As is by now customary, we like to give you a sneak peek of one of the latest issue’s stories once it’s safely at the printers. So here’s Steve and Barney’s unique take on Le Grand Depart from Issue 91: a two-day, mountain bike, mini-epic that (sort of) followed the route of stage one of the 2014 Tour de France. Needless to say, as with every Steve and Barney adventure, things didn’t quite go to plan…
UK Adventure: Le Grind Depart.
Words by Barney, pictures by Steve Makin.
“Le Tour would have a perfect winner only if one man survived” – Henri Desgrange.
This year the Tour de France came to the UK and, for a little while at least, Yorkshire went cycling mad. Well, road cycling mad. But mountain biking? What impact would it have on that? Perhaps none whatsoever. But it might be fun to see what sort of a mountain bike ride one of the stages would make…
It could be argued that this was just a blatant attempt to do a little Tour bandwagon-jumping. That there is no real reason for this ridiculous exercise apart from a ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ feature. Which would be perfectly accurate, as it turned out. We thought it would be fun – and what more reason for an adventure does anyone need?
The routing was fairly arbitrary. If it was mentioned on the Le Tour website, it went in.
The routing was fairly arbitrary. If it was mentioned on the Le Tour website, it went in. Although if there was a particularly sweet bit of singletrack or a promising-looking trail that skirted above somewhere arbitrary and avoidable (mentioning no names, Addingham…), we’d just stay high and keep on going. It was going to be a challenge as it was: just over 200km, rampaging through the Yorkshire Dales and out the other side. Given my average-at-best fitness levels, I thought it prudent to split the distance over a couple of days.
Pfft! Yes, two is fine. I was full of braggadocio. A brief session at the computer yielded a possible route which followed the larger – or at least more obvious – features of the first stage, from Leeds to Harrogate, and linked them up with as many bridleways and tracks as possible. A rather more protracted session with software displaying height gain served to reduce my exuberance a little, replacing it with a spot of craven whimpering.
As my companion and photographer, I picked the redoubtable Steve Makin; a manbear (no, not one of those) of indeterminate age, well versed in long-distance bike rides, bivvying in remote locations and consuming fine wines and cheeses while he’s there. A handy chap to ride with. I was also hoping that he might be able to tow me out of difficulty at the end of the day. Or, just possibly, drag me effortlessly to the B&B by my ankles after I passed out halfway there.
And so it was that, at the almost unimaginably early time of 6.00am on a Monday, Steve picked me up from my house and we drove east, to the city at the start of the Tour de France 2014.
Day 1: Le Tour de Flounce.
Estimated distance: 53 miles. Estimated height gain: 4,482 feet.
We started in Leeds. Actually, we started in a secluded place I happen to know relatively close to Leeds city centre, close to Woodhouse Moor, where we could leave the car for a couple of days without it getting towed or receiving a loving house-brick through the window. Then, to set things off in style, we slowly rode round and round in ever-larger circles for 20 minutes or so until we finally figured that the GPS was on the fritz, before heading into the woods of the Meanwood Valley Trail on our foolhardy quest north.
The Tour itself made a processional start in Leeds and, after prevarication amid cheering crowds, ended up at Harewood Hall where the race received the blessing of a couple of extremely rich people before starting for real. We slowly wound out the same way, but then turned east, tracking the route a little to the south. The road boys would take scant minutes to get this far: we’d been going for the best part of an hour, and we hadn’t even hit any proper hills yet. Lunch in Skipton seemed a very, very long way away.
No Steve. I began to worry he’d run out of cake and had rampaged after itinerant walkers.
Chevin Forest Park promised much, but the lure of breakfast promised more; we hurtled through, sadly ignoring the very tempting trails criss-crossing the woods, and down a fun little descent into Menston. Here I was able to increase my life expectancy considerably by feeding Steve cake. Duly replenished, we set off again, dispatching great swathes of the country in short order… No, wait. That needs rephrasing: dispatching short distances of the country in great swathes of time. Grinding, grinding, grinding up onto Ilkley Moor, pressing our noses into our stems as we crept along at about 3mph.
Persistent problems with the GPS were making themselves apparent too – or, more accurately, problems with my attempts to access it. In trying to peer at the map on its little screen, I kept on turning the timer off with my ham-fisted efforts. So we had no idea how far we’d come. By zooming out, however, we had a fair idea of how far we still had to go – which was really rather a depressingly long way. As is often the case, though, this is the point at which things became even more tricky.
