The training ride before the big one.

I’d planned a ride before my big challenge for the year which is to ride the Mary Towneley Loop. It’s 47 miles with 6,500 feet of climbing, almost exclusively off road. So today I did that longer training ride even though I may not be able to do the Mary Towneley in April due to Covid 19. The idea was to ride to the top of Darwen Hill then work my way across the remote moorland to the south before climbing to the top of Winter Hill, at 1,498 feet, using a 700 feet off road ascent. I’d then ride down the other side and home. I didn’t know the distance or total amount of climbing but the app. Strava would tell me afterwards. I chose to ride my 2004 vintage Whyte JW4 which I intend to use for my big ride.

It’s been dry and sunny for days, which is common in late March and April, and predictions are that we won’t see any rain until a week on Saturday, 9 days hence. The ground is drying up well, after a record breaking wet winter which seemed to go on for ever. After a short distance on the road I took an off road cut through which avoids an uninteresting road hill. Then around a mile on the road again, taking me to an off road section to Brincall village. I passed an area which has a connection to the military. You never see anyone there but there are bunkers with big gates set into small hills, guarded by security cameras. The only idea I’ve ever heard for their purpose is that they house steam trains, which can run without diesel or electricity, in case of a nuclear war! Beneath them is an underground rail track, apparently. It sounds a bit fanciful, to me.

After the road through Brinscall it’s essentially off road for over 10 miles. A fast dirt road is followed by the big climb up Darwen hill. The gradient varies and is, after repair to quite a lot of trail a few years ago, never technically difficult to ride. The last section before the Jubilee Tower is rocky and needs some effort and concentration. The tower was built to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 and from the top gives one of the best panoramas in northern England, though today was very hazy. We never seem to build such impressive monuments to anything nowadays.

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The tower of 1887 in the distance.

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The rather more recent way marker has an effigy of the tower carved into stone.

My plan from the top of Darwen Hill was to do something I’d looked at on Google Earth. For the past few days the site has denied me access. It could just be due to unprecedented internet use as we all isolate ourselves at home. I did look on a good old fashioned map this morning and wish I’d taken it with me. I rode an interesting and very challenging piece of trail from near the tower. I’ve definitely never ridden it before and it was lumpy and rutted, meaning I had to chose the best line and got stuck a few times. There’s a large, fairly modern house right up on the moor which I spotted but I made the foolhardy decision not to approach it because I couldn’t see the trail I expected, leading away to the south. I took what looked like a reasonable option but the twin tyre track became less and less distinct and I was digging mini trenches in the surface with my tyres, which was energy sapping. I was in the middle of nowhere but carried on regardless, sometimes across a completely trackless wilderness. I eventually came to a gravel road which I recognised from Google Earth and followed it down to the tarmac, keeping the speed sensible on some fast, loose corners. In fact I was cautious all the way on such a lonely mission, especially as I don’t carry a phone with me, at least not one that can make calls. I use a cheap and cheerful phone for Strava but if I put any credit on it the app. uses it all up on data.

2.7 miles on the road took me to the next big climb. A conveyor belt used to run right up Winter Hill, transporting coal from the top. The straight line of the conveyor is still evident but the surface has become rocky, rutted and bumpy over the years. It makes a popular mountain bike downhill which is named San Marino after the Italian restaurant near the bottom. As a climb it’s tough in 2 ways. Firstly it’s steep and climbs around 700 feet. Then there’s the difficult surface. You have to pick the right line, sometimes riding a narrow raised strip of soil. Sometimes having to pick up speed, when you least need to be putting extra work in, to climb steeper slopes. I’ll admit I had a foot down once, early on, but was quite pleased that I climbed the whole way non stop. At the top is a TV and radio transmitter station which I don’t suppose you really should to go to. There were 2 police officers at the summit at 1,498 feet so I chose to shout a cheery “hello”, as if I belonged there! They responded in kind.

The next part is a good one. It involves a steep, rough downhill called the Gully of Doom! On the dry vegetation I was able to go to the right of the gully itself but it’s very steep over tussocks of grass. I pushed myself back behind the seat, which was right in my belly. The brakes were tested severely, as was my nerve. I made it still in contact with the bike! At the bottom is Belmont Road which is rough and rocky, though fairly level. I chose to descend by a patch of mainly pine wood which is known in mountain bike circles as Special K. It’s a very steep downhill which I’ve never really enjoyed. You’re on the brakes the whole way down and it just doesn’t flow. Beneath is a good trail which takes you to a car park. I could have stuck to the road but at the side is a footpath with a gravel surface, twists and turns and a few other interesting features. It may have been the best bit of flowing trail of the day and was my last off road since I rode the last few miles on tarmac.

I knew I’d done a bigger ride when I got home but was by no means exhausted. I was a little disappointed that I covered only 25.5 miles but since I spent 20 minutes covering only 1 mile of trackless wilderness, I could easily have fitted a few more miles into the same time of 3 hours 20 minutes. I climbed 2,957 feet of ascent at an average speed of 7.8 mph. On the Mary Towneley this speed would give me a time of 6 hours so my target of 6 hours looks achievable, especially as the surfaces will generally be easier. I just need to wait for the right opportunity but in the mean time I’ll try to beat my other target to ride Great Hill faster than last year. I’ll have a go before the next rain. I continued the exercise in the afternoon by walking my dog, Freddie, for well over an hour.

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