Olly Townsend takes us on a tour of this epic northern landscape.
Words & Photography olly townsend
“That was where I nearly met my maker,” said Mike. I craned my neck to try to see where the trail went next. It looked like the perfect ribbon of handlebar-width singletrack, but a short distance in front of us it dipped steeply away and went around a 90° left-hand bend. The drop-off to the right-hand side, although not completely vertical, was steep enough that if you misjudged the corner, or got pinged off line by an errant rock, the consequences could involve a short flight, followed by a much longer flight in a large yellow whirlybird.
The view in front of us was stunning. Late afternoon sunshine was lighting up the wide glaciated valley, a vaguely discernible singletrack running down the left-hand side, weaving in and out of small interlocking spurs. It was like looking into a photograph in a dusty physical geography textbook. But although the view was textbook, actually riding the trail would prove to be somewhat more off-piste. I’ve known Mike for around a decade and he’s one of the most competent and bombproof riders I’ve ever met. He’s a professional mountain bike skills instructor and pays his mortgage by teaching people how to conquer their demons and ride smoothly and safely down trails that initially scare the hell out of them. So, for Mike to be nervous about riding a route was a new experience for me. With no prior knowledge of the trail, I was relying on Mike and Phil, local resident and co-owner of the nearby Yorkshire Cycle Hub, to give me a heads-up as to what I was about to let myself in for.
When I looked at their big travel enduro bikes with dropper posts and huge disc rotors, and then my lightweight carbon cross-country race bike with ’90s throwback bar ends and a rigid seatpost, I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Phil knows the trail intimately and said he often rides it at night – which should have inspired confidence, but then I’d been watching him ride all day and realised that his riding skill set was somewhat better suited to vert singletrack with a monster drop on one side than mine was.
Phil went first. He dropped his saddle and freewheeled calmly towards the first corner. Heels dropped, chin up, covering both brakes, moving his weight to his outside leg to force extra grip out of the tyres on the first corner. Textbook stuff. He dropped away out of our line of sight. Mike set off next. He dabbed on the first corner, but then regained his composure and continued to descend. I followed him visually as far as I could. He wasn’t quite as smooth as he normally is and seemed to stall frequently. To be fair to him the trail varied from 20% to 30% in gradient, had a bunch of super-tight bends, and was quite gullied in places too. I only realised all this when I tried to ride it myself a few minutes later. I didn’t ride it anything like as competently as I should have, but I probably ‘cleaned’ 60%, including a set of tight hairpins towards the bottom. Halfway through my descent I spotted Mike standing at the side of the trail, pushing back up for another go. He used his finest mental self-coaching on himself and cleaned it on his second attempt. Chapeau, as my roadie friends would say.
Loading with uber coffee and a Fryup.
Our ride had started out somewhat more sedately that morning. Sunshine and blue skies were the order of the day and a golden early morning light filled the valley, highlighting the drystone walls and grass meadows that so typifies Yorkshire riding. We began the day properly with a coffee from Phil’s uber-coffee machine and a quick tour of the (relatively) newly opened Yorkshire Cycle Hub. It was obvious even as we drove down their driveway, why Phil and his wife Sarah had decided to build where they had. The cafe (with associated bike shop, accommodation and shower/changing rooms) is built on the site of an old farm. It’s a flat plot, high up on the side of a valley, their own private bit of forest to the left, farmland in front, and hills and moorland away to the right. From the large wooden deck outside the cafe, Phil pointed out the iron-stained scar that delineated the route of the waterfall away in the distance which we would ride close to at the end of our day. This was as close to perfect a spot as you could have hoped to find to build a cycling café. The fact that the local area is called Fryup Dale is the icing on the metaphorical cake.
As with all good rides, we rode straight from their front door. Neil, the ever cheerful and mega-bearded Hub mechanic, and my wife made up a Famous Five-esque group. A short section of road leads to a vehicle-width farm track – a perfect introduction to the local riding and, apart from one of the most noxious puddles that I’ve ever had the displeasure to ride through, the trail was dry and fast rolling. This proved to be a good omen and we had dry trails for most of the ride.
This gently rolling warm-up led to our first challenge – a long straight climb between two drystone walls, heading inexorably upwards towards the moors. The gradient is tolerable (although unpleasant on relatively cold legs), and the trail is spiced up by a liberal sprinkling of bedrock and some loose pieces of Yorkshire’s finest sandstone. Bright yellow gorse lines the trail in parts and concentrates the mind on picking a decent line up the middle.
At the top, our first taste of moorland riding lay in wait. Fast, super-flowy and with actual dust waiting to be kicked into the air, we gave it some beans and enjoyed the feeling of dry, springy trail under wheel. This trail cuts its way through the heather – perhaps one to come back for in late summer when it’s in bloom – and with a choice of lines in places it was perfect. Neil led and was flying. In fact, he was actually flying at one point. Even from a relatively distant viewpoint (I blame my lack of local knowledge) it was obvious that Neil’s front wheel had dropped neatly into a perfectly shaped hole-cum-parking-spot and he’d been rudely ejected straight over the handlebars. “I never crash,” was his slightly rueful comment when we arrived on the scene.
