High Street has long held a certain appeal to me. Ever since I was asked to tackle Helvellyn on a my bike just weeks after buying my first mountain bike I knew it was the high mountain rides that I would always grab my attention. I first rode High Street back in 2004 shortly after I got my Scott Genius. With a bloke named Dave, from Blackpool. I met Dave on a ride heading for the Garburn Pass in Kentmere. For some reason Dave and I refused to settle for the obligatory knod that bikers do when they pass by each other. We ended up riding the whole route together. I remember clearly that he wore a disturbing combination of Lycra shorts and a full face helmet. Later in the ride I found a way of asking him about his opposite apparel. I casually asked, “Are you not hot in that big lid?”. It turned out the fall face was in reaction to a major crash that resulted in surgery to his face. He wasn’t taking any chances but still wanted to ride fast. It made me question what could happen. Dave said it wasn’t like he was being daft, quite and innocent off really that went bad. We seemed to get along well, he rode an old Scott Voltage with a Stars and Stripes paint job. It was a tired looking bike against my spanking new Genius but I admired his carefree just ride and get on with it and use what you have approach. He had just been married and had just moved into a house which needed a load of work, added to this his wife was expecting their first baby. His ride out that day was a means to clear his head and recharge. Well after that first ride Dave and I agreed to meet up again in Hartsop so he could show me the thrills of High Street. I was as keen as a badger.
8 years later Mick and I arrived in Hartsop carpark amass with muddy puddles from the recent rain. It was cloudy Saturday morning we were full of excitement for what I described as a full on Lakeland mountain biking experience. I’ve known Mick since he started riding about 2 years ago and was aware he’d not tackled anything like a high mountain pass. I tried to paint the right kind of picture for Mick so that he’d look forward to it, emphasising the 5 mile descent, or did I say 6. How many of you always add a mile for descents when inviting your mates out for ride. I think I take a mile off for climbs as well. But I needn’t bother where Mick is concerned he’s always bang up for a good climb.
We set out on the well graded bridleway after checking to see I was’nt going to take the
footpath instead. There’s absolutely no chance to warm the muscles or stretch the lungs before launching hard into a grueling series of gated bursts. Ascents that have you hanging down hard on the bars, and butt perched down hard on the nose of the saddle to get the rear tire to scramble some traction from the loose trail. From the off we were egging each other not to dab. Breaking the peace of Patterdale was the sound of rushing water of Hayeswater Gill and that of two southern wide boys growling out ‘Goo on mar san’. The leg burn was immense as ten minutes ago they were couped up in the car for an hour and a half so this was a rush of blood to the legs. Every gate was a goal as we sectioned our way around Gray Crag towards Hayeswater. The trail eases before turning into Hayeswater Reserviour.
The next goal was the Knott. A slippery climb and a 350 metre G.O.A.P ascent was the only way to go. Along the way we crossed an Australian dude in his late fifties, sporting long blonde hair that hung out from under a black wooley hat and looking fairly relaxed. He opened up with, “I thought you brits were crazy, now I know you are.” I’m not sure what’s crazy about taking a mountain bike on a mountain, it’s been going on for a while now and I’m sure he’s heard of mountain biking. Anyway I’m not the one that hails from a hot country finding himself plodging about in mud. It turned out he was from Perth and reminded me that Lesley’s uncle Ray was due over and has passed on a message to me to get a good walk ready. We exchanged our intended routes for the day and parted company and I set off for a quick sprint towards the next unrideable section and lofted the bike again and now was set to go non stop to the Knott and no holding back. I just wanted to ride again!
High Street was in view with a cloud just skimming the top. The slog up this far had made me reconsider the climb over onto High Street itself, knowing we’d plan to have a look around then turn around and come back down again. We agreed to swing left away from Haweswater towards High Raise.
The trails was sweet for riding. Firm with plenty of obstacles to negotiate. Step ups, raising rock gardens and sharp slices of stone like racks of toast to slip between were all entertaining and the added height of our position all went to make up that high mountain ride I had been looking forward to. We cut left over to the cairns at Ramsgill Head to get a good look into Martindale. Mick was preoccupied with the workings of his front mech. A tinker was on the cards for certain. Out came the lube and Mick was satisfied it had restored it back to normal operation, while I was admiring the moving cloud getting caught on High Raise.