We were traversing narrow singletrack interspersed with large, protuberant rocks. These needed lofting over, but didn’t pose much of a problem for the trail ninjas that we clearly were (ahem). They were certainly knackering, though. After a protracted, mouth-breathing effort which netted me a whole quarter of a mile, I looked behind to find exactly where Steve wasn’t, which turned out to be everywhere I could see. So I waited. And waited. No Steve. I began to worry he’d run out of cake and had rampaged after itinerant walkers. But eventually he hove into view, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Dry, full speed singletrack through commitment-testing gorse tunnels…
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said, forlornly. He’d bonked, and was having to divert all of his energy into traversing individual boulder slabs rather than focusing on the distance, or terrorising pedestrians. He was really struggling. Our best bet was to get to Skipton, eat lunch and take stock.
Oh, but the trail into Skipton was fun – and not entirely because of the prospect of food. After an unpromising widetrack start, it kicked into dry, full speed singletrack, through commitment-testing gorse tunnels and opening out into a small woodland playground of rooty stepdowns before turning into a wonderfully techy abandoned cart-track. Well worth it. As was lunch from the unusually named Union Jack’s cafe, run by an extremely helpful Chinese lady who brought us plates piled high with sandwiches – the sort of thing you need to cut into several bits just so it fits in your mouth. Marvellous.
The Quest for the Holy Dale.
At this point the terrain kicked sharply upwards once more, and began to look more like the rolling pitches and yaws of the Dales. Le Tour would just be hotting up here – the riders starting to flex their muscles and hurling themselves into this enormous green duvet of a region, the road still gently undulating and not presenting them with much of a challenge until quite a lot further on. In contrast, we felt like we’d done quite enough climbing already, thank you, but we knew that there was plenty more to come. And here it was…
With full stomachs and heavy legs, we climbed steeply up to Flasby Fell. The trails changed to wide open, grassy, single or doubletrack (at this point we were extremely glad the weather was good – this would have been a death march if it had been raining) and a vague but extremely fun descent into Flasby. This deviated worryingly from the trail on the map and yet encompassed drops, corners, invisible bracken-trails, boggy bits and a lovely hoppy, skippy section down to a stream – which we had to do several times, strictly for photographic purposes – before running into Flasby proper. Another long, long pull up Moor Lane from Hetton led to some some extraordinary views on the tops, with thick, turgid cloud contrasting with glorious limestone escarpment and quarry workings.
My descending skills were limited to rigid limbs and a spectacular ability to ride straight into anything I was trying to avoid.
It was all ridiculously picturesque – and slightly unnerving, as we were clearly in the middle of nowhere, with quite a way to go. Steve, though, seemed back to his old self. Whether it was the enormous lunch or the walker he’d eaten just after Hetton, I couldn’t say, but he seemed to have limitless energy. This was rather handy, as I was close to falling over, and my descending skills – as evidenced by peeks at Steve’s photos – were limited to rigid limbs and a spectacular ability to ride straight into anything I was trying to avoid, such as boulders, tussocks, sheep, or the camera.
And so, at length, after more climbing and descending that I had trouble focusing on, we dropped into Kettlewell. The strain of dragging my flailing and whimpering form up the last few short road climbs had clearly taken its toll, and Steve was a hollow-eyed shell of a bear by the time we rolled up to the Blue Bell Inn, our home for the night. He stumbled to the nearest table, and rested his head on it. He didn’t move for quite some time, until I bought him a pint, and a funnel. And then the landlady placed a couple of large steaks and some wine in front of us. Funnily enough he recovered quite quickly after that.
Day 2: Le Tour de Pants.
Estimated distance: 80 miles. Estimated height gain: 5,905 feet
Did you see those figures up there? Bwahahahaha!
I’d had concerns about our prospects for day two for quite some time. We’d appreciated that trying to do this in two days was quite a ridiculous undertaking, but our efforts before Skipton – the lower mileage, less hilly day, remember – suggested that struggling might be an understatement for day two: we needed to be ready. With excuses.
