Twelve hours before we set off I had a sense of shrinking. In the cramped hair salon, I watched the reflection of my hairdresser, tanned from her recent trip to her home country of Lebanon, but tired-looking beneath darkened eyes and red lips. I have always wondered how she feels about a life in Mansfield; but I project onto her how I would feel and I don’t ask.
Afterwards, I rode the wave of shoppers that flowed through Aldi, picking items on my list from half-empty shelves or abandoning them altogether when faced with empty space. I feel the pressure of people, leaning, shouting, breathing, waiting. All too close to me. Panic comes as little explosions in my chest; I want to run or scream or fall helplessly unconscious. But I don’t. Not yet, I tell myself.
In the next 48 hours I will do all three.
The Peak District 200 ITT is 150 miles and 17,000 feet of off-road terrain; making one large and then one smaller loop of England’s first National Park. While I’m not sure there is an official route, after nights of internet trawling, we selected a version; fresh, having only been published on 09/09/2019.
At one time 20 miles in this fine, wild landscape intimidated me. But now we proposed to complete 150. Should I think of it in multiples? That way we would have to complete just under eight of those 20 mile rides back to back. Perhaps not. No, it was better to remind myself that we had spent the year going further and call to mind the words of a friend; ‘I’m just going to keep pedaling my bike.’
The sun has already risen by the time we roll away from the railway bridge in Edale. We had watched through the windscreen as the silhouette of Mam Tor became surrounded by blush but the lanes are still in shadow and the early morning bites at our fingers. But either the pain fades or I just forget it as I began grinding up the climbs towards Hope Cross as the mist rolled into the valley. When we got there we don’t pause as we usually would, we pedal on and rattle down Potato Alley, up Lockerbrook and down The Screaming Mile; iconic sections of Peak District mountain biking, over in the blink of an eye.
As my SPD cleats grind and slip against the stone path on Cutgate, the sun blazes over the shoulder of the hillside, blinding me behind my sunglasses. I take one step forward and skid back. I curse. Cutgate, with its bog of doom, peaty climbs and crusts of rock is an early milestone. But it has highlighted something that should have been obvious: plastic shoes and cleats don’t do rock. My feet point outwards, flipper-style in my attempt to gain flat-footed traction.
On top, with the peat and the track that weaves around small pools I wait to feel different; for the sense of frustration and helplessness that have built in me over weeks or moths to ease. But there’s nothing. I am riding with concentration and care, because it does not take much to throw this light, big-wheeled bike and above all else I have to protect myself, mentally, for the journey ahead.
We pass joggers on the Trans Pennine Trail and then more on the Longendale Trail into Hadfield. I’m happy with this flat rolling progress. Without warning, a dog walker who held his collie at the edge of the path as Dave passed releases it before my front wheel. I brake hard and my eyes and those of the cowering dog are locked. I turn to stare at the owner in disbelief but he speaks first; ‘I say, it doesn’t occur to you to slow to a stop and let me walk by.’
No, it did not occur to me. As I roll away the idea seems the premise of a man who feels threatened, but I can’t help be stung by his disdain and the alarm in his dog’s eyes. Out here, nearing the most northern part of the route I feel a long way from anywhere.
Planes bound for Manchester lumber above us, descending towards the shimmering profile of the city. Trash marks the tarmac around us and the rough hewn sandstone brick is stained black. Cars roar by with some place to be and I feel the stale breath of the city and am relieved when we turn south.
Dave points when we are above Hayfield. He likes to show the way, to tell it like a story. ‘It looks like the route takes us over there,’ his finger follows a ridge line that runs to the west of the village, ‘so we won’t have to drop all the way down,’ he says pointing to the clustered civilisation below. I hang on to these titbits, they feed my tired morale. Not going all the way down means not climbing all the way back up. But sometimes he gets it wrong and I am reminded of this as we plummet to the banks of the River Sett.
Here, we meet The Lonely Mountain-biker who we follow up a laborious gravel climb. He’s waiting at the top, the gate held graciously open for us.
His mates were busy today. They usually do so much riding. He’s got a new bike. By the time we reach the top of the moorland drag we know most of his favourite riding spots and the gnarliest places he has ridden. By return, the 150 mile ride we are in the grips of gets a mild shrug. As we bid goodbye, I have my eyes on the horizon, looking for the place that Dave calls Mount Famine. He says it over and over because I think he likes the eeriness of the name. For me, Mount Drought would be more appropriate. I have little water left.
We thread through Roych Clough in what, for me, is reverse. Dave repeatedly refers to it as ‘The Roych’. ‘Why do you call it that?’
‘It’s shortening it,’ he tells me, as though it were obvious.
‘But how is that? You use the same number of syllables.’
Whatever dumb name he gives it, this is Dave’s watershed, the thing he wants to get out of the way. And when we do there is a café just over the brow; coffee and carrot and coriander soup. And water. While the chalk board on the drive says it welcomes cyclists, the owner, a quiet bearded man, seems bemused by us – dusty, wild looking. Perhaps he had not anticipated THIS type of cyclist.
