It’s Grin Oop North!

26 09 2011

Bob( and Mark) report back from a fine weekend away…

The first time I met Stuart, I knew that he was going to turn out to be a top geezer, because he was making a fruit smoothie. It wasn’t that I admired his green credentials or anything like that, it was because he was pedalling away furiously on a bike that was being used to generated the electricity to power the smoothie maker – and he actually looked as if he was enjoying it!

He’s a fruit, but he’s a smoothie too!

This took place at the London Cycle show, in the Excel centre, which I was visiting in the hope of being able to do some research for my planned 29er build. After an enthusiastic chat, which involved discussions about bikes, cake and beer, it became apparent that Stuart had a very good product to sell – in the shape of the Dales Bike Centre. (http://www.dalesbikecentre.co.uk/) The centre provides an ideal mix of accommodation, bike hire/servicing, tea & cake supplies and (most importantly) an absolutely belting location.

When I managed to tear myself away from Stuart’s infectious northern friendliness, I vowed to do a bit more research – and all of it came up with positive feedback. The real clincher was the article in SingleTrack magazine) which tipped me off about the possibility of doing a weekend in the Dales for £100 per head (http://www.dalesbikecentre.co.uk/Media/Singletrack_53_OTW.pdf. The next step was to get a group together.

Over the space of the next few weeks, various chats during club rides and Wednesday evening night rides saw us arrive at a group of eight hardy souls who were brave/stupid enough to take up the challenge. Booked it, paid the deposit and started counting the days…

Friday

The long waited day finally dawned and I set off to collect Dave and Mark for the 300 mile trip to Fremington – a name that is now burnt into our souls (for all the right reasons). A short stop for coffee and biscuits on the motorway saw us meet up with Paul and Marc before departing for the final leg. After a fairly uneventful but boring motorway journey, we finally turned off the A1M and started heading across country, through Bedale & Leyburn before turning onto the ‘Reet Northern’ sounding Whipperdale Bank for the transit ‘up and over’ between Wensleydale and SwaleDale (our final destination). This road is mostly single lane, with whoop-dee-doos and switchbacks to keep you guessing, along with the possibility of colliding with sheep or being shot at by the military – who have many firing ranges on the land that it passes through. At long last, we crested the final brow and saw the awesome valley of Swaledale before us. Down into the valley we went, and a few minutes later the robotic tones of the Sat-Nav uttered that welcoming phrase – “You have arrived at your destination!”

The welcome feeling continued as soon as we turned off the road and beheld the idyllic combination of facilities that were to be at our disposal for the next 48 hours. The familiar, cheery face of Stuart emerged from the bike shop to guide us to a suitable parking spot, and we soon joined Robin – who had typically been there since mid morning, and already been out on a ride – in the cafe for tea and cake.

I suddenly feel the urge to buy a sheepdog – dunno why...

The accommodation was located on the top floors of the shop & cafe buildings and took the form of 4 or 2 person rooms, equipped with very comfy bunks. A shared toilet, a couple of showers and a drying room finished off each block, with the one above the cafe having a small kitchenette for those out of hours tea sessions. Each of the rooms was named after a local landmark, those in our block being Apedale (just for the Southern Monkeys?), Barf End & Crackpot (Don’t know why Dave & I ended up in that last one!)  The bikes even got their own accommodation, in the form of a formidable lock-up.

Makes a change from ‘Presidential Suite’

After a brief visit to the local pub for something to eat, we found ourselves kitted up ready for the start of the regular Friday night ride that sets out from the shop. With possibly too much beer and steak pie inside us, we awaited the fateful hour of 19:00 and our first encounter with mountain biking in the Dales. A couple of local riders arrived and after a quick chat with Stuart agreed that we’d be going to Fremington Edge. Now, I’d seen this on the map, so didn’t say anything to the other guys, for fear of triggering a mass mutiny – I’ve never seen contour lines so close together!

Out onto the road we went and after a whole 200 yards Stuart calmly announced “That’s the warm-up then!” and hung a right onto a lane that would give Ditchling Beacon an inferiority complex. About halfway up, I thought the effort was making me hallucinate but no – it was getting steeper, and the tarmac had given way to a severely rocky farm track that wound and undulated its way across the hillside and over steps, on its route to the summit. After several breaks for breath I finally delivered my Hovis loaf to the top of the hill – By Eck, Lad,  that were hard work.

Talk about stating the obvious, a pile of stones - up here – never!

