Rouleur Explore: Grit and gravel in the Peak District
Steep climbs, rocky terrain and hairy descents, they make ‘em tough up here
If you’ve clicked on this article to be transported to white, striking Tuscan-esque gravel paths, basked in sunshine and surrounded by lush vineyards, you’ve come to the wrong place. Gravel riding in the Peak District couldn’t be further away from the strade bianche roads which spring to mind when dreaming of taking your bike off-piste into the peaceful countryside. In fact, terrain in the Peaks is an entirely different gravy.
But the messy, rocky trails are full of a character that defines this part of Northern England. There aren’t textbook gravel paths, but instead there’s cheeky, tricky ground that’s almost perfectly imperfect. It was the higgledy-piggledy, cobbled together route that made our day on the gravel bikes in the Peak District so endearing. It was no fairytale, there were no long cruises on uninterrupted stretches of neatly contained stony paths, but it involved concentration, varied landscapes and above all, some hard graft.
The day began at The Service Course, a cafe and bike shop based in Wilmslow, run by cyclists who frequently traverse the surrounding area on two wheels. It’s for this reason that they were well-placed to plan the route for the event which they’d aptly coined: “Off-Piste in the Peaks.” A flurry of cyclists gathered at the start, bar bags, cargo shorts and gravel-tyres aplenty, as rumours about the challenging day ahead flew around the cafe walls.
Unusually for the north of England, the sky was a stunning blue, and the sun was so hot that arm warmers and gilets were discarded early into the ride. Almost cruelly, the start of the route was tame. Unbeknownst to the trepidation that lay ahead, we cruised along tarmac roads and skirted the edges of canals, rolling with a fast average speed, naively thinking that covering the 108 kilometres planned for the day would be a breeze.
It was around 20km into the route that we were slapped with the harsh reality of the toughness of the Northern landscape which surrounded us. A sharp right turn revealed a narrow pathway surrounded by imposing trees. Beneath my tyres lay huge, jagged stones. Riding over them without putting a foot down was one challenge, but the main obstacle lay in the path's incline, with gradients creeping well over 15%. In my easiest gear, I ground up the climb, the peaceful twitter of birdsong interrupted by my ragged breathing as droplets of sweat splashed onto my top tube.
With a stop to let even more pressure out of my tyres midway up the climb, I finally made it to the summit, and the landscape which just five minutes before I’d been swearing I’d never come to again redeemed itself. Expansive views of the rolling green meadows opened out in front of me, soaked in sunshine, green and lush. Small farm houses and scattered white clusters of sheep occasionally interrupted the landscape, a sign of life in this quiet corner of the world.
There was little time to enjoy the view, though, as we quickly pushed onwards, a slight concern creeping in about how much time it was going to take us to complete the route given the drop in our average speed since hitting the first steep berg of the day.
We took a path that cut through the meadows, lined by the authentic stoned walls that are so common in the area. Thick grey gravel in one section led to our only near-miss of the day, the deep rocks at one point eating too far up our tyres as we skidded to a halt.
Once we were through the hairier sections, the ground became a little more controlled as we reached the Pennine Bridleway. While the terrain was still rolling and had some steep sections, the gravel was rideable as we passed Lantern Pike. The views at the top continued to be breathtaking, the countryside expanding as far as the eye could see.
Soon we were back to the steep inclines and borderline mountain bike terrain that made this day one of the toughest off-road rides I’ve ever tackled. I’d never been more grateful for thick tyres as I tried to keep it upright while the bike bounced over the tough inclines. A stroopwafel at the top replenished some of the energy stores that were rapidly depleting at this point in the ride.
Steaming towards halfway the halfway mark, we descended back down to the canals, railing it along the gravel paths effortlessly, chatting about the steepness of the climb we had just passed as if it was a distant nightmare. The trees laid a dappled shadow on the path ahead, and it was a peaceful couple of kilometres rolling through the breeze.
As we passed 50km, the pièce de résistance of the entire route lay on the path ahead. It was another brutally steep berg, ominously covered by shade, but this time, the rocks were too big even for those with the most impressive bike handling skills and biggest tyres. It was time for hike-a-bike. With sweat and dust lining our faces, we were forced to push to the top of the climb, struggling to the top and reaching that point – which comes around almost during every big challenge – where we were seriously reconsidering our choice to undertake this savage route.
Then came a gift which felt like it had been sent from the heavens: the feed stop. After cold fizzy drinks, hot espressos, energy bars and sandwiches in soft brioche buns, we were rejuvenated, with sugar and carbohydrates pumping through us, ready to tackle the final throes of this gravel adventure.
I subtly checked the elevation map on my Wahoo as we sped along some tarmacked roads, and there was only one climb shaded in red on the remainder of the route. It was big and daunting, but it was the last of the day. Time to dig in, put my head down, and search for that inner northern grit.
It began on asphalt, going further into the Macclesfield forest as the gradient kicked up and the climb’s surface turned rockier and tougher. Over seven kilometres the climbing continued, and relief washed over me when the summit was in sight.
But, cresting the top of the climb, the descent that followed was almost as daunting as the trail I’d tackled on the way up. Trying to keep my body relaxed, I did my best to navigate the steep downhill, bunnyhopping big slabs of mud and finessing the brakes to the best of my ability. It was one of the most technically challenging sections of the entire route – a mental battle with the voices in my head telling me to put my foot down as much as a physical one.
We headed further into the Macc Forest as the route continued, and the stretches of gravel through the trees were as close as we got to Tuscan-style roads throughout the whole ride. The fast, wide descent on comfortable gravel felt like a well-earned reward after the day we’d had.
As headed back towards the Service Course in Wilmslow – the finish line for the day – we had time to reflect on the route we’d just done. It had been tough, our legs were burning and the time on our Wahoo head units was ticking towards the five hour mark, but still, we were smiling. Our faces blushed red from the sun of the day, our legs bruised and dusty, it had been a gravel ride like no other.
It might not have been the serene, calm off-road experience we were expecting, but that made it all the more fun. It was a day filled with obstacles, but we tackled them together, pushing ourselves and encouraging each other in an event which summed up what’s so great about bike riding: the community, the friendships made, and the possibility to reach places and complete challenges you might never have attempted alone.
Ribble Gravel SL
I took on my challenge through the Peak District aboard the Ribble Gravel SL. It’s the raciest bike in the British brand’s range of gravel offerings, featuring the similar aero tubing as seen on the Endurance SL road bike. This meant it performed exceptionally well on the fast downhill sections, rolling at a high speed on the tarmac as well as off-road. The carbon frame meant the bike was lightweight which was an asset on the steep climbs but this didn’t mean the bike felt less robust.
I used Level's gravel-dedicated wheels which gave me confidence on even the toughest terrain that we faced throughout the ride – and there was plenty of it. The bike was responsive and I felt it handled exceptionally well, with Continental Speed King 650b tyres giving me smooth control even on the loosest dirt or stones.
The bike featured SRAM's Rival 1x11 speed drivetrain which I found to be efficient and give me a wide enough range for the undulating terrain. The only gripe I had was that I was slightly spinning out on the longer, steeper descents, but the bike’s relatively aerodynamic geometry meant I could remedy this by getting low on the drops. With the SL, Ribble has struck a perfect balance between a bike that’s made to go fast off-road while maintaining comfort for all-day adventures.
There was little else I could have done to test the bike throughout our ride, I really put the Ribble SL through its paces and it responded well on every single type of terrain, holding its own among bikes of a far more premium price point. It gave me the confidence to take on all the challenges thrown at me and there was little else I could have wished for from the burnt-orange coloured whip.