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Pennine Challenge

The scene is nothing short of sleepy in the deserted visitor centre car park at Middleton Top. It’s approaching eight on a late summer morning and a light mist still hangs in the air. The hills of the surrounding Derbyshire Dales are only just waking from their slumber but Nick Craig is already raring to go.

“Right, let’s do this” the off-roader asserts as he pulls his gaze away from a map-board depicting the route of the Pennine Bridleway. The sign recommends cyclists should consider taking three to five days to ride the trail, but Nick’s time frame is considerably less generous. I’ve just bet him dinner that he can’t get to the most northerly point on the main section of this bridleway before sundown.

As a sucker for any kind of challenge, Nick’s risen to the bait. If successful, we reckon he’ll have set the fastest time for riding the trail.

Following one final stretch of his limbs, Nick resets his GPS and, dead on the hour, rolls off along the opening miles of this newest of National Trails. The first section ticks over quickly with the former national cyclo-cross and mountain bike champion averaging around 19mph on the flat and relatively well-surfaced path. This used to be the High Peak railway along which goods were transported across the Pennines. With the industrial era now behind us, it’s a pleasant recreational route that serves families and leisure riders with easy, enjoyable, traffic-free biking. As far as mountain range trails go, though, it’s about as tame as you can get.

“I’m not going to get lulled into a false sense of security here,” says Nick 15-miles in. “I’ve ridden other parts of the Pennine Bridleway and I know what’s to come.”

Ten minutes later, he’s off the old railway line and heading down a stony little track.

The Pennine what way?

Logistical considerations –not to mention a mismatch of talent— makes it difficult for me to join Nick for the entire length of the trail. So while he delves deeper into the Pennines, I jump into my car and (very carefully) shoot through Buxton towards Nick’s home village of Hayfield. The plan is to meet him back on the trail, so I ride out of the village towards him. However, either the signposting or my eyesight is poor and it doesn’t take long for me to go off track on the myriad of other trails, farm routes and paths that litter this corner of the High Peak.

I ask some walkers which way the Pennine Bridleway is but none of them have heard of it. One of them tells me that “the Pennine Way is just up there,” but that’s not the same thing.

I find another rambler who has a large scale OS map – not to mention carbon-fibre walking poles and a rather natty headband.

I take a look but there’s no trace of the Pennine Bridleway on the map either. “It’s only five years old,” he says in defence of his cartographic document. Despite incorporating some ancient routes, the Pennine Bridleway is even younger. In fact, much of the trail still remains unopened.  When finished it will stretch for 347 miles right up to Byrness in Northumberland. Currently, though, it stops near Burnley.

Eventually a little blue way-mark confirms that I’ve chanced back on track and I reconvene with Nick as he grinds out of the depths of Roych Clough. Continuing up towards the highest point of the route (465m) beneath the peak of South Head, Nick explains that the going has got much slower and he’s already suffered two punctures.

“One minute you were on a disused railway and the next minute you’re zig-zagging down descents with your bum hanging off the back seat,” he says. “Once you get to Rushup Edge you’re into proper mountainous Derbyshire and the trails get a lot more demanding.”

The surface we’re on now is rock strewn but he expertly picks his line and deftly hops his triple chain ringed Scott cyclo-cross bike over boulders. Despite our talk of doing this at speed, this is very much an effort rooted in the real world. Although he will pop home for lunch, he’s carrying his own food, drink and spares. Repeatedly he’s had to stop to shut and open gates. Earlier in the morning, he also paused to take an important phone call.

On the descent from South Head, Nick’s halts just short of a sharp corner flanked by a dry stone wall. “I helped redesign this section of the bridleway,” he explains. “A couple of mountain bikers have had nasty crashes here and the National Park people approached me about a solution. What we have done is made the path more technical so riders slow down before the corner. Previously they were just bombing straight down the hill and braking too late.”

Summit to aim for

Cruising through Hayfield, we chance across Nick’s wife Sarah and their two boys, Thomas and Charlie, returning home from a bike ride. We accompany them back to house which is literally a stones throw off the bridleway and Sarah prepares tea and savoury bagels while Nick changes tyres in his garage. Having suffered his third puncture on the descent into the village there’s only one thing for it: swapping his lighter racing rubber for heavy duty Schwalbe Land Cruisers.

With the punctures and the lunch stop time’s been ticking away and it has gone 1pm when Nick sets off on his way again. Because much of the route is unknown to either of us, his initial target destination is the settlement ominously named Summit where the 73 mile linear leg of the trail merges into the bottom end of the circular 47-mile Mary Towneley loop. Mind, body and conditions allowing, he’ll then take aim for Widdop, 92 miles from the start.

Over the top of the climb of Lantern Pike, the view opens up to reveal Greater Manchester spread out like a picnic rug below. “It’s a shame,” Nick states, “half the people down there don’t know seem to know these hills are here. Look at them, they’re right on the city’s doorstep and they’re spectacular.”

