Unfinished Business: One Mountain, Three Ways

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Produced in association with Specialized UK

Right then Helvellyn. I’m back. You and me have got unfinished business.

Earlier this year for issue 119 of The Magazine, I had a great day out on Helvellyn and subsequently wrote up a classic ride taking in (after much debate) what I thought was the best way to tackle the highest legally rideable peak in England (read all about that particular adventure here). And yes, Scotland and Wales, before you say anything, I appreciate it tops out at (only) 950m and sits a long way below Ben Nevis (1,345m) or Snowdon (1,085m), but in its favour it boasts three world class descents leading off the summit and a wealth of trails surrounding it. So there!

Last minute fettling

But we could only tackle one ascent of the summit that day, as it’s a fairly hefty hike-a-bike on the way up, with some pretty techy descents on the way down. Which is why, dear reader, I’m here again. With so many routes to choose from, at the time I struggled to decide which was the best way to approach it – do I take the ‘easy’ route up via Keppel Cove, then descend quickly via Dollywagon and Grisedale Beck? Do I take a longer route and descend via Birkside to Thirlmere and then climb back over Sticks Pass from west to east? Or do I ride it all backwards and head up Dollywagon Pike and down Lower Man towards Sticks Pass, which gains height quickly but misses out on Dollywagon as a descent? Decisions, decisions, decisions…

In the end, we plumped for a fast(ish) ascent up Keppel Cove to the summit, descended down the insanely satisfying Birkside, before the brutal climb up Sticks Pass (west) to cross the ridge and finish with the ever rewarding Sticks Pass (east). And while it was an absolutely cracking ride, one niggling question remained.

Was it possible to do the whole lot in one day?

Well, as all good mountain bikers know, you have two choices for getting better/riding further and faster. Option one, do some serious training, and then perform at your peak under your own steam. Or option two, buy new kit. Shiny new parts ALWAYS make you go faster, even more so when said new and shiny kit has a motor attached to help with the hard work for you.

Now, training hard and putting all that extra effort in is a very noble endeavour, but I’ve got to be honest – I’m fairly happy with my current level of fitness and I’m never going to be challenging anyone for KOMs on the climbs (nor the descents come to mention it, but that’s another matter). Most of the rides I do last three to four hours along relatively technical trails, and involve a fair bit of hike-a-bike to get to the best bits. And anyway, we’re ‘only’ going up Helvellyn – a mountain I’m very familiar with. I know what time I need to set my alarm so that I can be on the summit for sunrise, and I also know how deceptively long it takes to get back down again for breakfast (I mean it’s a long way, nothing to do with my speed, OK?). If I really put my mind to it I could probably slog out at least a couple of ascents in a day, so I don’t feel any burning desire to train for this ride. Especially because we’ve plumped for option two. Yes, we’re going to be riding Specialized Turbo Levo e-bikes to the summit of Helvellyn (hopefully more than once). It’s not the first time I’ve ridden an e-bike. In fact, it’s not the first time I’ve taken one to the summit of Helvellyn. I’ve ridden them plenty of times before, and they’re an absolute hoot on the right terrain, making the boring bits enjoyable and the long grassy slogs, much much less of a slog.

Perfect conditions as we cruise alongside Ullswater

And so it is that I meet up with Adam and Jordan from Wheelbase Cycles, one fine Wednesday morning in Glenridding, to see how many times we can ride up and down Helvellyn in a day. Neither of them have ridden this way before – Adam spends most of his time mucking about over in the North East near Hamsterley Forest, while Jordan is a South Lakes shredder whose bike seems to spend more time in the air than on the ground. They’re both keen to tick off as many classic descents in one day (the climbs are just a minor inconvenience in between), and to help us get it all done we’ve got some electrical assistance from a brace of Specialized Turbo Levos with 700w batteries (Jordan’s on a small so has to make do with a 500w battery, but we won’t mention that). Helvellyn will never stand a chance… *cue manic off-screen laughter*

Credit: Photographer’s book of cliches: Page 5
Things get steeper as we leave the Old Coach Road and head up onto the Dodds

