The Mary Towneley Loop, ridden and reviewed.

My biggest mountain bike target for this year has been to ride the 47 mile Mary Towneley Loop. It’s almost all off road so the distance alone is a challenge but the difficulty is vastly compounded by 6,500 feet of ascent and descent in the circuit. I was unable to ride it in April due to the Covid 19 lockdown but the weather was perfect on Sunday so I persuaded my wife, Ali, to take me to my start point at Waterfoot. The preparation for the ride didn’t begin on the drive to the start. It began with a lot of planning beforehand.

Firstly I had to make sure I was fit enough for a much longer ride than I usually do. I’ve ridden 2 to 3 times a week since January and by having the big challenge in mind I haven’t exactly been taking it easy. I’ve been motivated to put the extra effort in whilst riding and I can tell from segment times on the app. Strava that my fitness has improved a little. I’ve done a couple of longer rides to test my stamina and felt ready for the big one on the day.

I chose to ride a classic bike from 2004, a Whyte JW4. This is a lightweight full suspension bike from a time when the focus was oriented towards cross country performance rather than the downhill bias of contemporary bikes. The unique linkage front suspension aims to eliminate bobbing when you pedal so that you don’t waste energy as heat in the shock absorber by constantly compressing the spring medium. The old school 26″ wheels have a smaller contract patch than modern, larger wheels which will hopefully reduce drag to make the bike more efficient. I made sure the bike was fully serviced and as good as it could be. I’d changed the rear brake pads, set the shock absorber and tyre pressures and was ready to go. I took a spare gear cable, inner tube and all the tools I could need for makeshift repairs.

The Whyte JW4 on my last ride before the big one.

The route twists and turns along so many different roads, tracks and paths that finding my way was always going to be a challenge. I have a detailed Ordnance Survey map at a scale of 1:25,000 but found that Google Earth was particularly useful. The entire way is photographed in the 360 degree Street View feature so for some time I’ve been familiarising myself with parts of the trail.

Finally I had to consider nutrition on the ride. I take water on every ride so I filled my water bladder and packed it in a small rucksack, rather than my dedicated MTB backpack to give me extra space for everything I was taking. What’s important to keep energy levels up is carbohydrate so the best kinds of food are those high in starch like bread. Sugars apparently take more digesting to reach the blood stream so are not a quick fix when energy levels run low.

The weather was beautiful on the day with clear blue skies and temperatures which would reach the low 20s Celcius, about as perfect as it could be for a ride which was always going to take over 6 hours. This is real ultra distance athletics and far more engaging than running a marathon or doing 100km on a road bike. The distance wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the savagely steep climbs on rough ground. Ali dropped me at Waterfoot, I started Strava and clicked my stopwatch.

The first climb was steep within a hundred meters and turned to loose stone and rocks on the first climb of over 700 feet. I could have nailed it without a foot down in drier conditions but chose to push to save energy, something I’m always reluctant to do if it can be avoided. I kept getting back on but had 3 times when I chose to walk. I also had to stop for the first 4 gates before reaching Cragg Quarry. Purpose built mountain bike trails have been created here and I’ve ridden them before on a couple of occasions but today took an easy, straight dirt road through the area to join the Rooley Moor road and climb more gently to a high point called Top of Leach.

The Rooley Moor road.
I’d be riding as far as the eye could see, and at times beyond.

The Rooley Moor Road is also known as the Cotton Famine road. In the 1860s the price of cotton fluctuated wildly. Too much raw cotton had been bought speculatively and was stored in warehouses. The problems were exacerbated by the American civil war later in the decade which lead to unemployment and poverty in many Northern mill towns. There was no social security but the Poor Laws meant that some relief could be given to those who were put to useful work. This brought about the construction of the high level road, rising to 1,503 feet. It’s composed of large stone slabs which have been grooved by wheels over more than 150 years. Many parts are cobbled with stone sets of which there are thought to be over a million.

On the bike it was rough and I kept running onto the smoother margins of the road. It’s a long, fast downhill for over 2 miles and is a reward for the long climb. Having reached the highest point on the circuit you may be persuaded that it wasn’t going to get much harder but what was to come was massively more physical.

From the sheep shorn moors the terrain looks gentle enough but the valleys are steep sided and the trail crosses so many. I’d made my first route finding mistake after the Rooley Moor Road but looked at the map and corrected myself. There was some rougher, rock strewn track and I approached a right hand kink turning left to correct my line. On a wet, sandstone slab the front wheel slid and threw me to the ground without injury. It’s good to experience the full panoply of the sport by occasionally hitting the deck.

I passed the Lobden golf club and headed for the Watergrove reservoir, the first of many in these valleys. At a junction in the trail I met another rider and asked him if he’d just ridden down the way I needed to go. He said that I could get that way but as I climbed the rough, rocky trail I noticed an ever deepening valley to my right. It was obviously the wrong way so I rode back down and turned through a gate. It had a tiny sign which I’d missed before by not getting close enough to it. I was starting to feel that my legs had already done some work at this point after having covered over 12 miles. More than a quarter of the distance done but I had been riding for 2 hours over one of the 3 really big climbs.