We are in a new phase now, leaving the Dark Peak grit stone behind and entering the white. This is how I imagined cycling, I tell Dave – gentle rolls of green either side of a rolling ribbon of tarmac, the sun shining on our effortless jaunt.
We reach the Royal Oak at Hurdlow at 18:00, hungry for food and respite. When we open the door the bar is several people thick and the noise spills onto the stone terrace. We could carry on? But fatigue and disappointment keep us rooted to the spot. Dave disappears, then pops his head back out – ‘they’ve got us a table, come on.’
‘Well where do you – you know?’ The blond woman with the smooth face and good teeth raises her eyebrows and widens her eyes to finish the sentence. ‘At pubs and cafes,’ I reassure her, smiling affectionately at the pub doorway. The women are part of two couples at the bench close to our abandoned our bikes. There is a sense of affluence and comfort in their soft tanned faces and crisp clothes. The women regard me with both horror and fascination. They certainly don’t want this idea of intense physical exercise and rough sleeping to catch on, but at the same time, well darn, they can’t look away.
I laugh with them, feeling slightly like a spectacle in a zoo; as I roll away I envy them their comfort just a little.
The light dims and goes out in Grassingdale, where we become stranded on a steep grassy shoulder. ‘We should be down there,’ Dave points to the dale floor. It’s too steep to go straight down so we begin a falling traverse. My plastic feet threaten to betray me, offering me no grip on the grass; push the bike, take a step, moan. Each repetition is punctuated with frenzied head scratching as the midges take their evening meal.
Of all the places, I did not think I would be defeated on the flat but once we reach the valley floor, hillsides blocking moonlight or the glow from nearby villages,t he trail is tacky single track strewn with huge boulders that trip us every metre or so. It would be hard to ride in daylight. It was impossible in the dark. So I pushed, chuntered and tore at my hair.
‘I think I did this track with Carl,’ Dave muses, ‘it was hell. Boggy and muddy, bit of a climb out too.’ I wish I had the grace to let it slide but I scream at him. ‘Is that helpful right now?!’ And I ask myself with the same level of desperation, ‘are you really suited to big adventures?’
When we emerge a huge moon hangs above the horizon. I feel furtive, surreptitious and outside of life. At the corner of a field a herd of sheep crowd the gateway, screaming protest at our presence in voices that sound almost human. Cold eyes shine beneath our lamps as we enter and skirt the edge of their body. ‘Please be quiet!’ I want to plead, ‘don’t give us up.’ Because somehow I feel we have crossed a boundary, away from families unconscious beneath bedding, or those snug in front of a TV, those driving home or the revelers making the short walk from pub, bottles swinging at their side. We’re outsiders. We roll through Chatsworth, amongst herds of deer and sheep before finding our resting place on a plateau on Baslow Edge. I pull on down jacket, hat, wriggle into my sleeping bag and rest gratefully in the open air, a gentle breeze trailing across my face.
On my 6:00 alarm I hit snooze, just like at home. I am amazed that I do that, even out here on our patch of grass. But as we set off across the edges – Baslow, Curbar, Frogatt – I do it with hope. Not once did I check my bike computer the day before. I have no idea how many miles we covered but I pray it is more than half. And the places ahead of us are familiar – Lady Cannings, Stanage Edge, Cutthroat, Whinstone Lea Tor, The Beast. I feel as though I am nearing home. The truth is I have another 65 miles to cover.
It could have been fatigue. Or Euphoria from sharing John West’s ‘fish in a bag’ with Dave. My mind wandered and I watched my filthy legs as I pumped the pedals towards Canning’s. Sheep shit, most likely. How was it ok to be daubed with sheep shit? I mean, it really would not be ok to be covered in human shit. And then as we rolled away from Cannings – hopeful that The Fox House Inn would be open for coffee – I realised I did not have anywhere else to be or anyone else I would rather be. It was still early, just past 09:00 and I would be riding in these hills for the rest of the day, honouring a summer of riding well spent. At last, I was beginning to see a person almost dead and buried. Light spirited and full of purpose.
‘Why would he take us to the A57 when this path clearly goes straight on?’ I asked Dave, looking at the broken dotted line on my Wahoo. Not for the first time I thought about the unknown person who had designed this route. I read about the Peak 200 ITT over a year ago but this route had only been drawn up last week and we had no idea if it had been ridden or pieced together on a laptop. I looked at the byway that headed out across Strines Moor and at the busy A57 below us and decided the route not been ridden. But we were committed, so rolled towards the main road.