Glenridding and the Old Coach Road

The route I’ve plotted starts in Glenridding and heads up to the Old Coach Road via Dockray, and onto the Dodds. Once up on the ridge, we’ll cruise south to the summit of Helvellyn before descending Dollywagon Pike and Grisedale Beck. We’ll then spin back along the road to Glenridding, climb up Keppel Cove and hit the summit for the second time, before dropping down Birkside. At the bottom, the plan is to ride along to Sticks Pass (west), and use up the very last of our batteries to get to the crossroads on the ridge before we drop in to Sticks Pass (east) and back to the finish, victorious. Most of the climbs should all be rideable so there won’t be too much pushing, and all in all it’s about 35 miles with 9,500ft of climbing which is pretty epic whether you’ve got assistance or not. The question was, would the batteries last?

The Specialized Turbo Levos make light work of the grassy climbs
Which leaves us free to take in the views

Fortunately, there’s a handy calculator on the Specialized website, which shows just how far we’re likely to get on one of the new Levos before running out of juice. Of course it ultimately all comes down to the balance between how much motor assist you choose to balance out your own input, but according to the calculator, our bikes should take us between 24 – 35 miles on a hilly route before exhausting themselves. But we’re going up a mountain, so the range drops to about 20 miles, which leaves us at Wythburn Church on the wrong side of Helvellyn, with a horrible climb up over Sticks Pass to finish. Needless to say, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the battery meter and might alter the route if we need to. But enough excuses, let’s get on with it.

First snack stop and spirits are high
No batteries on the down.

After fitting pedals, fettling the suspension and checking the battery levels, we set off in high spirits. The sun is shining, and we’re grinning like idiots that we’ve got such a perfect day for it (Dammit! There goes one excuse). On the road and we’re flying alongside the shores of Ullswater with the motors switched off in an attempt to eke as much distance out of the batteries as possible. We last all of 10 minutes, and at the first sight of a proper hill, we all give in and pop the bikes into Eco mode.

Jordan getting his drift on
What goes down, must come up
Running out of traction, you have no option but to push.
More pushing.

Avoid! Unless on a Levo

Even though we’re still on the road, we’re instantly converted and climb up out of the valley, merrily chatting away, hardly breaking sweat. We cruise past another couple of riders (who we’ll meet again later on in the day), and I’ve got to admit feeling slightly embarrassed at the ease with which they’re despatched. Fortunately they spot we’re on e-bikes so are understanding. Just.

Now, the bridleway that climbs up onto the Dodds from the Old Coach Road is one of those rare beasts that only dries out once every 13 months. Its grassy slopes hardly ever drain, and to say that it can be a wet, draggy, soul sapping, pig of a climb even in the heights of summer would be an understatement. It’s for this reason that I’ve always avoided this route, and in spite of the epic summer we’ve just experienced things were no different this time around. Fortunately, the Levos came into their own, and while it was still tough going, we’re able to gain altitude and make progress.

The views are insanely good up here too (they’re the main reason people choose this route) – the sky is a deep, crisp blue, and the mountains in the distance are fading away perfectly in the most amazing haze I’ve ever seen. Life is good, and we hit the first summit of the day to refuel, feeling confident in our challenge.

Summit number one

Snacks snacked, we set off for the first proper descent of the day – the Dodds roll along so there’s nothing especially steep or technical to challenge us, but we’re carrying a lot of speed, and on harder tyres than we’d have liked (they came set up with tubes, not tubeless) the bikes are sliding about under us on the loose surface. It’s all good fun though, with the extra weight of the battery and motor giving us some welcome stability, and in spite of our dubious line choices we make it down the first descent in one piece. Onwards.