Onwards and repeatedly upwards, the trail undulates through League of Gentleman country and then the hills above the Manchester satellite towns of Stalybridge, Mossley and Uppermill. At Diggle, Nick briefly goes off course and ends up by the canal in the bottom of the valley. Although this means a climb to get back on route, he appreciates the extended road interlude. “There’s been lots of climbing but my legs are fine,” he notes, “It’s my arms and hands that ache from all the jarring on the rocky trails”

Soon he’s back on the dirt again and the trail clambers up to near Bleak Hey Nook, a fitting place name if ever there was one. The sky’s briefly clouded over, an abandoned farmhouse sits on the hillside and the treeless, heather carpeted moors stretch for miles in front of us. Nick presses on around the reservoirs that litter the next section before dropping under the high viaduct of the M62 trans-Pennine motorway. Down at the side of Hollingworth Lake, the trail briefly touches base with civilisation while pleasure boaters mess around in the sun on its waters.

Going loopy

By the time we meet again high above the ribbon development along Calderdale, we are on the Mary Towneley loop - named after an aristocratic horsy type who campaigned for the establishment of the Pennine Bridleway. Sections of this are ancient packhorse trails, which are steep and surfaced with a chain of foot-square slabs of rock. Although they offer a hard surface over often-boggy ground, they’re like monster cobbles. The bumps and gaps in them kill your rhythm and -without the luxury of mountain bike suspension- make going downhill less preferable than climbing.

“I’ve been descending at 4mph in places,” complains Nick.

Although he won’t admit as much, I sense Nick’s tired and considering jacking in it. He’s done 80-odd miles and while that might not so out of the ordinary for regular road riders, it’s a distance not to be sniffed at when nearly all off-road, continually up and down the strength sapping rocky tracks of the ‘backbone of England’. Now on this top circuit of the trail, the procrastinating trajectory doesn’t help his motivation.

“They could have just brought the bridleway down the canal path in the valley, but instead they took us up there,” complains Nick as he traces out a zig-zag line cut in the hillside across the valley behind him. “If it’s like this all the way to Widdop, I won’t get there ‘til midnight.”

Still, Nick soldiers on and after obstructions from a cow, wayward sheep and a collapsed dry stone wall on the trail, the bridleway opens up on to a fast road descent. A smooth, grit-surfaced path then leads him beneath a ridge topped with the Crimean War memorial of Stoodley Pike. Given enough time, it is well worth clambering up to the monument for its spectacular panoramas. But Nick has to push on. The evening sun that has bathed the area in gorgeous light is inching ever closer towards the horizon.

A mile or two later, the bridleway drops down into the foot of the valley on a section of dirt track that hairpins back and forth like a dusty Alp d’Huez. Here it is repeatedly crossed by the walker’s Pennine Way which cuts out the switchbacks by plummeting straight down the fall line. Across the canal at the bottom to where my car is parked, Nick briefly ponders his options. He’s tired, time’s pushing on, he’s got a busy week ahead of him and it’s essentially uphill all the way to Widdop.

“Well, I can’t stop now can I?” he concludes as he rolls away for the very final leg of the journey.

Last legs

Once parked up outside the Packhouse Inn high on the moors, I again ride back towards Nick along the bridleway. Since the light has begun to fade, it’s feels decidedly creepy on this barren, windswept plateau. I push on through a heavy iron gate that groans eerily and looks more suited to a cemetery.

Over a small rise I scan the horizon for signs of a cyclist and although I see the odd mountain biker descending off the wilderness back down towards Todmorden, I can make out no sign of Nick coming towards me.

Nearly an hour has past since I last saw him, my mobile phone has no reception and I wonder what would happen if dark should fall before we meet. Neither of us has had the foresight to fix lights to our bikes and Nick has no idea of where I’ve parked. What if he’s crashed, got lost or flaked out by the wayside? How would I find him? Hepstonstall Moor does not look like the sort of place you want to be stranded in the dark. The opening scenes of a naff Werewolf film come to mind. Has this challenge pushed him too far?

Thankfully this niggling guilt evaporates as he suddenly emerges in a small cloud of dust, with a big grin opening across his face. Of course he hasn’t flaked out; he’s Nick Craig the evergreen endurance specialist whose legs can last longer than the battery in his GPS unit. It’s been a lengthy climb, he explains, he went off track, he’s tired but everything is fine. Now, there is only three miles to go to Widdop and the only question is whether he can finish the ride inside 12 hours. At the mere mention of this approaching threshold, Nick presses on the pedals.

It’s not the first time Nick’s been up here on a long place-to-place journey. A few years back he led the national mountain bike squad this way on a four-day long winter training ride from Hayfield to Berwick upon Tweed. “I love going on little adventures like this,” he enthuses as we slow up at the creaky gate. “You go through your bad patches but the satisfaction at the end of it is huge.”

Although Nick is teased into premature celebration as we ride across the dam wall at Gorple Reservoir, he reaches the true finish of the ride just a handful of minutes later when we arrive at the eastern corner of another reservoir at Widdop. From here, the Mary Townley loop turns west and ever-so-slightly south towards Burnley. Aside from an unconnected 10-mile loop at Settle, which will eventually be incorporated into the trail, this is as far north as you can currently ride on the Pennine Bridleway.

The time is just before eight when I stop the clock.

All breaks, punctures, photo-ops and diversions included, he’s been out on the trail for 11 hours 58 minutes and seven seconds.  What’s more, there’s still daylight in the sky. His dinner is deserved.

Pennines/Suffolk, September 2007


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