Words By Tom Hill, Images By Roo Fowler.
‘Hiraeth’ is a Welsh word. There’s not an exact equivalent in English, but it roughly means a deep sense of home – a longing for what was, should be and always will be. Riding in the Yorkshire Dales always evokes this for me. Many of my first mountain bike rides were taken in the national park. Time rarely does accuracy many favours. My memories are full of long summer days stretching into lazy sunsets, riding on trails baked hard by the sun, across sheep-cropped grass and slowly expanding the range of what I thought was possible to ride. The rolling hills were rarely technically challenging, but on an early 90s mountain bike, I looked forward to the fast open descents and rattled down with a blend of exhilaration and abject fear as skinny tyres pinged of rocks and cantilever brakes failed to slow me down.
It was early March and the weather was probably more typical of the Dales than my rose-tinted memories. We were several miles into pre-riding the Hope Pre-Peaks route and had so far been subjected to hail, sleet and now big fluffy snowflakes. All a stark contrast to the kind of conditions that are likely come the event in August. It was the kind of day that were there not plans already in place, a photographer booked, promises to be kept, each of us might have stayed inside, had another brew and popped out for a short spin rather than a full day out. Still… better than a day in the office, eh?
Dropping away from the snow line on the hilltops, our group were riding down a descent straight out of my memory banks; specifically, we flew off Malham Moor down to Arncliffe. Despite the, quite frankly, hanging weather we grinned like loons. While I’m sure we were all yearning for the heat and dry trails of summer, the Dales are as beautiful, if not more so, when the weather is wild. While we were never more than a few miles from a village, the land felt as wild and remote as parts of Scotland.
Ah, yes, the event. The Hope Pre-Peaks. In homage to, and inspired by the legendary Yorkshire Three Peaks Cyclocross Race, the Lancastrian makers of beautiful bike bits have set up their own event. Their version starts from the Hope factory (more on that later) in Barnoldswick before crossing to the right (both directionally and ???) side of the county border and climbs into the heart of the Dales. Taking place in mid-August, the Pre-Peaks will be an ideal training event for its namesake, but the route places it into a must-do category of its own. Taking in back lanes, farm tracks and classic trails, the Pre-Peaks event creates an 80km loop taking in some of the best of what makes this part of the world feel so special. According to the briefing material, no bike would be ‘best’ for the terrain – a claim that I was keen to test, maybe even giving you dear reader, an inside track come the day.
And so it came to be that fellow Singletrack contributor Rachel Sokal and I pulled into the factory car park at 8am on a Tuesday morning in March. The plan was simple. We’d meet up with Paul Oldham (current Three Peaks winner, all round riding legend, Hope employee) and head out to ride the route. We’d each ride a different bike (‘cross, hardtail and short-travel full suspension) and compare notes as we went along while photographer Roo documented our progress. As I said, simple.
A snow flurry hit as we climbed out of the van and it took little convincing by Rachael Walker (Hope’s Brand Manager) for us to have a brew and take a tour of the Barnoldswick site before braving the elements…
I could spend the rest of this story talking about the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-like experience (fewer Augustus Gloop style mishaps, more aluminium) of wandering around the manufacturing halls and design rooms of Hope HQ. We’ll save that for another time though. What struck me the most, was the complete and utter dedication that all the Hope employees had to creating great products, solving problems and looking for the next challenge. Whether that be carbon bike frames, a velodrome, or an event in their own back yard.
It was a strange contrast as we hit the road. Leaving behind CNC machines, anodising baths, and carbon lay-up; forgetting manufacturing processes, stock control and bike builds. It acted as a reminder that all these products are made to be used. A hub is as good as worthless until it is laced to a rim and fitted to a bike. Freewheeling down the road, accompanied by the familiar Hope hub click coming from Paul’s bike, we pointed north with threatening clouds scudding overhead and a fierce westerly wind nudging us along.
The A65 effectively marks the southern boundary to the Dales. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with the road. It has ferried me to the 3 Peaks, been my point of access to hundreds of daytrips, and it has been the road that I’ve been stuck on, behind thousands of others seeking the same escape on a summer’s day. Today we simply crossed the A65 at Long Preston and instantly start to climb, legs still feeling notchy and cold complained as the gradient steepened. Knobbly tyres ripped against tarmac and a hail storm blew through, filling my left ear with icy pellets. A long day stretched out in front of us as we gritted teeth and continued up.
