There’s something perverse about getting up before the dawn during summer. It’s manageable during the winter months because, lets face it, you’d never get up otherwise, but when the sun is due to come up at 5am anything before that isn’t a natural time to be awake in my book.
It’s certainly not a natural time to be hammering it up the M6, with a badly packed bike swinging freely in the back of the van and a sense of mild panic about the size of the ride you’re intending to do. Non the less, that’s where I found myself, guzzling a bottle of “energy drink” (from Morrisons) and trying to stop a novels worth of A4 maps sliding off the passenger seat while ignoring the fact that even the birds were still soundly asleep on the motorway bridges.
A 4.30am start to the day had seemed necessary when my route plan for the day’s ride wasn’t immediately dismissed as ‘insanely stupid’ which I was secretly hoping it might be. That gave me a couple of hours to get past that horrible “I’ve got up to early” feeling, eat something, fling bike and kit in the van and mosey on up the road to Cumbria. Morland, to be precise. A little village in the middle of nowhere picked for no other reason than it seemed to be about halfway between the first bit of off road on the ride and the last descent. A little village that, as I pulled up outside the church to meet Jason, was definitely still tucked up in bed.
Jason arrived bang on time and we unloaded bikes and kit in a deserted village hall car park that seemed to be set up for a busy Sunday fete as the early morning sun began to warm the air and make being up and about a much more palatable option.
Apparently it had been pouring down in Manchester when Jason set off, but Morland was bathed in sun, with just a few clouds to make the sky that little bit more scenic and as we rode away from the village centre the promise of views for miles from the tops of the fells beckoned.
I had planned for the first few miles to be on the road to let our legs get nicely warmed up for a bit before hitting the trails and the route seemed to work quite well; we positively flew through picturesque village after picturesque village on our way to Pooley Bridge and finally hit the dirt road leading up to The Cockpit full of enthusiasm and wide eyed at the views across Ullswater. I love riding round Ullswater, it’s quintessentially Lake District in the way it looks and the trails hold up well to most weather conditions so you can ride along the shores even in winter without getting too bogged down, on a morning like we had though, it’s awesome.
We followed a great, fast track down to Sandwick and then continued along the waters edge on a bridleway that offered us a little bit of everything, nadgery climbs to clean, little rock drops to nail, completely unrideable sections to walk over uttering the immortal “well, if I was on my other bike…” to each other before remounting and setting about swooping along a sudden flowing section that would appear, draw us in to pushing the limits of traction from our tyres and then spit us out on another tricky section with just a little too much speed for comfort. Ace fun, made even more ace by the distinct lack of other people that early in the day.
By the time we hit the road again at Patterdale the mood of the day had been set. My attempts to fill the ride with as much scenery as possible was definitely working – in fact we’d already sent the first smug picture messages to family back at home – and some decent trails had set the bar for the rest of the ride very high indeed. Everything was well with the world as far as we were concerned, we had the whole day, decent weather and a lot of hills to play with. So we pressed on to Hartsop and the first real climb of the day up onto High Street.
It’s a right bugger of a climb up form Hartsop itself towards Hayeswater halfway to the top; occasionally steep, usually loose and gravely and definitely long enough to cause some discomfort in the legs and lungs. As we rode up we agreed it was the kind of climb that could do with some signs on it stating “MTFU” at regular intervals to keep you riding. Gravel graunched beneath wheels and lungs began to burn as Hayeswater came into view and as it did I began chanting apologies about what we were about to face.
Jason, who hadn’t been up to High Street before, looked a bit puzzled as I pointed up the side of what isn’t all that far off being a cliff. “Erm, it’s good training for the 3 peaks” I said. “Sorry, it won’t take long…and it gets rideable again soon, really, it does”. I added, as we hung the bikes off camelbacks and began to trudge up the grassy slope with a top so high above us we couldn’t actually look that far without nearly falling back down. Our cycling shoes weren’t really the best footwear for this bit and the lack of a distinct path didn’t speed progress up either, but after clambering for a while with gritted teeth and straining hamstrings we reached the top of the ridge and a gentler gradiant towards the top of the fell. Soon enough we were riding, though the desire to glance across to our right back down the valley and across at what seemed like endless mountains did cause a few comedy ‘ride straight into a rock’ moments!
