A few weeks ago, I met up with a friend to ride in the Peak District. This was my first foray into classic Peak District mountain biking – the main event being the menacingly named ‘Cut Gate’, which we would ride in both directions. We would of course incorporate a larger, more meaningful route – not just aimlessly ride it, turn around and ride back like a pair of idiots! But for the purpose of this blog, the ‘Cut Gate’ section is where we are going to hang out.
Cut Gate is a natural rocky single-track bridleway which carries walkers and riders over Midhope Moors from Langsett Reservoir to Derwent Valley. When ridden North East to South West (which we did first), you pedal slowly and steadily up a long, fairly straight climb. This upward haul is littered with hefty rocks and steps, meaning it’s not just a sustained cardio/leg workout, but demands quite a bit of muscling to heave the bike to the top of the 530-metre high-point. Once on high ground, you then come face-to-face (or tyre-to-slop) with the ‘Bog of Doom’, where you have a choice – stick to the narrow pointy rock passages or become part of the bog! Upon successful navigation of the high peaty trail, you are then faced with a steep, technical descent over boulders that drop you into thigh-high ruts. These deep trenches spit you out onto rough slabs, which finally drop you into an even steeper set of sharp rocky switchbacks leading to the valley floor.
Not wanting to dwell on the obvious, the return journey is simply the reverse of the above – mainly hike-a-bike up the steep, rutty, rocky climb, navigate the ‘Bog of Doom’ in the other direction, then follows a gloriously long, sort of flowy, sort of bumpy-as-hell freeride back to the start. Peak District classic ride complete.
So why share my thoughts on this northern mountain bike day out? Well, dear reader… tis because it highlighted to me the importance of mixing up what you ride.
My regular doorstep riding spots include the Lickey Hills to the South West of Birmingham, and the Clent Hills in North Worcestershire. Both of which are muddy and loamy, with barely an exposed rock in sight. Technical features consist of tree roots, log drops and steep loamy switchbacks. In the summer when the trails are dry(ish), compacted mud makes descents fast and loose as dry dust gives way under tyre tread. Venturing further afield to Cannock Chase, Forest of Dean and even some of the Welsh trail centres, the ground is harder and more predictable owing to trail centre grooming, and when a tyre rolls over rock, you’re comforted to know that it has been placed there by the wisdom of the trail builders as a rideable feature.
All of this mud, compact clay, loam and tree root riding has enabled me to develop into a reasonably fast and somewhat competent rider. I like to accelerate down hills, try to get ‘airborne’, and occupy a mindset of ‘Speed equals Style’. I’d classify myself as a capable ‘advanced’ rider, by trail-centre standards. By that I mean I have no problem riding British trail-centre red routes (or their natural equivalents), taking in all the black options. Now, I’m by no means ‘advanced’ in Bike Park riding. I can unstylishly amble my way down the reds of Bike Park Wales, but I steer well clear of any blacks. None-the-less, my point is I’m confident in most trail riding situations. But all my riding experience has been formed on softer, sloppier ground. These Peak District rocks were a new beast.
As we rolled away from the summit cairn at Howden Edge, I accelerated in usual fashion into the rocky downhill face of Cut Gates southern slopes. Only to throw the anchors on as a wheel-sized boulder threw me and my bike into a deep rut, almost sending me over the bars. Managing to stay rider-side up and still moving, I thanked the sweet Lord that I was riding flat pedals and continued aggressively downhill. Next came a buried rock that I used as a little kicker, intending to gap a rough section. Only problem was the landing wasn’t really a landing. (or at least not in the way I’m used to!) Massive unstable rocks and another deep rut again nearly sent me flying towards an abrupt and painful halt! Typically, I don’t tend to plant a foot on rides. This downhill had me dabbing like a Sherbet Dip!
After the third near miss, I figured I should ease off the gas a little and slowed my pace right down. I started looking for lines and using control to pick my way down the switchbacks, rather than blind speed. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED that descent, and I still went a little bit quick, but I hastily discovered that being a decent mountain biker on one type of terrain doesn’t make you a great all-rounder. I couldn’t wait for the return leg to do more of this rocky learning stuff!
The ribbon of single-track rolling down the northern side could definitely be tackled faster. It being far less steep and reasonably straight, it was easy to pick lines and plan your moves way out in front of you. But it was still rough, and my suspension was working overtime. Rocks would ping out from under my tyres, compromising grip. The jaw-clattering descent was turning my hands to jelly from arm-pump. And my flat Five Tens were battling to stay planted on the pedals. It was one heck of a long natural descent back down to the bottom, and I bloody loved every minute of it! Observing the locals float over the rough terrain, clipped in on short-travel XC bikes, it was clear I was somewhat lacking in ‘northern grit’ and wasn’t as ‘advanced’ as I perhaps thought I was.
So, the moral of today’s tale folks, remember to mix up what you ride and practice being multi-disciplined. If like me, your regular routes involve lots of mud, roots and loam, go tackle something rocky. If you’re a trail-centre weekend-warrior that knows a berm and rock-garden when you see one, have a go at some natural terrain. And if you’re a hardened northern rock-eater, maybe you need to try your hand at some drifty forest loam to test your bike-handling predictability? I will most certainly be riding more exposed natural rock more often, if I want to keep my ‘mildly-advanced-trail-rider-when-not-in-a-bike-park” self-awarded category.
Here’s to advancing!