This sportive is going to be the hardest one I do this year. Or ever so far. Quite possibly ever ever, unless I go abroad and do one up some proper European mountains. At over 160 miles, of which over 70 are going up climbs, it’s huge in every way. Well, in every way apart from the entry fee, which is closer to audax territory, but I’ll leave the selling to the guys who’ve dreampt it up! My saving grace – other than being used to racing for 24hrs at a time – is that I know the hills it’s based on. I know them like the back of my hand.
If you blindfolded me and dropped me off at any point on the route I’d be able to tell you where I was, what the next climb was like and where the nearest house that I’d love to own was (there’s lots of lovely country houses drowing in their own sprawling, scenery encapsulated grounds.). That will really help during the ride (for the most part, there will be points where that knowledge will create a sense of fear and dread…but what’s a challenge without a little bit of fear and dread eh? ).
Jase, who’s also doing the ride, doesn’t have this safety net of knowledge. He’s ridden out round Bowland a couple of times before, in fact we rode over a few of the hills a year or two back in pretty grim weather on cyclocross bikes, but for the most part names like “Birdy Brow” and “Bowland Knotts” don’t fire up an encyclopaedic knowldge of every pothole like they do in my head.
So I mapped out, one lazy afternoon at work, a gentle introduction to the climbs, the descents (they’re just as much a feature as the climbs and the scenery stretching off in every direction) and the all important cafe spots around the route. A taster, if you like. Not as hard as the event itself, obviously, but tough enough to put any “oh I’ll just turn up and wing it with half a Mars bar and a bottle of water” possibilities straight to bed.
It was actually quite tough to do; I didn’t want to use all the hills in the route (mainly because you’d have to pretty much just follow the proper route to get to them all!), but at the same time, they’re all ace and worthy of a visit in their own right. I decided to stay within the confines of Bowland itself, on the northern side of the A59 (thereby cutting out all the grovelling on offer round Pendle Hill) and keep to a ride length of 100 miles. It ended up being 110 miles, but I decided to forgive myself as 20 miles of the route were riding along flat, main roads from my house to the hills.
It ended up looking like this. Kind of convoluted looking, but I knew it would flow quite well ‘on the road’ and I figured neither Jase or Phil (who’s always up for a bit of leg battering in the hills) would be able to tell!
We set off one sunny(ish) Sunday morning at a fair clip, once we’d escaped the roadworks and cyclepaths of Preston, with me biting my tongue near constantly to prevent a never ending barrage of commentary. The gentle lumps of the flatlands surrounding Bowland and the cheeky foothills welcoming us away from what little Sunday morning traffic there was don’t really give you any sort of clue about what you’re about to hit and our average speed reflected this. Comments were already beginning to flow regarding our surroundings; spring was quite happily springing around us as we left all the towns and villages behind in favour of rolling green fields and flora soaked woodlands, even before we hit the first “mentioned hill” of the day, climbing away from Quernmore up the the Jubilee Tower. As we rose up above the flatter ground and the views back out to sea accross half the county began to appear, comments were battling against deep breaths as we threw ourselves up the incline.
Fighting over the Trough of Bowland before hurtling down what was described as ” a pump track for road bikes!” by a gleeful Jase to Dunsop Bridge and then up past the Inn at Whitewell the scene for the day was set – fight up the climb, drink in the view, thunder back down the roller coaster descents, regroup, discuss in detail every brilliant moment, repeat.
As we rode along, up above the Hodder Valley, heading towards Slaidburn it was difficult for us to not grin smugly, thinking about…well, everyone who wasn’t where we were while staring off in to the distance. The sun was breaking through the clouds (which were still lingering on the very tops of the highest fells, seemingly to add a sense of drama to the vista) and a warmth was suggesting that my clothing layering choices had been a bit pessimistic.
I’d half planned a cafe stop in Slaidburn from the outset, though not being sure how many stops people would want to do there were many possibilities, but at the 50 mile point and at the end of a gentler section of the route the riverside tea rooms seemed like the perfect place to pause, stuff cake down throats and guzzle coffee before heading over the next set of hills. On cue, the blue skies rolled overhead, the sun fired all it could at us and memories of countless summer rides were stirred after a winter of tough training.
