epic

 

Ever since I moved up to Manchester from Birmingham, I’ve been on the lookout for some decent cycling routes. Back in the Midlands, I had hundreds of miles of country lanes around Warwickshire at my fingertips and, should the mood take me, I could even jump on a train over to the Black Country and enjoy the surprisingly good trails on offer at Cannock Chase.

And no, Birmingham and the Black Country are NOT the same place. Don’t ask again.

Anyway. Up here in t’ North there are actually quite a lot of mountain bike trails and, now the Troll has a suspension fork, I shall be doing my best to explore as many of them as possible. First up: the delightfully named Diggle Jiggle.

Just 11 miles long, the Diggle Jiggle seemed to be the perfect opportunity to give the Troll its first proper off road test, dust off some off my much underused mountain bike skills and work off Saturday night’s indulgences on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon. Opting to let the train take a little of the strain, I cycled into Manchester Victoria and jumped off at Greenfield station which dropped me onto the trail about half way round the suggested route map.

Described as a “mountain bike ride” and “…suitable for most mountain bikers…”, I was somewhat surprised to come out of the station and instantly head up a very steep climb on a very busy road. At first, I figured it was just a short tarmac section joining 2 sections of off road trail but, as the miles ticked by, the ‘trail’ just kept on climbing on roads… Roads? Hardly mountain bike country.

Eventually, the tarmac finally gave way to a bona fide mountain bike trail and boy, it wasn’t messing around. The seemingly relentless incline remained and the surface went from smooth tarmac to soft, uneven sand and large, loose rocks; quite the challenge for both Trolls.

I’d printed the map out before heading out this morning and, because the Diggle Jiggle itself isn’t signposted in any way and comprises sections of several other trails, it was my constant companion throughout the ride; sometimes in my pocket, sometimes in my bag but more often than not, gripped between my fingers or, when I needed both hands firmly on the bars, between my clenched teeth.

For the most part, providing you follow the description of the route carefully, you really can’t put a wheel wrong thanks to the attention to detail shown by the authors. There is one glaring error, however which will take you in completely the wrong direction up a very sketchy climb to nowhere – the very first words at point A in the description, too! Where it tells you to come out of the car park, turn right and head over the railway bridge, don’t. Just head straight down the hill from the car park (with the hotel directly behind you) and head straight up the steep climb; from there, the map is otherwise flawless.

After all the climbing, there is a lovely section atop the ridge of the hillside (sure, the surface sucks and I ended up axle deep in a flooded section but it was beautiful!) before a blink-and-you-miss-it left hander onto an incredibly sketchy downhill.

Check out that view – almost enough to make you ride into the hedge.

Almost.

The tyres making all this possible are both 26 x 2.4″; the rear is a Maxxis Holy Roller which provides incredible traction, stability and accelleration without dragging too much on the harder stuff. The front is a DMR Moto R/T with a more directional tread to aid cornering and mud clearance when it really matters most. They’re both designed for road and trail, rather than mud but I found them more than capable; I’m sure they won’t last too long what with the rubber compound being so soft but I’m willing to sacrifice a little longevity for increased performance.

Next challenge up is yet another descent on what is described in the map as “often very wet”. The reason for this routine moistness is that this really isn’t a trail, or even a path; nope, what this is ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is a stream. A stream with a bed of loose, slippery rocks and a quagmire off to the side all ready to catch out anyone stupid enough to put a foot down.

At the entrance to said stream, I lost my balance and before I could get my feet out my pedals, I fell ass first into a bed of stinging nettles with the Troll clinging onto my shoes for dear life.

Stop sniggering! Being stung all over your body is just not fun!

Anyway, back to the trail and it was lunchtime. Unfortunately, I’d brought nothing more than an expired Science in Sport Go! chocolate and orange energy bar with me so I took a quick break to nom it while I watched the foals playing in the field next to me; the sheep were doing nothing of any interest.

With only a few more miles to go, I stopped at the Diggle Hotel for a £2.20 glass of ice cold Pepsi to take in some much needed caffeine and headed back to the station via yet another stinging climb on the tarmac.

And so, my verdict on the Diggle Jiggle? Well, it’s a lot of fun in places and I found it quite the challenge in places. One thing is for certain, despite all the tarmac, this really is mountain bike country and a suspension fork is an absolute must. Also, even on a nice dry day like today, I was very much in need of wide, knobbly tyres; I feel certain thay my Halos would’ve let me down on several ocassions.