Summit snack time.
Checking battery levels at our first visit to the summit

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I believe I can fly

Thanks to the electronic assistance, we maintain a lot of our speed as the trail levels off – on rolling terrain such as this, e-MTBs work wonderfully and make a lot of sense. Unfortunately our joy is short lived when we hit the lower slopes of Raise where the path tracks steeply upwards, with recently ‘fixed’ tight switchback turns and even more loose rock. I make a few attempts to ride up, but it’s just too tight, too steep and too loose. There’s not enough traction and it’s time to push. Now normally, my bike would be straight up onto my back and I’d happily march off into the distance, but I quite like my back thankyouverymuch, so the Levo stays grounded and we try to engage the walk assist button. Unfortunately, as great a concept as walk mode is it can’t compete with the steepness of this slope and we are left to heave the bikes up the climb.

The story repeats itself as we climb up the slopes of Lower Man – wagers are laid down (a tenner if we can make the summit in one hit), and many valiant attempts are made, but it’s just too steep and we can’t carry enough momentum or find enough traction. Trying another technique, we give up on finesse and switch to turbo mode, using up precious energy to try and power our way through obstacles – but it’s no good. We’re walking again.

Prime Lake District.

From the top of Lower Man, the summit plateaus and we’re riding again, cruising past throngs of walkers. Some of them gather round, in awe of us bringing bikes to the summit, until they see that we’ve got motors and we’re accused (albeit light heartedly) of cheating. We brush the insults off as we’re working hard (no really), and chow down on our lunch. There’s not a single charging point on the summit (that’s definitely going on TripAdvisor), but there’s no need to panic as Jordan and Adam’s bikes both show six bars remaining (out of ten). My bike is a bit lower with only five bars, but then again I’m carrying a weighty camera pack and was attacking the climbs a bit more aggressively than the other two. Ahem.

Stairway from heaven?

Puncture. Puncture. Puncture.

Puncture one
Puncture two
Puncture three. This is getting boring now

In the space of ten minutes, we’ve gone from being on top of the world (literally), to cursing our decision to leave tubes in this morning. Bouncing around with 40psi in the tyres wasn’t enough, and now both Adam and Jordan have decided to practice how fast they can change an inner tube on Dollywagon Pike. At least they had the decency to get flats in the baking hot sunshine looking down over Grisdedale Beck. My tubes are intact, so I sit there smugly, enjoying the view – there are definitely worse places to watch your riding buddies fix a puncture.

Not to worry, I’ll just sit here and take in the view

And that’s not all Dollywagon has in store for us – Adam is ejected out the front door on one of the infamous waterbars, but his dismount is a worthy of Strictly Come Dancing and he lands gracefully on two feet. Our bodies are starting to feel the toll, and things are not looking good for completing our challenge…

Gone! 10/10 for the landing though


Puncture four. Jordan’s face says it all really

“That’s it, I’m done”. We suffer yet another flat on the ‘gentle’ transition between the bottom of Dollywagon and the start of Grisedale Beck proper, and things are really in doubt. We’ve still got a ton of descending to do, and we’re all out of tubes. “Have you got any patches?” asks Adam. “Yeah. Well… only those self sticking ones, so sort of”. Right.

When we are rolling, things are very good indeed

We do our best to recompose ourselves before dropping in to Grisedale Beck, but it’s tough and the bikes are feeling heavier. As we roll into Patterdale, something’s wrong. We’re buzzing from Grisedale Beck, but while we should be bouncing off the walls, riding round in circles and raring to smash out another summit, we’re not.

A bit more body english is required to move the heavier bikes around

We’re empty. There’s nothing left in the tank. And I don’t mean the bikes’ batteries are flat, oh no. Let me be clear on this – all three of the bikes have a solid four bars of juice to go. On the other hand, Adam, Jordan and myself are broken men. Jordan puts forth that he could possibly ride to the summit again (but only if he really really had to), while Adam and I are decidedly less keen. Partly, it’s that we’re all out of tubes and there’s a very real fear of being faced with a long walk home should we get another flat, but mainly it’s that we’re just knackered. Normally at the end of a big ride, your body lets you know equally – the effort your legs put into climbing is neatly offset by the effort needed by your arms and upper body to move the bike around. You’re tired, but it all makes sense. Except that now it’s all out of kilter. My legs and lungs are tired, but nowhere near as much as my upper body.

