Dark Peak Epic.

Long post, short geography lesson. The Peak District is essentially split north/south around Tideswell. The South Side (White Peak) is primarily limestone whereas the North (Dark Peak) is a combination of Millstone and Gritstone. All of it has been fiercely eroded by first eons of glacial action and latterly by wind, water and man.

What it lacks in woody singletrack, it makes up for with proper hills, grinding climbs and loose rocky descents naturally created for the best sport in the world. Classic descents such as Lockerbrook, Jacobs ladder, Oaken Clough, Hag Farm and the notrious “Beast” are famous in this little piece of MTB heaven, and I was long overdue a crack at a few of them.

It’s always a proper big ride especially when Andy “Tracklogs” Shelley is planning a summit bagging epic, this in the face of your trembling bottom lip and 35lb freeridey bike powered by jelly legs on flat pedals. First up was a grind up to Cavedale from the Peak Forest side – once there, I managed to stay on the bike for about the first five seconds before picking first myself and then the bike off the floor. My saddle has been fitted with a precision testicle homing device and so it was with some wincing that the steep section was minced mainly by walking.

.CavedaleCavedale

Andy was doing so well on his hardtail, I lent him my bike to try. He did pretty well on that too, while I lurched down, bouncing off rocks and wondering if speed really would be your friend down here. Swapping back, it appears that it was on the lesser horror of the bottom section but you’d need to be a screaming mentalist to try that from the top.

Regrouping in Hope for tea and cake, my playing of the big, heavy bike card was somewhat upstaged when Mark joined us – having ridden from Sheffield – on a Santa Cruz Bullit whittled from solid lead. A mere 43lbs of endless travel which spent most of the day out of sight both on the climbs and the descents. I’m assuming Mark has “screaming mentalist” on his CV under “other interests

Heading up to Lockerbrook

Hope Cross made me cross last time in the slippy rain but today it was bone dry and a granny ring twiddle ambled us to the top of what the locals call “potato alley“. I’d call it the rock strewn wreckage of a trail that’d break your ankle as soon as look at you. Not suprisingly then, my tentative approach saw a couple come past but the sound of an approaching hardtail spurred me on. Placing my ego firmly between two expensive coil springs, I gripped the bars, took a bearing on a fallen rider in the distance and engaged hyperdrive.

The bike freed from its brakey shackles shot forward, flattened the small rocks and launched the bigger ones reeling in my pals at an astonishing rate. All I could do was move about a bit so not being mistaken for a sack of potatos myself and try to remember to breathe. That’s about all you need to do when you have a bike like this.

Much grinning begat much gurning as we climbed the unending climb to Lockerbrook. This is one of my favorite descents in the UK never mind just the Peak District. A fast, straight blast from the top, then sharp right into a pedally section (Alex waves bye to everyone) and then 30 seconds of sublime singletrack each corner coming faster than the last. At exactly this point a hard left brings you back to the peaks proper with natural steps and loose rock, sheparded by a deepening gorge. Hardtails stay right, full sussers can grab a lead on the left by ignoring any rational line choice.

And here’s an odd thing. I always though the SX would only make sense if ridden at speeds beyond my ability. But it doesn’t work like that; I’m never going to get near its’ limits but it’s so good downhill that you can ride within yourself and still descend like a madman with your hair on fire. Oh I know to the single ring, single sprung, single minded crowd, it’s probably cheating but I don’t care. Down here it’s brilliant, I’m having so much fun picking silly lines, ramming the front end into turns and preloading lips, I keep forgetting to be frightened.

I also nearly t-bone Rob who’s out for his first ride in ages on an aging Whyte that looks as odd as when it first escaped from a crazed design lab. If the SX had made contact, they’d be nothing left but swarf and while that’s a mercy killing in my book, Rob’s a nice fella and so I hauled two fistfulls of 6inch rotors and headed off for tea and cake at Fairholmes instead.

While I was distracted, fighting off the aggressive ducks, a plan was hatched which required the bastard climb up the ever steepening flagstones towards Winstone Lee Tor. After that it’s just steep, narrow and rocky – three trail conditions that don’t suit a 35lb bike with a low bottom bracket, big rut grinding flats and a southern legged pilot. Instead I practiced the new sport of “All Mountain Strolling” taking in some stunning views and occasionally being passed by smug ramblers.

