The Rossendale Mountain Bike Challenge - Sunday 14th September 2003 [Mainly offroad]

I asked buddy Bill if he was going to take up 'The Challenge' again this year. He told me that he would have liked to, but unfortunately he was attending a Christening that day so he couldn't join in. That left me with a little bit of a problem - The Challenge is difficult enough in itself, but I would also have to do the 12 mile trips to and from the start on my bike, including a 1,000 ft hill at the halfway point. I decided that I probably wouldn't do the event this year either, but then I checked the weather forecast - it was going to be a fine sunny day, with clear blue skies and hardly any wind. It might be my last chance for a really nice day out on my bike this year so I decided to make the effort and do it.

On the night before the event, I checked my bike, and prepared a small rucksack filled with a selection of drinks, fruit, tools and spare parts. I wanted to be properly prepared for every eventuality. I set my alarm clock for 5 am and went to bed. Not at a sensible early time of course, I wouldn't have slept with all that nervous energy, angst etc., so I got myself some beer and watched the Vuelta and other TV until I staggered into bed at about 1:15.

It was still dark when I got up on the Sunday morning, after less than four hours sleep. I forced myself to eat a hearty breakfast even though I wasn't really hungry at that time in the morning. It didn't help, feeling hungover and knackered, nevertheless, I had to make sure that I didn't get hungry later on. Dawn broke, and I could tell that the weather forecast was going to be proved correct. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, although it was still a little chilly because the sun takes a while to warm the air down here in the valleys. I got into my cycling togs and set off at 7:15, so that I could take my time and not have to rush - I wanted to get to the start at about 8:30.

I rode through the centre of Hebden Bridge and saw a few shopkeepers opening up their shops. Some council workers were sweeping up the detritus of drunken Saturday nights out and emptying the litter bins. I am never usually out and about at this time, especially on a Sunday. I was surprised that there was so much going on.

I turned onto the main road and headed off towards Todmorden. I've never seen the road so quiet. Only about 3 cars passed me on the 4 mile journey to 'Tod' and they were carrying bikes on racks. I think the drivers were going to the same place as me. I joked to myself as I rode along - perhaps I should try and hitch a lift with the next one to overtake me? Just as I got to Todmorden, I saw a woman on a mountain bike heading in the opposite direction towards Hebden Bridge. She gave me a wave and a cheery smile. This is what the roads used to be like years ago before they got clogged up with boy-racers and people driving their kids to school...

I passed through Tod, along the Rochdale Road for a mile or so, then turned right onto Bacup Road, the one with the nasty 1,000 ft climb. It was already starting to get warm, and even at my leisurely pace, I was getting blinded by stinging drops of sweat in my eyes. I continued my ascent of the hill, and it began to steepen. Some sheep had come down off the moors and were sitting at the side of the road munching away at the grass verge. You have to watch the sheep round here because many of the moorland roads are unfenced and the silly animals tend to leap out just when you least expect them to.

There is a small astronomical observatory off to the right, above the road. The astronomers hold open nights from time to time, when members of the public can go along and try out the telescope. I saw that they were advertising a 'Moon and Mars' night sometime soon. I must go along and have a look.

On I climbed. The gradient is quite tough towards the top - 10+%. There is a group of red-brick buildings to the right up there, housing a firm called "Pendlebury Bait Ltd." which I nicknamed "Maggots R Us". They produce angling bait by cultivating maggots on rotten meat in huge silos. It used to produce the most disgusting smells imaginable - NOT what you want to encounter when you are breathing deeply from your exertions! The local council served a public health warning on them a few years ago, and they seem to be keeping the smells under control now. At any rate, the air was fine that morning.

I got to the top of the climb and stopped briefly to admire the views and take a drink, then I set off down the other side of the hill towards Bacup. This road has a terrible rough surface with several really nasty potholes. It was less of a problem on the Mountain Bike because of its suspension forks and big tyres, but it is quite unpleasant on a racing bike. I turned left at the bottom of the hill and set off down the Rossendale valley to Rawtenstall. It is fairly flat along there and I made good progress, arriving at the start at 8:35.