Time to refuel

So this time Helvellyn, you’ve won. In spite of the extra power from the Specialized Turbo Levos, we only managed to scale your summit once. Admittedly, that extra power made the slog up the Dodds much more bearable, but they haven’t turned us into the unstoppable mountain men we were hoping for. Bugger.

A beautiful foe.

I’ll be back. You and I have unfinished business.

This article was produced in association with Specialized UK

James and crew were riding…

Specialized Turbo Levo Comp Carbon

Spec List

  • CHAIN // KMC X11ET, 11-speed w/ Missing Link™
  • CRANKSET // Praxis, 2D cold-forged alloy, custom offset, 165mm
  • SHIFT LEVERS // SRAM S700, single-click lever
  • CASSETTE // SRAM PG-1130, 11-speed, 11-42t
  • CHAINRINGS // 32T, custom steel
  • REAR DERAILLEUR // SRAM GX, long cage, 11-speed
  • REAR SHOCK // FOX DPS Performance, 210×52.5, 150mm of travel, 3-Position Adjustment, custom tune
  • FRONT HUB // Specialized, sealed cartridge bearings, 15x110mm spacing, 28h
  • REAR HUB // Specialized, sealed cartridge bearings, 12x148mm thru-axle, 28h
  • SPOKES // DT Swiss Industry
  • RIMS // Roval Traverse 29, hookless alloy, 30mm inner width, tubeless ready
  • FRONT TIRE // Butcher, GRID casing, GRIPTON® compound, 2Bliss Ready, 29×2.6″
  • REAR TIRE // Butcher, GRID casing, GRIPTON® compound, 2Bliss Ready, 29×2.6″
  • SADDLE // Body Geometry Phenom Comp, hollow Cr-Mo rails, 143mm
  • SEATPOST // X-Fusion Manic, infinite adjustable, two-bolt head, bottom mount cable routing, remote SRL LE lever, 34.9mm, S: 125mm, M/L/XL: 150mm of travel
  • STEM // Specialized Trail, 3D-forged alloy, 4-bolt, 6-degree rise
  • HANDLEBARS // Specialized Trail, 6061 alloy, 8-degree backsweep, 6-degree upsweep, 27mm rise, 780mm, 31.8mm clamp
  • GRIPS // Specialized Sip Grip, half-waffle, S/M: regular thickness, L/XL: XL thickness
  • FRONT BRAKE // SRAM Guide RE, 4-piston caliper, hydraulic disc, 200mm
  • REAR BRAKE // SRAM Guide RE, 4-piston caliper, hydraulic disc, 200mm
  • PEDALS // Specialized Dirt
  • SEAT BINDER // Alloy, 38.6mm
  • FORK // FOX 34 Rhythm E-bike, GRIP damper, 29″ Boost™, 150mm of travel
  • FRAME // FACT 9m Carbon w/ M5 alloy rear triangle, 29 Trail Geometry, Integrated down tube battery, enclosed internal cable, Command Post routing, 148mm spacing, fully sealed cartridge bearings, 150mm of travel
  • UI/REMOTE // Specialized TCU, 10-LED state of charge, 3-LED Ride Mode display, ANT+/Bluetooth®, handlebar remote with walk-assist
  • BATTERY // Turbo M2-500, fully integrated w/ rock guard, 500Wh
  • CHARGER // Custom charger, 42V4A w/ Rosenberger plug
  • MOTOR // Specialized 2.1, custom Rx Trail-tuned motor, 250W nominal

Having ridden bikes for as long as he can remember, James takes a certain twisted pleasure in carrying his bike to the most inaccessible locations he can find, before attempting to ride back down again, preferably with both feet on the pedals. After seeing the light on a recent road trip to Austria, James walked away from the stresses of running a design agency, picked up a camera and is several years deep into a mid life crisis that shows no sign of abating. As a photographer, he enjoys nothing more than climbing trees and asking others to follow his sketchy lines while expecting them to make it look as natural and stylish as possible. He has come to realise this is infinitely more fun than being tied to a desk, and is in no hurry to go back.

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