Issue 142 Classic Ride – The Glorious Peaks

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Words & Photography Chipps

Chipps takes on a tour around one of Yorkshire’s iconic Three Peaks with a couple of similarly iconic characters. 

The other Peaks

Planning a decent bike ride can be a hard job. You need a great route in mind, obviously, but you also need your riding pals to be free at the same time. And it would be nice if there was good weather (or at least, non-rainy weather) and firm conditions under-tyre. This last is especially important if you’re riding somewhere that can be boggy for some of the year.

Fortunately for us, the perfect storm (or, rather, a lack of one) combined that saw Nick, Mark and me gather on a mid-week morning in the car park of the famous Helwith Bridge Inn in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. The pub is famous because it’s the start and finish point of what is surely the oldest running of an off-road cycling event in the world – the Three Peaks Challenge, first run in 1961.

While we definitely weren’t on cyclocross bikes, there was a lot of residual vibe of the event all around. It was strange for me, as a ten-time Three Peaks competitor, to see the Helwith Bridge Inn car park empty of barriers and portable loos and hundreds of surprisingly cheerful competitors.

The event was never far from mind, though, as my ride companions for the day were about as ‘Three Peaks’ as you can get. Mark Richmond, the event’s second ever organiser in 57 runnings, took over from John Rawnsley a few years ago and is now a local rider, having moved from Otley a couple of years ago to one of the nearby villages. And then there was Nick Craig, Three Peaks winner in 1991, 2009 and 2011. Both are old friends, and today they’d be showing me around the stunning landscape in which the race takes place.

It’s not about the race

But the race isn’t the reason why we’re here. It’s because the riding around these huge lumps of mountain is the basis for a great day out on an off-road bike. A proper, old-school ‘ride your bike up and around that hill and that hill’ kind of big day. Big ride, big day, big scenery. It’s a good job it’s not more technical because you’d just end up riding into a wall, or a river. The scenery here is really on a different scale unless you regularly ride in the chunkier bits of the Lake District.   

After months of planning with Mark, the call-up was very short notice: “Are you free in two days’ time? It’s frozen solid and it’ll be sunny in two days. Let’s do it.”

Probably for much of the year you’ll have to judge conditions with a little care, depending on your personal threshold for wet feet and pushing your bike up hills. The ground here notoriously retains water – there’s a lot of bog, a lot of peat, a lot of wet rock. See how much it’s rained recently. Or wait until it’s dried out (after a particularly dry spell) or frozen solid (and again, make sure that it’s been sub-zero for a few days so you’re not just breaking through a thin crust into the bottomless depths below). Luckily, Mark was free and Nick jumped at the chance, despite supposedly having an easy week ahead of the coming weekend’s national champs race.

Bearing in mind that every September sees hundreds of skinny tyre, rigid cyclocross bikes on the tracks round about, you’ll be fine on just about any bike – except probably your big travel enduro machine, unless you love a sustained technical climb for the sake of your aerobic fitness. Tough gravel riders could get away with it, but really, it’s a hardtail mountain bike, all-day riding machine, kind of a route.

Dark, but full of promise

The temperature when I left my house in Yorkshire that morning was 1°C and it actually got colder as I got closer. Our early morning rendezvous was surprisingly hitch free, although between setting off and getting there, both my pairs of winter gloves had gone missing. Fortunately for me Mark carried a spare pair of Aldi’s finest, which saved my day.

Anyone who’s done the race will be familiar with the initial ride over the railway bridge and left turn onto the main road. This time, however, we shot across the road and up a wide track that I’d never seen before in 25 years of coming to watch, support, marshal and race the Three Peaks. Nick, too, had never ridden up it, so we were already into new territory.

It’s a walled byway that goes straight up into the sky, with no time to warm up, towards the nose of Pen-y-Ghent. You can see it looming, right ahead of you. This stony track takes you on a beeline right towards the bulk of Pen-y-Ghent, dramatically lit as it was by the low sun. I was soon trailing in the wake of Nick and Mark, both complete bike riders in the old-school style: mountain biking, road, cyclocross… if it has wheels, they’re happy to ride it.

Looking up at the scree and rocky faces of the hill, it’s hard to believe that cyclocross riders on rigid bikes with skinny 35mm tyres end up at the top of that – or, worse still, come down, tired. Luckily we weren’t going all the way up (mostly because it doesn’t have a bridleway to the very top). The race gets special permission to get up there, but you’re not missing much of the top bit. Instead, our route was an anticlockwise circumnavigation of the Pen-y-Ghent massif – almost a complete lap.

Just when it looked like we were aiming for a head-on collision with this 694m beast, we blinked first and swerved to keep it on our left, rolling parallel with its eastern side. Up close, it really is a monster of a hill, with its distinctive stepped profile, apparently due to a millstone grit layer (that all-year grippy rock) plonked on top of a load of limestone (which is definitely not grippy in the wet). This geology makes for some extensive limestone caves, tunnels and caverns (and the Yorkshire Subterranean Society owns a bunkhouse next door to the pub in Helwith Bridge). We’ll see some signs of this erosion later on…

Sending it (Second Class)

The track now heads down to Litton where there’s an honesty box café with cakes and a kettle. The track here, like most of the terrain, is fast going and not at all rad, as Mark says: “The only way you can ‘send it’ around here is at the post box in the village.” (And even then you’d have to wait until Monday for it to be collected…) There’s a quiet road climb out of Litton (just one of the beautiful road rides around here) before you join up with the bridleway again.