So, despite its rather jolly name, the Diggle Jiggle is not for the faint hearted.

changes

 

I’ve lived in Manchester now for nearly 11 months and, with the exception of a few hangover and / or exhaustion induced days, I’ve cycled into work every single weekday in just about all weathers.

For the first couple of months, I was taking the most direct route I could find which was a solid 6 miles along the rollercoaster that is the A664 Rochdale Road. Now, as much as it’s (largely) a nice wide road with cycle lanes and / or bus lanes and I very much enjoyed the variety of the short but sharp hill climbs & descents, in hindsight I’ve come to realise just how dangerous a route it actually is and just how lucky I was to never have an accident.

Of course, the problem with bus lanes is that they are frequented by buses. Sure, they’re useful for avoiding most of the traffic but leapfrogging loud, dirty monsters largely driven by idiots with no spatial awareness and no idea what their mirrors are for is just not fun.

A few close shaves later and and I started looking for a quieter, safer route. This came in the shape of the B6393 which runs largely parallel to the Rochdale Road, past JW Lees brewery, through an industrial estate, over the M60, past the Greater Manchester Police HQ and finally into Manchester through the usual inner-city suburbs.

Whilst this route is almost completely devoid of cycle lanes and carries only slightly less traffic, it is considerably safer. I think this is partly thanks to the much more controlled crossing of the motorway and the fact that drivers are forced to give you more space on the road when you’re sharing the same piece of tarmac.

I do have a theory about cycle lanes… I think some drivers see that white line as some kind of magical barrier which protects them and the cyclists from each other; of course, the truth is, you should give cyclists the same amount of room as you would any other road user but I find cars, buses and trucks buzzing right by me all too often whenever I’m ‘protected’ over there with the drain covers and broken glass.

But, I digress. Along with the not being killed bonus, my new road route takes my daily mileage up to 15 miles so I’m able to get a little more of a workout in every morning and afternoon too.

Of course, the Troll was built to be rugged and has already proved itself more than capable both on road and off road. With that in mind and my new road route bringing its own fair share of close shaves, I’ve been looking for some kind of off road route which has materialised in the shape of a stretch of NCN Route 66 and the Rochdale Canal towpath.

Keep your eyes peeled for a post about riding on route 66 and, while we’re at it, riding on canal towpaths in general; for today, a brief report on how the Troll has been handling this new route.

I don’t currently have a computer fitted to the bike so I’m not quite sure what the mileage is of my new route but, considering it takes me significantly away from the 2 road routes, I reckon it’s approaching 10 miles each way. Of course, it’s mostly flat but there is a gradual incline all the way home with several locks and flights of steps along the way.

The surface varies wildly from freshly laid tarmac to thickly spread granite chippings to deep mud to herringbone brickwork, most of which is in a fairly poor state of repair with several areas actually fenced off where the towpath is falling away into the canal.

The oldest sections of the canal are somehow the most solid, most likely thanks to the brilliance of Victorian engineering. Whilst this is all very nice and interesting and historical, the problem is those pesky Victorians were rather fond of using cobbles; cobbles, which you’ll know if you’ve ever ridden on them, are very rough and get VERY slippery when wet.

For the the last couple of months, I’ve been taking the safer road route into work and the canal route back home again. With the rigid fork, the journey in is effortless and generally takes about 30 minutes but the return trip can take up to 1 hour and, thanks to those cobbled sections, is a bit of a boneshaker.

And so, a new experiment! I managed to bag a set of Fox F100 air suspension forks which are actually lighter than the standard rigid steel fork that comes with the Troll. With preload and rebound adjustment and lockout within reach of the bars, they’re also suitable for every kind of terrain at only a moment’s notice. Sure, they’re silver and blue so they don’t match the original colour scheme but I’m not too worried about that.

What I am slightly worried about is the coverage provided by my new SKS Shockblade front mudguard… I went for the 28 – 29″ wheel version as it’s slightly longer than the 26″ wheel version and, despite being slightly narrower, still covers my 2.2″ Halo Twin Rails quite well.

Ugly as sin as it may be, it’s really the best option for keeping as much crap off the bike as possible when running a suspension fork; we’ll see what the coverage is like on next week’s commute. No doubt we’ll be back to rain by then; it is Manchester, after all.

I really didn’t like how the new front mudguard looked with the old full wrap one so I also invested in an SKS X-Blade rear guard. I’m still not happy with the overall look so it’ll need some tweaking but I’m willing to live with it for the comfort of a suspension fork over the dreaded cobbles.

