Fancy a trip to the Lakes?” read the message from Ross. With stunning weather forecast, I was in. Marky Mark took no persuasion either meaning the three of us were on the road at the crack of a sparrow’s fart heading down to Keswick to do the classic (and ever so slightly cheeky) Skiddaw and Ullock Pike ride. The trip down was the usual heady mix of terrible patter, Ross’s “interesting” musical choices and the odd missed turn off. Reaching the trail head at just gone 9, we were met by my mate Pete, ace web expert for Planet Fear and dab hand on a bike and his good mate Dave, ace snapper resplendent in a Troy Lee top that made him the double of Dennis the Menace.
The plan was simple, head up Skiddaw on the bridleway then take in the cheeky trails avoiding the walkers on the way down. With Pete promising a particularly tricky descent off the summit, we were itching to get going. The climb itself is something of a Lakeland test piece. Recent improvements to the trail mean that it is possible to ride from the bottom all the way to the summit. Despite coming off the back of a nasty bought of gastro enteritis, I was feeling good in the sunshine and decided to go for the non stop approach. It was all going really well until a walker and his dog on the way down took the line I was aiming for and the inevitable dab happened. Gutted but it didn’t make the climb any less enjoyable as it gave me the excuse to take a few pics. Meanwhile, the guys were all making good progress up the mountain with Pete definitely getting the hardcore award of the day for hauling his Sunn DH bike replete with Boxxer World Cups up the mountain.
The sun beat down on us as we crested the shoulder of the hill and stopped at the gate below the lower summit of Little Man. As I relaxed in the sunshine and soaked in the scenery, I got talking to a friendly walker who told me all about his caravan and his regular trips to the Lakes. It sounded like he had his priorities straight and even managed to make caravanning sound like fun! Kicking back, I was soon joined by Ross who despite having a bit of a light headed moment on the climb which nearly knocked him off the bike, had stormed up the mountain. Mark, Dave and Pete joined us in quick succession thereafter. Bumper packs of Fruit Pastilles, Haribos and Randoms were tucked into as we contemplated our next move. Up the bridleway or take the steep footpath onto Little Man. Opting for the latter, the path proved too steep and loose to ride up making for a two minute carry to the summit. Hitting the cairn, we were treated to stunning views in all directions – Derwent Water looked amazing as it glistened in the sunshine while to the west we could see the hump that it Ullock Pike beckoning us over while the lower path looked like a surefire way of squeezing a second big descent out of the day. From Little Man, a couple of short descents and climbs saw us reach the summit of Skiddaw and earned us the usual good natured comments from walkers wanting a backy down the hill and asking if we had ridden our bikes up. As young Pete and I reflected at the summit, it’s very rare these days that mountain bikers in the Lakes will be at odds with walkers when out on the fells. The demographic has definitely changed over the last few years with mountain bikers being regarded as just another group of outdoor enthusiasts enjoying nature at its finest.
With a light breeze for company, the summit was the cue for the scoffing of sandwiches and various crisps and sweeties. Self praise is no praise but I reckon my home made bacon and sautéed mushroom toasted Panini (with brown sauce accompaniment) followed by a tangerine custard pastry was contender for lunch of the day award. Having truly stuffed our faces, Dave led the way to a descent I had never done before. Cresting the summit, we arrived at a cairn where he pointed down. Pete and Ross set off first with me behind. What didn’t even look like a path turned out to be an absolute peach of a rocky and loose, slate covered switch back descent. It was all hands on the brakes as we plummeted down the side of what at the bottom looked like a ridiculously steep scree slope. It managed that almost impossible feat of looking even steeper from the bottom than it did from the top and even after having ridden it, we were hard pushed to distinguish the trail from the bottom.
Regrouping at the small tarn below and after having taken a lot of photos, we were ready for the main event – Ullock Pike. I have to be honest and say that this has to rate as one of the finest descents I know. It has everything you could want – proper ridge line singletrack, rocky drops, chutes, jumps, fast and flowy sections intermingled with slow speed hop the back wheel tech. Coupled with exceptional scenery and great weather, there was no place I would rather have been on Saturday. With saddles dropped firmly into frames, we were quickly off and riding. Following each other down really brought the trails to life – oh for a head cam. Even two pinch flats in quick succession didn’t spoil the fun. Rounding a corner, we came across the chute of much steepness. This had proven to be my undoing last time round – a steep, off camber chute that I had gotten down but then stopped dead at the apex as I couldn’t hop my wheel around. This time I was determined to nail it. Pete led the way with a simple straight line at speed approach while I went for the slightly slower drop in and hop approach. At least, that was the idea but as I made a repeated arse of the line going in, I knew today wasn’t to be the day. England 1 – Scotland Nil. Gutted.
