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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Getting pumped on easier trails, despite heart worries


By Ben MacGregor

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A visit to the Lake District for a tamer outing on some of the most spectacular mountain bike trails in the country

On the bike trails in the Lake District.
On the bike trails in the Lake District.

With two artificial heart valves, a hip replacement and on warfarin blood-thinner, I’m not sure the doctor would recommend mountain-biking. But then sitting in an armchair watching box sets is probably worse.

My concession has been to purchase a pair of ‘impact shorts’ – no, not to impact the passing females of the cycling world (as if!) but padded with a ‘smart’ material which goes hard when impacted in a fall, so providing protection.

The problem with mountain biking is fitness – the repaired heart simply cannot provide the power to climb steep hills on biking trails even when it’s beating a great deal faster than the theoretical maximum for my age. So I need to walk sections and take the trails when it’s quiet so as not to impede others.

Nowadays, e-bikes are increasingly seen and allow older people to keep up with the young and fit. Some swear by top-range models which cost as much as the average new car. The trails get ever harder to reflect this trend…

A blue trail is about my level. I can actually ride a blue trail without getting off. The Whinlatter blue trail is lovely, the hardest bit is cycling up the pass to get on to it. The trail hairpins up and down through tall spruce, then zigzags up through fine oak and beech woods.

Markers and spectacular sights on the trails.
Markers and spectacular sights on the trails.

There used to be a long, curved, cambered bridge with no protection where I once came off and had to dress my injured knee every day for the next three weeks. But now there’s an easier bypass and no need to tempt fate.

The red trails have become harder every year in Whinlatter, the top section of the south trail is now 'black' and that grading really should also refer to much of the north trail. Eroded down to rock, rutted and with quite a few sections where a crash could be serious, I walk quite a bit of it.

There are, though, some tremendous views from high sections and there is a bit where you wind through the highest trees, festooned by lichen and hung in mist like some tropical cloud forest. Then you emerge, high above the valley, just below a hill summit before plunging back into the woods. There are steep and difficult ups and downs, a climb over another hill then the best bit, to be taken slowly unless you are expert, down and down round very steep cambered bends high above the Whinlatter road.

Unfortunately my rear derailleur snapped at this point, I managed to (sort of) tie the chain out of the spokes with a bit of litter but could now only coast gently downhill along the much easier forest roads, then back down the pass. Bike out of action until I could repair it back home.

But I’m not really a trail rider. I much prefer to take ordinary tracks and easier paths and earlier in the week did a favourite route of mine, ‘Back of Skiddaw’. Apart from plenty of walking up steep hills, this is much more my style.

From Keswick to Threlkeld an old railway line, long axed by Beeching, criss-crosses the river half a dozen times through woods, probably the most scenic all-abilities trail in the UK. Several sections and bridges were washed away in Storm Dennis but the trail is so popular that millions were spent on repairing it.

View from the ‘Back of Skiddaw’ route.
View from the ‘Back of Skiddaw’ route.

I can’t think of anywhere comparable where you can stroll or cycle so easily for three miles on a car-free route through seemingly remote scenery of woodland, rocky river and mountain.

It’s a long climb through Threlkeld village to the Blencathra Centre, once an isolated TB sanitorium. Here the route proper begins, a track climbs gently round the side of the mountain, a deep valley below. After a couple of miles the track becomes a path, only e-bike riders or the very fit will stay in the saddle for the climbs to Skiddaw House.

Now the highest youth hostel in Britain at nearly 1700 feet, this surprising building overlooks a big area of rolling moorland more like Scotland.

A rough track carries on down to a ford – try it if you dare – then on up over another moorland summit before descending very steeply above the Dash waterfalls, where it’s probably best to walk as it has been known for bikers to disappear for ever into the gorge. It’s then a long, easy ride down under the Bakestall crags to the valley and the hilly lanes between banks of wild flowers.

There is indeed plenty of good mountain-biking for the less brave without the need to tackle the specialist trails.

Exploring the ‘Back of Skiddaw’ route.
Exploring the ‘Back of Skiddaw’ route.

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