I took it out yesterday for a quick shakedown along the canal and first impressions are very promising indeed; with the fine preload and rebound adjustment right there at my fingertips, I was able to apply just the right amount of cushion for each section of the trail and lock it all out again as soon as the path smoothed out.

Only time will tell if the fork stays on and the towpath becomes my commuter route of choice…

somebody that I used to know

 

If I had my way, I’d have a huge barn out in the countryside. Inside, I’d have a couple of old leather couches, an antique fridge full of excellent beer and one of those funky old jukeboxes with lots of chrome and big chunky buttons.

The walls would be adorned with old tin advertising plates and maybe even the odd picture of a scantily clad girl or two. In the corner, there would be my Park Tool workstand, a nice long wooden workbench and my beloved old Snap On tool chest with all my tools carefully organised into their respective drawers.

The rest of the barn would be laid out with row after row of bike stands, displaying all the bikes I’ve ever owned and, because I’m uber rich in my fantasy barn, I would’ve owned an awful lot more bikes by now than I actually have.

There’s just one minor snag… I’m not rich.

Harumph.

Oh well. For now, I’ll just have to do without the beer fridge and jukebox and settle for putting the couple of old advertising signs I have up in the Man Cave. On the plus side, I do own a beautiful old Snap On tool chest but I must confess it’s not nearly as carefully organised as it should be.

Now, as much as it pains me to admit that Karen’s always right… well, she is always right. In this particular instance, she’s been at me recently telling me I just can’t keep my entire collection of bikes; and so, the time has come to clear a few out which has got me all nostalgic about some of my favourite rides:

Way back when, I was the proud owner of a Raleigh Pioneer Trial hybrid which was my first ‘proper’ bike. With flat bars and bar ends, 700c wheels, 21 gears and an all steel frameset with plenty of rake on the fork (Tim will no doubt like this one), this remains one of my all time favourite bikes.

As I started doing more and more miles, I started learning about bikes and bike parts and my faithful old Raleigh was more than happy to go along with my experimentation. Here she is with American Classic wheels, Shimano Deore 27 speed drivetrain, the first of many Charge Spoon saddles I’ve owned and my friend’s Bumper Transporter twin wheel trailer in tow. Eventually, I ended selling the Raleigh to a nice Lithuanian guy who is hopefully still commuting around the Midlands on it.

Before long, I’d built up enough knowledge to have a go at building my own bike and, following a rather steep learning curve, I put together my first mountain bike with my first set of Halo Twin Rail tyres, disc brakes and Marzocchi suspension forks. Man, I loved that bike! And man, was I fat in this picture! I still have some of these parts knocking around but the frame ended up getting sold once I realised it was actually a couple of sizes too small for me (more of that learning curve business).

A short while and quite a lot of saving up later and I put together my beloved Graham Weigh cyclocross bike which taught me so much about road riding, touring and the importance of having the right gearing on your bike. Starting out life with Shimano Tiagra STIs (that’s the flappy paddle style brake / gear levers you see on many road bikes with drop bars – it stands for Shimano Total Integration, by the way), this bike went through various incarnations including aero bars, pannier racks and my introduction to bar end shifters. Here you see it in my favourite setup with full wrap mudguards and matching brown saddle and bar tape. Once I’d built the Troll, there just wasn’t any place for it anymore so again, the frameset got sold off but many of the parts are still knocking around in various boxes that Karen thinks are empty…

In preparation for moving to Manchester, I had to part with my mountain bike. This was another of my all time favourites; the keen eyed observers will recognise the Marzocchi forks and handlebars etc. from my previous MTB and the Race Face chainset from the current Troll build.

The most recent eBay casualty of my collection is my faithful of old Merida. Another much experimented upon bike, I’ve used drop, flat and even butterfly bars on this bike and it really broke my heart to sell it. But, taking the money off the guy certainly helped to numb the pain!

Anyway, with only the Troll in current active service, I am officially a one bike man again… *shudder*

the king of wishful thinking

 

Every year about this time, Geordie and I normally take a couple of weeks off work, load up the bikes with camping gear and disappear off into the countryside; looking to escape real life for a while.

This year, Geordie finds himself in Rome nomming pasta and (no doubt) drinking the region dry of fine wine which leaves me back in England with a week off work and nothing to do…

Inspired by a fellow blogger and Surly Troll owner who’d recently been on a solo bike tour around the Hebrides, I thought it was high time I took my Troll out for its inaugural tour.