If you want to make your day a little shorter, you can miss out the down and back up to Litton by staying on the back road until you get to the wonderfully named Flamethrower Hole where a left turn will get you onto a bridleway that contours the hill, keeping you high up, until you meet the track coming up from Littondale.

With the main mass of Pen-y-Ghent behind us, we still had to head back over the ‘tail’ of the hill, but first it was time for some snacks. Once again, I realised I was in the company of ‘proper’ cyclists, as there was none of that energy gel business here; it was sandwiches and pies, proper-style, before starting our traverse of the back of the hill over towards Foxup Moor. Starting with a very off-and-on the bike climb, even for Nick, thanks to contours and icy conditions, we were soon enough on a more level trail that contours round the back of the hill. As we rounded the corner, another of the legends of the Three Peaks came into view, dead ahead: Ingleborough, and specifically the climb of Simon Fell. Nothing strikes fear into newcomers to the race more than this seemingly vertical slab of tufty grass. There is no trail and the race just shoots a straight line up, slicing through the tightest of contours. It’s a strain on legs, tight calf muscles and hands as you grip onto the tussocks to stay upright.

Luckily for us, we weren’t going that way, and our trail started to ease ever downwards as we headed into the sun and towards the village of Horton in Ribblesdale. While punctuated by a few streams and boggy passages (mostly frozen for us today) this is a fun and fast track to ride.

A hole in the ground

We took a little detour off the track and wandered over to see Hull Pot. This is an impressive limestone hole in the ground, made by water erosion. It’s nearly 100m long and is 18m wide and 18m deep. Mark informed us that it keeps the local Mountain Rescue busy all year, usually fallen dogs and sheep, but also the occasional human. It’s well worth a quick look  – just mind the edge in your cycling shoes…

Back on the bikes, we soon came to a familiar looking gateway and I quickly realised that we were at the top of Pen-y-Ghent lane, a staple of the Three Peaks race. As the last mountain in the event, tired riders schlep up from Horton in Ribblesdale in an out-and-back mission to the summit on this lane. It’s usually at the limit of cyclocross bike gearing on the way up and of the racers’ resolve and hand-strength on the way down. Having never ridden this on a trail bike, instead of a tiny-tyred ’cross bike, it was a joy to speed down this hard, stony lane with actual suspension and great visibility.

We stopped a couple of times to look back up at Pen-y-Ghent and Nick shared a few of his stories from the race. His most famous battle with arch-rival Rob Jebb took place on this descent. The rules allow a fair amount of leeway as to where the actual course goes and, with a handful of seconds separating them on the descent, Nick took a line off the rocky main track, up a grass bank and through a hastily gathered-up family picnic before rejoining the track a good 10 or 15 seconds further ahead of his rival. This was enough of a cushion to keep Jebb at bay, secure the win and to add to Nick’s already legendary status at the race. 

Not an empty land

Mark showed his encyclopaedic knowledge of the land and the landowners here as he pointed out each peak and listed how many people he has to ask permission of every year in order to run the event, despite it having been run 57 times already. Although the scenery here looks raw and rugged, every inch of it is owned and managed. Every sheep, rock, stream, boggy field, and gate is known about. The farmers can tell you when each drystone wall was last repaired, whose sheep have escaped and whose field they’re now sitting in when they shouldn’t. It’s most definitely a working landscape, but one that happens to have a load of great bridleways across it. 

We whizzed happily to the bottom of Pen-y-Ghent lane. However, unlike the race, we weren’t nearly done. We turned right and followed the main road as it wound through Horton in Ribblesdale and up towards Selside. This was a draggy bit of gently rolling road, made worse by sitting behind Nick and Mark talking about knee surgeries and cartilage trimming. That wasn’t all, fortunately. These two chatted amiably about bikepacking loops in the Peaks and the Dales, mountain bike epics in the Lakes… they lived up to the cyclist stereotype of wanting to talk about riding while also riding bikes.

Our left-hand turn at Selside saw us leave the road on the same bit of track that the race takes on its way to Simon Fell. Luckily for us, we turned left rather than right and started our way south. An easy-going track took us slowly upwards, crossing the well-made path that’s part of the official Three Peaks walking/running/charity circuit. Stopping at a gate in the drystone wall, we took a look through to see Crummack Dale, a massive section of limestone pavement that’s worth the quick detour to check out.

Final run in towards chunky chips.

Mark had promised some fun for our run back towards the pub and we left the limestone behind, ignoring the right turn that would have taken us to Ingleton. Instead, we had a fun descent back towards the valley floor on a network of old sunken ways. These were fast and fun to ride, with the occasional high-level river crossing thrown in for a bit of mild peril. The high stone walls added to the sense of speed and the occasional sniper rock kept egos in check.