The event was very well organised. I registered with the officials and handed over my 10 entrance fee. They gave me a card with the number 404 printed on it in big figures - remember that number because I won't mention it again! They told me to attach it to my handlebars so that the marshalls round the course could keep a check on progress. Each rider was ticked off a list as they passed through checkpoints round the route. If anybody fell off and injured themselves, the organisers would be able to direct a rescue party to the right area. This was highly likely to happen because of the strenuous, technical, exposed nature of the course and the homicidal/suicidal recklessness of some of those taking part! We had it drummed into us that we MUST inform the officials back at the start if any of us decided to abandon the ride, otherwise the rescue services would be sent out onto the moors to try and find us - they would NOT be very happy if it turned out to be a false alarm because they would then not be able to attend to the genuine casualties littered bleeding on the hills like infantrymen at The Somme.

We were sent off in groups of 15-20 riders at intervals of about 2 minutes. I was glad that I'd had a nice gentle warm-up ride because we had to go straight up the hillside behind the sports centre. Some of the other riders were struggling to get their cold legs to turn their pedals, but I just selected a very low gear and 'winched' my way up the slope. If they were struggling at the start, how would they cope with 45 miles of it? After a few minutes we came to some steps on the path. We had to dismount to tackle these, but a young lad came up behind us at a cracking pace and tried to barge his way past. He ended up with his front wheel wedged up against the first step, and toppled into us blushing with embarrassment. He thought that we had stopped for a rest and hadn't spotted the obstacle! No harm done, so we remounted above the steps and continued to the top of the hill.

There was a short section of boggy moor to cross before we descended onto a cinder track behind a couple of farms. I went down too fast, but some of the younger riders went faster still and nearly lost control as they braked on the loose surface. Soon we came out onto a road below. We only had a couple of hundred yards on that, before we turned back off the road onto a bridleway which climbed steadily up onto the open moors. After a few undulating miles we dropped back to the road, but this time crossing straight over to moorland on the other side. We continued along this section, one that I know well. It is usually very boggy and unpleasant to ride, but we hadn't had much rain in the weeks before and it was the driest that I have ever seen it. We came to another road crossing. It is a very fast stretch of road and the organisers had been sensible enough to place a marshall there to watch out for approaching vehicles as we crossed.

The next section was one that I'd never ridden before, up to 'Thieveley Pike'. I remember Bill telling me that it was horrendously boggy last year and he'd had to carry his bike for nearly a mile as he squelched through the swamp-like conditions. Fortunately it was almost dry this time, and I had no problem with the few patches of mud remaining. I passed through a couple of fields where sheep had recently been shorn. There were many scraggy bits of wool lying around next to a group of metal enclosures attached to the drystone wall. It was becoming very warm, and I imagined that the sheep would be feeling a lot more comfortable without their woolly jumpers on.

In the distance ahead of me, I could see a small stone structure. When I got up to it, I saw that it was a triangulation point showing an altitude of 449m (nearly 1,500 ft). It was the second highest point on the ride so I stopped briefly to enjoy the fantastic views all around. To the north, I could see some of the hills of the Yorkshire Dales, including 'The Three Peaks' - Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent. To the West, beyond Burnley was Pendle Hill [PS: true, but I'm not sure if I could actually SEE it from there], famous for its historical witches. I'd looked out upon that hill from my office window for the six years that I worked in Burnley. To the south-east was Stoodley Pike, near Todmorden. I could see a chain of rolling hills to the South; I would be spending the next hour or two going over them. I could see Peel Tower about 15 miles to the south-west, near Bury. I was going to be seeing that one close up later, but not for another three hours or so.

A group of other riders had caught up with me, and I let them go on ahead. We descended past some old quarries towards a farm. I could see some horses in the field ahead, so I slowed a little, but the other guys continued at full speed and 'spooked' them. A mini- stampede ensued and the cyclists were lucky not to get trampled underfoot. They are the same type of people who drive down urban streets at 60 mph - idiots.

