Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Peaks 200 - by Mitch Bryan & Pascal Lally

Rainbow Chasers Mitch Bryan, Martin Tansley, and Pascal Lally recently took on The Peak 200, an Individual Time Trial (ITT) that circumnavigates most of The Peak District National Park. This is their account of an epic days mountain biking. I really enjoyed reading it; I hope you enjoy it too.

Mitch takes up the first half of the story:

"What time do you reckon it is?"
"Erm... 22:30?"
"You what! Try 01:30"

Where had the time gone? As I lent against the fence trying to force down one more gel into my grumbling stomach I pondered how time had run away from me. It only seemed like an hour at the most since Pascal and Martin had switched on their lights as we began our final technical descent into Roych Clough. And yet now here we were taking a moment to refuel after pushing our not so laden bikes up the steep sided valley out of Chee Dale.

I could hardly believe that over twenty hours earlier the three of us had set off from the pub car park at Rowsley full of apprehension for what the rest of the day had in store for us as we attempted to complete the Peak 200 ITT in under twenty four hours, although I hadn't told Martin and Pascal this as it thought it might have put them off. 
The Peak 200 is an individual time trial around some of the best bridleways the Peak District has to offer taking in the delights of Curbar and Baslow Edges, Blacka Moor, Houndkirk Moor, Burbage, Stanedge, Whinstone Lee Tor, Hope Cross, Win Hill, Mam Tor and Cut Gate to name but a few. 

As we gently spun along the road to the  start of the route, I was visualising the route in my head breaking it down into manageable sections. Looking down at my borrowed Garmin I was glad it wasn't switched on, I'd already recce'd over half the route so there was no need to know how far we'd travelled or how far we'd yet to go. I could just relax into the moment and enjoy the long ride ahead. 

The recent rain of the last few days made me glad that I'd changed our plans to start at Friden, having previously ridden it I knew the grass and mud were of the particularly clarty types that stick like the proverbial to your wheels and suck your will to live (I hate riding on grass). The ride up through Manners Wood was surprisingly grippy and was completed dab free by all of us. It was at this point I was glad I'd decided to go light with my gear and decided to ditch my bivvy bag, down jacket, and change of warm clothing, it was July after all.

As the sun rise above Chatsworth House stopped us in our tracks we all took the opportunity to eat and marvel at the glorious setting. Before long we were climbing out of Baslow onto Baslow Edge, past Eagle Stone, named after the god Aigle who had a habit of throwing boulders around (why wouldn't you). This was the start of the legendary Peak District grit stone with its mythical grip-like qualities. The sound of the coarse grit under my plus size tyres was a welcome relief from the buzz of the tarmac as we made our way onto the bridleway; the pace quickening slightly as we popped off and over the natural steps as we made for Curbar Edge. Crossing over the road I was secretly ready for a coffee, but I knew it was still only about 05:30 and it would be sometime before we'd get our first caffeine fix.

Pausing briefly on Curbar to say hello to a herd of deer we picked up more speed as we dropped down onto Froggatt Edge. Up until recently the likes of Curbar and Froggatt would have been cheeky footpaths but now thanks to the work of the Eastern Moors Partnership it's accessible to all users. (The EMP is a joint adventure between the National Trust and the RSPB on behalf of the Peak District National Park Authority).

With three edges dispatched in quick succession it was back onto the black stuff as we made our way over to Longshaw past the White Edge Lodge, which used to be the game keepers cottage for the estate. Sitting in splendid isolation on the moor with its spectacular views I always get envious as I pass it. The first time was probably in 2011 when myself and Nellie competed in the Nine Edges Challenge, a run, walk cycle, or climb, along nine edges of the Peak District (I won the male open and Nellie won the old git category). (*Editors note: Nellie is Neil Cottam).

