Singletrack Issue 126 | How to lose friends and alienate people

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Sanny takes on a Lake District pass too many, nearly breaks Mark and makes Nick Craig swear.

Words & Photography Sanny

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Mark sat on the side of the trail, his shoulders hunched, his head dropped. His bike lay discarded on the rocky trail where he had been unceremoniously ejected from it mere seconds earlier. He was, for want of a less polite and more industrial phrase, utterly spent. We were deep into hour nine of what on the map is a mere sixteen-mile loop. Things were not quite going according to plan.

“You know, Mark, even I’m beginning to lose my sense of humour. Sanny’s a ****.”

Nick Craig.

Read on for the full story and then watch the video at the end of this feature

“You know, Mark, even I’m beginning to lose my sense of humour. Sanny’s a ****.” Nick interjected, a big grin on his face as he said it. Truth to tell, worse has been said of me and to me, but for this to be uttered by Nick Craig, the indisputably nicest man in mountain biking, came as a bit of a surprise. Between you and me, I was secretly a little bit proud. That I had reduced him to using language that would make Roger Mellie blush felt oddly satisfying. After all, our previous adventures together had usually found me being on the receiving end of things going wrong, so this made for a pleasant, if unexpected, change. I was feeling good – the sun was out, my legs felt great and I was definitely enjoying myself. For Mark, however, he was experiencing the worst of mountain biking. But what had brought us to this? Just how exactly had I broken Mark and reduced Nick to using common vulgarities? Read on, dear reader, and I shall tell you.

Hold up, lads. I have an idea.

As a late adopter of pretty much all forms of technology, e-bikes haven’t really featured on my radar. However, curiosity is a difficult mistress to ignore and a brief ride on a friend’s bike up in Aviemore caused my mind to go into overdrive. I wanted a route that would test both machine and rider, one that would potentially demonstrate the relative strengths and limitations of the technology. As luck would have it, I had the perfect route – an off-road version of the Fred Whitton. Think every high pass in the Lakes in just one ride. It was perfect. To my astonishment, I even managed to persuade my good friend Mark of this parish and Nick Craig, Olympian and professional nice guy, to join me.

A route was devised, plans were made, but when it came to the actual doing, my crack team decided to let me down gently/bail out (delete as appropriate). A call from Nick suggested that perhaps he and I had experienced the odd mishap together and that we would be pushing our luck with this one. “Perhaps an easier route to save your blushes, eh Sanny?” I know when I’m being played. Nick and Mark were throwing the towel in before we had even turned a pedal. “So what you’re saying is that you are bailing out. But it’s really for my own good? Would you mind if I referred to this little conversation as ‘Nick’s ride of shame’?”

A snort came down the phone. Undeterred, we agreed a different plan – the Four Peaks in the Lakes. A veritable classic rite of passage, it extends to a mere 16 miles, but by golly, does it pack a punch. Three tough hikeabike sections, a brute of a first rideable climb, hard, technical descents and more height gain than you can shake a stick at. Underestimate it at your peril. Throw in three e-bikes that weigh a good 20 pounds each more than regular bikes and you have the makings of a challenge.

Sun’s out, guns out.

Meeting up at the base of Honister Pass in the heart of Borrowdale, the sun split the skies as we fettled/fannied about in a doomed attempt to delay the inevitable. While Nick and Mark opted to take chargers, I went for the ‘excessive quantities of food’ option. I was comforted to know that when the Mountain Rescue came looking for us, at least one of us would be well fed and watered. Finally riding, we swapped between riding with and without power. Not sure how long the batteries would last and suffering from a minor bout of range anxiety, in the main we all opted for Eco mode. Manhandling our bikes over the first gate we had to go through (locked, of course), Mark got a taste of the challenge that awaited us. E-bikes, in case you didn’t know, are not light. Those extra 20 pounds make themselves known as you go full gun trying to get them over said gate. It ain’t just the lifting, but the lowering them down gently that really tests you.

All slightly red of face, the climb up the bridleway from Seatoller is, in my book at least, a real pleasure. I love the fact that there is a surfeit of technical trail features to add a bit of spice to proceedings. However, throw in battery power and it is hard not to feel like a riding legend. Even in Eco mode, we found ourselves positively flying up the trail while below us on the road toiled a couple of roadies in far too high gearing, making the climb look like it really was – hard! It felt like having my dad run behind me when I was a little kid, pushing the saddle as I learned how to ride without stabilisers for the first time. Talk about an eye-opener. “This is easy,” I giggled as I threw it into full power. Reaching Honister Slate Mine, we paused briefly to chat with the team that runs it before tackling the steep access track that clings to the side of Fleetwith Pike. Many a time have I winched my way up this, a curious combination of sweat and legs spinning ten to the dozen. This time was different. With power on tap, the only real challenge was keeping the front end down. Cresting the summit, we were barely even breathing heavily. It was like mountain biking – but easier and quicker.

We’re not in London now, Toto.