We soon came down to the Bacup Road, near the bait factory I mentioned earlier in fact. We only had to go a few hundred yards down the hill before turning off to the right. Here we encountered checkpoint number 1. The waiting marshalls stood alongside their estate car, and called out our numbers as we passed. Someone with a clipboard was busily writing them down. I decided to let the speedier riders go on, and stopped to have a drink and some fruit. One apple and one banana later, I felt refreshed and raring to go. Actually, I was already wondering if this was a sensible way of spending a Sunday and wasn't I getting just a bit too old for this kind of thing?

I refilled my water bottle from a big container in the back of the car. I said that the ride was well organised - drinks were available at every stop. Very important otherwise I would have lost even more than the 7 lbs I lost on the ride despite drinking 3 litres of carbo-drink, 1 litre of water, 1 mug of sweet tea, and eating 2 bananas, 1 apple, 2 pieces of cake and 2 scones...

Just as I was about to set off, another group of riders arrived. I noticed an older rider had a computer on his bike so I walked over to him and asked him how far we had ridden. In a very broad Boltonian accent, just like that of the late Fred Dibnah, the television steeplejack, he told me that we 'd only done 13 miles and still had 32 to go. "Whoopee", I thought, "and I have an extra 12 miles to get home on the road afterwards!"

I knew this section of the route, which was taking us round a hillside known as Limersgate. I set off down to the left, and after a few hundred yards dismounted to open a gate. Then I noticed a movement to my right, and looking up the hill I saw a group of riders going off in completely the wrong direction. I called out to them, but they were too far away to hear me. In the end, I put my finger and thumb in my mouth and produced an ear-piercing whistle and that DID catch their attention. I pointed to the track ahead of me and they obviously understood because they about-turned and whizzed down the hill to join me. I knew when I practised whistling as a boy that it would come in handy one day. They thanked me profusely and we set off together. On we went with Tooter Hill to our right and Todmorden about 4 miles over the hills to the left. We were pretty much riding along the county border between Lancashire and Yorkshire. It was obvious from the variety of local accents that we could have started our own little War-of-the-roses between the Yorks. and Lancs. riders, but all were in good humour and no trouble ensued.

On we went, up and down over an interesting range of hills dotted with disused quarries and water-filled clay pits, into which an unwary rider could easily fall and never be found. I checked the route on my Ordnance Survey map afterwards and laughed at some of the names - Hogshead Law Hill, Trough Edge End, Hades Hill, Middle Hill, Brown Wardle Hill, Spotland, Manstone Edge, Rushy Hill, and finally down to Ending Rake.

Some of the hills were rutted and very steep, with gravel and loose earth under-wheel. My motto is 'discretion is the better part of valour' so I dismounted and scrambled down those. Several times, I was overtaken by fearless riders who were determined not to 'chicken out'. Three times I heard strangled cries as over-confident mountain-bikers were launched over their handlebars after emergency braking. They were amazingly lucky to get away with just cuts and bruises. There was one particularly steep and tricky uphill section which I almost managed to ride up. Nearly all the other riders had given up and were pushing their bikes, but I decided to have a go. I slowly overtook the others and they were panting more than me, so it seemed to be easier to ride than to walk, or were they just less fit? I got to within about 50 yards of the top when my back wheel slid out from underneath me and I was forced to dismount. It was far too steep to get going again, so I pushed the bike the remainder of the way. I turned to look down the hill and saw that one other rider was still on his bike. He was struggling, but it looked like he was going to make it. The other cyclists gave him a clear run at the tricky top bit and he just managed it. A big cheer went up which he acknowledged, but then he had to dismount and slumped on the grass to recover, along with most of the others. I decided to press on, descending the side of Rushy hill, and on to Ending Rake. The bridleway very abruptly opens out here onto the pavement beside a tight bend on a fast stretch of road which I almost careered across onto - dodgy! I saw from a bright green arrow that I needed to cross the road and proceed to the right, but it was not safe, so I walked 100 yards down the pavement to a safer point and crossed over there. A small group of other riders came up behind me as we turned left off the road and rode down to checkpoint 2. We stopped for refueling, and to have our numbers checked.

I knew what was coming up next and did not fancy doing it from a cold start, so I did not wait for long at the checkpoint. This is near where I got lost on last year's event. I was only 200 yards or so off course, but I just missed seeing one direction arrow and that was that. We now had to climb up Rooley Moor Road. This is a long climb up onto the moor, with a broken cobbled surface which is very uncomfortable to ride up OR down! Last year, the route was traversed in the opposite direction and the fillings almost got shaken out of my teeth descending here. It is also known as The Cotton Famine Road because it was built in the 1860s to provide work for people made unemployed by setbacks in the cotton industry.