After a suitable rest period (well suitable for Stuart, anyway) we set off alongside the drystone wall that hugged the ridgeline for the next couple of miles until the trail suddenly dived over the edge and followed a series of rocky, stepped switchbacks through an old quarry, across some very steep fields, between some stone walls and onto a path that lead us back to the valley floor where we followed a riverside trail that pinged spud sized rocks onto our down tubes causing a certain amount of (unwarranted) concern. We soon found ourselves climbing again (I detected a pattern at this point) to cross over Reeth Low Moor (It’s called ‘Low’ because it’s only 487 metres high) for the immensely enjoyable descent called ‘Angry Man’ – this is mostly grass but, typically for the Dales, is peppered with enough rocks to keep you on your toes. A few spots of rain made the grass suitably slick and introduce a bit of sideways action –causing Marc to inspect the bracken a bit more closely than he intended, before taking the sharp right that he needed to.

Back down on the valley floor, we settled in for the road section back to base. Despite the relatively placid nature of the road, there were a couple of incidents. Firstly we had to realign a front derailleur, with the aid of a large rock that we borrowed from a nearby dry stone wall then, on the fast road descent into Reeth, I had a flat, and not wanting to brake or steer too much, found myself running straight on at the point where the road took a sharp right and ended up sprawled in a stone built bus stop. It was pretty hairy, I can tell you, going at about 30mph and being unable to do much other than point the thing in a straight line. A couple of attempts to reseat the tubeless tyre failed miserably, so we put a tube in for the last mile or so to the centre.

The good line and the bad line – guess which one I took?

Well, if we didn’t know what biking in the Dales was about before, we certainly did now – or so we thought?

Saturday

The next morning was heralded in by the sound of Rain – looked like our dry weekend was over. Once we had all dragged ourselves out of our bunks and made our way to the cafe for breakfast, thoughts turned to the day ahead, and the dark foreboding hills that surrounded us on all sides.

I’d show the view without a hill, but there isn’t one.

If the previous night’s two hour ride was anything to go by, our all day guided ride was going to be full-on! Fuelled up with cereals, yoghurt and scrambled eggs on toast, we assembled our gear and waited for our guide, Nicola. A short briefing followed, where we decided to do two out-and-back loops, to allow us to have lunch at the centre.

So it was that we set off up the road that had first brought us to Swaledale. Winching our way up and round the winding road and over a cattle grid, we reached the gates of the rather imposing Youth Hostel that looks out over the valley like some great limestone guardian. From there we turned off road and onto the characteristic farm track that we would come to love/hate. This wound its way up the hillside in relentless fashion, throwing in a mixture of gravelly, peaty, grassy & downright rocky sections, just to make sure that we couldn’t relax for a moment. After what seemed like a lifetime, we arrived at the summit. “Great”, we all thought – “Bring on the descent”. The problem with this thought was that there was no obvious way down, and we were beginning to suspect that we were just going to turn around and retrace our steps. Now, this would have been quite good fun, given the surfaces and angles involved, but Nicola had other ideas and pointed out a black plastic water pipe that crossed the path and disappeared over the edge – via a boulder field that looked like it had been deposited by a fleet trucks.

One by one, our eyes followed the pipe, and then glanced across at each other – was she serious? Was there even a line to follow – yes ‘The pipeline’! A bit of reassurance from Nicola convinced us that it was rideable and set off to mark out a step-down that she said was the worst bit. One by one we swallowed hard and, with a bit of a faff, mounted our bikes and let gravity do its job.

Apart from crossing the pipe at the top – which most of us failed to do gracefully – and the first couple of yards of doubtful dabbing, most of it was actually surprisingly doable. A few stops/falling over sessions were inevitable, but we all made it down in pretty much one piece.

Come back mud – all is forgiven!

Following this we encountered other new types of terrain. First there was the Heather Zip – a 2 inch wide scar through the heather, which hid a 12 inch deep, rock infested trail –  we may just as well have been riding with our eyes shut! Then there came the Mogul Field – a lumpy, bumpy landscape that would have been familiar to skiers, but one where the snow was replaced by grass, with the light coating of rain replacing the slippyness of the snow (Don’t brake Bob, don’t brake Bob…)

Now back in the valley floor, we followed a river with a cobbled path that was nicely lubricated by the rain, over a massive off-camber rooty section – which was strategically placed next to a bit where the river bank had collapsed – and soon found ourselves back at the bike centre where toasted sandwiches, cakes & coffee provided the much needed sustenance for the afternoon ahead of us.

Somewhat reluctantly, we hauled our backsides out of the welcoming environment of the cafe, and set off for the next part of our punishment adventure. On the way through Reeth, we had a quick stop to take photos of the bus stop (and try to work out just how I’d managed to walk away without any major injuries) before heading onwards.

