Over the past decade the sport of cycling has seen a huge increase in its number of participants, with more and more people taking to two wheels for commuting, exercise and adventure. The development of trail centres has helped thrust mountain biking to the top of the popularity pile: well maintained trails for all abilities, often with on-site facilities and waymarked routes make getting off-road on a bike easier now than ever. Trail centres have given rise to a new breed of biker who have learnt their sport on the well defined and marked trails of blue and red routes, but also who have never experienced the adventure of a quiet moor or mountain, the solitude and satisfaction that a day in the hills can bring.
Trail centres are fantastic resources but there is a danger that mountain bikers will never really ride ‘mountains' but base their experiences around tamed, manicured trails. Many will remember taking their bike off-road for the first time after scouring maps for bridleways, possible gems in their local landscape and revelling afterwards at their ‘discoveries'. This series aims to inspire all bikers, but especially those who haven't yet been able to fully experience the adventure of a UK mountain or moor.
You don't have to head off to further flung wilds of the UK to have an adventure. It is possible to have an adventure right in the middle of one the country's busiest National Parks. The Peak District was the UK's first ever National Park; it was designated in 1951. Its proximity to the major cities of Manchester and Sheffield and the counties of Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Staffordshire and South and West Yorkshire, coupled with easy access by road and rail, have contributed to its popularity. It can get very busy.
For the purposes of the installment of the MTB Roots series, the area that I'm mainly talking about is the half of the Park that's called the Dark Peak. This is the Northern half of the Park whose geology is gritstone and moorland. The Southern half of the Park is called the White Peak and is principally made up of limestone geology.
The Dark Peak has its honeypots that can get stuffed with walkers, climbers and runners, but in my (admittedly hugely biased) opinion the Dark Peak is best experienced on a mountain bike. Given enough daylight and a decent pair of legs you can cover an awful lot of ground. Although the area is hilly, it is also covered in an extensive network of wide-ish, generally well surfaced bridleways and byways that can be swiftly despatched on a bike. Unlike a lot of other hilly parts of the UK, you'll find that your average speed is significantly higher than that of a walker/rambler. Obviously there's also the road network available too; there are some busy roads that criss-cross the Dark Peak that are wisely avoided by walkers but can be used by cyclists as and when is absolutely necessary.
Thanks to this lattice of bike-suitable trails and roads coating the Dark Peak, as a mountain biker you can attempt some proper map-crossing epic rides that would be far beyond the remit of other outdoor user groups. The freedom and potential that using a mountain bike gives you is something that is easily taken for granted. The Dark Peak is a brilliant place for being a content mountain biker. As you pass by the hordes of foot-going people and their limited-scope routes you can't help but feel a little bit smug and as the speeding cars whizz past you far too close on the main roads that traverse the Peak, you can't help but convert your would-be anger at their aggressive/ignorant driving into a condescending little smirk at the rushing, hassled humans inside their metal boxes, hurrying their way through the scenery. Oblivious. Missing the point.
There are frequent debates about which is the best way to ride certain trails. And although there most definitely are "best" ways to ride certain trails, don't let this limit you in your route planning. Yes, it's much more fun to ride the "Shooting Cabins" track as East-to-West, but if you do it the "wrong" way (West-to-East) it opens up a whole load of epic route opportunities.
What follows is a list of my favourite 15 trails in the Dark Peak. Get yourself a copy of Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL 1 "The Peak District - Dark Peak Area" and a highlighter pen and get busy planning your own mini-adventure...
You would never guess the adrenaline reward that this track gives from its innocuous appearance as basic white road byway on the map. Yes it's straight as a die and is wide enough to get a car down. But for the sheer fast-as-you-dare descending speeds this track is brilliant. At the speeds you can reach on this track you'll not be thinking it should have more features!
2. The Beast
Another example of how a trail doesn't have to be narrow, buff singletrack to be excellent mountain biking. The Beast is made up of a few different stages of rocky roughness, each seemingly tougher than the last. Sunken, edgey, bouldery, loose, skittery, fast-slow-fast. Brakes on, brakes off. This is no mindless brainless blast; you have to pick a line and try to ride it out.
3. Cave Dale
The trail starts calmly enough. A bit of singletrack swooping with your speed gathering all the time. After a couple of "warning" dips and lips you pass through a gate and the main meal of the descent appears before you. Basically like riding a long garden rockery down the bottom of a steep interlocking little valley. Some of the rocks are predictable. Most of them are not.
4. Chapel Gate
The hilariously bonkers result of someone trying to lay a tarmac road up the side of a steep fellside. It starts off with an entertainingly ragged track but pretty quickly turns into something altogether more unique. Parallel raised tarmac ribbons that occasionally get very narrow or else disappear altogether! Thus leaving you with very little time to react and decide your response. Oddball. Ace.