Martin and Mitch checking the route.
Another short section of link road then it was over to Blacka Moor and yet more excellent singletrack through the woods to Devils Elbow. The roots were still slippy from the recent rain and it certainly helped having that little extra grip from the big wheels of the Sonder Broken Road (Thanks Alpkit), they made light work of them as they crossed at diagonals along the path. I think this lulled Martin into a following a few of my lines and ended with him going OTB (*Over-The-Bars) and landing on his head (no damage done). This would have been a perfect opportunity for our official photographer (Pascal) to take an action shot but instead only kind words were offered (He'll learn).
The next section of the loop took in a lap of Lady Canning's Plantation this is another fine example of the great work the EMP and local advocacy groups like Ride Sheffield are doing in conjunction with the Peak District National Parks Authority. It's a short loop through the plantation with some great doubles and excellent berms, I'm not the best through the air so I kept my wheels firmly on terra firma but judging by the cheesy grin on Pascals face I think he enjoyed it. Picking up the cross roads on Houndkirk Moor we made our way over to Fox Houses and then up Burbage  before eventually arriving at Stanedge Edge. It looked magnificent in the morning sunshine, it was still only about 08:00, and there wasn't a soul to be seen. The road led us quickly to the start of the long causeway climb and we began our ascent to Stanedge Pole, the ancient boundary marker that sits between Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. The lower section of the causeway has been graded due to erosion and heavy traffic from four wheel drive vehicles; you had to have Danny Mac skills to get up it dab free but nowadays you just have to be reasonably fit and a bit of a sadist. A quick photo then it was down to Redmires Reservoir via the old flagstones, trying to stay loose, and then on to Wyming Brook which was greasy as hell and had us all going sideways round a few of the corners. 

Pascal and Mitch at Stanage Pole.
More black-top followed as we made our way along Rod Side. I have fond memories of running along here when I did The Peak District Ultra 60 with Nellie (as I remember it was blazing hot and there was no wind, ahead in the distance we could see runners disappearing over the horizon; I was feeling OK at this point but I think Nellie was going through a bad patch).
We carried on maintaining radio silence until the first food stop at the end of the road and reset our brains for the next leg of the journey.

Today it was overcast and we had a headwind to contend with, secretly I was glad it wasn't too hot but the headwind could do one as far as I was concerned. Soon we were heading down the A57 to Cut Throat Bridge, having gained its unfortunate title in 1653 when a traveller was found under it with his throat slashed from ear to ear, unable to tell his rescuers what had happened he was taken to Bamford hall were he died the next day. Needless to say I neglected to pass this information onto Pascal as he's only a young lad and still lives at home with his Mum and Dad.

What followed next is one of the best climbs in the Peak District. A gentle gradient takes you up and over the southern end of the Derwent Moors to Whinstone Lee Tor, it's littered with lumps of grit stone that keep you focused all the way to the top and once there you're rewarded with some of the finest views in the Peaks with the likes of Bleaklow and the northern arm of Ladybower sharply in view. We paused briefly here for a much needed bite to eat and a little bike maintenance.

As I was tucking in to my boiled egg and flat bread Martin began to work on his chain, I was just about going to ask him if he wanted to borrow my chain cleaning sponge when he whipped out a pair of tatty boxer shorts and began trying to clean off the abrasive grit (He's such a pro).

With the time now at 09:00 I was beginning to wish I'd brought a stove and some coffee with us but I had to settle for a Torq caffeine gel and a slurp of water instead. Talk turned to stopping for dinner and I suggested we stop at Castleton as this would offer great coffee and would see us  safely to 12:00. The Traverse along the bottom of Derwent Edge was a little wet but soon we were cashing in our gravity chips and heading down to the rocky descent to Ladybower at full tilt.

Covering ground quickly we began our ascent of the Beast, yes I know. (*The Beast is one of the iconic Peak District descents). I managed to get up to the first large step and then thought sod it and got off and pushed. Well actually I ran out of steam. Having only ever ridden down it I could see now just how technically difficult this section of bridleway is, some of the rocks are huge and the step downs look like they could swallow your wheels whole an OTB coming down here would probably result in a few good scars and good pic for MBR Magazine.

Pushing up The Beast?
Emerging at Hope Cross the rain could be seen coming in from Mam Tor. In the distance I could see walkers heading down from Win Hill putting on their Jackets, it wasn't cold but the wind was also picking up. I loosened the straps on my bum bag and nearly took out Nellie's Gravitas jacket that he had kindly lent me when the words "Don't  get it dirty" came into my consciousness. I opted for my gilet, the heavens opened and I got piss wet through; by the time we'd descended Win Hill and reached the service station at Bamford I was shivering. We all took shelter under the forecourt canopy and gathered ourselves. Martin disappeared to the toilet and Pascal busied himself with the restocking of various forms of flap jack. I hurriedly put on Nellie's coat (sod it) and dispatched two rice puddings from my frame bag. 

With water bottles refilled we began the honest climb up to Shatton; it was now officially pissing it down and the water running down the hill made me feel like I was going the wrong way. Radio silence was maintained until we broke off left onto a grassy bridleway which takes you back round the side of Shatton. The rain had abated somewhat by now and we happened upon a pair of soggy looking mountain bikers who were lost, they needed to get to Brough but hadn't any map. I kindly informed them we were heading in that direction but we'd be turning off for Bradwell and that they could follow us. We must of been going at a fair old lick as when we stopped at the top of the junction they where now where to be seen. 