After a short, fast moorland section, we followed Phil’s instructions and headed steeply down through what appeared to be someone’s garden, and into a wooded glade. At the bottom of the glade was a perfect water splash – super-scenic, with dappled sunshine making an appearance, a smattering of bluebells, and water just deep enough to make a satisfying splash. We stopped and played for a bit while Neil repaired a perfectly timed puncture. A short climb through the trees leads to a section of trail that appears to be man-made – wide enough to ride side by side, hard packed and flowing, it induced some elbows-out riding. We were soon back on more technical trails though, with a short, sharp drop down a set of bedrock steps next to a drystone wall. All 100% legal, said Phil as he saw the slight look of concern on my face. A quick check of the map confirmed this – totally legit technical singletrack – hurrah for Yorkshire! At this point my stomach made an involuntary rumble, which Neil obviously heard. “How would a café stop at the top of the next climb sound?” he asked. Perfect.
Up for grub.
Our lunchtime venue provided everything a group of hungry mountain bikers could want. Loaner locks for our bikes, a huge range of cakes and cyclist-friendly portions. We sat out the back on a wooden deck – partly because the sun had timed its return from behind some grey clouds to perfection, but also as the inside of the café was pretty much full with a mix of locals and ramblers. This spoke volumes about the quality of the café – particularly as we were there mid-week. I’m not sure what the café’s giant pet rabbits felt about a group of mountain bikers taking over their domain, but they made a good talking point.
Phil had planned our route perfectly, so after a very short post-lunch climb, we turned off onto a flowy, technical descent and then had a few miles of gentle riding around the edge of some grass meadows. The smooth, undulating trail was the perfect digestivo and gave our stomachs time to replace some of the energy we’d burnt off in the morning. Little did my legs know they’d soon need all the energy I could muster! At the end of the meadow we joined a small tarmac road that instantly started climbing at a fairly brutal angle. Luckily the climb was short and we soon topped out. As we chatted and rolled along the side of the valley, my inbuilt trail radar kicked in and I spotted an obvious singletrack high up to our left, climbing from the valley up to the moors above. “Are we heading up there,” I asked, already half-knowing the answer. Phil confirmed my suspicions. “It’s a bit of a killer unfortunately, although it’s better than the parallel climb I tried a few weeks ago which was an absolute nightmare.”
While I might not have Phil or Mike’s downhill prowess, I’m a pretty decent climber (hence the head down/arse up cross-country bike and the bar ends) and will give pretty much anything a go. This climb stopped even me in my tracks though – steep, tussocky grass, just boggy enough underneath to sap your will to live and it was suddenly baking hot too. I bailed out about two thirds of the way up. Maybe I do need that de rigueur 50-tooth rear sprocket after all…
As we climbed higher, the trail changed from steep grass to steep bracken singletrack, with some boggy sections lined at one point by large sandstone boulders. Phil called them the Shivering Stones, although he wasn’t 100% sure why they got their name. Luckily the gradient eventually eased and we were rewarded with a fantastic section of singletrack cutting through the heather and incredible views all around. As we reached a small singletrack road, we decided that the climbing pain had been worthwhile for the mega view.
The road marks the high point of the ride. If you’re short of time, or the weather isn’t playing ball, there’s a good escape route here by turning left down a narrow tarmac road. Luckily for us the sun was shining and spirits were high so we headed right along a short stretch of rural tarmac before turning left, back onto the moors. Initially the trail was a narrow ribbon of singletrack running through the heather, but it soon changed to an ancient packhorse trail. Rectangular slabs of local stone had been embedded into the ground to form a weather-resistant (and fun) way to cross what might have otherwise been an impenetrable bog. The narrow width and uneven nature of the stones focused our minds, as a high-speed slip off to one side would have meant a potential over the bars moment. Luckily we managed to literally keep on the straight and narrow, making it safely to the end and a junction with an ancient cart track known as the Cut Road.
Here we had a choice, turn right and head east on the Bypass Route, or go straight across and potentially plummet to our deaths off the edge of the Waterfall Trail.
It wasn’t really a choice, was it?
There’s two routes on offer:
• The Eastern Bypass – 34km, 600m of climbing, 4–5 hours
• The Waterfall Trail – 32km, 600m of climbing, 4–5 hours
OS Landranger 26 & 27.
The Waterfall Trail option is about as gnarly as a bridleway can get – the penalty for getting it wrong and falling off the edge would be very serious injury (or worse). We would recommend this trail only for super-experienced/skilled riders. The Eastern Bypass option replaces the Waterfall Trail descent with a less risky option, but is otherwise the route is identical (and is just as much fun).
Both routes start and finish at the incredible Yorkshire Cycle Hub. They have changing facilities, hot showers, a small, but well-equipped workshop, comfy sofas and fantastic food – what more could you want for the start/finish of your ride? It’s not super easy to find the Hub (as satnavs don’t quite take you there), but their Google pin does the job.
If you want to stop over, you can stay at the Hub too. They have some lovely en-suite bunkrooms already finished and camping pods are on their way too. Guests can use a well-equipped kitchen, drying room and lounge. There’s complimentary Wi-Fi and a hell of a view from the terrace.
Yet again the Hub comes up trumps! A small, but perfectly formed workshop (complete with CyTech qualified mechanic), a decent range of hire bikes (including Lapierre e-bikes to demo), and all the last-minute necessities are all right at the start/finish of the ride.
T: 01287 669098 • yorkshirecyclehub.co.uk
If you’re a day visitor, the Hub has everything from cooked breakfast to homemade cake available. They use locally sourced produce and make everything fresh. If you’re staying over, then The Board Inn in nearby Lealholm wins our vote as an evening dinner venue – fantastic food, really friendly locals, CAMRA award-winning beer/cider and an impressive gin list. T: 01947 897279 • theboardinn.com
North York Moors National Park for lending us Mike Hawtin, their Outdoor Activity Tourism Officer. Mike’s local knowledge, contacts, trail skills and endless patience were invaluable in researching and writing this article.
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