I’ve heard of riders “Everesting” on a bike. That is to climb the height of Mount Everest at 29,028 feet, in a single road ride. I’m not at a stage in my life where I could contemplate such a feat and I wouldn’t want to do a long road ride in any case. I decided instead to set myself a target for the year of climbing the height of Britain’s highest mountain in an off road ride. By international standards Ben Nevis is a pimple at a mere 4,406 feet but you do tend to start your climb from sea level. My plan was to ride around our local hills and accumulate this amount of ascent with as little use of the roads as possible.
The Weather Gods were not on my side this week. After a dry period up to my last ride 3 days ago we’ve had some heavy rain, which would make progress on dirt and gravel surfaces far harder. I wanted to use my pedal powered boat on Monday or Tuesday then do the ride on Thursday but after 2 rainy days and a forecast of dry conditions to follow I decided that Wednesday was a better option. My wife is on holiday from the school where she teaches so I didn’t need to worry about leaving our dog, Freddie, alone for many hours. My problem was that I was rather under prepared for a much longer ride than usual. I hadn’t thought about diet and didn’t have the right kind of food to take with me. I didn’t carbo load the night before, unless you consider chilli con carne and chips (fries) to be suitable. Add the damp ground and it was an even harder challenge than it could have been.
Off road miles are tough and I expected to clock around 40. They are, in my estimation, twice as hard as road miles on a mountain bike and considerably more than twice as hard as road riding on a road bike. This would not be a picnic in the park but I had a strategy. I know from reading that we all have slow twitch and fast twitch muscles. Fast twitch are used for power and sprinting but tire quickly and won’t recover without long rest, preferably overnight. Slow twitch muscle are for endurance and can be fed as we ride. Food is combined with the oxygen we breathe to replenish our slow twitch muscles so what I needed to do was use a light turning force or torque whilst spinning the pedals quickly to encourage breathing. This would be ideal on a ride without hills but on our generally steep local terrain there were bound to be many times when I had no option but to grind the pedals round in my lowest gear. By carefully managing my muscle use I hoped to reach the end before my legs reached their end.
I rode for about 20 minutes and 2.3 miles before I faced my first hard climb up Brinscall Woods and onwards to the top of Great Hill, which stands at 1,250 feet. By keeping the bike in a low gear, often the lowest gear of all, I climbed without feeling much stress in the legs. I wasn’t much slower than normal, which shows that a lot more effort saves very little time.
The back of the hill was wet and since I very rarely ride this way I was being cautious. I made a classic mistake of choosing a fork in the trail because it looked better rather than using the route I’d used previously.
It was a boggy mess which made progress hard but I got back to the more familiar and climbed towards Darwen Hill. There’s a steep gravel track and I wondered if it might be wise to walk this section. My difficulty is that over the past 20 or so years which I’ve ridden the segment I have never once failed to complete it so I kept the speed down to a minimum and got to the top. The undulating moorland has good gravel and rock tracks to the Jubilee Tower, which was built in 1887 to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria.
I now had a long section of 7 miles, beginning on the high moor but descending over many undulations toward the back of Winter Hill. This wasn’t nearly so stressful for the legs as the climbing and took 50 minutes. Next came a climb of around 800 feet up a trail which was formerly a conveyor in the days when the area was mined for coal. The gradient would once have been very consistent and to some extent, still is. Erosion has left a great many rocks and humps which add difficulty. First, though, I had a decision to make. Should I rest before the climb? I knew there was a gate a short way up so rode the first part without hesitating. Once through the gate and feeling happy on the gradient I continued without resting. This was one part where I’d thought that walking to avoid exhaustion might be prudent but I was feeling fresh enough so rode the whole way. I approached tricky obstacles and every time spotted an achievable line and was delighted to crest the summit after 26 minutes of continuous climbing. Here I ate my sandwiches, which were the only food available in our ill prepared house.
I had several options to get down to Rivington Village and put safety ahead of bravado. Somehow, on a segment I don’t recall riding previously, I set the fourth fastest time by any rider, according to Strava! From the village I had my last big climb to accomplish and for the first time could feel a slight burning at the front of my thighs. I tried to make sure I was keeping the torque low and cadence high to avoid working the fast twitch muscles any more than necessary. The gradient started gradually enough towards Lead Mines Valley but here, climbing out of the valley to the right, is a very steep climb. I again would have expected to walk but by keeping the speed to a minimum I made it to the top. Next came a gravel road climb which was not too hard but turned onto the last really big and tough climb. The grass and rock surface has some very steep parts and here, for the first time, I chose to walk rather than trying to keep going. Back on the bike later, I slipped on a rock and fell to the ground, so again walked for a short distance. I didn’t attempt the last savage gradient onto Redmond’s Edge either but these were the only places where I pushed the bike rather than riding on the entire ride.
Redmond’s edge undulates over 3 hills, the final one being Great Hill and I was elated at this point since I only had the short climb over Healey Nab left. The route down the front of the hill looked very wet and difficult so I used a longer descent on some exciting downhills. I rode towards Healey Nab on very familiar ground and climbed the back of the hill on weary legs. After the downhill I only had a short road climb before arriving at home. Downloading my ride from Strava I found that I’d fallen short on climbing, having ascended only 4,227 feet so I set off on a short loop to add a further 356 feet, so my total was 4,583 feet in 40.17 miles. The road based loop was not too difficult but I’m not sure I’d have liked any more hard, steep, off road climbing. It was a memorable ride and I fully achieved my target in 6 hours. If I ride “Ben Nevis” again I’ll start the ride by climbing Healey Nab before I climb Great Hill to add the extra climbing needed.