Pascal and Mitch overlooking Hope Village.
It was at this point I think that Pascal was having a dip in form, it's always a sign when your forehead comes to rest on your handlebars that you need to take stock of the situation and give yourself a good talking to. With the promise of a muddy descent into Bradwell and some hot coffee at Castleton the smile soon returned to Pascals face and before long we were safely inside the Three Gates Cafe just as the heavens opened.  It was like walking into the Slaughtered Lamb, everyone stared at us, we must have looked a little dishevelled. We'd been riding for just over eight hours and covered 102 kilometres, coffee and food were ordered in double quick time. Unfortunately there was a twenty minute delay for food, but this passed quickly thanks to the rantings of Martin who took great delight in telling myself and Pascal about his attempt to "Chisel one off on the toilet before the ride". He's an animal.

Here Pascal takes up the second half of the story:

The Peak 200 Part II

Lunch for me consisted of a sausage and fried onion sandwich. My stomach nearly made me opt for a lasagne but I let my brain make the call on this one as we were already waiting twenty minutes for food. It didn’t last long.

The pain in my legs and general tiredness had been growing steadily all morning (which I feel shouldn’t come as much of a surprise) but I starting having thoughts of finding the closest train station and going somewhere warm, dry, and requiring significantly less pedalling. Mitch carefully explained to me that once we have cleared Cut Gate we will have “broken the back” of the route. Cut Gate didn’t feel very far away at all. Whilst I later learned this was about as far away from the truth as it was possible to be, I am very glad I believed it as I could well have just gone home if I hadn’t.

Rain still falling, we finished our lunch and got ourselves ready to go. Mitch and Martin prepared for the next leg by washing and re-lubing their chains. I bought more flapjack.

Atop Mam Tor the sun came and I looked out across the valley, it’s a view I have seen many times before, but for me it is characteristic Peak District. Sweeping hills, stoney buildings, distant crags, and grassy fields. The descent down to Edale is one of my favourites in the area, however Edale itself was where I broke my hand last year which I cheerfully reminded everyone about as we rode through.

A brief climb-descent-climb to Hope Cross led us to Potato Alley. My handlebar luggage had not been playing game all day and the dry bag seemed to have a mind of it’s own, popping out at inconvenient moments. It fell out three times down Potato Alley and I was glad to to be handed two re-usable zip ties at the bottom from Martin. We secured the dry bag around the holster and it made the luggage totally secure.

Next up was the road climb through Lockerbrook Farm followed by the descent down to Ladybower. Despite trailing behind a bit on the climbs I managed to catch Martin on the way down. My hands were starting to feel a bit battered (not helped by my rigid fork) so my solution was to brake as little possible. The less I brake, the less I have to speed up again and the less I had to move my hands. Who knows if it really worked, but it certainly made me feel better.

Mitch and Martin above Ladybower
At Fairholmes with a cup of tea in hand, we all agreed that this would be the final stop of the day. As I still thought it would be a breeze after Cut Gate this sounded very plausible to me, so I sipped my tea whilst sharing my flapjack crumbs with a duck. Once our tea was drained, it was time to head to Cut Gate.

I knew of Cut Gate - as one of the really iconic tracks for mountain biking in The Peaks - but I have never ridden it. A brief scout on the internet told me two things: it’s brilliant fun to ride and that it’s often rather damp. Pushing the fun bit to the front of my mind, I prepped myself for the upcoming climb.
By this time, I was really struggling with my knees. It is an ailment that I often encounter on long rides. The pain was the main reason I stopped at Strathpuffer when I did this year. After the initial push that’s necessary on Cut Gate I put my seat up about a centimetre and started pedalling. It made a huge different and certainly lifted my mood.

Martin and Mitch were a little ahead of my by this point, but still in eyesight. I kept going at my own pace and found Martin looking at his front brake. In classic Avid Juicy fashion they weren’t playing ball, the pad clip had dislodged and churned itself to pieces in the rotor. Mitch suggested that I kept going describing the route as”bog followed by slabs”. As told, the next bit was a particularly boggy bit which required walking and ended with a submerged left foot. Despite being less than impressed at my submerged foot, I was through and a few metres down the track, one of the Cut Gate descents was awaiting me.

Safely onto the slabs and with my luggage secured I threw a few pedal strokes and got going. The sweeping slabs give way to what feels like a full blown rocky river - all of which can be taken in stride as it flows well. Coming out of the river section, I realised Mitch and Martin were still nowhere to be seen so I pulled over to let them catch up. Once they did, we all hooned off towards the bottom.