It was much cooler up here and the perspiration from all the up hill exertion was now chilling on the skin so time to move on and warm up again. We looked out for the trail I nosed ahead searching for a suitable line onto the old Roman road known as High Street which would descend for about 6 miles to Loadpot Hill over crossing over RedCrag and Wether Hill.
A quick burst up to High Raise for a sit down for snackages and to soak up the view. Though we were already doing enough soaking up ourselves. My shorts were feeling a bit heavy without a mud guard to catch the rain. Mick did a 360 video from High Raise at 802 meters while I needed to send a picture to absent friends, just to show them what they were missing of course.
The problem was as we soon found out, the path of which there are many are not so easy to navigate on a bike. The bridleway is not always as well defined as some of the footpaths. Mick sped off in front, launching huge rooster tails of rain water from his rear tire, giving me a power shower soaking. We soon found ourselves slipping down a vanishing singletrack off to the left of Red Crag slowing to a boundary wall at the head of Mere Beck. There was no definable path ahead. We checked over the map to realise our unintended position meant more pushing up onto High Street. We rejoined a trail presuming to be the High Street bridleway. The going was soft to softer still to say the least. Short bursts of riding interspersed with technical meanderings around boggy sections that looked like they might but probably wouldn’t swallow you whole. I’m always way to cautious around deep puddles that I can’t see into. Ever since I trashed my Scott, dropping my front end at speed, square onto a stone edge buried on the far side of a deep bog. It was some years ago. Folding a front wheel like a pringle, stressing a head tube and busting a pair of forks then launching me into a superman grass slide on my face, well it just makes me edgy now. The damage to me had nothing on the damage to my wallet after that spill. A new frame, new forks and front wheel to put it right again.
The remainder of High Street was slow and frankly frustrating. It just never gets going. It was flatter than I remembered but the flattness was only brought to mind because I needed to understand why it was so wet. It was much drier when I rode the roman road so many years ago, so never considered the geological aspects of the descent other than I remember it was very fast. So where was the fast bit today? It was there but it wasn’t being fast. Just lots of hanging arses of rear tires to keep the front light to avoid ditching the front end into soggy quagmires.
We eventually pulled up at Cockpit after finally getting some speed above Barton Fell but it was ill reward for the effort attained by pushing to over 800 metres. I don’t think I’ve ever lost so much height so slowly and ending with the feeling of fatigue in the legs at half way. I wanted to give more for the next section of the ride which was far more promising. The trail cuts back west and south west onto sandy coloured hard pack. A welcome contrast to the spongy grass we’d been subjected to for the past 2 hours. The sun was shinning on Ullswater inviting a cluster of white sporting boats out from the yacht club.
I set off hard, hungry to build some speed up and rid me of the ride experience so far. The trail does not disappoint here but sadly my legs did and began to feel the grip of cramp setting in. I lifted myself off my saddle and found holding that position was not helping but the terrain said I should. I figured I’d ride it off and pushed on eager to turn a bigger gear. The stiffness eventually eased as the trail descended ever quicker. The rhythm of the track inspired more speed and and an attacking position. The trick now was to make out the details in the trail between what were deep puddles and what could be ridden through at speed knowing that the wrong decision at pace could result in a big off. The trail narrows and broadens. In parts it’s smooth and others it’s sketchy. We learned the area was subjected to 2 days of hard rain. We were pleased we’d just missed it but it still made for a very wet ride turning sections into shallow streams. This path was also enjoyed by walkers too. We came upon a couple of families out for the day and slowed to a crawl, they ushered their little people as well as their nana to the side of the track. Having fitted new bars on this week I’d forgotten to replace my bell and was beginning to miss it. The squal of a disc brake is not nearly as polite as the tinkle of a bell to warn walkers of your presence. After a couple of nice fast kickers for long jumps, we throw out an anchor and swerve into Howtown catching our breath grinning about what had just been a great mountain biking experience. All over too quickly, but then great trails like this are never long enough. Clicky here for some HD video that includes a short view of the High Street bog section to start with some accompanying drum and bass i’ve been listening to recently.