I’ve always wanted to do a coast to coast ride and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, what with the Trans Pennine Trail (TPT) being on my doorstep and all. But, with pesky real life limiting the spare time I had available, my week long trip gradually got trimmed down to 5, then 4, 3 and, eventually, 2 days.

Needing only a fresh jersey for day 2, a change of clothes for the evening, my camera and a few munchies, I decided against taking the Yak and instead opted for just a set of Ortlieb Back Roller Classic panniers in orange and black. I very nearly bought a matching set of front bags but, as I wouldn’t need them for this trip, decided to save my money. For now, at least.

Jumping onto the Trans Pennine Trail at Hadfield, my journey started out on the Longdendale Trail which forms part of NCN Route 62. The trail from here all the way to the Woodhead Pass is really well signposted and the surface (being an old railway bed) is largely flat, wide and hardpacked earth with a little gravel here and there; ideal for a relaxed ride without any sudden surprises. Being a Tuesday morning, I had the trail almost completely to myself with the exception of a few dog walkers and the occasional mountain biker. As with much of the trail, walkers and cyclists share the main portion of the path with a separate, parallel route on much softer ground for horseriders. In the main, the few pedestrians and their canines gladly moved to one side upon hearing my crunching along the trail or my friendly “Hello!” as I approached them.

You’ll notice I don’t have a bell on my bike… Never have, never will. I think there’s something quite arrogant about ringing a bell at people to get them out of your way… It almost assumes cyclists have the right of way when, actually, the TPT etiquette dictates cyclists should slow down (and stop, if required) for pedestrians. Having ridden with others who do favour a bell, I can say with some authority, my friendly greeting is always more easily heard and better received than that awful ding ding ding noise some people insist upon.

All that said, I did get the occasional scowl from some people as I rode past… Why, I don’t know. I wasn’t going fast, I wasn’t too close, I didn’t run over the dog or splash through a muddy puddle. Maybe it was wind.

Anyway, back to the trail… 8 miles of nice easy riding down and I’m approaching the Woodhead Pass. By now, the trail is starting to get a little rougher and, thanks to the recent heavy rain, there are some sections suffering from localised flooding and, somehow, this small tree has been felled and lies across almost all of the trail.

That said, this still remains a really nice section as it runs past Bottoms, Valehouse, Rhodeswood, Torside and eventually Woodhead reservoirs.  With plenty of car parks along the route (most with public toilets) and not a hill in sight, this is a perfect location for anyone wanting to get into cycling or just rack up a few more miles without the need to ride anywhere near the traffic.

At the end of the Longdendale Trail, things start to change quite dramatically. The former Woodhead Railway would’ve entered a large tunnel which is now closed so the TPT ramps up and heads directly east over the Woodhead Pass. The surface changes too; whilst this might be a short climb, it’s all of 20% (possibly more in places) and the surface is rutted, loose, sandy, rocky and downright difficult to ride up. Putting it in the little ring and staying in the saddle, I somehow managed to keep my Halo Twin Rail tyres gripping onto something and I made it to the first switchback with one eye on the awesome scenery and the other eye on the sheep defiantly lying across the path.

Perhaps I was distracted by the sheep. Perhaps I was in too high a gear. Perhaps I’d got my balance wrong or perhaps Halo Twin Rails at 80psi just aren’t designed to grip on loose gravel, slippery mud or wet grass on an absurd incline. Whatever it was, I managed to fall off twice on this little section of the trail which is the final push to the summit.

Around the corner, the path widens out somewhat and, whilst it’s badly rutted with lots of deep puddles and exposed rocks, at least it’s mostly flat again. Wreaking my revenge on the unruly sheep, I chased them and their bovine comrades off the path all the way to Salter’s Brook.

Pretty and historical as it may be here at Salter’s Brook Bridge, the trail is a cycle lane only insofar as it’s signposted as part of NCN Route 62. The surface is the worst I experienced on the trip; sandy, deeply rutted, frequently interrupted by gates and blighted by 2 crossings of the uber dangerous Woodhead Pass road. In direct contrast to the Longdendale Trail a mere mile or so away, this stretch is suitable for only the most experienced and / or brave (stupid) riders. What little luggage I was carrying became quite the hinderance too, I can only image what it’d be like trying to get through here with a fully laden bike and the idea of dragging the Yak over the Woodhead Pass is an idea that fills me with dread.

