Saturday, 21 April 2012

Biking the Yorkshire 3 Peaks challenge

Stepping stones near Ingleton, Yorkshire

 The Route

A challenging route where good fitness and strength is important. Make sure you have enough kit, since the route rises to 800m and the weather can quickly turn ugly.

Mixed terrain: road, double track, bog, rock gardens, singletrack - a real all-mountain day out. Only 60% of it's rideable. Be prepared to push and carry your bike for long distances on steep uphill and across rocky paths.

Technical riding: The downhill sections are the highlight, but choose a quiet day so you're not having to slow down for walkers. Most of the technical stuff is 'Red' (Intermediate) difficulty. Some of the downhill is arguably pushing towards Black (Expert), but these sections can be walked, so don't be put off. 
Distance: 28 Miles 
Ascent: 1,500 metres
Calories burnt: 1,800 kCalories approx

Access: Some of the route is on footpaths (particularly up and down Pen y Ghent and Whernside), so legally cyclists should get permission from the landowner, but most walkers don't mind you riding past with a polite hello.

 An interesting take on a Yorkshire classic

The Ride

Six of us set out from Leeds that Saturday to complete the Yorkshire 3 Peaks route, comprising of three runners, two walkers and a cyclist. I should have been running, but in the midst of shin-splints recovery, still determined to get round somehow, I came with a set of wheels: my Genesis hardtail mountain bike.

Since I was taking the train and the others had left early in a car, it was by myself that I made the trip to Horton in Ribblesdale, where the route starts. Feeling some trepidation at this point, the train coasted into Horton station and I checked my watch for a start time. As the train doors slid back, it was like the gates shunting open for a greyhound. The race began.

The air was clear and bright. Immediately from the station you can see the craggy, hunched shoulders of the first peak – Pen y Ghent. I sped off, rolling through the village and up a side road that leads to a farmstead. Soon the ground became steep on a grassy bridleway and I was struggling to keep the bike moving. It was hot; my Camelback laden with kit. I realised at this point that cycling the Y3P was a totally different kind of challenge.

From the Pennine Way you can sneak up on Pen Y Ghent. The track is broad, shallow in gradient, with a surprising bit of ‘north shore’ (okay, just a boardwalk). I was making good time at this point. Getting close to the peak, the craggy walls of the mountain loom above. I had been warned about the steep climb to the top. So the thigh work-out began, lifting my bike on my shoulder.

I reached the first summit in good time (1hr 15), with a smile. As the lactic acid drained away and I re-fuelled, I got into conversation with a group of women out for a day’s walk: “Did you come up from over there?!” pointing to the track dropping over the hillside. “Yeah”, I said calmly, “but with some effort”. I explained that I was doing the 3 Peaks, and that we had another couple of teams out on the hill, walking and running. They offered me a sandwich for my efforts; I was touched. In hindsight, eating that sandwich, whatever flavour, would have been a smart move. “Well you’re lucky to have lunch with a view of such nice women!” one joked.

A steady climb to the first peak Pen Y Ghent

The descent was fast on a gravel track, dropping from Pen y Ghent and onto moorland in less than 10 minutes. You can pick your own lines on the way down, but bunny-hopping the speed bumps (aka drainage channels) is compulsory! Walkers hop out of the way to see you flying past, so try and do it with style when you've got an audience.

Looking back at Pen Y Ghent

The infamous bog between Pen y Ghent and Ribblehead lived up to its reputation. It stretches on forever, and with few reference points I wondered if I had snaked off course. The bog is so well trodden however, you can’t easily go wrong. Soon the ride rolls past limestone scars and sheep enclosures, and you’re reminded that this is classic Dales country. From here it was flat and fast riding up to Ribblehead.

Whernside, the second peak, is framed by the Ribblehead viaduct that sits beneath it. The viaduct has grand, sweeping arches and is famed as 'the Harry Potter bridge’ - seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I imagined Harry and Ron flying past the Hogwarts Express in their Ford Anglia. Getting to Ribblehead is a milestone for any 3 Peak-er, and calls for a proper food stop. I tried to fill up on a cheap, dry, grizzly burger from the roadside van, loaded with sauce, and set off with Whernside in my sights.