I joined a long line of people riding up the hill, which drags on and on for miles up to the highest point on the loop, Top of Leach at 460m. It was hard work and soon the sweat was dripping off me, as the sun continued to blaze. I looked to my side as another rider started to pass me and I saw to my amazement that he was wearing fluorescent yellow tracksuit bottoms and an anorak! He must have been absolutely sweltering...

Rooley Moor is officially closed to motor vehicles but last year we encountered several mad teenagers on 'Quad' bikes. This time, 3 or 4 lads on motorbikes hurtled past us down the hill. Shortly afterwards, we heard the sound of revving engines behind us. A trio of 4-wheel drive vehicles shot past lurching from side to side as they bounced over the cobbles and potholes. They were driven by shaven-headed youths with tattooed arms showing off to their teenage female passengers who were jeering at us drunkenly and shouting obscenities - chavtastic! Soon though, peace descended and all that could be heard was the sound of bicycle wheels rolling over broken stone, and scores of lungs gasping for breath. That hill seems to go on forever, but eventually the cobbled surface levelled off. There were another couple of miles of battering to endure before the cobbles petered out and the surface became easier to ride on. We soon came to checkpoint 3, which is where there is a turn for those doing The Half Challenge. Looking down the hillside here, you see the Rossendale valley stretched out scenically beneath you. There in the distance was Rawtenstall, with the start point at Marl Pits Sports Centre. It was quite tempting to join some of the others in taking the shortcut back, but I had made my mind up to do the full ride and so on I went.

I passed alongside a number of old quarries, before coming out onto open moor again. There are some fantastic looking hills around there, which fortunately we were NOT going to climb! I was starting to get really tired and was looking forward to getting back, although there was still a lot of riding to come yet. There is a long steep section of concrete track there, taking us down to Edenfield near the M66. Last year we climbed it, but this year it was a descent. I think it was probably built as an access road for the quarries and reservoirs up there. I went down at about 35 mph, but was overtaken by people doing at least 50. I remembered the gravel covering and broken surface lower down and hoped that I would not come across a scene of carnage. The riders got away with it this time so I did not have to do any first aid on them, which is fortunate because I'm not good with gore.

We got to Edenfield, and followed the signs down a short stretch of road in the opposite direction to where I thought we would be going. This was a departure from the original course which had taken us along a stretch of busy road for several miles. The organisers had managed to find us a much better off-road alternative this year. We took a little bridge over the motorway and then turned back along some fields towards the now restored East Lancashire Railway which runs from Bury, through Ramsbottom and on to Rawtenstall. A group of enthusiasts run this as a hobby, but it has become a big local tourist attraction. They have a collection of renovated steam locomotives, and old diesel engines from the '50s and '60s. Our bridlepath took us down towards a level crossing, but the gates were closed to let a train through. A railway enthusiast with a video camera was filming the departure of the train and was so enthralled by this that he almost stepped back into us as we rode behind him. A marshall ushered us down a little tunnel under the line and we emerged the other side as the train thundered overhead.

We came upon a little green arrow sign pointing off to the left. There were about seven of us riding together here, and we all agreed that the arrow seemed to point down a little lane parallel to the railway line. We ended up going off-course somewhere down here. There was some discussion about where to turn off the lane, and in the end a local resident misdirected us down a footpath and we ended up having to lift our bikes over several stiles. We realised that something was wrong, although we WERE going in vaguely the right direction. We were trying to get to the small town of Ramsbottom outside Bury.

An elderly couple with a lunatic black Labrador walked towards us. The dog got very excited by meeting us and he ran up to be stroked, then he hurled himself off the path into a muddy stream below to our right. Then he scrambled out, shook himself, soaked us cyclists, got stroked, jumped back in again and so on. He did this about five times until his owners put him on his lead. We told them what we were doing, and that we were lost. They pointed across the stream, and up into the trees at the far side of the field opposite. There we could see a rusty railway bridge. Apparently the line had been dug up and replaced with a cycle path and that was where we needed to be, but it was impossible to get to it without going back to that little lane and starting again, or alternatively to continue down the footpath, and keep heading towards the right until we found ourselves back on the road towards Ramsbottom. On we went. It was all a bit confusing, but suddenly we came out behind a factory and there was a green arrow pointing the way - we were back on course.

