Raised on a diet of trail centre madness, how do you break out into the hills? Sam Flanagan suggests tackling a Lake District classic to pop your backcountry adventure cherry.
This article first appeared in issue 97 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
Words and pictures by Sam Flanagan.
Trail centres. Responsible for the vast majority of mountain bike traffic the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Playgrounds for everyone, from the weekend warrior up to elite racers looking for all-weather training areas. Mellow gravelled climbs and small awkward lumps that loosely fall into the category of ‘jumps’ cleverly winding around forestry, parks, quarries and city centres.
They provide a valuable stepping stone that enables beginners to build up the skills needed to adventure into the wilderness and take the mountain bike back to the mountains. But the worry for a lot of trail centre addicts is when, where and under whose supervision is it correct to edge away from the two-wheeled safe havens and put yourself at the bottom of a 500+ metre climb, with your bike on your back and the weather closing in?
Living as I do on the cusp of the tourism-fuelled Lake District, there is no shortage of trail centres. Travelling to Whinlatter through the bustling Lakes without flinching used to be our weekly routine. Gazing out of the window at the snow-capped peaks, it never crossed our minds to pull over, get the map out, and chase a new adventure. With our roots in downhill racing, there was no push to explore the hills on two wheels, with feet being the preferred method to summit Helvellyn.
Fast forward ten years and add age, experience and the advent of bikes that enjoy being pedalled up as much as they soak up the descents, and trail centres have rapidly become an archaic prospect for a large proportion of the mountain bike community – riders who are constantly looking for that next adrenaline rush or a gnarlier descent than the last weekend’s adventure.
Everyone has experienced it. Pub chat regarding the myth of that untouched new Sticks Pass descent, or how awesome Black Sail Pass is running. We have all been suggested a new route from a usually bearded, weathered, Lakeland explorer, running home to spread the OS map out on the kitchen table and work out the next Sunday epic. A new generation of riders are rearing their heads. Those in hot pursuit of adventure, singlehandedly exploring the terrain weekend by weekend, passing on route advice to soon-to-be-converted trail centre addicts, tempting them into the wilderness.
Enter Nan Bield, just over ten miles of prime Lakeland riding with 3,200ft of ascent. Could this be the high mountain experience that is weaning the addicts off their trail centre fix? Tucked away at the remote end of the idyllic Kentmere valley, the loop encompasses the best qualities of riding in the Lakes in a manageable, yet still challenging network of bridleways linking Haweswater and Kentmere Reservoir in a way that water could never manage.
The drive into the wilderness up a twisting spiderweb of back roads before abandoning the van in a usually overcrowded layby is a nod towards the popularity of the loop. Meticulously planned and geared up to through a working week, a jigsaw puzzle of VW Transporters and Audi A4s is the first suggestion that the trail centre hardcore are becoming more adventurous; following an OS map and their noses, rather than relying on flashes of colour to let them know which badly-graded loop they have committed to.
Gravity works both ways.
The first climb out of Kentmere is a deceiving affair. Used best as a warm-up, the now unfortunately highly sanitised decent into Sadgill has hints of the treats lying ahead. Hitting the valley bottom’s humpback bridge, pulling up like a child hitting their first jump, trying to gain any kind of airtime off the shallow lip marks a turning point in the ride. Ensuring the lungs, legs and mind all take a constant battering, the incline begins to pitch dramatically upwards with slippery cobbles providing little to no purchase for even the stickiest of rubber. If the first gate is reached with zero dabs you will be both hallucinating and hungry for downhills.
Still rising steeply, a short push to the top of the now-iconic Gatescarth descent answers all prayers for some gravity-assisted fun. Loose, unforgiving boulder fields are linked by flowing bends, catchy turns and flat-out, full-throttle straights. So long as walkers, horses and other trail users are respected, cheers from onlookers are dished out in reward for rowdiness.
Sufficient food and hydration is one of the most important factors on rides of Lakeland calibre. It is easy to forget at the renowned Haweswater lunch spot, after descending loose, steep and gnarly, but still hard-packed bridleways, that you are putting yourself out there in the wild, at the mercy of nature, the mountains and whatever they choose to throw at you. The age-old tales regarding the mountain weather being savagely unpredictable and sufficient clothing, survival and bike repair equipment always being essential, must never be snubbed. Sharing loads between the group to ensure heavy items aren’t duplicated is advised and the advice to leave your schedule and emergency contact details somewhere accessible, must be stuck to.
This is where trail centre riding differs from the unpredictable backcountry of the wilderness. There aren’t set-in-stone call out procedures to specially waymarked locations well practiced by the emergency services; with worst-case-scenario helicopter access limited in bad weather, riding styles need to be adapted accordingly, erring on the side of caution if in any kind of doubt. Reading the terrain in a different way to the normal assumption that everything coming up is rideable is a must and pushing uncertain sections should not be frowned upon.
