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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Red, black and blue - the effect of mountain bike trails in the wet!

By Ben MacGregor

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The rain and number of bikes means parts of the trail are no more than bare rock.
The rain and number of bikes means parts of the trail are no more than bare rock.

The visitor centre café at the top of the pass would normally have been mobbed. But the morning rain was bucketing down and the view was only of thick mist.

A touring cyclist was taking as long a time as he could over an all-day breakfast, while a couple of people looking remarkably dry had survived the short walk from their car.

The staff, enjoying their rare quiet morning, didn’t bat an eyelid as I walked in with half the Lake District running off me. I took a seat where the floor was tiled, not wooden, and lingered over my coffee and cake as a puddle formed on the floor around.

The red graded trails are suitable for proficient mountain bikers with good off-roading skills, says the blurb. Black trails are more extreme. To complete the Whinlatter trails in the English Lake District you need to ride both red and black, as well as the easier blue.

Most people choose a dry day when the trails are easier. But by going round on the wettest of all mornings I would have them to myself and could be really slow without holding everyone up.

It’s only about 15 miles in total, but those 15 miles are not easy. But then I’m a lot older and have more artificial replacements than most mountain bikers!

Cloud lingers in the trees on the slopes.
Cloud lingers in the trees on the slopes.

The trails have got a lot harder over the years, and it’s not just the effect of age. The passage of countless bikes removes the surface, leaving a lot of bare rock and loose stones. On the narrow singletrack trails you are constantly having to aim between slippery tree roots, boulders and steep drops to the side.

Focus on the trail ahead and keep up the speed, that’s what you should do. Well, I don’t have the nerve to ride fast and don’t fancy the consequences if things go wrong. There is no shame in walking bits that are out of my comfort zone!

The north trail is a little more technical. I cycle up the pass to the start, taking in the easier blue trail on the way, this is more my kind of thing, wider, better surface, not as steep. There are some lovely bits as you hairpin up through oak woods or ride down a winding route through tall spruce.

Up at the visitor centre, the trails officially start. The rain is hammering down but I don’t even notice it once onto the first red trail. Almost immediately I’m walking some downhill rock steps, too slippery to risk in the wet (my excuse).

A nice downhill section.
A nice downhill section.

Don’t look at the drop to the side, focus on the trail ahead, keep going up steep zigzags and at last emerge onto an easier forest road. Now a long steady climb up into the mist before the difficult single track begins again, hairpins, rocks, tree-roots. It’s like a cloud forest up here with trees hung thickly in lichen and enshrouded in fog.

Round the hilltop of Seat How – no view – then more of those steep, awkward narrow paths with slippery rock and steep cambered bends. I walk some rocky descents. In the rain, mist and dense trees it is dark, hard to see the trail ahead. A final sequence of wide hairpins takes me back to the start.

The harder south trail is still to be done. In the café I prevaricate. But as we all know, nae man can tether time nor tide, the hour approaches, Ralph maun ride!

I ventured out and set off again into the downpour. I wasn’t even riding when I slipped on a rock, fell over, bruised an arm and twisted the handlebars round. There was a lot more narrow, bouncy, stony, slippery, up and down before climbing into the mists again.

The top part of the trail is graded black, with several steep rocky sections, some of which I have occasionally been known to ride in the dry. Now I walked. Eventually, back on the red, and a good section of ups and downs and steep cambered bends which I could ride, if slowly. Suddenly it was back onto an easy track leading to the finish.

Whinlatter pass.
Whinlatter pass.

Just a blue section to complete now, this is easy after my red and black adventures. A nice steep cambered bend to begin with, and another cyclist, even more novice than me, has taken fright and is walking down.

I know well that look in her eyes, that feeling when an expert hurtles effortlessly past on a section you consider impossible. Nice for once to be the show-off, I just need to make sure that pride doesn’t go before a fall…

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