Sunday, 11 May 2014


Just about catching up with the backlog. As mentioned in the last post an aim for the bank holiday weekend was the Bowderdale circuit in the Howgills . It is reckoned to be one of, if not, the best pieces of singletrack in England (note that is is England, not the UK as Scotland has several contenders for this crown).

We'd thought of doing this on the Sunday but spent that day trying out demo bikes with the new (to mountain biking) wheel sizes as I'd never ridden any of them. Suffice to say that a 29er hardtail is looking increasingly attractive - I didn't see much difference between 650b and 26inch to justify the different wheel size. As it turned out we got the better weather by delaying things till the Monday.

No matter how you look at it, you have to get to the summit of the highest point in the Howgills, The Calf at 676 metres. The Howgills are fairly unusual in that there are a number of bridleways leading across them and to summits. The first of these is Winder and the route up this is a beast. It begins with a stony track leading directly uphill to the open fell, I managed about two-thirds of this before running out of steam. From the fell gate (the last one for some twelve kilometres) onwards the way was grassy but steep. It was fairly dry after the recent dry spell but a steep section near the top saw a bit of wheelspin so it was a push for that bit and for another short steep section just before the summit.

Near the top of the long climb to the summit of Winder

It was a then a grassy blast down to the col between Winder and Arant Haw before another long climb, fortunately this was at an easier angle so was all rideable. The track then turned rocky and dropped down to the col before Calders, the climb up this was definitely push mode being both loose and steep. From the top of Calders to the summit of The Calf is a good stony track and apart from a short battle with some severe side wind was OK.

On the rocky track between Arant Haw and Calders.

There were a couple of mountain bikers on the summit but with the wind it was no place to hang around so we headed off across the plateau. As the gradient began to increase, I stopped to drop my seat - if this was to be technical then I wanted to have more control and movement options. Cath had no such worries having a dropper seat-post.

The track cuts across a steep hillside and in places you really don't want to fall off as you'd slide a long way. The upper section is perhaps the most sustained in terms of difficulty, there are short technical sections lower down, but with a good choice of line and avoiding the deepest channels it's all rideable, even for an old wimp like me. Cath had her shin whacked by one of her pedals so since we were out of the wind we had a quick stop for something to eat and to let the ouch factor subside. Then it was onwards and downwards.

On the initial drop in to the head of Bowderdale.

The next couple of kilometres of track could be seen ahead, hugging the fellside, often just above the beck in the valley bottom. Mostly it was steady riding whilst trying to avoid pedal strike which might send you tubling down the bank, occasionally there would be a rockier section to slow things down. The only really technical parts were where small becks crossed the track and there'd be a small re-entrant to swing in and out of, since these came at you pretty quickly they'd need the odd dab or two or maybe a dismount if you hadn't carried any momentum.

As the valley swung round there was yet more of the same streching out ahead. There were some damp sections but nothing too awkward and occasionally the track had completely washed out for a metre or two so a quick carry was needed. Finally the valley opened out and the track began to climb slightly getting easier as it did so. A short grassy downhill section and we reached the fell gate after seven kilometres of pretty intense riding.

In the middle section of Bowderdale

The next section through Weasdale and Ravenstonedale is a bit of an anti-climax being either fields or tarmac but there's no real alternative then it was a matter of finding the road leading back to Adamthwaite. Unfortunately the wind was now fully in our faces and it was hard work gaining the road's high point.

There's actually three bridleways leading from here towards Cautley but the recommended one heads towards Murthwaite then Narthwaite (all three rejoin at this farm) via some technical work through the woods at the bottom of the hill. The track to Cautley was easier and eventually lead towards the fall before cutting across the river via a narrow bridge which is just rideable if you have narrow bars.

Heading towards Cautley Spout

The bridleway from here to Fawcett Bank is a milder version of the track down Bowderdale, but with a lot of gates. We were both a little tired by now and eventually it showed with Cath taking a tumble from a section that earlier in the day she'd have had no problem with. A few bruises and damaged ego was the result.

Eventually the track gave way to tarmac and the Sedbergh town sign appeared. Bikes stowed in the car, it was time for some cake!

The best singletrack in England? I don't know about that not having done them all but it is certainly very very good, maybe some of the Lakes circuits are better. You need to be fit though as there's seven kilometres of it, and that's without considering the climb to get there. Definitely worth doing. By conincidence, Mountain Bike Rider magazine has a piece this month on long sections of singletrack and this ride is the top one.

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