Black and White Town
We leave one northern city in the cold, crisp darkness of a still, autumnal Saturday morning. Friday’s dust and leaves have settled. The M62 song is smooth and rhythmic, rolling up and over the Pennines, the staccato stop-start of commuter traffic enjoying a weekend rest. Manchester is not Leeds. This city feels more sprawling, and on this particular day, bleaker. As we race through trading estates mist hangs. Monochromatic tracing paper views of ugly modern warehouses and faded post-industrial opulence feel a world away from the escapism of riding bikes off-road. We set a direct course for the centre of this black and white town.
The Rapha Manchester Clubhouse is hidden in a small pedestrian square, tucked behind a church. It takes a little effort to find, but as we approach we are joined by other riders; gravel and ’cross bikes alien in this urban setting. We flock like doves or pigeons landing on freshly scattered breadcrumbs, approaching from all angles, propping up bikes, then disappearing inside – enticed by the aroma of coffee drifting down the stairs of the three storey building.
The Rapha Cross Prestige is an appropriately informal formalised ride, organised by the London-based brand. Teams of four follow a GPS-marked route of around 80km. There are three checkpoints/feed stations, a brevet card to be marked, warm food and beer at the end. It isn’t a race, there’s no special recognition for going fast or slow, just an opportunity to spend time with like-minded others and ride somewhere new. The grit.cx #dirtydropbargoodness team is a mixed bag. Rich is a talented mountain bike enduro racer, a recent convert to ‘cross and annoyingly talented at that as well. His wife, Sam, is a relative newcomer to riding, and this will be one of her top-three longest rides. Julia is used to long days on the MTB, guiding clients in the Alps, but again can probably count the number of ‘cross or gravel rides completed on the fingers of both hands. They are accompanied by some chump who muddles his way through this kind of stuff on a too-regular basis. There are similar levels of experience amongst other teams. Recent converts from road bump shoulders with seasoned ‘cross racers looking for all-day fun to counter an hour of pain.
Matchstick men and women
Setting off at short intervals, we leave a city still waking up. Our birds flew backwards, fleeing the city centre, this time following a single line. A squiggle on a screen becomes three-dimensional, full sensory experience for our tight bunch, bundled up against the creeping, damp cold. Day break didn’t really arrive. It simply isn’t dark any more, 5B grey has become HB. Damp pervades. It is a suitably Lowry-esque morning. A weight sits on us as we pedal but our escape is ‘efficient’. A-roads do not make for engaging riding, but serve their purpose. We are moving against the flow, at least. No one leaves the city at this time.
Thinking back, I can’t even remember how we left the road. It doesn’t take long, though, before wheels are touching broken tarmac, then muddy track. We are reclaiming the forgotten edges and corners of Manchester, somehow not swallowed by industry, or long since unremembered. These are the places between. Old paths are trodden alongside high chainlink fences, behind which kingdoms of rust lie. We seek the lost ginnels, cobbles hidden beneath decades of leaf litter, canals choked with bull rushes, old railway lines that hold their shape long after the rails have been lifted. Culverts and modest gradients, bridges over nothing but our train of Rapha candy-striped riders. These old arteries may not retain their strategic importance and have grown clogged, but there is a sense of irony to how freely we flow and escape the heart of the city away from the road. Few would describe the riding as ‘classic’. It is largely sloppy, messy, wet and churning. All part of the game though – you take what you can get this time of year.
The River Irwell is our handrail, guiding our exit and return. From city to almost source, it is rarely out of our sight. As we move beyond the immediate urban sprawl, parkland provides islands of green. Victorian spaces and regenerated wasteland butt against the peripheral orbit of the M60. We span it simply enough via a bridge out of Philips Park. Memories of Hit the North and two hours of ‘cross racing in the snow.
Early morning mist persistently clings to the base of the mast of Winter Hill, giving the illusion of a rocket launching from the highest point of these thuggy western Pennines. Still miles to our north west, it provides a point of reference, our future – as we will be circling this lump before making our return. Back to our present, though. It feels entirely natural that the clouds have lifted and parted. Our sense of terrestrial space is intertwined with the weather, even clothing. Neck warmers and gloves can be ditched, deep breaths taken. Look up, enjoy the sense of freedom – bare autumnal trees provide windows to hills beyond the city and the sky above.
Sliding, slicing, snaking through sloppy woodland tracks, music drifts – source out of sight for now. Just over eleven miles out, a small gazebo, stocked with sausage rolls, mince pies, bananas, Coke and, er – bourbon, is not strictly necessary so early in the ride, but welcomed nonetheless. It is also a chance to talk to other teams, enjoy the chatter of shared and mixed experiences. November daylight is at a premium, though, and far more miles are still to be covered than have been ridden yet. Brevet card stamped, go.