Keeping up a good pace on the way up Whernside was tough. I was flagging. Any sugar rush that I was hoping for had not come or had past. The path was too steep for riding in most places, so pushing with Ipod plugged in was required again, up Whernside’s long, sloping backside. An organised 3 Peaks event was happening that day, and the banter with other walkers kept me going.

Whernside is the highest peak out of the three, and slapping the trig point at the summit feels awesome, since you’re now two-thirds of the way through (sort of!). I bumped into Rich and Jonny at the top – the two walkers. It was a huge morale boost to see both their friendly faces and have some munch as the sun shined. I had to admire their effort, since both Rich and Jonny had been out the night before! Not even a stern word from another disgruntled walker (“Did you know you’re not allowed to cycle here?!”), would kill my spirits.

Feeling like a champion on Whernside

 Again, dropping from Whernside was quick; picking out lines to ride as the landscape surged before me. I couldn’t take my eye off the trail mind – large rock gardens threaten to throw you off. The usual 3 Peaks route off Whernside becomes phenomenally steep here, although it could probably be walked with a bike. Since I was taking the South-west bridleway onto Ingleborough, starting in Ingleton, it made sense to continue down the spine of Whernside that dominates the valley head, all the way to Ingleton.

The ride slowed monumentally with more Yorkshire bog. Compared to the stretch before Ribblehead, this has less mud and more water. It was swampy. Yet again my Genesis bike performed beautifully, cutting through the water much like an amphibious machine. The area surrounding Ingleton is picturesque also, with paths that weave through limestone pavement.

Once at the SW bridleway near Ingleton, there is a straightforward ascent to Ingleborough’s summit. I gobbled up my last bit of food, a delicious ham sandwich and pushed on. On the way up Ingleborough I was burning up my last reserves of energy, morale… just everything. It had been a mammoth day out and I was so close to finishing. I just had to reach the top and I could cruise down the other side of the mountain; thank god for gravity.

The bridleway stretches on for miles and you can see it rising up the mountainside. The track is wide and well maintained but it’s steep. I would push for thirty metres, stop, grit my teeth and try again. It was now a mental challenge more than a physical one. I had to concentrate on the path in front of me rather than gazing at the distant peak. An hour or so later and the last rocky climbs, bike on shoulder, were the final hurdle.

Emerging onto the summit plateau at Ingleborough is like reaching any distant, impossible summit; I was hit by waves of elation and relief. I felt so tired and hungry, but I was so happy to be there. It was nearing the end of the day, the last glimpses of sun shining onto the plateau. The sea view from here was unexpected and the place was calm. It was chilled and I could have stayed there for some time.

Ingleborough summit

Gazing at my watch, I knew the clock was still ticking, so here was the final leg. I would not take any prisoners on my way off Ingleborough. I bombed off the hillside and worked hard shifting my weight back and forth to clear rocky drops and technical sections.

With a mile or so till the finish, I thought I recognised Jonny walking ahead and dismissed the idea. They must have finished by now. Getting closer, there was Rich and Jonny, I shouted after them. Rich was looking exhausted, but like me, Rich had worked hard and he would make it to the finish well within time. They held open the gate as I cleared some steps and rolled through the next field down a huge grassy slope. I left them behind with such speed, I felt sorry for them having to stride out the final section. With Horton station in view, a kind woman saw me approaching and held open another gate. It was like everyone I passed willed me to finish.

8 Hours and 21 minutes - a respectable time for a unique, albeit slightly crazy challenge. So much of the route needs pushing and carrying and effort. I lacked enough food on that day, so, as with any endurance event in mountainous country, make sure you have enough reserves.

Katie, Liz, Ben, Lewis, Rich and Jonny

Back in Horton, I met with the running team – Liz, Katie and Lewis – and Rich and Jonny again. It had been a successful day for everyone. We chatted in the great walker’s café, full of Three Peaks paraphernalia, before I sprinted off for the last train back to Leeds. You can watch their video below!

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