We headed down a short stretch of road where two riders in front of me old enough to know better rode along two-abreast chatting without a care in the world and weaving from side to side as a queue of increasingly irate motorists built behind them, before road rage ensued and they nearly got crushed in a stupid overtaking-into-oncoming-traffic-manoeuvre. Then we got to our turn at the traffic lights in Ramsbottom. My left foot was starting to get awful cramps, so I dismounted to stretch it a few times praying that it was not going to give up on me because if it did, how on earth would I get home?

The others went on without me to tackle the climb of the dreaded 'Ramsbottom Rake'. This road twists and turns up the hillside towards the little village of Holcombe above. It starts off steep, then it steepens, until finally... it gets steeper still! I went there a few years ago with Bill to watch the National Cycling Hillclimb Championships and I remembered what a brute it was - we'd had problems walking up it! I got back on my bike and engaged my lowest gear immediately. I knew that I had to conserve what little was left of my strength for the top section so I rode up as slowly as I could while still maintaining my balance. I nearly had to stop when a couple of cars blocked the road in front of me, but they got out of the way just in time. On and on I plodded, until I reached the last bend. I saw a sign to my left - 25% - blimey that WAS a steep road! I managed to get to the top without stopping, but halted at the junction with the A-road ahead, hoping that my heart would not burst, God please don't let me die here, I'm getting too old for this.

I had to cross here, because the route took me off the road behind the pub opposite. A marshall beckoned me across, but I checked for traffic 'just-in-case'; I'm sure that he was trying to get me killed, muhaha. Hmm, perhaps sugar-deprivation was setting in, with attendant paranoia. It was clear so I scooted across and stopped for a drink alongside him. "Enjoying yourself?" he asked with a wicked grin. He could see that I was looking 'slightly tired' by now. "Well, it will be nice once it's finished..." I replied with a weak smile and pointed back at The Rake, "but whose bright idea was it to get us to ride up THAT hill?" He laughed and said "the same person who changed last year's route so that you now have to climb up to Peel Tower!" I'd conveniently forgotten that change...

I looked up some information about the tower on the Internet:

"The Peel Tower at Holcombe is more than a local landmark, it commemorates Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister of Britain between 1841 and 1846, founder of the modern Police Force (once named 'Peelers' and still often referred to as 'Bobbys'). He is also renowned for repealing the Corn Laws. The tower, opened in 1852, is a popular landmark sitting on the top of Holcombe Hill (1100ft.) on the west side of the Irwell Valley offering a magnificent view to those who climb the 150 steps leading to the top."

I wearily remounted and set off with my former riding partners who had also been resting after their exertions on The Rake. A bridleway ascended round the left side of the hill. I rode steadily up behind the other riders and noticed that one was missing - 'Volvo Man'. We had nicknamed him that because he was wearing cycling shorts and jersey emblazoned with the logo 'Team Volvo'. I saw a turn to the right and a little green arrow pointing up it, but it looked impossibly steep. Surely we were going the correct way and somebody had mischievously turned that arrow round to face the other way? I trusted the other riders and followed them to the left. Up and up we went round the side of the hill, and then the path levelled off and started to descend again. I was SURE that we had made a mistake and were heading miles off course again so I rode past the other riders and stopped them. I told them about the arrow but they were not convinced. We stopped a while to think about it, and someone produced a map. It was not clear from that which route we should take. Meanwhile, one chap fished out his provisions for the ride - a packet of strawberry jelly and a tin of cold spaghetti hoops - ugh!!! He swore that they gave him plenty of energy, but I think that I will stick to my apples and bananas. Of course I'd run out of apples and bananas and would have KILLED for a couple of hits of strawberry jelly cubes a la cold spag. hoops...! Suddenly, Volvo Man rode up the hill towards us, wheezing as he approached. We asked him if he'd been held up by a puncture. He replied that he'd got out of breath riding up The ****in' Rake and had stopped for a 'fag-break' to recover; I couldn't believe it.