With Mitch’s borrowed Garmin switched on, we followed its directions to the Trans Pennine Trail. This expansive flat section was a much needed respite from the relentless undulation we had been experiencing all day, and for me gave me a good chance to relieve some of the strain on my knees. With Woodhead Reservoir in sight, we pre-empted the rain and put our jackets on. This was my final outfit change of the day. I had been feeling a little chilly for most of the day whilst I wasn’t wearing my coat and putting it on and getting moving brought my body temperature up a little - which felt like a lot and lifted my mood. I tend to feel cold more frequently than I feel warm, so I quite enjoy just being warm. This was one of those times.

We left the Trans Pennine Trail and headed through some more built up areas - which made a change. Hadfield, Gamesley, then Charlesworth - where we stopped. Mitch and I headed for the village shop whilst Martin made a bee-line for the pub. He went in to use the facilities and somehow managed to not drink a pint in the process. Meanwhile Mitch was busy buying a coke, to drink there, along with some water for later whilst I got Lucozade, water, and flapjacks. Knowing this really would be the last stop of the day I was just making sure I had enough supplies to get back to the van - which couldn’t be that far away as we had “broke the back” of this route hours ago. Refuelled, relieved and brimmed with sugar we all set off again.

The climb and descent to Birch Vale came and went without any drama (I wouldn’t call it easy mind) but it wasn’t until I was climbing out on a straight, steep, section that I started to suspect Mitch may have under-egged how much of the route was still left to go. Grinding up in my lowest gear was torture, and my knees were reminding me with every pedal stroke. Tiredness had begun to creep into me by this point and that combined with pain didn’t make me very talkative. But if I had have been, all I could have mustered would be a very rude comment on that truly awful climb.

Up past Chinley Head the lights had to be pulled out and turned on as the darkness had closed in. This was when I discovered how much further we still had to go - as Mitch was worried about the three hour battery life of his light not lasting long enough. I didn’t dwell on it. Instead I focused on the fact that my two lights and battery pack had enough to get us through. Roych Clough came and went bringing us out onto a road.

“Red 5 standing by”. In order to preserve as much battery power as we could, we established an attack formation with me at the front and Martin and Mitch on my flanks. I immediately broke the formation as I completely forgot about it and cruised down the road at my normal no-brakes speed and was quickly reminded to slow down. Mitch told me about an upcoming, well-lit, crossroad which sound really delightful at the time.

We arrived at said crossroads and whilst Mitch and I sat on a bench discussing how the small patch of grass looked like an ideal spot for a bivvy bag, Martin cracked out his old boxers and set about his drivetrain again.

By this point my tiredness was really starting to set in and paired with the surrounding darkness I didn’t really know where I was or where I was going. Unlit roads and bridleways all churned into one as I blindly followed directions coming from Mitch.

Eventually and what felt like an eternity we reached the High Peak Trail. The slight decline and smooth trails really felt like a blessing. Mitch tried to persuade myself and Martin that we didn’t really need lights to ride down there. It took Martin about a minute of trying to decide that lights were much better and I promptly followed suit. Mitch begrudgingly did as well.

Eventually the cruising led us to Parsley Hay where Mitch needed to put some eye drops in. I grabbed my final piece of Chorizo & Edam baguette out of my bag. I didn’t really want to eat at this point but I knew I had to and I did manage to get it down. It was more than a bit breezy outside and Mitch mentioned that the toilets were still open. Hoping to just get out the breeze for two minutes Martin and I went in only to discover that the heaters had been left on. It felt like an oasis in the desert at this hour (22:30 or 01:30 depending who you asked). Mitch came in to let us know he was all sorted and we reluctantly left, remounted our bikes and got pedalling.

The final section of the trip was characterised by a really tough part comprised of Longdale and Gratton Dale - everything else faded in comparison to it. I just wanted to finish at this point. And progress was slow.

Grassy field turned in grassy boulder field which turned into claggy mud. It really went from bad to worse with heaps of frustration thrown in for good measure. I nearly lost my temper with the thick mud - there is nothing more irritating that being unable to push or ride due to too much mud in your frame. It felt like it would never end, but we eventually broke out onto the road of the final climb.

Bombing down Haddon Fields was a great feeling. This was it. Through the gate, down the road and we were back. It was done.

I had some celebratory beers and chocolate buttons ready for our arrival back at the van. We barely managed a sip of beer and a few buttons between us. Mitch checked his phone: 23 hours and 48 minutes. Nowhere near the 20 hours predicted but less than 24 hours. I’ll take that.

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