On the plus side, there was a whole heap more trail to enjoy which finished off with a truly fabulous section of grassy singletrack that I spotted and decided to take a gamble on. The gradual descent and drop to the left made for out loud laughs as we freewheeled down with the compressions making for a real sense of speed and flow. Marvellous! Reaching the bottom gate on the Allerdale ramble, Dave’s chain jammed up in his chain device while my rear tube finally gave up the ghost. As it transpired, Dave’s chain set was 2 bolts short of a set of 4 – oops! A quick repositioning of the remaining bolts meant he was able to continue the ride and balance was restored to the Force. Catching up with Ross and Mark as they enjoyed some welcome shade from the 22 degree sunshine, I spotted a trail heading up above the tree line. What would be a perfect singletrack climb was marred by the close proximity of a fence meaning that bars would catch the unwary. A wee bit frustrating but it cut out a long drop to the valley floor and subsequent fire road climb. As we broke clear of the trees, Pete pointed out two DH trails plummeting to our right. “Shall we give them a go?” I asked. Pete was definitely not keen, Despite being a Whistler Season veteran, he was very much of the not without a full facer and body armour opinion. Fair enough. One for another time.
Spinning gently along the fire road under Dodd, we soon reached our next objective of the day, the steep ( and I mean very steeeeeeeeeeep) descent to under Skiddaw. However, having spotted another path off Ullock Pike earlier in the day, Pete, Dave and I headed up a rocky footpath to join it while Mark and Ross opted for a welcome afternoon siesta. With bikes shouldered, we made short work of the climb up to the white rocks outcrop high above us and the main path up. Though not particularly steep, the combination of water bars and loose rubble made for tough going for the kilometre or so push for the summit of Ullock Pike. Dave and Pete soon opted for the sitting in the sun approach while I pressed on. “I’ll just be 5 minutes” I shouted down to them. 15 minutes later and I was back at the white rocks. Having spotted a grassy singletrack descent off the main path, I opted for that instead of the straight line approach and it proved to be the right option. A perfect combination of gradient and trail conditions made for a terrific descent and a slightly bemused pairing of Dave and Pete as I shouted up the hill for them as I returned to the white rocks. Dropping down the rocky trail to rejoin Ross and Mark, we followed the wall line to the next descent. No sooner were we past the first steep rocky section than Mark and Dave both succumbed to punctures. Doh! With the sun still beating down on us, a relaxed approach to puncture fixing was adopted. Despite the next part of the trail being perhaps my favourite of the day, I was content to sit and chill. Tyres and tubes fixed, we continued the descent. Rocky, hard packed drops, step downs and tight switchbacks were replaced by considerably steeper, loose, rocky dirt path. This was back of the saddle, delicate slow speed tech riding at its very best. Stop and you would struggle to get back on – go too fast and you were looking to tumble a very long way. Having ridden it before, I led the way picking my line down, the odd back wheel hop making for an extra bit of sauciness. Reaching the grassy slope at the bottom, I looked round to see Pete straight lining towards me while Mark, Dave and Ross were a little further back making good work of the trail. Ross looked to go off trail onto the grass in an Andrew Arendt style ( we still remember Ben Lomond, Andy!) but insisted that he had stuck to the path as I gently ripped the piss. A stupidly fast whizz to the gate below and the descent was over.
Feeling remarkably fresh after the best part of 5 to 6 thousand feet of climbing on the ride, we headed up the country lane to do the final descent of Latrigg that we had climbed up earlier in the day. Though not in any way technical, it is a cracker of a descent and one that spat us out beside the cars. It had been a truly memorable ride and easily lived up to the expectations I had created for Ross and Mark having harped on about doing it with them for well over a year.
As with all good rides, it wouldn’t have been complete without post ride food and drinks. The usually reliable Loose Box Pizzeria proved to be a major disappointment – closed for a refurbishment. However, we came up smelling of roses as a short walk round the corner located another pizzeria which I reckon was easily a match for old reliable. Sitting by the shore of Derwent water with your mates in the early evening sunshine looking up onto the fells that we had just ridden and eating some great pizza, does it get any better than that? A truly brilliant day out and a reminder of just how good the technical riding in the Lakes can be. Magic and worthy contender for ride of the year and it’s only April!
I should mention that you can see Mark’s pics on his Flickr account. Some really terrific shots there which capture the ride perfectly.