant such specificity. Sometimes it happens instantly and your body responds before your head has a chance to think. Your adrenaline gets you through. Other times it takes a while to sink in, and this can manifest in one of 2 ways: it can develop slowly over time in a nice smooth curve, or as in my case step by step. Neither body or mind are operating in a way required by the reality of the situation.
For me, my route hadn't followed my gaze to the north, it turned south to face a big unridable grassy hill. Step 1: there was a sting in the tail.
At the time I thought the push around Wild Boar Fell was unnecessary, and a bit unfair. It was steep, but short. Manageable. Step 2: delayed elation.
It continued further up the hillside than I initially thought, it wasn't traversing around. An uncomfortable truth sunk in. Step 3. Full despair.
Putting aside my obvious biases at the time I still think the more elegant finish would have been to roll past Pendragon Castle into Kirkby Stephen. Sure the descent from Wild Boar Fell is very nice, but it dumps you unceremoniously in no mans land with a 6km ride down the A685 into Kirkby Stephen. Just my opinion.
After 300 km I arrived in a deserted Kirkby Stephen. The whole of the UK was about to tune in to England taking on Italy in the European Cup final. Fortunately the pizza shop wasn't run by an Italian and had decided to stay open. I was able to refuel while making a Facetime call home so I could at least share my celebrations with someone.
As 'the game' kicked off and I rolled out of town a big cheer went up; I assumed England had scored rather than the villages wishing me good speed towards Keswick.
For the next 3 hours I rode in solitude. Really, no exaggeration - not a single car passed me. I found a discreet bivvy spot just before the light faded and snugged up in my bag. I turned on my phone to see who had won the game. I couldn't believe it, it was still going! England were 2 - 1 up in penalties. 5 minutes later it was all over and that was that. It had been a good time to tune in.
The following morning I passed through Pooley Bridge, wiggled up some more hills and got spat out onto the old coach road (cycle route #71). It was a fine, if not unplanned approach to Keswick. At 8am I sat in the cafe opposite the Alpkit shop tucking into my breakfast. I would still have to get to Ambleside, but my trip had all but come to an end. Cycling from my front door to the Alpkit Keswick and Ambleside stores via the Pennine Bridleway. Not a commute I plan to make every weekend but a bit of a long term project ticked off.
Over the weekend I managed to double my distanced cycled for the year, which I am both proud of and embarrassed about in equal measure. I wonder if there is a word for that?
Sleeping: PipeDream200, Kloke, Cloud Base
Clothing: Kepler Velo Long sleeve, Cycling bib shorts, Gravitas
Bike: Sonder Dial Singlespeed
Gadgets: Garmin 810, Anker powerbank, Hadron