Quiet moments during the working week – usually when I’m stuck on a train – see the mind wandering to weekend adventures. Those jaunts are visualised through an imaginary rose tinted filter. The weather is always fine, the trails are empty, I feel fit, and the pitch is always perfect.
The latest addition to this idealised canon was a bike-packing trip into the Dark Peak and back again. In the interest of self-powered purity, I’d cycle from my doorstep over rough trails tracking bruised, broad hills, returning the following day. Assuming my progress was good, I’d camp somewhere high and star gaze.
With the weather set fair, plans were made to head to Edale via the Pennine Bridleway, along the Derwent Valley over the tops to Langsett before a blast along the Woodhead and home. I knew some of the terrain would be a challenge, but I’d take my time and all would be well. Ha! Fool!
Bike for the trip was naturally the Surly Troll… or ‘Tango’ as she’s now called. Onto the rear rack went a dry bag with sleeping bag, mat and tent and two small panniers carried tools, food and stove. Not having any specialist bike-packing gear, I thought this arrangement would be ‘slim’ enough for the trail. This would prove to be a mistake.
I left home in glorious afternoon sunshine. Although he trails would be wet, I hoped the improving weather would make passage a wee bit easier.
I headed south along the towpath from Greenfield and through the Scout Tunnel (lights would have been helpful) and picked up the Pennine Bridleway alongside Walkerwood Reservoir. A sealed service track snaked up the valley and I was soon in the moors and onto a broken trail heading to Longdendale. A very steep descent headed to a pretty valley I’d visited many times on foot. Pushing my weight behind the saddle I made it without too much fuss.
Another climb followed and I was soon dropping down into Longdendale and consulting the map. Here the trans Pennine trail offered alternative routes to the wonderfully named Broadbottom. I followed signs through housing estates and, after one seemingly blocked route for cyclists, opted for the road to Charlesworth.
I consulted the map again and rapidly confronted the main challenge of this trip – navigation. I wanted to get into a rhythm with the cycling, not to keep on stopping to consult the contours. This all seemed far easier when walking or using the larger scale road maps when sticking to the Macadam.
I picked up the bridleway again to the northwest of the village and climbed a steep minor road and followed what I thought was the route right. While this seemed correct, the signs soon fizzled out and I found myself pushing – painfully slowly- along a walker’s path in a bid to find the trail again.
Heaving the bike over a style, I found a fabulous section of muddy track that more than compensated for the half a mile or so of toil. I reached another minor road and took time to concentrate on fixing the cartography to the topography. As is the norm, spending a couple a minutes of orientation and suddenly everything became clear. I adjusted my plan accordingly and tumbled down to New Mills via familiar route and then picked up the bridleway to Hayfield.
Here I took stock. I was losing the light and my original plans – to head into the Derwent valley and wild camp – were looking optimistic. I was also painfully aware that the hard yards were to come tomorrow and I wanted to leave as much time as possible for the dreaded Cut Gate trail.
I switched to road and headed to Edale for a camp and a pint. Grades that normally seem arduous on the road bike were bliss after the juddering trails and I climbed to the top of the pass in lovely evening light. Thundering down the road to Barber Booth I reached Edale just before dark.
Fieldhead was full, so I headed onto Coopers. I found a flat pitch and pegged out the Akto, before much needed libation – a ceremonial drink to mark the end of a demanding day.
I naturally wasn’t alone at the Nags, and many fellow campers stayed well into the night before their thunderous snores and farting kept me awake till the early hours.
Morning dawned cold and dank with a heavy mist hanging in the valley and I was famished. Last night’s rations had barely touched the sides. Again, I had to change my plans. With no cash, I headed along the roads to the oft-used (by me) services south of Bamford. Riding through the mist before the Sunday traffic was a treat and I struggled to capture it with the camera.
Refuelled, I followed the road around Ladybower – looking grand in the early sunshine – and tracked north up the Derwent Valley. Fairholmes was buzzing with walkers and cyclists and I stopped (again) for a (…nother) brew.
The ride to the head of the valley was sublime, with autumnal colour vividly reflected in the glass calm waters. Despite the crowds, I love this part of the Dark Peak and it put on a show today.
Splashing through the river ford I hit the Cut Gate proper. I’d read much about this route on various websites and ‘gripped’ mountain bike forums, and realised I would be tackling it in the wrong direction. Therefore, I was prepared to push… A lot as it turned out.
To say it was a slog with a laden bike would be a gross understatement. Progress was torture and, accompanied with plenty of sweat and a fair bit of cussing, I reached a summit of sorts when I could start riding again.
I turned the moors blue on this brutal excursion and the Cut Gate didn’t care… Not one jot.
Advice to ride the Cut Gate in periods of extended dry weather then came to bear. The trail was deep bog in places and the woeful inadequacy of my ‘rough stuff’ touring tyres was soon embarrassingly clear. The front wheel jumped over stones and sank into boggy trenches and ruts and the rear fought for traction, not helped by the pendulum impact of those rear panniers.
Although not quite rueing the day I cack-handedly concocted this adventure,
I was doing a bad impression of someone spending wholesome, replenishing time in the outdoors. I regained some self respect as I came across other riders pushing, though.
When conditions were sufficiently dry to ride safely, those rear panniers were an Achilles heel again as they caught the jaws of the rutted single track. Lessons were being learned here, very quickly, not least my own lack of bottle on some sections. Passage was easier with greater speed, yet I was always conscious of the cumbersome nature of my rig and inappropriate tyres. I reached Langsett suitably chastened, but relieved.
I now had a bit of riding to do on a horrible main road, but planned to ease this pain by using tracks and trails that follow the course of the A628. The first was deeply rutted by four-wheel drives and not really recommended. The second was a short yet sublime diversion off the main carriageway.
I now picked up the Trans Pennine Trail along Longdendale. This provided pleasant and easy passage although the mud had caused some riders’ mudguards to clog. I recalled my own muddy misery on the Cut Gate a couple of hours earlier.
Reaching ground I’d pedalled the previous day, I pointed the bike home as gears caked in mud and grit ground noisily.
Writing these words now, the difficult stages of this trip have been outweighed by the lonely sections of trail I could ride, the early morning pedal through the Vale of Edale in the mist, the Derwent Valley in its Sunday best… Yep, the rosy veil has descended again!
However, a couple of more practical concerns do weigh on my mind. The set up of my bike was inadequate for this journey. I needed better off road tyres and a more effective way of ferrying my gear, possibly using a purpose built frame bag and other dedicated luggage options now available.
I’m also skills-poor when it comes to off road riding, and it’s something I need to improve.
But the walker in me struggles with the idea of dragging a bike up trails like the Cut Gate. Erosion is a problem whether caused by hooves, boots or by mountain bike wheels, but I can help thinking the trail would be in better shape without the wheels… or, perhaps, a more rigorous management strategy. There are areas where flags have been laid and pitched paths and this has allowed the route to regenerate. However, I’m sure this management would not find favour for those seeking that ‘gripped’ mountain bike experience.
Yet again, the pressures on our outdoors have been brought into sharp focus on this trip. My response? The next time I travel the Cut Gate, it will be on foot.