Climbing to Winston Lee TorClimbing to Winston Lee Tor

Back on the bike for the last section, I was soon off it again when a bog submerged rock grappled with my front tyre and lobbed me off into the gloop. I emerged swamp monsterish to the amusement of almost everyone else but my chagrin was instantly forgotten after a 360 faceful of perfect landscape as viewed from the peak of the tor.

Winstone Lee TorWinstone Lee Tor

There’s a track from here – not on any map – worryingly named “the edge of insanity“. It clings to the clifftop on tight heather bound singletrack before plunging straight down the fall line at an angle of dangle demanding an arse drop onto the rear tyre. Jason – in a bold move – went the other way, straight over the bars before being lightly impaled on a gritstone outcrop. His thigh took the impact and my motivational shout of “could’ve been worse, could’ve been your bollocks” seemed to cheer him up.

Towards the beastTowards the beast

My plea for a pint at the Ladybower Inn went unheaded as scores of miserable looking day trippers queued for food, beer and parking spaces. More fool them with their road bound transport I though as we grabbed a whole load of granny on another 30 minute climb crossing tarmac, fireroad and rocky trail. All of them steep, all of them painful but what a reward was waiting. A natural bermed amphitheater – “the hag farm twiddler” paved with loose slabs, cornered with natural rock berms and ratcheted up to 11 on the funometer by a gradient encouraging flat out descending.

Lots of walkers and cyclists walking with bikes just added some slalom spice and even after Mark flew past as if I was one of them, it was still about the most fun you can have standing up on a set of springs. Unless you’re in an unusual sexual position with the partner of your dreams but I’m clinging to realism here.

I asked Andy to give it to me straight. We’d be out five hours and although I was still feeling pretty good, I wanted to know what climbing horrors still had to be taken in. Two big ones and a long traverse was his answer and he was leveraging the power of the Yorkshire understatement there. First up, a long grassy climb to the foot of the “Beast” and a long push for me to beat it. It’s a slabby nightmare, great plumes of gritstone interspersed with wheel grabbing gaps. That’s downhill, uphill it’s quite a pleasant push up through a cool forest and I – for one – was glad we weren’t tackling it when my legs were going one way and my confidence the other.

Hope CrossTowards the beast

Back at Hope Cross we said goodbye to Mark and Rob and marked out way home by the saddle over Mam Tor. To get there was more of the same and in my desire to stay out in front, Andy never had time to warn me of the recent lunacy of using tiny rock marbles as trail maintenance. Hitting these at a speed I’ve been thinking of as ‘bowel clinchingly fast‘, the front wheel took on the steering quality of slicks on ice. The rear got in on the act a second later and we’re sashaying down the hill in an ever tightening arc of tank slappers.

Hope CrossMam Tor

At this point, I resigned myself to a big stack and probably because of this I didn’t have one. From behind the boys were pretty sure I was trailmeat, yet refused to believe that the almost miraculous escape had anything to do with some previously dormant MTB skills. They were probably right.

After all that excitement the last big climb of the day was almost a relief. Up the lee of Mam Tor and sticking with it until the trail steepened past the anti-gravity of my tiring legs. A quick rest at the lower summit taking in great swathes of the Hope valley, cement works smoking in the distance, before the final slog up the paving slabs to cut right back onto the road.

Mam TorMam Tor
Fifteen minutes of easy traversing brought us back to the first climb of the day. It’d seemed innocuous enough; loose but wide, long radius corners and hardly any lumps. That’s at 4mph, at over 30mph, it morphed into a racetrack committing us to drive the front tyres hard into the turns while the rears occasionally broke into an “oh fuck yes” drift. Small bumps became launchpads and simple corners became full on, leant over sweepers. Short of riding no handed, braking was about the most dangerous action you could try, and we just hung in there line astern and trusted big volume tyres and long springs to keep us upright.

It was nuts, fall here and broken bones would vie with all body scaring for the 2007 pain giving award. But at the end of seven hours riding, pushing, joshing and grinning, there was no way any of us were going to back off. We gabbled nonsense at the bottom, pumped up on adrenalin and happy to be able to share in what is the greatest sport in the world.

The final reckoning told of 37.5 miles with 5700 feet of climbing. But those statistics don’t tell the story of big hill riding with your friends on fantastic bikes tearing down brilliant trails. There can be no better way to spend the first week of your fifth decade than this.

Summer may have been a bit crap for riding and less than a month ago I was thinking of packing it all in. And now? Maybe the old saying has something to it; life begins at 40. Damn straight.

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