In all I had to cross the Woodhead Pass road 3 times. Being the main route across the Pennines, it is unsurprisingly a rat run for HGVs and just about every other piece of traffic wanting to get from one side t’ t’other. Frightening, truly frightening.

Anyway, providing you survive the crossing, all of the recent unpleasantness is forgiven and you’re rewarded with an awesome downhill section after the highest point on the Trans Pennine Trail at Dunford Bridge.

Providing your brakes can stop you in time, there’s an opportunity here to turn off onto NCN Route 68 and the Pennine Cycleway which heads north past Winscar Reservoir (I’ll save that route for another day).

Brake discs (203mm front and 160mm rear) scorching, I slowed from what was probably close to 40mph to a stop in an astonishingly short distance as I spotted the sign for the Upper Don Trail looming to my right. Crunching through the gravel car park, I was pleased to see a sign telling me I’d rejoined the old railway bed and even more pleased to see a really wide, flat trail stretching off into the distance.

From here all the way to Oxspring, the trail is mostly a simple muddy track through the countryside. Again, it’s mostly flat but thanks to the bad weather, it was quite slippery almost all the way. I put the hammer down and enjoyed drifting the bike through the curves, catching more than a few 2 wheel drifts.

At Oxspring, the trail splits and there is a road route and and off road route… Naturally, I opted for the latter and soon found myself picking my way along an ancient packhorse trail (according to the signs).

Once more, this is not a place for the inexperienced cyclist or anyone of a nervous disposition; the ridiculous climbs on slippery mud and narrow trails make an unwelcome return but those willing to stick it out are rewarded by many more easy miles along the Dove Valley Trail. Once more I dropped the hammer and, before I knew it, I was rolling into the Dearne Valley where I turned off the trail at Barnburgh and headed off to my hotel in High Melton.

Day 2 and I’d half planned to push on further into Yorkshire before getting the train home from Selby. With bad weather planned, however, I decided over my rather delicious steak & ale pie at the Cadeby Inn to head back the way I came and explore the alternative route of NCN Route 67 via the Elsecar Greenway and Timberland Trail. The Troll, however, had other ideas.

On day 1, I’d twisted my knee on the climb over the Woodhead Pass; something which became much more apparent on day 2 as it gave way when I got out of the saddle on the mildest of inclines.

Almost at the exact same moment, I felt a clunk somewhere on the front end of the bike; to my horror, my front wheel had somehow come loose. With that sorted, my front brake started making the kind of noise only metal rubbing on metal makes.

More horror as I find my brake caliper had also shaken itself loose and the bolts are rubbing against the brake disc… That fixed and another mile down the trail, my front mudguard was pointing at a very strange angle… Yes, you’ve guessed it, the securing bolts had rattled themselves loose.

With the front of the bike rebuilt, my knee gave way once again only minutes before a large shard of glass went straight through my front tyre, making a complete mockery of the normally legendary puncture protection.

Something was trying to tell me riding back over the Woodhead Pass was a bad idea… Reluctantly, I broke out the maps and came away from the main trail, heading for Barnsley and the train home.

So, with my trip cut short, what are my conclusions?

  • The trail is great! It’s certainly diverse with its mixture of on and off road sections. Well mapped and signposted, there’s a little bit of something for everyone from the crazy ass mountain biker to the virgin cyclist.
  • Ortlieb panniers easily live up to their reputation and are easily worth every single penny. Waterproof and rugged, they’ll save your bike from any serious damage when you drop it atop the Woodhead Pass and, should you (repeatedly) catch them on metal gates, they won’t tear easily.
  • The Surly Troll comes alive when loaded up with luggage and my *ahem* Ragley rear rack (exact copy of the Surly rack) holds everything firmly in place no matter how rough the going gets.
  • Halo Twin Rail tyres are simply awesome! Yes, we knew this already but it’s always worth reminding ourselves! I’ll admit that 80psi is far too much for off road use (Halo recommend a maximum of 65psi) but they still handled everything other than the wet grass and loose gravel on that climb really well.
  • Riding a rigid fork off road means you are badass. Period.
  • Riding drop bars off road means you are badass. Period.
  • Riding with bar end shifters off road means you are badass. Period.
  • I might be badass but… it hurts! That rigid steel fork and the steel frame do take a lot of the harshness out of the ride but with such high tyre pressures and such rough terrain, I’m still aching days after the ride… Now, I am shopping for a suspension fork with lockout.

Get out there and enjoy!