It is customary now to take a photograph of my bike at the top of Whinstone Lea Tor, where the plateau gives out to a fork of single track and the flat waters of Ladybower reservoir below. While I was positioning my bike, the carbon frame not faring well in the wind, I could hear Dave talking about our route to a pair of walkers. The bike flipped over, I moved it, repositioned it, snapped a few more shots and he was still talking. ‘Dave, do you remember the hedgehog from Simon’s Cat?’ I make a snorting-talking noise, trying to twitch my nose while gesticulating with an air of earnest importance, bringing to life (I think) the boring hedgehog Simon’s Cat enjoys sticking clumps of leaves to when its back is turned. ‘That’s you.’
I set off down the hill giggling. Dave has set off ahead, not giggling.
Climbing The Beast, more often a well-ridden descent, was a longed for milestone. This is a spiritual heart of the Dark Peak riding. The Broken Road, our last big slog out of Castleton, is just a single descent away to the west. We can almost see it. But the arrows on our computers point east.
The air is moist, leaving a sheen on our faces, while the vapour catches and hangs above swathes of trees. When we climb up in the direction we know we must go we see the computers tells us we are off course. The route wants us to go down. ‘But it meets up Dave, if we stay up here we’ll meet up with the arrows again, just there,’ I point to my computer screen, then up over the horizon, ‘just over that brow.’
‘We should do what it says, we’ve come so far.’ And I relent, because I think there is some kudos for following this unknown route, designed by an unknown person, to the letter, because that is what you must do on real ITTs. But time is ticking.
We clatter down The Roman Road, boulders rattling my bike and body until the gradient flattens and we stare up at a trace of sheep track running at an unrideable angle up hillside. ‘That’s it?’ The computer seemed to think so.
And then, ‘THAT’S IT?!’ I’m white hot with anger, a fierce fire built on a kindling of tiredness and desperation. ‘Right, well we have to push up it, no choice, that’s no bridleway.’
‘That will take an hour, we have to go back to where we were,’ Dave says, while I hold onto another scream. We turned and we pedalled back up the boulder-strewn track.
‘I think this route takes us up that steep road climb,’ Dave muses as we guzzle milkshake on the petrol station forecourt. I want to shut him up; stick leaves on his back or in his mouth. While I usually have no idea what Dave is talking about – that rock, that climb – I know the road climb he means; the one we vowed we’d never do again. Definitely never at the end of a 150 mile ride.
While the climb is crumbling tarmac, pedalling is no faster than walking and with each revolution my brain screams that I should stop. At the top we cut across fields, rolling down, dodging sheep and rocks and actually having fun. We’re still heading the wrong way but slowly, really slowly we start to come about. We climb a road out of Abney and finally we are pointing towards Castleton again.
Euphoria hits above Bradfield. There’s the village, clusters of houses, a road. We descend a tight bridleway, the narrow track churned to mud by hooves – not a bike track to be seen. I pray I don’t meet a cow but at the end there is just a farmer and his tractor beside a fire which is soaring up into the gathering dusk.
Castleton, normally clogged with tourists and outdoors-types, is quiet. The cafes and shops are shuttered. We whiz through, eager to meet the Broken Road as the sky begins to ooze fine rain and the light retreats.
‘Seems he saved the best to last then,’ I muttered referring to Back Tor Farm, the final descent we are moving steadily towards; an eroded sheep track of ruts and rocks with a greasy coating that turns mountain bikers into lemmings. ‘Last thing I would do is chose to ride that track, on this bike, let alone in wet conditions and in the dark.’ Dave grunts in response. He does this when I moan about things I can’t change.
On the road up to Mam Tor headlights from the cars of cosy humans pick us up and slide away; somewhere inside I envy them and am glad to start climbing the single track on the side of the the hill to find the paved ridge line that leads to Hollins Cross. The slabs are slick and reflect the white light from our lamps.
Then only Back Tor Farm descent stands in our way. Get off if you need, but get down. I come unclipped once so that I am tiptoeing on my little square pedal. I stop to wait for Dave to clear the path and I’m up on the pedals again, squirming and sliding over the greasy rocks to where the path is gritty and grippy. The bike is pushed from side to side and I weave to the bottom, cannoning off the bigger rocks, clattering down drops. When I shut Back Tor Farm gate, that is it, the ride is over. Only a mile of undulating road to go.
Of course we finished with a beer. If it had not been a Sunday night and we had not had to drive home for work the next day, it might have been two. But the surge of wellness I felt then, and more strongly over the days to come, had little to do with the beer. I had an unfamiliar sense of strength and wonder at encircling that place in just 48 hours. Seeing and feeling its curves and scars and the people existing within them. It came from not having to be anything other than a pair of legs, lungs and a heart that took me from one milestone to the next and from sharing this with Dave.
I wanted escape and I got it. But not by running away. Perhaps I did not ‘escape from’ but ‘escaped to’. It came in a different shape, in how the distance and the landscape drew all of me in. I don’t consider myself strong, but in the days that followed I think I knew what real strength might feel like; a wholeness, a stillness, within which rest a sense of purpose and place.