185 miles, pretty much all of it offroad, Derbyshire to Cumbria. 26 hours was the time to beat….
The Pennine Bridleway runs from Middleton Top near to Matlock and runs north through the Peak District National Park and the Yorkshire Dales until it reaches Kirby Stephen. The whole route is about 185 miles long and takes you through some of the most spectacular countryside in the North of England. With 21,000 feet of climbing, it’s a bit hilly as well.
Living just 7 miles from the Bridleway as it passes through South Lancashire, I have rode the route in sections many times, but never it one go. It has been on my ‘To Do’ list for a while. Earlier in the year myself and Rich Rothwell decided to go for it, but about half way through I had a mechanical that we couldn’t fix and we had to bail.
So after having an eventful summer and keeping the fitness in check, I decided to give it another go before I went away on my summer hols. The current record for completing the route from south to north unsupported was 26 hours, held by Steve Large. Obviously, the plan was to go for the record! Being the beginning of August there would be about 7 hours of darkness to negotiate and my target was to put in a sub 24 hour time. My plan was to ride in the dark over the section I’m most familiar with, which is the section from Glossop through to near where I live. This meant an evening start, so after a full day’s work I headed south to Matlock with a planned start at 7pm. The weather report was good, with no forecast of rain, some cloud overnight and sunshine the following day – perfect!
The first 20 miles of the route is reasonably flat and fast following an old disused railway. It was a beautiful evening and there were lots of people out enjoying the last of the day’s warmth. There was a smell of BBQ’s in the air every time I passed by a campsite, which didn’t help with the prospect of eating gels and energy bars for the next 24 hours. The first real hill kicks in as you approach Wormhill and then they just keep on coming thick and fast as you pass through Hayfield and push on past Glossop.
After the first few hills my legs were feeling strong and I had set a good, fast pace. Two weeks before I had rode the 12 hour Torchbearer at Bontrager, which had boosted my fitness. However, I was careful to keep my enthusiasm in check so I didn’t burn myself out too early. In my mind I had split the ride up in to 5 sections. The first section was the easy section from Middleton Top to Hayfield, which I completed just as darkness closed in. The next section was from Hayfield through to Summit, which is where the Pennine Bridleway meets the Mary Townley Loop. This section has some of the steepest hills which I know very well, so riding them in the dark would keep my speed in check.
By the time I had passed by Glossop I was in the need of a water refill. As no shops were open I pulled up outside a pub in Tintwistle and went inside. As you can image, the few locals that remained in the pub were a little surprised, even more so when they asked where I was heading and I responded ‘Kirby Stephen’. I was tempted by a pint of Guinness but opted for a gel and pushed on.
Apart from passing by numerous groups of drunken revellers whenever I passed through a small town or village, the route up to Summit passed by without incident. It was a reasonably clear night, the temperature remained warm and I rode over all the hills knowing I had them all to myself. This is what I love the most about long distance rides and why I continue to do them.
Arriving at Summit, I passed onto my third section which is the Mary Townley Loop, a 47 mile bridleway loop that sits roughly in the middle of the whole Pennine Bridleway. The MTL is a fantastic loop consisting of all types of trail and very little tarmac. It also serves as a great training loop with about 7,500 feet of climbing and I have lost count of how many times I have completed it.
When doing the Pennine Bridleway from south to north you follow the MTL clockwise, which skirts the north of Rochdale and passes close by my house. I knew if I was feeling tired at this point, then the draw of home would be difficult to ignore. However, even though I had completed about 85 miles of the route, I was feeling strong and enjoying myself, so the idea of stopping didn’t even come into my mind. Halfway coincided with a 24hr garage in Waterfoot, so I grabbed a coffee and some chocolate to celebrate and carried on.
This third section was short, just consisting of the MTL section until I moved back onto the Pennine Bridleway at Worsthorne. This next section had some good sections of trail at the start until you pass through Wycoller and then you have to navigate your way through what is probably the most frustrating section of bridleway in the whole country. For about twenty miles, the trail is broken up by a ridiculous amount of gates as you pass through numerous fields and farms. The route isn’t even that interesting and the trail pretty non-descript. However, the light had now come back and with the rising of the sun, there was some incredible sights as I passed into and over areas of mist that were hugging the valley floors. This took my mind off the monotony of the trail and time passed quickly as I made it to Gisburn and moved north into what would be my last section. This was also the longest section with about 60 miles still to complete. It was also the section of the trail I knew the least.
I was now about 13 hours in and setting a good time. It was difficult to judge but I knew if I kept up this pace I would definitely complete a sub 24 hour ride. I was still feeling strong and my selection of food, gels and energy powder was working well and I was managing to continue to feed without feeling sick. As the morning progressed the temperature rose and I had to make sure I continued to drink. I had decided to carry a 3 litre camelback, which meant that I minimised the times I needed to stop for water and also gave me the comfort that there was little risk of running out.
The trail passed through Settle and passed through 3 Peaks country. Each of the peaks looked magnificent in the sunshine and my thoughts passed on to the 3 Peaks Cyclocross I would be competing in later in the year, however that’s a completely different challenge that I’ll think more about after my summer hols!
I knew the last twenty miles of the route contained some big hills, but having only ridden it once before, which was in the dark, I couldn’t quite remember them. I was now tiring and my mind was thinking about finishing and what I would eat, however I needed to keep my focus and make sure I kept drinking as the temperature had now rose to the mid twenties. After each hill I tried to remember the elevational profile of the ride and convince myself there was only one more hill, but they just kept on coming.
Eventually I passed Garsdale Head and having completing about 170 miles I knew there must only be one more hill. And there was, but it turned out to be the biggest. The direction on the Garmin showed a route straight up the side of a very steep hill and what looked like about 1,000 feet of climbing. I really didn’t need or want this! Having rode the entire route, on this last hill I had to climb off and push. I reassured myself with the fact that even with fresh legs the trail would probably be too steep to ride. I looked at the time and I had taken just over 19 hours to get to this point and I only had about 10 miles to complete and this one last big hill. Sub 20 hours was doable, which I had never expected was achievable, so with a sudden boost of energy I pushed hard up the hill. It seemed to take forever and once over the top I was back on the bike and flying along the downhill. I had now been awake for about 32 hours and I really shouldn’t have been going the speed I was, but a sub 20 hours time was too tempting!
I reached the bottom of the trail and hit the road, which led me into Kirby Stephen. After a few painful short climbs where I thought my legs would explode, I reached the train station, which is the official finishing point, with the final time of 20 hour and 6 minutes. I might not have made it sub 20 hours but I had smashed my target of sub 24 hours. I was over the moon. Pennine Bridleway without a doubt, done and dusted!
Huge thanks to Rach for getting me to the start and giving up her Friday evening and for the family for picking me up at the end. Also thanks to people who have helped with kit and encouragement including Team JMC, Lezyne, Use Exposure and Upgrade Bikes.
Now for a holiday…….