Friends in high places

The Lakeland 200 is a 200km loop around The Lake District national park. The route takes in some amazing trails and scenery.

>>> The 100 best mountain bike routes in the UK

Here’s how to not do it…

Function over form in the footwear department

Words and photos by Sim Mainey

Dave, Dan and I sit in a café on the outskirts of Keswick while an obnoxious and uninvited guest crashes and clatters about outside. We try to ignore him, but the reason we’re sat in the café in the first place is because of him. It’s 11am and we should be somewhere between here and Ullswater by now. But we’re not. We’re sat in silence around a table cradling coffee cups and wishing Brian would just pack it in and do one.

I’ve been wanting to tick the Lakeland 200 off my bucket list for a year or two now.  The Lakeland scenery I thought would be at its finest in autumn and best enjoyed with good friends. Rather than take on the true Lakeland 200 challenge which involves completing the route unsupported and under 40 hours we thought we’d take our time and enjoy the loop over four days, staying at Youth Hostels along the way. A blazing final farewell to a good summer of riding.

Yet here we were, no further than 200m from the vans, hiding from storm Brian as it relentlessly pummels the Cumbrian fells with the contents of the Atlantic.

“OK, I’m going to say it. It’s not going to happen.” Dave looks at me pointedly, Dan nods. I sigh. Dave’s right. With the best will in the world riding 50km a day for four days over exposed high ground in these conditions would be uncomfortable at best and deadly at worst. Following through with my plan isn’t worth the risk to either our safety or our friendship. Still, we’d taken time off work and had beds, booked way in advance, waiting for us for the next three nights. Plus, despite the weather we did actually want to ride our bikes.

High with a little help: a semblance of a ride is finally stumbled upon

With the first night’s accommodation booked in Patterdale it made sense to head over there and work out a ride that kept us off higher ground and, if possible, away from Brian.

Friends with benefits

According to Alexander Supertramp, aka Christopher McCandless, chief protagonist of the book Into The Wild, ‘Happiness is only real when shared’. While I’m more than happy to ride on my own, lose myself in thought and appreciate the scenery with no one to worry about other than myself, I sometimes struggle to get motivated to head out on my own. Experiences don’t seem quite as vivid, I never ride as quickly, try as hard or laugh as deeply as when I ride with friends. But there’s a difference between friends I’ll go for a ride with and friends I’ll drag out on something like this. Friends who know what they are getting themselves into and won’t bail on me, friends who without too much protest will follow my back wheel into the rain because they said they would and whose only reward will be a thank you, a couple of pints and some shots for Instagram.

Out of the wet clothes and into the pub

Unfortunately for Dan and Dave, but fortunately for me, they both fall into this category. Every rider needs to have friends like this, every rider needs to be a friend like this, especially when the going gets tough.

The singletrack along the side of Ullswater is a well known classic, star of many a route guide and a Lakeland must-do. The last time I rode it I got heat stroke. Today there’s little fear of that. Our hastily improvised plan has us starting near Patterdale YHA, riding the length of Ullswater, having a bit of lunch in Pooley Bridge and then riding back again. It’s hardly the epic we came for but today is about grabbing what we can. Rain comes down in large bulbous drops and from all angles as we finally head out.

Logger’s leap: flowing along a woodland flume

Regardless of conditions the trail is still fun requiring trials-like skills, explosive climbing and an ability to pick a line to prevent dabbing a foot. Surprisingly we’re not alone on the edge of the lake. Groups of walkers shrouded in Gore-Tex trudge past, smiles visible under hoods at the three daft mountain bikers. Why we look more ridiculous than them I don’t know, but our presence clearly causes some kind of mirth. We’re the ones laughing though – we can get to the end of the lake, and back, quicker than they can.

The landlady at our B&B takes pity on us and offers to wash our clothes. As we’ve all packed light, in the spirit of bikepacking, with not much in the way of spare clothing this is a blessing. We take it in turns to strip off wet and dirty layers while standing in a wash basket in a vain attempt to keep the mud in one place.

Storm Brian proved an unflagging foe for the ride’s duration

Day two and the weather hasn’t improved, nor is it forecast to. My mind chews over what to do while my mouth chews on bacon. Our next night’s accommodation is in Ambleside. The plan was to head onto the top of High Street and follow its ridgeline into town but with cloud sitting low on the fells and the wind still gusting at 40mph being at 800m with bikes would be plain stupid and as willing as Dave and Dan have been so far I think asking them to hike-a-bike through the ceiling of black cloud might not go down too well. We go for Plan B of our already Plan C ride.

Proper mountains

The riding west of Ambleside is like the terrain – fragmented, varied, a blend of natural and man made. It has something quite uniquely Lakeland about it, a playground surrounded by Proper Mountains. Quarried slate, coppices, bridleways and sheep track mean that without venturing too far or too high you can, with a bit of work, piece together a decent ride. But first we need to leave the van. The three of us are crammed into the front of Dan’s van watching tides of rain coming down the valley through a veneer of condensation. We’ll give it five more minutes. Five minutes turns to 45 and eventually we muster the willingness to get out and ride. Amazingly it’s stopped raining and sheltered from the wind by the piles of slate and trees it’s not even that cold. Maybe this is the turning point for the trip.