The fine art of portage.
Fully fed and rehydrated, this is where the Nan Bield loop begins to differ from a Sunday spin round any of even the most unforgiving of climbs that Whinlatter chucks your way. There are many different personal preferences when it comes to bike carrying techniques, but it is universally understood that a Lakes epic cannot be classed as a Lakes epic unless the bike has to be shouldered.
Uncomfortable for the calves and ensuring that any kind of gym membership is completely unnecessary, the climb winding its way from Haweswater to the shelter marking the top of the Nan Bield pass must equal over one hundred squats and thousands of calories burnt. Earning your descent is the only option to get home and with the obligatory ‘look what ride we did this weekend’ photo snapped in a variety of different poses at the lake marking the halfway point, a push for the saddle only presents more pain and discomfort.
Variations on this loop are few and far between, due to joining and connecting options mainly consisting of well-trodden footpaths, and, therefore, out of limits for bikes. One popular modification, however, is to complete the loop backwards, starting with the Nan Bield descent down towards Haweswater before shouldering the bikes and ascending up Gatescarth Pass followed by a descent down into Sadgill. This transforms the loop into a different monster altogether, with a very technical descent catapulting riders to the Haweswater picnic spot and a less technical afternoon heading back towards Kentmere. It is worth considering both options and in true Lakes epic fashion it has to be ticked off the list in both ways at least once.
With the Kentmere valley having historic roots in mining, the Nan Bield pass was forged by our ancestors to make valley hopping and inter-community trading easier. Reaching the saddle and gazing down on a path that was originally trampled into being by thousands of footsteps, you can’t help but wonder if they had a hint of the two-wheeled machines that would lay their own tracks down their creation, way off in the future. Perfectly flowing switchbacks link riders into a jigsaw-style maze of hops, pumps and river crossings, with the only way of maintaining flow relying on linking the thin ribbon of trail together in the smoothest way possible.
With the saddle reached, hours can be pleasantly passed gazing round at the breathtaking 360-degree vista that is the Lake District. Knowledgeable locals are worth collaring at this point to make sure they point out the numerous surrounding peaks, that will no doubt consume many more of your future weekends and precious days off. With plans of alternative routes quickly being forged, dropping into the first corner paints a grin on the face with the smile progressively widening as switchbacks are chalked up on the tally. With new lines always discovered upon the second, third, fourth, fifth and ultimately infinite number of descents, the addict within is well and truly triggered, with trail centres drifting into a distant memory.
With tired legs and thoughts of the Hawkshead Brewery keeping the throttle stuck wide open, the descent winds its way into the picturesque valley at pace. Dropping over the shoulder returning you to within eyeshot of the vehicles, grassy rhythm sections demand concentration with tactical hops ensuring that bogs are gapped and speed is maintained. In true Nan Bield fashion, a small, lung-busting climb raises you through a selection of farm buildings giving you an insight into the workings of a hill farm. Remaining respectful to the locals, gates, rights of way and livestock keeps the perfect network of bridleways accessible to all-comers, and the memories of the thousands of metres you have just lost at pace ensure that you won’t be able to wipe the smile off your face ’til Monday morning creeps around and the incessant drag of work yet again pulls you away from your fresh addiction.
Living weekend by weekend in true trail addict fashion, the weather your only hurdle, you’re now fully inducted into the Lakes epic club. The likes of Helvellyn and the Borrowdale Bash are but a Google away, and with routes sketched onto your well-thumbed, trusty OS map or synced on the GPS, you just need to take that plunge at trying a fresh loop to double, triple or quadruple your ride arsenal. The difficult Friday night decision is no longer just a toss-up between Gisburn or Grizedale, but is decided from a list of 40 potential rides. Consider your weekends officially consumed.
Looking back on my original question – ‘when is it right to step away from the trail centres and embrace the wilderness?’ – it is a difficult decision that only you can answer. With numerous variables, the step is natural for some, while others need a little more time, experience or help. The knowledge of local bike shops and guides must never be overlooked or dismissed; with them living, working and riding day in and day out in the hills you’re probably rather unfamiliar with, their advice could be critical to the success of your Lakes epic club membership.
And, as mentioned previously, the correct equipment and mindset to tackle the most extreme of weathers or riding situations must be tirelessly adhered to. Following the correct route is essential, with wrong turns threatening to spit you out into valleys a long way from your vehicle and public transport. Rides must always be planned to finish at a public house and whooping and hollering is compulsory to show appreciation for the perfectly-formed trail unfolding beneath your front wheel.
We apologise now to any loved ones or friends who unfortunately haven’t been bitten by the mountain biking bug, who will now be spending numerous weekends alone as you methodically explore the hills hunting weekly for that perfect stretch of singletrack. Fuelled by OS maps and bridleway hearsay, welcome to your new addiction: big hills, new trails and good times.