After a brief pause at the Beacon near the top to guzzle drink and swap maps around we headed off down towards Troutbeck, much to the confusion of several other riders – few people use the track from Troutbeck to the top as a descent simply because it makes for a half decent way to get up the fell. But our route demanded it and (as was the theme of the day) the views more than made up for anything we were losing…not that it wasn’t fun, with a few fellside singletrack sections and some seriously steep stuff to test the brakes out fully
With the descent cleaned some 10 minutes later (yep, it is quite long!) another road section through Stavely (no Wilfs stop though), Burneside and innumerable other hamlets and villages saw us chase down some roadies completely unintentionally before rolling off the road and down a nice gravel track following a river through Borrowdale. I’d not ridden this track before so was a little wary of what it might actually be like, but the decent surface saw us ticking of the miles in double quick time as we cleared the hills and rolled under the M6 to a chorus of “Oh, I know where we are now”. Hills that had been sped past much earlier that morning on the way to the rendevous made another appearance, looming over us while we made our way towards Sedburgh considering just how much quieter the valley to our right must have been before the roar of the motorway and rumble of railway line arrived. I guess that’s progress – the existence of the roadway had allowed us to do the ride – so wishing it wasn’t there as we rolled along some undulating tarmac a mile or so across from it seemed hypocritical, instead we contented ourselves with enjoying the sun we were being treated to and began preparing for the next big climb up to the top of The Calf.
The climb up onto the Howgills is another beast; more open than the climb up onto High Street it’s basically a unrelenting grass track that saps away at your legs for what seems an eternity. There’s over 500 metres of vertical height to gain from the bottom to the top and much of it is done in a straight line with the highest point visable long before it becomes a reality. We rode as much as we could, though we would occasionally lose traction and have to push for a while before those immortal letters MTFU forced us back into the saddle to readopt the hunched down position over the bars, waiting for the summit to some to us.
The trig point gave us an opportunity to look around at the view on offer; everything from the peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside to our left, across Lancashire to the Irish sea in front of us and the whole vista of the Lake District to our right could be seen clearly, I can’t really describe how good it felt to be up there, I’d just advise you to try it for yourself – on a bike preferably, so you can try out the descent down Bowderdale!
It’d been a few years since I last rode down the singletrack that runs for miles along the valley down from the summit, but as I began to drop down it seemed like only a few hours has passed. First swoopy across moorland, then increasingly steep and rocky before easing off and turning into the singletrack that makes everyone who rides it rave about it for miles, it all seemed wonderfully familiar. Familiar and fast! Flicking the bars from left to right, tracing the contours of the narrow trail with an ever growing grin I felt like I was really ‘on it’ and loving every second. Occasional technical sections would appear and be flown through and nothing could stop me.
Well, nothing but a sudden, strange, rhythmic thud-thud-thud coming from the rear wheel. I thought a stone had lodged itself in the tread of the tyre, but a glance down revealed a gash in the sidewall allowing the innertube to buldge out and smack against the seatstay.
I dumped most of the air out of the tube before it burst and rolled the final section to the road cautiously, before initiating the Bodge of the Day by wedging my work ID card behind the hole to prevent the tube popping out and add some support to the tyre carcass.
It seemed to hold as we rode along the busy main road and by the time we crossed Crosby Garret Fell we’d forgotten all about it – our attention taken up by finding our way back onto the bridleway we somehow managed to loose and avoiding some psychotic cows that seemed up for a fight.
Once we’d rediscovered the trail into town and got back to the road a few miles of tarmac lead us towards Appleby-in-Westmorland, where a raid on the local Spar saw us refill waterbottles and me down a bottle of milkshake in world record time.
Time had been marching relentlessly during our adventures and as we headed out towards Cross Fell the countryside was already bathed in a golden glow as the sun began to set and we began to realise and admit that we wouldn’t get round the whole route before night fell. It seemed a shame, but we decided we’d at least get the last big off road climb done before giving up and so set about the ascent with renewed vigour. We reached the bothy that signals the end of the steepest part of the climb and watched a glider drop silently down the valley below us before turning round and making our way back to Kirkland and the roads back to the cars. Our descent was not as majestic as that of the glider, but we made it in one piece and set about finding our way back to Morland.
This actually proved harder than it should have been, mostly due to us (rather stupidly) asking the world’s dottiest woman in a car if there was a shorter way back across the A66. We ended up at the Penrith motorway junction in the rapidly fading light and, as we realised we’d have to ride down the A6 and basically do a big loop to get to the end of the ride with one set of lights between us I noticed that my rear tyre was going down. I was in no mood to sit at the die of the road in the dark trying to fix it so the last 6 or so miles we done stood up, willing the car park to appear!
Back in Morland, bikes were flung in/on cars in double quick time and apologies were rung home as we realised it was already after 10pm. The sun that wasn’t around when we’d set off in the morning was long gone again as we hit the motorway in the opposite direction, past the hills we’d just ridden over, with heads full of views, legs full of miles and a sudden perverse feeling that it was too late to be still out and about after being up so early hit…