Slow Start – An Off-Road Interlude

Total Distance:                                    37 km / 23 miles with 452 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                            2 hours 3 minutes

Average Speed:                                   17.9 km/h

Temperature:                                      1°C


Ride Profile

I awoke in the pre-dawn dark of early Saturday morning, to find a prolonged hailstorm angrily lashing at the house and plunging the garden into cryogenic deep freeze – ice bound, white and frozen.


I fed the cats and went back to bed.

It’s a shame really, as once the storm passed the day was bright and breezy, if bitterly cold. Had I managed to make it down off the hill safely, I suspect I would have found decent riding conditions once the sun rose and took the edge off.

As it was, while I loafed and malingered in bed, our club run consisted of 8 hardy souls who reported that, despite an occasional snow flurry, they had no issues with the roads, managing to avoid all the reported black ice that everyone else seems so remarkably and consistently adept at finding.

I fully intended to ride on the Sunday instead, but it was if anything even colder and the roads outside the house looked decidedly sketchy. Starting to chafe a little, I decided on extreme measures, waited till the sun transformed the temperature from painfully bone-chilling, to merely numbing, and decided to take to the trails.

With the bike shed over-crowded, my thoroughly beat-up, old and creaking winter-commuter, a Genesis Core, hardtail MTB, is currently languishing in my parent’s garage, waiting to be condemned, or for me to spend a small fortune restoring it to a rideable condition.

My only option then was Mrs. SLJ’s venerable, vintage Specialized Rockhopper, that’s maybe 25 years old and from a time before suspension forks, disk brakes, dropper seatposts, bigger wheels, or other such technical niceties. Hell, it came from a time when aluminium was considered nouvelle and effete, and carbon-fibre was only used by NASA or the US military – it has a solid, workmanlike, Cro-Mo steel frame.

Despite its age, it’s in decent condition, although slightly too small for me, so the (unusually sized) seatpost is extended up way beyond the manufacturers safety limit. I suspect (hope) the seatpost is 30.4mm, so I have a longer one on order. In the meantime, I wasn’t planning on doing anything too brutal or technical on the bike, so felt I would get away with it

I swapped the flat resin pedals out for some Wellgo ones with an SPD clip on one side and was good to go.

Dropping down the Heinous Hill, the fat tyres slapped the tarmac with a buzz like a swarm of angry wasps, reminding me there’s nothing serene about mountain bikes.

I reached the bottom, took a sharp left and found myself on the Derwent Walk, the track-bed of the old Derwent Valley Railway that would take me over 10 miles, up to Blackhill. Part of National Cycle Route 14, this is a much frequented woodland thoroughfare for dog walkers, ramblers, amblers, runners, cyclists and horse riders. The route is off-road for 99% of its length and resolutely and pleasantly car free.

It also rises steadily all the way to the end, making the return considerably easier and faster than the trip out, and giving my Strava activity the kind of profile I haven’t seen since we went up and then came straight back down Alpe d’Huez last June.  I sadly have to admit that this slight and tenuous similarity was the only way that one ride compared to the other.

Oh, well …

It’s an interesting perspective, being the fastest thing on the trail and having a duty of care to give way to pedestrians and runners. I found myself being unfailingly polite to my fellow users, thanking them for briefly corralling their mutts, or giving me room to pass, slowing to a careful crawl when confronted with erratic, over-excited dogs and even more erratic, over-excited small children.

Most were polite in return, although I sensed some disapproval when I startled one or two unwitting walkers as I swept wide around them, especially those who seemed completely unaware of their surroundings, or much too engrossed in their phone screens or ear-buds.

The ride was a great way to get a good cross-section of British dog names too, and I learned that for every Eva, Rosie, Rusty, Kyla and Poppy there was a Kingsley, a Dogmatix, a Reginald and a Benton. Sadly though, nothing to rival Doug the Pug.

There were a couple of points when ice forced a dismount, especially when the trail dipped or climbed to cross a road. At the worst of these, a dog slipping, sliding and just barely keeping its footing as it scrabbled down an ice-slick lane, gave me good warning.  I reasoned that if a four legged critter was struggling, it was going to be dangerously risky, either bipedal, or by pedal.

I clambered off to inch my way down the grassy verge to where the ice seemed less thick, before crabbing carefully across, using the bike as an impromptu Zimmer frame, and then clambering back up the frozen grass on the other side.

The elevation gain was only 100 metres or so, but the further I pressed on, the higher the route climbed and the colder it seemed to get. By the end of the trail at Blackhill my feet had started to feel a little numb and the chocolate-coated cereal bar I refuelled on was hard, grainy and strangely tasteless. My water bottle seemed much less pliable, difficult to squeeze and the contents were so shockingly cold, I have to admit that I unscrewed the cap and checked to see if ice had formed inside.

The ride back, gradually downhill all the way, was good for tired legs, but not so good for any exposed areas of skin which were soon chilled by the rushing air. Some of the dips and rises I’d walked previously seemed to have thawed slightly since I’d passed, so I rode them now, only having to climb off on a couple of occasions. Progress was good and soon I was approaching the end of the trail.

A sharp right, straight up through the woods and I faced one final test to get home: the Clockburn Lonnen climb, around a kilometre at 9% with some of the steeper ramps hitting 18% or more.

According to local history sources, Clockburn Lonnen once formed part of the main highway from the north to Durham and was the route taken by Cromwell’s 16,000 strong army and camp-followers on their march to invade Scotland in 1650. It’s now difficult to imagine the steep, narrow, overgrown and twisting confines of this trail as any kind of major thoroughfare.

The route has been modified since I last rode it a couple of years ago and the stile at the bottom has been removed so thankfully you no longer have to wrestle your bike over the fence and onto the track.

As welcome as this change was, an even greater improvement has been made by removing the steps on the steepest ramp that had been formed using two half buried railway sleepers. It’s still a brutally hard climb, but at least now you don’t have to try and bunny-hop up the terraced steps, or, for those like me who lack a certain finesse, try to carry enough speed to bulldoze your way over the always slippery, railway sleepers.

As the slope eased the surface gave way from hard-packed gravel to icy, churned up mud and narrowed to a single-track, hemmed in by the woods on either side. I tried to keep the pace high and ignore the slipping rear wheel, knowing if I was forced to stop it would be difficult to get going again.

At this point and for the first time ever on this trail, I met another cyclist rattling down toward me. I spotted a route around the far side of a sapling and quickly threaded my way around it, allowing him to slither past on the main trail as we exchanged brief greetings.

Mud finally gave way to a farm lane, a gravelly, rutted, pot-holed and lumpen surface that the bike rattled and banged over, as the climb stiffened around a couple of bends before straightening and finally easing.

Before the top I ducked down a narrow bridleway, traversing across the brow of the fell and trying to thread a path between ice covered puddles, deep frozen ruts and stretches of churned-up mud.

I slipped, slid and wallowed hopelessly sideways around the corners, but kept things upright and more or less always pointed forward on what proved to be the muckiest, most technical and most demanding part of my ride. A quick hop across the pavement and then I was back on smooth roads, climbing to the crest of the Heinous Hill as I made my way home.

As much as I missed the club run, I thoroughly enjoyed my impromptu, off-road adventure which was as good a workout as I could expect in just a couple of hours and might just become a regular alternative ride – just for fun.

YTD Totals: 55 km / 34 miles with 921 metres of climbing


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