Disc rotors and pads grate as we set off; grit and mud scraping against metal is aurally challenging if not a critical concern yet. We cross housing estates and skirt commuter towns. Back roads connect bridleways and lanes, and gradually the ratio of buildings to countryside reverses. We climb the front of Winter Hill (if a conical hill can have a front?). As we winch across a field a shout comes from behind, “Southerners coming through!” Those pesky Ride Journal brothers and friends set off last, having started their journey on the first train from London. We turn on to traversing tarmac and catch up as we roll along in a loose group of eight. Getting lost on farm tracks, we separate and rejoin, now forever climbing, forever arcing – as if a piece of string had been attached to the mast and tied to each of us – a maypole in November.
Belmont sits in a nook of valleys, below bleak moorland, which feels wild even on our benign autumnal day. We pass through the village quickly and ascend on sweeping tarmac, recently laid and the antithesis of what is in store. First, though, at the crest of the road climb we hit our second checkpoint. Brevet cards marked, coffee from an H-Van. Rapha through-and-through.
Crossing the road, we hit the rough and jarring track to Rivington Pike. Made to withstand the elements and functional for centuries, it is brutal under wheel. Paris-Roubaix on steroids. The Hell of the real North, our kid. Pace has a smoothing effect, but brings with it risk. Edges are hard, sharp and definite. Teams litter the sides of the wide track, wheels removed from frames, there’s no team car up here. Innertubes are slung across shoulders, mini-pumps tested. Streams run down the track, at least the rocky foundation means there is no mud. Cold water sprays up backsides, but we are sheltered from the cooling breeze for now and the sun still carries some midday warmth.
The track mellows briefly at the tower of Rivington Pike, but the respite is short-lived. As we point downwards, the surface once again feels wilfully rough, designed to make a descent as hellish as possible for rigid bikes with skinny tyres. It is hard to maintain speed without being bounced off line, but we stay off the brakes and rattle down, with an approach that is far from graceful – and more through a desire to get the section done as soon as possible than any sense of thrill. Others are picking their way, both on and off the bike, a few yells of encouragement aren’t quite acknowledged by us. Our teeth are gritted, keeping fillings in place. Half grin, half grimace as forearms burn from the pounding.
The Lion, the Witch, the Nationwide
Off the hill, we weren’t quite ready to head home. Route planners are sods. Rather than completing our tour via the base, we are sent back up to near where we began the circuit. Steep lanes rise, with the nastiest of kicks at the end. This at least affords us long views; to the sea to the west, Bolton immediately below us and the cliff face-like tower blocks of Manchester beyond.
If Bolton is a satellite town to Manchester (and I know a number of proud Boltonians who would vehemently fight this suggestion), we are in outer-orbit. It is time for re-entry. Fields become farmhouses become terraces become council estates. Roads widen and narrow and widen, always pointing down. We bunny hop speed bars, hug apexes, plummet. Our speed is high until it isn’t. We are suddenly ensnarled in central Bolton, negotiating traffic lights and multiple lanes. Fortunately the chaos is shortlived. Narnia isn’t at the back of the wardrobe – it is down a dead end road beside a Nationwide garage in Bolton. We squeeze through barriers, like a crack in the curtain and on to a cycle path. We disappear. This particular Narnia isn’t the stuff of fairy tales. There’s quite a bit of rubbish, for a start. It is, however, smooth and quiet and carries us above the traffic.
Shadows of Salford
The pace at which our environment has changed plays tricks in the mind, it feels like we have travelled further than reality. Our line of sight is now rarely more than tens of metres in front, and we still have a third of the distance to complete. Already the sun is coming close to completing its own arc across the Mancunian heavens. We move with a sense of purpose, before the sky starts falling. Cobbled steps, the realisation that we have seen some of these trails before, from 180º away, a nagging hunger that should be satiated, but we keep pushing to checkpoint three, which is checkpoint one, but with fewer sausage rolls and mince pies and Coke and bourbon. In fact, the cupboards are bare. More supplies are on their way from Tesco, but we delve deep in jersey pockets and keep pedalling.
The last ten miles or so pass neither quickly or slowly. They simply pass. Where Winter Hill was our beacon on the outward leg, so is the Beetham Tower on our return. Manchester’s tallest building grows in our sights as we hug the Irwell, the shadows of Salford stretching towards us as glass and metal catch the sun.
Finally, we run out of trail. Land is too valuable, too crowded, too competed for to allow even a metre wide strip to be forgotten. Lights on bikes, Christmas lights on lampposts, we roll down Deansgate. If our bikes were incongruous in the morning, bikes and riders are positively other-worldly now. Our mud splattered faces make eye-contact with the lost souls of shoppers; we tangle as we try to move through crowds. We are the outsiders in every sense. Our bikes, which have been the perfect tool for the whole day, instantly become an impediment. Fortunately we are home. Bikes are stacked against others, all looking distinctly less shiny than they did several hours ago. Hot stew is shovelled and beer swilled as dusk becomes dark. Tugging on warm layers, we weave through traffic-choked streets, no GPS to show us the way, just a vague memory of where we need to return.
Rapha covered the cost of the entry to the Cross Prestige Manchester and provided team grit.cx with jerseys to wear on the day.
Doves may have inadvertently donated a song title or two to the passages of text. 100 internet points if you can spot them all.