Before long, tarmac became gravel track, and all too briefly, the sun made an appearance, bringing with it some spring-like warmth and respite from the chill wind that had been our companion so far. Swinging around to point east, we began the classic climb up Stockdale Lane. ‘Lane’ is a little generous as a description. It begins innocently enough, but towards the top becomes rougher, and the limestone bedrock increasingly pokes through the surface. Slick with snow melt the climb felt far more technical than I remembered, with my 33c tyres fighting a losing battle for grip as I threw my weight back and forth trying to balance effort with traction. The inevitable happened as my wheel span out and I resorted to carrying up the final few metres. Paul and Rachel, helped only by better traction and definitely not superior fitness or skill (ahem), made lighter work and we regathered, now with the wind on our backs as we crossed Malham Moor.
This high up, the temperature was low enough for snow to have settled, and we each took satisfaction in the crunch of rubber through the pristine blanket. Even the modest covering hid a multitude of sins below. We were now crossing the high tops, the path no more than worn grass, simply a marker of those who had been before, rather than built for those who are still to come. A wet winter had left the ground saturated, and occasionally wheels would drop into unseen bog, or slip on covered rock. The going was tough, and this was despite a building tailwind, that would incessantly push us forwards, driving on.
Psychologically, the first half of a big loop is always hard. You are always aware that every pedal stroke is taking you further from home, further from the comfort that you’ve left behind. As we dropped down to Arncliffe, as cold crept up our arms and feet, no longer needing to pedal to maintain forward momentum; as we hit tarmac, skirting the crashing wave of Kilnsey Crag; as it slowly dawned on me that we’d be returning via the brute of a climb that is Mastiles Lane; as it then too dawned on me that our tailwind would soon be a headwind; even though I knew the hardest riding was to come, mentally, the back of the ride was broken. We were now pedalling back towards ‘Barlick’, returning to our start point.
It was a short lived comfort. Mastiles Lane is another over-generous use of language when it comes to byways. Walled on either side, it climbs from the base of Kilnsey up a series of ever increasing ramps, saving the steepest and roughest section for last. It also ‘treats’ you to a full view of what is to come, all the way from the bottom. Apparently some of the folk from Hope once ran an informal night time trial up the climb. Paul Oldham won. Watching the back of his wheel gradually leave my eyesight as he opened up a gap while chatting away, it wasn’t hard to see why. There’d be no record times up there today, though. As we gained height and lost the relative shelter of the hillside, the wind tore into us with full force. Never quite enough to bring you to a halt, but always there, always niggling and jostling and making things just that bit harder than they need be, thank you. Fortunately, we only had a few kilometres to cover while completely exposed to the wind. Looking on the bright side, at least the extra effort helped encourage some warm blood to flow back into icy extremities.
High up, on the edge of the hilly mass, we were treated to a view of patchwork fields and distant towns. The sinuous singletrack descent to Airton is one of my favourites in the Dales. In an area that is better known for its green lanes and wide open moor, it is a pleasure to ride along true singletrack, especially when it wills you to go faster. The track sits slightly higher than the surround ground and such gives you the sensation of flying above the fields, speeding effortlessly down, losing height gradually and earning back every metre climbed.
Back in the valleys, we followed the line of the river Aire, passing through small hamlets gathered around farms. We skirted field edges, ducking behind ever-present drystone walls to take advantage of the shelter the boundaries offered. We spotted early lambs, wearing little waterproof jackets and pondered their brutal welcome to the world. Finally, we picked up the Leeds-Liverpool canal, which acted as our guiding path back to the Hope Factory. It represented the confluence of industry and agriculture, the motorway in comparison to the tracks and drovers roads we had been using all day.
As always, the sniff of the home straight saw our pace increase, as we turned to the road for the last stretch through the streets of Barnoldswick. A final short kick was enough of a sting in the tail to flood thighs with lactic one more time and leave us out of breath as we rolled through the factory gates.
Rinsing down mud-splattered bikes, we returned to the question of which was best suited to the event. Happily, there was no right answer. The ‘cross bike was often the biggest handful on the long and fast descents, but it ripped along on the flat and tarmac sections with ease. The mountain bike may have made the going easier, but who says easy is best? Ultimately, well, who cares? The Pre-Peaks takes you through everything that makes the Yorkshire Dales a great place to ride. From big scenery to quaint villages, from spots that feel utterly remote to bustling tourist draws. The bikes we chose made no difference to the views, the sense of escape or the sheer pleasure of a day in the fresh air.
The route is a perfect reminder that faster and more technical isn’t always better. It left me longing for more Big Days Out under summer skies and all that they entail, including the tired legs, salt encrusted jerseys and dusty tan lines. I’ll be back in August to experience it all again.
Entries are already open for the Hope Pre-Peaks. It takes place on Sunday 27 August 2017. It is a organised ride, rather than a race. The route will be 80km long and fully signed and mapped. There will be three feed stations and a custom made Hope medal for each finisher. While Hope won’t be able to guarantee perfect weather, you can consider yourself hard done by if it snows…
More details and entries – http://hopeprepeaks.com
Words By Tom Hill, Images By Roo Fowler.