5. Chinley Churn
Chinley Churn is the name given to a modestly sized but feature-filled area of crowned moorland. All the bridleways on this moorland are worth a play on. They're difficult to work into a classic loop and as such it's nice to zip along the trails in both directions until you feel it's time to move on. A pocket playground of classic Dark Peak singletrack.
6. Cown Edge
Passing beneath the bikes-not-allowed Coombes Edge footpaths, this bridleway is a great warm-up for rides starting from the Western side of the Dark Peak. It's not very steep, nor is it hugely technical. It's just an entertaining kilometre of trail. Well worth pausing at the top for a look down over Manchester to marvel at how close somewhere so different can be in the UK.
7. Cumberland Brook
Another example of an easy-to-ignore track on the map that's actually a really, really good descent. It's hard to work into a route but is well worth just bolting on to the side of another nearby loop. You certainly get your money's worth; the descent seems to last for an impressive amount of time and has a nice increase in technicality as you ride down its length. Finishes with a cool ford crossing too.
8. Cut Gate
One of the most loved by mountain bikers sections of riding in the whole of the Peak - if not the whole of the UK. It's withstood years of traffic and subsequent attempts at erosion control (some nicer than others) and is still great to ride. A genuinely enjoyable climb from the America side and an always demanding final plummet down to Cranberry Clough. Your grin will last all the way to Derwent Reservoir cafe.
9. Derwent Edge
A classic "which way is best" trail. Some riders prefer to start at the Cutthroat Bridge end and make their way over to finish with the steep, stepped flourish to Ladybower. Others prefer to grimace/push up sharply from Ladybower and make the most of the height gained traversing over peaty gritstoned moor to Cutthroat Bridge. Truth be told, both ways are equally valid - it depends on the direction of the wind really.
10. Doctors Gate
Doctor's Gate is my personal favourite of all the Gates. Some people may decry it presumably because it is not really 100% rideable but that's kind of why I love it. It pushes the limits of what you can get away with on a mountain bike. It's an awesome combination of rubble-infested plummets, ‘I-can't-see-a-line-at-all' boulder fields and some rutted singletrack.
11. Hagg Farm
The descent starts in earnest with a great set of carve-able, bermed curves down to a gate at the treeline. After that it becomes like a mini tribute to The Beast (above). Speed thrills give way to some pretty rough rocky stuff that's often damp and slick. It's easy to come unstuck on this section. Take care when exiting on to the A57 Snake Pass road at the bottom.
12. Hollins Cross
Starting from the saddle point of the school geography field trip-tastic Mam Tor, there are a couple of different bridleways down into the Vale Of Edale. The right hand option is usually quieter and has a great set of bends. The left hand option is longer and more consistently descending. Make your choice depending on where you want to head at the bottom(s) I reckon.
13. Jacobs Ladder
The classic challenge is to try and ride up from the Barber Booth side. To clean the climb you need extreme skill and fitness. Having said that I actually think it's better ridden as a descent; the descent down into Hayfield just isn't enough reward for hauling yourself up Jacob Ladder! But if you want a climbing challenge, Jacobs Ladder is one of the true classics.
14. Middle Moor
AKA "The Shooting Cabins". The classic example of Dark Peak moorland singletrack. Heather edged. Sparkling gritstone dirt. Go high or go low line choices to make. Not steep and requires a fittish pedaling rider to get the most out of it. Seems to go on for a decent amount of time considering the relative ease with which you can get to the top of it.
15. Stanage Edge
Accessible from both the West and the East, the key thing is to make sure you descend on the correct bridleway ie. down through Stanage Plantation. A great piece of geological shelf jutting out of the ground with great views all around you and demanding things to deal with underneath you.
- Although it's tempting to take a long travel bike for taking on the bits of rough stuff, it's much better to think of the bigger picture and use a sub-30lb bike that can be pedalled around all day.
- Fat tyres with strong sidewalls to help avoid punctures and slashes but not overly knobbly as they'll be draggy, hard work on the stony tracks and roads.
- Spare brake pads.
- More spare brake pads (new brake pads don't last that long if the Peak is damp).
- Riding shoes with a stiffish sole, for efficient pedalling.
- Money for food. Don't bother carrying lots of food, you'll go past shops and cafes for that.
- Extra layers. The weather can change extremely frequently and frequently extremely. Also worth taking an extra layer in case you find yourself playing out until dusk.
- A rear light. Even if you're not riding after sunset, it's a good idea to increase your visibility for those times when you find yourself on the main roads crossing the Peak.
- An adaptable route and the sense to adapt if the situation arises. Injuries happen, bikes break, people get tired etc etc. Take advantage of the Peak's abundance of trails.
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