We were mud splattered, but beginning to dry out under the sun. The sky had broken up into blue and white in time for a pint and a sit down in the charming rear garden of the Howtown Hotel. It was fairly busy with walkers taking a well earned break in the sunshine. Mick and I provided some spectacle in our a riding garb looking like we’d been dragged across the moor backwards. Had the pace been any slower we may well have been going backwards! The rush of the Ullswater single track had perked us up and knew the rest of the ride was of a different character altogether.
Before we might be embedded into the garden bench we gathered ourselves together and attempted to start the legs up once more. We head out up the steep and twisted road. We made a quick pit-stop to apply some lube. The sodden trail so far had washed off any chain lube invoking that dry annoying squeak. Silently on then we searched about the roadside to pick up the next section of bridlepath above Sandwick continuing along the lakes edge. The trail again starts out buff and gives way to loose baby head boulders and some sunken stones to be hit square on or wiggled around into more technical decsions. Simply go for it or back off to avoid any over the bars dismounts? Hanging out over the rear wheel was the order and then let the brakes off to swoop down then up again. The dropper seat post was a god send on this trail as was a rapid rise gear shift. There are a few sections that just can’t be ridden. If only there was more time to carry some speed then maybe. The technical nature of the trail was not so much about what was on the ground and deciding line choice and such but just as much about gear management. Although I was cursing some parts I sensed I was some way ahead of Mick now. I hadn’t heard from him in a while and turning round to see if he was behind, he was no longer there. I think I just got into a zone, enjoying the challenge of this trail, it was absorbing and must have stretched out a gap. I pulled up a by an old fella that was out walking the fells, when he commented that it couldn’t be easy on a bike. I got talking and found out he’d been a moutain biker in his younger days before the term mountain bike was coined. He was fit looking old man and his walking pace was to be admired. Naturally walkers assume you have no interest in walking, considering it too laid back for someone wearing protective armour. I’m always keen to set them right and recount a few fells recently SMASHed with friends and family. It always raises an eyebrow. I sped off but not long before I figured i’d use another G.O.A.P section and the old guy caught me up a again. I slowed and this time made it an excuse to wait for Mick to show. As I waited I had chance to take in the location and the peaceful surroundings. The time of day was perfect for riding here. As I predicted we would be riding in sunshine , though admittedly I wasn’t so sure on the sunshine part but it would light this side of the fell,over the lake. I’d seen it before from the other side as the sun made it’s way down behind Helvellyn catching one of Ullswater steamers making it’s last pass of the day. It was delightful place to be.
After about 15 minutes Mick appeared over the grey stone. He wasn’t complaining but he was spent. As I was, but he admitted he was feeling it more an a hard tail. But credit due, he’d done well. My concerns about taking friends out on trails like this cause me to wonder how they will react. I’ve had some poor reactions in the past from friends I’ve invited on rides and I’ve never seen them for company again. Mick, I’m pleased to say is more forgiving and made of better stuff, he relishes a chance to challenge himself. So when a couple of mountain bikers heading in the other direction come by I’m pleased because it reaffirms that I’m not making this up. In my mind I’m saying, ‘look we’re not the only ones slogging it out here.’
After weighing up the technical merits of the ride after such a hard time on High Street we agreed we were not feeling as nimble as we might have been. That spring in your legs and the dexterity needed to pull the bars up quickly was not there. We were just a couple of miles from the finish and coasted down to Patterdale onto the tarmac return to Hartsop. After just 22 miles we were surprised how exhausted we felt. For me it was a big wake up call that shouted out to get more saddle time in before the big 4 day epic in July. This was the kind of riding I’d do with a bit more each day for 4 days. So I was pleased if anything that I’d at least put myself to test. With a tour of Helvellyn in June of nearly 30 miles I knew I had to get some distance training in fast. Mick would miss that ride on account of getting married on the same day. I’ll be sure to let him know how it goes. But if I don’t show at his reception party then I guess he’ll know why.