Road Bike Ride – Walk Mill Via Littleborough and Waterfoot

Last November I met three cyclists from Leeds on a local ride that I'd organised. We got on well and had a nice day out on our bikes so we said that we must get together again in 2009. Well, one of those cyclists was a student named Calum and he contacted me last week to suggest going out today to try and burn off some of the fat we'd both accumulated over Christmas. The forecast was for a sunny break from the recent wintry conditions, though it was still going to be very cold. More snow was forecast for Sunday onwards so it was a good chance to get out on the bikes while we could. Calum said that he'd catch a train from Leeds and I'd meet him at Hebden Bridge station at 11:00.

When I got up I saw that the weather was as forecast. There was still ice and snow about from a few days ago, but there had been no further falls overnight. The ride was on!

I was dashing about getting ready when the phone rang. It was my friends Leo (-nora; not Leo-nard!) and Mark asking if they could come along on the ride? Of course said I, the more the merrier! They live about 15 miles away and said that they would ride over and meet up with Calum and I somewhere between Littleborough and Hebden Bridge (they'd be doing that part of our route in reverse we couldn't miss each other).

A few minutes later I received a text message from Calum – disaster! He'd just been about to set off for Leeds station when he noticed that one of his tyres had a big cut in it and was unsafe to ride. He wouldn't be able to make it after all. It was disappointing that Calum was a DNS (D-id N-ot S-tart) but at least I'd now have Leo and Mark for company.

Today's route had been planned to avoid any minor roads because some of them are currently in a dangerous icy condition. I prefer the quieter roads, but I don't enjoy coming off on ice so that was that.

The route was: Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, climb to Blackstone Edge, descend to Littleborough, head for Todmorden, turn left onto the climb to Sharneyford, descend to Bacup, head along the Rossendale valley to Waterfoot, turn right there and do the long drag up through the village of Water to Deerplay Moor, turn left and descend to the traffic lights on the Halifax Road, right there for a cafe stop, after that down through Cliviger gorge and Cornholme to Todmorden, and a left there for a quick 4 mile blast along the valley back to Hebden Bridge. Total distance 41 miles (66 km) with about 3,000 feet of hills crammed in (900 m).

I was interested to see how I would cope with today's ride because it would be by far the most vigorous exercise that I'd had since November. Also – Leo and Mark are far fitter than me, so I wanted to see how I got on riding with them. I knew that going up the hills would be a problem because my surplus weight makes hill-climbing very hard work.

I set off at the appointed time and I was halfway up the climb to Blackstone Edge when Mark came speeding down the hill, with Leo in hot pursuit. They u-turned and rode back up the hill to me with disconcerting ease. It's been a long time since hills have been that easy for me…

I told them why Calum wasn't with me and we chatted as we climbed up to the reservoir. The road was clear but the countryside was covered with snow and looked lovely, glistening in the winter sunshine. The reservoir was partially covered with ice and I stopped to take a photograph there.

Ice-covered Blackstone Edge reservoir

I told Leo and Mark that I was going to stop again briefly at the White House pub on the descent to Littleborough. There are panoramic views from there down the hill to Hollingworth Lake, with the urban sprawl of Rochdale in the distance. They continued to Littleborough to get out of the bitterly cold breeze which was blowing up ‘on the tops'.

Hollingworth Lake and Rochdale in the snow

I did a very quick descent off the hill and almost froze my face with the wind-chill factor! My pals were feeling pretty cold when I came up to them in the town. Mark led the way on the drag up to Summit from Littleborough, setting a good steady pace and one that I'd normally be comfortable with. With my extra weight though, even on an easy gradient like that I was soon breathing heavily. I wanted to push myself on that ride so I stuck with the other two until I felt myself getting into my ‘red zone' and then backed off a couple of mph.

We joined up again as we approached Walsden, but I knew that we wouldn't be together long after we turned off onto the Bacup Road. The climb up to Sharneyford is much tougher than the one to Blackstone Edge from Mytholmroyd. Sure enough, Leo was soon romping off into the distance. Mark disappeared off down a side road for a pee-stop and I continued at my own, snail-like pace, somewhere in between them. It wasn't long before Mark caught up with me, said a few words and then shot off after Leo.

It would be easy to get discouraged about the difference in our fitness levels, but I knew that it would be like that. I'm carrying a lot of weight and I've effectively had about 2 months off my bike, whereas Leo and Mark ride all year round. The difference that winter riding makes is incredible – ‘use it or lose it' – I usually lose it!

I've only really had one solid winter of riding, and that led on to a really good summer. Effectively, I've been on the Jan Ullrich training scheme (Jan was a big pro cyclist who always used to gain loads of weight in the winter and then have to torture himself to get back to peak fitness for the Tour de France in July). Well, the Black Forest gateau has been banished and I'm back on the bike. I may not be doing the Tour de France, but I have some big cycling plans for June and July this year and I can't do them fat and unfit. Watch this space. Well, this blog. This actual post will be buried in the archives by then! 😉

As the road steepened, I started to get an old familiar feeling – the muscles in my lower back started to tighten up and burn with pain. It isn't a good feeling, and one that really holds my cycling back. I'm afraid that I haven't started my core-strengthening programme yet. It's something that I must tackle because even when I'm fit, I still suffer from a lot of backache.

Finally, I got to the top of the hill and did another freezing descent. Once again, my pals were waiting for me in the town below the hill, out of the wind.

I led the way down the Rossendale valley. It was nice to be able to spin my legs on the good fast stretch of road to Waterfoot. I had a near-miss with a careless driver at a mini-roundabout there. I was turning right and therefore had right-of-way but a woman driver coming the other way seemed to have other ideas and drove straight on into the stretch of road that I was about to occupy. Fortunately, I'd anticipated her doing that and was able to go round the back of her car. It did unnerve me though…

The three of us stuck together for the first part of the draggy climb up to Water village, but it was obviously too slow for Leo and Mark. I don't think they were working hard enough to keep warm, whereas I was positively cooking in my full winter cycling clothes. Mark came up with a good suggestion. We were having a cafe stop after the descent from this climb – how about he and Leo going on ahead and ordering? That made sense, so I placed my order and off they went. It wasn't long before they were out of sight.

Leo, Mark and Colin outside the cafe

Eventually, I had yet another face-chilling descent but at least this time it was closely followed by the warmth of a cafe! The three of us had our food and drink and chatted for 30 or 40 minutes, but then it was time to go. I was heading back down the Halifax Road as planned, but it was quicker for my friends to go back up over the hill the way we'd just come. I used the timer on my camera to take a quick photograph of us standing outside the cafe before we said our goodbyes. Even wearing all that winter cycling kit, we got cold in the few seconds that we were standing there.

The return leg seemed to pass really quickly. I made one quick stop on the road between Todmorden and Hebden Bridge to take a picture of Stoodley Pike, which was looking rather splendid on the snow-covered hillside in the sunshine.

Stoodley Pike in the snow

It was nice to see my friends again and it had been a lovely winter day. My legs were fine, but my heart and lungs were struggling a bit on the hills, as I tried not to lose too much time to those two much fitter riders. My back was bad, but that wasn't unexpected since I have done nothing to fix it – yet! There is plenty of hard work to come, but that was a good start!

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