You’re once, twice, three times a beverage…

Rather than put dry feet and socks into shoes that are still sodden from yesterday Dan uses plastic bags as sock liners, “I’d kill for some waterproof socks about now”. I think we all would.

We ride with no real plan or purpose, following our noses and linking up old favourites trails with new-to-us sections. Briefly leaving the shelter of the valley it’s evident that the storm is still raging, making the open fells a no-go. As the light starts to dim we head back to the vans. We congratulate ourselves on managing to snatch a dry ride from Brian’s wet mouth.

A mossy mulch softens the Lakeland contours

We mark out our dorm room at the YHA by putting wet shoes on top of the radiator. Returning at just past 11 from dinner and a few pints the room smells stagnant, the worst kind of stench that sticks to the back of your throat. We’ve accidentally become the room mates from hell.

The canteen at Ambleside YHA looks out onto Windermere. While it’s not currently raining the cloud is sitting a couple of metres above the water. Woods on the other side of the lake are visible only as a sawtooth silhouette. The Mountain Information Service website indicates things are unsurprisingly worse higher up and no better elsewhere in the county. Dan sticks his phone in my face, “Look at this”. An Instagram shot. Blue sky, beach, coastal trail, sunglasses emoji. “That’s Wales. Why didn’t we go there?”

Welsh wonder

It’s come to something when Wales looks like the drier option but the implicit question was really ‘why did we come here’? I’m starting to wonder.

Clean slate, but the bad weather was soon back with a vengeance

The original, and by now long forgotten, plan was to ride from Ambleside to Eskdale via Walna Scar Road and Dunnerdale Forest. With our options limited and enthusiasm audibly finite I needed to come up with a ride that would keep us if not dry then happy. I’m not quite facing a mutiny yet but I’m certainly testing the boundaries of friendship and the potential for future trips like this. I pitch the idea of riding some of the lower level trails in Dunnerdale, a chunk of the Lakes I’ve ridden before but never really explored, there’s bound to be some great hidden gems tucked away I argue.

Dunnerdale, it will not surprise you to find out, is a valley. And, like most valleys it has a river at the bottom fed by the funnels of the valley sides. While we might be hidden from the wind down at the bottom of the valley we’re at the wettest point. In between the trees and the freshly sprouted streams are some great trails. Some prove to be dead ends others wind on out of the valley and up into the monochrome mountains. We meet another group of bedraggled riders who have ridden further than we have today and look it. With another 20km to go there are some very strained smiles between them.

Everything about this Lakeland washout was gnarly

“You know we love you right? But can we go and check in at the Youthy now?” says Dan. The trail we’re riding is two inches under water and has been for the last 10 minutes. Breaking point has been reached.

Our room mate for the night asks, without a hint of sarcasm, if we’ve been kayaking. “Would have been a better idea” I grumble. He’s ridden to Eskdale from Hawes in North Yorkshire and on his arrival headed out for a run on the fells. We feel pretty pathetic.

Friends are usually the first people to tell you to ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ or other such good natured slurs on your masculinity. There’s been none of that on this trip. There’s been the usual piss taking but there’s not been any of the usual bravado – ‘just get on with it’, ‘skin’s waterproof’, ‘it’s only a bit of water’. We’ve all been humbled by nature on this trip and bravery, skill or strength have had very little to do with it.

Picking up steam under scant canopy cover

Day four and we’re crammed back into Dan’s van. Wasdale is a magnet for bad weather at the best of times and today it’s funnelling the tail end of the storm straight from the coast into the heart of the Lake District. The van rocks in the wind while rain bounces off the panels making it sound like we’re under attack by someone armed with a semi-automatic pea shooter. Today’s route would have taken us over Black Sail Pass, Scarth Gap and Honister and back into Keswick. My contingency plan was to cut the corner and head up to Sty Head and then down into Borrowdale. Neither of those are attractive options today.
“OK, I’m going to say it. It’s not going to happen.” Dave looks at me pointedly, Dan nods. Dave’s right. Again. We end how we begin. In every single way this adventure has been a wash out. We didn’t even start the route never mind complete it and the riding we did manage was sporadic and wet. I feel guilty for dragging my friends on a ride doomed from before the start.

Splash and churn: playing the hand you’re dealt…

“The weather is looking better later on in the week’, offers Dave, picking up on how dejected I am. “We could come back and just go for a ride then?” I mumble thanks and suggest we start the journey home to dry clothes and fresh smelling bedrooms.

Picking the right friends for a ride is as important as picking the route and the tougher the ride the better the company you need.

Drop in the ocean: remnants of Brian’s mighty deluge

Being stuck on the side of a mountain, or in a confined Youth Hostel, with people you don’t know inside out can lead to trouble. Whether it’s to pick you up, push you on or carry you home rides are always better shared with friends.