The top of the Pike is a throwback to the area’s industrial past – some regard it as a blight on the landscape, but for me it has a genuine appeal. Almost moonscape-like, it is testament to all those who worked and continue to work the mine. When I read or hear tell of how unspoilt the Lakeland Fells are, I cannot help but think what utter nonsense. The fells are working landscapes – sheep farming rules in these parts and the land reflects that. The manicured, aesthetically appealing landscape would look very different were it not for agriculture.

Stopping at Dubs Hut for – and I hesitate to say this – a well-earned break, we got chatting to some kids from that there London doing their DofE. One seemed concerned by the thought of leaving his bag outside unattended which caused us all to chuckle. “This isn’t the big smoke, now, kiddo.” For most of them, this was their first experience of proper outdoor adventure and it was heartening to see the positive impact it was having upon them. Say what you will about Prince Philip and his ill-advised remarks that cause offence wherever he goes (a bit like myself), but his outdoor learning scheme is nothing short of brilliant.

“But I want to be James May.”

Retiring inside the hut, Mark, Nick and I reflected on the Top Gear-esque nature of our challenge. Foolhardy and poorly thought out? Yup. Sounds about right. Everyone I’d told about our plans had shuddered at the thought of it. Our sanity was called into question more than once. “So Mark, you’re Hammond on account of us being taller than you so I reckon that makes Nick, May and me, Clarkson?” I offered helpfully. “Bollox. I want to be May,” opined Mark, “although you are definitely Clarkson as you are a ****.” Pithy, succinct and well put, I say.

Still smiling – the heavy lifting is still to come

Second breakfast dispensed with, we got back on our bikes and set about tackling the descent. The most technical of the day, it is a proper challenge. To clean it requires bringing your A game. With everything from exposed bedrock through to loose babyheads and awkward stepdowns, it is a classic piece of Lakeland trail. Leading the way, I immediately found myself picking up speed at an alarming rate. Those extra 20 pounds were making themselves felt. While normally, I would let my gaze wander to take in the towering wall of glacial awesomeness that is Haystacks, I was having to give 100% concentration to the trail. As well as accelerating more quickly than my normal bike, slowing down was taking longer. As such, I found myself having to pick my lines more carefully. While the extra heft meant that I could juggernaut through some sections, in spots that requires a more delicate approach with of slow-speed hopping and lifting of the bike, I was having to put in a fair bit more effort than normal. By the time I reached the shallower slopes near the valley floor, I was actively sweating. I had just been given a lesson in e-bike riding on technical trails and been found a little wanting. Clearly, I was going to have to adapt my riding technique. It wasn’t any better or worse than my regular bike, just different. On the plus side, at least we had three more big descents to get our skills honed on.

The sun shines on the righteous… and the slightly deranged.

Buttermere was, as ever on a sunny day, a true picture to behold. Not having changed radically in the last couple of hundred years, it is easy to see why the likes of Turner chose to paint here. Better men and women than I have waxed lyrical about the beauty of the surroundings, thus I will not presume to add to their sentiment. Suffice to say, should you find yourself there, take a minute to relax and soak up the views. With Mark having suffered a puncture and Nick having broken his water bottle, I did just that. Steeling ourselves for the first big carry of the day, fate smiled upon Nick. By good fortune, someone had left a full water bottle by a gate. Clearly, the big chap upstairs was looking out for us.

Endeavouring to ride as much as we could, we made a good fist of getting up the first section of Scarth Gap Pass. Now was the time to engage walk mode. Between the three of us, we managed to fail to do so for the first few minutes. “This isn’t working, Nick,” I declared. In true Top Gear fashion, it was only by chance that one of us dropped their rear mech into the highest gear and realised what we had all been doing wrong – the motor will only push the gear it’s offered in walk mode, so the higher the better.

Our joy was short-lived as the inevitable hikeabike beckoned. Hoisting, heaving and grunting our bikes onto our backs was not what you would call graceful or elegant. The extra weight definitely made things harder but as someone who regularly shoulders a fat bike on his mountain adventures, I was probably better prepared than Mark and Nick to endure the carry.

“That’s just cheating.”

Happening upon a couple who were coming down on a short section of rideable up, their scoffs of ‘cheating!’ and it being easy with a motor, were quickly dispelled when they attempted to lift the bikes up. I’m fairly sure one of them discovered religion at that point as they expleted “Jesus wept” in their efforts to give themselves a hernia. Progress was slow but steady and the top eventually came. The real gem lay far below us in the shape of Black Sail Youth Hostel. Despatching the descent in double-quick time, we arrived at the hut elated.

An oasis of calm reflection with home-baked cakes from the honesty café, it is a very special place, and for Nick perhaps more so than for most. As we took the chance to explore the hostel, top up on water and the charge on our bikes, Nick spoke lovingly of the time he had spent here with his late son, Charlie, on an overnight adventure. This was the first time he had returned and I felt genuinely privileged that he felt able to share some of his memories of that trip. He spoke of them playing Monopoly and the fun they had had together and of how it was captured on film. I made a mental note to watch it when I got back. Suffice to say, I was in tears when I did. Even if you don’t know Nick and Charlie, I very much doubt anyone would not be moved by it.

