Sometimes a different perspective is needed to make some trails make sense.
Words and photos by Dave Anderson, rider – Sharon Anderson
Winter in the Yorkshire Dales is a season of bleak beauty, a glacial landscape that embraces the bitter easterly winds as though it’s been waiting their chilling return. A region of largely tree denuded valleys and sheep grazed close cropped grass. Ash, hazel and birch providing a grey and purple cast where woodland remains. Roads contained within the pale limestone drystone walls that subdivide the landscape into individual fields until they meet the high moorland that hints at unrestricted wilds. A landscape shaped by an ice age and at its best when temperatures dip and snow is on the horizon.
We’ve always been suckers for a bit of a Karst topography with its promise of hidden adventure tucked away just below the surface. The measure of history in the eroded clints and grikes of the limestone pavement that makes up so much of the view. There’s so much to explore above and below ground here. And for the mountain biker there’s the rub – the Southern Dales are a tame affair that offer mainly mileage and views, but little in the way of technical challenge. As bikes have progressed our visits to ride here have diminished, too many better offers in harsher, steeper, more demanding landscapes elsewhere. Seduced by the promise of some winch and plummet riding it was easy to turn our backs and focus elsewhere.
But winter has a different set of demands – a time to focus on ‘getting the miles in’ in readiness of another summer in the mountains. A mix of deferred gratification, determination, and an ability to suck it up when cold winds and sleet bite hard in preparation for chasing summits as soon as the snow retreats. For every painful thawing post ride shower a perfect summers day ride awaits.
Sometimes a different perspective is needed to make some trails make sense, so we started to search for a gravel bike that would let us rediscover the Dales while mixing up our road rides with the many trail options that were to be had. The many roadside options to hit up a bit of dirt to link between the stretches of asphalt, a chance to revisit some old school classics while still covering plenty of ground. Old monastic routes, gravel tracks, grassy bridleways, and singletrack all linked up with a bit of efficient tarmac bashing in-between.
We’ve tried but failed to get on with road riding in the past, but this new breed of gravel bike makes perfect sense for the type of riding we focus on. We wanted something similar in feel to our usual mountain bikes, something capable of lugging loads, but sprightly and lively when unloaded. Happy to help with the winter miles while equally at home when headed down a singletrack diversion. Enough range to climb the local Calderdale steeps and also comfortably cover the rolling roads of Yorkshire’s hills and dales. Something that offered range and hinted at fun along the way. The Niner RLT9 seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Route planning with a new focus. Looking for the bits to link the roads with the views. Tarmac transitions linking wall lined lanes to dirty diversions up every inviting trail. Routes that hop from one dale to the next, taking in the slower, less direct path that offers the better view. The chance to skip the traffic in favour of the sheep flock and the rocky climb.
There’s a freedom that comes with the flexibility to explore on a bike capable of efficiently pedalling and covering ground on tarmac or steering a straight course through the choss of rocks on a loose off road descent. An ability to make it up as you pedal along, heading off down anything that looks promising, true follow your nose exploration in the hope of discovering something worthwhile and new. Opening up new options for the local loop, or offering the chance to ad lib, to improvise route finding further afield.
Winter miles, but not wasted empty rides for the sake of clocking up hours in the saddle. Rides that have been a pleasure to turn pedal and see where we end up. Rides that have sharpened handling skills in order to navigate sketchy descents. Time spent in the meaningful pursuit of ‘seeing where that goes’, ‘whats up there’ served up with a helping of ‘I reckon that’ll go’.
Carefree, car free excursions with no particular place to go, no particular plan in mind – happy to make it up as we go along, the route developing with each turn in the road or track. Every ride different, each with it’s own mash up of dirt and tarmac reflecting the feel of the day. Developing an ever stronger sense of freedom and exploration, and a growing knowledge of a new backyard playground without the dependency or need for a map.
Sometimes a different perspective is needed to make some trails make sense, a different approach to liven up tame trails and offer something new – rekindled, rediscovered and the perfect destination for a reinterpreted definition of road riding.