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The Britannia Times

Wild Cycling in Eroica Britannia Territory

Published on 24th. February 2017

Chris Sidwells explores our territory of The Peak District with an adventurous on and off-road cycle training ride to test endurance

Chris Sidwells is a freelance writer, editor and photographer whose words and/or pictures appear in every edition of Britain’s best-selling cycling magazine, Cycling Weekly. Recent magazine projects include the editing of a series of bookazines called Cycling Legends under the Cycling Weekly brand. Chris has also written for Cycle Sport, Cycling Active, Cycling Plus, GQ Magazine, Men’s Fitness, Running Fitness, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and the BBC.

Chris has also been involved in Eroica Britannia in 2015 and 2016 as a judge for Best Bike in Best in Show and is also a contributor to the online Britannia Times for Eroica Britannia 2017 with a series of shorts that tap into the heart of The Great British Adventure. Chris follows his first feature on Tom Simpson 'Cinder Tracks to Superstar' with 'Wild Cycling' an exploration of our territory, The Peak District with an adventurous on and off-road cycle training ride to test endurance and reward with some knockout landscape and unforgettable views of the land we love the most. If you haven't signed up to The Ride 2017 this may well give you the motivation you need! 

A Great British Adventure

This is a Great British bicycle adventure in the Peak District using secret trails and tiny roads that follows the tracks of champions and explores the two faces of this magical place. Mam Tor is one of the great landmarks of the Peak District, part of a ridge of hills rising near Chapel-en-le-Frith and running east to the River Derwent at Bamford. It is is most recognisable from the Hope Valley, where its scarred but beautiful face is turned for all to see from the valley below. The scar is the reason for one of Mam Tor’s other names, the Shivering Mountain. Around 4000 years ago the whole south-eastern side slid into the valley below, leaving an unstable cliff that has been crumbling ever since. Some of the larger fallen sections have formed baby hills beneath the scar, giving Mam Tor its third name, the Mother Hill.

A main road connecting Hope Valley with Chapel-en-le Frith and Buxton once clambered over the shoulder of Mam Tor, doing a big switchback across its south-eastern flank. The switchback lessened the gradient, providing a way over the hills for heavy vehicles. One kilometre further south Winnats Pass shows how steep the gradient would have been. But the main road suffered from damage by landslips, and it was abandoned in 1979. Or at least it was abandoned by motor vehicles. 

"Today it provides cyclists with an excellent springboard for adventure"

British cyclists have always looked for the route less travelled, even forming an organisation, the Rough Stuff Fellowship in 1955, to ensure the tradition was kept alive. It’s a desire that Eroica Britannia holds dear, and the Peak District is a perfect place for a spot of wild cycling. 

Just such a wild ride starts in Castleton, climbs up the abandoned Mam Tor road to explore the scenery of the two faces of the Peak District, the Dark and White Peak, before returning to Castleton. You can use any bike, except race-spec carbon fibre models, and it’s perfect for classic steel bikes, road or cyclo-cross. The only proviso would be to fit the toughest tyres you can.

Audacious start

You start with an audacious climb up the abandoned road, which begins just west of Castleton. Head towards Winnats Pass and after 500 metres you fork right to begin the climb. In fine weather you’ll see daredevil paragliders flinging themselves from the top of Mam Tor, swooping down into the void to gain speed then, soaring up into the thermals above you. It looks fantastic, and terrifying. 
Riding all the way up the abandoned road would be a challenge, but it is mountain bike territory. The road is so shattered in places that it looks like an earthquake has hit it. It’s best to dismount and walk around the worst bits. That’s the thing with wild cycling though; it’s an experience, a challenge if you want one, but it’s never a race.

Wild cycling is about freedom, the feel of riding where others don’t go, and above all it’s about the landscape. The view from the top of the abandoned road is breath-taking. The whole sway of the Hope Valley spreads out before you all the way to the gritstone edges in the east.

Stay as long as you like, but when you resume riding, continue west along the road signposted Chapel-en-le-Frith, past a grassy mound called Windy Knoll. It’s a fascinating geological feature that was once part of a coral reef in an ancient sea. Now it hides a small cave where Victorian archaeologists unearthed the bones of reindeer, bison and even wolves. 

Ride a further 500 metres along the road then take the right turn signposted Edale. Now climb up to the pass between Mam Tor and Rushup Edge. You turn left at the top of the pass onto a bridleway that climbs Rushup Edge, but the pass itself is the finish line of the Mam Nick hill climb out of Edale, a classic that was recently revived by Sheffield’s Rutland Cycling Club. 

Pull of the Peak

The Peak District is a magnet for cyclists and always has been. Surrounded by big cities, clubs full of miners, steel-workers and others from heavy industries came here to explore, to revel in the natural beauty, to relax and enjoy the fresh air. The pull was even stronger for racers.

They trained here in their thousands, riders from Manchester, the West Yorkshire conurbation, Stoke, and in particular from Sheffield and its towns and villages. They still do. Some of them; Tom Simpson, Beryl Burton, Barry Hoban, Graham Jones, Malcolm Elliott, Ben Swift and Lizzie Armitstead are among the biggest names in British cycling. 
But as well as training, many of the first road races were held in the Peak District. The biggest was the Tour of the Peak. Dating back to 1943 when Ernie Clements won its classic route was two laps of a near 45-mile circuit that included the climbs of Snake Pass, Mam Tor and Chinley Head. When the road over Mam Tor was abandoned the course changed, using a string of replacement hills, including Winnats Pass. Mark Lovatt was the man of the Peak, winning six consecutive editions from 1998 to 2003. The last was held in 2005. Paul Manning won, with Lovatt second.

Pure joy

But enough of history and on with the ride. The bridleway from the Mam Nick Pass to the top of Rushup Edge is steep and the surface loose, so take care. Riding along the elongated top and down to the next road section is a pure joy. Turn right where the bridleway meets the road, then take the next left. 

It leads to Perryfoot, where you go left then first right onto a delightful little lane running through Perry Dale. Switching from abandoned roads, to bridleway, to tiny lanes is the essence of wild cycling, and one that is enhanced by good map reading skills. The UK’s Ordnance Survey is a national treasure and has produced some of the finest maps in the world. Get familiar with them, especially with the red dashed lines that cover the country like a vast spider’s web. They are bridleways, the off-road routes where cycling is permitted, they are very special.

You reach the next bridleway by going straight ahead through a place called Old Dam, and it’s one of the finest in the country. It is called the Limestone Way, an 80-kilometre high-level route through the White Peak, the limestone half of the Peak District. Riding its whole length is a joy, and this ride provides a small taste.

Turn left and there’s a steep climb ahead, but there are terrific views all the way up. The steep valley on your left is Oxlow Rake, while on your right is a wide expanse upland limestone; a wide green airy space with rocky outcrops, pocked now and then by old lead mine shafts. Most of the rest of the way to Castleton is downhill, but beware, the last 2.5 kilometres go very steeply downhill, especially in three distinct places where the surface is very loose. Walking is the better part of valour here. 

Pay attention to the signs as well. You must take the right fork where the trail splits. It’s a bridleway, the other trail is a footpath. It’s signposted, but the right trail descends a distinct dry valley with high crags on either side, which is quite easy to pick out. In no time you’ll be back in Castleton, emerging almost under the walls of ancient Peveril Castle, after what is one of many great wild cycling experiences to be had in the Peak District, all of them great British adventures.

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