Yorkshire Dales Bikepacking

It was just your average weekend ride in the Dales. The four of us were lying in our bivvy bags, under a children’s climbing frame, in a pub beer garden, in Aysgarth, as it started to snow. Again.

Stuart Rider (has there ever been a more appropriate name for someone in the bike trade?), owner of Riders Cycle Centre had planned out a two-day-with-a-bivvy-in-the-middle ride, that he was planning on guiding clients on later in the year.

Rob, who I met, and rode with on the Cairngorms Loop travelled up to join us. Reprising a Cairngorms Loop foursome, including Jenn and Stu. It’s no coincidence we are all planning on doing the Highland Trail in May. Stu’s mate Simon also joined us for the Saturday section of the ride.

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Pre-ride fettling. Pic credit to Stuart

So, under a cloudy, grey sky, heavy with snow we set off from Stu’s shop. Our loop was going to be run anti-clockwise, 50-ish miles each day. Not huge, but a serious enough undertaking, and the furthest I’ve ridden off-road for a while now. We spun away on singlespeed gears (other than Stu, who runs 1×9 on his Ragley, chatting as we left Skipton, and gradually (and then less gradually) climbed our way on to the fells behind it.

The subdued green of the valleys became white, and our view was largely sepia toned, other than for our bright drybags, loaded with warm bivvy kit… and the sick green FF29 of course…

After a fast, long and cold descent to Appletreewick, complete with snow/hail stinging our faces, we hit our first bit of off-road, and steadily climbed along the bridleway to Stump Cross. Greenhow edge was appropriately bleak and buffs were pulled over chins as we cruised along the road, before diving off left for more bridleway descending to Pateley Bridge and a well earned brew and toasted teacake. Layers peeled off in the warmth of the cafe were replaced in preparation for the next leg of the ride, up the east side of Nidderdale, past Gouthwaite reservoir, before climbing higher and following the valley round to the NW, on to Scar House reservoir. The snow got deeper as we climbed, rarely so deep that it made riding impossible, but certainly enough to make things a little slower going than the last time I rode these trails, back in an early spring dry spell last year, when they were dry, compact and fast flowing. The wide trails again allowed us to talk some more as we rode, each of us tracking forward and back, sharing conversations. Often there would be one clear line, and we would drop into line. This left me in a world of my own thoughts for a while, content in the stillness, listening to 29er tyres roll over squeaky snow.

Solitude shared with great company. One of those oxymorons that mountain biking throws up sometimes.

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Just above the dam at Scar House, we waved goodbye to Simon, who was heading off back to Skipton, a family and a warm bed for the night. The prospect of a warm bed may have briefly triggered pangs of jealousy, but I was looking forward to sleeping out, and had no desire to head home just yet. The next section was a long, slow push up on to the tops.

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Pic credit to Stuart

The snow was deeper than it had been anywhere else, and the gradient was tough enough that gears wouldn’t have helped a great deal anyway. After the climb, we were rewarded with a sketchy, drifty descent in flat light, making it almost impossible to spot changes in the terrain. Often the first tell tale sign of a change in camber was finding the bike pointing towards a ditch at the edge of the trail, and showing no inclination to stop. The snow, which had stopped falling for a while, came back, accompanied by low slung, ominous looking clouds, and we were all chilled as we followed tarmac ribbons through grey looking Dales villages and hamlets. Time was getting on, and it was still only February. Daylight was still short lived. As we made our way over to Wensleydale, the clouds lifted once more, and we were treated to stunning pastel colours, and crisp skies. Onwards, and downwards towards Aysgarth. It was dark enough for me to pop my lights on for the two miles on road to Aysgarth. We climbed out of the valley floor, and our tea wouldn’t be earned without a 1:6 haul. Thankfully it was brief, and the pub lights were on.

We tumbled in, and were hit by the warmth. Layers were ditched as quickly as possible, amongst locals out for an early Saturday drink, and more suitably attired for the occasion. It felt fitting to have a pint of Wensleydale while pondering a great looking menu, and settling in, enjoying the welcoming atmosphere. As well as a great guide, Stu also does a fine line in tall tales, and kept us entertained with stories of his youth, as we tucked into big meals and more beer.

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Our pace of consumption and conversation slowed as the days efforts took their toll, and we reluctantly thought about making a move back out into the cold and setting up camp for the night. Our original plan was to bivvy near Aysgarth Falls, but it didn’t take much persuasion by the pub landlady to use their beer garden instead. A children’s climbing frame was perfect for rigging Stu’s tarp up to, and after a few swigs of Jura Superstition, we all drifted off to sleep quickly. I woke a few times in the night to snow being blown on to my face, rolling over and drifting off once again, drowsy and warm, thankful that I brought my winter weight sleeping bag.

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“Camp” Pic credit to Stuart

An unconventional breakfast of chocolate, nuts and seeds and chorizo had me ready and raring to go on Sunday morning. Actually, ready and raring is an overstatement, but “go” we all did. We would broadly be trending south and west, for what was actually going to be a longer day in the saddle than the Saturday. Our day followed a similar pattern to Saturday, with low cloud and snow showers to begin with, but it cleared significantly as the day progressed, treating us to blue skies and epic views. We picked up the Pennine Bridleway for a while, descending towards Dent. More sketchy snow. More fun. Then a bitterly, bitterly cold road descent, that had us all stopping for extra layers, and looking forward to the next climb, purely to generate some heat. The next climb would be on a familiar hill for me – Whernside, but from the north, on a trail I’ve never used. The climb was a little too steep and prolonged to make on loaded singlespeeds, but would be a good granny ring winch in other conditions. We then dropped down towards Ribblesdale, picking up the 3 Peaks Cyclocross route off the hill, popping out alongside the railway line, and following it to the hulking mass of Ribblehead viaduct. Tummies were rumbling, so Stu took an executive decision to shorten the next leg slightly by going straight along the valley road to the Pen-y-ghent cafe. Pint of tea, cheese and beans on toast, extra toast and a bottle of coke. Fuel.