The next target was the very steep sided valley where I’d cross a main road at Bottoms but first was a long, winding, undulating moorland trail with some fast downhills. The riding was rarely technical. Anyone could ride the trail as long as they had the stamina. I’d noticed my gear change feeling a bit imprecise and as I reached a small tarmac lane I found the cable had snapped. I replaced it with my spare but was left with about 2 feet of excess. 2 old guys were chatting over a garden gate so I asked if they had anything I could cut the end off with. I borrowed a tool and was back on my way.

After a steep, long climb I dropped down a serious, difficult descent to the road crossing. At the other side the gradient, on a stone slabbed track, once again became too steep for me to contemplate riding. I pushed for a couple of sections but remounted before the top. 2 riders were coming towards me and one held the gate open. I said “You’re not letting me rest, then?” He replied “No mate, keep it lit!”

Beautiful countryside and industrial ruins belie the difficulty of the riding.
Pleasure or pain? I’m not sure.

After more moorland climbing I reached a high point and decided to feed myself, though I wasn’t hungry, as such. I was just hoping for some more energy. I made my worst route finding mistake close to the town of Hebden Bridge, after a nice, fast downhill. I lost the trail completely and probably wasted half an hour finding it again. The poor signage didn’t help and when I was back on track it was all climbing from the lowest point on the circuit. Some of the gradients were too tough and I had to walk again. I stopped for a second and final feed since I was getting very fatigued. I’d also drank all my water but planned to refill from the next reservoir. The constant rising and falling of the ground was wearing and my problems were compounded when I finally reached Gorple reservoir. The water was way down below the trail and the ground was too steep to clamber down. I knew that there were several more reservoirs to come so didn’t panic but I was starting to feel thirsty.

It really is a gorgeous part of the world.

After the Gorple reservoir the Widdop was similarly inaccessible and was followed by another long, rough, savage climb. I walked part of it and was overtaken by 2 much younger riders, one of whom seemed to get the whole way. At the top a confusingly angled sign had me checking the map in a strong wind. It was no easy task and a motorcyclist pointed me in the right direction. It was a long, very fast downhill and took me to the Hurstwood reservoir where I hopped over a fence and finally got some water. I struggled to get much into the bladder and it was too little, too late. I’d drunk some but on the gentle climb away from the water my legs started to seriously cramp. I drank the rest and found relief. My problem wasn’t the exertion but dehydration. I always seem to be prone to leg cramp and at least I knew the likely cure. I climbed and dropped again to Cant Clough reservoir and started across the dam. My rear tyre exploded with a loud pop. I quickly removed it and fitted my spare inner tube. A walker, who’d heard my drama stopped and held the bike steady as I furiously pumped air into the tyre. Then I noticed what the problem was. The tyre sidewall had split around the wheel rim and the tube was visible. This was terminal and I wouldn’t finish the ride.

I still had 3 miles to complete before a tarmac road where Ali could pick me up so I reached for my phone. At that exact moment Ali called to see how I was doing so I explained the sorry tale. I let some of the air out of the tube to give me the best chance of riding the 3 miles to Holme Chapel and after an undulating trail, where I drank water from a stream, I did my final long downhill.

I had only one climb of around 500 feet to complete the circuit and 7 miles of trail. It’s a pity that I couldn’t make it all the way but at least I now know what the circuit is like.

The end of the road.

I feel a little deflated that I was close but didn’t finish. I don’t know at this point if I’d want to try again but it certainly won’t be this year. What I’ve learnt about the Mary Towneley Loop is that it isn’t to be underestimated. It’s seriously hard and took me seven and a half hours with over an hour still to go. Of course I’d spend far less time making errors in the route on a second try and wouldn’t need to keep looking at the map so I’d be a little quicker any way. I completed over 40 miles with 7 left to go. My phone used all it’s charge so Strava had stopped shortly before I did. Water supply is something I’d need to improve because it was causing my legs problems with cramp when I was tired but not exhausted. My choice of bike was correct. I’d used all the suspension travel both front and rear but the JW4 never felt out of it’s depth and climbs better than any other bike I’ve ridden. The trail was more technical in a few places than I’d expected and whilst not being a route which needs high level trail skills, it had some entertaining downhill sections. I’d recommend giving it a try if you want a really big day out.

3 thoughts on “The Mary Towneley Loop, ridden and reviewed.

  1. A couple of things… First, you’re cramping, not because of a lack of water, but because of a lack of electrolytes. Sports drinks, bananas, or additives to water work, but the more water you drink, the more you dilute what electrolytes you have left – that’s when you cramp up. Second, get a Garmin Edge 520 Plus. You can plan your route in Strava and load it directly into your Garmin (bluetooth or cable, whichever you prefer). That’ll give you turn by turn directions and the unit will last eight hours or more on one charge. Finally, keep it up, man. You’re doing great.

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