Leaving Nick to his thoughts, the warden arrived with his dog, soon followed by your classic entitled walker. “You should have a café here,” she practically commanded. “We do, in the form of an honesty bar,” the warden responded with a smile on his face. What is it they say about not working with the public? Had it been me, I suspect I would have been more direct and less forgiving in my response. Clarkson would be proud. Everyone else, not so much.

Point of no return.

Remounting our bikes, we motored across to the start of the carry proper. Heathery grass that is usually despair on a normal bike was ridden across with ease. Another win for the e-bike. However, as the trail steepened, we had no option but to carry. A section of steep, exposed bedrock did little to impede our progress as Nick and I pressed on at a fair old rate. However, far below us, Mark was toiling.

Dropping my bike, I headed back down to offer words of encouragement/Clarkson-esque insult. “I shouldn’t have come,” was his response. With no easy way of return other than retracing our steps, carrying up the Windy Gap only to descend the purgatorially cheeky Aaron Slack or by carrying on, Mark’s options were limited. Not wanting to see our friend suffer and not having a tranquilliser dart to hand, Nick and I took turns at carrying Mark’s bike. Misery loves company and in this case gave Mark cramp to add to his suffering. On the plus side, my plentiful food supplies yielded a packet of salt and vinegar crisps which helped restore a little balance to The Force.

Progress was painfully slow but as afternoon turned to evening, we finally reached the saddle and Mark’s spirits lifted visibly. Knowing the descent from previous visits, it was an almost euphoric Mark who launched himself down the side of the mountain. Flow was the order of the day as the evening sunshine provided the perfect accompaniment to our descent. Everything had come together rather nicely and we were all back in the game after a bit of a wobble.

“If you could not point that camera at me I’d be really f…..ing grateful right now.”

Homeward bound… or not.

Eschewing the charms of the Wasdale Head Inn, Mark was keen to press on up the final ascent of Styhead Pass. Some 3km in length, the first few hundred metres passed easily. With plenty in the e-tank, we could afford to go full beanz with the power, crazy fools that we were. Never having done the climb before, I had hoped that the gentle gradient would make for a decent amount of riding. Wrong, wrong, WRONG. With great power comes great responsibility and with it a near total inability to gain traction on the many loose rocks and boulders that litter the trail. Instead of the smooth, well-trodden path that I had hoped for, there was rocky despair. It was an exercise in frustration. We had untapped reserves of power, but it took all of our skill and more than a little luck to get started on the looser sections of path. Had we been able to use an even lower power setting than eco then I think we would have. As it was, we had to make do and adjust our riding style accordingly. Easy it wasn’t.

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Straw. Camel’s back.

For Mark, the final straw soon came. Riding up a smoother section, the back end kicked out and flipped him off the side of the trail. “I think my bike is trying to kill me.” Cue his long dark teatime of the soul as Nick consoled him by dropping the C Bomb. Mark was broken both mentally and physically. This was not how this ride was meant to have gone.

Operation Get The **** Out of Here was engaged as Nick and I took turns to help Mark and his bike reach the summit pass. For Mark, time seemed to slow down with progress there seemingly interminable. When we finally arrived, Mark dropped to his knees by the Mountain Rescue Stretcher Box. We had done it. What followed was probably one of the slowest descents of Styhead Gill ever recorded on Strava, but we weren’t for caring. Sensibly, Mark opted to walk some of the more challenging sections. The exposed bedrock and stone-pitched trails are particularly unforgiving to the tired rider. A fall there can be costly. He was on autopilot and in no mood to spanner himself so late into the day.

His ride had long since migrated from the enjoyment phase to the abject misery phase. For me, still feeling fresh, I resisted the temptation to rag it. I was content to simply enjoy the surroundings and reflect upon the route choice and our selection of bike as we made our way down the valley.

So what did I learn?

Safely reaching the comfort of our cars a full ten hours after we started (walking would have been faster), Nick quipped that we should ride again sometime… just not any time soon. “Perhaps we need a little distance before we do this again, eh?” he said with his trademark cheeky grin. But just what had the experience taught me?

Well, number one, I reckon e-bikes definitely have their place. Hikeabikes are definitely a fair bit harder, but they aren’t the unrelentingly hard horror show that I had been led to believe. Power wise, I could have quite happily used more power more of the time. My range-anxiety fears were unfounded. In terms of technical riding, the extra weight makes for a different ride experience particularly when the going gets steep and body English comes to the fore. More practice is required there, for me at least, in order to get the best out of the technology.

Would I do it again? Hell yeah. I know Mark would probably have punched me in the face had I suggested it at the time (if he’d had any energy left), but I felt remarkably fresh and would have happily ridden up Honister for a second time.

Despite his protestations, Nick was on the phone to me the following day with fresh suggestions for further adventures. Apparently, it hadn’t completely put him off riding with me. As for Mark, well at least he is still talking to me. I may wait a while before suggesting another ride with him any time soon though…

Four Passes – The Movie

You’ve read the book, now watch the movie.

The entire collection in chronological order so you can slowly witness Mark as he sank into his own personal hell.

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