The blue skies and sun beaming through the windows of the cafe gave an illusion of warmth. The reality was that there was still a chill in the air as we set off, and while it felt like the back of the ride was broken, we still had a good way to go, including a long climb up to Malham Tarn. More pushing, followed by tarmac slogging. Mastiles Lane was dealt with, fuelled by bullet-hard Skittles, a handful stashed in my cheek, gerbil style until they reached a warm enough temperature to chew.

Eventually, we popped out on to tarmac at Rylstone, leaving us with a 5 miles tarmac spin/slog/spin to get us back to Skipton. The light was fading quickly, but we were welcomed back to where we started by ringing church bells (I’ve no idea how Stuart managed to get that organised ;-)) and confirmation by Mr Rider that we had ticked over the 100 mile mark somewhere on the road stretch back to town. A couple of hours later, Jenn and I were tucked up on the sofa, eating enormous quantities of toad in the hole and mash, my face glowing with windburn and the joys of central heating.

The FF29 and bikepacking

So, I’ve established the FF29 makes a fabulous, fun trail bike. How did it cope with being loaded up and taken out on a long xc ride? Very well, actually. The light weight meant that, despite being loaded up with a bar bag and saddle roll, it felt far from sluggish. The extra weight over the back wheel actually provided a little more traction, which was handy for hauling up a few of the steeper climbs. Aluminium has a reputation for being harsh, but the FF29 was anything but. I was as pretty much as comfortable in the saddle at the end as I was at the start. Again, the carbon fork continues to astound me. It is so compliant and comfortable, it really does feel like there is a little bit of travel there, but I love the direct feel of the rigid fork. Happy days.

Thanks to Jenn, Rob, Simon and Stu for the great company. Biggest thanks to Stuart for organising, and planning the ride. He is a fully qualified guide, and can take clients on this trip, or one tailored specifically for you – longer, shorter, bivvy, hostel, hotel…

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Pic credit to Stuart

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Running into the night

Blinking felt weird. Dry and a bit painful. I realised it was probably because I hadn’t closed my eyes for quite a while, as I was scanning the frozen trail for the line of least resistance.

I don’t do many fell races, but I liked the sound of Mr Sparkle’s Dark Un, not least because it was on a Friday night, and seemed like a good way to kick off the weekend. It is a traditional fell race format, of broadly up, then broadly down, over around 5 miles. The twist is that, as the name suggest, run in the dark, with a headtorch added to the usual compulsory kit list.

Friday night was bloody cold. Sub-zero, and bone dry. The trails were rock hard, and almost sticky, in the same way your fingers stick to an ice cube from the freezer. Other than the icy sections, of course, which were as slippery as, well, ice.

I started near the front of the 75 strong field, and it was good to see a few familiar MTB faces there, including Phil Simcock, Amy and Ali. Jenn was also there, doing her first ever fell race. The pace was quick from the off, but not that quick. In fact, I seemed to be making up places, and while I was working hard, I felt comfortable. This was sustainable. We actually descended to start, and I let my legs go, and body plummet down the smooth, sandy trails. I moved up some more, but had someone right behind me, casting a shadow in front of my line. Luckily, we turned a corner and headed up hill, as I pulled away from him and passed one other person, as we chose different lines past the sheet ice that covered much of the trail. I was aware that there were at least two people in front of me, but I rarely got a glimpse of their lights as they pulled away. I had a man behind me as we settled into a regular pace.

At some point, along the ruts of the moors, I was re-passed, but stayed on his heels, actually welcome for a rest from choosing my lines, and able to follow someone else, learning from their experiences of slippery patches, or looser sections. A marshal shouted out 3rd and 4th. I’ve never been this high up in a fell race (or any other race, actually… other than the odd endurance race, before things have settled down, and I’ve shuffled back through the pack). Don’t mess things up now. I allowed myself a rare look behind. I could see the next placed runner, but there was a reasonable gap between us. Stay focussed on my own running. 3rd placed man increased his pace. I matched it. He slowed down, I moved onto his heels, and towards his side. He sped up. I hung on.

Intensity. I can never push myself this hard on a bike. I think I’d fall off. Every cell in my body is devoted to the act of propelling me forward as quickly as I can. One foot in front of the other. Simple. I’ve been doing it for nearly 33 years. A simple act transformed into the sole reason for breathing, for existing for 36 minutes.

And so it stayed, until the last rocky descent. We both had “moments” on the way down, requiring some rapid correction to prevent a nasty fall. The gap opened after I had one such trip. I couldn’t quite close things back down. Oh for a flatter run in after the descent. We crossed the line, a few seconds apart.

My throat was raw with the cold, and my eyes still sore as I blinked rapidly to try and rehydrate them. Deep breaths. Sharing stories on the finish line. Pint of shandy, chip butty, home (after Jenn collected her prize for 2nd place woman – not bad for her a 1st fell race!). Great start to the weekend.

I was 2nd senior male, 4th overall. I’ll be happy if I can carry that form through the year!

Thanks to Simon (Mr Sparkle) and the rest of Darwen Dashers for organising.