Finally, we were spat out onto the back road between Austwick and Helwith Bridge and an easy couple of road kilometres back to the cars, and the pub. With typical ‘true cyclist’ style, Nick was already talking about a pint and a big bowl of chips and, loyal to his word, there were chunky chips all round. (Bear in mind that the following day Nick was driving down to the UK national cyclocross championships, where he managed a win in the Vets category and a 12th the following day in the Seniors. Obviously chunky chips are the food of champions.)

The pub was a wood-fired warm end to a frigid day out and the owners and patrons didn’t bat an eyelid at some hungry cyclists wanting ALL of the food (and more mayo please). In any case, after 57 runnings of the Three Peaks race from their car park, they’re used to our kind, and our outrageous demands.

Why bother?

The Three Peaks area of the Yorkshire Dales is great distillation of northern scenery. Although you can’t ride to the top of any of the three giants (you can walk up, if you fancy a scenic day out) there are many, many bridleways throughout the area. The Pennine Bridleway zooms through on the way to its northern terminus, taking in the iconic arches of the Ribblehead viaduct. There are some other great loops to keep you amused, too, with the grass and limestone of Giggleswick Scar, or the rugged tracks outside Ingleton. Navigation is pretty easy as the area is so well trafficked and signposted.

The scenery combines sheep-cropped rolling grass with big chunks of exposed limestone pavement and always, wherever you look, rising up to 700m or so, are the looming bulks of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent.

The whole area is set up for tourists, with plenty of catered and self-catering accommodation, pubs that do great food, and tea shops that welcome muddy boots. Although the hills are big and dramatic, the riding in general is suitable for all bikes, so it’s a great place to visit if you have less experienced riders, or if you’re on a mix of hardtails, full sussers, e-bikes and gravel machines. All will be able to make it up and down the trails without too much difficulty. Rolling over the short grass under the scudding clouds of a summers’ day is a real Mint Sauce-like experience of greens and greys and blue. On a wet day in November, it’s a little less inspiring.

It’s definitely a place to visit with an eye on the weather. The stony tracks hold up pretty well in the wet, though beware slippery limestone in places. There is a lot of bog and softer grass around, and the region is best visited after a long dry spell or a hard few days of sub-zero temperatures. We really lucked out on the weather for our circuit, but to be fair there are many popular tracks that are pretty solid.

While you’re in the area, there’s a wealth of walking, road riding or tea shop hunting. The nearby town of Settle has all the walking shops and supermarket supplies you might need. Although the area itself is a little away from major roads, it’s an easy detour from the M6 to and from the M65/M62 corridors, so could even make a stop off on that epic trip from the south to Scotland. What better way to recharge the batteries?

The Knowledge

  • Distance: 37.7km/23.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 806m
  • Time: 2–4 hours
  • Map: Ordnance Survey OL2. Yorkshire Dales

Accommodation

You’ve come to the right place. The Yorkshire Dales offers everything from five-star boutique hotels to very basic self-catering. Settle is well set up for tourists, with a number of pubs and hotels. There’s such choice that it’s not worth listing any – just go to your catering/booking website of choice and get stuck in.

At the other end of the scale, it’s worth mentioning one of the most iconic bunkhouses in the area – the Hotel Paradiso. This is a converted shed in the car park of the Helwith Bridge Inn that has four bunks and a sink in it. (There might be a water heater and a kettle too.) It’s as basic as it comes and the pub leaves the outside loo unlocked for you overnight. However, it is literally at the start of the ride and the pub only charges a few pounds to stay there. Plus, you have a pub on the doorstep!

If that’s still too posh, then there’s camping available in the field next to the pub.

Parking

There is a free public car park on the opposite side of the road to the pub.

Food and Drink

Helwith Bridge Inn (helwithbridgeinn.co.uk). What more could one want than Paul and Carol’s awesome hospitality?

There is the Queens Arms at Litton and also an occasional honesty box for cakes and flapjacks. However, much of the tourist trade here is seasonal, so make sure you’re well provisioned, as there’s nothing else on offer until you get back to Horton in Ribblesdale.

Two pubs (Golden Lion and Crown) at Horton as well as the Blindbeck Tea Room (great cream teas!) which may be seasonal at Horton. There’s also an option to cut the ride short by taking the 2km road from Horton to Helwith.

Plenty of further catering options in Settle.

Bike Shops

3 Peaks Cycles in Settle, Escape Bikes at/just outside Ingleton, and (if coming from the north) Stage 1 Cycles at Hawes.

3peakscycles.com

escapebikeshop.com

stage1cycles.co.uk

Travel Information

Despite being out in the middle of seemingly nowhere, the main A65 trunk road runs from the M6, roughly between Kirkby Lonsdale and Skipton and it’s only a few short miles between there and Ingleton or Settle, making it a great cross-country shortcut if going from the south or east of England and up to the Lakes or Scotland.

This feature was produced with support from Komoot. For more details of this route and others, head to singletrackworld.com/komoot to follow us.

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