Suitably refreshed we got up to leave, only to discover that Jason’s pimpy new carbon wheel/tub combo hadn’t prevented him getting a puncture. Half the calories we’d just shovelled down our necks were burnt off fighting his tyre off the rim before we hit the road again!
With a new tyre stuck on his rim, we headed out through Gisburn forest, past the rammed full car park at the start of the newly built mtb trails and straight into Bowland Knotts. I say ‘into’ because that’s pretty much how it feels as you hit the start fo the climb proper. Your legs have been warmed up/weakened by a gradual grind up through the forest itself before you rapidly lose all the height you’ve just gained in a cruel dip, the clamber back out of which rears up in front of you…and then doesn’t get any less steep. For ages.
After what seemed like a long time to me, and no doubt felt like it would never end to Jason and Phil, the gradient eased and we found ourself right up ont’ tops. Scenery now wild, desolate, endless, rather than the farmed fields lower down. A nice change from a nice start as we got our breath back and began the long plunge back down towards Keasden, along mile after mile of car free roads and then back up, over the border back into Lancashire and onto the climb across Tatham Fell.
We climbed upwards, into the clouds that had remained lurking on the fell tops throughout the ride and over the top made even more atmospheric than normal by the swirling mist and murk and then flung ourselves back down towards Slaidburn again. Hurtling left and right as the narrow ribbon of tarmac weaved it’s way along the flanks of the fell, wiping away grimaces and smearing huge grins across our faces. These descents are brilliant. Not without risk – a momentary lapse of concentration at 45mph on a road that’s only 8ft wide, with a big drop to one side can easily result in a trip to hospital…or worse – but not so steep that you spend the whole drop on the brakes, you can flow with the road as much as you dare, testing the sidewalls of your tyres and daring you to try and get your knee down as sharper corners leap out at you. Brilliant fun for a few minutes, before you find yourself at the bottom, once again dwarfed by the hills and very much at the bottom of yet another climb.
More meanderings lead us through Newton in Bowland and to the foot of Wadington Fell, the last “big” hill of the day and the point at which I gave up trying to not demand everyone glance around occasionally, back down into the valley we were climbing out of, to get a good eyeful of what we’d been riding all over all day. no-one seemed to mind.
No-one seemed to mind the tuck-in-and-hold-on straight, fast plummet down from the top into Waddington itself either. Fastest speeds of the day were recorded and much coveting of Jase’s 53t big ring was done as we span down the fell in the biggest gears we’d brought with us, before we swept through the village itself and across towards the final bit of climbing I’d planned.
Birdy Brow sounds daft, in my mind. But it’s silly name belies it’s true nature. hidden in the trees covering the flanks of Longridge Fell, it fights it’s way upwards at a gradient that you don’t expect, and seems to go on for a lot longer than it should be possible for it to do…Longridge Fell doesn’t look ‘all that big’ really, as you head towards it, but after a couple of minutes of worrying about how few gears you’ve got left you’re left in no doubt that it’s a pretty worthwhile climb.
Even better (or worse, depending on whether you were looking for a way to test your legs), after a brief flat section, you take a very deliberate feeling right turn and somehow manage to start climbing again, before cresting the top of the fell and being treated (if the weather’s feeling kind) to a sweeping view right across Bowland.
Thundering back down off the fell, glancing over to your right at the view you can feel like you’re flying as the countryside below you hurtles past…I made sure I warned everyone of the sharp left hand turn that has caught out quite a few distracted riders before now, before almost coming a cropper myself as I gazed of into the distance for a little too long!
We paid a brief visit to Chipping before heading back towards Longridge along winding roads that felt quite alien with their lack of slope. Despite the 8000+ ft of climbing we’d endured, the final run back to Preston was done at “there’s coffee waiting at home” speeds, while the magnitude of what we’ll be faced with in a couple of months began to set in…