So day two dawned early. Extremely early for me, as I found myself making a couple of unscheduled visits to Percy Porcelain during the night, which left me feeling a little desperate when the time came to man up and check out. The initial Top Mere Road climb from Kettlewell is, frankly, an arse. A very steep, scrabbly arse, to be specific, although with an extremely un-arse-like rough, bouldery surface. Mindful of my tenuous grasp on map reading, geography and stomach contents, we took it slowly, and plodded upwards. After about an hour or so it became obvious that riding the route planned for that day was beyond us (or at least, me), and that swingeing shortcuts would have to be made, and swiftly.
Cognac and wine weren’t even cheating back then, just fuel.
By complete coincidence, I am now going to talk about cheating’s long and proud history in the Tour de France. From the race’s first years, when the stages were ridiculously long (like, 400km long) and arduous, even for undeniable supermen like Maurice Garin, winner of the inaugural race in 1903, cheating in various forms has taken place. Aside from the obvious chemical refreshment (cognac and wine weren’t even cheating back then, just fuel) certain riders were considerably more creative.
In those early days, riders were roundly berated – or applauded by idle reprobates like me – for cheating up hills using a car, a wire and a cork. In 1904, nine (nine!) riders, including Maurice himself, were disqualified for such minor infractions as taking the train. Even the chap who was eventually crowned the winner, Henri Cornet, was cautioned earlier on for accepting a lift from a car.
Now this is the sort of bike racing I can get behind. Not for me the underhand techniques, injecting life-shortening chemicals in seedy toilets and weeing into pots for testing — I want to see a sort of Dick Dastardly arms-race, where riders attempt to conjure the most inventive methods of increasing their advantage. Commentator Phil Liggett would have a field day: “Oh, and here’s the race leader Froome, climbing round the corner with what passes for grace and staring at his stem. But what’s this? He’s just been lured into a ditch by a Mars Bar on a pole! And, yes, yes! There’s Alberto Contador behind that bush, sniggering.” Now that would be a Tour worth watching.
So, tired, a bit ill (me), and a bit disillusioned (both of us), we reluctantly truncated our route, and gave in to the ever-present temptation to cheat. We’d avoid Buttertubs Pass, the highlight of the road riders’ route, miss out Hawes, Muker and Reeth, then head to Leyburn and Middleham instead, before picking up the route we’d plotted once again. This cut off a whacking great loop of climbing – and regrettably, rather a lot of trail fabulousness – but rendered the rest of the day (perhaps) doable. Unfortunately, I goofed again (I really shouldn’t be allowed to use maps without adult supervision). The ‘shortcut’ we took pushed us too far north for an easy escape, and we found ourselves grinding over passes and descending through startling (and startled, I’m sure) scenery until we found ourselves in Ripon, where a bailout plan involving trains to Harrogate was somewhat curtailed on account of Ripon not actually having a train station.
That hollowed-out, stomach-churning fatigue that comes with ridiculous amounts of untrained-for exercise.
The last part of our adventure – the Ripon to Harrogate route – was always going to be mostly on road as it was. As time was pressing on, our gentle meander turned into a full-throttle desire to get to ride’s end. We abandoned our more circuitous route, and headed directly along the route of the Tour, along the main road. Actually, this was sort of pleasant – in a lots of traffic, leg-hurty kind of way. It was fabulous to see the effort that many villages had put into making the Tour their own, and the celebrations – and sheer number of people on the route – on the day certainly helped bolster my hope that the event will raise international awareness that we do actually like riding bikes in this country, as well as drinking beer and shouting at football on the TV.
Eventually, sore of arse and leg, we rolled into Harrogate. A series of last-minute short climbs really put the hurt on, and it was with relief that we finally arrived at Harrogate station to catch the next train back to Leeds, stuffing our faces with whatever fizzy drinks and carbohydrates we could find. Despite royally cheating, we still managed 54.5 miles and 3,920 feet of climbing on our second day, and we both had that hollowed-out, stomach-churning fatigue that comes with ridiculous amounts of untrained-for exercise.
Next time, I think we’ll do it in three days. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll train a little first. Or at least make sure there are stations en route, so that I can catch one.
Leeds – Harewood – Otley – Burley in Wharfedale – Ilkley – Addingham – Skipton – Grassington – Kettlewell – Buckden – Kidstones – Aysgarth – Hawes – Buttertubs Pass – Muker – Reeth – Leyburn – Middleham – East Witton – Masham – West Tanfield – North Stainley – Harrogate.
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