Just outside the village, we turned left and onto the inevitable farm track that heralded the start of the climb. This was mostly the kind of winding climb that South Downs riders would be fairly familiar with – think of the climb up to above the Long Man, heading east – but was punctuated by one particular section where the road builders just couldn’t be bothered with curves and went straight up the steepest part of the hill. We all had a gallant attempt at clearing this but met with failure in the form of lack of fitness, wrong gear selection, too much lunch or just simply wobbling into each other.

Come back Robin, you’ve got the Tangfastics!

After what seemed like an age, we arrived at the moon summit – a bleak landscape that was covered in piles of small rocks that were the by-products of the regions former lead mining industry. It reminded me of the quarry that was used to shoot pretty much all of the planet based scenes for Blake’s Seven (younger readers can ignore the previous sentence – or Google it). Once we’d had a rest, everybody had placed a stone on the cairn, and I’d had copious amount of Oxygen, Nicola briefed us on the descent that lay ahead. The first few seconds or riding from the summit were treated with some trepidation, as it looked like there would be very little grip on the spoil heaps but we were pleasantly surprised by how little the surface shift under the wheels and gradually began to gain confidence.

As we progressed down the hillside, the landscape returned to the familiar rocky peaty combination and we started to approach the edge of the mining area itself. A short section that was a cross between a slalom & a bobsleigh run saw us through some drystone walls and onto the mine access road. This swooped up and down several time, with a few switchbacks and stream crossings before settling down into a wide track that traversed the side of a steep valley. Flanked by old mining buildings the track swooped along at great speed, throwing in regular pothole to dodge and half buried drainage pipes to launch off. We pedalled because we wanted to go faster, not because we had to – it was 3.3 miles of descending joy, and I defy anybody to do it without grinning like a total loon. If Chadders and Hobbs had been there, I’m sure that there would have been a shockwave travelling just ahead of them – I, for one, would love to be there if & when they get to ride it.

When we had all reached the natural stopping point, it became apparent that some of the party were starting to feel the effects of the days riding so, with a bit of direction from Nicola; I set off with Mike & Paul for the ‘shortcut’ back to the centre. Now, the Dales being what they are meant that even this route wasn’t plain sailing, starting with a short sharp climb that took us across a valley. This did, however give us an excellent view of the other riders snaking their way up yet another heather clad hillside. From here the road took a definite shift in the downwards direction and we took the opportunity to rest our weary legs for a while. I was wary of malicious bus stops that may be lurking around each corner, so was taking it easier than Mike & Paul – it turned out that the real danger was from ninja farm gates, as I rounded a bend to find one completely blocking the road and Paul had only just managed to stop with about an inch to spare. (I later found out that this road was called ‘Morley gate’ – Duh!) Once past this minor obstacle, it was a fairly easy run back through Reeth to the waiting coffee & cakes – the other guys showed up soon after and we all took time to reflect on what we’d done that day. Another visit to the local pub ensued and we all retired for the night with that contented weariness that always follows a cracking day out on bikes.

Sunday

(As recounted by Marc, as my sore knee – and the chance to chill in the cafe for a few hours – saw me sitting out the final morning of riding)

Dave, I told you follow the washing instructions if you didn’t want to shrink it...

We awoke to grey skies and the feeling our last ride of the weekend might become a damp one. Spirits were lifted by bacon sarnies for breakfast, cooked to perfection by Stu, and discussions of the route began. We set off shortly after (minus Bob who had some knee pain), over the bridge and past the pub, making sure mobiles were silent!*

Turning right we soon peeled off the road to the bridleway, and then negotiated the field which seemed to be occupied by a few kamikaze sheep, but their efforts went unrewarded. The bridleway then followed the river bank, at which point I caught a root and took a roll down the river bank. Pride bruised, but hopefully some marks for artistic merit gained, we headed up to meet the road. A short climb left on the road and we turned right onto a track leading up Harkerside Moor. Serious climbing began here, up past the mogul field and on, it wasn’t long before a split in the group emerged, Robin up front, and the rest of us some way behind! The group then split as some wanted to get back earlier than others, as we did so it began to rain and the descent become a treacherous one of wet loose rock and grass, but we all managed to keep things vertical and arrived back on the road to Grinton. A short road spin and we were back to the Dales Centre. Stu kindly handed out bike wash tokens, so bikes were cleaned, showers taken and cars loaded, farewells said and we headed off down south with memories of a great biking weekend.

The sign says it all...

* The pub has a ‘No mobiles’ policy, that they re-inforce by having several mobile phones pinned to the wall by crossbow bolts (You ain’t from round here, are ya, boy?)

Well, what a great time we had, and what wonderful places the Dales Centre & Swaledale are, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be hauling our Muddy@rses back there again, but I think a longer trip is warranted, in order to make the most of the profusion of riding that’s available.

Cheers Stu, Nicola & everybody else at the centre – it was a blast!

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