In the end, I set off back down the hill and the others reluctantly followed me muttering darkly things like "if he's wrong, and we have to ride back up this way again...". We got down to the other turn and on closer examination it obviously WAS the way to go. It was a very steep track which zig-zagged its way up to the foot of the tower above. I did my usual slow steady climb. A few of the other riders also climbed steadily, but faster than I could manage. One young rider had a very odd way of going about it - he would overtake me at a suicidal pace and go up for about 50 yards, before collapsing in a breathless heap. He would just about get his breath back as I passed him, then he would remount, whizz past me and do it all over again. Strange...

I made it to the top, and paused to look around. The tower was a bit square-shaped and ugly, but the views from its base WERE magnificent. I could see right over Manchester to the hills of the Peak District beyond. It was a bit hazy to the west and south-west but on a clear day I think you would be able to see the Irish Sea. Unfortunately, I did not have long for sight-seeing because I had Maisie coming for tea later on and needed to keep an eye on the time. I set off along the hill across Holcombe Moor, accompanied by the sole remaining cyclist, Volvo Man, who appeared to be getting grumpier and wheezier by the minute. I think that he was getting tired like me and just wanted to get to the finish. We carried on together for about 5 miles of undulating moorland, before going down a slightly tricky rocky path [i.e. neck-breakingly steep, rutted, rocky, with big drop-offs] to the road at Helmshore.

Arrows directed us round the back of some houses and somehow we got separated. I think we were both lost because after about 10 minutes of going round in circles, cursing with fatigue, we met up again going in opposite directions! Another friendly resident sent us on our way, but I'm sure HE misdirected us too because we ended up having to carry our bikes down footpaths again. All was not lost, because I suddenly spotted a green arrow pointing behind some factories. We followed that and emerged at Haslingden, where a marshall assured us that it was only 5 miles to the finish. I knew that he was wrong because I remembered that there was at least 10 miles from there last year...

We went up a short steep road and then headed on to a bridleway climbing steeply up behind 'Ski Rossendale'. This is a dry ski slope built onto the side of the hill. Our course takes us round the hill just above it. Despite his evil smoking habit, Volvo Man had got fresh energy from somewhere and pulled away from me and that was the last that I saw of him. I heard a funny flapping sound which began to irritate me. Eventually, I saw that the sole of one of my cycling shoes had come loose and that really annoyed me [I tore it off and shoved it in my back pocket]. I realised that my increasing grumpiness was a sign of fatigue, and toyed with the idea of missing out the last moorland section of the ride; there was every chance of me dying up there. I decided against it, and was all set to take the expected left turn as I came down off the hill and back on to the road. To my surprise, there was a green arrow on the lamppost opposite and that would take me straight back along the road to Marl Pits. I was very tired and confused so I stopped and took out the printed sheet of directions that I had been handed at the start of the ride. To my joy, I discovered that this was another change to the original route. I could go straight back without cheating. I felt like I had been given wings and I flew back to the sports centre. I handed in my number at the finish and went to get something to eat and drink. I was given a free cup of sweet tea, and for 1 I bought two pieces of ginger cake and two buttered scones. I was really hungry so they tasted absolutely delicious. No, honest, they really did!

After a short rest, I got back on my bike and headed back up the Rossendale valley. To my right were the big hills of my earlier adventures, but now I had just 12 miles on the road to go. Oh, and a nice 1000 ft hill on the road out of Bacup. That felt 'just a bit tough' - I haven't felt so weak since the 'bonking' Trauma of Trawden. I took 20 minutes to do the climb in a tiny 22/32 gear and STILL had to dismount 3 times. My arms were killing me and I could hardly hang on to the bars. I got home in 1 hour and 20 minutes after nearly crashing on the descent from Sharneyford because I could hardly hold the bike up. It was nearly 10 hours since I'd set off that morning. I was too exhausted to cook, so prodigal daughter and I shared a big Chinese takeaway instead - yum yum. I didn't need any beer to get me sleep that night.